Introduction Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental
questions, such as those about existence, reason, knowledge, values, mind, and
language. Such questions are often posed as problems to be studied or resolved.
Some sources claim the term was coined by Pythagoras (c. 570 – c. 495 BCE);
others dispute this story, arguing that Pythagoreans merely claimed the use of
a preexisting term. Philosophical methods include questioning, critical
discussion, rational argument, and systematic presentation.
Historically, philosophy encompassed all bodies of knowledge
and a practitioner was known as a philosopher. From the time of Ancient Greek
philosopher Aristotle to the 19th century, "natural philosophy"
encompassed astronomy, medicine, and physics. For example, Newton's 1687
Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy later became classified as a book
of physics. In the 19th century, the growth of modern research universities led
academic philosophy and other disciplines to professionalize and specialize.
Since then, various areas of investigation that were traditionally part of
philosophy have become separate academic disciplines, namely the social
sciences such as psychology, sociology, linguistics, and economics.
Today, major subfields of academic philosophy include
metaphysics, which is concerned with the fundamental nature of existence and
reality; epistemology, which studies the nature of knowledge and belief;
ethics, which is concerned with moral value; and logic, which studies the rules
of inference that allow one to derive conclusions from true premises. Other
notable subfields include philosophy of science, political philosophy,
aesthetics, philosophy of language, and philosophy of mind.
Branches of Philosophy
Philosophical questions can be grouped into various
branches. These groupings allow philosophers to focus on a set of similar
topics and interact with other thinkers who are interested in the same questions.
These divisions are neither exhaustive nor mutually
exclusive. (A philosopher might specialize in Kantian epistemology, Platonic
aesthetics, or modern political philosophy). Furthermore, these philosophical
inquiries sometimes overlap with each other and with other inquiries such as
science, religion or mathematics.
Aesthetics is the "critical reflection on art, culture
and nature." It addresses the nature of art, beauty and taste, enjoyment,
emotional values, perception and the creation and appreciation of beauty. It is
more precisely defined as the study of sensory or sensori-emotional values,
sometimes called judgments of sentiment and taste. Its major divisions are art
theory, literary theory, film theory and music theory. An example from art
theory is to discern the set of principles underlying the work of a particular
artist or artistic movement such as the Cubist aesthetic.
Ethics, also known as moral philosophy, studies what
constitutes good and bad conduct, right and wrong values, and good and evil.
Its primary investigations include how to live a good life and identifying
standards of morality. It also includes investigating whether or not there is a
best way to live or a universal moral standard, and if so, how we come to learn
about it. The main branches of ethics are normative ethics, meta-ethics and
The three main views in ethics about what constitute moral
Consequentialism, which judges actions based on their
consequences. One such view is utilitarianism, which judges actions based on
the net happiness (or pleasure) and/or lack of suffering (or pain) that they
Deontology, judges actions based on whether or not they are
in accordance with one's moral duty. In the standard form defended by Immanuel
Kant, deontology is concerned with whether or not a choice respects the moral
agency of other people, regardless of its consequences.
Virtue ethics, judges actions based on the moral character
of the agent who performs them and whether they conform to what an ideally
virtuous agent would do.
Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that studies
knowledge. Epistemologists examine putative sources of knowledge, including
perceptual experience, reason, memory, and testimony. They also investigate
questions about the nature of truth, belief, justification, and rationality.
Philosophical scepticism, which raises doubts about some or
all claims to knowledge, has been a topic of interest throughout the history of
philosophy. It arose early in Pre-Socratic philosophy and became formalized
with Pyrrho, the founder of the earliest Western school of philosophical scepticism.
It features prominently in the works of modern philosophers René Descartes and
David Hume and has remained a central topic in contemporary epistemological
One of the most notable epistemological debates is between
empiricism and rationalism.
Metaphysics is the study of the most general features of
reality, such as existence, time, objects and their properties, wholes and
their parts, events, processes and causation and the relationship between mind
and body. Metaphysics includes cosmology, the study of the world in its
entirety and ontology, the study of being.
