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Defining philosophy is itself a philosophical problem. Perhaps a great many philosophers would agree that whatever else philosophy is, it is the critical, normally systematic study of an unlimited range of ideas and issues. But this characterization says nothing about what sorts of ideas or issues are important in philosophy or about its distinctive methods of studying them. Doing this will require some account of the special fields of the subject, its methods, its connections with other disciplines, its place in the academy, and its role in human culture. The task is large. Philosophy pursues questions in every dimension of human life, and its techniques apply to problems in any field of study or endeavor. It may be described in many ways. It is a reasoned pursuit of fundamental truths, a quest for understanding, a study of principles of conduct. It seeks to establish standards of evidence, to provide rational methods of resolving conflicts, and to create techniques for evaluating ideas and arguments. Philosophy may examine concepts and views drawn from science, art, religion, politics, or any other realm.

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The best way to clarify these broad characterizations of philosophy is to describe its principal subfields. It is appropriate to start with what might be called traditional subfields of philosophy, most commonly taken to be epistemology, ethics, logic, metaphysics, and the history of philosophy. These remain central in philosophical research; and although they are by no means its exclusive focus, they are intimately connected with virtually every other field of philosophical research and are widely treated as core areas in the teaching of the subject.

Five Traditionally Central Subfields Of Philosophy


Epistemology concerns the nature and scope of knowledge and justification. What does it mean to know (the truth), and what is the nature of truth? What sorts of things can be known, and can we be justified in our beliefs about what goes beyond the evidence of our senses, such as the inner lives of others or events of the distant past? Is there knowledge beyond the reach of science? What are the limits of self-knowledge? Can there be genuine moral knowledge? Quite apart from the depth, modality, or subject matter of knowledge, we may also ask: What are its basic sources? They have been widely thought to be perception, memory, introspection, and reason (understood as a kind of reflection). But what of testimony? And can any substantive knowledge, say in mathematics, be utterly independent of experience in the way a priori (reason-based) knowledge is sometimes held to be?

A major epistemological problem connected with all of these sources is the status of skepticism. Skepticism has many forms, depending on the kind of knowledge or justification it represents as unattainable. What is commonly called Humean skepticism (deriving from David Hume’s writings on causation and inductive inference) challenges the belief that any inductive arguments (probable arguments, in Hume’s terminology) can ground knowledge. Cartesian skepticism, powerfully stated in Descartes’s Meditations, challenges the belief that we have knowledge at all. Quite apart from whether there can be knowledge or justified belief, there is the question of the structure that a body of knowledge or of justified beliefs must have. Must it, for instance, contain beliefs possessing a kind of axiomatic status, or can it consist of elements that all lack that status or, indeed, are in no way privileged relative to other elements? Traditional foundationalists, such as Descartes, have held a view of the first kind; moderate foundationalists (represented by a large proportion of epistemologists since the middle of the twentieth century) hold that foundational cognitions are necessary in a body of knowledge or justified belief but need only be in a certain way noninferentially justified as opposed to indefeasibly justified; and coherentists and other nonfoundationalists have posited various ways aimed at accounting for knowledge and justification without appeal to foundational elements.


Ethics is the philosophical study of morality, particularly conceived as a set of standards of right and wrong conduct. Its most theoretical branch (commonly called metaethics) concerns the meanings or, more broadly, the logic, of our moral concepts—such as right action, obligation, and justice—the kinds of evidence we have for propositions about the corresponding subject matter, and the sorts of properties that apparently underlie the application of the concepts. On some major ethical views, such as J. S. Mill’s utilitarianism, our obligations derive from our potential contributions to enhancing what is good. For this reason, among others, the concept of the good and the distinction between intrinsic and instrumental goodness are also major concerns of ethical inquiry. On other major ethical views, such as Immanuel Kant’s, moral obligatoriness is a property possessed by acts themselves by virtue of their falling under nonconsequentialist principles, for instance, a principle that, quite apart from the consequences of lying, prohibits it.

Normative ethics is commonly contrasted with metaethics and is concerned to formulate and assess principles meant to guide moral decisions, whether in private or public life. A major question it raises is what moral specific obligations we have.Another is what moral rights persons as such have and, related to this, what legal rights a just society must accord its citizens. Still another is what constitutes a valid excuse for wrongdoing. Any moral philosopher may be concerned with the broad question of how moral disagreements may be rationally settled, and here we have a question that has both metaethical and normative aspects.


Logic is concerned to provide sound methods for distinguishing valid from invalid arguments or, on a wider conception, good from bad arguments in terms of criteria for determining how much support the conclusion receives from the premise(s). Arguments may be considered ordered sequences of propositions in which some—the premise(s)—are conceived as supporting another—the conclusion. A standard example is the following syllogism, which has a very common form: its premises are that all human beings are mortal and that Socrates is mortal; its conclusion is that Socrates is a human being. Deductive logic is concerned with appraising arguments in relation to the question whether the premises entail (or logically imply) the conclusion, as with the syllogism just presented. Inductive logic is concerned with appraising arguments in relation to probabilistic support. From premises about the factors that cause influenza, medical experts may conclude that millions of people will be infected during the next flu season. Inductive logic addresses the problem of how we may tell what probability this conclusion has given those premises. More generally, logic helps us to assess how well our premises support our conclusions, to see what we are committed to accepting when we hold a view, and to avoid adopting positions for which we lack supporting reasons. As applied to everyday thinking, the use of logic also helps us to find arguments where we might otherwise simply see a set of loosely related statements, to discover assumptions we did not know we were making, and to formulate the minimum claims we must establish if we are to prove (or inductively support) our point.


