Does philosophy only deal with the big questions about life and the universe?

Not all philosophical work is about important questions. Some of it may seem absurd to non-philosophers. For example, how is the mind connected to the body? Most of us know that if we want to raise our right arm and we are not paralyzed, it is the easiest thing in the world to do—we just decide to do it and the arm goes up. But ever since the work of the seventeenth-century philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650),

As children, we often ask lots of questions of our elders about the nature of our world and the universe. Many of us seem to lose that interest as adults, but these are still central questions about the meaning of our lives that philosophers strive to answer (iStock).

As children, we often ask lots of questions of our elders about the nature of our world and the universe. Many of us seem to lose that interest as adults, but these are still central questions about the meaning of our lives that philosophers strive to answer (iStock).

philosophers have argued passionately among themselves about the right way to describe the connection between the mind and the body.

What have been the two main subjects of Western philosophy?

Western Philosophy has always had two main subjects: the natural world and the human world. The natural world includes nature, physical reality, and the cosmos. The human world includes human beings, their values, experience, minds, ethics, societies, government, cultures, and human nature itself.

Philosophy of course occurs in all cultures and daily life; but Western Philosophy is a distinct way of thinking that consists of hypotheses and generalizations about what philosophers believe is important in the natural and human worlds. Western philosophers have not been focused on stories of the origins of peoples nor on events in time, like historians, and neither are they focused on individual lives, like biographers. Instead, they have sought to view events and lives in general and abstract ways that can tell us what is true of categories or kinds of events, and individual lives.

What does philosophy have to do with ordinary life?

Everyone at some time thinks about general matters that do not have easy answers: "Is there a higher purpose to life?" "Is there life after death?" "What is the most important thing in a human life?" "Do I have free will?" Young children naturally ask "why" questions that drive their parents into philosophical answers, whether they realize it or not.

Where does God fit in?

Philosophers have viewed God as part of the natural world or the human world, or present in both or neither in the natural world nor the human world.

What is the connection between religion and philosophy?

Both philosophy and religion address the issue of God, though philosophy does not concern itself exclusively with God as religion does. Philosophy tends to concentrate more on the "ideas" in religion. Depending on the extent and power of religious ideas in the cultures in which they lived, philosophers have had different degrees of relation to theology. For example, when the Catholic Church was the dominant institution in Europe during the medieval period, philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-1274) devoted most of their work to questions related to God.

Ancient Greek philosophers, who were later known as "pagans," were less interested in religion, and by the eighteenth century Enlightenment, much of philosophy was secular. This secularization of philosophy was partly the result of David Hume's (1711-1776) skeptical writings about both the practice of religion and the existence of God. Nineteenth and twentieth century philosophers developed the field as a form of secular inquiry that does not require religious commitment.

What are these various specializations and subfields of philosophy?

Various specializations of philosophy and their subject matters include:

Ethics: how human beings ought to behave in matters involving human well-being or harm.

Philosophy of science: answers to questions of what science is, how science progresses, and the nature of scientific truth.

Social and political philosophy: accounts of how society and government work as institutions, what their purposes should be, how they came into being as institutions and how their problems can be fixed.

Epistemology: answers to questions about what knowledge is, how we know that something is true, and the relation between sense perception and abstract truths.

Metaphysics: the most general questions and answers about the nature of reality, what physical things are, what relations exist between different kinds of things, and the connections between the mind and the world.

Philosophy of mind: how the mind works, whether it is dependent on the brain, how it is connected to the body, the nature of memory and personal identity.

Aesthetics: the study of art toward an understanding of what beauty is and how artworks are different from natural things and other man-made objects.

Ancient philosophy: the birth of Western philosophy from about 800 b.c.e. to 400 c.e.; it is composed mostly of Greek and Roman thought before Christianity.

Medieval philosophy: The development of philosophical thought, from about 400 c.e. until the Renaissance in the 1300s in Europe in which Christianity, provided the dominant world view and organizing principle for daily life.

Modern philosophy: the foundations of contemporary philosophy from the 1600s through the 1800s.

Nineteenth century philosophy: The "classical period" of modern philosophy, in which Friedrich Hegel, Immanuel Kant, and John Stuart Mill wrote.

Analytic philosophy: style of professional philosophy, which is abstract and technical, that developed during the twentieth century.

Post-modern philosophy: school of thought that, in the second half of the twentieth century, consisted of reactions against many of the shared assumptions held by philosophers over the centuries.

Do philosophers from the different subfields cooperate and get along?

After post-modernism, many philosophical subfields split within themselves when interest in continental philosophy (from France and Germany) introduced existentialism, phenomenology, and deconstruction to the field. Academic philosophers became embattled in their own culture wars. Empiricist or mainstream philosophers defended both their traditional methods and established canon against approaches that were more centered on human existence and experience and cultural criticism.

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