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Laotzu speaking and knowing
Simone quote with dark background and statue
Socrates the wise and the fools

"The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters" Francisco Goya

What Is Philosophy?

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In ancient Greece, philosophy began as an inquiry into the rational order of the cosmos as opposed to the tangle of stories or myths about it.


Socrates, guided by the saying "know thyself," turned this inquiry inward, and proclaimed that the unexamined life is not worth living. He taught a form of questioning, still practiced today, that is a dialectical or back-and-forth exchange of views moving from ignorance to knowledge, or at least to knowledge of one's ignorance.


Philosophical inquiry began in India and China about the same time, and was directed toward an understanding of our place in the world and in society, and toward a realization of one's true self.


Philosophy is guided by an open and critical spirit of inquiry; it is never content merely to disseminate old information. From the beginning, philosophers asked what makes a person the best she or he can be; what kind of life is worth living; what kind of community, society, and state is the most beneficial; what understanding of the universe is most trustworthy; and whether humans and the world have a divine foundation.


The philosopher Immanuel Kant posed four basic questions of inquiry: What can I know? What ought I to do? What may I hope for? What does it mean to be a human being? In order to answer these questions, philosophers developed methods to distinguish between appearances and reality, truth and falsehood, values and beliefs worth holding and those that do not stand up to scrutiny.


Historically, the practice of philosophy helped give rise to a wide variety of disciplines, ranging from self-cultivation to political theory to mathematics and the empirical research of the natural and social sciences. In fact, philosophy is called the "queen of the sciences," because it has all other disciplines as its subject matter. For this reason, there can be a philosophy of art, of education, of history, of science, and so forth. Philosophy retains its central importance among the disciplines not only by examining their basic concepts and assumptions, but also by charting new ways of discovery and proposing rational ways of making decisions even when no amount of information will provide a definitive answer.