Philosophy: An Overview

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One of the questions most intriguing to the philosopher is the question "What is philosophy?" Perhaps no other discipline has quite so much difficulty explaining what it is about, and in no other discipline is the question of what it is so germane to the discipline itself. Some sort of answer to this question lies close at hand in the case of the natural and human sciences: Biology is the study of life, anthropology the study of human beings, psychology the study of the psyche. Granted that these answers are not very satisfactory or edifying, they at least provide us with a point of departure; they state the specific area or realm being studied. Philosophy lacks even this point of departure, because it has no special area or realm as its subject matter.

Etymologically, philosophy means "the love of wisdom." Wisdom is some sort of knowledge, although it might well take some time and thought before one could say what kind of knowledge it constitutes. Perhaps one can begin by stating three things about wisdom that are quite simple and uncontroversial. (1) Wisdom does not primarily have to do with specific facts or information. (2) Wisdom is not usually to be found in a very young person; it presupposes a good deal of experience and, above all, the ability to learn from experience. (3) Wisdom must have something to do with the manner of living one's life; it must include praxis.

The gathering of facts or information does not automatically produce wisdom or make a person wise. Someone who reads newspapers and listens to news reports will at best be well-informed (depending on the sources), but will not on that account be wise. At the other end of the scale, individuals who study logic and the rules of critical thinking will not automatically become wise either. They will be able to argue well; their thinking will be coherent and well-organized; they will be able to pick out flaws in the arguments of others. These are fine and necessary tools, but not wisdom. It has been pointed out that logic has no content. It is like a sausage grinder; one gets out of it what is put into it, only in a better, more palatable form.

As Aristotle pointed out in his Nicomachean Ethics, ethics and politics are not suitable studies for the young, be they young in years or in character. Understood in Aristotle's original sense of how best to govern a city, ethics and politics require the observation of human nature and the formulation of general, flexible principles. Above all, it is necessary to recognize the fact that these sciences can never be exact in the way that the natural sciences are; to expect the kind of precision possible in natural science merely betrays false expectations and a lack of understanding of the subject matter.

Finally, one would probably expect of someone who is wise that he would lead a certain kind of life. This is meant not exclusively or, for that matter, even primarily in a moral sense, but rather in the sense of practical knowledge, of understanding. A wise person would have judgment without being judgmental. There are many great, dramatic figures in history whom one would probably not wish to call wise. In fact, Plato was most likely right: The best and wisest life is the unpretentious and undramatic life of an ordinary citizen.

One of the most illuminating statements about the nature of philosophy was made by Immanuel Kant when he said that there were three fundamental questions of concern to human beings: (1) What can I know? (2) What ought I to do? (3) What may I hope? These questions, taken together, add up to a final question: What is humanity? Kant attempted to answer them in his three main works: the question of knowledge in the Critique of Pure Reason, the question of ethics in the Critique of Practical Reason, and the question of what may be hoped for in the Critique of Judgment.

Having found the question "What is philosophy?" impervious to instant answers, one might pose the question "Who is the philosopher?" In a broad sense, everybody is. Every thinking human being asks certain fundamental questions: What am I doing in the world? Wow did I get here? What am I supposed to be doing? What is going to happen to me? What does it all mean? Some ask themselves more abstract questions, such as whether the world has a beginning or not. The philosopher is the person who thinks and asks; he does not necessarily write books. Three of the greatest thinkers of history, Socrates, Buddha, and Jesus, wrote nothing. One could cite many more.

In a less general sense, the philosopher is the one who asks what is real. This question led the Greeks, with whom philosophy as is known today began, to inquire into the nature of change and the relation of being (what does not change) to becoming. At least three of the most philosophical questions of all were staked out by the Greeks: the relation of (1) being to becoming; (2) reality to appearance; and (3) being to thinking. This leads to a brief look at the history of philosophy.


There are some philosophers who say that philosophy is a specifically Western (Greek) phenomenon and that the East does not have "philosophy" in the strict sense of that term. This seems too biased a view; Eastern thought will be briefly discussed in this article. However, Western philosophy does have its roots in the Greeks, and this article turns now to a consideration of them.

