What is Philosophy?
Philosophy is a discipline that requires students to make a break with what is called "normal." Unlike other disciplines, philosophy questions the opinions we are exposed to on a daily basis from parents, teachers, clergy, experts of every stripe, journalists and politicians. This questioning however is not merely for the sake of questioning, since philosophy is deeply rooted in the events of human life.
The subject matter of philosophy is varied and far-reaching. To provide you with an in-road to the field it is perhaps simplest to say that philosophy concerns fundamental issues that are important to human beings, and seeks to find the strongest arguments in connection with those topics.
The fundamental issues that Philosophy attempts to deal with can perhaps best be illustrated by the following list of areas of Philosophy that are of wide interest.
Logic helps us to sort out the good arguments from the bad, at least in so far as we are concerned with the reasoning involved. There are techniques of reasoning that students can learn in order to determine whether the conclusion of an argument logically follows from the premises that are given.
Logic can be studied either in depth, by taking a course devoted just to that topic, or in less depth as preparation for evaluating arguments that arise in other areas of Philosophy. Here are some sample logic problems: Problem 1 -- Problem 2
Ethics is the study of how we ought to live. For example, we may find ourselves having to decide what is best for another-perhaps a member of our family who is in hospital. Should this person be taken off life-support systems and allowed to die? This question leads us to more general questions about the value of human life and of life in general.
Ethics may be further subdivided into more specific branches such as biomedical ethics, business ethics, and environmental ethics. Questions in these fields include the following: should animals be used for experimental purposes? Should human genes be altered? What duties of confidentiality exist between patients and physicians? Is honesty really the best policy for doing business? Do corporations have an obligation to preserve the environment? Should the bottom line be the exclusive concern of managers, or should their decisions be tempered by ethical considerations? Is so, what are those ethical considerations and how can they be justified? Do we owe an obligation to future generations to not leave the world to them as one large garbage heap?
Social and Political Philosophy
Are there any good arguments which justify the exercise of power of a State over its citizens? How much interference with the freedom of individuals can be justified? What is Justice? Is the State justified in its power to redistribute wealth so as to help those who are least well off? It may surprise you to know that there are strong arguments on both sides of these issues.
Philosophy of Law
Legal philosophy investigates such topics as the nature of law and legal reasoning, the meaning of legal concepts, and the moral justification of legal practices such as punishment and limitation of liberty. A few of the questions which might be investigated in a class in legal philosophy include the following. Are legal obligations just a kind of moral obligation? What considerations should guide judges when they throw out legislation which conflicts with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms? Is civil disobedience ever justified? What counts as civil disobedience? What is the proper border between civil and criminal law, where one involved financial compensation and the other potentially involves prison?
Questions in metaphysics, also known as ontology, focus on the nature of reality and what it means to exist. As the ancients asked, "How is it that there is something rather than nothing?" This might seem quite abstract, but actually the question has its roots in our experience of the day-to-day. For example, when a loved one dies, it is not out of the ordinary to ask why that death should have occurred, or whether or not existence has a purpose in the face of what seems hopelessly irrational.
Epistemology is a somewhat peculiar field of knowledge in that it is basically the study of knowledge itself. What does it mean to know something? What, if anything, separates knowledge from mere opinion? Are human beings capable of knowing anything at all?
Philosophy of Religion
Several arguments have been advanced over the years which attempt to establish that God exists. Modern analysis of those arguments seeks to improve upon some of the weaknesses perceived in the traditional arguments and to advance additional considerations in order to try to establish the existence of God. Are these new proofs successful? What problems does the existence of evil cause for those who believe in a good God?
Sometimes we find ourselves in the presence of something beautiful and we will wonder why we desire to possess it, recreate it, or express it to others. Such wondering stands under that branch of philosophy called aesthetics, which is the study of the nature of art and the experience of the beautiful. Some of its questions are: Why do we find something terrifying nevertheless attractive and beautiful? What is the art (beauty) of Tragedy? All the questions above are quite at home in the realm of philosophy-a discipline which, since ancient times, reveals a kind of thinking that disconnects us from the "normal," making us strangers in a world we generally take for granted.