Philosophy (love of wisdom in
ancient Greek) is a systematic study of general and fundamental questions concerning topics like
language. It is a rational and critical inquiry that reflects on its own methods and assumptions.
Historically, many of the individual
sciences, such as
psychology, formed part of philosophy. However, they are considered separate academic disciplines in the modern sense of the term. Influential traditions in the
history of philosophy include
Chinese philosophy. Western philosophy originated in
Ancient Greece and covers a wide area of philosophical subfields. A central topic in Arabic-Persian philosophy is the relation between reason and
revelation. Indian philosophy combines the
spiritual problem of how to reach
enlightenment with the exploration of the nature of reality and the ways of arriving at knowledge. Chinese philosophy focuses principally on practical issues in relation to right social conduct, government, and
The word philosophy comes from the
ancient Greek words φίλος (philos: 'love') and σοφία (sophia: 'wisdom'). Some sources say that the term was coined by the
Pythagoras, but this is not certain.
The word entered the English language primarily from
Old French and
Anglo-Norman starting around 1175 CE. The French philosophie is itself a borrowing from the Latin philosophia. The term philosophy acquired the meanings of "advanced study of the speculative subjects (
metaphysics)", "deep wisdom consisting of love of truth and virtuous living", "profound learning as transmitted by the ancient writers", and "the study of the fundamental nature of
existence, and the basic limits of human understanding".
The meaning of philosophy changed toward the end of the modern period when it acquired the more narrow meaning common today. In this new sense, the term is mainly associated with philosophical disciplines like metaphysics,
epistemology, and ethics. Among other topics, it covers the rational study of reality, knowledge, and values. It is distinguished from other disciplines of rational inquiry such as the empirical sciences and
The practice of philosophy is characterized by several general features: it is a form of
rational inquiry, it aims to be systematic, and it tends to critically reflect on its own methods and presuppositions. It requires thinking "as hard and as clearly as one can about some of the most interesting and enduring problems that human minds have ever encountered".
The philosophical pursuit of wisdom involves asking general and fundamental questions. It often does not result in straightforward answers but may help a person to better understand the topic, examine their life, dispel confusion, and overcome prejudices and self-deceptive ideas associated with common sense. For example, Socrates stated that "
the unexamined life is not worth living" to highlight the role of philosophical inquiry in understanding one's own existence. And according to
Bertrand Russell, "the man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the cooperation or consent of his deliberate reason."
Attempts to provide more precise definitions of philosophy are controversial and are studied in
metaphilosophy. Some approaches argue that there is a set of essential features shared by all parts of philosophy. Others see only weaker family resemblances or contend that it is merely an empty blanket term. Precise definitions are often only accepted by theorists belonging to a certain
philosophical movement and are revisionistic according to Søren Overgaard et al. in that many presumed parts of philosophy would not deserve the title "philosophy" if they were true.
Some definitions characterize philosophy in relation to its method, like pure reasoning. Others focus on its topic, for example, as the study of the biggest patterns of the world as a whole or as the attempt to answer the big questions. Such an approach is pursued by
Immanuel Kant, who holds that the task of philosophy is united by four questions: "What can I know?"; "What should I do?"; "What may I hope?"; and "What is the human being?" Both approaches have the problem that they are usually either too wide, by including non-philosophical disciplines, or too narrow, by excluding some philosophical sub-disciplines.
Many definitions of philosophy emphasize its intimate relation to science. In this sense, philosophy is sometimes understood as a proper science in its own right. According to some
naturalistic philosophers, such as
W. V. O. Quine, philosophy is an empirical yet abstract science that is concerned with wide-ranging empirical patterns instead of particular observations. Science-based definitions usually face the problem of explaining why philosophy in its long history has not progressed to the same extent or in the same way as the
sciences. This problem is avoided by seeing philosophy as an immature or provisional science whose subdisciplines cease to be philosophy once they have fully developed. In this sense, philosophy is sometimes described as "the midwife of the sciences".
Other definitions focus on the contrast between science and philosophy. A common theme among many such conceptions is that philosophy is concerned with
understanding, or the clarification of language. According to one view, philosophy is
conceptual analysis, which involves finding the
necessary and sufficient conditions for the application of concepts. Another definition characterizes philosophy as thinking about thinking to emphasize its self-critical, reflective nature. A further approach presents philosophy as a
linguistic therapy. According to
Ludwig Wittgenstein, for instance, philosophy aims at dispelling misunderstandings to which humans are susceptible due to the confusing structure of
Phenomenologists, such as
Edmund Husserl, characterize philosophy as a "rigorous science" investigating
essences. They practice a radical
suspension of theoretical assumptions about reality to get back to the "things themselves", that is, as originally given in experience. They contend that this base-level of experience provides the foundation for higher-order theoretical knowledge, and that one needs to understand the former to understand the latter.
