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Philosophy is the systematic inquiry into fundamental questions about the nature of reality, knowledge, and behavior. As an academic discipline, philosophy has three central areas of inquiry and a number of other related sub-disciplines that follow from these three areas. The three core areas are metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. Other important branches of philosophy include logic, the philosophy of science, the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of language, aesthetics, political philosophy, and the philosophy of religion. Each of these areas can be further broken down into subspecialties; so for instance, the philosophy of science includes the philosophy of physics, the philosophy of biology, the philosophy of math, the philosophy of the social sciences, and so on. Furthermore, given what is generally taken to be the systematic nature of philosophical inquiry, the boundaries between the different areas of study and how each area relates to others are themselves matters of some disagreement. Is the philosophy of science to be regarded as a sub-discipline of epistemology or as a separate area of study? What is the relation of the philosophy of mind to metaphysics, on the one hand, and to the philosophy of psychology, on the other? What is the relation of political philosophy to ethics and to the philosophy of law, and should all of these areas be considered subdisciplines under a broader rubric such as value theory? Indeed, most philosophers would agree that the question “what is philosophy?” is itself a philosophical issue about which there is no one accepted answer, regardless of whether philosophy is taken as a method of inquiry, a way of understanding and living in the world, or as an academic discipline.

The Fundamental Questions of Philosophy

Philosophy Research PaperPerhaps, then, a better way of characterizing philosophy is in terms of the fundamental questions that concern the three core areas. Metaphysics traditionally asks questions about the fundamental nature of reality. What really exists? What are the fundamental constituents of reality? Are there two (or more) fundamental and mutually irreducible substances, for instance, mind and matter? What is the nature of identity, of causation, and of time? How should we characterize the difference between persons and bodies? Metaphysical questions cross over into what might seem to be other areas of philosophy. For instance, the question of the existence of God is a metaphysical question that is at the heart of the philosophy of religion. Likewise, the metaphysical question of the relation of mind and body has traditionally been the central focus of the philosophy of mind. One might regard questions about the nature of truth as metaphysical, but the nature of truth is a central concern in both the philosophy of language and logic. The problems of freedom and determinism and the nature of freedom are generally taken to fall within metaphysics, but they have obvious and important implications for ethics, political philosophy, and the philosophy of law.

Epistemology is the study of knowledge, what it is, and how we acquire it. What can we know? What are the limits of knowledge? Can we really know anything? Or is skepticism of some variety true? If we cannot know anything, if genuine knowledge (in a particular domain or in general) is impossible for humans, then some sort of skepticism must be the case. The traditional challenge of the skeptic going back at least as far as Plato is to the assertion that we are justified in claiming to know something (in particular or in general as the case may be), the claim to have secure knowledge. So the options, in a crude and simplified way, are between having secure knowledge or skepticism. What is the difference between mere belief and knowledge? Is true belief the same as knowledge? Is there a fundamental difference between empirical knowledge and knowledge of a priori entities such as concepts and numbers? Questions about the nature of justification and justified belief, as opposed to mere opinion, also are part of epistemology.

Some questions are both epistemological and metaphysical. Such questions often have to do with the nature of perception. For example, the question of the relation of appearance to reality, that is, of how the world appears to us versus how it really is in itself, is at once both a question in epistemology (what we can know of how the world really is) and metaphysics (the nature of the real). Hovering over these epistemological concerns are questions about rationality and what it means to be, think, and act rationally. The concept of rationality might be taken to be in part epistemological and in part metaphysical, but it also is important in normative domains such as ethics and in logic.

Ethics, or moral philosophy, has three traditional questions at its core: How should one live? What is the good? What is the right? These questions have to do with, in turn, the nature of virtue, value, and duty or right action. One can approach ethics, as the Greeks typically did, by thinking about the first question: how a person should live. What is the proper or best life for a human being? What kind of person should I be? What kind of virtues or disposition of character should I attempt to cultivate in myself? Answering these questions allows one to determine what is good (what adds value to a life) and what is right (what duties one has and how one should act in certain situations).

