In this lesson, explore how different area of philosophy consider a variety of questions concerning our existence. You’ll learn the basics in a condensed way, giving you an overview of the field.
Branches of Philosophy
Janice is chatting with her roommate, Paula, about the field of philosophy. After completing five different introductory courses about different branches of philosophy, Janice has a good grasp of what each branch entails.Janice explains to Paula, who is not a philosophy student, that although it is not always broken down in this exact way, a common approach to the branches of philosophy is through five categories: ethics, epistemology, metaphysics, logic, and aesthetics.
‘Epistemology sounds like the most complicated,’ says Paula.
‘Tell me about that one first.’Janice decides to start with an example. She asks Paula to consider a classic problem presented by philosopher Bertrand Russell: ‘How do you know that the earth wasn’t created five minutes ago and that all of our memories, records, history, and even the Internet didn’t just spring into existence that recently?’Paula laughs, because it sounds like a silly question.
‘It’s because I remember a time before five minutes ago.’Janice counters, ‘But perhaps it’s possible that even those memories were created in your mind five minutes ago. Can you prove somehow that this isn’t the case? How do you know that all of these things occurred? Can you really know for sure that everything you think has happened has, in fact, occurred?’Janice explains that epistemology, put simply, is the study of knowledge.
Put in a more comprehensive way, epistemology focuses on how we come to acquire knowledge and what type of limits there are to our knowledge. It even asks the question, ‘What is the nature of knowledge?’ You can remember this term by thinking of how -ology refers to the ‘study of’, while episteme- refers to ‘knowledge’.
‘What about metaphysics?’ Paula says. ‘I’ve heard about this being used to describe really abstract ideas.’Janice confirms that metaphysics involves some abstract ideas, but she’s able to give a solid example, too.
Just like for epistemology, when Janice asked about how Paula knew the world existed five minutes ago, she could ask a similar question about how Paula knows that she herself is the same person she was as a child growing up.’Well, I don’t know. I’m just me,’ Paula says, no question. ‘I have an idea of who I am and that is me, as far back as I remember.’Janice explains that metaphysics looks more deeply into topics such as this and focuses on determining what, if anything, can be said to be real.
The abstract idea of personal identity, for instance, can benefit from this kind of questioning, as can concepts such as time and space.
Paula says, ‘That sounds pretty out there. I thought philosophy was focused on logic, too.
‘Janice confirms this: ‘Philosophy does aim to use logic to consider these difficult questions.’ The idea behind logic is that arguments and claims need to be evaluated closely and weighed to determine whether they involve correct reasoning. In fact, the reason to dig so deeply into topics like personal identity, time, and space is to question our assumptions and assure that our beliefs are valid.
Using logic, a person aims to avoid coming to conclusions without evidence. Logic’s role, from this perspective, is to clarify our thought process and improve our arguments.
As an artist, Paula tries to relate philosophy to her own field. She asks Janice, ‘What would a philosopher have to say about art?’The philosophy of art, also sometimes described as aesthetics, is a branch of its own and relates to our beliefs about art and the nature of beauty. In this branch of philosophy, a person might ask questions about what value art contributes to the world, and whether there really is a demarcation between art itself and reality.Paula confirms that sometimes people say that her art isn’t really ‘art’ in the traditional sense since it involves machinery, and she asks if this is a question that philosophers could consider.Janice says, ‘You’ve got the right idea.
Aesthetics explores this sense of taste and judgments about what is beautiful and worthwhile.’
Paula reflects back to a previous conversation that they had about philosophy, in which Janice told her that philosophy can relate to ethics or knowing what is right and wrong. It can help answer questions about whether it’s appropriate to steal, lie, or even kill under certain circumstances.’Yes, that’s ethics,’ Janice says. ‘Some philosophers have used ethics as an exploration in which actions are praiseworthy and which are not, and whether a particular action is something that society should encourage or discourage. Some may question the categories of ‘right’ and ‘good’ and consider what they really mean.’In the real-life study of philosophy, many of the categories overlap when approached by those in the field.
‘These branches,’ Janice says, ‘are a way to highlight the key areas of concern in philosophy.’
Philosophers consider a broad range of areas when they look closely at how we come to conclusions about life. In this lesson, we covered five general branches of philosophy, although there is some overlap. Epistemology is considered the study of knowledge and focuses on how we come to acquire knowledge and what type of limits there are to our knowledge.
Metaphysics focuses on determining what, if anything, can be said to be real.Logic involves the belief that arguments and claims need to be evaluated closely and weighed to determine whether they involve correct reasoning. The intention in logic is typically to clarify our thought process and improve our arguments. Aesthetics relates to our beliefs about art and the nature of beauty, while ethics is an exploration in which actions are praiseworthy and which are not, including the opportunity to question the categories of ‘right’ and ‘good’.
After this lesson, you should be able to list and define the different branches of philosophy: epistemology, metaphysics, logic, aesthetics, and ethics