The term philosophy derives from a combination of the Greek words philos meaning love and sophia meaning wisdom. What philosophy is, or should be, is itself a philosophical question that philosophers have understood and treated differently through the ages.

Philosophy can mean the academic exploration of various questions raised by philosophers; or to the collective works of major philosophers; it can also mean a certain critical, creative way of thinking. Philosophy, thus, has several connotations in common speech. This article will focus on philosophy as a field of study.

In the common usage in English-speaking countries, philosophy most often refers to the field of study which is more precisely described as Western academic philosophy and which has many traditions spanning thousands of years often classifed by time period (e.g. ancient, medieval, modern, contemporary, et al.), geography (e.g. Continental, German, French, et al.), and/or subject matter (e.g. existentialism, pragmatism, skepticism, et al.). Eastern philosophy is tradition distinct and distinct field of study from Western philosophy. This article will discusses both Eastern and Western philosophy.


Philosophical topics

Philosophers ponder such concepts as existence or being, morality or goodness, knowledge, truth, and beauty. Historically most philosophy has either centered on religious beliefs, or science. Philosophers may ask critical questions about the nature of these concepts--questions typically outside the scope of science. Several major works of post-medieval philosophy begin by asking the meaning of philosophy. Philosophers are motivated by specific questions such as:

  • What is truth? How or why do we identify a statement as correct or false, and how do we reason?
  • Is knowledge possible? How do we know what we know?
  • Is there a difference between morally right and wrong actions (or values, or institutions)? If so, what is that difference? Which actions are right, and which wrong? Are values absolute, or relative? In general or particular terms, how should I live?
  • What is reality, and what things can be described as real? What is the nature of those things? Do some things exist independently of our perception? What is the nature of space and time? What is the nature of thought and thinking? What is it to be a person?
  • What is it to be beautiful? How do beautiful things differ from the everyday? What is Art?
In Ancient Greek philosophy, these five broad types of questions were respectively called analytical or logical, epistemological, ethical, metaphysical, and aesthetic. They are not the only subjects of philosophical inquiry. Aristotle, who was the first to use this classification (as he believed that to call himself a sophist (lit. wise one) was immodest), also considered politics, modern-day physics, geology, biology, meteorology, and astronomy as branches of philosophical investigation. The Greeks, through the influence of Socrates and his method, developed a tradition of analysis, that divided a subject into its components to understand it better.

Other traditions did not always use such labels, or emphasize the same themes. While Hindu philosophy has similarities with Western philosophy, there was no word for philosophy in Japanese, Korean or Chinese until the 19th century, despite long-established philosophical traditions. Chinese philosophers, in particular, used different categories than the Greeks. Definitions were not based on common features, but were usually metaphorical and referred to several subjects at once [1] ( Boundaries between categories are not distinct in Western philosophy, however, and since at least the 19th century, Western philosophical works have usually addressed a nexus of questions rather than distinct topics.

Motives, goals and methods

The word "philosophy" is derived from the ancient Greek (Φιλοσοφία, philosophia) which may be translated as "love of wisdom". It suggests a vocation for questioning, learning, and teaching. Philosophers are curious about the world, humanity, existence, values, understanding, and the nature of things.

Philosophy can be distinguished from other disciplines by its methods of inquiry. Philosophers often frame their questions as problems or puzzles, in order to give clear examples of their doubts about a subject they find interesting, wonderful or confusing. Often these questions are about the assumptions behind a belief, or about methods by which people reason.

Philosophers typically frame problems in a logical manner, historically using syllogisms of traditional logic, since Frege and Russell increasingly using formal systems, such as predicate calculus, and then work towards a solution based on critical reading and reasoning. Like Socrates, they search for answers through discussion, responding to the arguments of others, or careful personal contemplation. Philosophers often debate the relative merits of these methods. For example, they may ask whether philosophical "solutions" are objective, definitive, and say something informative about reality. On the other hand, they may ask whether these solutions give greater clarity or insight into the logic of language, or rather act as personal therapy. Philosophers seek justification for the answers to their questions.

Language is the philosopher’s primary tool. In the analytic tradition, debates about philosophical method have been closely connected to debates about the relationship between philosophy and language. There is a similar concern in continental philosophy. Meta-philosophy, the "philosophy of philosophy", studies the nature of philosophical problems, philosophical solutions, and the proper method for getting from one to another. These debates are also connected to debates over language and interpretation.