Western philosophy began with the pre-Socratics, so called because they lived before Socrates. These thinkers, often erroneously thought to be somewhat "primitive," searched for the first principle (archē ) in things. Thales, for instance, found that principle in water, Anaximander in the boundless (apeiron ), Heraclitus in the logos, Parmenides in being. The simplicity and profundity of their vision is splendid and their influence on the two greatest of Greek thinkers, Plato and Aristotle, extensive. Thus began the tradition of the history of philosophy, of thinkers learning from each other, often disagreeing and being stimulated to formulate their own ideas. It is not the case, as has been alleged, that philosophers never come up with any definitive answers because they all disagree with one another, canceling one another out, so to speak, so the end result is nothing at all. Each thinker learns from his predecessors; without Socrates there would never have been a Plato; without Plato, no Aristotle. Thus, the history of philosophy can be viewed as a long critical dialogue tracing shifting conceptions of reality.

Socrates was the true model of a philosopher. Contrasting himself with the Sophists, who claimed to have knowledge and the ability to teach it and who took money for their services, Socrates said that he knew that he knew nothing, and he therefore also taught nothing. In Plato's dialogue Theatetus, Socrates compares himself to a midwife who is herself barren but who helps others to give birth. The Sophists were the natural enemies of Socrates (and Plato). They taught a kind of empty rhetoric that enabled their pupils to sound impressive and win arguments, but the real philosophical issues and questions were lost to them.

These issues and questions eventually led Plato to formulate his famous theory of Forms, or Ideas (idea, eidos ). A just person becomes just by imitating or participating in the perfect, eternal, changeless reality of justice itself. Justice itself is by no means a mere mental concept; it is what is really real. This, in a nutshell, is what is generally meant by the term Platonism. Reality lies in the Form, or Idea, which can be known only by the mind, not the senses. Reality is not in the mind, but it is accessible only to the mind.

If one accepts Whitehead's somewhat oversimplified, dramatic statement that "the whole history of philosophy is nothing but a series of footnotes on Plato," this thumbnail sketch may suffice to indicate the direction that the history of philosophy was to take. Two major periods followed the Greek one: the medieval, when philosophy came together with the Judeo-Christian tradition, and the modern, beginning with Descartes. In the medieval period, philosophy went hand in hand with theology and was employed in working out proofs of God's existence or in clarifying the status of the Platonic Forms, then known as "universals."

With his well-known dictum "Cogito, ergo sum" ("I think, therefore I am"), Descartes opened up what is called the modern period of philosophy. The term modern, in this case, indicates the belief that the unshakable foundation of all knowledge lies in the thinking subject. By isolating the subject as what alone is real, Descartes ushered in the era of subjectivism, with its concomitant dualisms of mind-body, mind-matter, and subject-objectdualisms that contemporary philosophers are still struggling to overcome and that permeate everyday language and life.

Areas of Philosophy

Having stated that philosophy has no specifiable subject matter peculiar to it, this article will take a look at some of the areas it prefers to deal with. These areas are articulated into what might be called different branches of philosophy. It would be well to preface this discussion with the remark that the phrase "philosophy of" can precede almost anything. "The philosophy of sport" and "the philosophy of fashion" impart a special perspective on an independent subject matter.

As primary branches of philosophy, one might cite ethics, epistemology, logic, aesthetics, metaphysics, and ontology; on a secondary level, philosophy of law, philosophy of politics, philosophy of science, philosophy of language, and philosophy of religion. With the exception of philosophy of religion, this article shall not discuss these secondary branches.

The primary branches are as old as philosophy itselfthey go back to Plato. The first four are easily delineated; the last two are more problematic. An ethic is something that every human being has; it is an idea of how they want to live their lives. Even if some have ethics that one would call highly unethical, even if their concern is solely for their own interests, this view still constitutes their ethic, their idea of the best way to go through life. The question of this "unethical" ethic is discussed in detail by Plato in his Republic: Is the unjust person better off than the just one? Plato concludes that the height of justice is to appear unjust but to be just; the height of injustice is to appear just but to be unjust. Justice is a matter of inner balance and harmony; it has nothing to do with gain, riches, or power.

Epistemology and logic are more specialized and technical branches of philosophy. They deal with theories of how one knows things and the laws of thought. Finally, although the term aesthetics (philosophy of art) was coined by Alexander Baumgarten only in the eighteenth century, Western inquiry into the nature of art goes back as far as Plato and Aristotle. Aesthetics and the philosophy of art reached a culmination as the meeting place of nature and spirit in the philosophy of Kant, Schiller, and the other German Idealists. The work of art, they believed, is nature transformed by spirit.

