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What Good is Philosophy?

by Bill Meacham on December 30th, 2014

(I recently gave a talk at the philosophy club summarizing what philosophy is all about. Here it is for your enjoyment. Disclaimer: My summaries of various philosopher’s ideas are so short as to amount to caricatures. Please do additional research on your own on topics that spark your interest.)

In brief, philosophy is good for learning how to think clearly about a number of important and fundamental topics. The word “philosophy” comes from two Greek words, philia, meaning affectionate love or affinity, and sophia, wisdom. Philosophy is the love of wisdom. The Greeks, starting with Socrates, thought of wisdom in a very practical way: it meant knowing how to live your life, how to conduct yourself in order to live in a good way. Philosophy began as the effort to find out how to live well.

The Branches of Philosophy

As it has evolved Philosophy includes more than figuring out how to live. Some of the many branches of Philosophy are the following:

Metaphysics. The word literally means “after physics.” In the compilation of Aristotle’s lectures, the books placed after the works on physics were called the metaphysics. Metaphysics is now taken to be the investigation of the underlying nature and structure of reality as a whole. In that sense it means that which is beyond physics.

Epistemology, from the Greek episteme, knowledge, and logos, explanation of or study of, considers what knowledge is and how we come to know things.

Ethics, from ethikos, considers questions of human conduct: How should we live? Why should we live like that? What are good and evil? How should we decide that an act is unethical? What is happiness?

Logic, from logos, meaning explanation of, considers what makes conclusions follow from premises and what makes an argument sound.

Ontology, from ontos, being, and logos, the study of, is the study of being. What kinds of things are there? What is it to be in the first place? How is non-being possible?

Philosophy of Mind asks questions such as these: What is the human mind? How does it think? How is mind related to body?

Aesthetics, from aisthetikos, that which concerns feeling, is the study of art. What is art? What makes something beautiful? Is the beauty of music similar to that of a landscape?

Political Philosophy, from polis, the Greek word for city-state, considers the organization of society. How should society be organized? How should decisions be made? What would utopia be like? Is utopia possible?

There are numerous other areas of philosophy: philosophy of mathematics, of science, of religion, of language, of social science, of history. In all of these, philosophy looks critically at the foundations of the discipline, at its presuppositions and its language.

Three Questions

From the time of the Greeks, philosophers have been concerned with three fundamental questions, the first three of the branches listed above:

  • Metaphysics – What is there? What is real?
  • Epistemology – How do we know what is real?
  • Ethics – What shall we do about what is real? How shall we lead our lives? What is our duty? What virtues should we cultivate? How can we be happy?

These three questions are inseparable. Duty, virtue and happiness all require knowledge of goods and evils, and rights and responsibilities, so ethics requires epistemology. Knowledge is always knowledge about something, so epistemology requires metaphysics. And we care about metaphysics because it makes a difference in how we act, so metaphysics has a bearing on ethics.

Metaphysics: An Account of Everything

Even before Socrates, the pre-Socratic thinkers—Thales, Anaximenes and others—began to consider the world in a new way, a way that did not depend on beliefs about gods and spirits to explain how and why things happen. The attempt to explain the world in purely physical terms led these thinkers to assert that everything was made of Earth, Air, Fire, Water or some boundless material that manifested as these elements. Nowadays we look on these doctrines as naive speculation, but at the time they were revolutionary.

According to Plato, what is really real are the Forms, ideas that can be understood by pure intellect. Physical reality is a lesser reality.

According to Aristotle, Plato’s pupil, the primary category is Substance. Form is not separate from particular things.

Descartes asserted a dualism of material and mental substances.

Leibniz asserted a plurality of non-interacting substances.

Hegel asserted Idealism, the idea that spirit (Geist) or mind is fundamental.

Dennett and many other contemporary thinkers assert Materialism, the idea that matter is fundamental.

