Philosophy for Beginners

Rembrandt - Philosopher Meditating

This page is an introduction to philosophy.

On this page I am addressing those who have recently begun to investigate philosophy or who are just now being introduced to it. If you are confused about what philosophy is, I want you to know that it is reasonable to expect this. There is nothing wrong with your confusion and so do not let your confusion discourage you. Philosophy and the circumstances surrounding it are, by its very nature, confusing, especially when first being introduced to it. Simon Blackburn, in the preface to the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, writes:

"Philosophy by its nature inhabits such areas of ambiguity and perplexity, places where, in Russell's phrase, we meet only uncertain patches of meaning."

The reader should also be made aware that my attempts at clarification will sometimes cause confusion but I hope that by offering a number of different attempts that they will work together to better elucidate the subject.

There are a few very important points I want the reader to keep in mind. The first is that if the reader is confused about what philosophy is, there is very good reason for this, because there is not a single accepted definition for philosophy and its very nature makes it difficult to understand. One professional philosopher might not understand the meaning of philosophy used by another philosopher. Another very important point I want the reader to understand is that philosophy is similar to many other things in the way that one's understanding will increase and get stronger and stronger the more one reads and deals with things philosophically. What this means is that you might be confused about what philosophy is for a very long time, maybe many years, but generally speaking, the more one reads philosophy, reads about philosophy, and the more one thinks philosophically, the better the understanding one will have of it. Practice and experience with it are very important to developing an understanding of it. Furthermore, even the smartest and best educated philosophers in the world are still confused about certain areas of philosophy and don't understand many other philosophers.

Philosophers, the writers of philosophy, are just human beings. They think from a human perspective, within the limits of the human mind, and think from a limited number of experiences. They disagree with each other, virtually to the point where no two philosophers completely agree on everything. On almost every topic, for every one view espoused by a philosopher there is a philosopher that will espouse the completely opposite view. Often times their differences are due to different concerns, different life experiences, different personalities, misunderstandings, to personal egos, to prejudices, and mistakes in reasoning. They are frequently inconsistent in their own doctrines. So if what they assert seems wrong, sometimes it really is because the philosopher is wrong about it, and not with your understanding of what they are saying. The history of philosophy deals with the reactions, refutations, and arguments of one philosopher responding to the arguments or assertions of another. However, there is much valuable and truthful contributions to philosophy as well. The difficulty is training one's mind to discriminate what is worthwhile from what can be dismissed.

All of this is meant to offer encouragement to readers who are frustrated by the difficulty they are experiencing. Just always remember that philosophy is just difficult to understand by its very nature, even the best philosophers are confused about many aspects of it, there are different definitions and meanings of philosophy, and the more one deals with philosophy the better their understanding of it will probably be.

What is Philosophy?

As I wrote above, the word "philosophy" is used with many different meanings and definitions, and these meanings sometimes do not overlap or share similarities. In other words, one person may mean something completely different when using the word "philosophy" than some other person, but they are both using the same word. This is a source of much confusion about philosophy.

Why do different people mean so many different things by "philosophy"? There are many reasons for this but, to avoid confusing the reader any further, I will give a single, over-simplified answer to this, partly it is because philosophies are abstract and are based on thought processes. It is easy for people to agree on definitions and what words mean when the word refers to an object or action that everyone can commonly observe. But when a person is refering to a complex set of thought processes that are in their head, other people don't have the same type of access to those complex set of thought processes that the first person is thinking of. Other people won't know exactly what the other person is thinking of and will not know "does this thought process in his head include such-and-such thought processes as well or not, does it apply to such-and-such a situation or not". Furthermore, it is most often the case that the person presenting a philosophy doesn't even have a complete awareness or understanding of what they mean. This is part of the nature of philosophy itself which makes it hard for other people to know when exactly that set of thought processes is being used so that the appropriate word can be used. Philosophy is also prone to the same variation and creativity found in many other human endeavors. Art, dance, writing, sports, and so on, all of these actions at one point were narrowly defined but variety arose through innovation and creativity in them so that these terms had to expand to include the new forms. Likewise, philosophizing, being a mental action, it has had the possibility for innovation to creatively expand it into new areas as well.

I will give a few different definitions for philosophy, the reader should just remember that they don't have to be able to be tied together but can be independent.

