What is Philosophy?
Philosophy is an ancient discipline, which probably began as early as human civilization, that sought knowledge of all things on earth and in heaven. Knowledge of natural things and their causes lead to the creation of physics and metaphysics. Knowledge of human affairs and their constitutive relations lead to the creation of ethics, politics, and the philosophy of history. Knowledge of heavenly things leads to cosmology and speculative theology. Philosophy in the ancient world was the parent of most scientific disciplines.
In order to understand philosophy you must not only grasp its subject matter, such as metaphysics and ethics, but also its method. In western philosophy the method to obtain knowledge is rooted in the philosopher's ability to form and evaluate arguments. In Asian philosophy there is greater emphasis on knowledge of the Way (Dao) to live a life harmonizing the individual with her natural and social world. But in all cultures philosophy requires that we think critically: to be clear, precise, well-organized, truthful, complete, and able to handle objections. The study of critical thinking is called logic.
To be philosophical is to be a logical thinker who seeks knowledge of the whole. In this way philosophers avoid unsupported beliefs but base their views on good reason and evidence. Philosophers demand of themselves and others that they have reasoned logical belief.
The study of philosophy is varied. Since philosophy seeks knowledge of the whole, that is, of all things that are subject to disciplined inquiry, there are virtually endless kinds of philosophy. Traditionally most students of philosophy study (a) the history of philosophy, and (b) systematic areas of philosophy. These two ways complement each other, since the articulation of philosophical problems and proposed solutions have developed over many centuries, and philosophical history often defines how the problems and proposed solutions are understood today.
Examples of the history of philosophy would be: (1) Ancient Philosophy, or from Socrates to Augustine; (2) Medieval Philosophy, or from Augustine to Machiavelli; and (3) Modern Philosophy, or from Descartes to Kant. Examples of systematic philosophy would be (1) metaphysics, or the study of reality; (2) ethics, or the study of what is morally right and good; (3) Epistemology, or the study of how we know reality; (4) logic, or the study of good arguments; (5) Aesthetics or the Philosophy of Art, or the study of appreciating the beautiful and theory of art; and (6) Social-Political Philosophy, or the study of political and legal theories.
Beyond these traditions lie a host of specialized inquiries, such as, Philosophy of Language, which studies how we communicate linguistically using signs; Philosophy of Law which studies how legal theories apply to specific cases; Business Ethics which deals with the application of ethical theories to moral issues in both the work and market places; Philosophy of Sex and Gender which deals with how ethical and social theories relate to understanding and evaluating the status of women, homosexuality, and pornography.
Students of philosophy often seek extensive knowledge in one or more of these areas as well as in the traditional areas. Philosophers are, then, pursuers of knowledge who seek both the knowledge of the whole as well as specialized branches of study.
Philosophers are intellectuals who typically speak and write well. They favor debate and the testing of conventions and beliefs. They are "gadflies" who ask questions which disturb those whose beliefs are uncritically accepted. Philosophers seek to understand themselves through a comprehension and evaluation of positions, arguments, ideas, and belief systems. They are usually committed to discovering truth and acting for the good.
Philosophers when they accomplish their goals are often wise and contented individuals. They show that philosophy is not simply an academic discipline; it is a way to live.