To understand the meaning of philosophy, one must look to human nature for instruction. Wherever there is a curious mind, philosophy is present. If you want to know why something has happened, you are making a philosophical inquiry. If you find yourself in an ethical dilemma, you must make a decision using your intuition, sense of right and wrong, and/or your observations. These are all just philosophy acted out in real-time with real consequences. Many people think that philosophy can only be found in boring old texts or stuffy classrooms, but is not enough to merely study or read about philosophy; one must actively contemplate it and, hopefully, act on the ideas that stem from this contemplation.
Philosophy, in essence, is a search for answers. It is an admission of inadequacy, insofar as it is an admission that one does not and cannot know all things. Even when a philosopher espouses a particular theory over another, it is merely an adoption of one possibility among many. In philosophy, there are various different schools of thought, theories, and traditions, all of which form a larger picture of the human condition and the history of human thought. But what constitutes philosophy? How can you use it in your daily life, and to what end? Where did philosophy begin, and how many different schools of thought exist today?
How does philosophy impact my daily life?
What comes to mind when you think about philosophy? Many people think of the famous philosophers of Ancient Greece, like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Others think of politics, and the philosophies underpinning constitutions, governments, and entire societies. For some, perhaps something entirely different comes to mind, or even nothing at all, as many consider philosophy to be inherently abstract and incompatible with daily life. Though philosophy is inextricably linked with the contemplation of existence, not everything is concerned with the big picture. Much of philosophy looks at the day-to-day issues people face, like moral dilemmas, the acquisition of knowledge, and the evaluation of beauty and art.
It may be difficult to notice the impact of philosophy in your daily life, but it is there. Unless you are taking philosophy classes or are a member of a philosophy club, it can seem like philosophy is completely absent from your daily activities. However, this could not be farther from the truth. Whenever you have a discussion or contemplate your life or your choices, philosophy is present. Philosophy is everywhere!
Philosophy for Self-Improvement
It is important to note that philosophy is not merely linked to life in general. It is also a valuable tool for evaluating and improving your own life and mental faculties. When you were young, your parents or teachers often practiced philosophy with you, and you may have even practiced it with yourself without even realizing it. You may have asked, ‘why do we hurt each other?' or ‘where do we come from?' and your parents did their best to answer you, though each of these questions and answers most likely spawned a thousand more questions.
In this moment of inquiry, a philosopher was born. Of course, to be a philosopher by profession is an entirely different thing, but everyone, just by virtue of existing and inquiring and contemplating, is a philosopher. It is an activity that all humans share with each other, and has played a vital role in the history of the human condition.
However, philosophy is not just a means for children to understand the world around them. To improve one's life through philosophy, one must start at the beginning. In the beginning of philosophical inquiry, there are certain basic questions that must be addressed. Why are we here? What is the meaning of my life? What is the meaning of ALL life? How can I lead a good life? What does it mean to be ‘good?' In the realm of philosophical inquiries, questions often breed more questions, and concrete answers appear infrequently, if at all. You may think this sounds like a reason to abandon it altogether, but questioning and seeking answers are just as important as the answers themselves.
What is the purpose of philosophy?
Philosophy is a means by which we can think about and (hopefully) come to understand ourselves and our existence. You may ask, to what end? Why does philosophy need to have profound meaning in my life? Why should I understand these things, if I may never find answers, or if all of that knowledge will be lost someday when I die? These questions are themselves perfect examples of philosophical inquiry. It is still a form of philosophy to question the purpose and validity of philosophy itself.
Nonetheless, this still begs the question: what is the purpose of philosophy? It is not an easy question to answer, as philosophy can serve many purposes for different people. However, generally speaking, philosophy is a means of understanding yourself and the world around you. Why would you want to do that? For most people, ignorance is a negative quality and knowledge a good quality. Why is that the case? Because, from the first days of mankind, as far as one can know, people were fairly ignorant. In the moment you were born, you did not understand anything. However, you wanted to know. You wanted to know where you came from, why you came into existence, how long you could continue to exist, and so on.
Philosophy and Human Nature
People are curious by nature. Sure, some are more curious than others, but in general, everyone has a yearning for knowledge and understanding within them. So, to understand is to fulfill a basic human need. But, you may ask, what is the larger purpose of philosophy? Does one only practice philosophy to fulfill some basic need, like eating or drinking water? The answer, in a way, is yes. Practicing philosophy is like eating and drinking, to a degree. When you eat a healthy diet, you improve, or at the very least maintain the health of your body. When you practice philosophy, you do the same thing, but for your mind.
