What Is Philosophy?

Reality perceived as in focusPhilosophy is the only discipline that investigates everything. It is also the only discipline that challenges everything, even itself.  This is what separates philosophy from the sciences, history, literature and the arts. Although philosophy and these other disciplines share some of the same goals (along with scientists, philosophers want to uncover the nature of reality; along with historians, philosophers want to understand where we have come from; and along with artists, philosophers want to stimulate novel questions about human experience), philosophy alone aims to see how they are connected and to understand what makes them possible.

In the course of exploring these issues, some big questions come to the forefront. These include:

  • Reality perceived as out of focusDoes God exist? If God does exist, why do bad things happen to good people? If God doesn’t exist, where do we look for moral guidance or meaning?
  • Can we even know anything? If we can, where should we look to acquire knowledge? 
  • Does science offer a good method of acquiring knowledge about the world? If so, how does it work? If not, why is there an illusion of scientific progress?
  • Is science the final authority on what can be known? What other sources of knowledge are there?
  • What is it about a person that accounts for his or her identity? Memories? Psychological profile? The body? The soul?
  • What is the relationship between the mind and the body? Can neuroscience ultimately answer this question? 
  • If the mind is nothing but the body (or the brain), does that mean free will is an illusion?  If there is no free will, how can we assign moral responsibility? 
  • Where do our moral principles come from?  God?  Culture?  Something else?
  • What is the best way to set up a fair society? Does a fair society have to be gender-blind and color-blind? Does a fair society allow for vast inequalities of wealth and income?
  • What are race and gender? Are they artificial labels made up by society or are they a fixture of our biology? 
  • Is time travel really possible? Are there parallel universes or alternate universes that are just as real as the universe in which we live?

Philosophy attempts to answer these and other hard questions by giving clear reasons and evidence for a position, or as philosophers say, by giving arguments. At the same time, it invites open and fair criticism of any argument that is given. This is one of the cornerstones of philosophy: every person has the freedom to accept or reject a proposal based on reason, as opposed to wishful thinking, dogma or authority. To exercise this freedom, students learn how to evaluate the arguments of others, as well as construct arguments of one’s own (see Improving Your Reading and Critical Thinking Skills) and to express one’s ideas clearly and persuasively (see Improving Your Writing Skills).