What is Philosophy?

Philosophy is the art of forming opinion based on fact.

If you look it up, you’re likely to find there are as many types of philosophy as there are definitions–even my definition above is insufficient. A common definition of philosophy begins by slicing the word into its Greek roots: philo + sophia, terms meaning love and wisdom, respectively–yet philosophy is best understood by assessing its primary branches:

  • Ethics: the study of right and wrong; examples include business ethics, bioethics, ethics in research
  • Aesthetics: the study of values, beauty, and art (“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”)
  • Logic: mathematical, systematic study of order in human thought
  • Epistemology: study of how humans acquire knowledge (some say this mirrors psychology)
  • Social/political philosophy: studies of social systems
  • Metaphysics: a bit challenging, but essentially assesses what the little pieces of reality combine to portray. A different and more literal interpretation regards studies of what lies beyond (meta-) the physical world (Are spirits real?)

Philosophy, as you see, is very broad. Generally, philosophy relies on everything that is actual as revealed through other enterprises such as science or history, and then seeks to understandwhat it means to us. If all history shows that each person dies (actuality), then deciding how we ought to live our lives in light of this truth is a philosophic effort.

There can be a “philosophy of –” anything: philosophy of science, philosophy of history, philosophy of music. When this “philosophy of” term is employed, it tells us that someone has taken the broadest and deepest assessment of a particular facet of life and sought to provide a respectable conclusion regarding its full meaning as it relates to other subjects of human interest. For example, if a psychology were to find that all human behavior is completely determined by genetic factors beyond human ability to alter, then philosophy of psychology could take this and see how it relates to ethics by showing that punishment is pointless because humans are hopelessly hardwired and  punishing someone for behavior they can’t control is pointless (unless the punisher is some sort of sadistic).

This is all very brief, but if you are college bound, note that as an academic enterprise, to minor in philosophy is to major in one of its branches; to major in philosophy is to minor in the whole tree.