Whether or not you’ve studied philosophy, you’re probably already a philosopher. You think about the meaning of life, absolute and relative moral precepts, political ideals and the indelible qualities of human nature. For this reason, the formal study of philosophy isn’t so much about defining or comparing philosophical ideas–something you’re already quite capable of doing–but about the thinkers of the past who famously argued different sides of these questions. Basically, philosophy is history.
Here, I do briefly introduce some of the major questions of philosophical debate, with the caveat that the list is not comprehensive. There is philosophy in everything—every subject. Every … thing. But these are the questions that have so far seemed most fundamental (such as the meaning of life), most practical (such as political ideas) and have been most famously discussed (such as the empiricism versus rationalism debate). Then I introduce you to many of the major philosophers of history and their most notable contributions, which will hopefully give your philosophical discussions and debates more texture, context and depth.
Basic Philosophy Terminology
Philosophy: The study of the meaning and nature of life, consciousness and more. Every subject can be philosophically analyzed to determine the subject’s inherent qualities, purpose and right functioning. For example, the study of medicine has benefited from people asking what the ultimate goal of doctors should be, and then arriving at the Hippocratic Oath (“first, do no harm …”) The word “philosophy” literally means “love of wisdom.”
Some major questions of philosophy: What is the meaning of life? What qualities are fundamental to human nature? How can we know what we know (empiricism versus rationalism)? What is truth? How do we arrive at morality and values? What political structures are most beneficial? How does language shape our beliefs? What is the best way to live? Do humans have free will? What is the nature of existence? What is beauty?
Sub-fields of academic philosophy: Metaphysics (the study of ultimate, nonphysical reality), epistemology (the study of knowledge), ethics, ontology (study of what exists, i.e. God), cosmology (study of the cosmos), aesthetics (the study of beauty), political philosophy, logic and more
Eastern philosophy: The philosophical tradition of China, Japan, India and other eastern countries. Important contributions include Daoism (The Tao Te Ching of approximately 600 BCE), Confucianism (The Analects of Confucius of approximately 500 BCE) and Buddhism (which arose in India around 500 BCE). Eastern philosophy is characterized by an interest in the unknowable, the unspeakable and patterns and cycles. See the “Religions” section of this series for more information on these philosophies.
“The dao that can be told is not the dao.” – Laozi, who taught about the Tao/Dao, also known as The Way, the indescribable ultimate truth which can partly be discovered by acting in harmony with nature and meditating
“Happy is he who has overcome his ego.” – Siddhartha Gautama, later the Buddha, who prescribed meditation, the middle way (life balance) and letting go of suffering through wanting nothing
“Hold faithfulness and sincerity as first principles.” – Confucius, who emphasized virtuous living, loyalty and obedience to one’s leaders, sincerity and self-reflection
“Don’t grieve. Anything you lose comes around in another form.” – Rumi, a Persian who taught about reincarnation and Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam
Western philosophy: The philosophical tradition of the West dating from approximately 500 BCE with the Greeks (Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle), to the Romans (Cicero and Seneca), to medieval Christian philosophers (Aquinas and Augustine) and beyond. Western philosophy is marked by an interest in logic, absolute knowledge and the Christian faith.
History of Western Philosophy
The Greek Period (approximately 600-300 BCE): Thales influenced Pythagoras. Pythagoras influenced Socrates. Socrates taught Plato. Plato taught Aristotle.
Pythagoras combined math and philosophy. Socrates developed the Socratic Method in which he asked question after question in order to confound people who believed themselves to be wise, digging for deeper truths in everything. He was condemned to die due to his ideas. He drank hemlock.
Plato introduced the idea of the world of forms, an imagined place that holds the ideal of each type of real thing. (Example: A table has the essence–the form–of a table, even if it is old and broken. But the real table is a lesser version of the ideal table form.) He used the Allegory of the Cave to show how humans only see a mere shadow of what is ultimately real.
Plato disagreed with this idea. He was not a rationalist (a believer in the primacy of reason and ideas in discovering truth) but an empiricist (a believer in the primacy of evidence and material reality in discovering truth). Plato founded a famous school called the Academy in Athens. After him, Aristotle opened his school, the Lyceum, also in Athens.
