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Philosophy Intro Part III: What is Philosophy?

Philosophy Intro Part III: What is Philosophy?

Broken down into its Greek roots of philo and sophos, philosophy literally means “love of wisdom.” This literal translation is indeed an apt description of the intellectual discipline of philosophy, which, at its core, seeks wisdom about the world and man’s place in it.

Ponder those words for a moment—seeking wisdom about the world and man’s place in it. This is a vast undertaking! How might one begin to comprehend and categorize this endeavor? We can begin to comprehend the discipline of philosophy by noticing something crucial: philosophy seeks wisdom, rather than knowledge, about the world. What is the difference?

Knowledge is commonly understood as “justified true belief”: when a person believes certain things about the world, with good reason, and those things are true, we can say that he has knowledge. For example, a biologist will have knowledge about how plant cells work, based on such things as his study in school of how living systems work and his direct observation of plant cells through a microscope.

Wisdom is closely connected with knowledge, but we can think of wisdom as adding another facet to our study of the world and man’s place in it: wisdom seeks to discover not only how the world works but also how things ought to be. In other words, wisdom considers both “is” and “ought.”

Why is this distinction between knowledge and wisdom important? Because it gives us insight into the discipline of philosophy. Philosophy seeks to answer the “big” questions about the universe and man’s place in it. Philosophy considers questions about the nature of reality, knowledge, truth, and beauty. It also considers questions about the nature of man, what it means for man to live well, and how we ought to treat one another. With the aim of answering such questions and making value judgments, “philosophy depends on an objective and ordered reality that has both a quantitative and a qualitative aspect to it[1]..” Indeed, philosophy has played an essential role in the Great Conversation that has shaped man’s thought through the ages, across science, theology, politics, and law.



[1] The Liberal Arts Tradition, p. 91