In the modern period, philosophers have typically started with one of the other questions and moved from it to the other two concerns. One approach, consequential-ism including utilitarianism, starts with a theory of the good or what has value, and then determines right action in terms of what will bring the most good into the world. Virtues are understood as those character traits that will help one best promote the good. The other major approach, often called deontology, starts with a theory of duty or right action. Certain actions are taken to be dutiful or right because of some feature they possess. The good is understood in terms of the promotion of such actions, or if there is an independent theory of the good, promoting the good is seen as subservient to doing one’s duty. A third contemporary approach, virtue theory or neo-Aristotlelianism, attempts to revive the approach of the Greeks and make virtue the fundamental normative concept.

These questions are all considered part of normative ethics, or the theory of how one should act. When these sorts of questions are asked of specific sorts of cases or problems, normative ethics shades into applied ethics, which includes a number of subfields such as medical ethics or bioethics, environmental ethics, and business ethics. Another important area of ethical inquiry is metaethics, or the theory of the nature of ethics. Metaethics is the inquiry into metaphysical and epistemo-logical issues about normative ethics and the nature of moral language. Metaethical issues include questions about the nature of value and truth in ethics; epistemological issues about ethical judgments such as whether ethical assertions admit of truth, how we can come to have knowledge in ethics, and the nature of justification in ethics; and philosophy of language concerns about the nature of specifically moral language such as the moral ought and good.

The discipline of philosophy as practiced in the English-speaking world and most of Europe is primarily the tradition of the West starting with the Greeks. Non-Western traditions, including Chinese philosophy, Indian philosophy, African philosophy, and Islamic philosophy, receive some attention but remain largely on the margins of the field. In the twentieth century, a major and rather complicated division developed in European philosophy between two schools or approaches to the subject generally known as Analytic philosophy and Continental philosophy. Both approaches share the same history of the discipline, even with somewhat different readings of certain figures such as Immanuel Kant until at least Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. The Analytic tradition sees its specific roots in Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, G. E. Moore, and Ludwig Wittgenstein in the early twentieth century, whereas the Continental tradition traces its origins to such figures as Franz Brentano, Edmund Husserl, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Martin Heidegger. The Continental tradition includes such philosophical sub-disciplines as phenomenology, existentialism, and postmodernism. By the middle of the twentieth century the Analytic approach was dominant in Anglo-American philosophy, and the Continental approach held sway in France, Germany, and most of Western Europe.

Unlike many disciplines, in particular the natural sciences, the history of philosophy is itself an important field within philosophy. Although the history of physics might be of some interest to physicists, most would not consider it an important field of current research or inquiry within physics. Philosophers, however, regard some mastery of the history of their discipline as an essential part of current work in most areas of philosophy. More than in most other subjects, philosophers recognize that how one tells the history of the field often affects how one understands the very nature of the problems that seem of greatest contemporary interest. Discussions of the major figures in the history of Western philosophy such as Plato, Aristotle, Rene Descartes, David Hume, Kant, and John Stuart Mill are directly relevant to current work in ethics, epistemology, and many areas of metaphysics so much so that positions in current debates are often labeled as Kantian or Humean or Cartesian.

Philosophy and Social Sciences

Historically, the social sciences have either been offshoots of philosophy or very closely connected to philosophical discussions. In some sense the social sciences have their roots, as do the natural sciences, in Greek thought. Plato and Aristotle can lay claim to being the first political scientists and economists. Not until the modern period, however, starting with seventeenth-century figures such as Thomas Hobbes and Giambattista Vico, did the social sciences begin to emerge in their modern form. Still, it was only in the late eighteenth century and into the nineteenth century that thinking about the nature of society and social behavior began to be seen as an area of investigation separable from thinking about the deep normative issues of ethics and political philosophy. The great figures regarded as among the fathers of modern social science such as Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, and William James were all trained in philosophy. Only in the twentieth century, largely as a result of the influence of positivism and the specialization of the academy, did a split between the investigation of the nature of social life and processes and the traditional concerns of philosophy clearly emerge.

A subdiscipline of contemporary philosophy of particular relevance to the social sciences is the philosophy of the social sciences. A central question of this subdiscipline concerns how to situate the social sciences in relation to the other disciplines. To what degree should the social sciences on the model of the natural sciences, such as physics, be understood? Or should they rather be viewed as closer to the humanities? Or should the social sciences be regarded as different in important respects from both the natural sciences and the humanities? Part of the difficulty in answering this question is that the social sciences span a broad spectrum of types and areas of investigation, from the study of the mind and of individual behavior in different arenas of social existence such as the economic or political, to understanding alien cultures, to social and political theory on the broadest scale. Can one expect to find epistemological, metaphysical, or methodological unity across all areas of investigation that are generally regarded as social sciences?