Parmenides said that matter can’t die, and something can’t come from nothing, so everything that is real is eternal, unchanging, and containing some invisible unity. Protagoras argued for moral relativism.
“The life which is unexamined is not worth living.” – Socrates
“I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance.” – Socrates
“Earthly knowledge is but shadow.” – Plato
“Truth resides in the world around us.” – Aristotle
“All is one.” – Parmenides
“Man is the measure of all things.” – Protagoras
The Roman Period (approximately 300 BCE to 350 CE): The stoics (stoicism), led by Zeno, taught indifference to pleasure and pain and acceptance of one’s lot in life. By contrast, the epicureans (epicureanism), led by Epicurus, believed that the goal of life is pleasure. The cynics (cynicism) taught that happiness is contentment with little, particularly little material comfort.
The Middle Ages (approximately 350 to 1300 CE): St. Augustine of Hippo wrote extensively about free will. He attempted to explain why both God and evil exist. Boethius wrote about God’s foresight but maintained Augustine’s philosophy of free will. St. Anselm attempted an ontological argument for the existence of God, saying that if you can conceive of the greatest thing that could ever exist, it must exit, because the greatest thing has to exist or it wouldn’t be the greatest. Thomas Aquinas wrote extensively about the logical and scientific nature of Christianity.
The Renaissance Period (approximately 1300-1750): Here, philosophy becomes sharply more humanist. Erasmus introduced modern humanism, arguing that religion is folly. Niccolo Machiavelli argues that government can’t be bound by morality if it wants to succeed. Francis Bacon wrote about the value of the scientific method. Thomas Hobbes wrote that the nature of reality is purely physical, that there is no ultimate meaning to life. He introduced the idea of the social contract, saying that our agreements with each other are what enables a relatively peaceful society to exist.
Unlike Bacon and Hobbes, Rene Descartes was a rationalist. He believed that even the existence of physical matter cannot be proven and the only thing we can truly know exists is our own minds. Blaise Pascal was a practical thinker, arguing that it’s safer to bet on God’s existence than to bet against it (“Pascal’s Wager”). Benedictus Spinoza changed the argument, simply redefining God: everything is one, and everything is God.
John Locke returned us to empiricism, arguing that no truths are universal to all people and all cultures. He came up with the idea of the tabula rasa–the blank slate, which is a metaphor for the unknowing state in which each person is born before they are implanted with cultural ideas. George Berkeley foresaw quantum physics, saying that a thing only exists in so far as it perceives or is perceived, and that there is no material substance.
“To know nothing is the happiest life.” – Erasmus
“Happiness is reached when a person is ready to be what he is.” – Erasmus
“The ends justifies the means.” – Niccolo Machiavelli
“Knowledge is power.” – Francis Bacon
“Man is a machine.” – Thomas Hobbes
“And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.” – Thomas Hobbes
“I think, therefore I am.” – Rene Descartes
“Imagination decides everything.” – Blaise Pascal
“God is the cause of all things, which are in him.” – Benedictus Spinoza
“No man’s knowledge here can go beyond his experience.” – John Locke
“To be is to be perceived.” – George Berkeley
The Age of Revolution (approximately 1750-1900): Voltaire, a playwright, said that certainty is absurd. David Hume agreed, saying that custom is the source of knowledge.
Immanuel Kant sought to prove the existence of the physical world. He tried to marry empiricism and rationalism, saying that both reason and perceptions are needed for knowledge. Georg Hegel believed reality is constantly changing and suggested people use dialectic reasoning and avoid assumptions. Arthur Schopenhauer said that we are all limited in our knowledge due to our unique experiences of life.
On the political philosophy front, Jean-Jacques Rosseau argued that though man is fundamentally good, laws and government create injustice and oppression. Adam Smith, an economist, argued that the basis of society is trade. Edmund Burke said that governmental change should be slow and argued for a free market economy. Jeremy Bentham tried to calculate pleasure and proposed that laws are created by considering which give the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people. Mary Wollstonecraft founded feminism. John Stuart Mill agreed with Bentham, adding that people should be free to do with their own bodies as they wished, but not harm anyone else.
