What Is Philosophy? 

Philosophy texts

Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions, since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation… – Bertrand Russell

The philosopher as an analyst is not concerned with the physical properties of things, but only with the way in which we speak about them. – Alfred Jules Ayer

…Philosophy [is a] rarely practiced form of Earthling masturbation – Garyx Wormuloid, Wisecrack Earthling Cinema The Hidden Meaning in The Matrix (3:57)

I chose the name Philosimplicity for this blog because its purpose is to convey philosophy simply. The best way to start this undertaking would be to define what exactly philosophy is. The etymology of the word comes from a fusion of two Greek words, “love of” and “wisdom.” Thus, a philosopher is someone who loves wisdom. Across the ages, many philosophers saw philosophy as an action rather than as a static body of knowledge to be studied. I think the historical meaning of the word reflects this really well, but the word’s history can only tell us so much. What does it mean to love or pursue wisdom and how can someone engage with philosophy today?  

Why philosophy? 

By pursuing wisdom, philosophers believed themselves to be pursuing the appropriate way to conceive of things. If you don’t have the proper way to reflect on some concept, how can you come to understand it? This is, generally speaking, the thinking of someone who is curious about philosophy. So, for a philosopher, the act of philosophizing is a way to know the “true nature” of some idea. Given that philosophy is seen as a pursuit, this means that in some ways it’s an incomplete project. Much to the chagrin of many people, this incompleteness seems to be fundamentally part of philosophy. It is this seemingly directionless pursuit that likely gives philosophy a pie in the sky, daydream-like vibe to those unfamiliar with the field.  

Ultimately, the usefulness of philosophy is probably a matter of preference, but I’d caveat that a lot of what we take for granted emerged from people thinking about how to appropriately think about abstract ideas. Science and law aren’t things that naturally exist in nature; they emerged from people talking about “categories of nature” and “human rights.” I think it’s fair to see philosophy as the mental “road map” of society. With that in mind, it’s not the job of a road map to tell you where you’re supposed to go, but simply where you can go. For me, it’s this kind of open-endedness that gives philosophy its character. While it might seem inaccessible and exclusive, it isn’t (although I suppose in academia it might be a different story). Generally speaking, if you have a point of view that you can rigorously defend, then you can have standing within the discourse. 

How to approach philosophy 

This is all good and well, but how does one actually go about engaging with philosophy, especially as someone not in academia? I’ll admit it’s very hard. From what I understand, most philosophy and liberal arts undergraduate students begin with the history of philosophy as the underpinning of their education before moving on to specific subject areas. For the purposes of this blog, however, the history of philosophy won’t be discussed independently of any one concept or idea. While history is a significant aspect of philosophy, the most important thing is having an open mind and genuine curiosity about the topics presented within philosophy. Luckily, modern philosophy has categorized many aspects of the philosophical tradition so thoroughly that you can sift through topics like a catalog and read about what interests you online. There’s a ton of public domain and free resources on philosophy which I’ll be linking to throughout the blog.  

In terms of breaking down philosophy into subject areas, philosophy can be categorized in a myriad of different ways, with one of the most important ways being historical categories. Philosophy is usually broken into three eras: ancient or classical philosophy, medieval philosophy, and modern philosophy. It’s important to note that these are very broad historical eras whose cutoff dates don’t correspond to specific years.

In the present day, when we use the term philosophy we are most specifically concerned with the body of issues that emerged from the Western tradition of inquiry. Modern philosophy has come to be broken down into about five key areas: epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, and logic. The reason I say “about five” is because some philosophers group areas together or exclude others. 

Briefly:  

  • Epistemology is the study of knowledge. Basically, how do we know what we know about something? Formalized epistemology can be applied to certain topic areas. For example, philosophy of science involves epistemology as it is concerned with revealing the assumptions that allow us to perform scientific research and ultimately interpret information from our research. 
  • Metaphysics is concerned broadly with the true nature of reality and existence. Perhaps to a layperson, the field resembles the “Whoa, deep” moments seen in movies when a character is talking to their stoner friend. However, formal metaphysics as a field is extremely rigorous, especially given that since the modern era, it has been competing with perceived “real” fields like science for relevance. Much like epistemology, I’d argue that metaphysical assumptions serve as an underpinning for the types of research performed today in fields like neuroscience and theoretical physics. You can kind of see this in topics like Theory of Mind and questions like, “what is the role of mathematics in physics?” 
  • Ethics is, aside from logic, probably the most intuitive to non-philosophers. Effectively, ethics tries to gauge how we ought to live in order to have the best life possible. Political Philosophy and law are two areas heavily influenced by the philosophical inquiries into ethical problems.  
  • Aesthetics is concerned with the nature of beauty and ideal forms and it is very closely tied to the judgment of art. Aesthetics is often paired with ethics under a category called “Value Theory,” which includes the discussion of the normative beliefs and human behavior.   
  • Logic is a formalized system of thought that allows for effective deduction and reasoning. The formalization of logic can be seen in areas like computer science and mathematics.

