What is Philosophy?

"What is philosophy?" Philosophy is a very broad area of study, with many subfields. We can try to characterize these by giving some typical questions they involve:

Metaphysics Are there universal things (e.g. redness) in addition to particular things? What does it mean to say that humans "have free will"? What sort of thing is time?
Epistemology What can we know? What is the difference between knowldege and beliefs which are just happen to be true? What sorts of things count or do not count as evidence in favor of some claim?
Ethics Which actions are right and which are wrong? What is the best kind of life a human can live? What makes a right action right?
Applied Ethics Is abortion morally permissible? Should state institutions give preference to historically disadvantaged groups? Is killing morally worse than letting die? Ought the state execute convicted murderers?
Philosophy of Mind Are all mental states dependent on, or identical with physical states? Is it possible in principle for psychology to be incorporated into physics? How is it that some things are conscious?
Political Philosophy Does the state have moral authority over its citizens? Should great inequalities in wealth be tolerated in a just society? Is it morally permissible for the state to ban harmless activities, e.g. flag burning?
Philosophy of Religion Is there any compelling argument for the claim that there is a God? Does the fact of religious diversity show that all religions or equally good or bad? If there is a God, why would he allow there to be evil?
Logic Does X follow from Y? What makes some arguments powerful and others laughable? Is it inconsistent to affirm X and deny Y?

Philosophers look for, propose, and argue about answers to general questions such as the ones above. Philosophy is a difficult and exciting field with a rich past going back to the so-called Pre-Socratic philosophers in ancient Greece. While it has for some time been fashionable to declare the field "dead", this is in fact the greatest Golden Age of philosophy yet seen!


Department of Philosophy

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State University of New York at Fredonia
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