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1.1 What Is Philosophy?

The word “philosophy” derives from ancient Greek, in which the philosopher is a lover or pursuer (philia) of wisdom (sophia). The earliest Greek philosophers were not known as philosophers; they were simply known as sages. The sage tradition is a largely prehistoric tradition that provides a narrative about how intellect, wisdom, piety, and virtue lead to the innovations central to the flourishing of ancient civilizations. Particularly in Greece, the sage tradition blends into a period of natural philosophy, where ancient scientists or philosophers try to explain nature using rational methods.

Wilfrid Sellars emphasizes that philosophy’s goal is to understand a very wide range of topics—in fact, the widest possible range. That is to say, philosophers are committed to understanding everything insofar as it can be understood. A philosopher chooses to study things that are informative and interesting—things that provide a better understanding of the world and our place in it. To make judgments about which areas are interesting or worthy of study philosophers need to cultivate a special skill. Sellars describes this philosophical skill as a kind of know-how. Philosophical know-how has to do with knowing your way around the world of concepts and being able to understand and think about how concepts connect, link up, support, and rely upon one another—in short, how things hang together.

1.2 How Do Philosophers Arrive at Truth?

The goal of philosophy is to provide a coherent story of how the world as it appears to us can be explained in a way that also makes sense of what the sciences tells us. Given the influence of philosophy on world history, it is worthwhile to engage with the writings of past philosophers to inform our understanding of pressing philosophical questions of today.

What philosophers today mean by intuition can best be traced back to Plato, for whom intuition (nous) involved a kind of insight into the very nature of things. This notion has had religious connotations, as if the knowledge gained through intuition is like catching a glimpse of divine light.

When philosophers talk about common sense, they mean specific claims based on direct sense perception, which are true in a relatively fundamental sense. In other words, philosophical champions of common sense deny that one can be skeptical of certain basic claims of sense perception.

Experimental philosophy is a relatively recent movement in philosophy by which philosophers engage in empirical methods of investigation, similar to those used by psychologists or cognitive scientists. Philosophers use experimental methods to find out what average people think about philosophical issues. Since common sense and intuition are already a source of evidence in philosophical reasoning, it makes sense to confirm that what philosophers ascribe to common sense or intuition aligns with what people generally think about these things.

Logic attempts to formalize the process that we use or ought to use when we provide reasons for some claims. The first and most important move in logic is to recognize that claims are the product of arguments. In particular, a claim is just the conclusion of a series of sentences, where the preceding sentences (called premises) provide evidence for the conclusion. In logic, an argument is just a way of formalizing reasons to support a claim, where the claim is the conclusion and the reasons given are the premises.

A set of beliefs or statements is coherent, or logically consistent, if it is possible for them to all be true at the same time. If it is not possible for statements or beliefs to be true at the same time, then they are contradictory. It seems unreasonable for a person to accept contradictory claims because a contradiction is a logical impossibility. If a person holds contradictory beliefs, then they must be wrong about at least some of their beliefs.

One of the techniques that philosophers use to clarify and understand philosophical statements (either premises or conclusions) is conceptual analysis. Conceptual analysis involves the analysis of concepts, notions, or ideas as they are presented in statements or sentences. The term analysis has been a part of philosophical terminology and methodology since its beginning. In its most basic sense, analysis refers to the process of breaking apart complex ideas into simpler ones. Analysis also involves a cluster of related strategies that philosophers use to discover truths. Each of these techniques attempts to arrive at a clearer and more workable definition of the concepts in question.

1.3 Socrates as a Paradigmatic Historical Philosopher

Most of what we know about Socrates is derived from Plato’s depiction of him as the primary questioner in most of the dialogues. The idea that a life which is “unexamined” is not worth living strikes at the heart of what Socrates tells us motivated him to live a philosophical life. The first form of examination that Socrates clearly advises is self-examination. Even though Socrates rarely claims to have knowledge about anything at all, the few instances where he does profess knowledge relate directly to morality. In particular, Socrates asserts a pair of moral principles that are quite controversial and may appear at first glance false. Socrates claims the following: 1) No one willingly chooses what is harmful to themselves; 2) When a person does harm to others, they actually harm themselves.

Socrates engaged in a particular method of questioning, sometimes known as the “Socratic method,” which was characterized by his asking questions of others rather than explaining his own beliefs. The goal of Socratic questioning is to assist the person being questioned in discovering the truth on their own. By asking questions and examining the claims made by another person, Socrates allows that person to go through a process of self-discovery.

1.4 An Overview of Contemporary Philosophy

Contemporary academic philosophy is different from the classical traditions, although the motivation for doing philosophy remains the same. If you are interested in pursuing a career in academic philosophy, a graduate degree—most likely a PhD—is required. However, philosophy majors at any level can have fulfilling and rewarding careers in a variety of fields.

This textbook is organized in a way that generally reflects the broad areas of specialization in contemporary academic philosophy. Areas of specialization can be grouped into the following fields: historical traditions; metaphysics and epistemology; science, logic, and mathematics; and value theory. The fields of science, logic, and mathematics include research into contemporary symbolic logic as well as interdisciplinary work in the philosophy of mathematics and the sciences; these areas are closely related to metaphysics and epistemology. Value theory includes metaethics and the meaning of value, aesthetics, normative moral theories (ethics), and political philosophy. This textbook aims to provide a general overview of each of these areas.

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