Philosophy: The Core Areas

The Culture Project has always been about starting at the very beginning, and nowhere is this more the case for me than in Philosophy, a subject which has been studied for millennia by people of tremendous genius, and about which I know practically nothing. In the grand tradition, then, of posting literally all I know about a particular subject, here is my brief explanation of the four core areas of Western philosophy, as studied for thousands of years by people much smarter than me.

Raphael school at athens
Raphael’s ‘School at Athens’ a.k.a. ‘that one really famous painting of a whole group of philosophers that you’ll see pretty much any time the subject is mentioned, anywhere’.

Logic: The purpose of logic is to establish whether or not a belief is true, based on whether or not there are good reasons to believe it. Logic centres on arguments, wherein a set of statements (premises) provide reasons for accepting the truth of a conclusion. In some cases, the conclusion must be true if the premises are true (deductive arguments), while in others the most you can say is that the premises indicate that it is highly likely that the conclusion is true (abductive arguments). Maths seems to get involved somewhere along the way, but frankly I’m in no particular hurry to get there.

Epistemology: Is focussed on knowledge, particularly what it is and how we acquire it. How do we tell the difference between knowing something and merely believing it? There’s a divide between Rationalism, which asserts that true knowledge can only be arrived at through reason and the use of one’s own mind and thought processes, and Empiricism, which is equally adamant that true knowledge can only be gained through the senses and by experience. Obviously, neither view is completely correct, so in reality it isn’t so much a divide as a continuum.

Metaphysics: Isn’t about ghosts and the like, but rather the quest for overarching truths that transcend the merely physical – big questions like the nature of being and the existence of God. Ontology, which asks ‘what kinds of things exist?’ and ‘how can we categorise those things?’ is a big part of metaphysics, and while you’d think scientists would be pretty interested in something like that, apparently metaphysics more or less fell completely out of fashion in the science-obsessed 20th century because metaphysicists had an annoying habit of suggesting, with Shakespeare’s Hamlet, that “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Ethics: Also called ‘moral philosophy’ is probably the thing that most of us think of when we think of the word ‘philosophy’. Even most of us religious folks will admit that the world is too complex for a single clear-cut set of moral instructions to cover every single eventuality which we’re likely to encounter, ever. Ethics asks ‘big picture’ questions, like ‘is there even such a thing as good and evil, or is it all relative?’ as well as addressing specific issues, like whether euthanasia should be legal, or whether it’s acceptable to farm animals for food.

The fact that I’ve summed all of this up in less than 500 words should tell you just how little I know – yet – about philosophy. But it’s interesting, and Khan Academy has a fairly extensive collection of videos on the subject, so I’m hoping not to remain ignorant for long.

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