1. Philosophy is a particular set of underlying principles which a person uses to determine other beliefs and approaches to solving problems applying to overall life. This is probably the definition that is most commonly used in everyday life by the average person. A principle is a underlying belief or way of thinking that guides us to choose other particular beliefs act in certain ways. Take, for example, the principle of action: "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." That principle will pick certain beliefs and actions for us in our experience of normal life. So that if one were faced with what one should do in a particular instance, "Should I steal a piece of candy from Susie?" this principle would guide one to an answer. When a person uses this principle in many different areas of his life, this is called his philosophy of how people should act towards others. The key points of this definition of philosophy is that it refers to the beliefs at the bottom of one's thinking which then influence our everyday actions and beliefs, if the belief at the bottom can be simplified to a principle that can then be applied to many different decisions and areas of life. One will have different philosophies, for example, one for how one should act towards others, and one for when they decide if a claim someone is making is worth accepting and believing in or not, etc.

2. Philosophy is the love of wisdom, this definition deriving from the etymology of the word. "Philo" comes from the Greek, and it means "love of". "Sophia" comes from the Greek, and it means "wisdom". Tradition has it that the philosopher Pythagoras (born circa 570 BCE) coined this word. With Pythagoras' use, and Plato reiterates this, it is not logically necessary that a philosopher is knowledgable or wise, but only that he is actively in search of it. This definition of philosophy means the active seeking of knowledge and the active seeking of practical life lessons for how to live well. With this definition of philosophy one might just actively seek to learn about the world for the sake of learning about the world, knowledge for knowledge's sake, or may seek the maxims and suggestions of the wise and experienced for what one should pursue and how one should persue it, how to avoid hardships and maximize one's happiness, etc.

3. Philosophy is a total, all-encompasing way of life. Socrates is traditionally held to be the one to bring this sense of philosophy into more wide use. This meaning views philosophy as a whole set of beliefs about what reality is like, what the nature of human beings are, and what we should strive to be like. Almost all beliefs about the world, ourselves, and what we should do all hang together, hopefully consistently, and form an interrelated worldview, that encompasses everything one does in life. The beliefs about physics, psychology, human nature, and what one thinks ultimate reality is, all work together to help give us an understanding of what the good life is, the life worth living, how we should stive to live to live well.

4. Blackburn defines philosophy in the preface to the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy as "human thought become self-conscious. Its topics are life, the universe, and everything; it can include all the categories of religious, artistic, scientific, mathematical and logical thought." And the beginning of the entry in the dictionary, "The study of the most general and abstract features of the world and categories with which we think: mind, matter, reason, proof, truth, etc. In philosophy, the concepts with which we approach the world themselves become the topic of enquiry."

5. Philosophy is a thought process that attempts to answer the most fundamental or "biggest" questions. In this sense, philosophy would be one's thinking about, investigating, the most fundamental and foundational aspects of any discipline and attempting to provide an answer for questions about them. For example, science investigates how matter and time acts, what they do, and describes their empirical properties, but science can't answer what matter or time is. It is not of the nature of Science to provide an answer for this, and what matter is and what time is are the most fundamental questions about those subjects, and so the attempts to answer these questions is classified as philosophy, even if it is a scientist putting forth the theory. Also, what science is itself, is a philosophical question. Other examples of philosophical questions would be: What is Truth? What is Reality? What is being? What is the proper method to find the Truth? What is right and wrong? How should we live? What is beauty? Does God exist? Questions like these are questions about either what is foundational to our understanding or beliefs about the world or are questions about what lies behind our everyday experiences of the world. Another way to put this is that some disciplines, like science, provide answers to "how" questions, while philosophy attempts to answer the questions about "what" and "why". Furthermore, the question of what science is, what biology is, what art is, what a game is, and even what philosophy is, are also philosophical questions. Philosophy is sometimes defined, along this line, as the only discipline that investigates itself as well as all the other disciplines.

6. Philosophy is conceptual analysis, or, put another way, philosophy is thinking about thinking. We often think using concepts. To analyze something is to break it apart into its fundamental constituents and discover its parts and how the parts relate to each other. So when thinking or talking with other people about the world I make use of a concept of the world. When thinking or talking about other people I make use of a concept of human beings. Philosophy, in this particular sense, is thinking about the concepts that we use, to try and answer: what exactly is my concept of "world", how do I use this concept, how is it related to other concepts, etc.

