As complex as the modern world has become, it seems unlikely that most of what surrounds us is actually the result of the ancient practice of philosophy. Everything from the structure of democratic governments to due process of law, from a physician’s Hippocratic oath to computer software, has its roots in philosophy. Sadly, philosophy as a course of study is disappearing from our nation’s colleges, yet its focus on analytical thinking and problem solving is more vitally important today than ever.
Philosophy is an academic discipline that exercises reason and logic in an attempt to understand reality and answer fundamental questions about knowledge, life, morality and human nature. The ancient Greeks, who were among the first to practice philosophy, coined the term, which means “love of wisdom.” Those who study philosophy are called philosophers. Through the ages, philosophers have sought to answer such questions as, what is the meaning and purpose of life? How do we know what we know? Does God exist? What does it mean to possess consciousness? And, what is the value of morals?
Philosophers attempt to answer such questions through the philosophical method. The method usually begins when a philosopher examines his own beliefs and begins to doubt their validity. From his doubt, questions emerge. Before answering a question, the philosopher thoroughly analyzes it to ensure it is clearly and properly defined. This helps narrow the path to the most precise answer. Next, the philosopher proposes possible answers to the question and provides reasoned arguments to support each one. The arguments are then critiqued by other philosophers, who may give rebuttals. Through this process of criticism and judgment, known as dialectic, philosophers attempt to prove the rationality of their beliefs and discover fundamental truths.
It’s no coincidence that the philosophical method has much in common with the scientific method. Indeed, early science was known as “natural philosophy.” Philosophers like Aristotle developed the concepts of inductive and deductive reasoning that form the basis of modern scientific study. The roots of the physical sciences like physics and geology can be traced back to ancient philosophy.
Philosophy itself is generally considered a type of social science, like sociology or psychology. That’s because early philosophy was primarily concerned with describing the best way to live and organize society. From that spawned many other disciplines: economics, political science, law, linguistics, literary and art criticism, and theology—along with sociology and psychology.