What is Philosophy?

Philosophy is the study of disciplined thinking – the ability to read and listen critically, to address problems systematically, and to express ideas articulately.

If you want to learn about great thinkers — for example, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle in ancient Greece; Descartes, Spinoza, Hume and Kant in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; Hegel, Marx, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche in the nineteenth century; Martin Heidegger, Ludwig Wittgenstein, John Rawls, Willard Van Orman Quine, Bernard Williams, Jean-Paul Sartre, Emmanuel Levinas, Jacques Derrida in the twentieth century — as well as contemporary thinkers such as Charles Taylor, Martha Nussbaum, Hubert Dreyfus, Annette Baier, Hélène Cixous, Kwame Anthony Appiah — and if you want to join them in tackling the 'big questions,' then philosophy is the field for you.

Philosophy is partly the historical study of human thought (and thus one of the best ways to learn about our cultural heritage) and partly the critical analysis of difficult questions and of proposed solutions to them.

Philosophy deals with the big questions concerning the nature of the universe and humanity's place in it. Some of these questions are: What is mind? What is the relation of mind to body? Can computers think? To what extent can people act freely? Are all our actions determined by causes beyond our control? What is knowledge? How far can we trust scientific claims about the world? What actions are morally right and wrong? What gives government the right to make citizens pay taxes, fight in wars, and obey laws, and what are the ultimate justifications of these requirements?

Philosophy has been defined as 'trying to get to the bottom of anything.' Traditionally, many of the great thinkers have been philosophers attempting to understand the foundations or justification of ethical and political claims, religious beliefs, scientific results, artistic judgments, etc. Philosophers ask 'Why?' in the search for deeper understanding.

Perhaps a better definition is that philosophy is the attempt to see how things fit together. The various sciences give us different and quite narrow answers to questions about human nature and the universe. Philosophers try to see how far these pieces can be fitted together into a larger, more coherent vision of things.

Thus philosophy is for people with broad interests, people who don't want to be locked into a narrow specialty. You can even study the works of thinkers associated with other fields, such as Thomas Jefferson, Sigmund Freud, or Albert Einstein.

Besides ethics, logic, metaphysics, and theory of knowledge, there is political philosophy, philosophy of law, philosophy of religion, philosophy of science and mathematics, philosophy of art – even philosophy of sex!

One branch of philosophy — logic — is the study of good and bad reasoning. Taking philosophy courses is one of the best ways to learn to read, write, and think; that is to learn to read and listen critically and to write and speak clearly and logically – and to think for yourself. These abilities are valuable in themselves and also are highly valued by employers.