What Is Philosophy?

Philosophy is one of civilization’s oldest and most fundamental building blocks, asking important questions about the world and our place within it.

Apr 15, 2022By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art

icons of philosophy wittgenstein aristotle kant plato


What is philosophy? It’s a tricky question. Derived from the Greek word philosophia, meaning “love of wisdom,” philosophy asks deep questions about knowledge and the meaning of life. We might even call it “thinking about thinking,” or the study of ideas. Philosophy is more about opening up questions rather than seeking direct or obvious answers. It asks fundamental questions about the world we live in, and our place within it. Philosophy is a vast area of study that has spanned millennia, with strands stretching across many elements of life. Usually, philosophy is divided into four key areas: ethics, logic, metaphysics and epistemology. Let’s delve a little deeper into each one to find out more.


The Philosophy of Ethics 

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Immanuel Kant, image courtesy of the Royal Institution


One of philosophy’s most fundamental questions is the study of ethics, or the morality of right and wrong. Some leading ethical philosophers include Immanuel Kant and Aristotle. Ethicists ask questions about what is good, fair and just, and how we should be treating others in the world around us. Why are ethics so important? If ethics ask questions about right and wrong, or good and bad, they can provide a moral compass pointing us in the right direction towards a fairer and more just society. Philosophers today tend to divide the study of ethics into three main areas: Meta-ethics, normative ethics and applied ethics. 


Meta-ethics, Normative Ethics and Applied Ethics

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Aristotle, icon of philosophy, image courtesy of Universe Today


Meta-ethics is a wide-angle view, examining the nature of moral judgement, as well as the origins of ethical ideas. Normative ethics look into the content of moral judgments, and the specific criteria for rights and wrongs. Applied ethics are the most controversial of the three, studying subjects like animal rights, capital punishment, abortion rights and war.


The Philosophy of Logic

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Ludwig Wittgenstein, known for his pioneering philosophy on logic, image courtesy of Art Review

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Another strand of philosophical study is logic. Wittgenstein and Plato are two leaders in the philosophy of logic. So, what, exactly is logic? In its simplest term, logic is the science of evaluating arguments and reasoning. The most basic foundational structure of logic is “If… then.” The “If” is an assumption, leading for the “then” part to be true. For example, “If God is real, then we should believe in him.” The “if” can be a subject of conjecture, so in our example above, an atheist would strongly disagree, thus opening up a logical debate.



Parmenides, image courtesy of Todoestudo


Metaphysics is another recognized and prevalent strand of philosophy, which essentially looks at that which is “beyond the physical.” Rather than relying on scientific fact, metaphysics goes beyond the real, material world into a hypothetical realm that we cannot see, hear, smell or touch. Metaphysical questions include: What is truth? What is a person? What is the human mind? Does God exist? Are ghosts real


Some Famous Leaders in Metaphysical Philosophy

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Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, 1785, image courtesy of Simon and Schuster


Ancient Greek philosopher Parmenides is often cited as the father of metaphysics and his ideas have influenced much of western philosophy. Parmenides was the first to inquire into the nature of existence itself. Another famous metaphysicist is Immanuel Kant; one of his most important mature texts was titled Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, published in 1785.



Plato, image courtesy of Penn Today


One of the most fundamental strands of philosophy, epistemology is the study of knowledge. Epistemologists look into the nature, origin and limits of human knowledge. The term has origins in two Greek words – episteme (knowledge) and logos (reasoning). The practice of epistemology has a long history that began in ancient Greece, and it continues to evolve and expand today. 


Aristotle and Plato

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Rembrandt van Rijn, Aristotle with a Bust of Homer, 1653, image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum, New York


Both ancient Greek philosophers Aristotle and Plato explored epistemology, setting a foundation for the centuries that followed. Each had their own approach – Aristotle believed no universal truths could exist without a relationship to human beings, while Plato believed the opposite – that a world of ideas and ideal forms was in existence that was separate from human beings.

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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.