The Subjects of Philosophy
This section gives a thumbnail sketch of the subjects of philosophy discussed in this book. The book is not exhaustive of philosophy, but it can fairly be said that all the core areas are covered here.
The subject here is the nature of knowledge, and given that nature, what it can be truly said that we can know, as opposed to just having beliefs and opinions about. Can we counter views of sceptics who would claim that strictly speaking we cannot know as much as we claim to, or indeed anything at all?
What sorts of things ultimately exist and how do they connect to each other and how things appear to us? Are all the things that appear to us real, or are they derived from something more fundamental? And what do we say about the existence of things that do not in the usual sense ‘exist’ but to which we nevertheless refer, such as unicorns or numbers.
This is concerned with the nature and identification of good inferences: those circumstances in which one statement is said to follow from another. It seeks to understand and classify the cases where statements, if true, justify to whatever degree the truth of other statements.
This is concerned with values (normative as opposed to factual matters) with respect to human actions. What is it for something we do to be counted good or bad? What is it to say we ought to do or not do something? It is not enough to talk of what we do, we need to address what we should do and what saying this means.
This is the study of the philosophers of the Greek and Roman world. The usual concentration is on Greek philosophy from c.624BC, marking the birth of the Presocratic Thales, to 322BC as the death of Aristotle. The most important figures are undoubtedly Plato and Aristotle. Often this period is extended to include the Roman world. The significance of thought in the ancient world cannot be overestimated. Here we find almost everything, developed to varying degrees, that characterises the Western outlook. Indeed it represents a watershed in human history, where for the first time reason alone is applied across the board to the solving of the deepest problems rather than appeal to mere authority or an idea’s longevity.
This covers, we should note, the study of philosophers over a vast time of around one thousand years, extending from St Augustine of Hippo (AD354–430) and William of Ockham (c.1285–1349), and continuing beyond until at least the Renaissance. The connecting thread is the rise and dominance of Christianity which permeates the philosophy done during this period. The other most significant link throughout the period is the interpretation and adaptation of Aristotle’s metaphysics.
Modern philosophy: the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries
It may seem strange to call philosophy done in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries ‘modern philosophy’. It indicates a period of astonishing fecundity in philosophical thought and a new way of doing philosophy that was a significant break from what had gone before. Moreover many of the ways that philosophy is presently done still derive from thought in this period. The central figures are Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, Hume.
Philosophy of mind
What kind of entity are we referring to when we talk about the ‘mind’? How does talk of the mind relate to talk of what we normally call our bodies? Are the mind and the body one or is the mind non-physical? How can conscious awareness and understanding whereby we refer to things arise from inert matter? What do we mean by, and can it justify, saying that someone is the same person throughout his life?
Philosophy of language
What is it for an expression, spoken or written, to have meaning and the capacity to refer to things? What constitutes a person’s understanding the meaning of a word, at which point they know how it ought to be used correctly?
Philosophy of science
What defines a law of nature? How does it differ from other claims about the world? How if at all are scientific theories justified by evidence? How can we know that our laws of nature describe features of the world that will persist next time we examine it?
How ought society to be organised? What justifies the existence of the state that can rightly usurp power from people? How should the state be controlled? What justifies private property, if anything? How do people acquire rights that cannot be transgressed apart from exceptional circumstances, if at all?
Philosophy of arts
Can what a work of art is be defined? What do we mean when we say some work has a certain aesthetic quality, such as beauty? What determines the meaning of a work of art? What, if anything, justifies our valuing works of art differently?
Philosophy of religion
How good are the arguments justifying the existence of God? Are arguments for the existence of God required, or is faith enough? What is the nature of God and how does that relate to the sort of creatures we are?
It is controversial to claim that the group of philosophers often brought together under this title can be done so coherently, and the chapter here deals mainly with this matter. Negatively the title may indicate a divergence of methods and philosophical concerns between philosophers in Continental Europe and English-speaking philosophers in Britain, North America, New Zealand and Australia. Positively there is perhaps a thread that runs from the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) to the present with such thinkers as Jacques Derrida, and this can be seen as various ways of responding to the philosophical outlook of transcendental idealism.
The recent philosophers here are often marked by the most fundamental questioning of the nature, and indeed existence, of philosophy itself.
Fundamentals of Philosophy – Edited by John Shand