College of Arts & Sciences Philosophy

What is Philosophy?

MarcusAureliusQuoteAsk the most fundamental questions – what is real, what is true, what is right – and you'll begin to see the challenge of philosophy. 

A philosophical way of life is achieved only through intense, critical investigation of the fundamental principles of all reality and human belief. This is what is meant by philosophy referred to as the love of wisdom. 

The Department of Philosophy does not hold a narrow, professionalist view of its work, and therefore denies that philosophical activity is limited to scheduled hours of the day. Both inside and outside the classroom, the faculty teaches by engaging in philosophical reflection with those who desire to learn. 

In light of the work of great philosophical thinkers, the curriculum challenges the student to seek consistent, reasonable, and well defined positions regarding such issues as the nature and possibility of knowledge; the grounds for moral judgment; the methods, aims, and presuppositions of the sciences and arts; the objects and limits of religious belief; and the fundamental nature of reality. 

Philosophical study not only encourages, but requires responsible, independent thought and action; it often widens the scope of experience by disclosing surprising alternatives to settled opinions and habitual beliefs.  Philosophy instills the conviction that free, critical inquiry is a necessary condition of a genuinely worthwhile life.

Traditional Topics of Philosophy

Here are brief characterizations of each of the traditional subjects of philosophy, as described by the American Philosophical Association.  

Ethics takes up the meanings of our moral concepts-such as right action, obligation, and justice-and formulates principles to guide moral decisions, whether in private or public life. What are our moral obligations to others? How can moral disagreements be rationally settled? What rights must a just society accord its citizens? What constitutes a valid excuse for wrong-doing?  Ethics also includes subjects such as social and political philosophy, philosophy of law, and medical, business, and environmental ethics.   

Metaphysics seeks basic criteria for determining what sorts of things are real. Are there mental, physical, and abstract things (such as numbers), for instance, or is there just the physical and the spiritual, or merely matter and energy? Are persons highly complex physical systems, or do they have properties not reducible to anything physical?   

Epistemology concerns the nature and scope of knowledge. What does it mean to know (the truth), and what is the nature of truth? What sorts of things can be known, and can we be justified in our beliefs about what goes beyond the evidence of our senses, such as the inner lives of others or events of the distant past? Is there knowledge beyond the reach of science? What are the limits of self-knowledge?   

Logic is concerned to provide sound methods for distinguishing good from bad reasoning. It helps us to assess how well our premises support our conclusions, to see what we are committed to accepting when we take a view, and to avoid adopting beliefs for which we lack adequate reasons. Logic also helps us to find arguments where we might otherwise simply see a set of loosely related statements, to discover assumptions we did not know we were making, and to formulate the minimum claims we must establish if we are to prove (or inductively support) our point.   

Philosophy of Religion addresses another traditional concern of metaphysics--to understand the concept of God, including special attributes such as being all-knowing, being all-powerful, and being wholly good. Both metaphysics and epistemology have sought to assess the various grounds people have offered to justify believing in God. The philosophy of religion treats these topics and many related subjects, such as the relation between faith and reason, the nature of religious language, the relation of religion and morality, and the question of how a God who is wholly good could allow the existence of evil.   

Philosophy of Mind is a subfield that has emerged from metaphysical concerns with the mind and mental phenomena. The philosophy of mind addresses not only the possible relations of the mental to the physical (for instance, to brain processes), but the many concepts having an essential mental element: belief, desire, emotion, feeling, sensation, passion, will, personality, and others. A number of major questions in the philosophy of mind cluster in the area of action theory: What differentiates actions, such as raising an arm, from mere body movements, such as the using of an arm? Must mental elements, for example, intentions and beliefs, enter into adequate explanations of our actions, or can actions be explained by appeal to ordinary physical events? And what is required for our actions to be free?   

Philosophy of Language has close ties to both epistemology and metaphysics. It treats a broad spectrum of questions about language: the nature of meaning, the relations between words and things, the various theories of language learning, and the distinction between literal and figurative uses of language. Since language is crucial in nearly all human activity, the philosophy of language can enhance our understanding both of other academic fields and of much of what we ordinarily do. Philosophy of Science. This is probably the largest subfield generated by epistemology. 

Philosophy of Science is usually divided into philosophy of the natural sciences and philosophy of the social sciences. It has recently been divided further, into philosophy of physics, biology, psychology, economics, and other sciences. Philosophy of science clarifies both the quest for scientific knowledge and the results yielded by that quest. It does this by exploring the logic of scientific evidence; the nature of scientific laws, explanations, and theories; and the possible connections among the various branches of science. How, for instance, is psychology related to brain biology, and biology to chemistry? And how are the social sciences related to the natural sciences?  

The History of Philosophy studies both major philosophers and entire periods in the development of philosophy, such as the Ancient, Medieval, Modern, Nineteenth Century, and Twentieth Century periods. It seeks to understand great figures, their influence on others, and their importance for contemporary issues. The history of philosophy in a single nation is often separately studied, as in the case of American Philosophy. So are major movements within a nation, such as British Empiricism or German Idealism, as well as international movements with a substantial history, such as existentialism and phenomenology. The history of philosophy not only provides insight into the other subfields of philosophy; it also reveals many of the foundations of Western Civilization.