What Is Philosophy in Simple Words?
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Philosophy and its main areas
“Philosophy” sounds like a daunting topic to many, something incredibly complex and boring. But, in its most basic form, it is very close to what we all did as children: ask questions about the world.
Philosophy is a field of study that attempts to answer questions that cannot be answered by providing some fact, but that require a deeper understanding of the question itself. For example:
- What is the meaning of “beauty”? (Aesthetics)
- Which actions do we consider to be right or wrong? (Ethics)
- How can we make correct arguments and avoid mistakes in thinking? (Critical Thinking)
- What it means to really “know” something? (epistemology)
- What is science and what is the proper way to do science? (philosophy of science)
- What is the ultimate nature of things? (metaphysics)
- What is a good state or government? (political philosophy)
Ethics is the study of how we ought to behave, and why. There are many different theories of ethics, which we briefly discuss in this article.
Philosophy’s aim is to clarify the questions we ask
Because of this focus that philosophy puts on asking the right questions, it has sometimes been labelled “the study of asking the right questions.” This is particularly important because we sometimes tend to ask questions that cannot be answered because the question itself is asked in the wrong way. For example:
“Does God exist?” This question cannot be answered like that. We first would have to clarify what “existing” means for a being like God. We can see and touch physical, material things, but not everything exists in the same way as a bottle or a table. For example, numbers. The number 42 certainly exists, but where is it? I cannot point at anything in the material world that is the number 42.
Or that idea for a poem that I had yesterday. Certainly, in some way, my idea exists. I can remember it, I can recite the poem. But where is it? Is my idea lying on the table over there? No. Numbers, ideas and many other things exist in a different way from material objects, but they certainly do “exist” in a real way. Christianity exists too, but I cannot locate it.
Or, say, the government of Germany. Even this very real thing I cannot locate or point at. It is not a particular building. The government offices can move to another place, or they may even be entirely destroyed (say, in an earthquake) without destroying the government itself. The government is also not the people. The people that make up the government change all the time, but the government stays the same government. If I owe a thousand dollars to the government in taxes, then I owe the same thousand dollars to the same government even if all the politicians have changed after an election.
This is why a philosopher would not accept the question “does God exist?” without further clarifications. If we think about the way different kinds of things “exist” long enough, we will end up with a much more complex question, but perhaps one that has a better chance of actually being answered.
Aristotle (384-322 BC)
Aristotle (384-322 BC), born in Stageira, Greece, is one of the most influential philosophers who ever lived. He worked not only in philosophy, but also wrote dozens of books on all topics, from astronomy and biology to literary theory.
The “Philosophy of …”
Apart from these core questions of philosophy, there are many areas of study that are usually called “philosophy of (something)” and that inquire deeper into some subject than normal science would, by applying the methods of philosophical questioning to this particular subject.
For example, the Philosophy of Happiness asks what the concept of happiness really means, what the conditions for happiness are, what it means to be “truly” happy (as opposed to superficially happy), what the relationship is between the political organisation of a society and the happiness of its citizens, how economic systems (like capitalism) or different religions affect human happiness, how happiness relates to moral behaviour (is it always morally right to make others happy?) and so on.
The Philosophy of Love examines what love means and how it is different from friendship or charity, whether love is exclusive or whether we can love multiple people at the same time, how the love of parents or siblings is different from erotic love, whether we can love a country or an animal, whether animals can love, what the relationship is between love and sexuality, how love’s understanding and practices have changed over the centuries, whether love is the same all over the world or perceived differently in different cultures, and how social or technological developments affect love (online sex, prostitution, sex with robots, love towards AI systems).
A Philosophy of Cinema might ask what makes a movie a movie, why we want to watch movies that make us feel sad or frightened, what it is that makes a funny movie be funny, how our perception of reality in a movie is different from actual reality (for example, how years of time can be compressed in a movie to two hours and still feel like years to the audience), and whether violence in movies is acceptable or whether it contributes to violence in society.
Similarly, there is Philosophy of Cities, dealing with questions like: what is a city, how do cities change the lives and the perception of the citizens who live inside them, what is a good city, how can we create better cities that enable citizens to have better lives and so on.
A Philosophy of Space Exploration might ask: to whom does space belong, who should have access to resources in space, how does space travel affect our views of life, the connection between space travel and religion, is it theoretically possible that we might fly faster than light or travel through time, if we discovered life on other worlds, how would we recognise it and communicate with it, and which moral duties would we have towards alien life?
There is almost no limit to the “philosophy of” sub-disciplines. There is philosophy of religion, philosophy of history, philosophy of music, philosophy of culture, philosophy of transport, philosophy of technology, philosophy of education, philosophy of fashion, philosophy of food and countless others.
Where does the word “philosophy” come from?
The word “philosophy” comes from ancient Greek. “Philos” means friend or lover, and “Sophia” means wisdom. Philosophy, therefore, means “the love of wisdom” or “loving wisdom.”
How philosophers think: An example
As an example of how philosophers might think, let’s just look at a pen. A very common, normal, single-use plastic pen. If you look at it with your everyday eyes, you’d say, this is a pen. It’s something we can use to write. And that’s it.
