What Is Philosophy?

Odds and Ends of the Old Queen of Sciences.

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Literally it means “love of wisdom.” But, really, philosophy begins in wonder. Thus taught most of the major figures of ancient philosophy, including Plato, Aristotle, and the Tao Te Ching. And it ends in wonder too, when philosophical taught has done its best – as A.N. Whitehead once suggested. So, what characterizes philosophical wonder? How to achieve it?How to approach reading and writing philosophy, and why studying it?

Philosophy as an Answer

To some, philosophy’s goal is a systematic worldview. You are a philosopher when you can find a place to any fact, in heaven or earth. Philosophers have indeed provided systematic theories of history, justice, the State, the natural world, knowledge, love, friendship: you name it. Engaging in philosophical thinking is, under this perspective, like putting in order your own room to receive a guest: anything should find a place and, possibly, a reason for being where it is.

Philosophical Principles

Rooms are organized according to basic criteria: Keys stay in the basket, Clothing should never be scattered unless in use, All books should sit on the shelves unless in use. Analogously, systematic philosophers have key principles around which to structure a worldview. Hegel, for instance, was well known for his three-steps dialectic: thesis-antithesis-synthesis (although he never used these expressions).

Some principles are specific to a branch. Like the Principle of Sufficient Reason: “Everything must have a reason” - which is specific to metaphysics. A controversial principle in ethics is the Principle of Utility, invoked by so-called consequentialists: “The right thing to do is the one that produces the greatest amount of good.” Theory of knowledge centers around the Epistemic Closure Principle: “If a person knows that A, and A entails B, then that person knows that B as well.”

The Wrong Answers?

Is systematic philosophy doomed to failure? Some believe so. For one, philosophical systems have done lots of damage. For example, Hegel’s theory of history was used to justify racist politics and nationalistic States; when Plato tried to apply the doctrines exposed in The Republic to the city of Syracuse, he faced sheer failure. Where philosophy has not done damages, it nonetheless at times spread false ideas and spurred useless debates. Thus, an exaggerated systematic approach to the theory of souls and angels led to ask questions such as: “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”

Philosophy as an Attitude

Some take a different route. To those the gist of philosophy lies not in the answers, but in the questions. Philosophical wonder is a methodology. It does not matter which topic comes under discussion and what we make of it; philosophy is about the stance we take towards it. Philosophy is that attitude which brings you to question even what’s most obvious. Why are there spots on the surface of the moon? What creates a tide? What is the difference between a living and a non-living entity? Once upon a time, these were philosophical questions, and the wonder from which they emerged was a philosophical wonder.

What Does It Take to Be a Philosopher?

Nowadays most philosophers are found in the academic world. But, certainly, one does not have to be a professor in order to be a philosopher. Several key figures in the history of philosophy did something else for a living. Baruch Spinoza was an optician; Gottfried Leibniz worked – among other things – as a diplomatic; David Hume’s main employments were as a tutor and as an historian. Thus, whether you have a systematic worldview or the right attitude, you may aspire to be called ‘philosopher’. Beware though: the appellation may not always carry a good reputation!

The Queen of Sciences?

Classic systematic philosophers – such as Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hegel – boldly affirmed that philosophy grounds all other sciences. Also, among those who see philosophy as a method, you find many who regard it as the chief source of knowledge.

Is philosophy really the queen of sciences? Granted, there was a time in which philosophy vested the role of protagonist. Nowadays, however, it may sound exaggerated to regard it as such. More modestly, philosophy may seem to provide valuable resources for thinking about fundamental questions. This is reflected, for instance, in the growing popularity of philosophical counseling, philosophical cafés, and in the success that philosophy majors seem to enjoy on the job market.

Which Branches for Philosophy?

The deep and multifarious relationship that philosophy bears to other sciences is clear by taking a look at its branches. Philosophy has some core areas: metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, logic. To these should be added an indefinite amount of branches. Some that are more standard: political philosophy, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, philosophy of religion, philosophy of science. Others that are domain specific: philosophy of physics, philosophy of biology, philosophy of food, philosophy of culture, philosophy of education, philosophical anthropology, philosophy of art, philosophy of economics, legal philosophy, environmental philosophy, philosophy of technology. The specialization of contemporary intellectual research has affected the queen of wonder too.