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Introduction to Philosophy

Introduction to Philosophy

Author: Glenn Kuehn

In this lesson, students will learn about philosophy and its characteristics.

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Hello. My name is Glenn. And welcome to this first tutorial entitled introduction to philosophy.

The topics in this tutorial will focus on some of the basic ideas in philosophy including the origin and definition of the word philosophy, various methods and reasonings involved in philosophy, some of the main topics and questions that philosophers deal with, and also a contrast with dogmatism and rhetoric. And we will have some examples along the way. First of all, let's look at the origin of the word "philosophy."

Philosophy comes from ancient Greece, and the word is divided into two root meanings-- philo and sophia. Philo is one of the Greek words for love, but it is a very specific word meaning the love of friendship or something that is very dear to me. It is the kind of love that you would have for a teacher or a very, very dear friend. Sophia means wisdom. So you put them together, and you get philosophy as the love of wisdom.

For the purposes of this tutorial, philosophy will be defined as the pursuit of truths that cannot be determined wholly empirically. We define it this way to make a distinction between philosophy and the sciences. Sciences are entirely empirical. That is they rely upon evidence that is verifiable by our sensory perception. Philosophy deals with the pursuit of truths that can go beyond this. It is a little bit more distinct because, although it does rely upon sensory perception for evidence, it does go beyond that.

To illustrate this definition of philosophy as going beyond empirical experience, let's look at the following examples set by Plato. Plato asked this two-part question. First, is there something that links all trees together such that they are called trees? Is there something behind the experience that links them all together?

Second, how is it that I and you are able to recognize objects as trees even if we have not seen them before? How is it we are able to do this? If I've never seen a coconut tree, how is it that the first time I come across one I know it's a tree?

Well, the way we do this is first by beginning with experience. We go out and we look at a whole bunch of objects, and we learn that many of them are called trees from both our experience and from what other people tell us. Eventually, we come to the idea that there is something behind the scenes. There is a reason they're all called trees. And this idea, which is not experienceable by sensory perception, is what links them together.

And second, what I have and what you have is, within our minds, a direct linkage to this non-empirical idea of tree. And because we have that link, we are able to go out into the world and come across a species of tree that we have not seen before and recognize it as a tree. Therefore, this philosophical investigation begins with empirical experience like the sciences but goes well beyond it.

When we consider the topics and questions involved in philosophy, we can quickly see that the questions themselves are the topics. And these are typically some of the most fundamental questions we can ask. A couple of examples of philosophical questions are, does God exist? What is the meaning of life? And more specifically, what is a good life and how do I live it?

So therefore, philosophy asks questions that are the biggest of the big ones that we can think of. They're the questions that explore the behind-the-scenes reasons for what we believe. And therefore, they often begin with the word "why"?

Why does the universe exist at all? Why is there something rather than nothing? Why am I here? Philosophy addresses these very, very fundamental questions.

And therefore, we can see that, not only is it the cornerstone of learning, it is, in fact, the original area of study. Philosophy originated as the study of all things. And someone like the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle was as much of a scientist as he was an art critic, a philosopher, a psychologist, and a physician. Philosophy covers all of these areas in its exploration of some of the most fundamental questions that we can ask.

There are several aspects that we need to keep in mind when we engage in philosophical thinking. They are as follows. First, we need to remain consistent in the ways that we think and act according to a particular belief system.

Second, we need to make sure that we do not make our own beliefs and our own judgments an exception to that belief system and, in that light, need to remain as objective as possible. Further, it is better for us to remain as dispassionate and emotionally detached as we possibly can so that we do not become overly emotionally involved in the subject. And fourth, to help us throughout our decision-making and our judgment, we rely upon logical thinking and the rules of logic in order to guide our argumentation so that we get to the conclusions that are wisest.

Our first example has to do with consistency. We each have complex belief systems, which we carry around to make sense of the world. And let's say part of my belief system is the idea that humanity is basically good.

If I'm consistent with that, I will be operating in a way where I display it. And so I'll be doing such things as opening doors for people and smiling at them when I do so. If I'm inconsistent, then in one instance, I'll be opening the doors and smiling. And a short while later, I'll be engaging in road rage and making rude gestures towards people.

A more extreme example of this is where I make an exception for a particular case, such that, let's say my sister becomes pregnant and wants an abortion. If part of my belief system is that abortion is immoral and I make an exception for this case because it's my sister and, in turn, support her, then I'm creating a special "outside of the system of thinking" exception for my sister. Also it's important to remain as dispassionate as possible throughout our reasoning process.

Since I'm a chef, let's say I'm going to follow a particular recipe. Generally, it's best if I remain rational and follow the recipe as it's written in order for it to turn out well. However, let's say I have an emotional attachment to the person who wrote the recipe or to the particular style of cooking and I want to alter it based upon those emotional attachments. That's going to affect the outcome and probably will do so negatively. So I want to remain as dispassionate as possible.

And finally, what's going to help us stay on track are the rules of logical argumentation. We need to follow the structure of valid arguments and the rules that govern them. A classic argument would be all men are mortal. Glenn is a man. Glenn is mortal.

Finally, two contrasts-- one in terms of a belief system, and the other in terms of method. First, a dogmatic belief system is different than a philosophical one. Dogmatic beliefs are held without question. Philosophical beliefs are questionable and must be questioned.

Dogmatic beliefs are often seen in religious beliefs, but they don't have to be. We can see equally dogmatic positions in the distinctions between cat people and dog people and PC users and Mac users. Philosophical positions regarding these topics would call into question why someone is a dog person or why someone prefers Macs over PCs.

The second contrast is with philosophy and rhetoric. Rhetoric is the use of language with the attempt to persuade. But that is its only goal. This is most often seen in something like political campaigns where the candidate is attempting to get us to believe something, and they'll use language in very creative ways to get us to that goal. But that is the only goal. Philosophy is also an attempt to persuade, but the goal goes beyond that towards the attainment of truth.

So, looking at what we've covered in this first tutorial on introduction to philosophy, we can see that we've covered the origins and definition of the word philosophy. We've looked at the methods and reasonings involved in philosophical exploration. We've explored some of the topics and questions involved in philosophy. And we've contrasted philosophy with both dogmatism and rhetoric.

Terms to Know

The pursuit of truths that cannot be wholly determined empirically