Starting your philosophical trek

Introduction

Nothing is a waste of time if you use the experience wisely.

– Auguste Rodin
The Thinker

The Thinker, a bronze figure by French sculptor Auguste Rodin

What you will learn

After completing this learning activity, you will be able to:

  • explain the main fields of philosophy and the types of questions they address
  • describe the main periods of philosophical development
  • name prominent philosophers in each philosophical period
  • outline the philosophical inquiry process
  • recognize bias and identify domains of truth
Acknowledgements(Opens in new window)

Why study philosophy?

This phenomenon might just convince you ...

Are philosophers the world over involved in an elaborate scheme to link everything to philosophy or is there something else going on here? Why do you think the previous Wikipedia activity works? What does it mean? Why is it important?

Wikipedia suggests an answer:

There have been some theories on this phenomenon, with the most prevalent being the tendency for Wikipedia pages to move up a “classification chain.” According to this theory, the Wikipedia Manual of Style guidelines on how to write the lead section of an article recommend that the article should start by defining the topic of the article, so that the first link of each page will naturally take the reader into a broader subject, eventually ending in wide-reaching pages such as Mathematics, Science, Language, and of course, Philosophy, nicknamed the “mother of all sciences”.

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Getting_to_Philosophy(Opens in new window)

It appears that all pursuits of knowledge eventually lead back to philosophy: there’s nothing philosophy doesn’t touch. In this light, you might consider a course in philosophy as an apprenticeship in thinking about those questions that are fundamental to the human experience.

Philosophizing with Bertrand Russell

Searching for “The Value of Philosophy”

Twentieth-century British philosopher Bertrand Russell offers many great thoughts on why one should study philosophy in “The Value of Philosophy,” a chapter in his book The Problems of Philosophy (1912). Seek out a copy of this book, and take some time to read this chapter.

If you are looking for the book online, Project Gutenberg or the Internet Archive are good places to check.

Bertrand Russell
art null
Philosophic questions: What is reality? Is truth relative? What is the meaning of life? I think, therefore I am?


What is philosophy?

As a first step in trying to answer these fundamental questions, here’s an exercise that will give you a direct experience of what philosophy is about.

Pondering your favourite unanswered questions

Move to another room, take a walk, or just sit back. Contemplate questions about the world that are interesting to you, and jot these questions down.

Pick one of the questions you came up with and provide an answer. Record your answer and a reflection on this activity in the “Philosophical Question and Reflection (Opens in new window)” document. Make sure to save your work as you will be submitting this document at the end of Learning Activity 1.2.

Defining philosophy

You have just been engaged in the heart of philosophy: asking a question important to you and coming up with an answer or theory. That is the process. But what else can we say about the nature of philosophy and what it means?

The word philosophy comes from the Ancient greek philosophia meaning “love of knowledge/wisdom” (philo = “loving” + sophia = “knowledge/wisdom”).

As you begin your apprenticeship as a philosopher in this course, it can be helpful to see how some prominent philosophers defined philosophy. Select each philosopher to reveal their view.

"For wonder is the feeling of a philosopher, and philosophy begins in wonder."

"Philosophy is the science which considers truth."

"A man becomes a philosopher by reason of a certain perplexity, from which he seeks to free himself."

"Philosophy begins in wonder. And, at the end, when philosophic thought has done its best, the wonder remains."

"Philosophy aims at the logical clarification of thoughts. Philosophy is not a body of doctrine but an activity. A philosophical work consists essentially of elucidations. Philosophy does not result in 'philosophical propositions,' but rather in the clarification of propositions. Without philosophy thoughts are, as it were, cloudy and indistinct: its task is to make them clear and to give them sharp boundaries."

Traditional answers to the questions “What is philosophy?” and “What does it mean to philosophize?” go something like this...

Philosophy is an activity of study that arises out of our wonder of the world. It focuses on fundamental questions concerning reality, knowledge, and life.

One way of summarizing the philosophic project is to see it as an ongoing exploration of three interconnected questions:

  • What exists?
  • How do we know?
  • What matters?

These three questions run through the main fields, branches, or divisions of philosophy.

Fields of philosophy

Philosophy today is usually divided into particular fields. Seven of the most common fields found in academic philosophy are introduced here. You will encounter each of them in this course. Keep in mind that there is significant overlap between fields, and it is not uncommon for philosophers to make arguments that reference many different areas of philosophy.

Logic

The word 'Logic' in letterpress wood type

Logic examines our principles of reasoning in relation to truth. It asks questions such as these:

  • What counts as a valid argument?
  • What tools are used in any argument?

Metaphysics

Sign reading 'Reality check ahead'

Metaphysics examines the nature of existence and the basic structure of reality. It asks "big" questions, including these:

  • What exists?
  • What is the world made of?
  • What is God?
  • What is the meaning of life?
  • Why is there something rather than nothing?

Epistemology

art null

Single flower blooming with a cross-sectional view of a network of roots more than 20 times the size of the flower.

Epistemology examines the nature of knowledge, limits to knowledge, and justification of beliefs. It asks questions such as these:

  • What does it mean when we say we “know” something?
  • What is possible to know?
  • Is knowledge universal?
  • Can we find or possess truth?
  • How can we obtain knowledge?

