The word ‘philosophy’ stems from the Greek root ‘philo’ which means love and ‘sophos” which refers to wisdom. Philosophy is all about knowledge and exploration of our world to further and explore that knowledge. It touches on questions as deep as the meaning of life itself.
The history of philosophy is full of well-known names like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. However, it expands much further than the period of classical philosophy and can be applied to many situations in life, including the everyday modern world in which we live and the problems that we need to work through.
What is Philosophy?
Philosophy is technically defined as “the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence, especially when considered as an academic discipline,” but what does that mean?
It is a method of thinking about the universe, our world, and our society. We engage in philosophical discussion and thought by asking simple questions about the nature of human thought and the universe, and by exploring the connections between them.
Philosophy allows us to look at things in a logical but extensive manner to reach a fuller understanding and find solutions as well as answers to life’s questions.
- Brown University: Philosophy: What and why?
- Plymouth State University: What is philosophy?
- University of Missouri: What is philosophy?
- University of Wisconsin Milwaukee: What do you study in philosophy?
Philosophy in Everyday Life
As we go about our day, even simple things can provoke philosophical questions:
- Why do we do the things we do?
- Why do we take the jobs we take?
- Why do we love the people we love?
- Why do we eat the food we eat?
Philosophy is about developing ways to answer those and other questions. It is about finding solutions to our problems, both great and small. It helps us develop approaches to problems that need deeper thought rather than simple solutions (although that deeper thought may, in fact, lead to simple solutions on occasion).
There is no limit to philosophical exploration inspired by the lives we lead and the surroundings and society we find ourselves in. It is about discovering the “why?” and looking into what underlies our everyday behaviors. The key is in the thorough investigation of these questions, rather than just in the questions themselves.
By using philosophy, we become explorers and investigators of the way we think and explore. We may come to ask questions such as:
- Is this a complete idea?
- Is more information needed?
- Is this logical or built on a fallacy?
- Does this still hold true when measured against other established ideas?
- Do aspects of the idea contradict each other?
- Would this provide consistent results if it were applied?
- Is this safe to pursue or would it endanger other people?
- Government of Texas: The use of philosophy in everyday life
- National Endowment for the Humanities: Philosophy as a way of life
History of Philosophy
When we think of philosophy, it is classical philosophy that first springs to mind. Classical philosophy began to enter our history books and collective knowledge in the fifth through fourth century B.C.
Socrates was concerned with ethics, or the behavior of people. He developed critical thinking methods for determining if actions were right or wrong. These would become known widely as the Socratic Method. The method required utilizing a series of questions, which sometimes got Socrates himself into trouble. In fact, he was eventually put to death by authorities in Athens.
One of Socrates more well-known students was Plato, a philosopher who expanded on Socrates’ teaching by freely mixing ethics, political philosophy, metaphysics, and epistemology. He developed organized methods of thought to deal with all of these subjects and to interweave them. Plato became known for his doctrines including those as platonic realism, essentialism, and idealism.
Plato had a famous student as well. His student, Aristotle, would become known for a more expansive system of philosophy that included logic, science, ethics, aesthetics, politics, and metaphysics. He developed a system of deductive logic that would last for centuries.
However, the history of philosophy and great philosophers does not end with classical philosophy. After the classical period, there was the development of medieval philosophy, followed by early modern philosophy, nineteenth-century philosophy, and then twentieth-century philosophy.
In twentieth-century philosophy, we have been introduced to existentialism, structuralism, post-structuralism, post-modernism, and deconstructionism.
- Santa Rosa Junior College: A philosophical timeline of lives and texts
- Penn State: A whirlwind timeline of (mostly) Western philosophy
Books for Beginners
Are you looking for somewhere to start your journey into philosophy? Consider diving into any of the following great works:
- Plato: Five Dialogues by Plato
- The Last Days of Socrates by Plato
- Meno by Plato
- Republic by Plato
- The Stranger by Albert Camus
- At the Existentialist Cafe by Sarah Bakewell
- The Emperor’s New Mind by Roger Penrose
- Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle
- Discourses, Fragments, Handbook by Epictetus
- Confessions by Augustine of Hippo
- Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius
- The Genealogy of Morals by Friedrich Nietzsche
- Georgia State University: Summer reading
- Claremont Lincoln University: Three timeless philosophy books every leader needs to read
Beginner Philosophy Resources
Do you want to learn about the basics of philosophy but aren’t sure where to start? Start with the basics and then explore the aspects of philosophy that resonate the most with you.
Consider some of these great resources for learning about the basic structure of philosophy and how to apply it:
- Perdue University: Self-guided tutorial in philosophy
- Columbia College: Philosophy resource guide: Existentialism
- Emporia State University: What is philosophy?
- American Philosophical Association: Links
Philosophy for Kids
Are you hoping to develop an interest in philosophy in your kids? It’s never too early to start! Get them interested in exploring – and questioning – the world around them.
The following resources offer fun and educational methods for getting them interested in the subject: