4 What is Philosophy?

Introduction: What is Philosophy? What is Rationality?

Philosophy , derived from the Greek ‘philo’ (love) and ‘sophia’ (wisdom), is literally defined as “the love of wisdom.” More broadly understood, it is the study of the most basic and profound matters of human existence. (2) Philosophy, in the West, began in the Greek colony of Miletus. (3)

Who are we? How can we be happy? Does the universe have a purpose? (3) What is knowledge? What is really real? Does art have value? Are animals conscious? (1) Ancient Greek philosophers approached the big questions of life sometimes in a genuinely scientific way, sometimes in a mystical way, but always in a rational and an imaginative fashion. They dared to question traditional conventions and to challenge the prejudices of their ages; sometimes putting their own lives at stake.

Originating in Miletus, but spreading outward in the works of subsequent thinkers and writers, Greek philosophy was to reach its heights in the works of Plato and his pupil Aristotle . But if tradition is accurate, we can thank the mathematician and mystic Pythagoras(famed for his Pythagorean Theorem) for being the first to call himself not a sage, but rather a lover of wisdom; that is, a philosopher.(1/2/3)

What do Philosophers Do?

Many fields can be studied and learned without ever actually working with the tools in the field. Philosophy, however, is at much about the methodology behind deriving answers as it is about the answers themselves. (4/1) As such, students studying philosophy must use the methodology of philosophy on the philosophy they are learning as they are learning it. Doing philosophy involves asking the right questions, critically examining the work of previous philosophers, truly understanding the works and the reasoning behind the works, and possibly building on the works of previous philosophers by expanding or testing this methodology. (4)

Rationality in Philosophy

Can there be more than one right answer? How do we judge how we know or what to evaluate?

Thinking about how we make decisions is another aspect of philosophy to consider; there are manners in which we evaluate evidence, question assumptions, and establish frameworks for assessing knowledge through methods of questioning and critical reflection. These activities are aspects of rationality.


Foundationalism holds that basic beliefs exist, which are justified without reference to other beliefs, and that non-basic beliefs must ultimately be justified by basic beliefs, which, in the case of Classical foundationalism, are those that are self- evident. Mental states and immediate experience can be examples of basic beliefs. (5)

Law of Non-Contradiction

The Law of Non-Contradiction states that contradictory statements cannot both be true in the same sense at the same time, e.g. the two propositions ” A is B ” and ” A is not B ” are mutually exclusive. (6)


Constructivism stems from a number of philosophies. Constructivist epistemology is a branch in philosophy of science maintaining that scientific knowledge is constructed by the scientific community, who seek to measure and construct models of the natural world. One version of social constructivism contends that categories of knowledge and reality are actively created by social relationships and interactions. These interactions also alter the way in which scientific episteme is organized. (7)

The Branches of Philosophy

Theoretical Philosophy

The Study of Existence (named for Aristotle’s work on the subject). Far from being a definitive term in Aristotle’s day, the word ‘metaphysics’ was given to the book by his editor who placed it after his work ‘Physics.’ In Greek, ‘meta’ simply means ‘after’ and the title originally reflected that it came after the book Physics. (2) Metaphysics addresses issues related to reality vs. appearance; it attempts to answer such questions as: What is really real? What am I? Who Am I? Are we free or determined? Do computers have consciousness? (1)
The Study of Knowledge (from the Greek ‘episteme’ meaning ‘knowledge’ and ‘logos’ meaning ‘word’). Epistemology asks how we know what we know, what exactly is ‘knowledge’ and why do we have it. Plato attempts, in his dialogue of Meno and elsewhere, to answer these questions by claiming we do not ‘learn’ but, rather, ‘remember’ what was learned in a previous existence. Epistemology addresses issues related to knowledge vs. mere opinion; it attempts questions as: What is Knowledge? (2)What are the conditions that make knowledge possible? How do you know that you know? Is knowledge even attainable? (1)

Practical Philosophy

Axiology (Value Theory)
In general, the area studies of ethics, political philosophy, and aesthetics all fall under the field of axiology: the study of human values. (1)
The Study of Behavior/Action (from the Greek ‘ta ethika’ meaning ‘on character,’ which was popularized by Aristotle in his Nichomachean Ethics that he wrote for his son, Nichomachus, as a guide to living well). Ethics is concerned with morality, how one should live, and upon what basis to make decisions. (2) What is the good life? What is the best way to conduct my life? (1)
The Study of Governance (from the Greek ‘Polis’ meaning ‘city’). Politikos in Greek meant ‘that which has to do with the city.’ Far from simply being concerned with running a government, however, Politikos also has to do with how to be a good citizen and neighbor, and what one should contribute to one’s community. This branch, like all the others, was first definitively examined and popularized in the work by Aristotle. (2) How does one know what is right? What is justice? Is justice possible for everyone? Can there be a justice that is unjust for some? (1)
The Study of Art (from the Greek ‘aisthetikos’ meaning ‘sense/sentience’ or ‘aisthanomai’ meaning ‘to perceive or feel.’) Aesthetics concerns itself with the study of beauty, perception of beauty, culture, and even nature, asking the fundamental question, “What makes something that is beautiful or meaningful ‘beautiful’ or ‘meaningful?’” Both Plato and Aristotle give answers to this question, attempting to standardize objectively what is ‘beautiful’ while the famous Sophist Protagoras argued that if one believes something to be ‘beautiful’ then it is beautiful, and that all judgements are entirely subjective. (2) Is there value in the beautiful? What is beauty? What is aesthetic value? Can aesthetic value be objectively measured? (1)


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