Philosophy 1: A guide through the subject

Written by A.C. Grayling.

Editor's Introduction

The aim of philosophical inquiry is to gain insight into questions about knowledge, truth, reason, reality, meaning, mind and value. Other human endeavours, not least art and literature, explore aspects of these same questions, but it is philosophy that mounts a direct assault on them, in the hope of clarifying them and, where possible, answering them.

'Philosophy' is derived from a Greek word literally meaning 'love of wisdom'. But it is better and more accurately defined as 'inquiry' or 'inquiry and reflection', allowing these expressions their widest scope to denote thought about general features of the world and human experiences within it.

In its earliest days, at a time when few distinctions were drawn between the pursuits we now label 'natural science', 'social science' the 'humanities', and the 'arts', philosophy was the study of almost everything. The Greeks of the classical period are credited with the beginnings of Western philosophy, in this sense, because they inquired freely into all aspects of the world and humankind, starting not from religious or mystical principles, but from the belief that human reason is competent on its own account to formulate the right questions, and to seek answers to them, concerning every matter of interest or importance to humanity.

The Greeks speculated about the origins, composition, and functioning of the physical universe. They discussed the ethical and political circumstances of mankind, and proposed views about their best arrangement. They investigated human reason itself, and the nature of truth and knowledge. In doing so they touched upon almost every major philosophical question, and their legacy to subsequent thought is vast.

For a very long period - roughly from the fourth to the seventeenth centuries AD - thought in the West was dominated by Christianity. This does not mean that there was no philosophy; far from it' but much of its served theology, or at least (except in such cases as logic) it was constrained by theological considerations. In the seventeenth century, as a result of the complex events which for convenience are collected under the labels 'Renaissance' and 'Reformation' and which took place during the preceding two centuries, there occurred a powerful renewal of philosophical inquiry. It was connected with the rise of modern science, and began by asking fundamentally important questions about the nature of knowledge. This same freedom of thought prompted renewal of debate about moral and political questions also.

According to a certain view of recent intellectual history, one can see philosophy as having given birth in the seventeenth century to natural science, in the eighteenth century to psychology, and in the nineteenth century to sociology and linguistics; while in the twentieth century it has played a large part in the development of computer science, cognitive science, and research into artificial intelligence. No doubt this oversimplifies the role of philosophical reflection, but it does not much exaggerate it, because in effect philosophy consists in inquiry into anything not yet well enough understood to constitute a selfstanding branch of knowledge. When the right questions and the right methods for answering them have been identified, the field of inquiry in question becomes an independent pursuit. For example: in the suppositious history just sketched, as soon as philosophical reflection on the nature and properties of the physical universe identified appropriate ways of asking and answering questions - chiefly, in this case, by empirical and mathematical means - it ceased to be philosophy and became science.

Philosophy accordingly remains a pursuit which - to put the point as a seeming paradox - tries to bring itself to an end either by solving its problems or by finding ways of transforming them into special inquiries like physics, psychology, or history. On the 'divide and conquer' principle, the systematic study of philosophy has come to organise itself into fields of philosophical inquiry: 'ethics', 'political philosophy', and 'logic' are more or less self-explanatory as to their subject-matter, while 'epistemology' (inquiry into the nature of knowledge) and 'metaphysics' (inquiry in the ultimate nature of reality) need more explanation on first mention. (There are also philosophical inquiries into particular subjects - the philosophy of science, the philosophy of law, the philosophy of history, and so forth - in which philosophers reflect on the assumptions, methods, aims, and claims of the special pursuits).

It is the aim of what follows to introduce philosophy's central fields of inquiry. There are so many connections and overlaps between them that to separate them under different labels in the way just indicated is somewhat artificial. But not entirely so; for there are problems distinctive to each, and a preliminary grasp of what they concern offers a first step towards understanding them.

Each of the chapters that follow is devoted to a major area of philosophical endeavour. They are their own introductions to the questions they discuss, and therefore need little supplementary introduction here. But a preliminary note about what each chapter contains will help with orientation, as follows.

Chapter 1: Epistemology. Epistemology - sometimes called 'theory of knowledge' - concerns the nature and sources of knowledge. The questions asked by epistemologists are, What is knowledge? How do we get it? Are all our means of seeking it equally good? To answer these questions we need to define knowledge if we can, examine the means we employ in seeking it, and confront sceptical challenges to our claims to have it. Each of the three parts of Chapter 1 takes up one of these tasks. The first considers the problem of giving an adequate definition. The second examines one major means to knowledge - sensory perception - and the third surveys sceptical arguments and efforts to counter them.

Chapter 2: Philosophical Logic. Philosophical logic is in many respects the workshop of philosophy, where a set of related and highly important concepts come in for scrutiny, among them reference, truth, existence, identity, necessity, and quantification. These concepts are fundamental not just to philosophical inquiry but to thought in general. This chapter examines these concepts by focusing upon the question of reference. The first two sections look at what seem to be the most obvious examples of referring devices, names and descriptions. The third concerns a problem about existence; the fourth examines identity statements and the fifth considers the question whether, when true, such statements are 'necessarily' true. The final section examines some views about truth.

