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Philosophy is a study of the reality, causes, and principles underlying being and thinking. It often refers to the collective works of major philosophers; it can mean the academic exploration of various questions raised by philosophers; it can also mean a certain critical, creative way of thinking. None of these meanings can be considered distinctly. Philosophy, in brief, has several connotations in common speech, but this article will focus on philosophy as a field of study.


Philosophical topics

Philosophers are usually concerned with concepts such as existence or being, morality or goodness, knowledge, truth, and beauty; historically most philosophy has also centred on religious beliefs, or coincided with science. Philosophers may ask critical questions about the nature of these concepts, questions typically outside the scope of science, and several major works of post-medieval philosophy begin by asking what philosophy itself should or does mean. Asking what philosophy is is itself a philosophical activity, though philosophers are more often motivated by specific questions such as:

  • What is truth? How or why do we identify a statement as correct or false, and how do we reason?
  • Is knowledge possible? How do we know what we know?
  • Is there a difference between morally right and wrong actions (or values, or institutions)? If so, what is that difference? Which actions are right, and which wrong? Are values absolute, or relative? In general or particular terms, how should I live?
  • What is reality, and what things can be described as real? What is the nature of those things? Do some things exist independently of our perception? What is the nature of space and time? What is the nature of thought and thinking? What is it to be a person?
  • What is it to be beautiful? How do beautiful things differ from the everyday? What is Art?

In Ancient Greek philosophy, these five broad types of questions were respectively called analytical or logical, epistemological, ethical, metaphysical, and aesthetic. They are not the only ones, and Aristotle, who was the first to use this classification, also considered politics, modern day physics, geology, biology, meteorology, and astronomy some of the other branches of philosophical investigation. The Greeks, through of the influence of Socrates and his method, developed a tradition of analysis, dividing a subject into its components to understand it better.

Other traditions did not always use such labels, or emphasize the same themes. Though Hindu philosophy has similarities with Western philosophy, there was no word for philosophy in Japanese, Korean or Chinese until the 19th century, despite the presence of philosophy there over millennia. Chinese philosophers in particular had a different conception of categories from the Greeks, and their definitions were not based on common features, but were usually metaphorical and referred to several subjects at once [1]. However, there are no distinct boundaries between categories even in Western philosophy, and since at least the 19th century, Western philosophical works have more often addressed a nexus of questions without sorting them into distinct areas.

Motives, goals and methods

The word "philosophy" is derived from the ancient Greek (Φιλοσοφία, philosophia) which roughly means "love of wisdom". It suggests a vocation for questioning, learning, and spreading knowledge. Many philosophers are curious about the world, humanity, existence, values, understanding, and the nature of things.

Philosophy can be distinguished from other disciplines by its methods of inquiry. Philosophers often frame their questions as problems or puzzles, in order to give clear examples of their doubts about a subject they find interesting, wonderful or confusing. Often these questions are about the assumptions behind a belief, or about methods by which people reason.

Philosophers typically frame problems in a logical manner, historically using syllogisms of traditional logic, since Frege and Russell increasingly using predicate logic, and then work towards a solution based on critical reading and reasoning. Like Socrates, they search for answers through discussion, or by responding to the arguments of others, or through careful personal contemplation. Philosophers debate the relative merits of these methods, asking whether or not, for example, philosophical "solutions" are objective, definitive, and say something informative about reality; or rather whether these solutions just give more clarity or insight on the logic of our language, or even act as personal therapy. Philosophers seek justification for the answers to their questions.

Language is the philosopher’s primary tool. In the Analytic tradition, debates about philosophical method have been closely connected to debates about the relationship between philosophy and language. There is a similar concern in Continental philosophy. Meta-philosophy, the "philosophy of philosophy", studies the nature of philosophical problems, philosophical solutions, and the proper method for getting from one to another (cf. Pataphysics). These debates are also connected to debates over language and interpretation.

These debates are not less relevant to philosophy as a whole, since the nature and role of philosophy itself has always been an essential part of philosophical deliberations. On the contrary, the existence of fields like Pataphysics, indicates a lengthy debate beyond the scope of this article. Such questions are discussed at greater length elsewhere.

Philosophy is also approached through relationships between components, as in Structuralism and Recursionism. There is, furthermore, the philosophy of science in general, and biophilosophy , in particular.

Non-academic uses of the word

Popularly, the word philosophy is often used to mean any form of assimilated knowledge, or any person's perspective on life (as in "philosophy of life") or basic principles behind or method of achieving something (as in "my philosophy about driving on highways"). This is also commonly referred to as a worldview.

To take another example, reacting to a tragedy philosophically might mean abstaining from passionate reactions in favour of intellectualized detachment. That particular definition arose from the example of Socrates, who calmly discussed the nature of the soul with his followers before consuming the hemlock used to execute him on the orders of an Athenian jury. The Stoics followed Socrates in seeking freedom from their passions, hence the modern use of stoic to refer to calm fortitude.

