Philosophy For Dummies
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There is a sense that philosophy is a very long conversation reaching through the centuries (and actually now millennia) about things that deeply matter, hopefully, leading to an understanding of human life and its place in the broader world.

This Cheat Sheet provides a quick reference to what philosophy is and how it relates to knowledge, how people perceive themselves, the concepts of good, bad, death, God, and more.

What philosophy is

Spoiler Alert: It’s not about togas and beards, tweed jackets and tobacco, or black T- shirts and attitudes.

The English word “philosophy” and any of its cognates in other languages just comes from two ancient Greek terms: “philo” that meant “love of,” and “Sophia” that referred to “wisdom.” So, in terms of the history of the word, philosophy is just the love of wisdom. And that’s very interesting, because an object of love is, generally speaking, a special and precious thing: When you lack it, you pursue it, and when you have it, you embrace it. Philosophy, then, is just the pursuit and embracing of wisdom.

It quickly becomes equally important to say what wisdom is. It can be helpful to think of wisdom as something like embodied insight for living. It’s not just a bunch of theories about life, or clever aphorisms that you can memorize and repeat. It’s a way of thinking and living in the world. At its best, it’s a path of thought, feeling, and action.

On a proper understanding of wisdom, it wouldn’t make sense to say of anyone, “He’s a wise man, but he lives like a fool.” If the life is foolish, then so is the person living it. To be a bit more metaphorical, wisdom is never just about the head, but also about the heart. It is a manner of being in the world. It’s not just about knowledge.

Here’s another and related conception of wisdom: It’s all about guidance and guardrails, used well. The guidance side of wisdom, like a GPS system, orients you and points the way forward in life. The guardrails then keep you from getting off the proper path and crashing in a bog. Like those metal railings on steep curvy mountain roads, the guardrails of wisdom protect from disaster those who respect them and stay on the right side of them.

Keep these thoughts in mind as you study philosophy:

  • Philosophy is the love of wisdom.
  • Wisdom is embodied insight or living well.
  • Wisdom is also guidance and guardrails.

Philosophy and knowledge

Wisdom may not be just the same thing as knowledge, but it’s deeply related to knowledge. Wise people know who they are, what they value, and where they want to go. They also know how to evaluate what others might say. A good place to start in any exploration of philosophy is with the idea of knowledge — what it is and how it works.

Philosophers have tried to distinguish carefully between mere opinions, or beliefs, and trustworthy knowledge. Most have said that knowledge is something like properly justified, true belief.

So, to have knowledge, it’s not enough to have a firm belief. You have to have some good evidence or reason to think the belief is true. This is a high standard, which is why the world is much fuller of opinion than it is of genuine knowledge.

Some philosophers known as skeptics question whether there is really any knowledge at all or whether we all might just be trapped in a bubble of our own beliefs, unable to access any objective reality beyond the bubble. Skeptics challenge us to explain how we can know life isn’t all a dream, or a mass hallucination, or a matrix of simulated deceptions.

Proponents of knowledge have come up with fascinating ways of answering the challenges from skepticism and securing our sense that we can indeed have rational beliefs that count as real knowledge.

The debate goes on to this day, and understanding it can help anyone grasp some deep truths about proof, evidence, and rational belief.

Regarding philosophy and knowledge, keep these thoughts in mind:

  • Wisdom and knowledge know each other very well.
  • Philosophy urges self-knowledge and deep knowledge of the world.
  • Philosophers have analyzed knowledge and considered skepticism.

Philosophy and the good

One of the most important concepts in life is the idea of goodness. There is a deep natural tendency to judge and grade things — good, better, best, or bad, worse, and worst — and this habit of judgment seems vital for navigating the world safely and well.

Nobody wants to be stuck with things and plans that suck because they just don’t work. There are good hammers and bad ones, good and bad watches, good and bad business strategies, good and bad choices, and there even seem to be good and bad people in the world. The question can easily arise as to what exactly all good things have in common, or all bad things.

The ancient philosopher Aristotle believed that goodness comes down to how well things function in reference to their intended use or purpose. A good hammer serves its purpose well. So does a good watch.

But then, it’s inevitable to ask old Aristotle about how this applies to people: What’s the intended purpose of a human being? Some philosophers following Aristotle’s lead have said that the answer is, “To be happy, to flourish, to live rationally and well.” It’s a big endeavor in philosophy to explore this more and figure out how normal questions of ethics or morality can be answered by referring to a broader conception of human flourishing or happiness.