Soren Kierkegaard said that as much as we think we want freedom, we really don’t. He is the father of existentialism, the theory that there is no meaning inherent in existence, that existence precedes essence. Karl Marx said that class struggle is what causes all of the ills of society, arguing for communism, while Henry David Thoreau argued for individual liberty, non-conformism, and conscientious objection through non-cooperation and non-violent resistance. William James founded pragmatism, saying that people should just do the best they can in spite of uncertainty.
“Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.” – Voltaire
“Custom is the great guide of human life.” – David Hume
“Man was born free, yet everywhere he is in chains.” Jean-Jacques Rosseau
“Man is an animal that makes bargains.” – Adam Smith
“There are two worlds: our bodies and the external world.” – Immanuel Kant
“The greatest happiness for the greatest number.” – Jeremy Bentham
“Mind has no gender.” – Mary Wollstonecraft
“Reality is a historical process.” – Georg Hegel
“Over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” – John Stuart Mill
“Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” – Soren Kierkegaard
“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” – Karl Marx
“Must the citizen ever resign his conscience to the legislator?” – Henry David Thoreau
“Act as if what you do makes a difference.” – William James
The Modern World (1900-1950) and the Postmodern World (1950 to the present): Friedrich Nietsche, an existentialist, wrote about the insufficiency of religion. Bertrand Russell insisted that people attach too much importance to work. Ludwig Wittgenstein described the limits of language and the limits placed on our thinking by language. Martin Heidegger wrote about finding meaning in a meaningless world and about living authentically. Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus agreed, saying that we must create our own life purpose. Simone de Beauvior wrote about the oppression of women, Noam Chomsky argued for adherence to codes of ethics and Jacques Derrida was a deconstructionist who believed that knowledge is limited by language and by our ability (or lack of ability) to interpret it. Life is a series of flawed interpretations.
“God is dead.” – Nietzsche
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Sartayana
“It is only suffering that makes us persons.” – Miguel de Unamuno
“The road to happiness lies in an organized diminution of work.” – Bertrand Russell
“The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein
“We are ourselves the entities to be analyzed.” – Martin Heidegger
“Existence precedes essence.” – Jean-Paul Sartre
“Man is defined as a human being and woman as a female.” – Simone de Beauvoir
“Life will be lived all the better if it has no meaning.” – Albert Camus
“There is nothing outside of the text.” – Jacques Derrida
“We are all mediators, translators.” – Jacques Derrida
Basic Philosophy Terminology
Idealism: belief that ultimate reality is non-material (mind, spirit and/or merely essence)
Materialism: belief that ultimate reality is materialism
Determinism: belief that ‘nothing can happen other than what does happen, because every event is the necessary outcome of causes preceding it,’ which were caused by events preceding them (even thoughts and decisions)
Mysticism: knowledge that transcends the physical world
naturalism: belief that reality is explicable without reference to anything mystical
Postmodernism: distrust of unifying answers; relativity
Pragamtism: a theory of truth. Holds that a statement is true if it accurately describes a situation, fits well with past observation, etc. Uninterested in the unknowable, impractical
Utilitarianism: theory of politics, ethics that judges actions on consequences—most pleasure/good for the most people = good
Noumenon: the thing-in-itself; the unknowable reality behind what present itself to human consciousness/ultimate nature of something
Phenomenon: an experience that is immediately present and observable
Numinous: anything regarded as mysterious and awesome and somehow beyond natural world
Phenomenology: study of our experience of things without making assumptions about their essential nature as independent things
Semantics: Study of word usage
Transcendental: outside sense experience; belief in things outside sense experience
Basic Logic and Rhetoric
Everyone loves winning an argument. Actually, everyone just loves an argument. It’s stimulating. Challenging. Energetic. If you want to argue better, or just be better able to discriminate between arguments, logic studies will help–a lot. Just keep in mind that once you learn this stuff, it’s hard not to get a bit snobbish about it; I recommend you flavor your powers of logic with tact.
Important note: Many logical fallacies are known by more than one name. I’ve attempted to use the most common in my list, but if you rely too much on memorization, you won’t always recognize other people’s terms. More important, you’ll miss the point.