Perhaps the most intelligible way to order terms unfamiliar to the nonphilosopher such as metaphysics and ontology is initially to adopt the classification set forth by Christian Wolff (16791754). Metaphysics generally refers to that which goes beyond (meta ) the physical, although Aristotle's book of that name is so titled simply because he wrote it after the Physics; the two books, the Physics and the Metaphysics, have roughly the same (metaphysical) subject matter. To put it briefly, metaphysics is supposed to deal with what is ultimate.

Wolff divided metaphysics into two branches: general metaphysics (metaphysica generalis ) and special metaphysics (metaphysica specialis ). General metaphysics is equivalent to ontology, the study of being, or what is (in Greek, to on ) in its generic traits. Special metaphysics consists of three parts: rational psychology (study of the soul), rational cosmology (study of the cosmos or world), and rational theology (study of God). Immanuel Kant called these three parts the Ideas of Pure Reason. By this he meant that these were the ultimate ideas that reason arrived at in its inherent attempt to unify the manifold (synthesize).

Philosophy and Religion

Whereas in the East the relation of philosophy and religion is generally so unproblematic that there is often no clear-cut distinction between the two, the situation in the West is not so simple. The mainstream of Western philosophy was closely involved with religious questions until the late nineteenth century; there was certainly never a question of major conflict. The Greeks in general and Plato in particular pursued questions that are usually taken to be religious (e.g., the immortality of the soul, transmigration and the possibility of a future life or lives, the existence of the godlike), although there was no emphasis on the human relation to a personal deity. When philosophy joined hands with the Judeo-Christian tradition in late antiquity, it became almost indissolubly linked to theology. With that union arose the problem of reconciling philosophical thought with established dogma. For example the eternity of the world and transmigration of souls are incompatible with Christian dogma. When Descartes laid the foundation for knowledge in the thinking subject (in reason as opposed to faith), the possibility was created for the eventual parting of ways between philosophy and religion.

This parting took place in the nineteenth century with such thinkers as Feuerbach, Marx, and, especially, Nietzsche, with his pronouncement that God is dead. Since that time, philosophers may or may not have religious concerns. For example, the twentieth-century movement labeled existentialism can be divided into two camps: a theistic one (Marcel, Maritain) and an atheistic one (Sartre, Camus). Then there are those thinkers whom one could call religious but who have nothing to do with explicitly theological questions; their religious sense provides a background for their philosophizing (Heidegger, Wittgenstein). Finally, there are thinkers who believe that religious questions are not the business of philosophy, the main function of which is to develop critical argument (Russell, Moore). A twentieth-century thinker and theologian who sought to mediate between philosophy and religion, Paul Tillich, defines humankind in terms of its ultimate concern, which is a truly religious, but not a theological, definition. Instead of defining the human being as the animal with reason (zoon logon echon ), as Aristotle and virtually everyone after him did, Tillich defines the human being in terms of his or her link to something ultimate or divine. In a similar vein, Heidegger speaks of humanity in terms of its relation to being.

It was, however, chiefly theology, as distinct from religion, that joined with philosophy, by using such concepts as Plato's Good (agathon ) and Aristotle's Unmoved Mover to interpret theological ideas. Religion would appear to be a broader and less sharply defined term than theology. The etymological root of the word religion is the same as that of yoga; the root means "to join or link," and yoga comes to mean "to join (man to something transcending him)."

Thus, perhaps the main question with regard to the relation of philosophy to religion is whether humans are conceived as a self-contained and self-sufficient physical beings whose essences coincide with their material existence or as spiritual beings whose existence points beyond themselves and the "human-all-too-human." In the latter case, philosophy and religion coalesce; in the former, they diverge.

