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Philosophy is the oldest form of systematic, scholarly inquiry. The name comes

from the Greek philosophos, “lover of wisdom.” The term, however, has acquired

several related meanings: (1) the study of the truths or principles underlying

all knowledge, being, and reality; (2) a particular system of philosophical

doctrine; (3) the critical evaluation of such fundamental doctrines; (4) the

study of the principles of a particular branch of knowledge; (5) a system of

principles for guidance in practical affairs; and (6) a philosophical spirit or


All of these meanings of philosophy are recognizable in the intellectual

traditions of ancient Greece. The pre-Socratics (see PRE-SOCRATIC PHILOSOPHY)

sought to find fundamental, natural principles that could explain what

individuals know and experience about the world around them. The pre-Socratics

and, later, PLATO and ARISTOTLE tried to develop a comprehensive set of

principles that would account for their knowledge of both the natural and the

human world. In developing philosophies, these early thinkers saw that their

reflections could be used as a means of criticizing and often refuting

popularly accepted mythological views as well as the thoughts of their

predecessors and contemporaries. SOCRATES, at his trial, proclaimed a basic

philosophical premise, that “the unexamined life was not worth living.” By this

he meant that if people do not examine and critically evaluate the principles

by which they live, they cannot be sure that worthwhile principles exist. As

the Greek thinkers codified their pictures of the world, they saw that for each

science or study of some aspect of the world there could be a corresponding

philosophy of this science or study, such as the philosophies of science, art,

history, and so on. Each of these involves examining the fundamental

principles of a discipline to see if they are logical, consistent, and–most

important–true. Because ancient philosophers questioned the various ways of

life by which people live and sought the most satisfactory one, they developed

their philosophical attitudes and theories as guides to practical living. From

Socrates down to 20th-century thinkers like Bertrand RUSSELL and Jean Paul

SARTRE, a major element of the philosophical enterprise has been devoted to

trying to designate what constitutes the good life for humans both as

individuals and as social and political beings.

This kind of concern has contributed to the image of the philosopher as

standing aside from and impervious to all the ups and downs of everyday

existence. Michel de MONTAIGNE declared that “to philosophize is to learn to

die,” indicating that the philosopher can be philosophical even in the face of

death. The Stoic thinkers (see STOICISM) are usually seen as the epitome of

this sense of philosophy. They maintained their philosophical attitude of calm

reflection in the face of all sorts of temporary disasters.

philosophical questions

Because the term philosophy has various meanings, the nature of the field can

be most easily grasped by examining the kinds of problems and questions the

field deals with. In the beginnings of Western philosophy, the pre-Socratic

thinkers dealt primarily with a metaphysical question: What is the nature of

ultimate reality as contrasted to the apparent reality of ordinary experience?

They tried to determine whether some ultimate constituents of the world would

be the real and basic elements, whereas everything else would be ephemeral and

merely a surface appearance. If such a reality existed, would it be permanent

and unalterable, or would it be subject to change or alteration like everything

else? The pre-Socratics generated some of the basic problems involved in

defining reality, that is, in finding something so basic that it cannot be

explained by anything else. They found their attempts to present logical

explanations of their metaphysical theories ran into paradoxical results.

Could a permanent, unchanging reality account for a changing world? ZENO OF

ELEA became famous for working out his paradoxes, which claimed nothing could

really change or move. Some of his paradoxes and some of those connected with

the Greek ATOMISM still play a role in modern theoretical physics.

Over time, some aspects of the attempt to delineate reality became separated

from the metaphysical quest and became the subject matter of the various

natural sciences. This development has accelerated since the 17th century.

The areas of study that have been peeled off from philosophy and assigned to

the natural sciences include astronomy, physics, chemistry, geology, biology,

psychology, and others. An example of this process may be seen in the

consideration of a major metaphysical question, the relationship of mind and

body. Originally, Platonic metaphysics claimed that the body and the mind were

two separate and distinct entities. Plato, in fact, claimed the body was the

prison house of the soul or mind. In the 17th century, Rene DESCARTES

contended that mind and body were two separate and distinct substances that had

nothing in common although they interact. Several Indian schools of philosophy

hold a similar view. In the West this problem was gradually taken over by

psychologists and neurophysiologists. The present tendency is to reduce mental

phenomena to brain phenomena and thereby reduce the problem from a mind-body

problem to a body problem.

Another constant philosophical question, from Greek times up to the present,

has been to try to establish the difference between appearance and reality.

Once people learned about sense illusions, the question arose of how to tell

what seems to be from what really is. Skeptical thinkers have pressed the

claim that no satisfactory standard can be found that will actually work for

distinguishing the real from the apparent in all cases. On the other hand,

various philosophers have proposed many such criteria, none of which has been

universally accepted. Another type of question raised by philosophers is:

What is truth? Various statements about aspects of the world seem to be true,

at least at certain times. Yet experience teaches that statements that have

seemed to be true have later had to be qualified or denied. Skeptics have

suggested that no evidence would be able to tell, beyond any show of doubt,

that a given statement is in reality true. In the face of such a challenge,

philosophers have sought to find a criterion of truth, especially a criterion

of truth that would not be open to skeptical challenge.

