The Big Questions of Philosophy

Let's define our terms a bit.

What is meant by the term, philosophy? 

Etymologically speaking, the word simply means "the love of wisdom". 

More specifically, however, the term refers to one or both of two related meanings.

First, it can refer to a a coherent and consistent answer to the most basic questions of human existence.

Or, second, philosophy can refer to the academic field of study that asks these questions, analyzes how others have addressed them, and seeks to advance answers to them (or at least one of them).

So, what are these questions, these "Big Questions" of philosophy? 

The first question is simply, "what is real?" 

The second question is "how can we know?"

And the third question is, "what should we do?"

And these lend themselves to what are often viewed as the three main branches of philosophy:

Metaphysics -- studying the nature of reality itself. This includes the question of God's existence, the question of monism versus dualism, the meaning and levels of reality, and the relationship between existent things. This branch is also sometimes referred to as ontology.

Epistemology -- studying the nature of human knowledge. Included in this is the question of whether we can know truth at all, what are the right ways of finding truth, and the rules of logic and deduction.

Ethics -- studying human actions and choices. This branch of philosophy seeks to discover the nature of right and wrong, the motivations for ethical behaviors, the universality of ethical norms, and the meaning of justice.

Is this the best way to shape the contours of philosophy?

I would argue not. And my reason is two-fold.

First, though the above is the most common and traditional description of the branches of philosophy, few modern philosophers adhere to it. You will find philosophers talking about the four branches of philosophy, or the five, or the seven, or even the nine. The fact that there is no consensus should tip us off to the fact that the traditional division is not sacrosanct.

Second, there are simply too many ideas and debates in philosophy that do not fit neatly in any of these three categories. For example:

  • The study of beauty and art (aesthetics)
  • The study of human social ordering (political science)
  • The study of history and whether history has a direction or terminus
  • The study of value (axiology)
  • The study of human nature 
  • The study of language and how it is used

And these questions overlap the traditional three branches, and inform the answers they give.

In my next post I will propose a way of organizing the subject matter of philosophy as I think best, and talk about which of these we will focus on.

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