Finally, a quote to consider: “One and one cannot become two, since neither becomes two.”– Gongsun Long, Chinese logician (c. 325–250 BCE)
I think that pretty much says it all.
Logic: The set of rules that guides the formation of valid arguments and tests argumentative conclusions for validity.
Rhetoric: The art of persuasion
Practical uses for logic: Ethics, politics, computer programming, writing and any situation in which arguments are posited, questioned and defended.
An argument: A defense of an opinion or position. Arguments can be logical or rhetorical. Logical arguments are those which determine whether a particular statement is true or false. Rhetorical arguments are those which attempt to persuade a person or audience that a particular statement is true or false, regardless of whether it actually is true or false.
Premise: An idea upon which other ideas in an argument rely.
Logical form: The formula that an argument uses to arise at its conclusion. Example: All A’s are B’s and all B’s are C’s; therefore, all A’s are C’s.
Valid: Logically correct. Example: All zebras are mammals and all mammals are ugly; therefore, all zebras are ugly.
True: Actually correct. Example: All zebras are mammals and all mammals drink their mothers’ milk; therefore, all zebras drink mothers’ milk.
Rational/sound: Logical, valid and true
How to analyze an argument for soundness: First, notice whether or not the form of the argument makes sense. Does the conclusion follow from the premises? If not, you likely have a formal fallacy on your hands. As a beginning logician, don’t spend too much time figuring out the name of the fallacy; instead, point out the problem and say something like, “The conclusion doesn’t follow the premises.” Step two is to notice whether or not the statements made in the argument are true; if not, there is an informal fallacy. You should be able to identify all ad hominem fallacies and name them as such. You should also be able to call out these fallacies by name: the fallacy of equivocation; the slippery slope fallacy; the poisoning the well fallacy; the straw man fallacy; the appeals to emotion, fear, pity, ridicule and the like; and the appeals to tradition, authority, and popularity. Other fallacies can simply be identified as such, and often, this is enough.
Semantics: The meanings of words. These can often be problematic and unstable, which contributes to illogic.
Inference: A true or false conclusion in the form of “A, therefore, B.”
Implication: A true or false conclusion in the form of “If A, then B.”
Deductive reasoning: Deducing a specific fact from a general principle
Inductive reasoning: Arriving at a general principle from a specific fact or case
Analysis: Deconstructing part-by-part to find deeper meaning
Synthesis: Putting parts together to find deeper meaning
A posteriori: Not known to be valid or true except through observation and experience
A priori: Known to be valid or true by reason alone
History of the study of logic: Logic comes from the Greek word logos, originally meaning “the word” or “what is spoken”, but later meaning “thought” or “reason”. Aristotle was the first known proponent of formal logic, and since then, it has been applied to many scientific areas, including computer programming. Logic studies, though, normally refers to rhetorical logic.
Logical fallacy/non sequitur: A weakness in an argument, often hidden, that causes the conclusion to be invalid or untrue. Informal fallacies have to do with the content of the argument, and formal fallacies have to do with the form of the argument. (Non sequitur means “it does not follow.”)
Formal logical fallacy: A fallacy in the structure of the argument that causes the argument to be invalid, regardless of the content of the argument. Remember, just because an argument contains a fallacy doesn’t mean the conclusion isn’t true. It simply means that particular argument doesn’t prove it to be so.
Informal logical fallacy: A fallacy in the content of the argument. Most often, informal logical fallacies are simple distractions from the actual argument. They point to external ideas or the opponent’s personality and the like. Literally any distraction from the validity of the argument itself can be an informal logical fallacy. Don’t memorize the names–just understand the problem with them in the collective. (For a ridiculously long list, see Wikipedia’s list of logical fallacies.)
Common Formal Logical Fallacies
The affirming the consequent fallacy: An argument that states “If A, then B; B, therefore A.” Example: “If Fred killed Todd, Fred is angry. Fred is angry, therefore, Fred killed Todd.”
The denying the antecedent fallacy: An argument that states, “If A, then B; not A, therefore not B.” Example: “If Fred killed Todd, then he hated him. Fred didn’t kill Todd. Therefore, he didn’t hate him.
