What is Philosophy?

Philo of Man



What is Philosophy?

In this post, I will present the definition of philosophy as well as its major branches. Specifically, it will address the question: What is Philosophy?

Philosophy, particularly Western philosophy, comes from the two Greek words philia, which means “love” and sophia, “wisdom”. Thus, etymologically speaking, philosophy means the love of wisdom.

Socrates (Photo credit: Fee Wikimedia Commons)

As is well known, love in this context is understood as a strong desire for a particular object; while wisdom is understood as a correct application of knowledge. Thus, philosophy as the love of wisdom, at least in this context, could refer to the strong desire of the human person to possess knowledge and apply it correctly. It’s not a coincidence, therefore, that most philosophers in the Ancient World, particularly in Greece, India and China were sages or wise men. Think for example of Socrates, Gautama Buddha, Confucius, and Lao Tzu.

Traditionally, however, philosophy is defined as a science that studies beings in their ultimate causes, reasons, and principles through the aid of human reason alone. And when we speak of “being” or “beings” in philosophy in this context, we mean all things that exist, material or immaterial. An example of beings are “stones”, “trees”, “persons”, “cars”, air, water; and the notions of “God”, “soul”, “spirit”. All of these are beings, and philosophy studies their ultimate causes, reason, and principles through the aid of reason alone.

In other words, philosophy is concerned with the reason and principles that account for everything that exists. Thus, some of the basic questions in philosophy are:

  • What is the origin of the world, of everything that exists?
  • Why do these things exist, rather than not exist at all?
  • Is there God? If so, how can we justify the goodness of God in the face of evil?
  • What is the meaning and purpose of life? Why do we have to suffer?
  • If one is suffering from an unbearable pain, such as cancer, is it morally right to resort to euthanasia or assisted suicide?

These are just some of the questions that philosophy attempted to address. And in doing so, philosophy uses reason as a tool, which can be expressed in many forms, such as the ability to reflect, question, articulate one’s thought, and  analyze certain phenomenon or event. In short, philosophy attempts to understand things in a critical and logical manner.

It is important to note, however, that philosophers do not agree on a single definition of philosophy. In fact, philosophers differ in their basic understanding of philosophy. For example, Karl Jaspers, a famous German existential philosopher, understands philosophy as a discipline in which questions are more important than answers because answers themselves will in turn become questions.



Major Branches of Philosophy

After addressing the question “what is philosophy,” let us now discuss the major branches of philosophy. Philosophy is normally divided into four major branches, namely: Metaphysics, Epistemology, Logic, and Ethics.

Metaphysics comes from the two Greek words meta, which means “beyond” or “after” and physika, “physical” or “nature”. Hence, etymologically speaking, metaphysics means the study of things beyond the physical, that is, concepts or things that cannot be experienced, such as the concepts of God, freedom and soul.

Metaphysics is commonly understood as the foundation of philosophy. In fact, Aristotle calls it the “first philosophy”. Originally, the Greek word metaphysika, which literally means “after physics”, actually designated that part of Aristotle’s works, which came after those chapters that dealt with physics. However, it was misappropriated later by the Medieval commentators on classical texts as that which is beyond the physical. Thus, over time, metaphysics has been understood as the study of that which exists beyond the physical.

Metaphysics is subdivided into two, namely, General Metaphysics and Special Metaphysics. General Metaphysics is also referred to as Ontology. Under Special Metaphysics, we have Cosmology, Psychology or Anthropology, and Natural Theology or Theodicy.

Ontology is derived from the two Greek words onto, which means “being” or “that which is”, that is, everything that exists; and logos, which means “knowledge” or “study”. (Note, however, that the term logos in ancient Greek scholarship have different connotations. For example, Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher of the late 6th century BCE, understands Logos as reason or the underlying principle of all that is.) Ontology, therefore, is the specific branch of philosophy that studies beings in their ultimate causes, reasons, and principles through the aid of reason alone. In other words, Ontology studies the first principles or the essence of all things.

Some of the basic questions in ontology are:

  • What is being?
  • Why do things exist, rather than not exist at all?
  • What is meaning and nature of reality?
  • What is the underlying principle of all that exist?
  • Is there nothing?

Please note that my concern here is just to describe very schematically the four major branches of philosophy. If you want to know more about the nature and dynamics of Ontology per se, see John Rickaby, S.J. General Metaphysics. https://www3.nd.edu/~maritain/jmc/etext/gm.htm.

