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An Introduction to Philosophy!


Why are we here? What is beauty? How do we know what we know? What is reality? What is truth?


Definition: the study of general and fundamental problems concerning matters such as existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language, focusing on a critical, systemic approach to such topics based on rational argument. The term is Greek and literally means “love of wisdom”.


Types of Philosophy:

Metaphysics: is the study of the nature of being and the world. Traditional branches are cosmology (refers to the study of the universe in its totality as it is now and by extension, humanity's place in it) and ontology (is the study of the nature of being, existence or reality in general).

Key questions: What is existence, i.e. what does it mean for a being to be? Is existence a property? Are all entities objects? How do the properties of an object relate to the object itself? What features are the essential, as opposed to merely accidental, attributes of a given object? How many levels of existence or ontological levels are there? And what constitutes a 'level'? What is a physical object? Can one give an account of what it means to say that a physical object exists? Can one give an account of what it means to say that a non-physical entity exists? What constitutes the identity of an object?

Epistemology: is concerned with the nature and scope of knowledge, and whether knowledge is possible. Among its central concerns has been the challenge posed by skepticism and the relationships between truth, belief, and justification.

Key Questions: What is knowledge? How is knowledge acquired? What do people know? How do we know what we know?

Ethics, or 'moral philosophy’: is concerned with questions of how persons ought to act or if such questions are answerable. The main branches of ethics are meta-ethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics. Meta-ethics concerns the nature of ethical thought, comparison of various ethical systems, whether there are absolute ethical truths, and how such truths could be known. Ethics is also associated with the idea of morality.

Key ideas: deontology (an approach to ethics that determines goodness or rightness from examining acts, rather than third-party consequences of the act), consequentialism (hold that the consequences of a particular action form the basis for any valid moral judgment about that action), utilitarianism (hold that the consequences of a particular action form the basis for any valid moral judgment about that action).

Political philosophy: is the study of government and the relationship of individuals and communities to the state. It includes questions about justice, the good, law, property, and the rights and obligations of the citizen.

Important Philosophers: Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics), Plato (Republic), Machiavelli (The Prince), Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Adam Smith, Karl Marx.

Aesthetics: deals with beauty, art, enjoyment, sensory-emotional values, perception, and matters of taste and sentiment.

Key Questions: What is art? What makes something beautiful? What is the value of art? How can one judge art?

Logic: is the study of valid argument forms. Beginning in the late 19th century, mathematicians such as Frege focused on a mathematical treatment of logic, and today the subject of logic has two broad divisions: mathematical logic (formal symbolic logic) and what is now called philosophical logic.

Key Ideas: informal logic (natural language of arguments and the study of fallacies), formal logic, symbolic logic, mathematical logic, deductive and inductive reasoning.

Philosophy of: There art many topics to take which span time and ideas. Phil of: art, history, law, religion, language, science, music, psychology, anthropology, etc.

Schools of thought: Anarchism · Aristotelianism · Classical liberalism · Critical theory · Cynicism · Deconstructionism · Deism · Deontology · Dialectical materialism · Dualism · Egoism · Epicureanism · Existentialism · Feminism · Functionalism · Hedonism · Hegelianism · Hermeneutics · Humanism · Idealism · Kantianism · Kyoto School · Legal positivism · Logical positivism · Marxism · Materialism · Modernism · Naturalism · Neoplatonism · New Philosophers · Nihilism · Particularism · Peripatetic · Phenomenology  · Platonism · Posthumanism · Postmodernism · Post-structuralism · Pragmatism · Presocratic · Psychoanalysis · Solipsism · Realism · Relativism · Scholasticism · Skepticism · Stoicism · Structuralism · Utilitarianism

Important Philosophical Works:

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Phenomenology of Spirit – Friedrich Hegel

Meditations – Rene Descartes

Being and Time – Martin Heidegger

Critique of Pure Reason – Immanuel Kant

Euthyphro/Cryto/Apology/Phaedo – Plato (Socratic Dialogues)

Crises of the European Sciences – Edmund Husserl

Philosophical Investigations – Ludwig Wittgensten

Beyond Good and Evil – Friedrich Neitzsche

Sickness unto Death – Soren Kierkegaard

Summa Theoalogica  – St. Thomas Aquinas

Being and Nothingness – Jean-Paul Sartre

The Social Contract – Jean Jacques Rousseau

Leviathan – Thomas Hobbes

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding – John Locke

A Treatise on Human Nature – David Hume

The Communist Manifesto – Karl Marx

Utilitarianism – John Stewart Mill

The Problems of Philosophy – Bertrand Russell


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Plato I


The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato. I do not mean the systematic scheme of thought which scholars have doubtfully extracted from his writings. I allude to the wealth of general ideas scattered through them... A.N. Whitehead (Alfred North Whitehead)


Plato (429 - 347 B.C.E.) was born in Athens. His teacher was Socrates who appears as a character in many of his works. Plato is one of the most influential writers in the history of philosophy. Philosophy as we know it today, a critical systematic method of inquiry is considered to be his invention.  His questioning of reality led him to grapple with the nuances of language as well as the problems of philosophical procedure. He wrote at a time when writing was coming to displace the art of memory and he was as suspicious of this new method of passing on information as modem commentators are of computers (see Phaedrus)


Plato wrote his philosophy in the form of dialogues. These usually involve an investigation into a concept by Socrates who questions his opponents' assumptions to the point of collapse.