An early approach found in
ancient Greek and
Roman philosophy is that philosophy is the spiritual practice of developing one's rational capacities. This practice is an expression of the philosopher's love of wisdom and has the aim of improving one's
well-being by leading a reflective life. For example, the
Stoics saw philosophy as an exercise to train the mind and thereby achieve
eudaimonia and flourish in life.
As a discipline, the history of philosophy aims to provide a systematic and chronological exposition of philosophical concepts and doctrines. Some theorists see it as a part of
intellectual history, but it also investigates questions not covered by intellectual history such as whether the theories of past philosophers are true and have remained philosophically relevant. The history of philosophy is primarily concerned with theories based on
rational inquiry and argumentation; some historians understand it in a looser sense that includes
religious teachings, and proverbial lore.
Arabic-Persian philosophy arose in the early 9th century CE as a response to discussions in the
Islamic theological tradition. Its classical period lasted until the 12th century CE and was strongly influenced by Ancient Greek philosophers. It employed their ideas to elaborate and interpret the teachings of the
Al-Kindi (801–873 CE) is usually regarded as the first philosopher of this tradition. He translated and interpreted many works of Aristotle and Neoplatonists in his attempt to show that there is a harmony between
faith.Avicenna (980–1037 CE) also followed this goal and developed a comprehensive philosophical system to provide a rational understanding of reality encompassing science, religion, and mysticism.Al-Ghazali (1058–1111 CE) was a strong critic of the idea that reason can arrive at a true understanding of reality and God. He formulated a detailed
critique of philosophy and tried to assign philosophy a more limited place besides the teachings of the Quran and mystical insight. Following Al-Ghazali and the end of the classical period, the influence of philosophical inquiry waned.Mulla Sadra (1571–1636 CE) is often regarded as one of the most influential philosophers of the subsequent period. The increasing influence of Western thought and institutions in the 19th and 20th centuries gave rise to the intellectual movement of
Islamic modernism, which aims to understand the relation between traditional Islamic beliefs and modernity.
The subsequent classical period started roughly 200 BCE and was characterized by the emergence of the six
orthodox schools of Hinduism:
Vedanta. The school of
Advaita Vedanta developed later in this period. It was systematized by
Adi Shankara (c.700–750 CE), who held that
everything is one and that the impression of a universe consisting of many distinct entities is an
illusion. A slightly different perspective was defended by
Ramanuja (1017–1137 CE)[a], who founded the school of
Vishishtadvaita Vedanta and argued that individual entities are real as aspects or parts of the underlying unity. He also helped to popularize the
Bhakti movement, which taught
devotion toward the divine as a spiritual path and lasted until the 17th to 18th centuries CE. The modern period began roughly 1800 CE and was shaped by encounters with Western thought. Philosophers tried to formulate comprehensive systems to harmonize diverse philosophical and religious teachings. For example,
Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902 CE) used the teachings of Advaita Vedanta to argue that all the different religions are valid paths toward the one divine.
Chinese philosophy is particularly interested in practical questions associated with right social conduct, government, and
schools of thought emerged in the 6th century BCE in competing attempts to resolve the political turbulence of that period. The most prominent among them were
Daoism. Confucianism was founded by
Confucius (551–479 BCE). It focused on different forms of moral
virtues and explored how they lead to harmony in society. Daoism was founded by
Laozi (6th century BCE) and examined how humans can live in harmony with nature by following the
Dao or the natural order of the universe. Other influential early schools of thought were
Mohism, which developed an early form of altruistic
Legalism, which emphasized the importance of a strong state and strict laws.
Buddhism was introduced to China in the 1st century CE and diversified into
new forms of Buddhism. Starting in the 3rd century CE, the school of
Xuanxue emerged. It interpreted earlier Daoist works with a specific emphasis on metaphysical explanations.Neo-Confucianism developed in the 11th century CE. It systematized previous Confucian teachings and sought a metaphysical foundation of ethics. The modern period in Chinese philosophy began in the early 20th century and was shaped by the influence of and reactions to Western philosophy. The emergence of
Chinese Marxism—which focused on
communism—resulted in a significant transformation of the political landscape. Another development was the emergence of
New Confucianism, which aims to modernize and rethink Confucian teachings to explore their compatibility with democratic ideals and modern science.