Still, there are central questions that remain at the core of philosophical interest in the social sciences. Since the Greeks, philosophers have speculated about whether society and the institutional norms and rules that govern human life are natural or the result of convention. Thinking about this question leads naturally into questions about diverse cultures and to epistemological and methodological issues concerning how one understands alien cultures. These questions about the nature of foreign cultures and the possibility of our understanding cultures different from our own are central to anthropology and the philosophy of anthropology, a subfield of the philosophy of the social sciences.

A different, but related, epistemological issue concerns how we explain social behavior. The standard model of explanation in the natural sciences is causal explanation. This model assumes that there are law-like generalizations in terms of which we can understand particular occurrences or phenomena. But are there comparable laws or generalizations in the social sciences, especially that hold across cultures? Many doubt that there are. Alternatively, some have tried to attempt to explain social phenomena in terms of functional explanation, where the explanation appears to be in terms of the effects brought about rather than the causes of those effects. There are, however, serious questions about the relation of causal and functional explanation. A third important position holds that neither causal nor functional explanation is appropriate in the social sciences. Rather, the goal of the social sciences is understanding in the sense of the recovery of the meaning of individual or social behavior and phenomena from the point of view of the agents themselves. This debate has traditionally been referred to as that between Eklaren (explanation) and Verstehen (understanding).

Another central debate in the philosophy of the social sciences concerns the relation of social structures, institutions, and practices on the one hand, and individual behavior and meaning on the other. Can all social phenomena be reduced to the aggregation of individual behaviors and meanings, in which case the goal of the social sciences should be to explain everything on the level of the individual? Or is the social ultimately irreducible to the level of the individual? In the latter case, the social sciences, or at least some of them, seem to occupy a conceptual space separate from the natural sciences, psychology, and the humanities. The position that holds that reduction of the social to the individual is possible and epistemologically required can be called methodological individualism. The position that resists this reduction and holds for a separate conceptual space for the social can, accordingly, be referred to as methodological holism.

One final and important issue should be mentioned: the relation of fact and value in the social sciences. The natural sciences are concerned with facts, the facts out of which the world is constructed, and regard themselves and are generally regarded as value neutral. The relation of fact and value is much more problematic in the social sciences in at least two ways. Although natural science can be used in ways that might be judged good or bad, social scientists more often seem to bring value judgments and commitments to their work, making it harder to separate purely scientific judgments from value judgments. On a more basic philosophical level, there is a question about whether the very subject matter of the social sciences can be constituted independently of values. Although some hold that all theory, regardless of whether it is in the natural or social sciences, is value-laden, those in the natural sciences have traditionally thought of themselves as concerned with a realm of fact independent of values. Whether there are social facts with anything similar to the same degree of value independence has long been and remains a much more controversial claim. The constitution of social facts may inescapably involve normative assumptions, in which case the object domain of the social sciences would be significantly different from that of the natural sciences.


  1. Audi, Robert. 2002. Epistemology: A Contemporary Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge. New York: Routledge.
  2. Cutrofello, Andrew. 2005. Continental Philosophy: A Contemporary Introduction. New York: Routledge.
  3. Darwall, Stephen. 1998. Philosophical Ethics. Boulder, CO: Westview.
  4. Grayling, Anthony C., ed. 1995. Philosophy: A Guide Through the Subject. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  5. Grayling, Anthony C., ed. 1998. Philosophy 2: Further Through the Subject, Vol 2. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  6. Kagan, Shelly. 1997. Normative Ethics. Boulder, CO: Westview.
  7. Kim, Jaegwon. 2005. Philosophy of Mind. Boulder, CO: Westview.
  8. Root, Michael. 1993. Philosophy of Social Science. Oxford: Blackwell.
  9. Rosenberg, Alexander. 1995. Philosophy of Social Science. Boulder, CO: Westview.
  10. Stroll, Avrum. 2001. Twentieth-Century Analytic Philosophy. New York: Columbia University Press.
  11. Van Inwagen, Peter. 2002. Metaphysics. Boulder, CO: Westview.

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