The Fields

Philosophy: Love of Wisdom

The word “Philosophy” is a combination of two Greek words: Philos and Sophia.  The word “philos” refers to a type of love, the love that exists between someone and his or her friends, or between someone and his or her family.  The word “sophia” means wisdom, which is the ability to make choices in life that lead to fulfilling results.  Socrates was the first to use the word “philosophy” and meant by it the “love of wisdom” in the following sense: when one loves wisdom, one seeks it as a friend and hopes to be worthy of it.


Basic Description: What is meant by “the fields of philosophy” is just the basic divisions of the discipline of philosophy.  Just as other disciplines (such as Biology, Physics, History, and English) have basic divisions or fields, so does philosophy.  The discipline of history, for instance, has European History, American History, and the History of Latin America.  The discipline of Biology, as another example, has fields such as Biochemistry, Anatomy, and Virology.  In any discipline these can be called “fields” or “branches” or “divisions.”  Here we are calling them “fields.”  Fields are just ways of organizing sets of related questions.  Questions and investigations that are similar fall within the same field.  We can start with three fields most often taught in college.

In philosophy, the field of metaphysics includes any questions or investigations into what is ultimately real, as opposed to what merely seems to be real.  So, for example, the question “Does God exist?” is a metaphysical questions since it concerns whether a divine being exists, not just whether there seems to be such a being to some people.  The question “Do we have free will?” is a metaphysical question because it is about what is ultimately real, not just what seems to be real.  There is no doubt that it feels like I have free will, that I decide for myself, and choose what to do. That it does feel like that to me is true.  However, the question “Do I have free will?” is not a question about how it feels to me (or what seems to me to be true), it is a question about what really is real, about what is ultimately real.  Other metaphysical questions include the following: “Does the soul exist independently of the body?” “Is the soul immortal?” and “Is there anything about me that stays the same throughout my entire life?”

The field of epistemology is concerned with questions of knowledge.  Here are the basic epistemological questions: What can we know? How can we know it?  Consider, for example, that some people deny that we can really know anything.  They tell us that all the things we call “knowledge” are really just beliefs or opinions.  This position is called epistemological skepticism.  A skeptic is anyone who denies that we can know.  On the other hand, some people believe that we have real knowledge, and that science provides us with knowledge of the world.  According to them the methods used in science actually lead to real knowledge.  In philosophy, we consider the reasons for and against any claims concerning knowledge.  Each of these views would need to be defended, and each belongs to the field of epistemology.

Ethics, as a field of philosophy, is about what is good/bad (right/wrong) when it comes to how human beings life, or how they interact with one another.   Ethical questions include: “Is it always wrong to lie?” “Is pleasure the highest good?”  “Is it always right to do what is one’s own best interest?”  Importantly, the field of ethics does not aim to simply describe or report what most people believe (common views about ethics).  Rather, the aim is to critically evaluate the various competing positions and to determine which of them is the stronger view.  As with any field of philosophy a central part of ethics involves the evaluation of arguments (or supporting reasons) for a position.

Now lets look more closely at the branches.


Metaphysics — The central question is this: How is reality structured? More fully, metaphysics investigates questions concerning ultimate reality without presupposing the correctness of common views.  Importantly, it does not hold that its questions are unanswerable.  The focus of this branch of philosophy is the fundamental nature of reality: Ontology (what are the fundamental building-blocks of reality?) and Metaphysics proper (what is the structure of reality?).  Though Metaphysics does take into account discoveries in science, it generally deals with questions not addressed by the sciences.  Such questions include: Does science give us a complete picture of reality?  Is science objective? Does God exist?  Do we have free will?  Could the soul be immortal?  What is the nature of causality?  Is probability a feature of the universe?

Epistemology — The central question is this: What can we know? More fully, epistemology investigates questions concerning knowledge without presupposing the correctness of common views.  Though skepticism (the view that we cannot know) is one popular view, it is only one among many epistemological positions.  Claims to knowledge must be distinguished from belief claims.  Further, the focus of Epistemology is what is called propositional knowledge (as in, I know that _____ ), rather than what is often called “know how” (as in, I know how to _____ ).  Questions in Epistemology include What is knowledge?  Does knowledge require certainty?  Is experience a reliable source of knowledge?  Are there any limits to knowledge? How can we attain knowledge?

Axiology — the central question is this: What has true value?  Axiology investigates questions concerning value without presupposing the correctness of common views.  The primary fields within this branch of philosophy are Aesthetics (which studies Beauty), Political Philosophy (which studies Justice), and Ethics (which studies the Good).  An important issue within each of these fields is the distinction between subjectivity (claims about the experience of the subject) and objectivity (claims about the object being experienced); for instance, in aesthetics, are subjective responses to art dependent on objective features of works of art?  Or, in ethics, are moral attitudes toward certain actions based on objective features of those actions?

Logic — What are the structures of reasoning?





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