Alfred North Whitehead says that the fundamental category is Process, not Substance. Processes are both material and mental. According to Whitehead, the goal of metaphysics (which he called “speculative philosophy”) is to “frame a … system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted. … Everything of which we are conscious as enjoyed, perceived, willed or thought, shall have the character of a particular instance of the general scheme.”(1)

The rise of experimental science has reduced the scope of metaphysics. We have gone way beyond Earth, Air, Fire and Water. But science itself is based on metaphysical assumptions that are not demonstrated by the scientific method! These assumptions include the following:

  • That there is an objective reality;
  • That it is ordered in a rational and intelligible way;
  • That it is describable by immutable mathematical laws, laws that do not change arbitrarily with the passage of time or in different regions of space; and
  • That these laws are discoverable by systematic observation and experimentation.

And some topics worthy of investigation are not amenable to scientific explanation at all:

  • The relationship between mathematics, including logic, and the physical world.
  • The relationship between subjectivity and objectivity.
  • Whether there is a purpose or meaning to it all, and if so what it is.

Epistemology: How We Know

There have been two main approaches to understanding how we know things: rationalism and empiricism. Rationalism attempts to reason from first principles to what must be. Some examples of rationalist thinkers are Plato, Descartes, Leibniz and Spinoza. Empiricism starts from experience rather than first principles. One observes what actually is and forms theories useful for prediction. Some examples of empirical theorists are Aristotle, Locke, Berkeley and Hume. Kant bridges the gap between the two, recognizing that all we know of the world comes through our senses, but claiming that reason can discover necessary categories through which we must experience the world.

Rationalism and empiricism require each other. We don’t reason in a vacuum; first principles are suggested by experience. And to be useful, theories based on experience must be logically coherent and sound.

Ethics: A Guide to Life

Ethics is the practical concern with how to live one’s life. Some of the thinkers about ethics are the following:

Socrates asked questions such as, What is temperance? Courage? Justice? Piety? Virtue?

Aristotle advised us to cultivate the virtues.

The Stoics sought to live in harmony with nature and to be indifferent to pleasure, pain and the vicissitudes of life.

Epicurus advised us to seek the pleasure of tranquility. (His ideas were far from what we now think of as epicureanism, the pursuit of sensual pleasure.)

Kant said we should do our duty according to the dictates of reason.

Kierkegaard, a precursor of the existentialists, advised us to have faith while confronting doubt. Subjectivity is truth, he said, and the authentic life is one based in deep feeling.

Sartre said that we are radically free. We must arbitrarily choose our actions, and in so doing we create ourselves.

As mentioned above,the practical maxims in each of these approaches to ethics are based on a view of the system of things as a whole. Figuring out how to act requires understanding ourselves. Understanding ourselves requires understanding the whole of reality. Hence, ethics cannot be divorced from metaphysics and epistemology.

As philosophy is the attempt to think clearly, and as our language has a great deal to do with how we think, it behooves us to watch the words we use to talk about what we should do or to tell others to do. There are two categories of language in this regard, Goodness and Rightness. The Goodness paradigm uses words such as “good” and “bad” to speak of benefits and harms. In this paradigm, “should” is practical advice. The Rightness paradigm uses words such as “right” and “wrong” to speak of duties, responsibilities and our obligation to obey moral rules. In this paradigm “should” is a moral command. I have written about this distinction elsewhere; here I just want to advise you to notice when people talk about what should be done whether they are in the Goodness or Rightness paradigm, or whether they mix up the two.

Conceptual Analysis and Correction of Conceptual Mistakes

Much of contemporary philosophy in the English-speaking world focuses on conceptual analysis. The attempt to use words clearly is found in all of the branches of philosophy, whether it be to determine what people really mean when they use certain words or to stipulate what the author intends them to mean. Analyzing concepts goes all the way back to Socrates, who asked what courage is or piety, etc.

The modern analytic tradition emphasizes clarity of argument and a respect for the natural sciences. Its aim is the logical clarification of thoughts, which can be achieved only by analysis of the logical form of philosophical propositions. This tradition relies heavily on modern formal logic. It rejects sweeping philosophical systems in favor of attention to detail or to ordinary language. At its most extreme, it regards ungrounded metaphysical speculation as meaningless nonsense.