Philosophy is, above all else, an activity of the mind. Even when two people are having a philosophical debate, they are using their minds to bring all participants closer to the truth. You practice philosophy to increase your own understanding of things and improve the inner-workings of the mind, and hopefully, the minds of others. Some philosophical debates lead to monumental conclusions, like when the Founding Fathers debated the philosophical principles that would form the foundation of the United States. Other debates are ostensibly less consequential, but even a philosophical argument between two friends results in one or both parties expanding their ability to reason, to question, and to understand abstract concepts.
How did philosophy get started?
The beginning of philosophy is difficult to determine accurately. However, it is safe to assume that the earliest humans were practicing philosophy in one form or another. Early religions looked to the sun as a deity, providing light and warmth and sustenance. They questioned their existence and then, based on limited available evidence and basic reasoning skills, formed theories about the meaning of life, and then developed religious doctrine from these theories.
The modern conception and meaning of philosophy traces back to the 6th Century BCE in Ancient Greece, though evidence of earlier Eastern philosophies can be found in different texts and records from the Middle East and Asia. However, the philosophers of Ancient Greece shaped the concept of modern philosophy (particularly in the West) as we know it today. In this period, philosophers tried to make sense of many different things and ideas, without the need for religion, though many of them inadvertently utilized religious dogma and cultural norms of the time in their discussions and writings.
Although hundreds of influential people practiced philosophy in Ancient Greece (and other regions), experts generally regard a handful of individuals as the fathers of modern philosophy: Socrates, his student, Plato, and then later Aristotle, who expanded on the works of them both. Governments, laws, ethical principles, and even diets have been formed solely based on the writings, teachings, and discussions of these three men.
What are the main branches of philosophy?
There are hundreds of different branches of philosophy, but within those different subsets and schools of thought there are essentially five main branches of philosophy from which all others derive. Most of them began, or were at least expanded during the height of modern philosophy in Ancient Greece, though some have taken on new meaning and significance in recent times. The five main branches are Aesthetics, Epistemology, Ethics, Logic, and Metaphysics.
Aesthetics is primarily concerned with beauty and art. Generally speaking, there are two basic schools of thought within Aesthetics. One school sees beauty as a subjective quality. Individuals can see a piece of art as beautiful, while others can see the same piece of art as not-beautiful. Therefore, beauty is subjective. Alternatively, others see beauty as an objective concept, unchanged by the differing opinions of individuals. This school of thought puts emphasis on the inherent properties of things, which have the capacity to give them an objective beauty. This school of thought started in Ancient Greece with Plato and Aristotle, and was expanded upon centuries later by Kant, among others.
Epistemology is an area of study that focuses on knowledge; specifically, what is meant by knowledge, how one can acquire it, and the limitations that come along with it. There are many different schools of thought within this branch. However, philosophers traditionally define knowledge as a “justified, true belief.” Despite sounding adequate, many scholars have called this definition into question. For example, one may ask: what is meant by “justified?” How can one know if is something is objectively true? Is there any such concept as ‘objective truth?' Epistemological philosophers like Aristotle, John Locke, and Edmund Gettier addressed these and many other related questions.
Ethics is just as it sounds: a philosophical branch concerned with what is right and wrong. More importantly, ethics seeks to address how or even if we can know the difference. Within this branch, there are generally three subsets: Meta-ethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics. Meta-ethics asks whether or not there are objective ethical principles that exist outside of human activities. Normative ethics concerns itself with the development of morality. Lastly, applied ethics focuses on how individual dilemmas can be resolved using various moral theories. Many (if not most) prominent philosophers have touched on ethics in one way or another, from Socrates to Peter Singer.
Logic, in many ways, serves as the foundation for the other branches of philosophy. It is concerned with reason, and how reason can be properly applied in the pursuit of truth and knowledge. Without logic, philosophy would probably be an art-form similar to poetry, rather than a subject of study. There have been many important figures in the development of the philosophy of logic, including Aristotle, Hegel, and Wittgenstein.
Finally, metaphysics is the study of the nature of reality. It is primarily concerned with the nature of substance, the universe, and existence. Aristotle named it the “First Philosophy,” though few people call it by that name today. He referred to it as the First Philosophy because he saw metaphysics as the starting point, from which all other philosophies emerged and flourished. Many philosophers expanded on the ideas set out by Aristotle, including Descartes and Heidegger.
Though some view philosophy as too abstract, it is of vital importance for the improvement of the mind, the evaluation of everyday activities, and even the security and progress of future generations. The meaning of philosophy is difficult to pin down, but the human race is unique insofar as it has the tools to find an answer. Humans are perhaps the only species that can contemplate their own existence. People have been doing it for thousands of years, but there are many questions that remained unanswered to this day, and may never be answered. Nonetheless, philosophy lives on in everyone, and helps address all of the most pressing issues that humans face.