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what is philosophy?

What is Philosophy? This is not easy to answer -- except facetiously: philosophy is what philosophers write. But it is easy to describe the principal tasks and methods of philosophy.

(1) Philosophy tries to clarify important concepts or ideas -- concepts or ideas such as truth, God, moral obligation, knowledge, causation, etc. The concepts or ideas philosophy tries to clarify are those that play an important role in the general understanding we have of ourselves and the world we live in. Because philosophy tries to clarify concepts or ideas, philosophy has to be concerned with meaning and language. The clarification of concepts or ideas is the conceptual analysis aspect of philosophy.

(2) Philosophy tries to solve issues and problems. The issues and problems are general and theoretical. Philosophy is not primarily interested in the relationship between, e.g., Jane's anxiety and her dry mouth, but rather in the general relationship between a person's mind and her body. Philosophy is not primarily interested, e.g., in whether Johnny's behavior last night is morally wrong or not, but in what it is about human actions that makes them morally wrong or not. The attempt to solve such issues and problems in the theoretical aspect of philosophy.

(3) Philosophy is made up of many different sub-fields. Logic and ethics are two that are well known. In addition there are: metaphysics (the study of principal traits of whatever exists), epistemology (the theory of knowledge), aesthetics (the philosophy of fine arts), social and political philosophy, the philosophy of mind, of language, of science, of religion, of law, of history, etc., and, last but not least, the history of philosophy (the study of the great philosophers).

(4) Philosophy has a conceptual analysis and a theoretical aspect, but it also has a practical side--a side in which the results of the conceptual analysis and theory are applied to fairly general practical problems. Thus philosophers contribute to current-issue questions such as, Under what circumstances is abortion permissible?, and, Should scientific research be controlled in the name of morality or desirable social policy?

(5) Philosophy does not proceed by unsupported or unreasoned pronouncements. Nor does it proceed by any special kind of observation or experimentation not shared by the natural sciences. It proceeds by reasoning and argument . And it draws on common sense observation and (sometimes) the results of the sciences. It does not rest its conclusions on faith, tradition, or intuition: it aspires to knowledge, not conjecture, and to theory, not unconnected insights.

(6) Philosophy poses questions that are ultimate: that go to the bottom of things. It asks after foundations and hunts down ultimate assumptions . It often challenges what everyone accepts and asks for proof when no one is in doubt.

(7) Philosophy is interdisciplinary. It has something to interest the student of literature, mathematics, the social sciences, the life sciences, and physics and chemistry. It has appeal for the activist as well as the scholar--for the moral or social reformer as well as for the historian of moral or social ideas. It can please the person who prefers analysis to synthesis and the person who prefers synthesis to analysis; and it can please the person interested in the history of ideas as well as the person who wishes to solve philosophical problems.

Why take philosophy?

Philosophy provides an essential component in any sound general education -- that form of education designed, not to prepare one for a specific career, but to give one a broad and general understanding of the world, the place of human beings in the world, and human values, as well as general intellectual skills that can be brought to bear on diverse subject matters.

Philosophy provides an essential component in any sound general education in two ways--by means of the understanding it provides of various philosophical matters and by means of the general intellectual skills in logic, the use of language, and the assessment of evidence it inculcates.

Not only does philosophy provide an understanding of a wide range of matters, but the matters dealt with are important and exciting. Consider: Is human reason fallible? Does morality rest on arbitrary foundations? Is there such a being as God?

Many subject areas besides philosophy inculcate various general intellectual skills. But philosophy, unlike most such areas, deals professionally with logic, the use of language, and the assessment of evidence. As a result, philosophy is an especially valuable training ground for the intellect . Such training is provided in almost all courses in philosophy, but especially in courses in logic or critical thinking, the philosophy of language, and epistemology (or the theory of knowledge). Such courses are invaluable to the person who must live by thinking -- the scientist, scholar, lawyer, journalist, business manager, etc.

Philosophy is also a valuable background for many other disciplines . Courses in logic, language, and epistemology have a universal relevance. So do courses in moral philosophy. Courses in moral and social philosophy are of special relevance to those doing work in literature, history, religion, or education. And then there are philosophy courses especially designed to deal with philosophical matters as they affect other areas, e.g., the philosophy of law, of science, of religion, of history, of education, and of the fine arts, etc.

Philosophy can also be an advantageous background to have in the job market. See the Wall Street Journal's chart at http://online.wsj.com/public/resources/documents/info-Degrees_that_Pay_you_Back-sort.html.

  

Philosophy Department, UCB 232, Boulder, CO 80309-0232
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