Metaphysics seeks basic criteria for determining what sorts of things are real. Criteria of this kind are the special concern of ontology, which is central in metaphysics. Among major ontological questions are these: Are there mental, physical, and abstract things (such as numbers)? Or is there just the physical and the spiritual? Might there be merely matter and energy? Are persons highly complex physical systems, or do they have properties not reducible to anything physical? How much can a person—or other kind of thing—change and remain the very person or thing it is? In the case of persons, this question is central for the problem of personal identity, which, in turn, is crucial for understanding the possibility of nonembodied life. Another question about persons is whether they can be free in a sense not possible for lower animals and whether their freedom is possible if the world should be a deterministic system, that is, one in which every event is entailed by a universal law of nature and some simultaneous or antecedent event. What constitutes a law of nature, and, in particular, what constitutes a causal law, are themselves major questions in metaphysics. Metaphysics has also been traditionally taken to include cosmology, which is concerned with the nature of the universe as a whole and pursues such questions as whether it must have a beginning in time, whether it can be infinite, and whether it must have been created and, if so, by what kind of being or in what way. The nature of time is itself an important metaphysical question.

History Of Philosophy

The history of philosophy might be thought to be a branch of the discipline of history rather than of philosophy, much in the way the history of science is a branch of history and not itself a branch of science. This conception would be quite inadequate to the standard conception of the history of philosophy in the field of philosophy. On that conception the history of philosophy is a genuine subfield of philosophy: It is the historical and philosophical study of the history of the subject. It commonly includes more in the way of philosophical interpretation and—sometimes—philosophical appraisal of major texts than historiographic studies of either a single philosopher or whole periods in the history of the subject. This is in part because the interpretation—and certainly the proper appraisal—of a philosopher is itself a philosophical problem, often involving epistemological or metaphysical theorizing. A study of a single philosophical work important in the history of philosophy may thus count as a contribution to the history of philosophy and not just to the study of its author.

The history of philosophy, then, examines major philosophers, the influence of one philosopher on another (say, Aristotle on Aquinas, Husserl on Heidegger, or Frege on Russell) or entire periods in the development of philosophy, such as the Ancient, Medieval, Modern, Nineteenth Century, and Twentieth Century periods. It seeks to understand great figures, their influence on others, and their importance for perennial and contemporary issues. The history of philosophy in a single nation is often separately studied, as in the case of American Philosophy. So are major movements within a nation, such as German Idealism, as well as international movements with a substantial history, such as Existentialism, Logical Positivism, and Phenomenology.

From the wide scope of many of the questions pursued in these philosophical fields, it should be clear that philosophy has a kind of generality possessed by no other field. Metaphysics, for instance, concerns the basic categories encompassing everything that exists, and epistemology concerns standards of evidence that apply in any kind of thinking. It will also be evident that every other discipline presupposes answers to certain philosophical questions. All of the sciences, for example, presuppose that facts about the past can yield knowledge or justified beliefs about the future. Finally, it should be apparent that, although there are distinctively philosophical questions, no subject matter is (in all its aspects) beyond the reach of philosophical inquiry. Any subject matter can raise philosophical questions: about (for instance) the kinds of entities it concerns, its epistemological presuppositions, and its connection with other subjects.

Other Major Subfields Of Philosophy

Many branches of philosophy have grown from the traditional core areas just described. What follows is a sketch of a number of the major ones. Comprehensiveness is not possible here, but a wider conception can be formed by reading the entries devoted to the subfields that will be described.

Philosophy Of Mind

This subfield has emerged largely from metaphysical concerns with mental phenomena. The philosophy of mind addresses not only the possible relations of the mental to the physical (for instance, to brain processes) but to the many concepts having an essential mental element: belief, desire, intention, emotion, feeling, sensation, passion, will, personality, and others. To what extent are any of these concepts explicable in terms of behavioral tendencies? Quite apart from that, what is the relation between mental properties and physical ones? Are the former dependent on the latter, and if so, what kind of dependence is in question? Could two biological beings, for instance, be alike in all their physical properties and still differ in their mental ones? A number of major questions in the philosophy of mind cluster in the area of action theory: What differentiates actions, such as raising an arm, from mere body movements, such as the rising of an arm? A common answer has been that actions but not bodily movements must be caused by such mental events as volitions. But must mental elements, such as intentions, beliefs, and emotions enter into adequate explanations of our actions, or can actions be explained by appeal to ordinary physical events? And is a kind of mental causation, or at least the absence of a certain kind of deterministic causation, required for our actions to be free?

Philosophy Of Religion

Another traditional concern of metaphysics is to understand the concept of God, including special attributes such as being all-knowing (omniscient), all-powerful (omnipotent), and wholly good (omnibenevolent). Does omnipotence, for instance, entail the ability to alter the laws of logic? Both metaphysics and epistemology have been concerned to assess the various grounds offered to justify one or another form of theism. The philosophy of religion—also called philosophical theology—systematically examines these topics and many related subjects, such as the relation between faith and reason, the nature of religious language, the relation of religion and morality, and the question of how a God who is wholly good could allow the kind and amount of evil the world apparently contains. Here the philosophy of religion overlaps the theory of value, a branch of ethics. It is common for a major question to cross philosophical fields in this way, and the same holds for the relation between theology and ethics, for instance in relation to the question whether the rightness of actions could be equivalent to divine commandedness.

Philosophy Of Science

This is probably the largest subfield, generated in substantial part by epistemology and in part by metaphysics. Philosophy of science has been commonly divided into philosophy of the natural sciences and philosophy of the social sciences. It has recently been divided further, into philosophy of physics, of biology, of psychology, of economics, and of other sciences. Philosophy of science clarifies both the quest for scientific knowledge and the results yielded by that quest. It does this by exploring the logic of scientific evidence; the nature of scientific laws, explanations, and theories; the nature of the theoretical entities posited in explaining observable phenomena; and the possible connections among the various branches of science. How, for instance, is psychology related to brain biology, and biology to chemistry? And how are the social sciences related to the natural sciences? Are they methodologically like the latter but incapable of discovering universal as opposed to statistical laws? Must they work with mentalistic concepts such as belief and desire? Does explanation have the same form across the several sciences?