Traditional Japanese philosophy assimilated and synthesized ideas from different traditions, including the indigenous
Shinto religion and Chinese and Indian thought in the forms of Confucianism and Buddhism, both of which entered Japan in the 6th and 7th centuries. Its practice is characterized by active interaction with reality rather than disengaged examination. Neo-Confucianism became an influential school of thought in the 16th century and the following
Edo period and prompted a greater focus on language and the natural world. The
Kyoto School emerged in the 20th century and integrated Eastern spirituality with Western philosophy in its exploration of concepts like absolute nothingness (zettai-mu), place (basho), and the
Philosophical questions can be grouped into several 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. Epistemology, ethics, logic, and metaphysics are sometimes listed as the main branches. There are many other subfields besides them and the different divisions are neither exhaustive nor mutually exclusive. For example, political philosophy, ethics, and
aesthetics are sometimes linked under the general heading of
value theory as they investigate
normative or evaluative aspects. Furthermore, philosophical inquiry sometimes overlaps with other disciplines in the natural and social sciences, religion, and mathematics.
Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that studies
knowledge. It is also known as theory of knowledge and aims to understand what knowledge is, how it arises, what its limits are, and what value it has. It further examines the nature of
rationality. Some of the questions addressed by epistemologists include "By what method(s) can one acquire knowledge?"; "How is truth established?"; and "Can we prove causal relations?"
One area in epistemology is the analysis of knowledge. It assumes that declarative knowledge is a combination of different parts and attempts to identify what those parts are. An influential theory in this area claims that knowledge has three components: it is a belief that is justified and true. This theory is controversial and the difficulties associated with it are known as the
Gettier problem. Alternative views state that knowledge requires additional components, like the absence of luck; different components, like the manifestation of
cognitive virtues instead of justification; or they deny that knowledge can be analyzed in terms of other phenomena.
Another area in epistemology asks how people acquire knowledge. Often-discussed sources of knowledge are
testimony. According to
empiricists, all knowledge is based on some form of experience.
Rationalists reject this view and hold that some forms of knowledge, like
innate knowledge, are not acquired through experience. The
regress problem is a common issue in relation to the sources of knowledge and the justification they offer. It is based on the idea that beliefs require some kind of reason or evidence to be justified. The problem is that the source of justification may itself be in need of another source of justification. This leads to an
infinite regress or
Foundationalists avoid this conclusion by arguing that some sources can provide justification without requiring justification themselves. Another solution is presented by
coherentists, who state that a belief is justified if it coheres with other beliefs of the person.
Many discussions in epistemology touch on the topic of
philosophical skepticism, which raises doubts about some or all claims to knowledge. These doubts are often based on the idea that knowledge requires absolute certainty and that humans are unable to acquire it.
Ethics, also known as moral philosophy, studies what constitutes right
conduct. It is also concerned with the moral
evaluation of character traits and institutions. It explores what the standards of
morality are and how to live a good life. Philosophical ethics addresses such basic questions as "Are moral obligations relative?"; "Which has priority: well-being or obligation?"; and "What gives life meaning?"
The main branches of ethics are
normative ethics, and
applied ethics. Meta-ethics asks abstract questions about the nature and sources of morality. It analyzes the meaning of ethical concepts, like right action and obligation. It also investigates whether ethical theories can be
true in an absolute sense and how to acquire knowledge of them. Normative ethics encompasses general theories of how to distinguish between right and wrong conduct. It helps guide moral decisions by examining what moral obligations and rights people have. Applied ethics studies the consequences of the general theories developed by normative ethics in specific situations, for example, in the workplace or for medical treatments.
Within contemporary normative ethics,
virtue ethics are influential schools of thought.Consequentialists judge actions based on their consequences. One such view is
utilitarianism, which argues that actions should increase overall happiness while minimizing suffering. Deontologists judge actions based on whether they follow moral duties, such as abstaining from lying or killing. According to them, what matters is that actions are in tune with those duties and not what consequences they have. Virtue theorists judge actions based on how the moral character of the agent is expressed. According to this view, actions should conform to what an ideally virtuous agent would do by manifesting
virtues like generosity and honesty.
Logic is the study of
correct reasoning. It aims to understand how to distinguish good from bad
arguments. It is usually divided into formal and
informal logic. Formal logic uses
artificial languages with a precise symbolic representation to investigate arguments. In its search for exact criteria, it examines the structure of arguments to determine whether they are correct or incorrect. Informal logic uses non-formal criteria and standards to assess the correctness of arguments. It relies on additional factors such as content and context.
Logic examines a variety of arguments.
Deductive arguments are mainly studied by formal logic. An argument is deductively
valid if the truth of its
premises ensures the truth of its conclusion. Deductively valid arguments follow a
rule of inference, like modus ponens, which has the following
logical form: "p; if p then q; therefore q". An example is the argument "today is Sunday; if today is Sunday then I don't have to go to work today; therefore I don't have to go to work today".
