Introduction to philosophy

The study of philosophy is the study of problems in abstract topics such as existence, knowledge, meaning, beauty, and value. Its methodology is based on conceptual and argumentative analysis. In this text, I explain in brief terms what contemporary philosophy is, what philosophers do, and how they do it.

The love of wisdom

The term ”philosophy” is coined from the Greek words philos, meaning ”loving” or ”friendly,” and sophía, which means ”wisdom.” In Ancient Greece, philosophy was understood as ”the love of wisdom,” and a philosopher was someone who pursued understanding through rational deliberation.

Today, the term ”philosophy” is used also in other senses. It may designate a general outlook or way of life, such as Timon and Pumba’s motto Hakuna Matata in The Lion King. In another sense, ”philosopher” is sometimes used synonymously with ”dreamer.” When I use the term ”philosophy,” I think of the academic discipline. By ”philosophers,” I understand professionals in that field.

Academic philosophers are specialized in problems in abstract topics such as existence, knowledge, meaning, beauty, and value. There are overlaps between philosophy and other disciplines, like mathematics, psychology, and the social sciences, and many successful modern philosophers are experts also in some other area.

Philosophers contribute in various ways to other disciplines. To name only one example, it is philosophers that have developed the standards that most Western universities use to determine whether a research subject is sufficiently competent to make decisions about her participance in scientific experiments.

However, the value of academic philosophy does not only lie in what it contributes to other disciplines and activities. Philosophy is its own independent practice; it is something humans do. The earliest known written sources include moral precepts, which means that philosophical thinking is at least as old as writing is. Pre-historical cave paintings and ivory figures show that abstraction has been part of human culture for a very long time. Humans seem to be philosophers. Academic philosophy is an attempt to make the human activity of philosophizing fruitful through methodologically reliable reasoning.

What philosophers do…

To repeat, philosophers are specialized in problems in abstract topics such as existence, knowledge, meaning, beauty, and value. Some would argue that there are no truths, facts, or knowledge in abstract topics. Therefore, the argument goes, there is no point in studying them. Thus, there is no point in doing philosophy.

The argument is self-defeating. It is a philosophical problem whether there are truths, facts, or knowledge concerning abstract matters. The claim that there are no such things is theory-dependent. More specifically; it is a philosophical proposition. Furthermore, the claim that there is no point in studying problems to which there are no truths, facts, or knowledge is also theory-dependent. What kind of things is there a point in studying? To answer that, something must be said about what is meaningful, which requires philosophical thinking about value.

I will not pursue this line of thought any further. It has fulfilled its main purpose, which is to demonstrate what philosophers do: They argue. Instead, I turn to what philosophers argue about.

Philosophers argue about existence, among other things. However, it is unclear what it means to argue about ”existence.” Again, a demonstration might be helpful. Consider the following. Humans are comprised of cells and cells have a limited life-span. Eventually they die, and are replaced by new cells. No cell in the human body survives more than, let us say ten years, which means that no human body is ever older than that. Does this mean that no person is ever older than ten years? Probably not. Persons are not only bodies. There is something physical to a person, but also something mental or psychological or cognitive, and the physical does not single-handedly determine what a person is. Bodies may change while persons remain unchanged.

But, it seems that also the non-physical aspects of persons change. In one sense, I am not the same person as I was when I was seven years old. I think differently and act differently. I have other desires, characteristics, life-goals, and so on. Something about me has changed. In fact, I would claim that I seem to be changing gradually all the time; in one sense, I am not the same person as I was when I was fifteen either, or twenty, or thirty. Yet, I clearly remember being a person in all those ages at some point in my life. Something about me has not changed. But what? Everything about me that is physical has changed. At least a large portion of the non-physical has changed too. So what has not changed? What makes me me?

Special insights in human psychology and biology, among other things, may be helpful in answering these questions. We could, for instance, say that a person is a group of cells with some shared history, and a psychological construct, such that it has continuous self-awareness and self-perception. Yet, it is a conceptual matter rather than an empirical. Any truth or knowledge that facts can provide about personhood are contingent on the soundness and validity of the preceding conceptualization of what it is to be a person. Therefore, any claim about personhood has a philosophical dimension to it. More specifically, they involve claims about what constitutes a person.

This is one existence-related problem that philosophers argue about. Other such problems include what social constructs such as ”money” and ”institutions” are and what makes them possible. Other, more theoretical, examples include what the nature of reality is and whether there could exist multiple worlds.