These debates are not less relevant to philosophy as a whole, since the nature and role of philosophy itself has always been an essential part of philosophical deliberations. The existence of fields such as pataphysics point to a lengthy debate that is beyond the scope of this article (see meta-philosophy).

Philosophy may also be approached by examining the relationships between components, as in structuralism and recursionism. The nature of science is examined in general terms (see philosophy of science), and for particular sciences, (biophilosophy).

Non-academic uses of the word

Popularly, the word philosophy is often used to mean any form of assimilated knowledge. It may also refer to someone's perspective on life (as in "philosophy of life") or the basic principles behind, or method of achieving, something (as in "my philosophy about driving on highways"). This is also commonly referred to as a worldview.

Reacting to a tragedy philosophically might mean abstaining from passionate reactions in favour of intellectualized detachment. This usage arose from the example of Socrates, who calmly discussed the nature of the soul with his followers before consuming a deadly potion of hemlock as ordered by an Athenian jury. The Stoics followed Socrates in seeking freedom from their passions, hence the modern use of the term stoic to refer to calm fortitude.

Philosophical traditions

Members of many societies have considered philosophical questions and built philosophic traditions based upon each other's works. The term "philosophy" in a Euro-American academic context may misleadingly refer solely to the philosophic traditions of Western European civilization. This is also called "Western philosophy", especially when contrasted with "Eastern philosophy", which broadly subsumes the philosophic traditions of Asia. Both terms group together diverse, even incompatible schools of thought.

Eastern and Middle Eastern philosophical traditions have influenced Western philosophers. Russian, Jewish, Islamic and recently Latin American philosophical traditions have contributed to, or been derivative of Western philosophy, yet retain a unique identity.

It is convenient to divide contemporary Western academic philosophy into two traditions, since use of the term "Western philosophy" over the past century has often revealed a bias towards one or the other.


Analytic philosophy is characterized by a precise approach to analysing the language of philosophical questions. The purpose is to lay bare any underlying conceptual confusion. This approach dominates Anglo-American philosophy, but has roots in continental Europe, where it is also practiced. The tradition of analytic philosophy began with Gottlob Frege at the turn of the twentieth-century, and was carried on by Bertrand Russell, G. E. Moore and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Continental philosophy is a label for various schools, predominant in continental Europe, but also at home in many English-speaking Humanities departments, that may examine language, metaphysical approaches, political theory, perspectivalism, or various aspects of the arts and culture. One of the focuses of recent continental philosophical schools is the attempt to reconcile academic philosophy with issues that appear non-philosophical, subverting common expectations of what philosophy is meant to be.

The differences between traditions are often based on their favored historical philosophers, or emphases on ideas, styles or language of writing. The subject matter and dialogues of each can be studied using methods derived from the others, and there have been significant commonalities and exchanges between them.

Other philosophical traditions, such as African, are rarely considered by foreign academia. On account of the widespread emphasis on Western philosophy as a reference point, the study, preservation and dissemination of valuable but not widely known non-Western philosophical works faces many obstacles.

Languages can either be a barrier or a vehicle for ideas. The question of which specific languages can be considered essential to philosophizing is a theme in the works of many recent philosophers.

Western philosophy

The Western philosophic tradition began with the Greeks and continues to the present day. Major Western philosophers include Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, Sextus Empiricus, Augustine of Hippo, Boethius, Anselm of Canterbury, William of Ockham, John Duns Scotus, Thomas Aquinas, Michel de Montaigne, Francis Bacon, René „escartes, Baruch Spinoza, Gottfried Leibniz, George Berkeley, John Locke, David Hume, Thomas Reid, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Arthur Schopenhauer, S?Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, Henri Bergson, Edmund Husserl, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Willard van Orman Quine.

Other influential contemporary Western philosophers include Donald Davidson (now deceased), Daniel Dennett, Jerry Fodor, Jurgen Habermas, Saul Kripke, Thomas Kuhn, Thomas Nagel, Martha Nussbaum, Ayn Rand (now deceased), Richard Rorty, Hilary Putnam, John Rawls (now deceased), and John Searle.