Subfields Of Ethics

From ethics, too, have come major subfields. Political philosophy concerns the justification— and limits—of governmental control of individuals; the meaning of equality before the law; the basis of economic freedom; and many other problems concerning government. It also examines the nature and possible arguments for various competing forms of political organization, such as laissez-faire capitalism, welfare democracy (capitalistic and socialistic), anarchism, communism, and fascism. Social philosophy, often taught in combination with political philosophy (which it overlaps), treats moral problems with large-scale social dimensions. Among these are the ethics of journalism and the media, the basis of compulsory education, the possible grounds for preferential treatment of minorities, the justice of taxation, and the appropriate limits, if any, on free expression in the arts. The philosophy of law explores such topics as what law is, what kinds of laws there are—for instance, only positive (enacted) law or also, as Thomas Aquinas held, natural law—and how law is or should be related to morality. It also examines the sorts of principles that should govern punishment and criminal justice in general (ethical questions about law do not exhaust the philosophical questions about it but have been among those central in the philosophy of law). Medical ethics addresses many problems arising in medical practice and medical science. Among these are standards applying to physician–patient relationships; moral questions raised by special procedures, such as abortion and ceasing of life-support for terminal patients; and ethical standards for medical research, for instance, genetic engineering and experimentation using human subjects. Business ethics addresses such questions as the place of business in society, how moral obligations may conflict with the profit motive, and how these conflicts may be resolved. Other topics often pursued are the nature and scope of the social responsibilities of corporations, their rights in a free society, and their relations to other kinds of organizations.

Philosophy Of Art (Aesthetics)

This is one of the oldest subfields. It concerns the nature of art, including both the performing arts and literature, painting, and sculpture. Major questions in aesthetics include how artistic creations are to be interpreted and evaluated and how the arts are related to one another, to natural beauty, and to morality, religion, science, and other important elements of human life. Aesthetics also deals with epistemological questions concerning the kinds of evidence we can have about an artwork and—sometimes—the kinds it can give us about the world, particularly about human beings. There is also a metaphysics of the aesthetic: What kind of property is beauty in a painting, power in a symphony, or unity in a poem, and is a poem a physical entity existing where it is written or remembered, or is it something more abstract of which these mental and physical entities are in some sense vehicles?

Philosophy Of Language

This field has close ties to both epistemology and metaphysics and, in the latter connection, to the philosophy of mind. It treats a broad spectrum of questions about language: the nature of meaning, the relations between words and things, the various theories of language learning, and the distinction between literal and figurative uses of language. A major concern in the field is the theory of reference: What, for instance, is required for us to succeed in referring to Socrates by using that name when we have never met him nor even read anything written by him? And if our thoughts are mental and in the mind, how can their content be about external objects? A question connected with all of these problems is the relation between the linguistic and the conceptual. To what extent, for instance, is it possible to have concepts at all without linguistic terms to express them, and is thought itself possible apart from language? Since language is crucial in nearly all human activity, the philosophy of language bears on our understanding both of other academic fields and of much of what we ordinarily do.

Other Important Subfields

There are many other subfields of philosophy, and it is in the nature of philosophy as critical inquiry to develop new subfields when new directions in the quest for knowledge, or in any other area of human activity, raises new intellectual problems. There is no limit to the number of variety of possible subfields of philosophy. Among the subfields not yet mentioned, but often a focus or research or teaching (at least as a part of other courses), are Philosophy of Logic, Philosophy of History, Philosophy of Mathematics, Philosophy of Medicine, Philosophy of Education, Philosophy of Feminism, Philosophy of Linguistics, Philosophy of Criticism, Philosophy of Culture, Philosophy of Film, and Philosophy of Sport.

Philosophical Methods

The Dialogues of Plato made famous what might be called the Socratic method in philosophy. It is the dialectical method, pursued by Socrates as represented by Plato in the Dialogues, in which ideas are set out, explored in relation to their meaning and implications, and assessed by such criteria as consistency and plausibility in relation to various standards, sometimes including common sense. In both Plato and Aristotle, we find early examples of what may plausibly be called conceptual analysis. Aristotle provides a particularly good example of how this may be conceived. In his Nicomachean Ethics, for instance, he seeks to give an account of the concept (or anyway of a concept) of virtue. He saw himself as clarifying the essence of the phenomenon of virtue; but if this essentialist view is understood in terms of his philosophical practice, it seems consistent with construing some of what he did as a kind of conceptual analysis. He is guided by the use of the relevant Greek terms in what we may suppose was educated parlance; yet he is not talking merely about linguistic usage. This is not to assimilate his kind of conceptual analysis to a Platonic kind on which concepts are to be understood by intellectual apprehension of them as abstract entities accessible to reflection. Indeed, if there are times when his analytic technique recalls Plato, there are others when his attention to usage and to what is said brings to mind some moments in the later work of Ludwig Wittgenstein.

A major question here, on which there is persisting difference of judgment among philosophers, is the extent to which these intellective procedures (whether Aristotelian or Platonic) are genuinely different from linguistic analysis. A related question is the degree of the authority of linguistic usage in determining the content of a concept. As important as dialectical method and conceptual analysis are in philosophy, however, neither can be described as the method of philosophy. It may be that every major philosopher has used at least one of them at some point; but even supposing (what is certainly controversial) that philosophy cannot be competently pursued on a large scale without some measure of at least the latter, there are other methods of inquiry that should be considered philosophical.

