What is Philosophy?

Philosophy - "1. (a) Love and pursuit of wisdom by intellectual means and moral self-discipline. (b) The investigation of causes and laws underlying reality. (c) A system of philosophical inquiry or demonstration. 2. Inquiry into the nature of things based on logical reasoning rather than empirical methods. 3. The critique and analysis of fundamental beliefs as they come to be conceptualized and formulated. 7. The science comprising logic, ethics, aesthetics, metaphysics, and epistemology. 10. The system of values by which one lives: a philosophy of life."(1)

The word itself comes from the Greek word "philosophein", which literally means "lover of wisdom". It is believed that this term was first coined by the famous Greek philosopher Aristotle, in referring to himself as a seeker after wisdom, as opposed to an already wise man (sophia). In the centuries since, it has been used in like manner to refer to all whose primary purpose in life has been the seeking of knowledge and wisdom. Even today, we retain a vestige of this heritage by bestowing on doctoral graduates the title "Ph.D." or "Doctor of Philosophy", regardless of their field of study.

But like all human endeavours over the centuries, those who might be called "philosophein" have become increasingly specialized. In the days of Aristotle, and even as recently as the days of the Renaissance, one person could develop an encyclopaedic understanding of a good proportion of available knowledge. There just was not that much (generalized as opposed to detailed specific) knowledge that mankind had developed. From Aristotle and Archimedes through Sir Isaac Newton and his contemporaries, "philosophers" have explored and contributed to many facets of our understanding of reality in the same career. Biology, physics, chemistry, ethics, and political philosophy were all one subject matter, without regard to the modern artificial boundaries. Beginning with the Renaissance, however, and the explosion of published knowledge brought about by the printing press, a distinction began to be drawn between those seekers of wisdom who studied nature in all its forms, and those who examined the "higher" questions of ethics and such. So Isaac Newton, and Charles Darwin, and many of their contemporaries, referred to themselves as "Natural Philosophers" because they focused on the questions of Nature. Thus distinguishing themselves from others of their contemporaries, like Rene Descartes, who could be more properly called "Simple Philosophers" because their focus of interest shifted easily from the questions of Nature, to the questions more typical of modern Philosophy.

Today, what are referred to as the "hard", or "quantitative" sciences have split off from "Natural Philosophy" into their own separate disciplines. So we have Physics, Nuclear Physics, Quantum Physics, Polymer Chemistry, Biochemistry, Astronomy, Biology, Zoology, Marine Botany, and so forth in confusing numbers. The amount of knowledge that Mankind has accumulated about Nature has grown so vast, that new sub-disciplines are constantly being spun off. What remains today within the domain of the "Simple" philosopher, are the "qualitative" questions that extend above and beyond the multitude of areas carved out by the experts in measuring and counting. Thus the nuclear physicist measures the characteristics of quarks and gluons, and the sociologist counts noses in numerous dimensions, while the philosopher ponders the questions of "What is Reality, anyway?". "Where are we?", "How do we know what we know?", "How are we to establish what is 'good'?", "What is the right thing to do?"

Why Should we Care?

The dictionary definition quoted above gives a good explanation of what Philosophy IS, but doesn't go into the "Why?" of Philosophy. Why worry about Philosophy? Why bother about what is Ethical and Moral? Who cares about Aesthetics, Ontology, Epistemology, and all of the various branches of the study of Philosophy? What's the purpose of it all?

On a daily basis, almost on a moment to moment basis, we are all faced with the challenge of making our way in the world, in one manner or another. In doing so, we are constantly deluged with an overabundance of choice. It might be as simple as whether to speed up or slow down on the highway, whether to use cream or milk in the coffee, whether to have a salad or soup for lunch, whether to drop a quarter in the hat of the street musician. It might be as complex as whether to join some church or other, whether to have an abortion or not, or whether to steal a wallet or not. How we approach the process of choosing between the choices presented to us, is what is called our "Philosophy of Life".

I will borrow and update here, an analogy first employed by Ayn Rand(2). Suppose that you are an astronaut whose spaceship goes out of control, falls through a "hyper-dimensional sub-space anomaly" (courtesy Star Trek) and crashes on an unknown planet. When you regain consciousness, you find that you are not badly hurt. The first three questions that probably would pop to mind are: Where am I? How can I know (or find out)? What should I do (now)?