The affirming a disjunct fallacy: An argument that states, “A is true or B is true. B is true. Therefore, A is not true.” In fact, both could be true.
The denying a conjunct fallacy: An argument that states that “It is not the case that both A is true and B is true. B is not true. Therefore, A is true.” In fact, both could be false.
Fallacy of the undistributed middle: An argument that states that “All Zs are Bs. Y is a B. Therefore, Y is a Z.” One must first prove that all Bs are Zs.
Common Informal Logical Fallacies
Ad hominem (“to the man”) fallacy: An argument that relies on attacking the arguer instead of the argument. This is really a category of fallacies which includes the appeal to authority/expert fallacy and the opposite of this, the courtier fallacy (which attacks the opposition’s knowledge, credentials or training).
The equivocation fallacy: An argument that relies onthe misleading use of a term with more than one meaning (by glossing over which meaning is intended at a particular time).
The straw man fallacy: An argument that relies onan argument based on misrepresentation of an opponent’s position.
The slippery slope fallacy: A slippery slope argument (SSA), in logic, critical thinking, political rhetoric, and caselaw, is a logical fallacy in which a party asserts that a relatively small first step leads to a chain of related events culminating in some significant (usually negative) effect.
The poisoning the well fallacy: A subtype of ad hominem presenting adverse information about a target person with the intention of discrediting everything that the target person says.
The appeal to emotion fallacy: An argument that relies on the manipulation of emotions. This is a general category that includes the appeal to threat fallacy, the appeal to fear fallacy, the appeal to flattery fallacy, the appeal to pity fallacy, the appeal to ridicule fallacy and more.
The false dilemma: An argument that relies ontwo alternative statements are held to be the only possible options when in reality there are more.
The circular reasoning/begging the question fallacy: An argument that relies on the presence of the conclusion within the premise in order to appear logical
The ad nauseam/argumentum ad infinitum fallacy: An argument that relies on mere repetition
The appeal to tradition fallacy: An argument that relies on a conclusion supported solely because it has long been held to be true.
The appeal to the people/bandwagon fallacy: An argument that relies on a proposition is claimed to be true or good solely because a majority or many people believe it to be so.
The guilt by association or honor by association fallacies: Arguments that rely on the idea that because two things share some property, they are the same.
The red herring fallacy: A speaker attempts to distract an audience by deviating from the topic at hand by introducing a separate argument the speaker believes is easier to speak to. Argument given in response to another argument, which is irrelevant and draws attention away from the subject of argument.
The cherry picking fallacy: An argument that relies onact of pointing at individual cases or data that seem to confirm a particular position, while ignoring a significant portion of related cases or data that may contradict that position.
The appeal to consequences fallacy: An argument that relies on describing the terrible things that would happen if the opponent’s position were true.
The appeal to motive fallacy: An argument that relies on attacking the motive of the opponent.
The tu quoque (‘you too’) fallacy: An argument that relies on pointing out the hypocrisy of the opponent.
The etymological fallacy: reasoning that the original or historical meaning of a word or phrase is necessarily similar to its actual present-day usage.
The moving the goalposts/raising the bar fallacy: An argument that relies onargument in which evidence presented in response to a specific claim is dismissed and some other (often greater) evidence is demanded.
The survivorship bias fallacy: An argument that points to a small number of successes of a given process are actively promoted while completely ignoring a large number of failures
The false analogy fallacy: An argument that relies on an argument by analogy in which the analogy is poorly suited.
The hasty generalization: An argument that bases a broad conclusion on a small sample or the making of a determination without all of the information required to do so.
The oversimplification fallacy: An argument that relies on it is assumed that there is one, simple cause of an outcome when in reality it may have been caused by a number of only jointly sufficient causes.
The appeal to ignorance: An argument that relies on assuming that a claim is true because it has not been or cannot be proven false, or vice versa.
The pooh-pooh fallacy: An argument that relies on dismissing an argument perceived unworthy of serious consideration.
The moralistic fallacy: Making statements about what is, on the basis of claims about what ought to be.
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