Have you ever puzzled over difficult questions such as “How does thinking to happen inside my head?”, “Can we know what happens to us after we die?” or “If I had been born as a tortoise, would I still be me?” You might have asked someone about it, only to be told “I have no idea” or “Stop asking silly questions”.
But questions like these are not silly at all. In fact, they are some of the most important—and most difficult—questions in the world. Philosophy is the name for what we do when we ask questions like this. It means trying to understand the real truth about the world, reality and ourselves. The word “philosophy” comes from two Greek words, “Philo”, meaning love, and “Sophia”, meaning knowledge or wisdom. So philosophy simply means the love of knowledge. Put another way, it means wanting to know about things and trying to understand them.
Philosophy is not quite the same as a scientific subject or a topic, like chemistry or geography. Instead, it is an activity—asking questions and thinking about them. People who do philosophy are called philosophers. There have been many famous philosophers throughout history. Thales, Plato, Socrates, Confucius, Descartes, Wittgenstein, Hume, Nietzsche, and Kant are just a few of the important names. But anyone can do philosophy by thinking about philosophical questions.
Philosophers ask many different questions, but they are mainly to do with the nature of things in the world, and what it means to be a human being. Important philosophical questions include: What are right and wrong, and how do we decide how we should behave? Is the body separate from the mind, or are they different features of the same thing? Do we have souls? What is art? What is love? What is thinking? Do humans have free will (freedom to choose) about what to do or is everything in the future already decided by fate? If I feel pain, or happiness, or hunger, is it the same as when you feel them? If I kick a stone and hurt my toe, does the stone really exist? Or is it just my experience of seeing the stone and feeling the pain that really exists?
Philosophical questions like these are very hard to answer. They are so hard to answer that we may never be able to find a single, “right” answer to any of them. In science subjects such as chemistry, you can do experiments and measure things to try to find out the truth. But you cannot do that with philosophy because it deals with things like ideas and feelings that are very hard to measure. Instead, philosophy is all about thinking, suggesting possible answers and discussing questions with other philosophers. Philosophers have many different ways of looking at things, and they often argue and disagree.
ANCIENT GREEK PHILOSOPHY
The Ancient Greeks are famous for their philosophers and for the importance they placed on philosophy. They did not invent philosophy—it began whenever people began thinking about philosophical questions, probably long ago in prehistoric times. But they did come up with a lot of important philosophical ideas which have influenced philosophers ever since. The word “philosophy” also came from them.
The earliest Greek philosophers, such as Thales, lived more than 2,500 years ago. Thales was puzzled by all the different substances in the world and thought they must all really be made of one substance, which he thought was water. Other Greek philosophers disagreed and thought everything was made of fire, air or tiny invisible particles.
Later, Greek philosophers such as Socrates and Plato began to ask questions about why people behaved well or badly, and what the soul was. And there were many more Greek philosophers with many different ideas. For example, the Stoics believed that bad things existed for good reasons, so you should put up with them. And the Sceptics said that you should not make judgements about anything, including about whether things that appear to be real actually exist, and that you could not be sure of any “fact” being true. Ideas like these still influence philosophers today and have been very important in the history of philosophy.
AROUND THE WORLD
Meanwhile, other philosophers were developing their own ideas in different parts of the world. In ancient China, Confucius, who lived from 551 bc to 479 bc, thought about society and how people behaved. He said that to make society work, each person had to take responsibility for themselves and be kind and friendly to others. He also believed that people should have respect for their parents, and carry out their duties to the state. Many people in China and other parts of East Asia still try to live according to Confucius’s ideas.
In India in around 1000 bc, early philosophers called the lokâyatas rejected religion and argued that only physical objects and events were real. They believed that the mind is just a part of the body and that there is no separate soul that could live on after death. This idea is called materialism, and it has been important in philosophy ever since. Another Indian philosopher, Siddhartha Gautama, was born in about 563 bc. He invented Buddhist philosophy, which says that suffering is part of being human, but that we can escape from it by learning not to desire things. He argued that the individual self is not important, and is just a tiny part of nature and the world. Siddhartha later became known as the Buddha, which means “Enlightened One”, and his teachings became the basis of the Buddhist religion.
PHILOSOPHY AND RELIGION
Philosophy and religion sometimes seem to be closely related. They both try to answer questions such as why humans exist, what happens after we die and whether it is possible for supernatural things such as gods to exist. Because of this, philosophical ideas, such as those of Siddhartha, can become part of religions that tell people what to believe and how to behave. But philosophy and religion are not the same. Philosophy tries to find answers to questions through thinking about them and trying to figure out what makes the most sense. Religion is more to do with faith and belief—for example, believing the words in holy books such as the Bible and the Koran—and religious rituals such as worshipping a god or gods.
TYPES OF PHILOSOPHY
There are many different types, areas or branches of philosophy. For example, metaphysics is about what reality is and how it works. Philosophy of mind is about what the mind is and how we think. Aesthetics is about art and why we find things beautiful or ugly. Philosophy of science is about how we use science to understand things; and moral philosophy, or ethics, is about understanding what right, wrong, good and evil really are and how we should behave.
There are also many schools of philosophy—different philosophical theories, approaches or ways of seeing the world. For example, the 17th-century French philosopher René Descartes developed the theory of dualism, which says that there are two different kinds of things: physical material things that we can sense; and things like thoughts, ideas, and the soul. According to Descartes, these two types of things are separate and work in different ways. In contrast, materialists say that everything is made up of physical matter—that the mind is not a different type of thing, but must also be made up of a just physical matter.
As well as being a dualist, Descartes was a rationalist. This means that he thought that knowledge should be based on reason—we should reason things out rather than relying on information we get from our senses. In contrast to this, empiricists say that knowledge is based upon the information that we get through using our five senses. The Scottish philosopher David Hume, who lived in the 18th century, was an important empiricist philosopher. He argued that we can only rely on things that we can detect with our own senses, and cannot make assumptions from them.
Other schools of philosophy include pragmatism and existentialism. Pragmatism says that what really matters is how we use our understanding of reality to solve problems. Existentialism focuses on the importance of the current moment and experiencing feelings and strong emotions.
There are many philosophers alive and working today, such as Daniel Dennett, Roger Penrose, David Chalmers and Mary Midgley. Philosophers write books and newspaper and magazine articles about their ideas. They also teach philosophy in universities, where you can do a degree in philosophy if you want to. In the past, the people who went down in history as great philosophers were almost all men, but now plenty of female philosophers are famous too.
As well as being interesting in itself, philosophy has many important uses in the modern world. For example, it helps politicians to decide what kinds of laws to make and how to run society; it helps scientists think about how to design their experiments; and it helps people like artists and architects to come up with ideas.
Did you know?
• As well as being a philosopher, Descartes was brilliant at maths and science. He also invented the coordinate system for finding a place on a map, which is still used today.
• Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper, two great 20th-century philosophers, met when Popper was giving a talk in Cambridge and Wittgenstein was in the audience. After the talk, they had a heated discussion, and Wittgenstein is believed to have threatened Popper with a red hot poker.
• Greek philosopher Diogenes argued that the most important thing was practical good and that we should reject luxuries and pleasures. He slept in the streets to prove his point.