Chapter 3: Methodology. Epistemological discussions of the kind pursued in Chapter 1 concern the concept of knowledge in general. A more particular application of it concerns science, one of the major fields of knowledge acquiring endeavour. Philosophical investigation into the assumptions, claims, concepts, and methods of science raises questions of great philosophical importance. The elementary part of this inquiry, here called Methodology, focuses largely on questions about the concepts and methods used in and its problems; the concept of laws of nature; realism, instrumentallism, and under- determination of theory by evidence; confirmation and probability; and the concept of explanation.

Chapter 4: Metaphysics. All the foregoing branches of philosophy share certain problems about what ultimately exists in the universe. These problems are the province of Metaphysics. Its primary questions are, What is where, and what is its nature? These questions immediately prompt others, so many indeed - and so important - that some of them have now come to constitute branches of philosophy in their own right, for example, philosophy of mind and philosophical theology. In addressing questions about the nature of reality, the metaphysician has to examine concepts of time, free will, appearance and reality, causality, universals, substance, and a number of others besides. Here four of these topics are considered: causation, time, universals, and substance. Note that questions about causality also come up in the chapters on Methodology and Mind, and the discussion of substance connects with the discussion of Aristotle in the chapter on Greek philosophy (see below) - thus exemplifying the interconnectedness of philosophical inquiry.

Chapter 5: The Philosophy of Mind. Questions about the nature of mind were once usually included in metaphysics, but their great importance has led to so much debate, and to such significant use of materials from the neighbouring fields of psychology and brain physiology, that the philosophy of mind is now treated separately. Chief among the points requiring discussion are the relation of mind and brain, the nature of phenomena have casual powers or are merely in some sense by-products of brain activity. The sections in this chapter take up each point in turn.

Chapter 6-9: The History of Philosophy. Because the problems of philosophy are ancient and persistent, studying the history of philosophy is an important part of a philosophical education. It is not simply, or even very largely, that this study is interesting for its own sake - although it certainly is - but rather, it is that the outstanding philosophers of the past made contributions to philosophy which we must grasp in the interests of our current work. To study the history of philosophy is to study philosophy, for almost all the great questions were formulated and explored by our predecessors. Two main periods of the history of Western thought are discussed in this volume: Greek philosophy from about 600 BC until 322 BC (the date of Aristotle's death), and Modern philosophy from Descartes to Kant (the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries AD). The Greeks initiated all of philosophy's major fields, and identified their basic questions. Two of them, Plato and Aristotle, are especially important. They and their forerunners, known as the Pre-Socratics, are the subject of Chapters 6 and 7. The philosophers of the Modern period who have done so much to shape philosophical discussion since their day are Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, and Kant (discussed in Chapter 8) and Locke, Berkeley, and Hume (discussed in Chapter 9). They are grouped in this way because the first three are usually described as 'Rationalists' and the last three 'Empiricists' (Kant occupies a position apart), some important differences between rationalism and empiricism being at stake. But perhaps the best order in which to read them, and to read about them, is: Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant.

Chapter 10: Ethics. The supreme importance of critical reflection on the values by which we live is unquestionable. Our values are the basis of our judgements about others, and of our decisions about how to act and live. Ethics is the study of theories about moral values, and of the concepts we use in identifying and asserting them. An important distinction is required here: a theory which prescribes how we should live is called a 'first-order' or 'normative' morality. Reflective enquiry into the assumptions, concepts, and claims of such first-order moralities is often called 'metaethics'. Both are of crucial interest in the study of ethics, as this chapter shows. It discusses theories of ethics, examines some of the most important ethical concepts, and investigates aspects of 'moral psychology'.

Chapter 11: Aesthetics. Aesthetics in contemporary philosophy concentrates upon discussion of the experience of appreciating artistic and natural beauty, and investigates whether there is an underlying unity in the nature of such experience. In this chapter the three sections successively examine aesthetic experience and judgement. fundamental concepts of the philosophy of art, and theories about the nature of art.

The kind of philosophy introduced in these chapters is often called 'Analytic Philosophy'. Analytic philosophy is not so much a school of thought as a style or method. It is a style of philosophizing which seeks to be rigorous and careful, which at times makes use of ideas and techniques from logic, and which is aware of what is happening in science. It is, in particular, alert to linguistic considerations, not because of an interest in language for its own sake, but because it is through language that we grasp the concepts we use, and it is by means of language that we express our beliefs and assumptions. One of the principal methods of analytic philosophy is analysis of the concepts we employ in thinking about ourselves and the world: not surprisingly, this is called 'conceptual analysis'.

Most philosophy done in the English -speaking world is analytic philosophy. The chapters in this book well display both its character and its methods. The name 'analytic philosophy' is sometimes used to distinguish the rigorous style of philosophizing just described from other styles of philosophizing, for example from so-called 'Continental Philosophy', by which is meant - variously - the philosophical work done in France, Germany, and elsewhere in continental Europe since the beginning of the twentieth century. Thus the thought of Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, the Frankfurt School, Foucault, Derrida, and others (a highly various assortment which it is not at all helpful to collect under a single label) is so named. There are indeed substantial differences both of interest and method between analytic and 'Continental' philosophy, but there is also some overlap. In just the same way as a certain amount of 'Continental' philosophy is done in the English-speaking world, so there is increasing in analytic philosophy in continental Europe.

The order of the chapters is intended to aid the reader who is making a systematic study of philosophy. A recommended approach is to read the essays in each of Parts I and II sequentially, and to read Parts I and II simultaneously. Upon turning to the two essays in Part III the reader should again, for preference, read them in sequence. But this is a suggestion for systematic students; the ordering is not intended to be coercive.