What Are the Main Branches of Philosophy for this Class?

Illustration of Blind Men and Elephant
Indian skepticism towards dogmatic statements is illustrated by the famous tale of the Blind men and an elephant, common in Buddhism and Jainism. By romana klee (2012)

Week 3, Lecture 1

Learning Objectives

  1. Identify and explain the goals of the various branches of philosophy
  2. Explain philosophy’s main method

What are the main branches of philosophical thought for this class?

Metaphysics: “‘[T]he queen of the sciences,’ as Immanuel Kant called it – should take pride of place. Philosophy, as they see it, is primarily the attempt to uncover the fundamental structure of reality, to discover – at the most general level possible – that there is.” (Cooper & Fosl, Philosophy: The Classic Readings, xxvii)

Some metaphysical questions include:

  • Does God exist?
  • Are minds or souls made from the same physical stuff brains, baseballs, and dinosaurs are?
  • Is there some kind of purpose that underwrites the way the cosmos is unfolding or is it all pointless and without reason?
  • What is the meaning of life?
  • What is the nature of the self?
  • Do we have free will?

Epistemology: This is the theory of knowledge. Epistemology, “seeks to establish a framework that we can use to arrive at genuine and accurate understanding. This involves identifying and developing criteria and methodologies for determining what we know and why we know it. Metaphysics and epistemology are interdependent, and answering the questions in the one area frequently involves answering the questions in the other area.” (Chaffee, The Philosopher’s Way, 30)

Typical epistemological questions would include:

  • Can we ever really know anything at all?
  • How do we know when we don’t know something?
  • What are the differences between believing and knowing?
  • What is truth?

Ethics: “[P]hilosophy was in its earliest days and throughout much of its history inspired by an essentially practical ambition – to determine how human beings ought to act, treat each other, feel and live.” (Cooper & Fosl, xxvii, emphasis original)

The term, ethics comes to us from the Greek ethos (ἦθος) which points to one’s characteristic ways of being in the world. The word ethos is cognate with another important term, ethea (ἤθεα), which refers to the habitual places of things in the world. If ethos refers to habit then we understand that ethea refers to habitat; the orientation here is that one’s habitat is where one’s habit’s at.

Typical ethical questions:

  • Ask how we ought to behave or what we should do.
  • How do we decide on the appropriate way to act in a situation?
  • Is there a good life to which we all ought to strive?

Aesthetics: This is the study of making sense, a phrase that has to do with meaning and the value we assign to our meanings. The Greek term from which we derive aesthetics is aisthesis (αἴσθησις), which connotes sense and our capacity to perceive.

Most frequently aesthetics entails discussions of beauty and art but for me it is through Aesthetics that socio-political philosophy gains its teeth. To ask a question like, “What is justice?” is to seek a value judgement, to ask what is the best form of government is to ask for an assessment of the value of the distribution of material resources across a people.

Logic: This is the use and study of valid reasoning. With logic we are seeking the rules that would establish how reasoning can happen correctly.

Logic is concerned with reasoning and how reasoning gone bad leads to promoting false conclusions. Through the systematization of this body of knowledge there has developed a robust toolkit for analytic thinking and thought engineering.

Click here for the next section of this lecture: What Is Philosophy’s Main Method?