Following Aristotle, many philosophers are now suggesting that ethics isn’t just about rules or commandments or duties, but it’s rather about habits of living that promote happiness and flourishing.

Perhaps character is at the core of human good. At present, philosophers are digging more deeply into these issues than they have for a very long time, and new insights are coming to light.

Related to philosophy and the question of what is “good,” keep these concepts in mind:

  • Philosophy searches for what’s common among all good things.
  • Aristotle pointed to function or purpose to determine goodness.
  • Many following Aristotle say the purpose of humans is flourishing.

Philosophy and freedom

One of the most natural and normal human assumptions is that of free will. Most people think they face real choices all the time, perhaps even every moment, and are free in their making of those choices.

The whole modern self-help literature, and the broad industry of personal coaching, as well as that of organizational advising, is based on the assumption that people can freely decide to change and improve. All twelve-step programs like AA require the same idea, as well as endless pots of black coffee. The whole of morality seems to make the same assumption, because otherwise, there would be no point in praising or blaming people for what they do.

If human beings are just carbon-based, fleshly robots, instruments of nature whose every thought, emotion, and action is forced on them by natural causes beyond their control, the whole idea of suggesting to others how they should or should not act seems to be a nonstarter.

If your actions are all forced on you by conditions beyond your control, you are then just a puppet and not a free agent of any kind. But this is precisely the suggestion that’s been made against the common belief in freedom, and there are versions of this challenge that come from such different directions as theology, logic, and science.

It’s a philosophical job to understand those challenges, take them seriously, and evaluate them for what they do or do not show. It may be that the natural belief in free will survives all the challenges, but that you are typically a little less free than you may suppose. And yet, this freedom may be much broader than the challengers allege.

Keep the following in mind and you think about philosophy and freedom:

  • Much human thought assumes we are free to make real choices.
  • There are many challenges to the belief that we are free.
  • Philosophy raises and evaluates these challenges.


Philosophy and the person

Most people think of themselves as more than mere objects, and indeed as subjects of experience and thought, as well as being free choosers of their actions.

But for a very long time, philosophers have raised the question of whether human beings are anything more than just complex organic bodies, and the issue has often been put like this: Are there minds or souls as well as physical bodies, or is there anything like a spiritual self in addition to the brain and the nervous system?

Whether you think you are just your body, or that you are something more than that is often closely tied to a broader question about the universe: Is there just one sort of fundamental substance in reality, like matter, or one-dimensional strings of energy out of which everything else is made, in all the wonderful diversity of the world? Or could there be more than one fundamental reality composing the wide variety of things?

Some philosophers have believed there is just one sort of stuff behind all else, and these thinkers usually fall into the camp of materialists or into the opposing tribe of idealists. Materialists think there’s nothing more in reality than matter, or perhaps material energy.

Idealists think that there is nothing but mental stuff — minds and ideas in minds. These philosophers, as different as they are, nonetheless agree that there is just one basic substance from which everything else arises. So, they are called monists (pronounced as the English word “moan,” and that’s what some people do when they learn about all these philosophical debates).

Dualists, by contrast, think there are two fundamental substances or sorts of stuff in reality: typically, matter and mind, or energy and thought.

Philosophers want to know what the ultimate truth is about all of this, because it’s important. What are you, anyway, at the most basic level imaginable? Are you just a living body, or are you a soul or mind inhabiting a body? This is relevant to all sorts of further questions, such as whether human beings survive bodily death. And there are interesting arguments to consider on all sides if you want to uncover the final truth.

Here are some way philosophers think about what it means to be human:

  • Philosophers ask if humans are physical objects or also have souls.
  • The question of what humans are is tied to more general questions.
  • The two big contenders in our time are materialism and dualism.

Philosophy and death

For a very long time, the first example of logical reasoning that students were exposed to in most academic situations came in the form of this simple argument: “All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.” The great essayist Michael de Montaigne once wrote, “To philosophize is to prepare to die,” a famous remark sparking wise guys everywhere to reply, “There have to be quicker and less difficult preparations.”

What is it with philosophy and death? Socrates talked about it, Plato wrote about it, Aristotle thought about it, and you could do a long death march through the entire history of philosophy to find that most sages and profound thinkers have wrestled with what it is and means.

