Introduction to Philosophy/What is Philosophy?

"Philosophy" is a word with numerous vastly differing definitions, ranging broadly and not always compatible with each other. Today, it is perhaps most often thought of as meaning an individual's set of guiding principles, mostly moral, that he refers to in planning out and living his life. However, philosophy as an intellectual or academic pursuit has little do with this, meaning rather something along the lines of: "The directed search for knowledge and systems of knowledge that explain topical phenomena such as the nature of existence, the causes of existence, the nature and causes of an individual, the nature and causes of knowledge itself, and a million other things."

What these million other things are constitutes the essence, or feel, of philosophy as a subject, and of what differentiates it from other kinds of directed research such as physics, biology, or even music -- all of which were at one point considered aspects of philosophy itself. As you read on, you'll develop a sense of these questions as they've evolved in the Western canon, and of how philosophy fits in with the entirety of human intellectual pursuits.

Western philosophy as we know it today is generally considered to have originated in Ancient Greece, from the people's cosmogonical or "world-creation" myths. Thales of Miletus brought back kernels of knowledge from Ancient Egypt, which over time the Greeks developed into the earliest philosophy that remains recognizably such today. It is not surprising, then, that the term "philosophy" finds its roots in the Greek language. "Philo-" stems from the Greek word philein, meaning 'to love', and "-sophy" comes from the Greek word sophia, or wisdom. Philosophy, then, can be thought of as "the love of wisdom".

Consequently, philosophers concern themselves with exploring some of the biggest questions that face humankind: What exists? What is real? What is the nature of the universe? Does God exist? Do humans have souls? What is knowledge? What is truth? How should individuals govern themselves? What is the nature of consciousness? Like many other fields of inquiry, philosophical questions spring from a certain kind of curiosity about life and reality. Much of philosophy confronts very abstract ideas and thus, unlike in other academic disciplines such as the sciences, philosophers cannot always rely on gathering empirical data through experimentation. Of course, there are numerous other techniques available to the philosopher, including formal logic, thought experiments, rational dissertation, colloquy, phenomenological analysis, and more.

[The pursuit of philosophical wisdom can be understood as a quest for two different kinds of wisdom. Aristotle characterized these as theoretical wisdom and practical wisdom. The first sort seeks understanding primarily for its own sake, whereas the latter is concerned with understanding in order to do. The distinction is not unlike those in other fields. The physicist attempts to understand matter and motion simply for the sake of extending the limits human knowledge, but the engineer attempts to understand matter and motion in order to make something useful. The philosopher who attempts to understand the metaphysical nature of the universe is concerned with a more theoretical area of philosophical inquiry, while his or her colleague who tries to understand the proper way for businesses to behave ethically, is pursuing a much more practical subject matter. Philosophy that concerns itself with these sorts of practical questions is usually called "Applied Philosophy".]

Philosophy is perhaps unique in its lack of limitation regarding subject matter. Almost every conceivable idea has been or will be tackled by philosophy, and among those that aren't, most are areas of philosophy that matured sufficiently to break off from the discipline proper and form a new field of study: physics was once called "natural philosophy." In addition, philosophers typically ask questions that touch on almost every other field of academic inquiry. In fact, one major role of philosophy is to provide the underpinning for just about every other field of study, everything from the rules governing research in that field to its relationship to the other fields of human endeavor. As a result, most universities offer courses in the "philosophy of" other academic disciplines, of interest to both philosophers and students of the respective field. Despite these far-ranging interests, there are some unifying features of philosophical inquiry...