An important route to understanding philosophy and, especially, philosophical method, is a comparison of philosophical method with scientific method. From at least the middle of the twentieth century, and in at least much of the Western philosophical tradition, there has been a (sometimes tacit) belief in scientific method as the paradigm of an objective, rational method of seeking truth. There has been an associated belief, or presupposition, that philosophy must, in methodology as well as doctrine, take account of the progress of science. This is not to say that the (or a) method of science, or some interpretation of scientific method, has become the dominant philosophical method. But there is a widely held assumption—which we might call the assumption of the philosophical primacy of scientific method—that scientific method is the primary model of the rational pursuit of truth, in a sense implying both that our philosophical method, if not itself scientific, should bear an appropriate resemblance to scientific method and that our philosophical results are probably mistaken if they are at odds with, or even unable to account for the possibility of, wellestablished scientific findings. It will help to describe this primacy assumption in the three major areas of concern in this research paper: epistemology, metaphysics, and methodology.


Where scientific method currently has the primacy that has been mentioned, then, first of all, we might expect the assumption of its primacy to have an antirationalist thrust. For despite the rationalist point that a priori truths do not compete with scientific statements in explanation or theorizing, such truths are also traditionally conceived as beyond refutation by scientific procedures and as knowable by a nonscientific method (a kind of reflection). The second point is positive: The influence of scientific method as a model of rational belief formation has given impetus to the view that much of what we know is discovered by inference to the best explanation (a kind of inductive inference), and much of what we understand is understood in terms of underlying theoretical states or entities. Thus, even self-knowledge can be taken to be not only constituted by corrigible belief (roughly, belief whose justification can be defeated) but, often at least, to comprise beliefs arrived at by unconscious (or at least unnoticed) inference from appropriate data. The fallibilism that comes with a deep appreciation of scientific method has similar implications in other areas of apparent human knowledge.


In metaphysics, the assumption of the philosophical primacy of scientific method implies a tendency to take science as the arbiter of the real. The obvious point here is that we should tend to countenance as real whatever our best confirmed scientific theories posit as such, or at least posit as explanatorily basic. (Granted, it is not always clear what this is even if we can decide what our best-confirmed theories are). But there is a further implication. We must also countenance as real whatever must be posited to understand science itself, for instance properties, numbers, or sets. And, in part on the basis of assuming Occam’s Razor (roughly, the principle that in providing explanations we should not posit more entities or types of entities than necessary), many philosophers think we need countenance nothing else.

One good illustration of the point here is the effort to support realism in ethics by arguing (against both noncognitivist and epiphenomenalist views in metaethics) that moral properties have causal and explanatory power and hence can play an explanatory role substantially similar to the role of theoretical entities in the sciences. Moral realists need not be causalists, however; they all agree in holding the cognitivist metaethical view that moral claims have truth value (hence are true or false), but rationalists among them may deny that moral properties—even if in some way grounded in nonmoral properties, such as lying, beating, and killing, that have causal power—are themselves causal properties. Most philosophers would grant, however, that whether or not genuine properties must have causal power, whatever does have that power is real.


If what has been said about the metaphysical implications of the assumption of the primacy of scientific method is correct, it should be easy to understand some of the methodological implications for philosophy. For in a way, the second metaphysical implication is methodological: Its basis is largely a commitment to scientific method as so well established, and so near to being self-evidently essential in the search for truth, that we should countenance whatever realities must be posited to account for its success and need not countenance any others. A further methodological implication is a tendency to solve philosophical problems, so far as possible, by construing them in a way that lends itself to scientific treatment. The mind–body problem is a good case in point, and eliminative materialism (which claims that explanations of behavior do not ultimately depend on appeals to the mental) illustrates how what seems unnecessary for scientific treatment of a problem may be ontologically discountenanced. Where the assumption of the philosophical primacy of scientific method is at its most influential, philosophical method is conceived as only locally autonomous: Scientific method and the results of its application are the basic determinants of both our standards of rationality and our inventory of reality.

Quite apart from the role in their thinking of scientific method as a model for philosophical inquiry, it may be that philosophers naturally tend to take one or the other of two central philosophical domains, epistemology or metaphysics, or some account developed therein, as primary, as first philosophy, in a suggestive but now uncommon terminology. If we give priority to epistemology, we tend to produce an ontology that posits the sorts of objects about which our epistemology says we can have knowledge or justified belief. If we give metaphysics priority, we tend to produce an account of justified belief which allows knowledge or justified belief about the sorts of things our ontology countenances as real. One’s philosophical method affects both one’s epistemology and metaphysics and one’s sense of the relation between them. If our method is dominated by a priori reflection, we are likely to be rationalists in epistemology and realists in metaphysics, at least to the extent of countenancing whatever abstract objects must be posited to ground a priori knowledge. If our method is dominated by observation and experiment, or even by the idea that philosophical claims are ultimately responsible to observation and experiment, we are likely to tend toward empiricism in epistemology and, in metaphysics, to seek an ontology that countenances as real only what is either experienceable or necessary to account for our knowledge of what we experience.

Like epistemology or metaphysics, philosophical method can be primary in shaping a philosophical outlook. It is doubtful that it can wholly determine such an outlook; for apart from certain epistemological and metaphysical commitments, one cannot develop or even use a method. Similarly, one cannot develop an epistemology without making at least tentative metaphysical commitments or construct a metaphysics without making at least tentative epistemological commitments. Philosophers seem to accept as apparently axiomatic that what is knowable is in some sense real; and though, as many philosophers would regard as a lesson of skepticism, it is not self-evident that what is real is knowable, many philosophers cannot easily give up the conviction, or the quest to establish, that this is so. If this apparent asymmetry concerning the knowable and the real is genuine, then taken together with the primacy of our experience in our relations to others and the world, it may explain why epistemology tends, in at least many philosophers, to contribute even more than metaphysics to determining their overall views.