Philosophers have also traditionally raised questions about values: What is

good? How can good be distinguished from bad or evil? What is justice? What

would a just society be like? What is beauty? How can the beautiful be

distinguished from the ugly? These questions all deal with matters of

evaluation rather than fact. Scientific investigation is of only slight help

in determining if abortion is bad or if Vermeer’s Milkmaid is a beautiful

picture. The values that are at issue are not perceived in the same way as

facts. If they were, much more agreement would exist about the specific

answers to value questions. The philosopher seeks to find some means of

answering these sorts of questions, which are often the most important ones

that a person can ask and which will exhibit the basis of a theory of values.

Philosophical methods

In view of the kinds of questions that philosophers deal with, what methods

does the philosopher use to seek the answers? The philosopher’s tools are

basically logical and speculative reasoning. In the Western tradition the

development of LOGIC is usually traced to Aristotle, who aimed at constructing

valid arguments and also true arguments if true premises could be uncovered.

Logic has played an important role in ancient and modern philosophy–that of

providing a clarification of the reasoning process and standards by which valid

reasoning can be recognized. It has also provided a means of analyzing basic

concepts to determine if they are consistent or not.

Logic alone, however, is not enough to answer philosophers’ questions. It can

show when philosophers are being consistent and when their concepts are clear

and unambiguous, but it cannot ascertain if the first principles or the

premises are correct. Here philosophers sometimes rely on what they call

intuition and sometimes on a speculative reasoning process. From their initial

premises, philosophers then try to work out a consistent development of their

answers to basic philosophical questions, following the rules of logic.

Irrationalist philosophers, however, such as the Danish thinker Soren

KIERKEGAARD, have contended that the less logical the solution to philosophical

problems, the better. Philosophers such as these sometimes argue that the most

important elements of existence and experience cannot be contained by logic,

which is, after all, an element of experience itself. The part, they argue,

cannot explain the whole.

Philosophy’s relation to other disciplines

Philosophy is both related to most disciplines and yet different from them.

Almost from the beginning of both mathematics and philosophy in ancient Greece,

relations were seen between them. On the one hand, the philosophers were

strongly impressed by the degree of certainty and rigor that appeared to exist

in mathematics as compared to any other subject. Some, like the

philosopher-mathematician PYTHAGORAS OF SAMOS, felt that mathematics must be

the key to understanding reality. Plato claimed that mathematics provided the

forms out of which everything was made. Aristotle, on the other hand, held

that mathematics was about ideal objects rather than real ones; he held that

mathematics could be certain without telling us anything about reality. In

more modern times, Descartes and Baruch SPINOZA used mathematics as their model

and inspiration for formulating new methods to discover the truth about

reality. The philosopher-mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm von LEIBNIZ, the

co-discoverer (with Isaac Newton) of calculus, theorized about constructing an

ideal mathematical language in which to state, and mathematically solve, all

philosophical problems. Similar views have been advanced in the 20th century

as ways of resolving age-old philosophical difficulties. Attempts to

accomplish this have found far from unanimous approval, however.

Philosophy has both influenced and been influenced by practically all of the

sciences. The physical sciences have provided the accepted body of information

about the world at any given time. Philosophers have then tried to arrange

this information into a meaningful pattern and interpret it, describing what

reality might be like. Western philosophers over much of the last 2,500 years

have provided basic metaphysical theories for the scientists to fit their data

into and as the data changed, their metaphysical interpretations have had to be

adjusted. Thus the scientific revolution of the 17th century, encompassing the

scientific work of Johannes Kepler, Galileo, and Newton, was accompanied by a

metaphysical revolution led by such thinkers as Descartes, Spinoza, and


In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the prevailing philosophers in

England and France came to the conclusion that the sciences are, and ought to

be, completely independent of traditional metaphysical interpretations.

Instead, the sciences should just try to describe and codify observations and

experiences. This approach has led in the last two centuries to a divorce of

philosophy from the sciences. What has developed in response is a new branch

of philosophy, the philosophy of science, which examines the methods of

science, the types of scientific evidence, and the ways the sciences progress.

A third intellectual area that has been intimately involved with philosophy is

religion. In ancient Greece some philosophers like ANAXAGORAS and Socrates

scandalized their contemporaries by criticizing aspects of Greek religion.

Others offered more theoretical approaches about the evidence for the existence

and nature of God or the gods. Some denied the existence of a deity. When

Christianity entered the Greek world, attempts were made to develop a

philosophical understanding of Christianity. Finally, toward the end of the

4th and beginning of the 5th century, Saint AUGUSTINE achieved a synthesis of

some of the elements of Platonic philosophy with the essentials of

Christianity. Throughout the Middle Ages, philosopher-theologians among the

Jews, Muslims, and Christians sought to explain their religions in rational

terms. They were opposed by antirational theologians who insisted that

religion is a matter of faith and belief and not of reasons and arguments.

After the Reformation, philosophers like Spinoza and David HUME began

criticizing the traditional philosophical arguments used by theologians. Hume

and Immanuel KANT sought to show that all of the arguments purporting to prove

the existence of God and the immortality of the soul were fallacious.

Philosophers sought to explain why people were religious on nonrational

grounds, such as psychological, economic, or cultural ones. The defenders of

religion found themselves estranged from the philosophers, who kept using the

latest results of science and historical research to criticize religion. Some,

like Kierkegaard, made a virtue of this estrangement, insisting that religious

belief is a matter of faith, and therefore not a matter of reason. More

recently, since World War II, a group of theologians who are interested in

recent philosophical developments and in the relationship between religion and

contemporary culture have attempted to discover what religious statements can

be intellectually meaningful. The history of the relation between philosophy

and theology is thus a long and mixed affair, running the gamut from clarifying

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