Not only is the question of belief in a divine being or some kind of transcendence at stake in the question of religion, but also the question of the nature of humanity. If the human being is conceived purely as a natural being, there seems to be no need or perhaps no room for anything godlike. One can draw a certain parallel between religion and art here. One can conceive of art, as did Freud, as a surrogate for more basic (more real) sexual drives. This conception makes a mockery of any kind of transcendence; transcendence is utterly fabricated, a futile, self-deluding, and mildly ridiculous attempt to escape the urgency of ultimately insatiable appetites. This view posits one's animality, one's body, as the very basis of one's being and renders one's spiritual side superfluous, not to say suspect. In this view, humans cannot be defined as Aristotle's rational animal; they are the botched-up animal. Animals do not suffer from doubts, despair, depression; they are totally what they are. They are "innocent." But man is "the disease of nature" (Nietzsche). "He is not what he is and is what he is not"; he is "a useless passion" (Sartre). His so-called spirituality serves only to estrange him from himself. Certainly, if individuals cannot achieve a certain transcendence, not just of their bodies, but of themselves, their spirituality will only disturb the comforts of animal existence. The plays of Samuel Beckett are among the most powerful presentations of what human life utterly lacking in transcendence is like.

Diverse Philosophical Positions

Some mention must be made of the diversity of philosophical positions with regard to the nature of reality. These positions lie between the two opposite poles of idealism and empiricism, between stressing the importance of reason and of the senses. Humans seem to have two main accesses to the nature of the world and reality: their senses, which tell them about colors, sounds, and so forth, and reason, which tells them about concepts such as mathematical truths and the existence of God. Those philosophers who feel that the senses are the most important access to reality tend to downplay the activity of the mind, restricting it to combining and relating sense impressions. The most influential exponent of this view was the empiricist John Locke. At the other end of the scale, there is the rationalist or idealist who mistrusts the senses because they are often deceptive and who looks to reason or the mind for the foundation of knowledge. Plato was the first to articulate fully this view, which has had a long and varied history.

Many gradations exist between these two extremes of empiricism and rationalism. Some philosophers combine them in various ways; for example, Berkeley, who is both empirical and idealist (he is the philosopher who denied the existence of matter), or Kant, who insisted that one needs both sense experience and the understanding in order to have knowledge. More recently, there have been such movements as pragmatism and phenomenology, which seek to overcome the dualitypragmatism by turning its attention away from such purely theoretical questions to more practical ones (if it works, it is "true"), and phenomenology by looking at the "things themselves" as they show themselves prior to any such division. In any case, these "isms" never exhaust the philosopher's thought; they are convenient labels that can help individuals to orient themselves initially; more they cannot and should not be intended to do.

Eastern Perspectives

The time is approaching when Western philosophers will no longer be able to neglect Eastern thought with impunity. Hinduism and Buddhism in India, Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism in China, to name just two cultures, form a vast tradition from which the West can learn. But because these traditions are so vast, it will take time to get all the material translated, make it available, and assimilate it. The following brief comments are broad and sweeping.

In general, Eastern thought does not separate philosophy and religion. The main concern of its philosophy as well as its religion can be said to be soteriological, focusing on some kind of salvation of the individual. Salvation means literally "to make whole." In India, salvation can be conceived as union of the self (ātman ) with the Absolute (brahman ) in Hinduism or as the attainment of nirvāa (liberation, enlightenment) in Buddhism. In both of these religions, salvation means the cessation of rebirths and release from sasāra, the round of birth and death perpetuated by the individual's craving or ignorance. The Indian philosophical tradition is richly speculative, and many rather elaborate metaphysical systems have been developed. In particular, Indian theories of consciousness are intriguingly elaborate and subtle, far outstripping anything of this sort the West has produced. For example, certain Buddhist schools enumerate as many as one hundred elements of consciousness.

As Buddhism gradually lost ground in India, it moved on to China, where it was assimilated to the indigenous religions of Daoism and Confucianism. Chinese thought manifests a more practical and concrete temperament than the Indian, and much of the Buddhist metaphysical speculation was discarded. This tendency continued as Buddhism was later transmitted to Japan.

Thus far, Eastern influence on Western thinkers has been minimal. Leibniz (1646) was probably one of the first philosophers to show an interest in China. This is no mere coincidence; there are truly remarkable affinities between his Monadology and Huayan Buddhism. In the nineteenth century, Hegel referred to Eastern thought in his History of Philosophy, but his thoroughly Western bias resulted in a rather condescending treatment. Schopenhauer made use of both Hindu and Buddhist ideas, weaving them into a remarkable fabric with Platonism and Kantianism. And Nietzsche, in his attack on traditional philosophy and religion, lumped Buddhism together with Christianity, pronouncing them both "religions of exhaustion." A serious, fruitful dialogue has yet to take place.

Current Trends

In conclusion, one might well raise the timely questions of where philosophers are heading now and what sorts of issues attract their attention. The answers will, of course, vary with different countries and areas of specialization. But a few general, tentative observations can be made.