Western philosophy is sometimes divided into various branches of study, based on the kind of questions addressed. The most common categories are: metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and aesthetics. Some other disciplines include logic, philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, and political philosophy. For more information, see Western philosophy.

Eastern philosophy

Eastern philosophy follows the broad traditions that originated from, or were popular within, ancient India and China. Major Eastern philosophers include Kapila, Yajnavalkya, Gautama Buddha, Akshapada Gotama, Nagarjuna, Confucius, Lao Zi (Lao Tzu), P. R. Sarkar, Zhuang Zi (Chuang Tzu), Mencius, Xun Zi, Zhu Xi, Han Fei Tzu, Wang Yangming, Dharmakirti, Sankara, Ramanuja, Narayana Guru, Vivekananda, Aurobindo and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan.

Indian philosophy is perhaps the most comparable to Western philosophy. For instance, the ancient Nyaya school of Hindu philosophy explores logic as some modern Analytic philosophers do; similarly the school of Carvaka was openly atheistical and empirical. However there are important differences - e.g. ancient Indian philosophy traditionally emphasized the teachings of schools or ancient texts, rather than individual philosophers, most of whom either wrote anonymously or whose names were simply not transmitted or recorded. For more information on Eastern philosophies, see Eastern philosophy.

Other philosophical traditions are linked below.

Applied philosophy

Though often seen as a wholly abstract field, philosophy is not without practical applications. The most obvious applications are those in ethicsapplied ethics in particular — and in political philosophy. The political philosophies of Confucius, Kautilya, Sun Tzu, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill, Mahatma Gandhi, Robert Nozick, and John Rawls have shaped and been used to justify governments and their actions.

Philosophy of education deserves special mention, as well; progressive education as championed by John Dewey has had a profound impact on educational practices in the United States in the twentieth century. It could be argued that some New Age philosophies, such as the "Celestine Prophecy", inadvertently educate people about human psychology and power relationships through the use of spiritual metaphor.

Other important applications can be found in epistemology, which might help one to regulate one's notions of what knowledge, evidence, and justified belief are. Two useful ways that epistemology and logic can inform the real world are through the fields of journalism and police investigation. Informal logic has fantastic applications, helping citizens to be critical in reading rhetoric and in everyday discussion. Philosophy of science discusses the underpinnings of the scientific method. Aesthetics can help to interpret discussions of art. Even ontology, surely the most abstract and least practical-seeming branch of philosophy, has had important consequences for logic and computer science.

In general, the various "philosophies of," such as philosophy of law, can provide workers in their respective fields with a deeper understanding of the theoretical or conceptual underpinnings of their fields.

Often, philosophy is seen as an investigation into an area not understood well enough to be its own branch of knowledge. What were once merely philosophical pursuits have evolved into the modern day fields of psychology, sociology, linguistics, and economics (among others). Computer science, cognitive science and artificial intelligence are modern areas of research that philosophy has played a role in developing.

Moreover, a burgeoning profession devoted to applying philosophy to the problems of ordinary life has recently developed, called philosophical counseling. Many Eastern philosophies can and do help millions of people with anxiety problems through their emphasis on meditation for calming the mind and the connection between the health of the body and the health of the soul.


Traditionally, the history and study of the history of philosophy is divided into three areas: Ancient Greek, Medieval, and Modern. There is also now focus being put on the post-modern period, especially existentialism. Etienne Gilson, in his book The Unity of Philosophic Experience, attempts to show important connections between the ideas of the medieval period and their development in the modern period; this is contrary to traditional interpretations of modern philosophy as a new era unconcerned with the past (Descartes called his Meditations an attempt to wipe the slate of philosophy clean and create a tabula rasa.

Ancient Greek Philosophy is typically divided into the pre-Socratic Period, the philosophy of Plato, and the philosophy of Aristotle. Important pre-Socratic philosophers include Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, and Heraclitus. We have little recording of what these early philosophers actually said. They wrote nothing. Among their accomplishments, however, were the idea of the one and the many and the rationalization of the existence of the immaterial.

