What is Philosophy?

ArchitectureAccording to the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, "all human beings desire to know." The pursuit of knowledge, and the underlying sense of wonder accompanying this investigation, provide the basic premise for studying Philosophy. Studying Philosophy is not the only way of gaining genuine knowledge or "wisdom" ['philosophy' = 'philos' (love) + 'sophia' (wisdom)]. After all, every student regardless of major believes a host of truths in which they are justified, and justified true belief is precisely what knowledge is. But studying Philosophy requires more than simply learning "facts." In particular, it requires exploring fundamental questions -- questions that cannot be settled through observation alone. These are questions for which various reasonable answers can be given, but where it is far from obvious which one is "true," correct, best, or ought to be believed. There are innumerable specific questions of this sort, but we can categorize them into the following types, which correspond to the main subfields of Philosophy:

  1. Logic questions: What are the principles of good reasoning? What is the nature of an argument? How should we distinguish good arguments from bad arguments? What is necessary for a claim to follow from its evidence? What is the nature of validity? What makes a logic formal? What makes an argument deductive vs. inductive?
  2. Ethics questions: What is the nature of moral theory? How should one determine what one ought to do? Is there a necessary relation between religion and morality? Should we do that which maximizes our happiness (egoism) or that which maximizes the highest kind of happiness in the greatest number of people (utilitarianism)? Should (abortion, euthanasia, animal testing, etc.) be permitted?
  3. History of Philosophy questions: How does Aristotle's theory of knowledge differ from Plato's? How does Plato's rationalism differ from Descartes'? How prominent was (idealism, rationalism, empiricism, moral relativism, etc.) prior to the 20th Century?
  4. Metaphysics and Epistemology questions:Metaphysics: What is the nature of reality? Does God exist? What is necessary for something to be a (person, computer, language, theory, etc.)? What is the nature of (God, the mind, art, rights, truth, justice, science, morality, etc.)? What is the essence of (the soul, being humans, democracy, ideas, duties, virtue, etc.) Epistemology: What is the nature of knowledge? What are the limits of knowledge? Do we posses innate knowledge? Does knowledge require certainty? How do you know that you are not now dreaming? How do you know that the world is as it appears? How do you know that (God exists, souls exist, the sun exists, someone besides you has a mind, etc.)?
  5. Philosophy of Religion questions: Does God exist? Can we prove that God exists through reason alone? What are the attributes of God? Does doing right depend on doing God's will? How can we know what God's will is? If God is all-knowing and all-powerful, how can evil exist?
  6. Social-Political Philosophy questions: What is the nature of justice? What is the essence of (rights, democracy, socialism, etc.)? What is the ideal form of government?
  7. Philosophy of Mind questions: What is the nature of the mind? What makes you the person that you are? Are you the same person today that you were yesterday? What is a belief? How can we know that the world is as it appears to us from our senses? Can a machine think? How can we know whether something has a mind?
  8. Philosophy of Science questions: What is the purpose of science? How should we distinguish genuine science from pseudoscience? How does the scientific method work? What is the nature of a scientific (theory, hypothesis, law, etc.)? Do theoretical (nonobservable) entities really exist? How should we choose between competing hypotheses or theories?
  9. Philosophy of Language questions: What is the nature of language? What are the kinds of things that can be true or false? What makes a sentence true? What is the difference between a sentence and a statement? What is semantics and syntax and their function in a language?
  10. Aesthetics questions: What is the nature of art? How should we distinguish art from craft? Can anything be art? Is it necessary to know an artist's intentions to say whether something is art or good art? How should we determine whether a work of art is good or bad?

The first four types of fundamental questions represent the core areas of the Philosophy discipline. As we want our majors to be well-grounded, each Philosophy major must take at least one course from each of these areas. But there is a far more important reason why each major must take a course in logic. Namely, you cannot do Philosophy without reasoning and logic is the study of the methods and principles used to distinguish "good" reasoning from "bad" reasoning. Although 'reasoning' includes all manner of critical thinking, the main means through which philosophers reason are through arguments. Since no mere claim is ever an argument, no one will ever settle a fundamental question by simply asserting what he or she believes. To settle a fundamental question is to determine what is most reasonable to believe, and this requires making a claim and offering some reasons to show that the claim is true. And that's an argument. Simply put, one cannot do Philosophy without reasoning. And reasoning typically means offering arguments for or against a particular answer to a particular fundamental question.