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edit index Philosophy

August Rodin: Thinker

What is Philosophy? This question is as "philosophical" and profound as any of the big questions philosophers ask. The diverse, cultural activity of Philosophy is the historical study of the meaning and justification of beliefs about the most general and universal aspects of all things. It is a study carried out, not only by experimentation and careful observation, but also by formulating problems carefully, or logically. By composing arguments and offering solutions and counter-arguments to those arguments, philosophers engage in a conversation about the greatest ideas. It's the critical, speculative, analytical study of "The Big Questions", with subtle reflection on the methods used in those studies, questions about Existence, Knowledge, Ethics, Beauty, and Purpose:
  • Where did we come from?
  • How is our knowledge even possible?
  • What does it mean to be moral in this world?
  • Who decides what is beautiful or useful?
  • Is there a deeper meaning of our life?

Getting Started

"It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it."
- Aristotle
If you're already interested in studying Philosophy, it may be that you want to improve the way you live - or the way you think. Maybe you wish to get acquainted with one of the most original areas of human thought. Why people are motivated to "do Philosophy" is as varied as the people doing it, and their ideas are as interesting as their personal lives - it's all important in understanding how philosophers think.

It is also important to know Philosophy is a discipline, one which draws on knowledge just about of us have. Philosophy definitely makes use of careful experimentation and observations, though it may also be an activity of interpreting various aspects of those experiments and observations. To do Philosophy is to examine the meaning and justification of our most basic and fundamental thoughts, even our most cherished beliefs. Basically, Philosophy concerns those aspects of the Universe which are most commonly found and studied, the things and properties which are really everywhere - the universal aspects of all things.

A History of Ideas

All civilizations around the world have considered these same questions, in one form or another, and have built their own philosophical traditions based upon each other's works. Though there is a rich borrowing and respect among philosophers from various times and places, Philosophy may be usefully divided into general "styles" based loosely on geography, Western, Middle Eastern, African, and Eastern. The term "philosophy" alone, dominated by a European and American academic context, usually refers to the traditions of Western civilization, sometimes also called Western Philosophy, but these traditions were by no means the only way of philosophizing throughout History.(1) The term has since become widespread.

" The journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step."
- Lao Zi
Popularly, the word "philosophy" is often used to mean any form of wisdom, or any person's perspective on life (as in "my philosophy of life"), basic principles behind a method of achieving something (as in "my philosophy about American Politics"). Originally(2), "philosophy" was a western term, and meant "the love of wisdom." Philo- comes from the Greek word philein, meaning to love, and -sophy comes from the Greek sophia, or wisdom. "Philosopher" replaced the word "Sophist" (from sophoi), which was used to describe "wise men," teachers of Rhetoric, important in Athenian Democracy, but Sophists are now considered pseudo-philosophers.

Historically, the scope of Philosophy covered virtually all intellectual endeavors. It has since come to cover only the study of an especially abstract, non-experimental intellectual endeavor, using its still connected subdisciplines as evidence-building specialities. As mentioned above, philosophy is a notoriously difficult word to define, and the question, "What is Philosophy?", has vexed many a young student and wise teacher as well.(3)

"Philosophy is the study of its own history"
- G.W.F. Hegel
Philosophy, defined as a general, world-wide tendency to ask big questions about the nature of things, has a very long history, as well as a long study of History. It has been practiced in every culture, at every time, in every manner imaginable. Only centuries ago, the academic discipline of "philosophy" still included the separate "departments" now studied individually, such as Science and Social Science, or Humanities. There are vast areas of Philosophy and intimate, historical connections in thought between disciplines, cultures, and geographical areas. Classification, such as below, can be oversimplified, but serves as a springboard to further study and intellectual discovery.

Major Areas and Connections

"Science is organized knowledge. Wisdom is organized life."
- Immanuel Kant

Expanded Areas

Further Reading

External Links


  1. Eastern Philosophy, or that of Asia, includes the thought of Gautama Buddha, Bodhidharma, Lao Zi, Confucius, Zhuang Zi, and Mao Zedong. Middle Eastern Philosophy is largely based on the interpretations of prophets of the Abrahamic religions, such as Islamic Philosophy, Christian Philosophy, and Jewish Philosophy. African Philosophy is based on the diverse historical tribes of Africa. The Western tradition began with the Greeks, including the works of Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, René Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, G.W.F. Hegel, and Friedrich Nietzsche, among many others.
  2. The introduction of the term "philosophy" was ascribed to the Greek thinker Pythagoras (see Diogenes Laertius: "De vita et moribus philosophorum", I, 12; Cicero: "Tusculanae disputationes", V, 8-9). This ascription is certainly based on a passage in a lost work of Herakleides Pontikos, a disciple of Aristotle. It is considered to be part of the widespread Pythagoras legends of this time. In fact the term "philosophy" was not in use before Plato.
  3. The amount of philosophical writing on most philosophers is ever-growing. The introductions to original language and translated works usually suggest a variety of secondary literature, as do an endless array of websites. To explain and interpret the philosophy of major thinkers is often to walk a line which crosses into oversimplification, even parody, if one is not careful. Due to the vast and fundamental nature and ambition of Philosophy, there has been some disagreement over how one even sits down to read it, and any one philosopher alone is insufficient to achieve a balanced view of Philosophy. In recent years, much work has been done to recover from variously distorted and incorrect interpretations stemming from Anglo-American academics and certain free online encyclopedias. Therefore, the best resource on a philosopher is that philosopher, along with one's own patience in study.

Some content adapted from the Wikinfo article "Philosophy" under the GNU Free Documentation License.
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[ last updated: 10:04pm EDT - Wed, Oct 07 2009 ]
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M.R.M. Parrott