Philosophical problems concerning existence are usually called ontological problems. Problems concerning knowledge are called epistemological. Those that concern meaning are called semantic, those concerning beauty are called aesthetic, and finally, problems that concern value are usually called moral or ethical. The topics are intertwined. It is, for instance, a philosophical problem what the nature of morality is, which means that there is an ontological dimension to ethics.

… and how they do it

The main aim of intellectual inquiry is to seek the best reasons for and against theses and propositions. But, the philosopher’s tools are different from others’. In medical research, for instance, results are based on data that has been collected and analyzed. So-and-so many people had a certain response to an experimental treatment, and therefore this-and-that conclusion may be drawn about how a larger population would respond to the treatment if it was generally distributed. That is: Data, analyses, and results.

Much research is done that way. Physicists collect and analyze data about light waves to learn about other planets, biologists collect and analyze data about pollen to learn about the fauna, sociologists collect and analyze data about people’s behavior to learn about social structures, and so on. That is science.

Philosophy is not done that way because philosophical problems are not empirical. Examples of philosophical problems include: Is free will possible? What is an adequate explanation? What makes an action right, good, or just? These problems cannot be solved using only empirical methods, because there is little or no data with regards to them to observe, collect, and analyze. The problems are abstract, and can only be solved through argumentation (if at all). Accordingly, the philosophical method is argumentative, not empirical.

This was the case already in Ancient Greece. Socrates (c. 470–399 BC) was of the view that philosophical problems should be solved dialectically. Dialectics is the method of proposing a thesis and counter it with an antithesis, which (in successful cases) renders a synthesis. Thereby, Socrates systematized argumentation, enabling evaluation; he put methodological requirements on abstract reasoning, and thus contributed to transforming philosophy into a reliable activity.

His students furthered this cause. Socrates thought that philosophy should only be done verbally. One of his students, Plato (428–348 BC), wrote down Socrates’s philosophical views (and mixed them with his own),  and thereby advanced the tradition of written systematized philosophy. One of his students, namely Aristotle (384–322 BC), formalized other means of reasoning than dialectical. Consider these sentences:

A All men are mortal
B Socrates is a man
C Socrates is mortal

Together, A through C form a syllogism, which is a kind of logical argument that Aristotle identified and formalized in his philosophical writings. The syllogism is a generalization. The content of AB, and C may change, but their logical connections remain; A and B are premises and C is a conclusion. If the premises are true, the conclusion must be true by necessity.

With formalizations of such constructs, argumentation can be critically explicated in detail. Thus, Aristotle’s systemization of logic and reasoning furthered the Socratic cause of making philosophy methodologically reliable. Today, for reasons of reliability, philosophers are trained in conceptual and argumentative analysis just as scientists are trained in empirical methods.

Philosophy today

As with the sciences, philosophy advances slowly and in small steps. This is true at least in between social and intellectual events of major significance that radically change the way we think about things, such as the revolution of the theory of relativity in the 20th century. Philosophy evolves with those events.

Over the last century, so-called analytic philosophy has gained dominance both intellectually and institutionally in the West. In this tradition, philosophy is closely connected to the sciences. Interdisciplinary collaborations are common. Analytic philosophers build on and contribute to scientific and technological progress by participating in the same research programs as the foremost scientists and engineers. They form an integral part of academia. Administratively, philosophy is central, with faculties at most major universities. There are interdisciplinary exchanges not only in research, but also in education. In Sweden, for instance, Stockholm University has adopted the internationally well-known model of teaching Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE) as a bachelor’s program.

Philosophers publish in peer-reviewed journals. They organize and attend professional seminars and conferences, and compete for funding and academic positions. Philosophy is a typical academic discipline characterized by internal control mechanisms that are common phenomena in academia and have been designed or have emerged to facilitate intellectual progress.

Thus, to summarize and conclude, philosophy is the human activity of reasoning about abstract topics such as existence, knowledge, meaning, beauty, and value. For reasons of reliability, academic philosophers engage in it methodically. So-called analytic philosophy, which is part of the same research programs as the foremost scientist and engineers, is dominant in the West. There are philosophy faculties at most major universities and interdisciplinary exchanges with other disciplines are common. Philosophy has been central to intellectual thought historically, and continues to be central in modern academia.


Cite as: Ahlin, J. (2018). Introduction to philosophy. Retrieved (date) from: https://jesperahlin.com/for-students/introduction-to-philosophy/