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What is philosophy?

Very briefly, philosophy might be regarded as a conceptual enquiry dealing with fundamental issues relating to life, knowledge and values. By conceptual enquiry we mean an enquiry that relies primarily on critical reasoning. This includes :

  • Analysing the meaning of concepts
  • Identifying logical connections between theories
  • Evaluating arguments and exposing fallacies

Philosophy and other subjects

According to such a conception of philosophy, philosophy is distinctive in both its method and subject matter. Art or literature might also deal with fundamental issues in life, but the use of critical reasoning is not a necessary part of artistic expression. Critical reasoning of course plays an important role in science, but science is an empirical enquiry into the nature of the world, relying on observations and experiments.

In such respects philosophy is more like mathematics and logic. However, the subject matter of philosophy is more general in that it deals with all sorts of different areas outside mathematics and logic, such as religion and morality.

Although philosophy is different from science, it would be a mistake to conclude that philosophy cannot contribute to the development of science. Philosophers can help scientists clarify the basic concepts in scientific theories, and use their skills in logic to evaluate the strength of evidence supporting or criticizing particular theories. Many sciences (e.g. psychology) originally developed out of philosophy.

What philosophy can do

Why should you study philosophy? First and foremost, studying philosophy improves your thinking skills, and this is of course important whatever your future career is supposed to be. Although the world changes all the time, employers will always want to hire people who can think well and are good at solving problems.

Studying philosophy gives you the ability to organize ideas systematically, and see things from different perspectives. This also means you will get better at studying other subjects as well.

Philosophy can also play a transformative role in our lives and social institutions. Through critical reflection on the justification and coherence of the values in social practices and our own actions, we do not just acquire a deeper understanding of our culture and of who we are. This understanding can also pave the way for us to improve ourselves and the world around us.

Finally, philosophy can be really fun!

Two approaches to philosophy

You probably have heard about the distinction between analytic and continental philosophy in western philosophy. Personally I think it is a rather confusing distinction and is not very useful. First, "analytic" describes a method whereas "continental" describes a geographical region, so this is not quite the right contrast. The distinction gives the impression that if you study continental philosophy then you do not have to be analytic. But if being analytic is a matter of being careful and precise in our reasoning, surely this is important whichever branch of philosophy we are engaged in.

It is perhaps more useful to distinguish between history-based and problem-based approaches. A history-based approach to philosophy aims at understanding the history of ideas, the evolution of intellectual currents at different times, and what particular thinkers thought about certain philosophical problems. A problem-based approach is more concerned with understanding and solving particular philosophical problems, such as whether God exists. It pays more attention to the validity of the relevant arguments and care a bit less as to whether the arguments capture exactly the thoughts of past thinkers.


Here are some quotes from some famous philosophers on what philosophy is about :

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Ludwig Wittgenstein Tractatus 4.112

Philosophy aims at the logical clarification of thoughts. Philosophy is not a body of doctrine but an activity. A philosophical work consists essentially of elucidations. Philosophy does not result in philosophical propositions', but rather in the clarification of propositions. Without philosophy thoughts are, as it were, cloudy and indistinct: its task is to make them clear and to give them sharp boundaries.

William James

William James Some Problems of Philosophy

Philosophy, beginning in wonder ... is able to fancy everything different from what it is. It sees the familiar as if it were strange, and the strange as if it were familiar. It can take things up and lay them down again. Its mind is full of air that plays round every subject. It rouses us from our native dogmatic slumber and breaks up our caked prejudices. Historically it has been a sort of fecundation for different human interests, science, poetry, religion and logic ... It has sought by hard reasoning for results emotionally valuable. To have some sontact with it, to catch its influence, is thus good for both literary and scientific students. By its poetry it appeals to literary minds; but its logic stiffens them up and remedies their softness. By its logic it appeals to the scientific; but softens them by its other aspects, and saves them from too dry a technicality. Both types of student ought to get from philosophy a livelier spirit, more air, more mental backgroud ... A man with no philosophy in him is the most inauspicious and unprofitable of all possible social mates.

Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Russell A History of Western Philosophy Introduction

Philosophy ... is something intermediate between theology and science. Like theology, it consists of speculations on matters as to which definite knowledge has, so far, been unascertainable; but like science, it appeals to human reason rather than to authority, whether that of tradition or that of revelation.

David Lewis

David Lewis Counterfactuals

One comes to philosophy already endowed with a stock of opinions. It is not the business of philosophy either to undermine or to justify these pre-existing opinions, to any great extent, but only to try to discover ways of expanding them into an orderly system. A metaphysician's analysis of mind is an attempt at systematizing our opinions about mind. It succeeds to the extent that (1) it is systematic, and (2) it respects those of our pre- philosophical opinions to which we are fimrly attached. In so far as it does both better than any alternative we have thought of, we give it credence. There is some give-and- take, but not too much: some of us sometimes change our minds on some points of common opinion, if they conflict irremediably with a doctrine that commands our belief by its systematic beauty and its agreement with more important common opinions.

Sir Karl Popper

Sir Karl Popper

Philosophers should not be specialists. For myself, I am interested in science and in philosophy only because I want to learn something about the riddle of the world in which we live, and the riddle of man's knowledge of that world. And I believe that only a revival of interest in these riddles can save the sciences and philosophy from an obscurantist faith in the expert's special skill and in his personal knowledge and authority.