THE FIELD OF PHILOSOPHY
Philosophy is quite unlike any other field. It is unique both in its methods and in the nature and breadth of its subject matter. Philosophy pursues questions in every dimension of human life, and its techniques apply to problems in any field of study or endeavor. No brief definition expresses the richness and variety of philosophy. It may be described in many ways. It is a reasoned pursuit of fundamental truths, a quest for understanding, a study of principles of conduct. It seeks to establish standards of evidence, to provide rational methods of resolving conflicts, and to create techniques for evaluating ideas and arguments. Philosophy develops the capacity to see the world from the perspective of other individuals and other cultures; it enhances one's ability to perceive the relationships among the various fields of study; and it deepens one's sense of the meaning and varieties of human experience.
This short description of philosophy could be greatly extended, but let us instead illustrate some of the points. As the systematic study of ideas and issues, philosophy may examine concepts and views drawn from science, art, religion, politics, or any other realm. Philosophical appraisal of ideas and issues takes many forms, but philosophical studies often focus on the meaning of an idea and on its basis, coherence and relations to other ideas. Consider, for instance, democracy. What is it? What justifies it as a system of government? Can a democracy allow the people to vote away their own rights? And how is it related to political liberty? Consider human knowledge. What is its nature and extent? Must we always have evidence in order to know? What can we know about the thoughts and feelings of others, or about the future? What kind of knowledge, if any, is fundamental? Similar kinds of questions arise concerning art, morality, religion, science, and each of the major areas of human activity. Philosophy explores all of them. It views them both microscopically and from the wider perspective of the larger concerns of human existence.
Traditional Subfields of Philosophy
The broadest subfields of philosophy are most commonly taken to be logic, ethics, metaphysics, epistemology and the history of philosophy. Here is a brief sketch of each.
Logic is concerned to provide sound methods for distinguishing good from bad reasoning. It helps us to assess how well our premises support our conclusions, to see what we are committed to accepting when we take a view, and to avoid adopting beliefs for which we lack adequate reasons. Logic also helps us to find arguments where we might otherwise simply see a set of loosely related statements, to discover assumptions we did not know we were making, and to formulate the minimum claims we must establish if we are to provide (or inductively support) our point.
Ethics takes up the meanings of our moral concepts - such as right action, obligation, and justice and formulates principles to guide moral decisions, whether in private or public life. What are our moral obligations to others? How can moral disagreements be rationally settled? What rights must a just society accord its citizens? What constitutes a valid excuse for wrongdoing?
Metaphysics seeks basic criteria for determining what sorts of things are real. Are there mental, physical and abstract things ( such as numbers), for instance, or is there just the physical and the spiritual, or merely matter and energy? Are persons highly complex physical systems, or do they have properties not reducible to anything physical?
Epistemology concerns the nature and scope of knowledge, What does it mean to know (the truth) and what is the nature of truth? What sorts of things can be known, and can we be justified in our beliefs about what goes beyond the evidence of our senses, such as the inner lives of others or events of the distant past? Is there knowledge beyond the reach of science? What are the limits of self-knowledge? The History of Philosophy studies both major philosophers and entire periods in the development of philosophy, such as the Ancient, Medieval, Modern, Nineteenth Century and Twentieth Century periods. It seeks to understand great figures, their influence on others and their importance for contemporary issues.
The History of Philosophy
The History of Philosophy in a single nation is often separately studied, as in the case of American Philosophy. So are major movements within a nation, such as British Empiricism or German Idealism, as well as international movements with a substantial history, such as existentialism and phenomenology. The history of philosophy not only provides insight into the other sub fields of philosophy; it also reveals many of the foundations of Westem Civilization.
Special Fields of Philosophy
Many branches of philosophy have grown from the traditional core areas. What follows is a sketch of some of the major ones.
