The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates declared, “Life without philosophy is inconceivable.” But what is “philosophy”? The word “philosophy” was first used by the Greek thinker Pythagoras around 600 B.C. It comes from two Greek terms: phileomeans “love” and sophia means “wisdom.” Philosophy, thus, is the “love of wisdom.” Others have said that philosophy is merely “thinking about thinking.” A more formal definition is this—“Philosophy is the attempt to think rationally and critically about the most important matters.” In the eighteenth century A.D. Immanuel Kant stated that philosophy addresses three main questions: What can I know? What should I do? and What may I hope?
Philosophy is perhaps the broadest discipline of study since it covers almost everything. The five major branches of philosophy are (1) metaphysics (study of reality); (2) epistemology (study of knowledge); (3) ethics (study of right and wrong); logic (study of reasoning); and (5) aesthetics (study of art and beauty). Philosophy also covers several other areas such as Philosophy of Religion, Philosophy of Education, Philosophy of Science, etc. Whenever any discipline is looked at philosophically it comes under the broad umbrella of philosophy.
Some people may wonder whether philosophy is worthy of study. After all isn’t philosophy just a meaningless quibbling over words that doesn’t bring about much practical good? While it is true that much of philosophy can appear meaningless and unpractical, there is value in studying philosophy. First, philosophy deals with the most important questions and issues of life that everybody faces such as, Why am I here? Does this world have a purpose? Does God exist? Is there life after death? What is the basis for right and wrong? Why does evil exist? What makes a war a “just” war? If you have ever wondered about the above topics or other issues like these then you have already engaged in philosophy? Although philosophy can get rather technical at times, philosophy tackles “ultimate issues”—the topics and matters that count the most.
Second, we are all philosophers whether we know it or not so we might as well be good at it. Whenever we deal with the ultimate issues of life we engage in philosophy. Even those who don’t like to study philosophy or say it is irrelevant have reached this conclusion from a philosophical framework. Aristotle said, “All men by nature desire to know.” If that’s true then we are all philosophers to some extent.
A third reason for participating in philosophy is because it will sharpen your thinking skills. As you study philosophy you will engage and evaluate what others have said about various topics. You will be able to make evaluations as to whether you agree or disagree with the ideas of others. Sometimes you may say, “That makes sense to me.” Or, “That’s a really dumb idea; where in the world did he come up with that?” Sometimes you may say, “I’ll have to think about that.” Studying philosophy will help you think. Plus, you will learn a lot as you tap into the great minds of history. You may not agree with everything everybody says, but even in the act of disagreement you will learn something and become a better thinker. So view the study of philosophy as a way to sharpen your own thinking skills.
It’s also important to remember that philosophy is an activity. And just like any activity like bowling or riding a bike, the best way to become better at it is to engage it and work at it. Seriously grapple with philosophical issues. Read the works of philosophers. As you do you will become a better philosopher.