Philosophy of science

Strand of DNA

Philosophy of science examines questions focused on the foundations, processes, and impacts of science, such as these:

  • What counts as science?
  • What are the features of the scientific method? What are the aims of science?
  • How should scientific results be interpreted?

Ethics

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Coffee cup next to napkin with the word 'ethics' written in the center and branches drawn outward that each end in concepts related to ethics: morals, dilemma, trust, religion, good/bad, wrong/right, evil, justice,questions, concern, code, choices, philosophy, life

Ethics examines how we should live our lives and treat other people. It asks questions such as these:

  • How should we conduct ourselves?
  • What is the best way to live?
  • What is good behaviour?
  • Are there universal standards of behaviour?
  • When is it acceptable to lie?

Social and political philosophy

People in Toronto protesting social and economic inequality during the Occupy Movement, 2011-2012

Social and political philosophy examines the way society organizes itself. It asks questions such as these:

  • What is justice?
  • Why do we have governments and laws?
  • How can societies provide for human needs?
  • What are the shortcomings in our own society and how can we deal with them?
  • What is power?
  • Who should rule?

Aesthetics

A close-up view of the centre of Michelangelo's painting 'The Creation of Adam'.

Aesthetics examines questions related to art and beauty, such as these:

  • What is art?
  • What is beauty?
  • What role does and should art play in society?

Keep in mind

Most disciplines have their own field of philosophy that examines their core principles.

There is, for example, a philosophy of each of these:

  • religion
  • language
  • law
  • dance
  • hockey

These specialized fields of philosophy help each discipline understand itself more fully.

Knowledge check

Match the field of philosophy to the question it is most related to.

Main philosophical periods

As an academic discipline, the study of philosophy can be approached not only by focusing on specific fields, but also chronologically, by examining philosophical developments over time.

The history of philosophy asks important questions about how particular ideas or schools of philosophy emerge in their historical context:

  • How can changes in philosophy be accounted for historically?
  • What drives the development of thought in its historical context?

Exploring the philosophical timeline

To get a sense of the main philosophical periods and the philosophers associated with them, do some research on the following:

  • The history of philosophy
  • The main periods of philosophy
  • The timeline of philosophy

If you are doing online research, the entry for “philosophy” in the New World Encyclopedia (Opens in new window) is good to check out, as is the historical period information on the Philosophy Basics (Opens in new window) website.

Consider creating a timeline of philosophers that you can continue to add to throughout the course. For now, you may want to focus on including periods or philosophers that you think are particularly interesting. You can draw your own colour-coded timeline on paper, or you can go to the Tiki Toki (Opens in new window) website to create your own free interactive multimedia timeline that permits you to add text, images, audio, and video!


As you researched the main philosophical periods, you will have found explanations of the historical context of both Eastern/Asian philosophies and Western philosophy.

Keep the following in mind as you continue on your voyage as an apprentice philosopher.

There is no division between eastern or western philosophy when it comes to the most basic questions of what it means to be a human being. The fundamental purpose of philosophy is to find meaning in one’s life and purpose to one’s path, and there is no major difference between eastern and western philosophy according to that understanding.

Source: Emily Mark, Ancient History Encyclopedia, http://www.ancient.eu/

Philosophical inquiry

Philosophy has a basic method of inquiry, one that will be very familiar to you even if you’re not aware of it.

Choosing what to wear, how to act, or what you’re going to have for dinner all incorporate this process of philosophic inquiry:

  1. Asking questions
  2. Gathering information
  3. Reasoning
  4. Forming and defending a conclusion

1. Asking questions

All philosophic inquiry starts with a question that you want to find an answer to. The question doesn’t need to be “deep,” so long as it is interesting to you and its goal is to determine truth and knowledge. Asking a question of interest is exactly what you did at the beginning of this learning activity, and in the previous section you were introduced to some of the basic questions philosophers ask in the seven different fields of philosophy.

To ensure that questions can lead to answers about knowledge and truth, it helps to put parameters or limits around them; that way, your philosophic inquiry doesn’t wander aimlessly.

Woman in front of blackboard filled with question marks

2. Gathering information

To answer your question, you need to gather information, ideas, and thoughts.

There are three sources of information to consider:

  • your own experience and thoughts on the question
  • direct observation of the situation you are studying (for example, what does it look like, or how do people behave in the situation?)
  • comments from people who have already investigated the problem, usually referred to as secondary sources

It is important to look for sources that are relevant and trusted.

Research poster design
Tips for choosing credible sources

As you progress through this course and write reports and essays, you will have to list your sources when you complete your written work. It is important that you establish a set of criteria to judge the credibility of your sources.

For example, you should seek out respected and established websites for your research. Look for websites that are accredited by government departments (suffix “.gov”) or departments of education (suffix “.edu”). When researching commercial sites (suffix “.com”), ask yourself if the information is fact or opinion, check for bias, confirm the information with other sites, and look for bibliographical sources that support the content presented.

