What is philosophy?

Wisdom is not a product of schooling but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it. –Albert Einstein

The word “philosophy” comes from Greek and means “love of wisdom.” Wisdom and knowledge are not the same thing. With the Internet, it is relatively easy to be knowledgeable today; however, knowledge is just a tool. Unless you know how to use it effectively and how it relates to the other tools in your box, knowledge may be either useless or meaningless. Wisdom is not a thing that you can give or be given. It is a byproduct of the personal quest for truth and meaning. Philosophy can be understood as the story of people continually ask how and why and what they discovered. Each of them tried to organize their thoughts into a system that would enable them to understand their place in society, the world, and the cosmos. Fascinating, you think. What could be better?

Well, many people think that modern philosophy is useless or at least impractical. This is partly because they think only of academic philosophers, pondering the five major disciplines of aesthetics, metaphysics, ethics, political philosophy, and epistemology in their ivory towers. What they don’t realize is that if you walked into the ancient bookstore, there would basically be only two categories: philosophy and religion (and religion contains a fair bit of philosophy too). Philosophy once included all of the sciences (once called “natural philosophy”), much of the humanities (literary criticism, social science, history, etc), and even the entire self-help and business sections (rhetoric, psychology, etc). What happened?

One way to think of it is that philosophy is always on the cutting edge of human thought. Once something becomes explainable or observable, it ceases to be philosophy and become a field in itself. As these fields mature, they are beginning to answer old philosophical dilemmas such as free will, consciousness, and the mechanics of morality. Philosophy then is left with the impossible or difficult to answer questions. “What is beauty?” (aesthetics) “What is reality?” (metaphysics) “What is ‘the good life?'” (ethics). These questions may not be “useful” in our materialistic modern world, but they are meaningful. Who wants to live in a world without beauty? Or ethics?

Arguably, we need philosophy more than ever. We are awash in an ever growing sea of knowledge, and without a compass of some sort, we can feel lost or overwhelmed. Philosophy can help us connect the dots, give us a map, and with it, a sense of direction and purpose.

The following video is a good, short overview of philosophy.

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