Philosophy

The role of philosophy

Your guide to philosophy

At its most basic level, philosophy is the study of wisdom. In fact, the word itself derives from the Greek word for wisdom. However, it is not the study of all things, despite it having this connotation some time ago. Modern philosophy is now regarded as the pursuit of answers to the most fundamental human questions. In this regard, of course, it is often compared to religion. Typically, philosophers will pose questions on subjects like existence, values, the mind, will and language - among others – which they then attempt to answer. Some philosophers specialise in critical questioning, whereas others focus on rational argument. Others still develop their ideas through group discussions. Various branches of philosophy also exist, such as metaphysics, ethics, political philosophy and logic, to name but a few.

 How can philosophy help us?

 Anyone who wants to answer some of the deepest questions that are posed by philosophy should read the great works of philosophers in order to gain a better understanding. You may not agree with the philosopher's point of view, but it certainly helps to promote your own thoughts. After all, in every age philosophers have sought to build on the work of their forbears either to repudiate earlier held ideas or to reinforce them. Some aspects of philosophy have direct applications, too. The computer pioneer, Alan Turing, was also a philosopher who imagined thinking machines, something we all take for granted nowadays.

Where did philosophy begin?

Although western philosophy began in ancient Greece with famous names such as Aristotle, Plato and Socrates among the best-known, there are separate philosophic traditions from elsewhere. Branches of philosophy developed in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, for example. Early forms also sprang up in India, notably among the early proponents of Buddhism and Jainism. In addition, there are eastern traditions which grew up in China, Korea and Japan. Increasingly, there are studies into the philosophies of native Americans these days, too, such as those associated with the people of the Aztec empire.

Can philosophy replace religion?

In many situations, religions have used philosophic arguments to make their case. This is certainly the case in the Christian religion where the knowledge of Greek philosophers has, in certain respects, been incorporated into some Christian explanations of the world. The same is true, to some extent or other, in many of the other great world religions. As such, philosophy should be seen as a part of religion rather than being a distinct entity that will one day replace it entirely.

Why does philosophy remain important?

People have been asking themselves big questions about their existence since they first gathered around a fireside and wondered at the stars. Unless and until humans work out the answers to all of nature, it is highly likely that philosophy will remain a useful tool for coming up with answers to such questions in the absence of scientifically provable truths. After all, scientific methodologies are, themselves, built upon philosophical principles.

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Ethics and morals are a means for people to organise their ideas concerning concepts like right and wrong. In this sense, ethics and morals have been at the forefront of religious and philosophical thinking for as long as human beings have been interacting with one another. Various traditions of ethics and morals exist, including Greek, Egyptian, Islamic and Thomist, to name just a few. The questions relating to the topic have been posed – and, sometimes, answered – by some of the biggest names in the history of human thought including the Buddha, Confucius and Immanuel Kant, among others. Although the way in which moral philosophy is dealt with within each of these traditions differs, the focus on ethical behaviour tends to highlight issues like crime, justice, truth, virtue, good and evil.
To put it simply, religion is a social practice which uses multiple methods to explain humanity, the spiritual side of people, the universe and – in most cases – divinity. That said, there is no consensus as to what religion truly is. Some people take it to mean only organised religion where worship is conducted through ritual. Others see it as something that is bound up with their personal identity and which could not be shared even if they wanted it to. In the main, religions state moral positions that followers ought to stick to. Many religions also promote certain practices that are encouraged. These are often referred to as observances. Many types of religion have world views that cover all aspects of humanity, including the afterlife. Critics of organised religion usually point out how it has been used throughout history as a form of social control.
To many people, the purpose of life is very clear. It has been laid out clearly either by their parents, teachers or religious leaders. For others, it is much harder to work out. In fact, many philosophers have argued for centuries about what the true purpose of life is. There is a distinction between what the purpose of any life is and what it means to an individual, of course. Some people believe they have found a purpose in their life if, for example, they do a job that they find fulfilling. To others, the purpose of all human life is to work towards a higher purpose that is bigger than any individual. Broadly speaking, the latter is a spiritual interpretation of a life's purpose.
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