If philosophical method is to be clarified by the comparison with scientific method and not obscured by assimilation to the latter, it is essential that we distinguish scientific method from something of which it is an immensely impressive special case: theoretical method. The former is empirical and, broadly speaking, experimental. The latter is the more general method of building and rebuilding theories in relation to data: raising questions, hypothesizing, comparing and evaluating hypotheses in relation to data, revising theories in the light of the comparisons and evaluations, and adopting theories through assessing competing accounts of the same or similar problems. This distinction has not always been recognized or fully appreciated. For one thing, given the influence of empiricism (an influence to which few in modern philosophy are entirely immune), some thinkers tend to see scientific method as the only kind of theoretical method, at least outside logic and mathematics. But theoretical method is not the property of empiricism; rationalists can also use it, and so can both nonphilosophers and philosophers who are uncommitted with respect to, say, empiricism, rationalism, and pragmatism.

What is here called the theoretical method is very old—as ancient as systematic philosophy itself. It is illustrated in the Socratic attempt to refine definitions by revising them in response to examples and counterexamples; and it, or some major element in it, figures in all of the general philosophical methods considered here. However, the assumption of the primacy of scientific method and with it the often tacit view that scientific method is the only rational theoretical method outside logic and mathematics, is far from obvious.

Consider metaphysics: Properties and propositions, for example, far from being banished, are indispensable for many philosophers, including many who are scientifically oriented. Quite properly, this is in part because of what is required to understand science. But it may be in metaphysics, philosophy of language, and philosophy of mind that we find the greatest impetus toward preserving these common targets of Occam’s Razor. Consider epistemology: There is to date no consensus that the traditional domain of the a priori has been accounted for on scientific or, especially, empiricist lines. If only a limited number of philosophers are willing to defend the view that there are synthetic a priori propositions (roughly, substantive propositions, such as basic moral principles, knowable on the basis of reflection on their content), increasingly, many philosophers are alive to the possibility that there may be. This is not to say that the analytic–synthetic distinction has been adequately clarified or is even important in many of the ways it has been thought to be. The suggestion is only that the categories of the analytic and the a priori are less and less widely thought to have been shown unintelligible or empty or even equivalent.

The Autonomy Of Philosophy

Given what has been said in this research paper, it should be plain that philosophy is a distinctive area of inquiry. Even if its concerns overlap those of various other disciplines, it has its own problems and at least some of its own methods. But distinctiveness is not the same as autonomy, which, as applied to a field of inquiry, implies a kind of independence of other such fields. Is philosophy autonomous in this sense? Positively, a rationalistic perspective can provide a stronger basis for the autonomy of philosophy than can an account of philosophy based on assuming the philosophical primacy of scientific method. The reference here is to hard autonomy—the kind grounded in a distinctive conceptual and methodological status. This is quite different from soft autonomy—the sociological and institutional independence of the discipline manifest chiefly in its generally having its own academic departments.

Soft autonomy is sustainable even if one’s philosophical perspective is that of naturalism, which, in a strong form, might be described in rough terms as the view that nature is the whole of reality, and the only basic truths are truths of nature. On a form of this view associated with W. V. Quine, philosophy is continuous with natural science. This implies that there is no radical difference in the kinds of claims they can justify or in their standards of evidence: Indeed, epistemology itself is taken to be a kind of psychological inquiry into our cognitive standards and practices. The recently developed field of cognitive science, moreover, may from this perspective be viewed as a kind of naturalized philosophy of mind though its range may include more than problems addressed in that subfield of philosophy. This naturalistic approach to philosophy does not imply that there are no philosophical questions appropriately answered by reflection rather than through scientific inquiry, but the status of the answers is empirical rather than a priori; they are ultimately responsible to observation, as are scientific hypotheses, if in a less direct way. By contrast, on the traditional view that at least some major philosophical theses are a priori, it is clear why they are accountable to distinctively philosophical standards and need not be judged by the evidence drawn from sensory observation or scientific experiments.

To be sure, on the view that philosophy is simply more general than science or asks questions different in subject matter from those of the special sciences, a de facto autonomy may be sustained, an autonomy that is more than sociological and less than conceptual. But on that view, philosophy does not stand apart from science in the same way nor does it possess autonomous standards of assessment, particularly in normative matters. If, as has been common in the history of philosophy, it is seen as an autonomous cultural resource, as a normative critical enterprise responsible to its own standards, it would seem desirable that philosophy stand apart from science in the suggested way. But distinctness is not opposition nor does distinctness entail competition. Moreover, supposing the hard autonomy thesis is mistaken, soft autonomy may be retained with renewed emphasis. If (in ways to be sketched below) philosophy is, or at least should be, a cultural resource, then whatever philosophers think about hard autonomy, they have reasons to preserve the soft, sociological autonomy of the discipline.

Philosophy In Relation To Other Disciplines

There are many other disciplines, and here it is possible only to indicate how philosophy is related to some of the major ones. The place to begin is with the idea that philosophy is in a sense the metadiscipline, the one whose proper business includes accounting for the structure, methodology, and, indeed, the implicit metaphysics and epistemology, of the other disciplines.

For understanding other disciplines, philosophy is indispensable. Many important questions about a field, such as the nature of its concepts and its relation to other disciplines, do not belong to that discipline, are not usually pursued in it, and are philosophical in nature. Philosophy of science, for instance, is needed to supplement the understanding of the natural and social sciences, which may be derived from scientific work itself. Philosophy of literature and philosophy of history are of similar value in understanding the humanities, and philosophy of art is important in understanding the arts. Philosophy is, moreover, essential in assessing the various standards of evidence used by other disciplines. Since all fields of knowledge employ reasoning and must set standards of evidence, logic and epistemology have a general bearing on all of these fields.

Normative disciplines and their subfields—those subfields that overlap normative ethics or properly propose broadly ethical standards—deserve special comment. These include (among others) law, theology, and aesthetics.


