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Guide to the Field of Philosophy

In ancient times, what is known today as philosophy encompassed all the arts and sciences. Today, the field includes innumerable specializations far beyond the traditional logic, ethics, metaphysics, epistemology, and history of philosophy. Some fields of study use an answering service. This article provides a birds-eye view of the contemporary landscape in the field. Also included are the benefits of an education in philosophy and applications of the discipline to other areas.

 Traditional Specializations in Philosophy

 Logic

In it simplest construction, logic is the academic study of reasoning. Logic is an area of concentration in mathematics and computer science, in addition to being an area of concentration in philosophy. Some popular areas of interest in logic are argument forms, recognizing fallacious arguments, and validity. Regarding philosophy, there is some overlap between the study of logic and epistemology, which examines knowledge. Another area of philosophy that ties in with logic is philosophy of language, which examines and theorizes about natural and artificial languages. Logic, though a worthy study of its own, can be also understood as a key method by which philosophers construct theories and problematize existing work. Some important topics in this area are syllogistic logic, propositional logic, predicate logic, modal logic, informal reasoning, mathematical logic, and philosophic logic. Areas of particular interest of contemporary logicians are the the relationship between logic and truth and the question of if implication is strict or material.

 Ethics

Ethics broadly defined, is moral philosophy, examining concepts, such as the right, the good, and virtue. There are several major branches of ethics including normative ethics, applied ethics, and meta-ethics. Normative ethics, also referred to as moral theory, examines right and wrong conduct. By the start of the 20th century, moral theories became highly complex and new moral statuses beyond right and wrong emerged. During the 20th century, ethics was not immune to the widespread influence of logical positivism, leading to the increased popularity of meta-ethics and somewhat of a decline in concentration on moral theory. Many companies now utilize an answering service to field ethical complaints.

 Metaphysics

Metaphysics, literally meaning beyond physics, is the study of reality beyond the sciences. The two traditional subsets within this topic are oncology and cosmology. The study of oncology focuses on the underlying being of the world and cosmology is interested in how the world came to be. Although metaphysics is ancient, tracing back to Aristotle who first coined the term, it is still a study that is actively debated. What changed is that it experienced a turn from natural philosophy, study before the development of what is recognized as modern science, to a more empirically oriented area of inquiry thereafter. Central questions examined in this specialization is determinism vs. free will, necessity and possibility, as well as objects and their properties.

 Epistemology

Epistemology, also known as theory of knowledge, examines the nature and scope of what we can know. Much of the discussion in this field deals with what is called the standard analysis: that knowing means having a justified, true belief. Although the standard analysis itself goes back to early philosophy, there has been fervent debate throughout the history of philosophy about all parts of this standard, such as what it means to have a justified belief and what it means to have a true belief. Edmund Gettier, in a short paper published in 1963, introduced his famous problem, asserting that a belief can be justified and true and still not count as knowledge. Epistemology is also invoked in other sub specializations, such as philosophy of science, which deals with scientific knowledge and methodology.

 History of Philosophy

The history of philosophy examines the development of the discipline as it is understood in a historical context and catalog change in the field. The major epochs of western philosophy are ancient philosophy, medieval philosophy, modern philosophy, contemporary philosophy, Eastern philosophy, and Abrahamic philosophy, which refers to the three major Christian religions. There is much room for specialization within this area. Often times, philosophers specializing in logic or ethics will all have a strong knowledge of history of philosophy in that area. In other cases, there are philosophers who specialize in history of philosophy. Some institutions have an answering service dedicated to fielding questions.

New Specializations in Philosophy

Philosophy of Mind

This specialization focuses on all questions relating to the mind, such as mental events, functions, and properties, as well the nature of consciousness. An important question in this field is the mind/body problem, which deals with issues about the relationship between the mind and the body. The two traditional positions on this question in history of philosophy are monism, that there is only mind (idealism) or the body (materialism); the other position is dualism, which specifies that some mental events are material and some are not. Philosophers studying in this area at present show a special interest in neuroscience and how new breakthroughs in that area may shed light on questions in philosophy.

Philosophy of Religion

Philosophy of religion is a sub-specialization within history of philosophy. In this area, there is a diverse array of questions handled from religious miracles, language, argument, and analysis of belief systems. One important question addressed is the problem of evil, which challenges the existence of god by asking if god exists, why is there so much evil in the world. Philosophy of religion also examines the various definitions of god, such as the monotheistic, polytheistic, and pantheistic definitions.

Philosophy of Science

This area of philosophy focuses specifically on philosophical issues in science. It blends some epistemology and logic to conduct analyses. A philosopher specializing in philosophy of science may also further focus on one area of science, such as philosophy of physics or bioethics. Some major debates in this area are scientific realism, which claims that the products of science represent truth, and scientific instrumentalism, which asserts that we ought not to see scientific results as truth, but as useful descriptions of phenomena.

 Sub-specializations in Ethics

Ethical considerations have been considered in nearly every discipline: the hard sciences, the social sciences, and the professions. The most popular areas of interest are ethics in politics, law, medicine, and business. Another recent addition to this list is environmental ethics which seeks to understand human relations with the environment in an ethical context. Ethical analysis applied in this way assists in addressing controversial questions in the professions and public policy. Sometimes this type of activity is called applied philosophy.

Aesthetics

Aesthetics can be thought of loosely as philosophy of art, examining the nature of beauty, human judgment of sentiment, and reflections on art and culture. Aesthetics is not a new area of inquiry. It is unlike other sub-specializations on this list since it can also be traced back to ancient times. It has since then developed to include an extensive list of subjects such as defining and explaining art, aesthetic universals, the history of aesthetics, cross-cultural aesthetics, applied aesthetics, and aesthetic ethics.

 Philosophy of Language

This sub-specialization in philosophy deals with natural and artificial languages (mathematics and computer languages). It is traditionally thought of as a outgrowth of analytic philosophy. Important areas of inquiry in this field are how language related to reality, language and cognitive processes, examining the nature of meaning, and how language is used. Continental philosophers traditionally examined the topic from a social and political lens. Other topics in this field are the nature of translation and how language is learned.

Benefits & Application of Philosophical Study

There are many benefits of philosophical study. Some skills that are acquired by taking advantage of a philosophy education are general problem solving, communication skills, persuasive abilities, and writing skills. Ethics is also an important part of many professional studies. It is often included as part of professional development programs and professional degree requirements at universities. Philosophy is also widely used for analysis of research methodology in the social sciences, foundational issues in the hard sciences, and critique within public policy. Professional philosophers often work at universities but also serve on government ethics boards, serve as experts on issues, and as commentators on many issues. Some even answer questions live through an answering service.

Additional Resources

About Philosophy -Introductory article on philosophy.

Guide to Writing a Good Philosophy Paper-Guidelines for students writing a philosophy paper.

Internet Philosophy Encyclopedia -Popular Internet encyclopedia for general information.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy -Exellent resource for all levels of inquiry.

Animus -Online journal for philosophy.

Factasia Philosophy -Nice introduction to the more famous figures in the discipline.

Truth Awakens - Another general resource guide.

Philosophical Humor- Philosophical humor for those in the know.

Written by: 
Jacob C. Herman
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