The philosopher would not stop here, but begin asking more questions of the pen. First, what does it mean to say that a pen is used for writing? What if I use it for something else? If I take the pen, remove the cap, and use it to stab someone, is it still a pen, or has it become a weapon? Perhaps it’s now both, a pen and a weapon. Is it wrong to use a pen as a weapon? I can take out the inside bit with the ink and then I’m left with a clear plastic tube, like a thick straw. I can use that to drink. Is it wrong to use a pen as a straw? Is there a difference whether I use it as a weapon or as a straw? And if I kill someone with my pen/weapon, is this then, at least in part, also the responsibility of the pen’s manufacturer? Would he have to justify his decision to make pens that can be used as weapons? But then, cannot everything be used as a weapon?
You see, we’re getting into responsibility, liability and ethics here, and also into questions of definition: if things fall into multiple categories, is there a primary category? How do I determine which one it is? Is the thing I’m holding a pen that is used as a weapon, or is it a weapon that looks like a pen?
But the pen has more to tell us.
When I’ve used it up, I will have to throw the pen away. There’s little I can do with a pen like this after it’s out of ink. The pen will end up in a landfill and eventually pollute the environment. It will decompose into microplastic particles, which will enter the water cycle, and end up in someone’s glass of water years later. This might be dangerous and cause cancer in that person who thinks that they are drinking water, but in reality they are also drinking parts of my discarded pen.
What should we make of this?
Should the government ban such single-use pens? Does the government have a duty to protect me (and others) from the consequences of using (and then throwing away) such single-use plastic objects? Or should I be free to make my own choice? Here then we would go into the role of the state in relation to free enterprise and a consumer society. How much power should the state have to regulate our lives? Can we be forced to abandon something convenient (a single-use pen) for the greater benefit of all in the long run? These are vital questions that are just now at the centre of the debates about global warming. So the pen has brought us to environmental and political philosophy, to questions of state regulation vs freedom, state paternalism and many more.
We could also see the pen as technology, as part of a bigger system of things that need to work together in order to give meaning to the pen. A pen alone is of little use. A single pen in the jungle would not benefit us much. A pen requires paper to work. Paper and pen must be produced in factories, distributed, paid for. They require a reliable infrastructure that provides roads, power, safety, a commercial environment in which the pen can be sold, and many other things. So we get into all sorts of economic questions about the pen, and also into issues of geopolitical power structures: the pen is made of plastic and plastic is made of oil. Few countries have commercially viable oil, and this had led, throughout the 20th century, to the enormous rise in power of the Middle East. Suddenly, a whole part of the world that would otherwise be just desert is elevated into a key political player that can dictate world-wide policies. This raises questions of international cooperation and ethical duties towards other societies, colonialism and international justice.
But this pen is also a capitalist pen. It cannot be made by happy farmers in a pre-industrial, agrarian society. It needs a factory that can process plastics and this is only available in what we call “developed” economies. Often, these economies concentrate the money in the hands of few; in this case, all the people who use pens are going to pay for them, but all that money is flowing into one direction and towards a small number of people: those who own the factory. So right there, you have a question of power within society, of power struggle, of wealth and poverty, of factory workers and factory bosses, of alienation, Marxism and the dream of a better society.
A comprehensive overview of Erich Fromm’s philosophy of happiness. We discuss his life, his ideas and his main works, both in their historical context and how they are still relevant for us today.
Then you could look at the pen as a part of someone’s self-definition as a particular kind of person. Some professions depend on pens more than others, and wearing a pen in one’s shirt pocket is a message to one’s surroundings, a statement that the wearer of the pen is a particular kind of person: an intellectual, an office worker, a teacher. So the pen, like any artefact, has a role to play in defining the kind of person who uses it, and so now we are at Heidegger’s ideas on how human beings realise their Being through their choice of tools. A “teacher” is not someone who has a particular education to be a teacher. The education might be necessary in some countries, but is not what really makes or defines a teacher. Someone in a less developed part of the world might be a teacher without having a formal education. They would still be a teacher though, if they actually teach. While a teacher with an education, who is out of a teaching job and now driving a bus, would not be considered a teacher but a bus driver. So actually having and using this pen in a teaching context is what would help define a teacher as a teacher. This pen then becomes part of the self-description and realisation of a particular human role.
So you see how much there is to talk about when we just look at something as common and unremarkable as a cheap, plastic pen. And we could go on for much longer, examining the way the pen looks (aesthetics), the pen’s contribution to society’s traditions and rituals (Confucian ethics), the power-structures that steer society towards needing pens (philosophy of technology), the pen’s contribution to one’s happiness or unhappiness (Epicureanism), the pen’s purpose inside the whole of society and the universe (Aristotle and Natural Law theory) and much more. But we will stop here.
I’d be interested to hear what your take on the question is, whether you are a professional philosopher or just occasionally interested in philosophy. What is philosophy for you? What makes it different from other areas of knowledge? Tell me in the comments!
If you are interested in learning more about philosophy, don’t hesitate to look around this site! You can also find excellent, understandable introductions to philosophy as books. A review of the best introductions to philosophy is here:
We discuss the three best introductory books to philosophy.
Cover image by Danika Perkinson on Unsplash.