What is Philosophy?

What is Philosophy?

Philosophy is many things. Indeed, there are many philosophies.

An individual's philosophy consists in her broad outlook, the general guidelines by which she lives her life and/or the general framework through which she understands the world. A philosophy in this sense may be common to members of a specific group such as a political organization; for example, ACLU members agree on the great importance of civil liberties. A philosophy in this sense of a general outlook may also be shared among a broader, less well-defined collective such as a society. For example, Westerners tend to share a philosophy emphasizing individual rights, the value of free enterprise, and the importance of science as a tool for progress.

We may also speak of the philosophy of a particular discipline or area of inquiry. Thus we speak of the philosophy of psychology, the philosophy of mathematics, the philosophy of biology, and so on. Here the term philosophy does not refer to a shared outlook. Rather, it refers to the study of, or search for, fundamental principles and concepts characterizing the domain of that discipline.

For example, the philosophy of psychology-or philosophy of mind-seeks to identify the most fundamental principles that describe and explain mental activity and behavior. It asks such questions as "What is consciousness?" "What is its role in human behavior?" "What are the relationships between consciousness, thought, language, and intentional action?" "What is the relationship between these phenomena and the brain or specific brain parts?" "What sorts of creatures have minds?" "Could a sufficiently advanced computer have a mind?" "What sorts of evidence permit us to make justified inferences about another individual's mental life?"

Insofar as the philosophy of psychology involves the most theoretical and general questions pertaining to the discipline of psychology itself, it seems fair to say that the philosophy of psychology significantly overlaps with theoretical psychology. Similarly, the philosophy of physics overlaps with theoretical physics. Such overlap indicates the way in which the discipline of philosophy overlaps with the most theoretical portions of various other disciplines.

This brings us to philosophy understood as a single discipline or academic philosophy. Philosophy in this sense includes the philosophy of psychology (or mind), the philosophy of biology, the philosophy of economics, the philosophy of language, and so on. It also includes aesthetics, the fundamental exploration of beauty; logic, the study of the general principles guiding rigorous inference; epistemology, the study of the possibility of and general conditions required for knowledge; ethics, the critical examination of such moral concepts as right and wrong, good and bad, virtue and vice; metaphysics, which includes both the most general study of the kinds of things that exist and speculation about those things that may exist beyond the realm of direct experience; as well as various other areas.

The word "philosophy" originates from the ancient Greek words "philo" and "sophia," indicating its original meaning: love of wisdom. The meaning of the term has evolved into the multi-faceted concept we have attempted to characterize. But the original meaning attractively unites the various senses of the term sketched above. An individual's philosophy represents, in large part, an attempt at practical wisdom -- an understanding of how to live well. The philosophy of a larger group or collective also suggests its take on practical wisdom or some particular aspect of it. Meanwhile, each of the areas within academic philosophy may be understood as seeking a type of theoretical wisdom. For example, the philosophy of physics seeks the best possible, most general understanding of physical phenomena. Ethics seeks wisdom about morality. Logic codifies the general principles that constitute wisdom in drawing inferences and extending knowledge. Therefore, those who desire a classical definition of philosophy could do worse than to cite the original meaning: love of wisdom!