What is Western Philosophy?


What is Philosophy?

Many answers have been offered in reply to this question, and most are angling at something similar. My favorite explanation is all rational inquiry that seeks objective wisdom outside the babel of opinion is philosophy. Perhaps you think science exhausts inquiry. When you explore the limits of human knowledge, you are seeking philosophical questions.

Philosophy Branches

Philosophical subjects are as diverse and far-ranging as those we find in the sciences, but many of them fall into one of three extensive topic areas, Metaphysics, Epistemology, and Ethics.


Metaphysics questions the characteristics of reality.

  • How does a god exist?
  • What is the nature of human free will (assuming we have any)?
  • How are space and time-related?
  • Does the past or future exist?
  • Where did matter originate?

Attempts to establish a systematic metaphysical worldview have been notoriously unsuccessful. Since the 19th century, philosophers and scientists have been understandably suspicious of metaphysics, and it has frequently dismissed it as a waste of time and meaningless to the grand scheme of things. But in just the past few decades, metaphysics has returned to vitality. Contemporary analytic metaphysicians have taken more modest aims than definitively settling on the final and complete truth about the underlying nature of reality.


Epistemology questions the nature of knowledge and justified belief.

  • What is knowledge?
  • Can we have any knowledge at all?
  • Can we know the laws of nature, morality, or the existence of other minds?
  • Should we be skeptical about everything?

An extreme form of skepticism denies that we can't have any knowledge whatsoever. But we might grant that we can have knowledge about some things and remain skeptics concerning other issues. Many people, for instance, are not skeptics about scientific knowledge but are skeptics when it comes to an understanding of morality. Critical attention reveals that scientific knowledge and moral knowledge face many doubtful challenges and share similar resources in addressing those objections. Epistemologists wonder what does it take for a belief to be rationally justified. Even if we can't have specific knowledge of anything, can we still hold our beliefs and considered them relevant?


While Epistemology is concerned with what we ought to believe and how we ought to reason, Ethics is concerned with what we ought to do, how we ought to live, and how we ought to organize our communities. Religiously inspired views often take right and wrong to be simply a matter of what is commanded by a divine being. For example, moral Relativism, perhaps the most popular opinion among people who have rejected faith, substitutes merely the commands of society for the orders of God.

Review of the Branches

So we might think of Metaphysics as concerned with "What is it?" questions, Epistemology as concerned with "How do we know?" questions, and Ethics as concerned with "What should we do about it?" questions. Many exciting lines of inquiry cut across these three kinds of questions.

What Is The Value Of Philosophy?

Philosophy aims at achieving rational knowledge and understanding. Therefore, the value of philosophy lies in the ends that it seeks, the knowledge and experience it reveals. When answering a question, you should ask yourself, what did my explanation reveal, how can others use my answer, and the impact of my words. These ideas should be prevalent in your work.

Philosophy often reveals why some initially attractive answers to big philosophical questions are deeply problematic, for instance. Thus, philosophy removes the security blanket of easy answers.

In denying easy answers to big questions and undermining complacent convictions, philosophy liberates us from conventional thinking and opens our minds to new possibilities. Philosophy often provides an antidote to prejudice by revealing just how hard it is to resolve those questions. It can lead us to question our comfortably complacent conventional opinions.

We know the world is full of hazards, and like passengers after a shipwreck, we tend to latch on to something for a sense of safety. We might cling to a possession, another person, our cherished beliefs, or any combination of these. The American pragmatist philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce speaks of doubt and uncertainty as uncomfortable anxiety-producing states. This would help explain why we tend to cling, even desperately, to beliefs we find comforting. However, this clinging strategy leads us into a predicament that becomes clear once we notice that having a security blanket gives us one more thing to worry about. In addition to worrying about our safety, we now are anxious about our security blanket getting lost or damaged. The asset becomes a liability. Thus, the clinging strategy for dealing with uncertainty and fear becomes counterproductive.

While not calling it by this name, Russell describes the intellectual consequences of the security blanket paradox vividly:

"The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the cooperation or consent of his deliberate reason. . . The life of the instinctive man is shut up within the circle of his private interests. . . In such a life there is something feverish and confined, in comparison with which the philosophic life is calm and free. The private world of instinctive interests is a small one, set in the midst of a great and powerful world which must, sooner or later, lay our private world in ruins."

The primary value of philosophy, according to Russell, is that it loosens the grip of uncritically held opinions and opens the mind to a liberating range of new possibilities to explore. The value of philosophy is to be sought mainly in its very uncertainty. Though unable to tell us with certainty the true answer to the doubts it raises, philosophy can suggest many possibilities that enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom. Thus, while diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are, it significantly increases our knowledge as to what they may be; it removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never traveled into the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect. Here we are faced with a stark choice between the feeling of safety we might derive from clinging to opinions we are accustomed to and the liberation that comes with loosening our grip on these to explore new ideas. The paradox of the security blanket should make it clear what choice we should consider rational. Russell, of course, compellingly affirms choosing the liberty of free and open inquiry.

Kelly Perez, Adjunct Professor