What is Philosophy?

Philosophy is the discipline that looks for reasoned answers to certain very abstract questions, usually left unasked in everyday life, about the nature of the universe and the place in it of humans and everything distinctively human.  These are questions that the sciences usually do not tackle, though it may in the end turn out that scientific discoveries are relevant to answering them.

Examples of such questions are these: is there an objective difference between right and wrong?  Is the universe sustained in existence by a god?  Can we know about things that we cannot see or touch?  What is a mind?  Why do words mean what they do?  Why should we obey the state?

Philosophers are not satisfied with just any old answers to these questions; for example, they don’t just want answers that feel good.  They want the answers to their questions that are likeliest to be true, all things considered.  It is because they care about truth that philosophers throughout history have spent nearly all their time analyzing and evaluating arguments for and against different views.

The centrality to philosophy of reasoned debate is part of what makes the study of philosophy valuable: it cultivates various abilities that are prized in a wide variety of careers—to disentangle complexity, to find the flaws in arguments, and to write and speak in an organized and persuasive way.

But the study of philosophy is valuable for other reasons too.  It discourages excessive confidence in one’s own views, and encourages tolerance toward views with which one disagrees.  It is also, for students who love ideas, a source of enormous intellectual pleasure.

The Discipline of Philosophy

The main sub-fields of philosophy are these:

· Metaphysics seeks to understand what the world is like at an extremely high level of abstraction.  Do the things that exist exist independently of our thinking about them?  Is the universe ultimately governed by impersonal laws of nature?  What does it mean for something to cause something else?  Is thinking just a kind of computation?  Do we have free will?  Are numbers real?

· Epistemology (or theory of knowledge) investigates the nature and limits of knowledge and justified belief.  How do I know that I'm not now dreaming?  Do we have any knowledge that can’t be traced back to our senses, like sight and touch?  What is knowledge, anyway?  How do I know that pain feels the same to other people as it does to me?  Can we know anything about the future?

· Moral and political philosophy tries to discover what makes actions, laws, or social institutions right or wrong, good or bad, just or unjust.  For example, are right actions right only because they have good consequences, or are some actions right in themselves?  It also investigates metaphysical and epistemological questions about right and wrong, and good and bad.  For example, if knowledge of good and bad is possible, then is this knowledge like our knowledge that 7+5=12 or our knowledge that tomatoes are red or our knowledge that something is money—or is it sui generis?

· Logic is the systematic study of the difference between good reasoning and bad reasoning.  Under what conditions is it the case that, if one claim is true, some other claim must be true?  Under what conditions is a scientific hypothesis made more probable by certain observations? 

· The history of philosophy aims to discover what the great philosophers of the past took to be the most important philosophical questions and how they sought to answer them.  Important figures in Western philosophy include Socrates (469-399 BCE), Plato (427-347 BCE), Aristotle (384-322 BCE), Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), René Descartes (1596-1650), Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716), John Locke (1632-1704), George Berkeley (1685-1753), David Hume (1711-1776), Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831), Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), W.V.O. Quine (1908-2000), and David K. Lewis (1941-2001).

Though it was once true that nearly all philosophers were wealthy white men, this is no longer the case, and MU’s Department of Philosophy aims to provide a welcoming intellectual home for any student who is curious about philosophy. For more on the nature and value of philosophy, please consult this useful guide to the nature and value of philosophy, published by the American Philosophical Association.Dr. Robbins at graduate seminarDr. Robbins at a 2019 graduate seminar. Photo by Fernando Alvear.