Philosophy for Beginners!
Philosophy comes from the Geek word “philosophia” and literally means “the love of wisdom”. The study of philosophy is the study of and hunt for knowledge. It is predominantly conducted through reflection and does not require experimentation.
The aim of philosophy is to broaden understanding of a vast array of subjects using responsiveness, reflection, reason and re-evaluation. Through the study of philosophy, we can hope to achieve greater wisdom and so improve not only the quality of our lives and those of others, but also to work towards a better and more just world. Philosophy requires its students to perpetually ask, answer and argue for answers to the most basic and the most fundamental of life’s questions.
There are many sub-divisions of philosophy. Metaphysics is the study of the nature of reality, how the world is structured and why it is structured the way that it is. Potent questions related to metaphysics include “Is there a God?” “Do we have free will?” “If so, what is free will?” and “Does the world exist outside the mind?”
Aristotle dubbed metaphysics as the “first philosophy” and described it as the subject that deals with “first causes and the principles of things”. He devised three sections for his theory: ontology (the study of being and existence), natural theology (the study of God, the nature of religion and the world) and universal science (logic and reasoning). These remain the pillars of metaphysics to the present day.
Epistemology is the study of knowledge. This field concerns what we can possibly learn about the world, how we can learn it and even if we should learn it. In this field, philosophers strive to answer such questions as “What IS knowledge?” and “Do we know anything at all?” Epistemologists seek to determine both the nature and the extent of epistemology. The nature, origin and limits of knowledge are key areas of study in this field.
Ethics covers the issue of what is right and wrong and what makes each so. Ethicists will consider such taxing puzzles as “What makes actions good and why?” and “What is right and why?” They may also ask “What is the right way to treat others?”
This field is usually divided into three specialist areas: Metaethics investigates the origin and meaning of ethical principles, normative ethics investigates the moral questions that arise when considering how one ought to act from a moral standpoint and applied ethics examines a range of controversial real-world scenarios such as nuclear war and abortion and attempts to identify the correct approach for each.
The study of logic concerns itself with the how’s and the reasons given for people’s answers to questions. Logic is used to analyse the structure of arguments and to test their feasibility. Questions put before the logician can include: “What constitutes good or bad reasoning?” and “How has the questioner reached that conclusion?”
Humans have conducted their search for answers to the biggest questions for thousands of years. In Ancient Greece, Socrates, Aristotle, Plato grappled with the most vexing of questions in such fields as logic, metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics and rhetoric.
In Ancient Rome, Seneca and Emperor Marcus Aurelius furthered the knowledge of Stoicism, which promotes self-control and fortitude as the key to defeating negative and destructive emotions. As time went by, more philosophers and philosophic systems began to emerge. Among these were St. Thomas Aquinas, the foremost proponent of natural theology when Scholasticism was at its peak.
Rene Descartes, a pioneer in 17th century Rationalism, coined one of the best-known quotations in all philosophy: “I think, therefore I am.” John Locke was a significant figure during the Age of Reason and Immanuel Kant is perhaps one of the best-known notaries of the Age of Enlightenment. In the 19th century, Karl Marx’s theory of Marxism would lay the foundations for 20th century Communism, while Friedrich Nietzsche was an early and major proponent of Existentialism and John Stuart Mill further developed the Utilitarian theory of his teacher Jeremy Bentham and became its best-known advocate.
A key 20th century philosopher, Bertrand Russell, founded Analytic Philosophy which includes Logicism among its many movements and Jean-Paul Sartre, along with his countrymen and contemporaries Albert Camus and Simone de Beauvoir, became the main figurehead of 20th century Existentialism, following in the footsteps of Nietzsche.
Philosophy as a worldwide study can roughly be divided into Western (or European) and Eastern (Asian) branches. A great proportion of Eastern philosophy is rooted in spiritualism.
One of the most significant philosophical systems to emerge from the East is Confucianism, which originated in China and is based upon the teachings of its namesake Confucius. One of Persia’s most notable philosophers was the writer and poet Rumi, whose writings regarding Sufi mysticism contributed to the founding of the Mewlewi Sufi Order, known to Westerners colloquially as “Whirling Dervishes”. Siddhartha Gautama, better known as the Buddha, was the founder of Buddhism.
Often considered more of a philosophy than a religion, his Four Noble Truths remain a bastion of Eastern philosophy, one to which millions of people adhere to this day. Similarly, Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism, recorded all the components of his philosophy in the Tao Te Ching and promoted harmony with nature rather than working against it. Sun Tzu broke from his fellow Eastern philosophers by shunning spiritual matters in The Art of War, an ancient Chinese military treatise whose advice on and explanations of psychological strategies is hailed by military and civilian leaders the world over.
It is sometimes tempting to dismiss philosophy as mere musings, but philosophy has and continues to leave its footprint on the world. All the major sciences – biology and physics most noticeably – began life as philosophies before sufficient evidence was accrued to make them undeniable reality.
Philosophy has also influenced political thought, mathematics, literature and other fields. It is also never a bad thing to question who we are, why we are and where we are.
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