For further information about Plato's life and a general guide to his philosophy see:


The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: http


Hare, RM.  Plato Oxford University Press; Oxford, New York,

Annas, Julia. Plato: A Very Short Introduction Oxford University Press; Oxford and New York


Aristotle I


Aristotle (384 - 322 B.C.E.) was a pupil of Plato. Along with Plato he is considered one of the greatest philosophers and a founder of philosophical method. He taught Alexander the Great and founded the Lyceum in Athens. He wrote on many philosophical and scientific topics including, logic, ethics, politics, biology, psychology and astronomy amongst others. Not all of his works survived. Some we only know about through reports written in the centuries after his death and of some we only have fragments.  But we have detailed notes of lectures written by him and taken by students. He differs from Plato in his interest in and observation of natural phenomena, although it should be remembered that he did not always proceed as a modem scientist would.


As in the case of Plato, Aristotle was writing and teaching near the beginning of philosophy and so lacks an inherited technical language. He pays attention to the uses of ordinary language and is often developing theoretical positions that we still use today. To read his philosophy is exciting because his searching for answers to fundamental questions laid many of the foundations of philosophy. His interest in observation as a basis for answering philosophical questions leads us to the first example of a popular division in philosophy between Rationalism and empiricism.


The debate between rationalists and empiricists primarily concerns the question of how we gain knowledge. Rationalists maintain that there are significant ways in which knowledge and concepts can be gained independently of sense experience. These ways are intuition, deduction from intuited premises and innate knowledge, knowledge that we have by virtue of our rational nature. Experience may trigger a process by which knowledge is brought to consciousness but experience itself does not provide us with this knowledge (see Plato "Innate Knowledge", reading for last week). Furthermore, the rationalist argues that knowledge gained in this way could not have been gained by experience and is superior to empirical knowledge.  The empiricist maintains that all knowledge must be gained through the senses. It is possible to be a rationalist with regard to mathematics and empiricist with regard to the physical sciences. The debate only

occurs if the two positions are applied to the same subject. Traditionally the philosophers of the early modem period who we will be studying and sometimes Plato and Aristotle are divided into opposing schools of rationalist and empirical thought. However, this division can be misleading as we shall see in the course of our study.


For more information on this see:


The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy


Cottingham, John The Rationalists Oxford University Press; Oxford & New York, 1988. Chapter 1


For further information about Aristotle's life and a general guide to his philosophy see:


AckriII, J. L. Aristotle The Philosopher Clarendon Press; Oxford, 1981

Barnes, Jonathan AristotleOxford University Press; Oxford and New York, 1982

Barnes, Jonathan.  Aristotle A Very Short Introduction Oxford University Press; Oxford and New York, 2000


Descartes I & Hume I


Descartes (1596-1650) is considered as the first modem philosopher. He was also a mathematician and scientist. Although he is often classed as a rationalist philosopher he did not reject empirical methods but his approach to knowledge was dictated, in part, by the belief that mathematical principles underpinned reality. He rejected the qualitative descriptions and explanations of scholastic philosophy in favour of a description cast in quantitative terms. The Meditations were written in the first person and invite the reader to participate in the enterprise of philosophy.  It is one of the first works which expresses the view of the author without following the conclusions of an acknowledged authority.


For further information about Descartes' life and a general guide to his philosophy see:


The Stanford Encyclopedia of


Gaukroger, Stephen Descartes: An Intellectual Biography Oxford University Press; Oxford & New York, 1995

Sorell, Tom. Descartes Oxford University Press; Oxford & New York, 1987. Reissued as,

Tom Sorell Descartes: A Very Short Introduction Oxford University Press; Oxford & New York, 2000


Hume is the most important philosopher to write in English and a prominent figure of the Scottish Enlightenment.  His works remain influential. He was openly atheistic in an age when University careers depended on religious affiliations. In his philosophical work he aimed to extend the methods of Newtonian science to the study of human nature. His work contains an early form of psychological study.


For further information about Hume's life and a general guide to his philosophy see:


The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:


Ayer, A. Hume: A very short introduction Oxford University Press; Oxford & New

York, 2000.


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