The field of law generates many philosophical questions. One concerns the very nature of law, which some have held to imply a connection with morality and others have taken to be entirely a matter of institutional realities, such as a structure of promulgations and enforcements. On either view, philosophy bears directly on important questions of what relation the law should have to morality. It also bears on the relevant standards of evidence. What, for instance, constitutes proof of guilt, and what should determine who counts as a reasonable person in relation to standards of negligence and due care? The topics of moral and legal responsibility, including the problem of diminished capacity and partial blameworthiness, are also areas in which philosophical and legal concerns overlap.


Theology is another field that overlaps philosophy. Philosophy of religion concerns not only the problem of adequately characterizing the divine nature but the related question of the rationality conditions for religious faith. Another major question pursued in both philosophy and theology is the relation between ethics and religion. Both areas of inquiry are connected with understanding the nature of evil—whether moral, as with wrongdoing, or natural, as in the case of death from floods—and how evil is possible (in various kinds and degrees) in a world under a god who is all-knowing, all-powerful, and wholly good. Historically, philosophy has influenced theology, just as theology has influenced philosophy. Although it is widely thought that either can be pursued in abstraction from the other, philosophical assumptions are both inevitably presupposed and commonly discussed in the field of religion.


Philosophy of art has been mentioned; aesthetics also includes the theory of natural beauty and related questions concerning aesthetics value. Although it should be granted that practitioners of the arts need not know even the rudiments of the philosophy of their art, this is rarely, if ever, so for professional critics and interpreters of the arts. Even if it is possible for critics, philosophy provides a way of conceiving the work and products of the artist that helps critics to appreciate it and to see its place in the culture to which it belongs. Literature in particular may either raise philosophical questions in its own creative works or invite their philosophical interpretation. Philosophy itself constructs mininarratives as central examples, uses dialogue—implicitly or explicitly— and not infrequently relies on metaphors and other literary devices. It is a literary medium from the vantage point of which other kinds of literature can be viewed in relation to kindred standards of coherence, plausibility, clarity, and profundity.

The relation of philosophy to the professions should also be considered here. Its bearing on law has been noted. Not all of the professions can be mentioned, but it is appropriate to say something briefly about medicine, journalism and communication, and the broad field of business and economics.

Medicine And Other Health Professions

The very notion of health is normative, particularly in the case of mental health. In this connection, ethics is clearly pertinent; so is philosophy of mind, with its emphasis on understanding the human person. Philosophy of science may yield a better understanding of—and even a greater capacity for—the integration of medical research with medical practice. Philosophy of religion can lead to a better understanding of many patients and of various other people with whom physicians work closely. Aesthetics and the history of philosophy may enhance the common ground practitioners can find with patients or colleagues who are from other cultures or have unusual orientations or views. Philosophy of medicine and medical ethics are obviously of direct relevance.

Journalism And Communication

Journalists face a number of challenges on which philosophy bears. One is determining what is important enough to need coverage. Another is what constitutes objectivity in reporting on events and balance in editorializing. A third is ascertaining the quality of evidence on a given issue; this may be crucial in deciding whether to trust a source or to rely on an anonymous one. A comparative and, in some cases, a historical perspective is highly desirable (and arguably obligatory) in journalism; in achieving perspectives of these kinds, philosophical reflection is useful and sometimes indispensable. There are also more specific ways in which philosophy bears on journalism and communication: Philosophy of language, for example, should enhance understanding of communication, and philosophy of science should cast light on some of the technical subjects with which many people in journalism and communication must deal. Beyond this, political and social philosophy can deepen understanding of society and social institutions. For journalists with special interests, aesthetics, philosophy of law, and philosophy of religion are highly pertinent to the questions they face.


For many people in business and (applied) economics, the bearing of philosophy on the world of commerce seems at best tenuous. But what we have seen about business ethics alone should belie that impression. A sound ethical perspective is essential for producing a sound code of ethics; philosophical training is valuable in providing a clear, adequately comprehensive, and defensible code. Economic justice, as with employment policy and fair competition, is a major concern that is clarified by work in ethics. So are the nature and responsibilities of corporations, unions, and political parties. Moreover, if cost-benefit analysis is to be mastered, the understanding and assessment of probabilities is essential. These topics are treated by inductive logic and epistemology.

The Place Of Philosophy In The Academy

Some of what should be brought out here is implicit in what has been said: That philosophy is a basic and comprehensive field of knowledge and, as such, has a place in higher education should now be evident. Philosophy also contributes to the capacity for problem solving in any field. In this respect its value is interdisciplinary and subject matter neutral.

Critical Thinking

The first thing to note in this connection is that the study of philosophy helps to develop both the capacity and the inclination to do critical thinking. Logic is the most general philosophical field that develops this ability. Ethics alone is quite general. Studies in the subject should show how philosophical reflection is applicable to moral problems of many kinds. Courses in ethics commonly aim both at giving students a better understanding of moral problems and at helping them develop a reasonable moral outlook from which to approach the moral problems that confront them in their own lives. No other discipline treats these problems in the same comprehensive and systematic ways. Indeed, scientists and others often explicitly hold that such problems are outside their professional domain. Epistemology may be cited as the only discipline that examines standards of evidence and criteria of rational belief systematically and in ways applicable to any subject matter whatsoever. A similar point holds for many other topics that are treated in depth by philosophy and are important for critical thinking; they include definition, knowledge, explanation, causation, justification, communication, meaning, and truth.