The most pressing question about death may just be whether it’s a mere transition, however radical, or the extinction of a person forever. On death, do people cease to exist, or just leave bodily life to survive in another form? The debate has raged on as long as human beings have pondered the end of life.

As common as it is to wonder about death, it is just as universal to worry about it. And many people fear it greatly, for one or another of several reasons. It’s important in philosophy to understand the various different fears that exist regarding death and whether there are any deeply wise perspectives on how to handle this emotion, or attitude, and perhaps even vanquish it.

People have variously feared the process of dying, the prospect of punishment after death, the unknown it hides behind its mask, and the potential annihilation of consciousness it could bring. And philosophers have addressed each fear. Most of these concerns turn on what death is and whether it has spiritual as well as physical aspects.

So, philosophers have examined the issue of whether death is just a great change or rather an absolute ending of the person. There are, as you might imagine, arguments to be made on both sides, and an able assessment of these arguments may turn on a bigger question about the overall context of life and death. Is conscious existence a fragile aberration in the universe, inevitably extinguished by stronger forces, or is it anchored at the deepest level in reality? And that leads to the next big issue, discussed in the next section.

Here are some ways philosophers have considered the concept of death:

  • Philosophers ponder death to shed light on life.
  • Death is either a big change or an absolute end. Philosophers try to decide.
  • Reading philosophy doesn’t have to be a slow death, but can be fun.

Philosophy and God

Is the ultimate story behind the universe, or any multiverse of mindboggling scope that may exist, a tale of just matter and energy, or one of consciousness creating all else? Theists and atheists have battled this out over the centuries. The theist says there’s a creator God (“theos” in Greek) and the atheist denies there is any such being.

There are many arguments relevant to the issue. Some theists claim to have an exalted concept of God that guarantees there is such a being. This is the famous Ontological Argument. One quick version would say that by definition God is a greatest possible or perfect being, and that as such, God must exist necessarily or else would lack a perfection or a great-making quality and not be perfect after all.

Design Arguments see features of our universe, such as its fundamental simplicity arising out of very few basic laws at bottom, or its intelligibility to science, or the fine-tuning of its laws and conditions within incredibly precise ranges to be indicators of intelligent design. The Cosmological Argument points to the strange fact that there is a universe at all and asks why, concluding that we must conclude there is a personal explanation, arising out of the choice of a personal agent or doer.

The atheist most often argues from the existence or magnitude of evil and suffering in our world and concludes that there can’t be a good and wise creator over it all. A second argument points to the hiddenness of a God in ordinary circumstances. If there were a creator of all, why wouldn’t this God clearly and undeniably reveal that fact to all?

Reasonable people can come out on either side, but there are some indications in recent science that change the debate in new ways, eroding as they do the distinction between an independent physical universe and one that depends on a mind behind it all. There are crass and silly ways to be a believer, as well as for being a nonbeliever. Who is right?

Here are some ways that philosophers consider the idea of a God:

  • The ultimate question is really about the deepest reality.
  • Philosophers disagree on whether the deepest reality is matter or mind.
  • The existence of a creator God is debated with various arguments.

Philosophy and meaning

There are many different ways of living, and a wide variety of things to value and pursue in this world, but is there any overall meaning to life? Is there a meaning to it all? Or is the world and everything in it ultimately meaningless?

These are questions that have drawn the consideration of philosophers for a very long time.

As you can imagine, some philosophers deny there is meaning in anything, and others claim that we can make meaning by choosing our values, commitments, and projects. Still, others think there is an ultimate meaning given to us beyond what could be created by us. And this, of course, turns out to depend in interesting ways on the God issue.

You can see in examining this question how many of the others considered by philosophy relate to each other and to constructing an ultimate worldview for yourself. There are truths to be known, elusive facts that matter deeply but that are long debated. Some people just give up on knowing. But those who persist can make more progress than they might have imagined.

Here are some ways philosophers approach the question of meaning in life:

  • Philosophers help us explore the question: Is there a meaning to life?
  • Meaning and purpose may be tied in with happiness and flourishing.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

Tom Morris holds a PhD degree in Philosophy and Religious Studies from Yale University, and is a former Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. He is also the founder of the Morris Institute for Human Values and author of over 30 books, including The Stoic Art of Living: Inner Resilience and Outer Results.

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