The interest in metaphysics seems to be definitely on the wane. With the great figures of German Idealism (Fichte, Hegel, Schelling) and their British counterparts, metaphysics may have exhausted its possibilities. The era of systems and of the dominance of reason and rationality would appear to lie in the past. A lingering and self-perpetuating interest in Marx and Freud is still evident in an emphasis on the human being as a natural being and a sexual being. If there is one trend that is dominant today, it is that philosophers are preoccupied with the question of language, though in the most diverse ways imaginable. From Wittgenstein's philosophy of ordinary language to Heidegger's poetic, noncalculative thinking to the intricacies of the French schools, philosophers are taking a hard look at the way people use and structure language or the way it structures them. These are problems that religious thinkers have long been aware of in their own province. Their particular formulation of the problem asks how one can use finite language, the language naming finite things (there is no other), to speak about something neither finite nor a thing.

It is to be hoped that the philosophers will not encapsulate themselves in technical areas of academic specialization, but will be able to face and grapple with the issues looming today. The gloomiest of the existentialists seem to have played themselves out without having found much solace for the predicaments they delineated, but the force of what they expressed still continues in literature, drama, and art in a more vivid, aesthetic form.

If philosophy stays aloof from the existential concerns of the human being, as it did and does in movements so vastly different as Scholasticism and logical positivism, it loses its original (Platonic) sense of a quest for something transcending humanity. Aristotle said that philosophy begins in wonder. Perhaps in times of spiritual destitution such as the present, wonder could be the beginning of the end of thoughtlessness. As Heidegger, quoting his favorite German poet, Hölderlin, says: Where the danger grows, there also grows the saving power. The philosopher must strive to avoid the extremes of petulant pessimism and mindless optimism.

See Also

Aesthetics; Apologetics; Cosmology; Henotheism; Knowledge and Ignorance; Morality and Religion; Pantheism and Panentheism; Religious Experience; Revelation; Soteriology; Soul; Theism; Theodicy; Transcendence and Immanence; Truth.


The following works, given in chronological order, represent classics in the development of Western philosophical thought.

Plato. Collected Dialogues. Edited by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. New York, 1963.

Aristotle. The Basic Works of Aristotle. Edited by Richard McKeon. New York, 1941.

Augustine. The Confessions of St. Augustine. Translated by Edward B. Pusey. New York, 1961.

Thomas Aquinas. Concerning Being and Essence. Translated by George G. Leckie. New York, 1965.

Descartes, René. Meditations on First Philosophy. Translated by Donald A. Cress. Indianapolis, 1979.

Spinoza, Barukh. Ethics. Translated by William Hale White, revised by Amelia Hutchinson Stirling. New York, 1949.

Leibniz, G. W. Discourse on Metaphysics, Correspondence with Arnauld, and Monadology. Translated by George R. Montgomery. Chicago, 1962.

Locke, John. An Essay concerning Human Understanding. Edited by Peter H. Nidditch. Corr. ed. Oxford, 1979.

Berkeley, George. Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous. Edited by Colin M. Turbayne. New York, 1954.

Hume, David. A Treatise on Human Nature. 3 vols. London, 1739.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by Norman Kemp Smith. New York, 1929.

Hegel, G. W. F. Phenomenology of Spirit. Translated by A. V. Miller. Oxford, 1977.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. New York, 1962.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus logico philosophicus. Translated by C. K. Ogden. London, 1958.

New Sources

Bourdieu, Pierre. Practical Reason. Translated by Randal Johnson. Stanford, Calif., 1998.

Bourgeois, Patrick L. Philosophy at the Boundary of Reason: Ethics and Postmodernity. Albany, 2001.

Coetzee, P.H., and A.P.J. Roux. The African Philosophy Reader. 2nd ed. New York, 2003.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought. New York, 1999.

Lloyd, Genevieve. Feminism and the History of Philosophy. New York, 2002.

Mohanty, Jitendra Nath. Reason and Tradition in Indian Thought: An Essay on the Nature of Indian Philosophical Thinking. Oxford, 1992.

Nichol, Lee, ed. The Essential David Bohm. New York, 2003.

Rorty, Richard. Philosophy and Social Hope. New York, 1999.

Joan Stambaugh (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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Philosophy: An Overview

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