Philosophical traditions

Members of many societies have considered philosophical questions, and built philosophic traditions based upon each other's works. The term "philosophy" in a Euro-American academic context may misleadingly refer solely to the philosophic traditions of Western European civilization. This is also called "Western philosophy", especially when contrasted with "Eastern philosophy", which broadly subsumes the philosophic traditions of Asia. Both terms group together diverse, even incompatible schools of thought.

Eastern and Middle Eastern philosophical traditions have influenced Western philosophers. Russian, Jewish, Islamic and recently Latin American philosophical traditions have contributed to, or been derivative of Western philosophy, yet retain a unique identity.

It is convenient to divide contemporary Western academic philosophy into two traditions, since applications of the term "Western philosophy" over the past century frequently reveal a bias towards one or the other.

Analytic philosophy is characterized by a precise approach to analysing the language of philosophical questions. The purpose is to lay bare any underlying conceptual confusion. It dominates Anglo-American philosophy, but has some roots in continental Europe, where it is also practiced. The tradition of Analytic philosophy began with Gottlob Frege at the turn of the twentieth-century, passing on to Bertrand Russell, G. E. Moore and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Continental philosophy is a label for various dissimilar schools, predominant in continental Europe, but also at home in many English-speaking Humanities departments, that may examine language, metaphysical approaches, political theory, perspectivalism, or various aspects of the arts and culture. One of the highlights of recent continental philosophical schools is the attempt to reconcile academic philosophy with issues that appear non-philosophical, subverting common expectations of what philosophy is meant to be.

Stanley Cavell, a philosopher whose interests are neither exclusively "analytic" nor "continental", describes this difference in approach by writing that "philosophy may be inherited either as a set of problems to be solved (as Anglo-American analysts do) or else as a set of texts to be read (as Europe does – except of course where it has accepted, or reaccepted, analysis). You can sense how different imperatives for training, different standards for criticism and conversation, different genres of composition, different personas of authorship, will arise from this difference in modes of inheritance." ("The Philosopher in American Life," in Emerson’s Transcendental Etudes, 45-46)

The divisions between all of these traditions are arbitrary. The differences between traditions are often based on their favored historical philosophers, favored emphases on ideas, and styles or languages of writing. The subject matter and dialogues of each can be studied using methods derived from the others, and there have been significant commonalities and exchanges between them.

Other philosophical traditions, such as in Africa, are rarely considered in foreign academia. On account of the widespread emphasis on Western philosophy as a reference point, the study, preservation and dissemination of valuable but not widely known non-Western philosophical works faces many obstacles.

Languages can also be a barrier or a vehicle to ideas. The question of what and whether specific languages can be considered essential to philosophizing is a theme in the works of many recent philosophers.

Western philosophy

The Western philosophic tradition began with the Greeks and continues to the present day. Famous Western philosophers include Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Michel de Montaigne, Francis Bacon, René Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, George Berkeley, John Locke, David Hume, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Arthur Schopenhauer, Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, Henri Bergson, Edmund Husserl, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Theodor Adorno, Jacques Derrida and Willard van Orman Quine.

Western philosophy is sometimes divided into several branches for study, based on the questions addressed by people working in different parts of the field. The most common categories are metaphysics, epistemology, ethics and aesthetics. Some of the other disciplines include logic, philosophy of language and political philosophy. For more information, see Western philosophy.

Eastern philosophy

Eastern philosophy follows the broad traditions that originated from or were popular within ancient India and China. Famous Eastern philosophers include Kapila, Yajnavalkya, Gautama Buddha, Akshapada Gotama, Nagarjuna, Confucius, Lao Zi (Lao Tzu), Zhuang Zi (Chuang Tzu), Mencius, Xun Zi, Zhu Xi, Wang Yangming, Dharmakirti , Sankara, Ramanuja , Vivekananda, Aurobindo and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan.

Indian philosophy is perhaps the most comparable to Western philosophy. For instance, the ancient Nyaya school of Hindu philosophy explores logic as some modern Analytyic philosophers do; but there are important differences - e.g. ancient Indian philosophy traditionally emphasized the teachings of schools or ancient texts, rather than individual philosophers, most of whom either wrote anonymously or whose names were simply not transmitted or recorded. For more information on Eastern philosophies, see Eastern philosophy.

Other philosophical traditions are linked below.

Applied philosophy

Though often seen as a wholly abstract field, philosophy is not without practical applications. The most obvious applications are those in ethics -- applied ethics in particular -- and in political philosophy. The political philosophies of Confucius, Kautilya, Sun Tzu, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill, Mahatma Gandhi, and John Rawls have shaped and been used to justify governments and their actions.

Philosophy of education deserves special mention, as well; progressive education as championed by John Dewey has had a profound impact on educational practices in the United States in the twentieth century. It could be argued that some New Age philosophies, such as the "Celestine Prophecy ", inadvertently educate people about human psychology and power relationships through the use of spiritual metaphor.