Cosmology, from the Ancient Greek words kosmos, which means the “world” and logos, meaning “study”, is the specific sub-branch of philosophy that studies the world (or universe), including its origin, dynamics, and characteristics, as well as the laws that govern its order.

Some of the basic questions in cosmology are:

  • What is the origin of the world?
  • What is the basic material of which the world is formed?
  • How do things arise?
  • In what consists its (the world) fundamental form or principle of order?
  • Is the world or universe infinite?

Psychology comes from the two Greek words psyche, which means “soul” (but loosely understood as mind) and logos, study. Thus, psychology is the specific sub-branch of philosophy that studies the soul or mind. Broadly construed, though, psychology is the study of the nature and dynamics of the human person as a whole, with emphasis on the way the person’s mind functions and the way she behaves.

Some of the questions in psychology are:

  • What is the nature of the human person?
  • Is there such thing as human nature?
  • What is the meaning and purpose, if any, of life?
  • Is there life after death?
  • How do we account for the existence of sufferings in the world?

Theodicy (Natural theology) is derived from the Greek word theos, which means God. The word theodicy was coined by the famous 18th century German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz in his 1710 work titled Théodicée. Broadly construed, theodicy is the study of God. But specifically, theodicy is concerned with the justification of the goodness of God in the face of the existence of evil in the world.

Some of the questions in theodicy are:

  • Is there God?
  • What and who is God, if He exists at all?
  • How do we prove the existence of God?
  • If God exists, how do we justify the existence of evil and suffering in the world?
  • Does a belief in God really necessary?

For a detailed discussion on special metaphysics, see Louis de Poissy, Special Metaphysics. https://maritain.nd.edu/jmc/etext/cp27.htm.

The second major branch of philosophy is Epistemology.

Epistemology comes from the two Greek words episteme, which means knowledge, and logos which means study. It is formally defined as the study of the nature and scope of knowledge and justified belief. Specifically, it analyzes the nature of knowledge and how it relates to similar notions, such as truth, belief and justification.

Some of the basic questions in epistemology are:

  • What is knowledge?
  • What do we know?
  • How is knowledge acquired?
  • What is the structures and limits of knowledge?
  • What makes justified beliefs justified?

For an in depth discussion of epistemology, see The Basics of Philosophy, http://www.philosophybasics.com/branch_epistemology.html.

The third major branch of philosophy is Logic. Logic comes from the Greek word logos, which, as I already mentioned, has different meanings. It is defined as the science of correct thinking, or the study of the principles and criteria of a valid argument. More specifically, logic attempts to distinguish sound or good reasoning from unsound or bad reasoning.

Some of the basic questions in logic are:

  • What is correct reasoning?
  • What distinguishes a good argument from a bad one?
  • How can we detect a fallacy in argument?
  • What are the criteria in determining the validity of an argument?
  • What are the types of logic?

Now, on the fourth major branch of philosophy, namely, Ethics.

Ethics is derived from the Greek word ethos, which originally means custom or habit. Broadly construed, ethics is the morality of human actions. Ethics, therefore, is concerned with questions of how human persons ought to act, and the search for a definition of a right conduct and the good life.

It is important to note that ethics is not the same with morality. This is because ethics denotes the theory of right action and the greater good, while morality indicates practice, that is, the rightness or wrongness of a human action.

Some of the questions in ethics are:

  • What is a right conduct as that which causes the realization of the greatest good?
  • How do we determine a right conduct? In other words, what makes a right conduct right?
  • What is a good life and can we attain it?
  • What is the difference between human act and actions that are based on instinct?
  • What do people think is right?


Below is the front cover of our book in philosophy of the human person, a core subject in senior high schools in the Philippines. The Chapter 1 in this book addresses the question: What is Philosophy? If you are interested to purchase the book, you may contact the publisher at subversopublishing@gmail.com. For more on the basic information of this book, please visit this link: http://philonotes.com/index.php/2017/11/24/textbook-iphp-k-12/



Professor of Philosophy
Silliman University



10 thoughts on “What is Philosophy?”

    1. Hi Ma’am Victoria. Many thanks for your very positive comments. I will be posting all my notes in philosophy soon. I just need to finish my research at the moment. All the best!

  1. Thank you for sharing this document/s Dr. Ocay. Appreciated it much. God bless you and More power to all your endeavors!

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