Socrates and his pupil Plato revolutionized Philosophy. Plato started the academy and taught the theory of forms, or the belief that the material world is merely a shadow of an immaterial reality. (See: Plato's allegory of the cave)

A student of Plato's, Aristotle, went on to surpass his master. Aristotle was concerned with all matters of knowledge, and his Nicomachean Ethics would form the basis of all later ethical discussions. He also deepened the study of metaphysics, improving on the theory of forms suggested by Plato and creating the hylomorphic theory (ie. All things in the universe are composites of form and matter--of the immaterial universal and the material particular).

The Medieval period was marked by a turning to Christian Philosophy. St. Justin Martyr was one of the earliest Christian philosophers, settling a dispute about whether Christians may read the texts of the ancient Pagan Philosophers.

The first major Christian Philosopher, however, was Augustine. A convert to Christianity, he wrote his biography recounting his studies in Philosophy in his classic Confessions. He also worked tirelessly to refute ideas he saw as dangerous to Christianity; for example, the Academics, also known as the Skeptics, taught a brand of philosophy that claimed philosophy was itself useless. They believed that since we can never have empirical evidence, it is useless to try to achieve any notion of truth. Augustine, in Against the Academics, argued that all men desire truth, and that it is better to try to achieve truth and fail than not try at all. He uses a parable to make his point: If you were trying to reach a certain town and came to a fork in the road, you would not give up your journey; more likely you would randomly try one of the roads or try to rationalize which was the better road.

After Augustine, the Middle Ages lacked any great philosophers until Thomas Aquinas. This is not to say philosophical activity was not going on. Peter Abelard and Boethius were two men who were busily working on philosophical problems.

In the thirteenth century Thomas Aquinas wrote and became the master of Medieval Philosophy. His Summa Theologica attempted to compile and answer in brief format all the major philosophical issues of his day. Historically, he is important for ressurecting Aristotle. Augustine and most others of this period were Platonists, Aristotle's works having been lost. However, Aquinas discovered in Aristotle many important ideas which would become central to Catholic Philosophy.

Except for William of Ockham, Aquinas is considered the end of medieval philosophy. The next important movement came from Descartes, who was primarily concerned with the mind-body problem. The questions he raises would then be dealt with by Spinoza, John Locke, Liebnitz, and David Hume. The period was marked by an association with the natural sciences and rationalism. Dogmatism became unfashionable and religious philosophy declined.

The many debates among these modern Philosophers caused strains in every area of philosophy, most notably metaphysics. Finally, Immanuel Kant wrote his Critique of Pure Reason and attempted to reconcile conflicting views and establish a new groundword for studying metaphysics. His writing is very difficult to understand and there is much debate about its interpretation. However, he dubbed his philosophy a "Copernican Revolution" and, just as Aquinas is seen as the close of the Medieval period, Kant is seen as the close of the modern period.

After Kant, popular schools of philosophy have centered around Existentialism and a renewed study of Ancient Greek Philosophy. Two important philosophers, Nietzsche and Heidegger were professors of Ancient Greek Philosophy who viewed their own theories as revitalized forms of philosophies of the ancients, especially of the pre-Socratics.

Out of Existentialism has grown Phenomenology, which greatly influenced 20th Century Catholic Philosophy, especially via Pope John Paul II.

While it is unclear where Philosophical discussion and experience is headed, it is now realized and admitted by most philosophers that the study of the history of philosophy is much more important than the study of history is to any other science. While a man can be a very good physicist and know very little about the history of physics, it is now impossible to be a good philosopher without knowing a great deal about the history of philosophy.

See also



For beginners

  • Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction by Edward Craig
  • The Complete Idiot's Guide to Philosophy (2nd Edition) by Jay Stevenson
  • Philosophy and Living by Ralph Blumenau
  • Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder
  • Philosophy Now ( magazine
  • Big Questions: A Short Introduction to Philosophy by Robert C. Solomon
  • A Short History of Philosophy by Robert C. Solomon, Kathleen M. Higgins
  • The Problems of Philosophy ( by Bertrand Russell
  • Philosophy: The Basics by Nigel Warburton.
  • Sober, E. (2001). Core Questions in Philosophy: A Text with Readings. Upper Saddle River, Prentice Hall.
  • What Philosophy Is (
  • Introducing Philosophy Series (