3. Reasoning

Once you’ve collected information about a topic, you need to use reasoning to analyze it. Reasoning is a particular type of thinking activity, which uses reasons or evidence to support an idea. When you reason, you are consciously trying to make sense of the world through an explanation as to why you think something is true.

Reasoning is not merely thinking of one thing after another. Reasoning depends on one statement being supported by another.

Ensuring thinking or reasoning is true and accurate is of constant concern for philosophers. Our minds can be led astray in many ways (such as faulty or fallacious reasoning). You will take a deeper look at reasoning in the next section and in Learning Activity 1.2.

Determine whether each of the following statements is an example of reasoning.

Select your answer, then click Submit to see if you are right!


4. Forming and defending a conclusion

The final stage is to form a conclusion. You need to evaluate and determine the most compelling and believable answer to your question. You should be clear about the reasons that support your conclusion so you can defend your position to others.

To see how the inquiry process unfolds, look at an “Example inquiry (Opens in new window).” It begins by asking the question “What would happen if there were no laws?”

A closer look at reasoning

In the process of providing evidence to support an idea, our reasoning can go astray in any number of ways. In the remainder of this learning activity and in the next one, you’ll learn how to ensure your reasoning avoids common pitfalls.

Whenever you make a judgement, you compare what is being evaluated with a set of standards. These standards are not always stated or completely clear. For instance, which of the following pictures, if any, best fits the word “awesome”?


Take a minute now to think about why the image you chose best represents the concept of “awesome.” Record your thoughts here.

Recognizing bias

Your answer in the previous activity is based on a particular perspective or bias of what “awesome” is or should be. This bias acts as the standard against which your evaluation takes place.

Another way of expressing this is that your standard is based on the evaluation criteria you use when you make a judgement. For example, when you reason about propositions (statements considered to be true or false), you need to be aware of your own bias or preferred perspective for your evaluation criteria.

Your evaluation criteria have a close relationship to what you understand “truth” to be for any given context. In the previous example, your definition of “awesome” can be seen as your attempt to describe the truth of “awesome,” which is how you chose the picture that was most true to your definition of the word.

Formal study of truth will be taken up more fully in later learning activities which cover epistemology. For now, it’s important to point out how misunderstandings can occur when people have different criteria for evaluation.

Philosophers are generally very conscious of how easy it is to misunderstand underlying assumptions unless they are stated clearly. They do their best to define all necessary terms and criteria so that you can follow along and judge their arguments based on a shared understanding.

That helps explain why philosophic writing can sometimes seem rather long-winded and technical: philosophers want conversations to be productive from the start, rather than getting bogged down with misunderstandings.

Much human conflict results from not understanding that we often use different criteria for judging what exactly counts for truth. That’s the thesis of William Gardner in his article “Truth vs. Truths (Opens in new window).” Take time now to read through it.

As “Truth vs Truths” suggests, our criteria for truth or our bias is often unsaid or even hidden. Watch a clip from the BBC TV documentary The Root of All Evil?, and then identify the domain of truth behind the argument made by Richard Dawkins (program host) and by Pastor Ted Haggard.

Select your answer, then click Submit to see if you are right!

The video showed that with no agreement on a criterion or standard, there is little hope of a productive discussion toward an answer. Now apply what you have learned about truth to this Shakespearean example.

Henry V: Act 4, Scene 3

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother;be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

Select your answer, then click Submit to see if you are right!

Getting metaphysical and epistemological

The article “Truth vs. Truths (Opens in new window)” offers a clear explanation of how bias can distort and drastically affect your ability to reason about proposition statements. It’s also a good starting point to understanding some of the most influential ideas in the fields of metaphysics and epistemology. You will be referring to this article again in later learning activities.

To prepare yourself for the next learning activities, read the article again and consider how you would react to the following questions (from the fields of metaphysics and epistemology), given the four different kinds of truths mentioned in the article.

Metaphysics Epistemology
What exists?
What is the world made of?
What is God?
What is the meaning of life?
What does it mean when we say we “know” something?
What is possible to know?
Is knowledge universal?
Can we find or possess truth?
How can we obtain knowledge?

For example, the metaphysical question “What exists?” when viewed in light of the article becomes dependent on the domain of truth you are trying to answer it from. From the domain of Mystica, existence is dependent on faith, whereas from the domain of Empirica, existence is dependent on scientific facts. Both would be acceptable answers within each of their domains of truth but would not transfer into the other domain. The idea of one “existence” is put into question by the article as it emphasizes that truth (which seems to be very closely related to existence) is dependent on perspective.

To prepare for the next learning activity and beyond, open your saved “Philosophical Question and Reflection” document to review your response from the activity earlier in this learning activity. Can you identify the following in your response?

  • Your bias
  • Your criterion or criteria of judgement
  • The domain of truth
  • Your conclusion

Conclusion

In this learning activity, you began your formal study of philosophy with an overview of its main fields and periods of development as well as an introduction to the philosophical inquiry process. Most importantly, you also began to practise the skills that will improve your ability to reason.

In the next learning activity, you will continue to enhance your reasoning by learning about and practising the skills of formal and informal logic.