It is dark where you find yourself. You turn to look at the stars above, but stop. You are struck by a sudden thought: "If I don't look up, I don't have to know that I am buried alive somewhere and can't see stars, or are perhaps too far away from Earth to ever return." You turn to examine your spaceship, but stop. You are struck by a sudden fear: "If I don't look, I don't have to know that perhaps the ship is not there, or too damaged to carry me home, or provide shelter." You relax, and keep your eyes closed. You begin to wonder why you have no desire to do anything. You are suffused with a foggy, pleasant, but vague and undirected feeling of hope. As long as you don't know how badly off you are, you are free to believe what you wish. In the absence of any evidence to the contrary, you are free to believe that everything is just fine, and help will be along shortly. It seems so much more pleasant, and so much safer just to wait for something to turn up.

Eventually, feeling slightly but distantly guilty about your inactivity and unconcern, you look around you. In the distance, you see some creatures approaching. They, you decide, will tell you where you are, and what to do. They will answer all your questions. They will solve all your problems. So you relax back into your inactivity and unconcern, and wait for Them to arrive and tell you what to do.

This little story is not as fictional as it might first appear. Most people are in the position of the stranded astronaut. Most people, most of the time, keep their eyes, ears, and minds tightly closed. Most people, most of the time, exist from day to day suffused with a foggy, pleasant, but vague and undirected feeling of hope. So long as they don't know, they are free to believe what they wish. They are free to believe that everything is just fine, and help will be along shortly. It seems so much more pleasant, and so much simpler, so much safer just to have Them (Him / It) tell them what to do, what to believe, what to think.

Once all the pomp and pageantry and fancy decorations have been stripped away, one's Philosophy of Life comes down to the answers you provide (or let others give you) to three fundamental questions:

1) What is the nature of Reality? (Metaphysics)

2) How do we know what is True? (Epistemology)

3) What is the Right thing to do? (Ethics)

Ultimately, of course, what we are most interested in is the answer to the last of these three - "What is the Right thing to do?" But the second of these questions is necessary because knowing what is the Right thing to do depends intimately on what we think it means to know anything. And the first of these questions is necessary because knowing anything at all depends intimately on what we think it means to know anything about some thing. So, these three questions might also be phrased as:-

3) What ought I do? Which of these alternatives ought I choose? Should I look around this place, or should I keep my eyes closed and just believe?

2) How do I know that I ought to do that? How do I know what the alternatives mean? Are there consequences to my choices? Can I know or find out what the consequences are? Do the consequences matter?

1) On what do I base this knowledge? Just what are the alternatives? Are there alternatives? Can I find out what they are? How do I find out what they are?

Question 1 - What is the Nature of Reality?

Are your surroundings, your environment, comprehensible? Or is all about you mysterious, confusing, and incomprehensible? Does this place you are in behave according to rules? Can you learn anything about the rules of this place? Can you take any advantage of such knowledge? Or is it a place that is subject to inexplicable miracles, or cryptic chaos? Or perhaps this place you find yourself in is subject to your whims, and responsive to your desires? Is it perhaps responsive to someone else's whims or desires? Does it matter whether you know anything about this place?   Or will this place take care of you on its own?

The answers that you provide to these questions will govern your actions and your ambitions. Do you research how this place operates, and take advantage of its rules? Or do you resign yourself to react to what befalls you, and just hope for the best? Perhaps you will focus your energies and efforts in channelling your whims or desires. Or maybe you will focus on communicating in the appropriate fashion with whoever or whatever this place does respond to.

As you can see from this brief list of possibilities, what you believe about where you are will have significant implications for what you do. The early history of Homo sapiens is characterized by "animism" - the belief that all aspects of the environment are animated by spirits. As a natural consequence, early humans dedicated considerable time and effort in the worship and placation of the various "Gods" and "Spirits" that caused the events of their daily lives. The more recent history of Homo sapiens, notably since the Renaissance of the 17th Century, is characterized by "materialism" - the belief that events in the environment are the consequences of natural (non-animistic) phenomenon obeying fixed and comprehensible rules. So which is the correct, proper, more accurate, (more useful?)   understanding? And why?