Modern philosophy is further separated by what I call “style.” The big rivalry of the last century was between analytic philosophy and continental philosophy. Analytic philosophy, simply put, seeks a more rigorous formalization for its contents by using logic and mathematics to express ideas. Continental philosophy is a bit more abstract and less concerned with establishing a formalized method for expressing or analyzing philological topics. Generally, this blog will not discuss the distinction unless it’s imperative to a given topic.

A final mode of categorization, although considered a bit less technical, is by “school of thought.” Formally speaking, in many cases, schools of thought don’t really exist as it’s readers who create schools of thought by grouping texts and writers which they find similar. For example, my favorite philosopher Soren Kierkegaard is considered part of the existentialist school of thought (or just existentialism), but no such term existed when he was writing. It’s even debatable if he would have considered himself part of this “school” were he alive to protest. There are exceptions to this, though — in classical philosophy, a number of Greek schools of thought specifically refer to philosophers who studied alongside each other. But generally speaking, philosophical schools are a convenience for us in the present to navigate materials that seem similar. By searching for various philosophical schools or traditions we can more easily approach philosophy. This blog will focus on specific topics (i.e.: ethical dilemmas, thought experiments, and current events) categorized via the five subcategories discussed above. I will make references to certain schools of thought and the historical eras in which they existed when necessary or helpful.

The cultural context of philosophy

Unfortunately, (and this is something that seems to be reflected in academic philosophy) most of the topics presented here will be Western-centric as the bulk of readily accessible philosophical literature is from the Western discourse. Given the sheer influence of the West on the global political stage, this is nearly unavoidable. However, wherever applicable, I will try my best to incorporate perspectives outside of the seemingly default Western perspective.

The addition of a “non-Western” perspective is important because the activities within philosophy’s domain — thinking, discussion, and analysis – are very much so things that all cultures do. Though the formal conception of philosophy as an enterprise might not be considered universal, the factors that motivate it are. Various cultures have their own systems and methodology that historically aided them in understanding their society and their reality. These tend to be lumped together as “non-Western philosophy,” but such a boring, and frankly ugly term, doesn’t do other cultures justice. Additionally, Indian, Chinese, and Arabic philosophy, despite their non-Western categorization have had some interaction with Western philosophy, so it can be misleading to isolate philosophy by culture in this way.

Keep in mind that philosophy as an enterprise is a Western notion, which means we have to read into other cultures’ categories from our own perspective. That is to say, we as Westerners are in some ways forced to interpret what types of analysis seem “philosophical.” For example, something like Buddhism is sometimes overlooked by Westerners because, from the standard Western perspective, it appears to be just a religion. However, from the perspective of some living in the 5th century B.C.E., it might have been comparable to other contemporary systems of thought. 

Our five subcategories for modern philosophy also make things difficult. Basically, when we look at the writings of other cultures, we can only identify what is philosophy based on what we ourselves have learned to call philosophy. For example, I know that “Indian epistemology” is a subject area, as Indians do think about how they’ve come to understand the world. However, I have no idea if the literature that has been identified within this category is solely what Western philosophers recognized as formal epistemology, or if the collection of works under this umbrella reflects a good sample of what Indian epistemology does or should look like. Essentially, in order to gather philosophical sources from other cultures, we have to make a judgment based on our own values. Furthermore, the division of thought into content areas like epistemology and logic is somewhat arbitrary – it’s the artifact of a single culture rather than a universal system of categorization. In some cultures, it could be that logic, metaphysics, and epistemology are all inseparable because of the way their ideas were constructed. So being forced to think of philosophical thought in this matter might not even be useful when studying traditions of thought from other cultures. 

The final point to consider is that the categories of “Eastern,” “non-Western,” and “Western” themselves are constructs. Beliefs did not emerge in a vacuum, and even as early as pre-Socratic philosophy, you can see ideas in Greek philosophy that might have found inspiration in “non-Western” cultures. For example, Pythagoras, an important Greek philosopher, might have found inspiration from Egyptian cosmology. Even whole schools of thought like Greek stoicism and skepticism may have had non-Greek influence. Though the exact degree to which these cultures intermingled is up for debate, this helps illustrate that these categories are not impermeable. Basically, the line that divides east and west, especially in other eras might be slightly blurrier than you’d think. 

The ultimate limitation to understanding philosophy is that information will, in some sense, always be secondhand. You can’t be the theorist you’re reading; you can’t see into their mind and claim their interpretation of the world for yourself. Unfortunately, any information gleaned secondhand will probably be altered in some way, whether it’s you interpreting a theorist or reading an inaccurate translation of their work. It’s possible that even if our categories perfectly matched those outside the Western philosophical tradition, things would still be lost in translation due to cultural differences.  

In a way, this very blog will be an illustration of this problem. My quest to cover a broad range of topics in a digestible manner will in no way reflect the true complexity of these ideas. This isn’t a disclaimer to absolve me of being accurate, fair, and nuanced, but to point out what seems to be one of the limits of human understanding. However, even if my writing isn’t a perfect representation of the material I’m covering, I hope that I can at least serve as a good starting point if you’re interested in learning more. And I do encourage you to learn more and engage with primary sources whenever possible. With that said, let us embark on our pursuit of wisdom together.