By Ava Casab (’23)
Philosophy is hard to define, not because there are no words to define it, but because the question itself is a philosophical question. The best way to describe philosophy is a way of answering questions by using nothing but natural reasoning; answering questions using only your own thoughts. In a nutshell, philosophy is basically questioning everything. Although once you get into what exactly philosophers question, this definition doesn’t make much more sense than the more complex ones I gave before it. To truly understand philosophy takes time and a lot of studying, but here we’ll simplify it and, first, focus on the three parts of wisdom.
Philosophy generally uses a setup of three different parts of wisdom to answer questions: what is real, what is good, and how to think in order to be wise. These three pieces of wisdom correspond to the three parts of philosophy. Knowing what is real is called metaphysics, knowing what is good is ethics, and knowing how to think is logic. These are known as Stoics’ division of philosophy. Logic can additionally be broken down further into formal versus informal logic, and then further into term, propositional and mathematical for formal logic and definition and fallacies for informal; however, breaking down philosophy just makes everything more confusing at the start. Just know that logic can be broken down into two main parts: formal and informal.
Philosophy is often broken down into two main categories itself, with the three pieces of wisdom falling into one of the two categories of modern and ancient philosophy. Even though it seems like this is a nice way to split philosophy, these two categories don’t really exist since they imply a barrier that cannot exist in philosophy. There are many other ways of looking at philosophy as well, but the one thing they tend to have in common is a way of splitting philosophy. Different philosophers see philosophy differently, and as such define it differently.
Because there’s no real way to define philosophy, it tends to be fairly open-ended. One of the most important things to remember is that no philosophical question can have an absolute answer. Remember that philosophy is based on answering questions by the use of your own thoughts. But what do those questions contain? There’s no real step by step process to creating a question. Really, philosophical questions need to make you think deeply. They often look simple, but turn out to be far more complicated than you think, which requires thoughtful explanations.
To better understand why explanations are integral to philosophy, let’s take a look at Thales’ first question. Thales is widely considered to be the first real philosopher, and as he is surrounded by many things that are in flux, he asks, “Things appear to be ever-changing, but is there something about them that does not change?” He eventually turns out with an answer: water. Why he chose water is not clearly known, but one explanation suggests it may be due to the fact that while it does change in appearance, at the end of the day water, whether a solid, liquid, or gas, is still fundamentally water. However, we’ll never know for sure. Even so, this question is a perfect example of what a philosophical question is like. It seems simple, but the answer “water” doesn’t make much sense without explanation.
So what is philosophy again? Some consider it to be confusing questions with varying answers, some call it simple questions with complicated answers, and some call it questions with no real answers. It all depends on the person you are. You don’t have to be a philosopher to answer philosophical questions. All you need is a question, someplace to think (and possibly write), and a few ideas. Let your brain take you to places you never thought you’d go. Let your thoughts wander and your word shine, no matter how out of place they seem.
Whatever you do, don’t forget that philosophy doesn’t have any correct answers, only guesses.