Philosophy, in a sense, refers to the questioning of all things. It is an area of study concerned with the most fundamental topics: existence, knowledge, morality, the nature of substance, the mind, the soul, and so on. There is almost nothing that philosophy cannot address, in one way or another; even science and mathematics have their roots in philosophy.
However, when people think about philosophy, they often struggle to define it. Even philosophers have put a great deal of thought into the matter. Francis Bacon described philosophy as a reflection of nature. Plato was much less poetic in his definition, saying that philosophy was simply the acquisition of knowledge. Many other great thinkers defined philosophy in different ways, though they all point to similar themes and concepts.
Philosophy refers to the questioning of all things: existence, knowledge, morality, the nature of substance, the mind, the soul, and so on.
A Brief History of Philosophy
The history of philosophy coincides with the history of the human race. As soon as people were able to contemplate and inquire on things, they were able to ask the most fundamental questions concerning their existence and the human experience. Where do we come from? Where do we go when we die? What is existence? What are the things that I can see and touch? Human beings have been asking these questions for thousands of years, making philosophy one of the oldest and most important areas of study.
Though it existed in a less organized form before, philosophy is generally considered to have started in Ancient Greece. Aristotle regarded Thales of Miletus as the first true philosopher, though scholars continue to debate this assertion. Thales was born sometime around 620 BCE, and worked primarily as an engineer, however he took a keen interest in all things related to the natural world.
Thales spent much of his time in defiance of the cultural and intellectual norms of his time. While others chose to explain the natural world with gods and religious dogma, Thales attempted to use reason and logic to form hypotheses, and then test the validity of those hypotheses whenever possible. This elevation of reason over mysticism and cultural axioms planted the seeds for what would become an intellectual renaissance in Ancient Greece. His work paved the way for other Pre-Socratic philosophers. Eventually, this led to the golden age of philosophy in Greece, in which philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle flourished.
Later on, Roman philosophers like Cicero and Marcus Aurelius attempted to bring the high-minded theories of philosophical thought to the common man. Though Cicero wrote on various topics, he is perhaps most remembered for his political philosophy, and his translation of Ancient Greek texts for the Roman people. In the Meditations, the most famous philosophical text penned by Marcus Aurelius, he tried to take existing philosophical theories and make them work in practice, thereby refuting the criticism that philosophy only existed in the abstract.
Early Christian Philosophy
Around the same time, early Christian philosophers like Saint Augustine grappled with the concept of free will as it related to the religious doctrine of the Catholic Church. Saint Augustine was particularly influential in the Church, though he stood out from other theologians of his time. He believed in using logic and reason to justify his religious beliefs, and find the truth without conforming to the presuppositions of the day. Despite being a Christian philosopher, his writings were just as relevant to readers of different faiths, as they were often influenced by more secular schools of thought, like neoplatonism.
In the Middle Ages (5th to 16th Century CE), there was a notable lack of philosophical writing, though the work that did exist often involved debates over religious doctrine. Following this “dark age” of philosophy, the Renaissance brought about dozens of influential philosophers and schools of thought. It was during this time that humanism gained popularity, particularly through the works of Francesco Petrarca and Niccolo Machiavelli. The humanists favored the study of moral philosophy, often without the need for principles passed down from a divine source. Though this may seem common place today, this was revolutionary at a time when the Church dominated intellectual thought and practice.
The Renaissance allowed for various new ideas to flourish. During this time, a number of different philosophical schools emerged. There were the rationalists, like Spinoza and Descartes, who used mathematical principles and “pure reason” to reach their conclusions. Alternatively, empiricists like John Locke and David Hume preferred to rely on their senses to understand existence. Kant questioned reality, and established one of the most famous works on moral philosophy with his Critique of Pure Reason.
Existentialism gained momentum in the 19th and 20th Century with Nietzche, Kierkegaard, and Sarte, among others. Existentialists focused on the self and, similar to empiricists, based their theories on what could be reasoned directly from the senses. Sartre made famous the concept that “existence precedes essence,” referring to the idea that humans are born without purpose or direction, and then come to give meaning to their lives through their actions.
Finally, there is contemporary philosophy, which can be divided into a plethora of different categories and schools of thought. However, the most well-known group in recent times is post-structuralism. This school of thought exists in opposition to structuralism, which came about in the early 20th Century. Structuralists support the idea that humans and human culture can be understood through their relationship with a larger structure that makes up the foundation of all human behavior. However, post-structuralists see this thinking as flawed, criticizing various concepts within the structuralist worldview. Perhaps the most famous among its scholars is Jacques Lacan, a French psychoanalyst and philosopher.
The Basics Of Philosophy and Why It is Important
So, what constitutes philosophy? It is virtually impossible to break philosophy down into step-by-step instructions or simple categories for quick consumption. However, by looking at some of the work of the earliest philosophers, one might understand how they, as well as most subsequent philosophers, thought and developed ideas.