Normative Issues

Philosophy provides a unique and systematic approach to normative issues—those concerning what ought or ought not to be, what is right or wrong, what is intrinsically desirable or undesirable, and so on— as opposed to what is as a matter of fact simply the case. What are the basic moral rights of persons? What moral obligations do people in a society have to one another? What constitutes justice in the distribution of goods and in the determination of punishment? Inquiries in such areas as ethics, political philosophy, philosophy of law, and aesthetics treat normative questions in depth. Courses in these fields usually examine several theories proposed by philosophers in answering these questions, and typically, students in them are encouraged to formulate and defend their own answers to the questions using the methods and concepts introduced in the courses. Given the importance that moral, social, aesthetic, and other value questions have in human life, the contribution philosophy can make in a balanced curriculum is incalculable. It might be thought that these questions do or can receive adequate treatment in the social sciences or perhaps in literature and history. These other disciplines, however, do not, and do not claim to, deal with normative questions in the way philosophy does; and many of the important normative problems philosophers study are not raised in other fields.

Interdisciplinary Perspective

An important function of philosophy is to foster interdisciplinary perspective. For instance, although scientific explanation is, in one form or another, common to all the sciences, conceptual questions about its nature and comparative questions about its logic in the different sciences belong to the philosophy of science. Some of these questions have been treated by scientists but rarely with the comprehensiveness and generality required for a synoptic understanding of the topic. Every discipline generates some essentially philosophical questions about itself, and many questions about relations among different disciplines are also philosophical. Both kinds of questions are examined in such areas as philosophy of science, philosophy of art, philosophy of law, philosophy of history, and philosophy of language. Philosophy also critically examines methods of inquiry, both in science and in everyday life. Its approach in this is usually conceptual, evaluative, and comparative; and typically the philosophical study of these topics differs from other approaches in the techniques used, in the questions pursued, and in the scope of the theories produced in answering these questions. Both in exploring the interrelations among other disciplines and in examining their methods of inquiry, philosophy fulfills a unique and important role as a metadiscipline. It provides a kind of understanding of the other disciplines—particularly of their presuppositions, standards of evidence, and modes of explanation—which other fields of study neither attempt nor are able to provide.

Writing And Effective Communication

A major aim of higher education is to contribute to the quality of discourse in and beyond its institutions of learning. The study of philosophy generally requires analytical writing, critical reading, and formulating intellectual problems and proposed solutions to them. For these reasons, work in philosophy can greatly improve writing and communication skills. Even if writing is taught virtually throughout the curriculum, philosophy can play a major and distinctive part in the task. No other discipline emphasizes, in the same ways, either verbal argumentation or conceptual analysis. Few other disciplines emphasize, to the same degree, students’ producing their own theories or critical assessments as opposed to exposition of existing material. In addition, clarity, accurate interpretation, due consideration for others’ positions, and the importance of using concrete examples are also stressed in competent teaching of the writing that philosophy requires. These qualities of philosophical training in writing and speaking make the study of philosophy especially valuable in preprofessional pursuits as well as for those seeking a more general education.

The Cultural Significance Of Philosophy

Intellectual History And Cross-Cultural Vision

In its historical and cross-cultural investigations, philosophy provides a sense of intellectual history and contributes to one’s understanding of one’s own culture in relation to other cultures. Most philosophy departments and institutes have programs of research and teaching that address at least ancient, modern, and contemporary philosophy. Many departments offer courses in philosophies produced by cultures other than their own. Studies in these areas help people to locate themselves historically and culturally, to work out a reasonable system of values, and to achieve an understanding of alternatives among values, cultural patterns, and intellectual traditions.

Examination Of World Views

A presupposition of higher education is that most reflective people seek a coherent view of the world that makes sense of their experience, guides them in certain major decisions, and gives them at least tentative answers to some of the perennial problems concerning human life and its place in the universe. The study of philosophy helps one to formulate and assess such views, whether they are drawn from the history of thought in a particular part of the world from comparative cross-cultural studies, from popular interpretations of current science, or from the one’s own— perhaps quite unarticulated—reactions to one’s experience. Among the (partial) world views commonly examined in philosophy are materialism, which construes everything there is, including persons, as essentially physical; dualism, which takes minds and hence persons to be radically different from purely physical entities; and, of course, theism in many of its forms. Often, sociopolitical orientations, such as liberal democracy and Marxian socialism, are associated with world views. In examining these positions and world views, the approach of philosophy is holistic, conceptual, and evaluative. Moreover, whatever world view philosophers may hold, in teaching philosophy, they normally make it their business to present forcefully arguments for and against their own positions. Their most characteristic concern in this kind of endeavor is to develop a framework for making rational decisions on world views and sociopolitical orientations, not to inculcate any particular one.

Articulation And Critique Of Public Policy

A huge number of public policy issues are mainly moral, and most of them have significant parts that are moral. Normative ethics thus has special bearing on their proper resolution. Abortion and prostitution are mainly moral issues; this is because the chief disagreements are generally over moral rights and principles rather than over nonmoral facts. Distribution of wealth and the structure of the health care system are largely moral issues; but nonmoral factual questions, such as what effects one or another system has, are relatively more important for these issues than for the former two. Moral philosophy speaks directly to problems of public policy. For one thing, they involve questions of justice and of human rights. It is a major task of moral philosophy to develop an adequate theory of justice and a related theory of moral rights. These theories attempt to answer such questions as whether justice requires an equal distribution of wealth; whether everyone has a right to material wellbeing; whether punishment, as distinct from rehabilitation, is morally justified; and what moral obligations rich nations have to help poor nations. The abortion issue is of particular concern here. This is because a major aspect of it concerns the metaphysical question (also debated in theological contexts) of what constitutes a human person. The issue cannot be adequately understood, then, without a degree of both ethical and metaphysical sophistication.

Philosophers, like others, are divided on these questions, but on one important point they are largely agreed: that there are ways of distinguishing good from bad reasoning on moral questions and that some answers to these questions are better than others. In any case, it should be clear that philosophical reflection may help in clarifying issues, evaluating or constructing arguments on each side, determining the full range of policy options, framing definitions (particularly in drafting legislation), deducing consequences from a position so that we can see what it commits us to, eliciting and criticizing basic assumptions, and evaluating a moral issue in the light of the best theories and principles available in moral philosophy.

