What is Philosophy?
Lisa asked, "what is philosophy?"
Alas, the questions is hard to answer, but a fair one given
that some of you may have taken psychology courses but not
any philosophy courses.
The word means "love of wisdom," but that does not explain
The easiest answer is that philosophy is a tradition of study coming
down from Plato and Aristotle to today, concerned with a range of
problems that include:
- What is knowledge? How do we get knowledge?
What justifies belief and makes it knowledge?
(These are some of the questions of epistemology.)
- What is the good? How can we determine what
is good? How should we pursue the good? How should
one act? (These are some of the questions of ethics.)
- What is the fundamental nature of the universe?
Are we free? What is time? What is the mind? Is there
a God? (These are some of the questions of metaphysics.)
- What is good reasonsing? How can we identify good
reasoning, and be sure to use it? Are there limits to reason?
(These are some of the questions of logic.)
I like to think of philosophy as a discipline of clearing the path at
the limits of knowledge. When something is well understood,
philosophers move on. Thus, philosophers were the primary people
thinking about motion, but then once physics was founded as a science
philosophers (mostly) stopped worry about this and let physicists
focus on these problems. A similar story can be told for many
questions in other sciences and in mathematics. The questions of mind
were the sole concern of philosophers, before psychology was founded.
When psychology becomes a mature science, I expect philosophers will
leave many of these questions behind.
Given either way of thinking about the philosophy, the role of
philosophy in this course is to ask question in epistemology and logic
about the method of psychology; to ask questions in metaphysics about
the nature of mind; and overall to help clarify certain questions
about the mind so that perhaps we can better answer them in the
I noticed with chagrin that the very fine Stanford Encyclopedia of
Philosophy (at this web
site) studiously avoids having an entry for "philosophy" alone.
The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once famously said, all of
philosophy is a footnote to Plato; in that spirit, one might peruse
the encyclopedia's entry on Plato.