Why Philosophy?

A Brief History

The term Philosophy was coined by Pythagoras (6th century B.C.). It means, literally, "love of wisdom". A philosopher, accordingly, is anyone with an insatiable curiosity and a deep-seated desire to learn about themselves and the world in which they live.

The challenge is immense, yet immensely important as well. Philosophers have often been concerned with basic issues of human existence, worth, and happiness. They have also wondered about the shape and composition of the universe, our relationship to other life forms, the workings of the human mind, and nearly every other question you can imagine.

Over time, many sets of questions began to take on a life of their own, developing into areas which we sometimes erroneously regarded as distinct, isolated fields of inquiry: Biology, Physics, Astronomy, Mathematics, Psychology, etc. The distinctions permit focus, specialization, and the various advancements which accompany rigorous, empirical investigation. Yet, as practitioners of the various fields typically recognize, the distinctions are provisional and sometimes limiting as well. It is often investigation of a field's most basic assumptions -- and exploration of the spaces and connections between various fields -- which produce the most radical discoveries and significant findings.

Philosophy thus appeals to people interested in foundational issues, to those who refuse to accept the status quo as a measure of what ought to be, and to those whose thought is limited more by the questions they have been able to frame than by the answers they have thus far been able to find. The history of philosophy is thus as much a history of questions and concerns as it is one of the answers. Oh, but what a history that is!

An excursion through the history of philosophy will, of course, bring you into cognitive contact with people like Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. You will find yourself mind-to-mind with sages like Lao-tzu and Confucius. From a less distant past, you will be challenged not only by Rene Descartes, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant, but also by Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, and Martin Luther King, Jr. You will be forced again and again to examine your assumptions concerning yourself, your life, the world around you, and the various choices you have made in your brief sojourn on this planet.

A Conceptual Autopsy

Ironically, even the field we call Philosophy is subject to the processes of specialization. The divisions are somewhat arbitrary and incomplete, but nonetheless useful. I usually ask students to think of them as the product of a conceptual autopsy. It is easier to grasp one piece than it is to approach the entire field at once, but it is important to remain ever mindful that it is only a piece, not the entire patient.

Perhaps most stereotypical of Philosophy is a concern with what we call metaphysics. Metaphysics (literally, "above or beyond physics") is the most basic study imaginable concerning the nature, structure, and conditions of reality. It is here that one finds the philosopher asking, "If a tree falls in the forest when there is no one around to hear it, does it make a sound?"

It may seem like a trivial, even nonsensical question. But at its heart is a very serious and difficult set of issues about physical reality and our perception of it (answered in very different ways by Isaac Newton and Werner Heisenberg).

Other characteristic metaphysical questions include: "Who am I?", "Do I have free will, or is everything determined by the laws of physics?", "Do divine beings exist?", "If so, how many and what is their relationship to humans?", "Do I have an eternal soul?", and even "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?"

If you are going to ask questions as big as these, you had better develop some standards to evaluate the answers you are likely to receive. This is the task of the part of Philosophy we call epistemology. Epistemology is the study of knowledge, truth, belief, and related concepts.

Logic is sometimes regarded as a subdivision of epistemology. At its most basic, it is nothing more mysterious than the disciplined effort to think and reason clearly. In learning to think more clearly, one also learns to express ideas more articulately and to argue for one's position more effectively.

As noted earlier, Philosophy is often intimately concerned with the development, cultivation, and appraisal of human values. The study of values is sometimes called axiology [from axios (worth) and logos (language, study, and understanding)]. Here the most prominent subfields are ethics, aesthetics, and the Philosophy of Religion.