The answers to the question "Where am I?", and the resulting consequences, is the province of Metaphysics. Every single person conducts themselves on the basis of some form of answer to this question. Everybody has a metaphysical concept of where they are, and how it works. The most popular metaphysical concept in my culture today is the Judeo-Christian-Islamic one.   Rather inconsistently, a great many people in the Western/Modern World conceive of this place as a construction of God, responsive to His whims, and obeying rules only so far as He chooses to let it.   Following in the path of their animistic forebears, they naturally invest considerable time and effort in their attempts to communicate with and placate the God that rules this place.          

It is the rare person who consciously considers these questions and the implications of the answers.   It is the rare person who concerns themselves with the deeper implications of Metaphysics.  Are you ever curious about how the world around you works? Most people are, at least some of the time. Do you ever make plans for the future? Most people do, some of the time. Do you care? Most people do, sometimes. But most do not concern themselves with questions like - Why do you care? Why are you curious? What would you do with information if you had it? How do you plan for the future? Do you expect that the future is going to be similar to the present? Why do you make such an assumption? And do you understand the consequences implied by your answers to these questions?

Question 2 - How do we know what is True?

Regardless of where you think you are, and everybody thinks they are someplace, how do you know? Unless you believe that you are omniscient and infallible, you will have to have some idea how it is that you know where you are, and how you can go about verifying that you are, in fact, correct in your knowledge. Or, if you choose to accept the opinions of one or more others, you will have to have some idea how it is that they know where you are. You may or may not wish to know how to go about verifying that their opinions are correct. But what if their opinion is wrong?   Will you become a physicist, investigating the "Music of the Spheres", or will you become a Priest, praying to a God in the expectation that He will hear and act on your prayers? Can we learn or know anything? Is learning anything worth your effort? Or is it better to "go with the flow", and "Take life as it comes"? How do you know? And do you understand the consequences of your answers?

As you can see, what you believe about where you are is going to make a significant difference in how you invest your time and effort. Wouldn't it be a waste if you were to make such an investment in the wrong direction? The issues raised by the question "How do I know?" are the province of Epistemology. Unfortunately, most people's epistemology consists of accepting the assurances of others. Most people are satisfied to accept the answers provided by their parents, their heroes, or their religious leaders. Few people concern themselves about the possibilities that their basic beliefs about where they are, may be in error. Or about the consequences of their beliefs on the best direction for investing time and effort.  

Question 3 - What is the Right thing to do?

This is the hardest question of all! (Gee, Surprise! Surprise!)   But despite that fact, it is the one philosophical question that most people do think about on a regular basis.    

"What should I do (now)?" And this isn't meant in the simple procedural sense of "What is the next step to this goal?" It is used in the purposeful sense of "What goal should I pursue?", "What is the right thing to do?", "Which of these is the best alternative?", "Is {insert your favourite controversial topic} right?" Almost everybody, at some point, asks themselves this question in one form or another. And almost everybody has some form of preconceived notion of, or basis for determining what constitutes "The right thing to do", and of selecting more or less suitable goals. But most people do not concern themselves with the problem of "How do I know what is 'right', and against what standard do I judge which alternative is 'best'?".

As with their answers to the other basic questions, most people adopt as their own other people's opinions of what is "The right thing to do". Most people let Them provide the answers. For better or worse They will always tell you what to do. Few concern themselves with how They know, or whether a particular opinion of what is "The right thing to do" is correct. Most people do not understand, and do not concern themselves with the implications of their answers to these questions.

All you have to do is read the front page of any newspaper, and you will probably find some instance where there is a conflict between two separate opinions as to what constitutes "The right thing to do". Which opinion is the correct one? Does it matter? It seems to. Many people expend an inordinate amount of time and effort attempting to convince other people that their opinion of what is "The right thing to do" is the correct one. How do they know? Can they prove it? How do you know? Can you prove it? The next time you ask yourself "What is the right thing to do?", whose opinion are you going to take as the definition of "right", and why? What if they are wrong? What if you are wrong? Does it matter to you? To most people, it does matter. But most people are not interested in exploring the implications of their answers. Their own particular concept of what is "The right thing to do" is blindly assumed to be correct, and everybody else is assumed to be wrong.

The answers to, and implications of the question "What is the right thing to do?" is the province of Ethics. And while everybody has ethics, few are concerned with a critical examination of those ethics.


Of course, despite all of this fancy philosophical analysis, it is quite obvious to any observer that the Vast majority of people do not concern themselves with the fundamentals of their Philosophy of Life. The Vast majority of people operate on a day-to-day basis from a relatively simple system of Ethics --

"What is the Right thing to do? ==> What I have been told to do!"

