0.1 What is Philosophy?


By the end of this section you will discover:

  • What the academic study of philosophy is (and is not).
  • How philosophy and science differ.
  • What some of the major topics of philosophy are.

In approaching this course you may have wondered what philosophy is all about.  You may have already had a vague idea that it was about thinking and debating ideas.  You probably were asked, or will be asked someday, to write a personal philosophy when applying for programs and opportunities.  This section aims to articulate what philosophy means as an historical and academic discipline.

What is Philosophy?  Crash Course Philosophy #1

Or watch the video here


The following article gives us a picture of how philosophy differs from the sciences and introduces us to some of the major divisions of philosophical exploration. As you read, consider the following questions:

  • How does philosophy differ from science?
  • What questions does philosophical metaphysics explore?
  • What are the aims of epistemology?
  • What dimensions of human life are explored by ethics?

Many answers have been offered in reply to this question and most are angling at something similar. My favorite answer is that philosophy encompasses all rational inquiry except for science.

How does Philosophy differ from Science?   Perhaps you think science exhausts inquiry. About a hundred years ago, many philosophers, especially the Logical Positivists, thought there was nothing we could intelligibly inquire into except for scientific matters. But this view is probably not right. What branch of science addresses the question of whether science covers all rational inquiry? If the question strikes you as puzzling, this might be because you already recognize that whether science can answer every question is not itself a scientific issue. Questions about the limits of human inquiry and knowledge are philosophical questions.

What are the topics covered by philosophy?  We can get a better understanding of philosophy by considering what sorts of things other than scientific issues humans might inquire into. Philosophical issues are as diverse and far ranging as those we find in the sciences, but a great many of them fall into one of three big topic areas, metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics.


Metaphysical issues are concerned with the nature of reality. Traditional metaphysical issues include the existence of God and the nature of human free will (assuming we have any). Here are a few metaphysical questions of interest to contemporary philosophers: What is a thing? How are space and time related? Does the past exist? How about the future? How many dimensions does the world have? Are there any entities beyond physical objects (like numbers, properties, and relations)? If so, how are they related to physical objects? Historically, many philosophers have proposed and defended specific metaphysical positions, often as part of systematic and comprehensive metaphysical views. But attempts to establish systematic metaphysical world views have been notoriously unsuccessful.

Since the 19th century many philosophers and scientists have been understandably suspicious of metaphysics, and it has frequently been dismissed as a waste of time, or worse, as meaningless. But in just the past few decades metaphysics has returned to vitality. As difficult as they are to resolve, metaphysical issues are also difficult to ignore for long. Contemporary analytic metaphysics is typically taken to have more modest aims than definitively settling on the final and complete truth about the underlying nature of reality. A better way to understand metaphysics as it is currently practiced is as aiming at better understanding how various claims about the reality logically hang together or conflict. Metaphysicians analyze metaphysical puzzles and problems with the goal of better understanding how things could or could not be. Metaphysicians are in the business of exploring the realm of possibility and necessity. They are explorers of logical space.


Epistemology is concerned with the nature of knowledge and justified belief. What is knowledge? Can we have any knowledge at all? Can we have knowledge about the laws of nature, the laws or morality, or the existence of other minds? The view that we can’t have knowledge is called skepticism. An extreme form of skepticism denies that we can have any knowledge whatsoever. But we might grant that we can have knowledge about some things and remain skeptics concerning other issues. Many people, for instance, are not skeptics about scientific knowledge, but are skeptics when it comes to knowledge of morality. Later in this course we will entertain some skeptical worries about science, and we will consider whether ethics is really in a more precarious position. Some critical attention reveals that scientific knowledge and moral knowledge face many of the same skeptical challenges and share some similar resources in addressing those challenges. Many of the popular reasons for being more skeptical about morality than science turn on philosophical confusions we will address and attempt to clear up.

Even if we lack absolute and certain knowledge of many things, our beliefs about those things might yet be reasonable or more or less likely to be true given the limited evidence we have. Epistemology is also concerned with what it is for a belief to be rationally justified.  Even if we can’t have certain knowledge of anything (or much), questions about what we ought to believe remain relevant.


While epistemology is concerned with what we ought to believe and how we ought to reason, Ethics is concerned with what we ought to do, how we ought to live, and how we ought to organize our communities. Sadly, it comes as a surprise to many new philosophy students that you can reason about such things. Religiously inspired views about morality often take right and wrong to be simply a matter of what is commanded by a divine being. Moral Relativism, perhaps the most popular opinion among people who have rejected faith, simply substitutes the commands of society for the commands of God. Commands are simply to be obeyed, they are not to be inquired into, assessed for reasonableness, or tested against the evidence. Thinking of morality in terms of whose commands are authoritative leaves no room for rational inquiry into how we ought to live, how we ought to treat others, or how we ought to structure our communities. Philosophy, on the other hand, takes seriously the possibility of rational inquiry into these matters. If philosophy has not succeeded in coming up with certain and definitive answer in ethics, this is in part because philosophers take the answers to moral questions to be things we need to discover, not simply matters of somebody’s say so. The long and difficult history of science should give us some humble recognition of how difficult and frustrating careful inquiry and investigation can be. So, we don’t know for certain what the laws of morality are. We also don’t have a unified field theory in physics. Why expect morality to be any easier?

So, we might think of metaphysics as concerned with “What is it?” questions, epistemology as concerned with “How do we know?” questions, and ethics as concerned with “What should we do about it?” questions. …  (Payne, Ch 1)


Works Cited

Crash Course. “What Is Philosophy?: Crash Course Philosophy #1.” YouTube, PBS Digital Studios, 8 Feb. 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1A_CAkYt3GY&list=PLUHoo4L8qXthO958RfdrAL8XAHvk5xuu9&index=2.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

PPSC PHI 1011: The Philosopher's Quest by Daniel G. Shaw, Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book