Other important applications can be found in epistemology, which might help one to regulate one's notions of what knowledge, evidence, and justified belief are. Two useful ways that epistemology and logic can inform the real world are through the fields of journalism and police investigation. Informal logic has fantastic applications, helping citizens to be critical in reading rhetoric and in everyday discussion. Philosophy of science discusses the underpinnings of the scientific method. Aesthetics can help to interpret discussions of art. Even ontology, surely the most abstract and least practical-seeming branch of philosophy, has had important consequences for logic and computer science.

In general, the various "philosophies of," such as philosophy of law, can provide workers in their respective fields with a deeper understanding of the theoretical or conceptual underpinnings of their fields.

Moreover, a burgeoning profession devoted to applying philosophy to the problems of ordinary life has recently developed, called philosophical counseling. Moreover, many Eastern philosophies can and do help millions of people with anxiety problems through their emphasis on meditation, calm, and the connection between the health of the body and the health of the soul.

See also



For beginners

  • Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction by Edward Craig
  • The Complete Idiot's Guide to Philosophy (2nd Edition) by Jay Stevenson
  • Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder
  • Philosophy Now magazine
  • Big Questions: A Short Introduction to Philosophy by Robert C. Solomon
  • A Short History of Philosophy by Robert C. Solomon, Kathleen M. Higgins
  • The Problems of Philosophy by Bertrand Russell
  • Philosophy: The Basics by Nigel Warburton.

Topical introductions

  • A Short History of Modern Philosophy by Roger Scruton
  • World Philosophies by Ninian Smart
  • Indian Philosophy: a Very Short Introduction by Sue Hamilton
  • A Brief Introduction to Islamic Philosophy by Oliver Leaman
  • Eastern Philosophy For Beginners by Jim Powell, Joe Lee
  • An Introduction to African Philosophy by Samuel Oluoch Imbo
  • Philosophy in Russia: From Herzen to Lenin and Berdyaev by Frederick Copleston
  • Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction by Simon Critchley
  • Complete Idiot's Guide to Eastern Philosophy by Jay Stevenson
  • Classic Asian Philosophy: A Guide to the Essential Texts by Joel J. Kupperman


  • Philosophic Classics: From Plato to Derrida (4th Edition) by Forrest E. Baird
  • Classics of Philosophy (Vols. 1 & 2, 2nd edition) by Louis P. Pojman
  • Classics of Philosophy: The 20th Century (Vol. 3) by Louis P. Pojman
  • The English Philosophers from Bacon to Mill by Edwin Arthur Burtt
  • European Philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche by Monroe Beardsley
  • Contemporary Analytic Philosophy: Core Readings by James Baillie
  • Existentialism: Basic Writings (Second Edition) by Charles Guignon, Derk Pereboom
  • The Phenomenology Reader by Dermot Moran, Timothy Mooney
  • Medieval Islamic Philosophical Writings edited by Muhammad Ali Khalidi
  • A Source Book in Indian Philosophy by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Charles A. Moore
  • A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy by Wing-Tsit Chan

Reference works

  • The Oxford Companion to Philosophy edited by Ted Honderich
  • The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy by Robert Audi
  • The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (10 vols.) edited by Edward Craig, Luciano Floridi (also available online by subscription); or
  • The Concise Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy edited by Edward Craig (an abridgement)
  • Routledge History of Philosophy (10 vols.) edited by John Marenbon
  • History of Philosophy (9 vols.) by Frederick Copleston
  • A History of Western Philosophy (5 vols.) by W. T. Jones
  • Encyclopaedia of Indian Philosophies (8 vols.), edited by Karl H. Potter et al (first 6 volumes out of print)
  • Indian Philosophy (2 vols.) by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan
  • A History of Indian Philosophy (5 vols.) by Surendranath Dasgupta
  • History of Chinese Philosophy (2 vols.) by Fung Yu-lan, Derk Bodde
  • Encyclopedia of Chinese Philosophy edited by Antonio S. Cua
  • Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion by Ingrid Fischer-Schreiber, Franz-Karl Ehrhard, Kurt Friedrichs
  • Companion Encyclopedia of Asian Philosophy by Brian Carr, Indira Mahalingam
  • A Concise Dictionary of Indian Philosophy: Sanskrit Terms Defined in English by John A. Grimes
  • History of Islamic Philosophy edited by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Oliver Leaman
  • History of Jewish Philosophy edited by Daniel H. Frank, Oliver Leaman
  • A History of Russian Philosophy: From the Tenth to the Twentieth Centuries by Valerii Aleksandrovich Kuvakin

External links

Wikiquote has a collection of quotations by or about:

Some of these websites contain links to online texts of philosophy, as do many related articles on Wikipedia.


  • Talk Philosophy -- A place to discuss topics in all areas of philosophy from ethics to aesthetics.
  • Philosophy Forums -- a place to discuss Philosophy with a discursive library on Philosophical topics.

Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45