A major point of debate is between realism, which holds that
there are entities that exist independently of their mental perception, and
idealism, which holds that reality is mentally constructed or otherwise
Logic is the study of reasoning and argument.
Deductive reasoning is when, given certain premises,
conclusions are unavoidably implied. Rules of inference are used to infer
conclusions such as modus ponens, where given “A” and “If A then B”, then “B”
must be concluded.
Because sound reasoning is an essential element of all
sciences, social sciences and humanities disciplines, logic became a formal
science. Sub-fields include mathematical logic, philosophical logic, Modal
logic, computational logic and non-classical logics. A major question in the
philosophy of mathematics is whether mathematical entities are objective and
discovered, called mathematical realism, or invented, called mathematical
Mind and language
Philosophy of language explores the nature, origins, and use
of language. Philosophy of mind explores the nature of the mind and its
relationship to the body, as typified by disputes between materialism and
dualism. In recent years, this branch has become related to cognitive science.
Philosophy of science
The philosophy of science explores the foundations, methods,
history, implications and purpose of science. Many of its subdivisions
correspond to specific branches of science. For example, philosophy of biology
deals specifically with the metaphysical, epistemological and ethical issues in
the biomedical and life sciences.
Political philosophy is the study of government and the
relationship of individuals (or families and clans) to communities including
the state. It includes questions about justice, law, property and the rights
and obligations of the citizen. Political philosophy, ethics, and aesthetics
are traditionally linked subjects, under the general heading of value theory as
they involve a normative or evaluative aspect.
Philosophy of religion
Philosophy of religion deals with questions that involve
religion and religious ideas from a philosophically neutral perspective (as
opposed to theology which begins from religious convictions). Traditionally,
religious questions were not seen as a separate field from philosophy proper,
the idea of a separate field only arose in the 19th century.
Issues include the existence of God, the relationship
between reason and faith, questions of religious epistemology, the relationship
between religion and science, how to interpret religious experiences, questions
about the possibility of an afterlife, the problem of religious language and
the existence of souls and responses to religious pluralism and diversity.
Metaphilosophy explores the aims, boundaries and methods of
philosophy. It is debated as to whether Metaphilosophy is a subject that comes
prior to philosophy or whether it is inherently part of philosophy.
There are some philosophers who say that philosophy is a
specifically Western (Greek) phenomenon and that the East does not have
"philosophy" in the strict sense of that term. This seems too biased
a view; Eastern thought will be briefly discussed in this article. However,
Western philosophy does have its roots in the Greeks, and this article turns
now to a consideration of them.
Western philosophy began with the pre-Socratics, so-called
because they lived before Socrates. These thinkers, often erroneously thought
to be somewhat "primitive," searched for the first principle (archē)
in things. Thales, for instance, found that principle in water, Anaximander in
the boundless (Apeiron), Heraclitus in the logos, Parmenides in being. The
simplicity and profundity of their vision is splendid and their influence on
the two greatest of Greek thinkers, Plato and Aristotle, extensive. Thus began
the tradition of the history of philosophy, of thinkers learning from each
other, often disagreeing and being stimulated to formulate their own ideas. It
is not the case, as has been alleged, that philosophers never come up with any
definitive answers because they all disagree with one another, cancelling one
another out, so to speak, so the end result is nothing at all. Each thinker
learns from his predecessors; without Socrates, there would never have been a
Plato; without Plato, no Aristotle. Thus, the history of philosophy can be
viewed as a long critical dialogue tracing shifting conceptions of reality.
Socrates was the true model of a philosopher. Contrasting
himself with the Sophists, who claimed to have the knowledge and the ability to
teach it and who took money for their services, Socrates said that he knew that
he knew nothing, and he therefore also taught nothing. In Plato's dialogue
Theatetus, Socrates compares himself to a midwife who is herself barren but who
helps others to give birth. The Sophists were the natural enemies of Socrates
(and Plato). They taught a kind of empty rhetoric that enabled their pupils to
sound impressive and win arguments, but the real philosophical issues and
questions were lost to them.