7. Philosophy is the thinking and understanding that coordinates all other disciplines and branches of knowledge. This meaning believes that philosophy will take the truths and understandings that are revealed in disciplines like art, history, science, religion, and so on, and weave all those truths and understandings together into an integrated overall picture of the world. In this sense, art, science, mysticism, psychology, and so on, all provide more exact and precise data, and philosophy is the very broad view that incorporates all the individual facts of all the various disciplines.

8. Philosophy is the first stage of a rational investigation in a new, uncharted area before it developes into the mature investigation of science. This definition involves the idea of a historical progression. Sometimes it can be seen that philosophy is the primordial stage of what will be a scientific discipline in the future, first working out what the scientific discipline will be, and what its starting points will be; or philosophy could be seen as the time period when all people can do is create theories, eventually giving birth to a science that is then mature enough to give us facts. People did not always have the scientific method or have a clear distinction or understanding of the different disciplines of science. So before people differentiated a unique area for science to investigate and before the foundational presuppositions of that discipline of science were accepted for science to work within that framework, and before philosophy determined the set of rules for scientists to follow to discover facts within that area, it was designated as philosophy. Once a concept of an area of study was becoming generally formed, once philosophy determined the beliefs to be presupposed and the methods to investigate this area of study, it became the mature investigation of science. Some of the disciplines of science that were philosophy before enough framework was present to become a science were physics, psychology, sociology, biology, among others.

9. Philosophy is the clarification of the logical structure of language. This definition sees language as being a crucial part of our understanding or of the world, and so if we figure out how our language is structured then we will have figured out something crucial about our understanding or about the world. Some people who accept this definition often see science as the only method for obtaining knowledge, and so philosophy is seen as a handmaid to science, performing the process of clarifying the meaning, concepts, and language that science uses to describe the world. Philosophy would thereby precisely word and phrase and define the discoveries made by science.

10. Philosophy is the figuring out of how language tricks and misleads us.

These last three have been the most prominent views of philosophy in the last 100 years.

A Few Definitions

Here is a short list of some important often used words in philosophy.

Metaphysics - this word derives from Aristotle's writings. "Meta" comes from the Greek and it means "after" or "behind". In the first century BCE, a man named Andronicus put together a collection of Aristotle's writings to be a standard arrangement. Aristotle had written a book named "Physics", and the book that Andronicus had put in order after the book of the Physics was therefore called "Metaphysics", behind or after the Physics. The type of subject that Aristotle's book the Metaphysics dealt with is what the word "metaphysics" has refered to since then. Metaphysics a whole section of philosophy that deals with theories, assertions, and explanations about what is actually behind the physical appearances of things. Its essential question is "What is ultimate reality?" It seeks to find what are the most basic principles of reality, what are the most fundamental principles of the universe. It is characterized by questions like the following: What is causation? What are the ultimate constituents of the universe? Are the objects that we see in the physical world made up of small, indivisible particles, or do they require something else to make them what they are? Is there a limit to space? Is there a beginning to time? Is there a God? If there was a Big Bang what caused it? Questions like these are metaphysical questions. They seek answers to specific aspects of ultimate reality. They are focused on the reality behind what we directly hear, see, experience, etc. Metaphysics can also include making an inventory, classification, or taxonomy of all the types of things that exist. So that the reader is made aware, the same word "Metaphysics" has taken on a different meaning in common ordinary language, refering to concerns with a spiritual realm in the New Age religion.

Ontology - tradition holds that this subject began with a philosopher named Parmenides (born sometime in the late 6th century BCE). Ontology studies what being is itself. What does it mean to have being? How is being different from non-being? What are the different types of being? These are all questions ontology investigates.

Epistemology - as far as I'm aware, Plato is the first to investigate epistemology explicitly (it is the central focus of his book the Theaetetus), and Aristotle is the first to systematically investigate it (in his book the Posterior Analytics). Epistemology is the study of knowledge. It investigates questions like: what is knowledge? What can I know? How do we know things? What is the criterion showing us that we have knowlege? Must we know that we know in order to have knoweldge? And so on.

Axiology - this is the study of values.

Phenomenology - As far as I'm aware, the philosopher Georg Hegel was the first to use the word "phenomenology", but that the approach to philosophy that we most associate with phenomenology was originated with Edmund Husserl, and then altered into a different approach by Martin Heidegger. Put very simply and crudely, phenomenology is the study of phenomena. It is the study of how objects appear to our consciousness, and how they have to be in order for us to be conscious of them, as opposed to the scientific study of some object that exists in some objective way unrelated to us.

Origins of Philosophy

I'm still working on this.

Home Page

2009