The premises of non-deductive arguments also support their conclusion, although this support does not guarantee that the conclusion is true. One form is
inductive reasoning. It starts from a set of individual cases and uses generalization to arrive at a universal law governing all cases. An example is the inference that "all ravens are black" based on observations of many individual black ravens. Another form is
abductive reasoning. It starts from an observation and concludes that the best explanation of this observation must be true. This happens, for example, when a doctor diagnoses a disease based on the observed symptoms.
Logic also investigates incorrect forms of reasoning. They are called fallacies and are divided into
informal fallacies based on whether the source of the error lies only in the form of the argument or also in its content and context.
Metaphysics is sometimes divided into general metaphysics and specific or special metaphysics. General metaphysics investigates being as such. It examines the features that all entities have in common. Specific metaphysics is interested in different kinds of being, the features they have, and how they differ from one another.
An important area in metaphysics is
ontology. Some theorists identify it with general metaphysics. Ontology investigates concepts like
becoming, and reality. It studies the
categories of being and asks what exists on the most fundamental level. Another subfield of metaphysics is
philosophical cosmology. It is interested in the essence of the world as a whole. It asks questions including whether the universe has a beginning and an end and whether it was created by something else.
A key topic in metaphysics concerns the question of whether reality only consists of physical things like matter and energy. Alternative suggestions are that mental entities (such as
abstract entities (such as numbers) exist apart from physical things. Another topic in metaphysics concerns the problem of
identity. One question is how much an entity can change while still remaining the same entity. According to one view, entities have
accidental features. They can change their accidental features but they cease to be the same entity if they lose an essential feature. A central distinction in metaphysics is between
universals. Universals, like the color red, can exist at different locations at the same time. This is not the case for particulars including individual persons or specific objects. Other metaphysical questions are whether the past
fully determines the present and what implications this would have for the existence of
There are many other subfields of philosophy besides its core branches. Some of the most prominent are aesthetics, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, philosophy of religion, philosophy of science, and political philosophy.
Aesthetics in the philosophical sense is the field that studies the nature and appreciation of
beauty and other aesthetic properties, like
the sublime. Although it is often treated together with the
philosophy of art, aesthetics is a broader category that encompasses other aspects of experience, such as natural beauty. In a more general sense, aesthetics is "critical reflection on art, culture, and
nature". A key question in aesthetics is whether beauty is an objective or mind-independent feature of entities. This view is rejected by subjectivists, who claim that beauty is not an inherent quality of objects, but depends on how people subjectively experience them. Aesthetic philosophers also investigate the nature of aesthetic experiences and
judgments. Further topics include the essence of
works of art and the processes involved in creating them.
philosophy of language studies the nature and function of
language. It examines the concepts of
reference, and truth. It aims to answer questions such as how words are related to things and how language affects human
understanding. It is closely related to the disciplines of logic and
linguistics. The philosophy of language rose to particular prominence in the early 20th century in
analytic philosophy due to the works of
Russell. One of its central topics is to understand how sentences get their meaning. There are two broad theoretical camps: those emphasizing the formal
truth conditions of sentences[b] and those investigating circumstances that determine when it is suitable to use a sentence, the latter of which is associated with
speech act theory.
philosophy of religion investigates the basic concepts, assumptions, and arguments associated with
religion. It critically reflects on what religion is, how to define the
divine, and whether one or more gods exist. It also includes the discussion of
worldviews that reject religious doctrines. Further questions addressed by the philosophy of religion are: "How are we to interpret religious language, if not literally?"; "Is divine omniscience compatible with free will?"; and, "Are the great variety of world religions in some way compatible in spite of their apparently contradictory theological claims?" It includes topics from nearly all branches of philosophy. It differs from
theology since theological debates typically take place within one religious tradition, whereas debates in the philosophy of religion transcend any particular set of theological assumptions.
philosophy of science examines the fundamental concepts, assumptions, and problems associated with
science. It reflects on what science is and how to distinguish it from
pseudoscience. It investigates the methods employed by scientists, how their application can result in knowledge, and on what assumptions they are based. It also studies the purpose and implications of science. Some of its questions are "What counts as an adequate explanation?"; "Is a scientific law anything more than a description of a regularity?"; and "Can some special sciences be explained entirely in the terms of a more general science?" It is a vast field that is commonly divided into the philosophy of the
natural sciences and the philosophy of the
social sciences, with further subdivisions for each of the individual sciences under these headings. How these branches are related to one another is also a question in the philosophy of science. Many of its philosophical issues overlap with the fields of metaphysics or epistemology.