These issues and questions eventually led Plato to formulate
his famous theory of Forms, or Ideas (idea, eidos). A just person becomes just
by imitating or participating in the perfect, eternal, changeless reality of
justice itself. Justice itself is by no means a mere mental concept; it is what
is really real. This, in a nutshell, is what is generally meant by the term
Platonism. Reality lies in the Form, or Idea, which can be known only by the
mind, not the senses. Reality is not in the mind, but it is accessible only to
If one accepts Whitehead's somewhat oversimplified, dramatic
statement that "the whole history of philosophy is nothing but a series of
footnotes on Plato," this thumbnail sketch may suffice to indicate the
direction that the history of philosophy was to take. Two major periods
followed the Greek one: the medieval, when philosophy came together with the
Judeo-Christian tradition, and the modern, beginning with Descartes. In the
medieval period, philosophy went hand in hand with theology and was employed in
working out proofs of God's existence or in clarifying the status of the
Platonic Forms, then known as "universals."
With his well-known dictum "Cogito, ergo sum"
("I think, therefore I am"), Descartes opened up what is called the
modern period of philosophy. The term modern, in this case, indicates the
belief that the unshakable foundation of all knowledge lies in the thinking
subject. By isolating the subject as what alone is real, Descartes ushered in
the era of subjectivism, with its concomitant dualisms of mind-body,
mind-matter, and subject-object—dualisms that contemporary philosophers are
still struggling to overcome and that permeate everyday language and life.
Degrees in Philosophy
There are three different types of philosophy degrees that
can be obtained: bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate.
Bachelor’s Degree in Philosophy
With a bachelor’s in philosophy, students are introduced to
the basic principles of the field and adopt the important skills of analysis,
rhetoric, writing and critical thinking. These highly critical, analytical, and
argumentative skills that are developed often lead students to pursue legal
studies, MBA programs, or seminaries. Jobs for philosophy majors include a
lawyer, systems analyst, cultural affairs officer, technical writer, and critic.
Master’s Degree in Philosophy
A master’s in philosophy polishes all of the skills learned
and developed in undergrad and brings them to the next level, introducing more
complex theories in areas such as aesthetics, logic, political philosophy, and
philosophy of mind and language. A thesis paper and exit exam are usually
required for this type of degree. While most MA graduates tend to go towards
academia for their careers, the skills they acquire are also transferrable in
careers such as a public relations associate, insurance broker, banker, editor,
and grant writer.
Doctoral Degree in Philosophy
A doctoral degree in philosophy is focused primarily on a
dissertation on topics such as medical ethics, religion or existentialism. In
order to defend one’s dissertation, additional work and courses in graduate
seminars, the demonstration of foreign language proficiency and the completion
of a logic exam or hours are required.
Philosophy degrees aren't known for being vocational – how
often do you meet a professional philosopher? Of course, a gifted few can climb
through the levels and become professional academics, but this is not
necessarily something you should bank on. However, philosophy degrees arm you
with an arsenal of skills that will serve you well in the world of work.
The breadth of professions into which you can gain entry is
perhaps well demonstrated with a brief list of people who have studied the
subject, which includes such diverse characters as Martin Luther King, Bruce
Lee, Harrison Ford, T S Eliot, George Soros, Woody Allen and Bill Clinton.
Perhaps martial artist, acclaimed film director, or president of a world’s
largest economy are rather far-flung careers, but they highlight the potential
of a philosophy graduate. More commonly, though, you’ll find graduates working
as journalists, lawyers, teachers, civil servants, diplomats, in the media or
Their success in these vocations can be attributed to their
ability to judge between a sound and unsound argument, and draw reasoned views
from difficult situations, derived from the exposure to challenging arguments
philosophy students ‘enjoy’ (in a manner of speaking) over the course of their
studies. This helps them to navigate a clear and logical approach that takes
into account the various permutations of a given situation and to anticipate
Any profession which involves ideas, then – be it coming up
with them or explaining them – would be well suited to a philosophy graduate.