What exactly is Philosophy?

This shouldn't be a real problem for a philosopher to answer, but I must admit I find it a perplexing question. It almost seems easier to say what Philosophy is not. But since almost everyone I meet seems to think they know what Philosophy is, and since I almost invariably disagree with what they think it is, let me propose the following description.

Philosophy As An Academic Discipline:

First, and perhaps foremost, Philosophy is an academic discipline. That is, it is a particular field of study within the curriculum of post-secondary education which follows a particular methodology. In that sense Philosophy is a kind of “science” (i.e., a body of knowledge that can be mastered through disciplined investigation and study).

Philosophy is often located within colleges of “Arts and Sciences” in the contemporary university. Unfortunately, it is also often lumped together with and considered one of the Humanities. This is probably the result of administrators who know little of the history of ideas. A proper understanding of what Philosophy is would suggest we have a College of Philosophy with the Natural and Social Sciences as unique schools or departments within it. After all, people do not get a Doctorate of Anthropology or Sociology, or Physics, or Chemistry. Rather one obtains a Doctorate of Philosophy (PhD) in Anthropology or Sociology, or Physics, or Chemistry etc. The reason being, all these other academic disciplines are related to and descended from Philosophy. By this I do not intend to diminish any of these fields in any way; it is just strange the way contemporary higher education has structured things.

The Field(s) of Study


It is important to recognize that the term ‘philosophy’ is a lot like the term ‘science’ in that it refers to a number of related, but distinct investigations. Science is composed of three main subdivisions: Physics, Chemistry, and Biology. Philosophy has five main subdivisions which, like their counterparts in Science, further subdivide into more specific investigations. The five main subdivisions are:

Philosophy As A Way of Life:

It would seem incomplete to give a description of academic Philosophy and ignore its personal dimension. I should say at the outset that not every academic philosopher believes there is a personal dimension to Philosophy, and I certainly do not think it is necessary to have philosophical commitments to study Philosophy. On the other hand, I find it difficult to understand how one could DO Philosophy and not be lathed in the process. For, Philosophy is a kind of process or journey which one undergoes, and it is difficult to see how anyone could escape unchanged.

This overview, all too brief as it is, is not meant to be complete. I only wish to lay out the barest bones in hope that they may be a useful guide to the perplexed or curious. If you have a question, feel free to drop me a line.

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