Methods of philosophy are ways of conducting philosophical inquiry. They include techniques for arriving at philosophical knowledge and justifying philosophical claims as well as principles used for choosing between competing theories. A great variety of methods have been employed throughout the history of philosophy. Many of them differ significantly from the methods used in the
natural sciences in that they do not use experimental data obtained through measuring equipment. The choice of one's method usually has important implications both for how philosophical theories are constructed and for the arguments cited for or against them. This choice is often guided by
epistemological considerations about what constitutes philosophical
Methodological disagreements can cause conflicts among philosophical theories or about the answers to philosophical questions. The discovery of new methods has often had important consequences both for how philosophers conduct their research and for what claims they defend. Some philosophers engage in most of their theorizing using one particular method while others employ a wider range of methods based on which one fits the specific problem investigated best.
Conceptual analysis is a common method in
analytic philosophy. It aims to clarify the meaning of concepts by analyzing them into their component parts. Another method often employed in analytic philosophy is based on
common sense. It starts with commonly accepted
beliefs and tries to draw unexpected conclusions from them, which it often employs in a negative sense to criticize philosophical theories that are too far removed from how the average person sees the issue. It is similar to how
ordinary language philosophy approaches philosophical questions by investigating how
ordinary language is used.
Various methods in philosophy give particular importance to
intuitions, that is, non-inferential impressions about the correctness of specific claims or general principles. For example, they play an important role in
thought experiments, which employ
counterfactual thinking to evaluate the possible consequences of an imagined situation. These anticipated consequences can then be used to confirm or refute philosophical theories. The method of
reflective equilibrium also employs intuitions. It seeks to form a
coherent position on a certain issue by examining all the relevant beliefs and intuitions, some of which often have to be deemphasized or reformulated to arrive at a coherent perspective.
Pragmatists stress the significance of concrete practical consequences for assessing whether a philosophical theory is true. According to the
pragmatic maxim as formulated by
Charles Sanders Peirce, the idea a person has of an object is nothing more than the totality of practical consequences they associate with this object. Pragmatists have also used this method to expose disagreements as merely verbal, that is, to show they make no genuine difference on the level of consequences.
Phenomenologists seek knowledge of the realm of appearance and the structure of human
experience. They insist upon the first-personal character of all experience and proceed by suspending theoretical judgments about the external world. This technique of phenomenological reduction is known as "bracketing" or
epoché. The goal is to give an unbiased description of the appearances of things.
Methodological naturalism places great emphasis on the empirical approach and the resulting theories found in the natural sciences. In this way, it contrasts with methodologies that give more weight to pure reasoning and introspection.
Relation to other fields
Philosophy is closely related to many other fields. It is sometimes understood as a metadiscipline that clarifies their nature and limits. It does this by critically examining their basic concepts, background assumptions, and methods. In this regard, it plays a key role in providing an
interdisciplinary perspective. It bridges the gap between different disciplines by analyzing which concepts and problems they have in common. It shows how they overlap while also delimiting their scope. Historically, most of the individual sciences originated from philosophy.
The influence of philosophy is felt in several fields that require difficult practical decisions. In
medicine, philosophical considerations related to
bioethics affect issues like whether an
embryo is already a
person and under what conditions
abortion is morally permissible. A closely related philosophical problem is how humans should treat other animals, for instance, whether it is acceptable to use non-human animals as food or for
research experiments. In relation to
business and professional life, philosophy has contributed by providing ethical frameworks. They contain guidelines on which business practices are morally acceptable and cover the issue of
corporate social responsibility.
Philosophical inquiry is relevant to many fields that are concerned with what to believe and how to arrive at
evidence for one's
beliefs. This is a key issue for the sciences, which have as one of their prime objectives the creation of scientific knowledge. Scientific knowledge is based on
empirical evidence but it is often not clear whether empirical observations are neutral or already
include theoretical assumptions. A closely connected problem is whether the available
evidence is sufficient to decide between competing theories. Epistemological problems in relation to the
law include what counts as evidence and how much evidence is required to find a person
guilty of a crime. A related issue in
journalism is how to ensure truth and
objectivity when reporting on events.
In the fields of
religion, there are many doctrines associated with the existence and nature of God as well as rules governing correct behavior. A key issue is whether a
rational person should believe these doctrines, for example, whether
revelation in the form of holy books and
religious experiences of the divine are sufficient evidence for these beliefs.
The idea that philosophy is useful for many aspects of life and society is sometimes rejected. According to one such view, philosophy is mainly done for its own sake and does not make significant contributions to existing practices or external goals.
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