The Philosopher

Philosophy is so broad and complex that no one is an expert in all of its fields. This does not entail that there is nothing of a general kind that can be said about what constitutes a philosopher. The simplest thing to say is that any philosopher will have a high level of competence in at least one of the subfields described here. That will imply using at least one method sketched above or a substantially similar method; it will also imply having a sense of some of the other subfields of philosophy. It does not imply taking any particular view or reflecting on any particular problem. Philosophical training and dialectic are, however, sources of intellectual versatility. In this and other ways, philosophy can add to the depth, scope, and acuity of the wise, much as wisdom can add to the powers of discernment and judgment of the philosopher.

It is widely known that, etymologically, philosophy is the love of wisdom. There is also a strong association— perhaps partly derived from the emphasis on practical wisdom in both Plato and Aristotle—of philosophical reflection with wisdom. In part for these reasons, some people have assumed that a philosopher must be wise, particularly in practical matters. If wisdom in a domain (such as human relations) is taken to be knowledge and soundness of judgment in that domain, it is true that philosophical reflection has high potential for leading to a degree of wisdom, at least in some important domains. It is certainly true that wisdom is a characteristic of many philosophers and inclines many who have it to appreciate one or another philosophical problem. But philosophical competence is no guarantee of wisdom, and wisdom of many kinds is possible for nonphilosophers.

Perhaps the most positive point to be made here is that philosophical competence in a subject-matter area will reveal at least a substantial proportion of the truths and some of the conceptual resources that are needed by a person who has wisdom in that domain. Much depends on the area in question: The more conceptual or normative it is, the greater the bearing of philosophy. Philosophical competence brought to the field of law, for example, can go a long way: Major questions in the law concern evidence, conceptual distinctions, and such normative notions as justice and blameworthiness. These are areas in which epistemology and ethics have much to contribute. The connection of philosophy to computer science may be less close; but even apart from the importance of logic in this field, there are ethical questions of, for instance, privacy and intellectual property rights, for which competence in ethics is of great value.

Quite apart from whether philosophers are characteristically wise, their cultural role includes criticism of major elements in their culture, particularly those that are intellectual, ethical, aesthetic, religious, or political. Certain important kinds of philosophical criticism are in a certain way neutral: The charge of inconsistency or incoherence is morally neutral; the point that an argument is invalid is logical and leaves open whether the argument’s constituent propositions are true. A not uncommon view among philosophers has been that, qua philosophers, they should remain neutral in this way, abstaining from moral and political positions. On this view, taking these positions is appropriate for philosophers in their role as citizens but not in their role as professional philosophers.

A less restrictive view is that philosophers as a group, as represented by, for instance, the American Philosophical Association, should not take moral or political positions in official resolutions; and a still less restrictive position would apply this restriction to political but not moral issues. Nonetheless, just as there are philosophical works that systematically defend normative ethical views, there are some defending normative political positions. Why, it may be asked, should philosophers who have well-developed normative political positions not put them forward for the general public as philosophically well grounded? Publication itself may be regarded as a step in this direction, particularly if the style of the work and the medium of publication lend themselves to wide reading by the general public. Moreover, as electronic publication becomes more widespread and more readily accessible to the general public, the distinction between what is published for a professional audience and what is addressed to a wide public audience may become harder to draw.

Disagreement among philosophers about the proper cultural role of philosophy is likely to continue, and they can quite reasonably hold different views on the kinds of public moral or political positions appropriate for wide dissemination by philosophers as individuals as opposed to philosophers acting institutionally or as a corporate body. But we may safely say that, particularly with the declining influence of positivism from the middle of the twentieth century to the present time, few philosophers now believe that taking normative positions in ethics, politics, and elsewhere is not properly philosophical. One way to put a major part of this point is to say that philosophers as such may be prescriptive as well as descriptive. Indeed, even counseling people to avoid slipshod reasoning is prescriptive. Moreover, quite apart from any explicit prescriptions, criticisms of reasoning or counterexamples to proposed ideas are implicitly prescriptive: Plainly, one should not rely on bad reasoning or maintain an idea to which there are clear counterexamples. As a critical enterprise, philosophy is implicitly normative. As appraising major guiding ideas in human life, it is implicitly prescriptive.


Philosophy is the systematic and critical study of ideas and issues, a reasoned pursuit of fundamental truths, a quest for a comprehensive understanding of the world, a study of principles of conduct, and much more. Every domain of human existence raises questions to which its techniques and theories apply, and its methods are applicable in the study of any subject or the pursuit of any vocation. Its inquiries encompass the critical study of knowledge and reality, of value and obligation, of religion and science, of language and literature, of art and the professions. In the academy, philosophical studies enhance the capacity for problem solving, the ability to understand and express ideas, and the power to frame cogent arguments. In the culture in which it is practiced, philosophy can be a critical voice, a defender of ideals, a creator of visions.

Philosophy also develops understanding and enjoyment of things whose absence impoverishes many lives: aesthetic experience, communication with many different kinds of people, discussion of current issues, the discerning observation of human behavior, and intellectual zest in the pursuit of knowledge. For individuals in or outside the academy, the study of philosophy provides a major route to developing a well-reasoned vision of the good life and an ability to communicate this vision, defend it, and where necessary modify it. A well-reasoned vision of what human life ought to be yields an ordered set of long-term goals and a sense of the significance of life; it provides, often, the steady intellectual stimulation of comparing a theory of human experience with the constantly changing, ever-surprising panorama that our experience is; and it anchors our relations with others in a framework that enables us to conceive human conduct with some measure of clarity and understanding.


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