What Is Philosophy?
The traditional definition of philosophy, dating back to Socrates [469-399 B.C.E.], is the search for wisdom. Contemporary philosophers have a difficult time agreeing on a definition of philosophy, but many think of it as inquiry into the most fundamental questions facing human beings. Those questions touch on such important topics as God, the nature of human existence, reality, knowledge, and right and wrong. Philosophy seeks to replace opinion about these topics with knowledge.
A large part of the study of philosophy consists of looking at the answers that have been given to philosophical questions by historically important thinkers. The aim is not only to gain an understanding of a diverse range of world views, but also to help guide students in their own examination of these questions so as to aid them in the attempt to formulate their own views about the world and their place in it.
The distinguishing mark of philosophy is that everything is open to questioning. Presuppositions that are taken for granted in other disciplines and in everyday life are examined to see whether there are good reasons to accept them, or whether they have problems which cast doubt on their acceptability.
Questions asked by philosophers include:
- What is real and what is merely appearance?
- What is the nature of the human mind?
- Do human beings have free will?
- Does God exist, and if so, what is the nature of God?
- What is the difference between knowledge and mere opinion?
- Is knowledge acquired mainly through the senses or through reason?
- Does science provide us with knowledge in a way that other methods of inquiry do not?
- Does faith provide us with knowledge?
- Is knowledge possible at all?
- Is the morality of an action a function of the consequences that are produced by that action?
- Are there objective facts about what is right and wrong, or is morality dependent on individuals' subjective beliefs or the culture which they live in?
- Why should we be moral at all?
- What is the best form of society?
- Are abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, and other controversial actions and policies, morally permissible or immoral?
Some philosophers distinguish different styles of philosophy: analytic, continental, and historical. All three styles are represented by the faculty of the UWG Philosophy Program. For more information on these styles, see the University of Michigan Department of Philosophy web site.