What is philosophy?

“If I were to start again as an undergraduate, I would major in philosophy. I think that subject is really at the core of just about everything we do. If you study humanities or political systems or sciences in general, philosophy is really the mother ship from which all of these disciplines grow.”

Matthew Goldstein, chancellor of the City University of New York (CUNY)

Originally, virtually all branches of study fell to those called "philosophers", but gradually academic study divided into the disciplines we know today.  Now, philosophy tends to focus on the foundational questions of each discipline, (e.g. what is the nature of matter? what is life? what is a mind? what is justice? what is a number? what is art, and why is it important?), as well as cross-discipline foundations (e.g. what is causation? what is knowledge, and what are the best ways to attain it? how ought we to live?).  Each of these questions has a long and instructive history, but major new advances are being made, often informed by important results in the sciences and other disciplines.  View an outline of the branches of philosophy.  

The nature of philosophy is perhaps best expressed by directly quoting some of its practitioners:

"You philosophize when you reflect critically upon what you are doing in your world. What you are doing is, of course, in the first place, living. And life involves passions, faiths, doubts, and courage. The critical inquiry into what all these things mean and imply is philosophy."

Josiah Royce

"The aim of philosophy is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term."

Wilfrid Sellars

"Philosophy, though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to the doubts it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom. Thus, while diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are, it greatly increases our knowledge as to what they may be; it removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never travelled into the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect."

Bertrand Russell

"What is the aim of philosophy? To be clear-headed rather than confused; lucid rather than obscure; rational rather than otherwise; and to be neither more, nor less, sure of things than is justifiable by argument or evidence."

Geoffrey Warnock

"The Sanskrit word for philosophy – darsana – also means seeing clearly. Philosophy does have much to do with clarifying matters – not through specialized knowledge but through reasoning. It is possible, of course, to be wonderfully clear and dead wrong.  But lucidity does not help the survival of baseless beliefs, silly deductions, groundless prejudice, or the justification of needless misery. Well, that’s something for clear reasoning, even though it won't solve all our problems."

Amartya Sen

Last reviewed shim4/7/2015 10:45:14 AM