Stemming from the analytic tradition, but not limited to it, is the idea that the proper aim of philosophy is to correct conceptual mistakes.

The Logical Positivists thought that only statements verifiable either logically or empirically are cognitively meaningful. The goal of philosophy is to prevent confusion rooted in unclear language and unverifiable claims.

The later Wittgenstein asserted that the purpose of philosophy is to break bad habits of thought, which are typically brought about by misuse of language: “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language.”(2)

The Pragmatists, Peirce, James and Dewey, sought to make our ideas clear by focusing on their practical effects.

In all of this lies a useful observation, that clarity of language promotes clarity of thought and mutual understanding. Using words sloppily is not only unappealing but positively harmful.

Other Philosophers

Some philosophers don’t fit neatly into the categories above. Here are a few:

The writings of Nietzsche contain unsystematic observations about human nature. They are a polemic guide to life.

Edmund Husserl founded Phenomenology, the clarification of aspects of reality from a rigorous first-person point of view. His work is analytical, but it is an analysis of subjectivity, not of language.

Heidegger, Husserl’s student, did ontology from a radically subjective point of view. His work is an ontology of the world as lived in, not just thought about. As a guide to life he advised us to be authentic.

The Value of Philosophy

There are lots of things you can do with philosophy, of varying degrees of usefulness.

You can play interesting intellectual games. Many people find them lots of fun and an agreeable pastime. But sometimes the games become completely trivial and unrelated to real life. A recent New York Times article notes that epistemologists now concern themselves with questions such as how you know you believe you are wearing socks. Not how you know you have socks on, but how you know you believe you have socks on.(3)

In contrast, philosophy can also be of vital importance. Achieving wisdom, knowledge of what to do with your life, is the most important thing you can do.

One thing that is clear from the history of philosophy is that there are no easy answers. Famously, philosophers never seem to settle on something they agree on. Unlike the physical sciences, in which more and more detailed knowledge has been achieved over time, philosophy still talks about the same questions that the ancients did.

But that does not make it useless. All it means is that someone else’s answers to what to make of life are of limited value if you don’t think about the question yourself. For maximum value, for having a firm foundation for both thought and conduct, we each need to figure out for ourselves the answers to the fundamental questions.


(1) Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 4.

(2) Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, paragraph 109.

(3) Cassam, “Know Thy Self — Really.”


Cassam, Quassim. “Know Thy Self — Really.” Online publication as of 29 December 2014.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology. 1929. New York: Harper and Row Harper Torchbooks, 1957.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Tr. G. E. M. Anscombe. 1953. New York: Prentice Hall, 1999.

From → Philosophy

One Comment
  1. Andy Trimino permalink

    Dear Bill:

    It’s good to hear from you and to know that yo are back in the arena of thinking that can be taken, perhaps by its very name, as tough to discuss and difficult to unite in its different components.

    If I humbly may, I would like to refer to a topic that I have not seen treated lately: What I would like to -temporarily- name the “metaphysics of spirituality”. It refers to the reality of the interaction between the substance of the life that we know and has been discussed by formal philosophers and theologians throughout the centuries: The interaction of the the living substance with the non-living substance –i.e. the physically dead. As it is, the non-living substance can, and does, interact in the number of ways with the living human reality. For instance, mental interaction such as talk, guidance, mutual exchanges such as prayer and question-answer, or guidance and help for and in life. An recent example is the mental apparition of two friends from over fifty years ago who appeared to me in my mind and told me not to worry about my difficulties with the functioning of my physical health and that they took care of it. As it happened, not only I could not only see them but my mind went back to its just about completely normal functioning except for already present phenomena having to do with forgetfulness of names and the like. For seventy-five years of age, it is not bad at all, I would say. What is more, in years past, a conversation had at Saint Peters Basilica in Rome was as real as this computer or a talk with my a friend or a family member. My partner in the conversation was the Pope John the XXXIII, whom I had met while being a student in Italy. ==
    Pending a conversation on this topic, if possible.===Andy – —/

    Andy Trimino

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