The Socratic Method
Philosophy, in its most basic form, is simply the practice of asking questions. Asking questions not only necessitates a curious mind, but also a mind that lacks certain information. Socrates stated that the only thing he knew was that he knew nothing. So, what does a person who knows nothing do? They ask questions! Socrates believed in asking questions in order to draw out presuppositions or eliminate contradictory or illogical answers. This method has proven to be one of the most effective for self-evaluation in philosophy, as well as the evaluation of arguments and theories.
Logic and Reason
Aristotle first taught us how to form valid arguments, using deduction and induction. Even though logicians have expanded on these basic ideas over the years, his original characterization of logic still holds true today. Deduction is the process of reasoning that begins with one or more general premises that are generally believe to be true. From these general premises, a specific conclusion or inference must logically follow that does not contradict any of the premises. For example, one can say that all plants come from the earth. All flowers are plants. Therefore, all flowers come from the earth.
Alternatively, we have induction, which essentially functions like deduction, but moving in the opposite direction. Inductive reasoning typically starts with specific observations or premises, and then makes broad generalizations that logically follow. Inductive reasoning is frequently used when making predictions. For example, someone may look out of their window on Monday and see that it is raining. On Tuesday, it is also raining. On Thursday, it is still raining. So on Friday, before looking out of the window, they say, “It rained on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Therefore, it will rain on Friday.” Inductive reasoning also differs from deductive reasoning insofar as induction allows for false inferences. Using the previous example, it is still possible that it will not rain on Friday, despite the rain that occurred on previous days.
Why Does it Matter?
Many students who first discovering philosophy complain that there are a lot of questions, and very few concrete answers. The Socratic Method is notorious for this kind of situation, in which it narrows down the field of possible answers by eliminating false answers, but does not necessarily reach one definitive answer. So, why bother? Why spend time and energy asking questions, if there is no guarantee that you will find an answer?
The answer to the above question is two-fold. First, as the Socratic Method proves, asking questions allows you to challenge beliefs, feelings, and traditions that you may have previously assumed to be true. This, in turn, allows for a more considered, thoughtful approach to your personal sense of morality. If no one questioned ideas or arguments, instead taking everything at face value, then falsehoods would go unchallenged. As a result, intellectual thought would be virtually non-existent.
Second, philosophy is important because it allows you to hone your reasoning skills. No one is born with a perfect sense of logic and reason. One must build an understanding of these things over time. Practicing philosophy is the best way to develop your reasoning skills and learn how to avoid logical fallacies.
How to become a Philosopher
There are really two distinct paths to becoming a philosopher. As stated previously, practicing philosophy, or asking questions and contemplating your own way of thinking through reason, are the easiest ways to become a philosopher. Philosophy is not limited to a select few individuals in academia. It is open to everyone to practice in their everyday lives. This is not merely a way to be fair and democratic; practicing philosophy is simply a part of human nature.
The second path to becoming a philosopher is a bit more complex and time-consuming. If one wishes to become a philosopher in the traditional sense, it requires years of study. One can still start the process at any point in their lives, but the earlier the better.
So, how can you actually get started? First and foremost, pick up a book! Many philosophical texts from major historical figures are available for free through academic institutions, or for a very reasonable price online. It may be easier to read summaries or contemporary analyses of past works, but the best way to really understand the thought process of these ancient thinkers is to read the works yourself. Don’t wait for someone else to do the heavy-lifting for you.
After reading a few texts, look into taking philosophy classes. Most community colleges and universities offer courses in philosophy. If philosophy is truly your passion, consider working toward a degree. If you wish to make a career out of it, then you will need to go beyond an undergraduate degree. Most philosophers work in academia, analyzing the works of previous philosophers, though many write their own texts, thus adding to the philosophical lexicon. Though this path takes many years and a great deal of hard work and dedication, it can be an extremely rewarding career.
Doing Research in Philosophy
Almost everyone who has spent time studying philosophy has a favorite philosopher or school of thought. If you ask a contemporary scholar or philosopher where to start, they might give you a hundred different answers. There are thousands of philosophers throughout history who have written amazing, influential texts. However, it would be extremely difficult to try to study them all. That is why most philosophers pick a branch of philosophy (metaphysics, ethics, etc.), or perhaps even an individual philosopher within a given branch, and dedicate their research to this one topic.
Of course, schools of thought or even individual philosophers do not exist in a vacuum. To truly understand one school of thought, you will almost certainly have to understand the historical context in which it began, the lives of the philosophers involved, and even opposing schools of thought. That is why it is best to start with a general knowledge of philosophy.
Think of some of the greatest philosophers in history, both ancient and contemporary. Many names might come to mind: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Kant, David Hume, Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell, Noam Chomsky… these figures and their works can be a great starting point for anyone looking to begin their journey with philosophy.