A/N: Taking a chronological approach to self-studying philosophy
This year, I have decided to take self-studying Philosophy seriously. Up to this point, I’ve been casually listening to an assortment of podcasts and reading and abandoning texts from Sartre, Plato, Aristotle, Epictetus, Simone de Beauvoir, Descartes, Kant, and Hobbes. Now, if that reads like a mess, that’s because it is.
I have been blessed with a very short attention span, which means that I am almost-hopeless at single-tasking. That spills over to reading. At the moment, I have five unfinished books on my bedside table. Every day, I read a few pages from each book—but it’s a real struggle not to add another one to that pile.
So, as you can see, I am a person that needs structure otherwise I’m all over the place. Hence, the decision to study Western Philosophy chronologically. I figured it would be easier for me to follow the birth and development of various philosophical movements this way, as opposed to randomly moving through philosophers or philosophical teachings.
That being said, on to today’s learnings.
THE SIX MAIN BRANCHES OF PHILOSOPHY
In a previous post called What is Philosophy?, we defined Philosophy as a study that “seeks to uncover the nature, root, and meaning of life, being, reality (metaphysics), ethics, and knowledge (epistemology).” As is evident in that definition, Philosophy is a study that covers a lot of ground. And like other complex fields of study, it is one that contains a multitude of classifications. Today, we’re going to be focusing on its six main branches or themes.
(Note: some sources leave out logic and politics in their lists, but I’m keeping those in.)
Metaphysics is the philosophical branch that studies reality, existence, the nature of being, the physical world, and the universe.
It seeks to answer difficult questions like, what is the nature of reality? How can we say that the world exists outside of our thoughts? How did mankind come to be? How was the universe made? Was the universe made? How can our disembodied minds control or affect our physical bodies? How can we prove the existence of something? Can “nothingness” exist? Etc.
Then there’s my favorite branch, Epistemology. So, Epistemology is often referred to as the theory of knowledge. It delves into the definition, scope, and parameters of knowledge and knowledge formation. It seeks to explain how we acquire knowledge, how knowledge relates to notions like justification, truth, and belief, and how and where it falls in the spectrum of certainty and error.
It is a study that asks big questions like what is knowledge? What can we know for certain? How do we know what we know? How can we acquire knowledge? What is a justified belief, and what makes it justified? Etc.
Logic is the branch of philosophy that studies reasoning. It teaches us how to differentiate between good and bad reasoning and how to construct valid arguments. It seeks answers to questions like, what is valid reasoning? How can you distinguish between a good argument and a bad argument? How can you spot fallacies or errors in an argument?
Now, we’ve all studied logic in one form or another. In Math class, logic came in the form of puzzles or word problems that required the use of inductive or deductive reasoning to arrive at the right equations or solutions. In English/Speech class, we studied fallacies and paradoxes and solved riddles with inferences, which taught us how to create convincing and logical arguments and how to debate properly. And the list goes on.
Ethics, also known as moral philosophy, is often referred to as the study of morality. It seeks to address questions about how we should live our lives, how we define proper conduct, and what we mean by the good life. It’s a study that teaches us what the virtuous life is like and how we can put these virtues into practice.
Ethics concerns itself with questions like, what is the good life? How should we act? What do we mean by virtue? What does “right” even mean?
In the world of philosophy, Aesthetics refers to the study of everything related to beauty, art, and good taste. This includes how we define art, how we feel when viewing art or witnessing beauty, how we judge works of art, and how we form our taste.
This branch of philosophy concerns itself with questions that include: What is art? What makes an artwork successful? Is art an expression of feelings? Can it be a “vehicle of truth?” Is “good taste” innate or learned? And, is art and morality connected?
Last on our list is Politics or Political Philosophy. As you can already tell from its name Political Philosophy examines various concepts related to politics, government, laws, liberty, justice, rights, authority, state, and even ethics (ethical ruling). It discusses how states should be built and run, and how its constituents should act.
It posits and attempts to answer questions like What is government? What makes a government work? Why do we need governments? What rights and freedoms should be granted to a state’s constituents? Why should the constituents follow any of the laws set by the government? What is the extent of the power of the government? And so on, and so forth.
Now, these six themes are very broad representations of the many categories in Philosophy. Of course, within these themes/branches are even more philosophical movements that give birth to more studies—seemingly ad infinitum. But that is the nature of philosophy. It’s a thinking subject. It’s a progression. It’s meant to move us forward, oftentimes by looking backwards.
When one thinks oneself out of a box, it’s only a matter of time before we’ve thought ourselves into another box to think out of.
Kleinman, Paul (2013). Philosophy 101
Blackburn, Simon (Third Edition, 2016). The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy