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Philosophy Intro Part V: The Spectrum of Philosophy

Philosophy Intro Part V: The Spectrum of Philosophy

How do we categorize philosophy’s diverse questions, such as “what is the nature of reality?” “what makes something beautiful?” or “what is a just society?”

In the same way that science can be organized into different categories such as physics, biology, chemistry, astronomy, and geology, philosophy can be broken down into several different branches. 

Metaphysics: What is the nature and structure of reality?

Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy concerned with that which transcends, or is beyond, the physical. This branch of philosophy shares a good deal of overlap with both science and theology (in the history of Western thought, it is only recently that science, theology and philosophy have been thought of as entirely distinct fields of study). It is concerned with deeply fundamental questions such as: What is reality? How do I know I exist? What is the nature of time? Metaphysics also has to do with things like first causes (how can something come from nothing?), universals (what makes a bird a bird?), and other abstract concepts such as identity over time (Is an acorn a tree? Am I the same person at age 90 that I was at age 12?).

Epistemology: What is the nature of truth and knowledge?

Closely connected with metaphysics is epistemology. Epistemology seeks to understand the nature of truth and knowledge: What makes a claim true or false? What constitutes knowledge about a particular thing? What is the difference between belief and opinion? When are our beliefs rational? What kinds of reasons justify our beliefs?

Epistemology also figures heavily in the other four branches of philosophy we will discuss in this course. Each and every time we make a factual claim (this desk exists) or a normative claim (it is wrong to lie), we are relying on underlying assumptions about what is true and what we can know.

Aesthetics: What is the nature of beauty?

What makes a painting beautiful? What makes a piece of music good? Why are some books considered literary classics and others merely entertaining? Do all of our pronouncements about art merely come down to opinion or taste, or is there a set of criteria and principles for beauty?

While we will not spend a lot of time in this course discussing aesthetics, it is worth noting that it concerns more that our assessment of art, music, or literature. Aesthetics is an important branch of philosophy that is deeply connected to questions concerning the nature of “the good” and what it means to live well or flourish as a human being.

Ethics: What makes an action good or bad, right or wrong?

Ethics concerns normative claims (value judgments). When we say that an action is good or bad, or right or wrong, we are making a normative claim. When we make a normative claim, we are doing something more than merely expressing an opinion: we are claiming that it is true that murder is bad, or it is wrong to steal. Our normative claims are justified by reasons. Reasons include such things as evidence, logic, and the appeal to some kind of authority.

Ethics also seeks to understand our moral duties or obligations—how we ought to treat one another. Some moral obligations are called negative obligations or obligations of forbearance (you ought not kill an innocent person). Other moral obligations are called positive obligations (you ought to give food to a starving person).

Finally, ethics also encompasses individual rights. When we say we have a right to something, it means we are entitled to it.

It is sometimes helpful to think of rights and obligations as two sides of a coin: if I have a right not to be killed, you have an obligation not to kill me. There is an ongoing debate in philosophy regarding whether rights are prior to obligations or obligations are prior to rights.

Social/Political Philosophy: what constitutes a just society?

What is a just political system? What justifies the authority of the state over its citizens? What is a fair way to treat citizens? What makes a particular law just or unjust? How ought the government distribute resources such as wealth, food, housing or healthcare? These are the kinds of issues taken up under the heading of Social and Political Philosophy.

Over the course of human history, from ancient to modern times, there have been many different ways of justifying various political systems. Examples include the divine right of kings, the natural rights of man, the social contract, majority rule, and the appeal to equality. Social and Political Philosophy provides tools for understanding and evaluating different ways of ordering a society and justifying the state’s authority over individual citizens.