With very few exceptions, almost every individual, almost all the time, makes their choice based on simple easy to remember rules they have learned from others. Those who choose to think for themselves are a Vanishingly small minority. (See One Philosopher's Comments on Moral Rules for an amusing take on this point.)

But this circumstance is not too surprising when you think about it. As any school child will tell you, thinking for yourself is hard work. It requires careful attention to rational thinking, and a constant focus on learning. And to do well at thinking for yourself requires a lot of learning, about a lot of things. It is much easier to parrot what someone else, especially the teacher, has already said. It requires much less thought, minimal grasp of the process of reasoning, and very little learning.

And besides, we all grow up in a thoroughly authoritarian environment. Neither parents nor teachers have much interest in teaching a child how to think for himself. First the parents, and then the school teachers, are much more interested in making sure that the child does what s/he is told, and conforms to the socially accepted standards of behaviour, dress, and deportment. And once freed from the regimentation of the classroom, there are peer group leaders and bosses on the job who have exactly the same interests in training up the individual to do what they are told, and quietly fit in with the group. And to top it all off, there are religious leaders and political leaders whose interests lie primarily in selling some form of Collectivist ethics.

Most people, most of the time, exist from day to day diligently ignoring these three basic questions.

"Where am I?" - This is usually answered easily and superficially by citing a geographic location, distracting the Mind from the deeper meaning. I am in New York, or London, or wherever.

"How do I know?" - Well, because it is obvious. It is on all the signs, and everybody else agrees. And of course, if everybody else agrees, why should I doubt it?

"What should I do?" - What everybody else does, or what my parents/friends/teachers taught me to, or what the 'good book' says (whichever 'good book' may apply to your particular brand of faith).

There is no need to worry about these questions. "Don't worry! Be Happy!" - They / He / It will always provide the answers. And the answers provided will suffice - whatever they might be.   There is no need to think.   There is no need to understand. There is no need to learn. There is no need to waste any effort exercising your native talents for foresight, planning, and predicting consequences. Sit back and relax.   If you feel vaguely guilty about your inactivity, and simply must do something, anything, then Praise the Lord! - God will provide! Glorify His Name and His Works - for God created and still governs all!  

Most people have never been taught to think about the more fundamental implications of these questions. Most people have, in fact, been very specifically taught to not think about them.   But a few individuals will always find these questions fascinating, and the struggle to answer them rewarding.

The Four Sections of This Text

Like the "hard" sciences, within the bounds of Philosophy as a subject of study, there are many established separate fields of discussion. Three of these you have just met. These three, and one other will be the four topics I will address in this text. They are, in my own humble opinion, the four central and critical sub-sections of philosophical thought necessary to define a consistent and coherent system of belief - a Philosophy of Life.

The first three are the answers to the basic questions I have asked above. The fourth is an extension of Ethics into the arena of our social environment - our government and political systems. Political Philosophy has often been called "Applied Ethics".

  1. Metaphysics - Where am I? What is Reality? Or, alternatively, what is it that we perceive? Do we perceive anything? Can we know anything? Do we have a Soul? Is there a God? Is there Free Will?
  2. Epistemology - How do I know? How can I discover it? What is knowledge? How do we know anything? Can we know anything? What is Truth?
  3. Ethics - What should I do? What is the meaning of terms like "good", "bad / evil", "right", "wrong", "duty", "responsibility", etc.? How do I get from "is" to "ought"? How do I lead "a good life"? What is the "right thing to do"?
  4. Political Philosophy - How do I apply the answers of Ethics to social situations? How does the individual relate to the social system? What is meant by the concepts of "civic responsibility", "political liberty", "human rights", etc.?

In addition to these four, of course, there are numerous other subjects that have attracted the attention of philosophers, authors, and students. Among these are Religious Philosophy, Aesthetics, Philosophy of "This, that, or whatever", and sometimes Logic. I will not be addressing any of these as separate issues, and leave the exploration of these topics to the reader. Hopefully, from what I am including in this text, the interested reader might glean sufficient insight to be able to develop the other topics alone.

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(1)   Unless otherwise specified, all dictionary definitions are quoted from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition copyright 1992 by Houghton Mifflin Company.

(2)   Address given by Ayn Rand to the graduating class of the United States Military Academy at West Point, on March 6th,1974