Topical introductions

  • What Does It All Mean? A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy by Thomas Nagel
  • A Short History of Modern Philosophy by Roger Scruton
  • World Philosophies by Ninian Smart
  • Indian Philosophy: a Very Short Introduction by Sue Hamilton
  • A Brief Introduction to Islamic Philosophy by Oliver Leaman
  • Eastern Philosophy For Beginners by Jim Powell, Joe Lee
  • An Introduction to African Philosophy by Samuel Oluoch Imbo
  • Philosophy in Russia: From Herzen to Lenin and Berdyaev by Frederick Copleston
  • Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction by Simon Critchley
  • Complete Idiot's Guide to Eastern Philosophy by Jay Stevenson
  • Classic Asian Philosophy: A Guide to the Essential Texts by OmegaX


  • Philosophic Classics: From Plato to Derrida (4th Edition) by Forrest E. Baird
  • The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant
  • Classics of Philosophy (Vols. 1 & 2, 2nd edition) by Louis P. Pojman
  • Classics of Philosophy: The 20th Century (Vol. 3) by Louis P. Pojman
  • The English Philosophers from Bacon to Mill by Edwin Arthur Burtt
  • European Philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche by Monroe Beardsley
  • Contemporary Analytic Philosophy: Core Readings by James Baillie
  • Existentialism: Basic Writings (Second Edition) by Charles Guignon, Derk Pereboom
  • The Phenomenology Reader by Dermot Moran, Timothy Mooney
  • Medieval Islamic Philosophical Writings edited by Muhammad Ali Khalidi
  • A Source Book in Indian Philosophy by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Charles A. Moore
  • A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy by Wing-Tsit Chan
  • Kim, J. and Ernest Sosa, Ed. (1999). Metaphysics: An Anthology. Blackwell Philosophy Anthologies. Oxford, Blackwell Publishers Ltd.
  • The Oxford Handbook of Free Will (2004) edited by Robert Kane

Reference works

  • The Oxford Companion to Philosophy edited by Ted Honderich
  • The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy by Robert Audi
  • The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (10 vols.) edited by Edward Craig, Luciano Floridi (also available online by subscription); or
  • The Concise Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy edited by Edward Craig (an abridgement)
  • Routledge History of Philosophy (10 vols.) edited by John Marenbon
  • History of Philosophy (9 vols.) by Frederick Copleston
  • A History of Western Philosophy (5 vols.) by W. T. Jones
  • Encyclopaedia of Indian Philosophies (8 vols.), edited by Karl H. Potter et al (first 6 volumes out of print)
  • Indian Philosophy (2 vols.) by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan
  • A History of Indian Philosophy (5 vols.) by Surendranath Dasgupta
  • History of Chinese Philosophy (2 vols.) by Fung Yu-lan, Derk Bodde
  • Encyclopedia of Chinese Philosophy edited by Antonio S. Cua
  • Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion by Ingrid Fischer-Schreiber, Franz-Karl Ehrhard, Kurt Friedrichs
  • Companion Encyclopedia of Asian Philosophy by Brian Carr, Indira Mahalingam
  • A Concise Dictionary of Indian Philosophy: Sanskrit Terms Defined in English by John A. Grimes
  • History of Islamic Philosophy edited by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Oliver Leaman
  • History of Jewish Philosophy edited by Daniel H. Frank, Oliver Leaman
  • A History of Russian Philosophy: From the Tenth to the Twentieth Centuries by Valerii Aleksandrovich Kuvakin
  • Ayer, A. J. et al. Ed. (1994) A Dictionary of Philosophical Quotations. Blackwell Reference Oxford. Oxford, Basil Blackwell Ltd.
  • Blackburn, S., Ed. (1996)The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
  • Mauter, T., Ed. The Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy. London, Penguin Books.
  • Runes, D., ED. (1942). The Dictionary of Philosophy. New York, The Philosophical Library, Inc.
  • Angeles, P. A., Ed. (1992). The Harper Collins Dictionary of Philosophy. New York, Harper Perennial.
  • Bunnin, N. et. al.,Ed.(1996) The Blackwell Companion to Philosophy. Blackwell Companions to Philosophy. Oxford, Blackwell Publishers Ltd.
  • Popkin, R. H. (1999). The Columbia History of Western Philosophy. New York, Columbia University Press.

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