Philosophy of Mind
This sub field has emerged from metaphysical concerns with the mind and mental phenomena. The philosophy of mind addresses not only the possible relations of the mental to the physical (for instance, to brain processes), but the many concepts having an essential mental element: belief, desire, emotion, feeling, sensation, passion, will, personality, and others. A number of major questions in the philosophy of mind cluster in the area of action theory: What differentiates actions, such as raising an arm, from mere body movements, such as the rising of an arm? Must mental elements, for example intentions and beliefs, enter into adequate explanations of our actions, or can actions be explained by appeal to ordinary physical events? And what is required for our actions to be free?
Philosophy of Religion
Another traditional concern of metaphysics is to understand the concept of God, including special attributes such as being all-knowing, being all-powerful, and being wholly good. Both metaphysics and epistemology have sought to assess the various grounds people have offered to justify believing in God. The philosophy of religion treats these topics and many related subjects, such as the relation between faith and reason, the nature of religious language, the relation of religion and morality and the question of how a God who is wholly good could allow the existence of evil.
Philosophy of Science
This is probably the largest sub field generated by epistemology. Philosophy of science is usually divided into philosophy of the natural sciences and philosophy of the social sciences. It has recently been divided further, into philosophy of physics, biology, psychology, economics and other sciences. Philosophy of science clarifies both the quest for scientific knowledge and the results yielded by that quest. It does this by exploring the logic of scientific evidence; the nature of scientific laws, explanations, and theories; and the possible connections among the various branches of science. How, for instance, is psychology related to brain biology and biology to chemistry? And how are the social sciences related to the natural sciences?
From ethics, too, have come major sub fields. Political Philosophy concerns the justification -and limits -of governmental control of individuals; the meaning of equal ity before the law; the basis of economic freedom; and many other problems concerning government. It also examines the nature and possible arguments for various competing foffi1s of political organiza tion, such as laissez-faire capitalism, welfare democracy (capitalistic and socialistic), anarchism, communism and fascism. Social Philosophy, often taught in combination with political philosophy (which it overlaps), treats moral problems with large-scale social dimensions. Among these are the basis of compulsory education, the possible grounds for preferential treatment of minorities, the justice of taxation, and the appropriate limits, ifany, on free expression in the arts. The Philosophy of Law explores such topics ofwhat law is, what kinds of laws there are, how law is or should be related to morality and what sorts of principles should govern punishment and criminal justice in general. Medical Ethics addresses many problems arising in medical practice and medical science. Among these are standards applying to physician-patient relationships; moral questions raised by special procedures, such as abortion and ceasing of life-support for terminal patients; and ethical standards for medical research, for instance genetic engineering and experimentation using human subjects. Business Ethics addresses such questions as how moral obligations may conflict with the profit motive and how these conflicts may be resolved. Other topics often pursued are the nature and scope of the social responsibilities of corporations, their rights in a free society, and their relations to other institutions.
Philosophy of Art (Aesthetics)
This is one of the oldest sub fields. It concerns the nature of art, including both the performing arts and painting, sculpture, and literature. Major questions in aesthetics include how artistic creations are to be interpreted and evaluated, and how the arts are related to one another, to natural beauty, and to morality, religion, science and other important elements of human life.
Philosophy of Language
This field has close ties to both epistemology and metaphysics. It treats a broad spectrum of questions about language: the nature of meaning, the relations between words and things, the various theories of language learning, and the distinction between literal and figurative uses of language. Since language is crucial in nearly all human activity, the philosophy of language can enhance our understanding both of other academic fields and of much of what we ordinarily do.
Other Sub fields
There are many other sub fields of philosophy, and it is in the nature of philosophy as critical inquiry to develop new sub fields when new directions in the quest for knowledge, or in any other area of human activity, raise new intellectual problems. Among the sub fields not yet mentioned, but often taught at least as a part of other courses, are Inductive Logic, Philosophy of Logic, Philosophy of History, Philosophy of Mathematics, Philosophy of Medicine, Philosophy of Education, Philosophy of Feminism, Philosophy of Linguistics, Philosophy of Criticism, Philosophy of Culture, and Philosophy of Film.
_____________________________________________________________________________________________ *From a publication by the American Philosophical Association, "Philosophy: A Brief Guide for Undergraduates."