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Tutor Istvan Zoltan Zardai 's Column

What is Philosophy?

Jul 4, 2020

When I tell people that I'm a philosopher there are two common replies:
'- Oh, then you must know what I'm thinking!'
This means they think I'm a psychologist, more narrowly, a psychoanalyst.
Which I really am not, as much as I wish I would be.
 
The other reaction is:
'-Oh, philosophy is very difficult!'
 
I thought it might be helpful for people to say a little bit about what philosophy is, and what philosophers working at univerisites do these days.
 
The word 'philosophy' comes from the Ancient Greek language. It means 'the love of wisdom'.
 
I like to distinguish between an everyday conception - way of thinking - about philosophy, and more narrow, specialized conceptions.
 
The everyday conception of philosophy is that a person has a more-or-less coherent view about what is a good/happy life; what most humans are like; and what happens to us after death, that is, whether there is an afterlife.
I think these are the biggest questions that most people face in their life, and having a detailed, carefully considered view on these can help a great deal to confront some of life's challenges, like losing a loved one, suffering a failure in one's job or other projects, and in other cases too.
 
There are a number of more specilalized conceptions of what philosophy is.
For a long time in history, philosophy included religious thought, and also most of what we call science and humanities today.
Philosophers of ancient India, China, Greece, Rome, and other parts of the world thought about physics, mathematics, existence, god(s), politics, logic, ethics, and many other subjects.
Someone who has a good view of the connections of different fields and their main ideas can certainly be called a philosopher even today. But of course these days no one can be an expert on all these topics.
 
These days professional philosophers - who work as writers, uni professors, policy advisors, lawmakers, etc. - usually specialize and study in depth a few questions.
 
Some philosophers work mainly on understanding the history of the key ideas of our societies. They try to uncover why we accept many ideas as commonsense today.
For example, why do we think human rights are so important? How did this idea emerge?
What about democracy and fairness? Where do they originate and what influence did they have on other fields?
 
Other philosophers try to provide new answers on difficult philosophical questions.
They try to provide a good theory of knowledge (what are the criteria of knowing something vs just believing it), of truth, of justice, and of other core concepts of philosophy. These people publish interesting research papers and provide detailed, often formal arguments to support their views.
 
Another group of philosophers tries to apply the insights that we gained from philosophy during the last thousands of years. Such philosophers work with psychologists, scientists, or engineers, medical doctors and other professionals. They support the work of these people by helping them to analyze complex theoretical and ethical problems, and by working out the arguments that indicate what the best answer is in difficult cases. Medical ethics and the Ethics of AI are good examples of this type of philosophy.
 
I hope this helps you all to understand a little bit better what philosophers do. If you have any questions, are working on your own ideas, or are just interested in hearing about some of the cool ideas people came up with during the last couple of thousands of years, get in touch :)
 
 Ps.: The photo shows me during a questions & answers session at Tottori Uni, from last January. Don't forget: philosophy is about complex topics, but it should be fun and interesting :)

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