Philosophy Introduction

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Philosophy can be thought of either as a way of thinking or as a specific set of topics to be thought about. The academic discipline of philosophy is made up of the latter and hopefully uses the former. I am made up of the former and sometimes drift into the latter. (That’s right! I am in fact an abstract thought process and not an embodied human being. The truth is out!)

I’ve been a philosopher as long as I’ve been alive, but it wasn’t until about ten years ago that I recognized it as a distinct part of myself and gave myself the label. I just approach life philosophically. That is, I analyze things and think about their broader implications.

As far as the actual discipline of philosophy goes, my formal education has been meager. Most of the philosophy I’ve learned has come from my own sporadic reading, and I still consider myself pretty new to it. But my primary loyalties are definitely with analytic philosophy. I think of myself as being interested in continental subjects while taking an analytic approach. I am grateful to Michael Martin, even though we are diametrically opposed on some major issues, for his Atheism: A Philosophical Justification, which was my first real exposure to analytic philosophy and helped to kindle my love for it.

A common way to organize philosophy as a discipline is to divide it into three categories: epistemology (the theory of knowledge), metaphysics (the theory of reality), and axiology (the theory of value). Not everything in philosophy fits neatly into those categories, but they are an easy way to get a handle on the subject.

Epistemology

Epistemology has by far the most draw for me and I’m sure will accumulate the most material. I ask epistemic questions always and about everything. How do I know which politician is telling me the truth? How do I know which car is the best one to buy? What criteria should I use when evaluating a movie? How did the characters in this novel know the correct solution to their problem? How do I know who is right in an interpersonal conflict? These are the kinds of questions that invariably pop into my mind whenever I face a new situation.

In fact, epistemology is my philosophical starting point. Even though I know that any epistemological view will carry assumptions about metaphysics and axiology, I feel a need to answer questions about knowledge first and then use those answers to help me gain knowledge about existence and value. I have a hard time doing it the other way around.

I do want to deal with the more abstract questions of epistemology (can we trust our senses, and all that), but my main concerns are practical. I would like to come up with a generalized set of guidelines and procedures for investigating an issue from start to finish. They would cover things like the kinds of questions to ask about a topic, effective research methods, criteria for evaluating evidence and arguments, cognitive pitfalls to avoid, and the epistemic idiosyncracies of various subjects. For lack of a better term I’m calling this my “investigative process project.” I want to go beyond the basics of research, which plenty of others have written about already. I’m always discovering nuances as I observe people’s ways of dealing with issues, and this project is partly an effort to gather these observations in one place and to make them useful. It’s sort of a meta-project, since the process of investigation is involved any time anyone studies anything.

Metaphysics

About metaphysics I have mixed feelings. Some questions in this area fascinate me (What is the universe fundamentally made of? What is consciousness?). But I also like practicality and certainty, and metaphysical issues seem to teeter on the edge of complete irrelevance and unanswerability (I could probably say the same about some epistemological questions–but I won’t!). However, to be fair, some of the questions of metaphysics are somewhat relevant to everyday life (Are people basically good or evil?). Some of them are only really relevant to other philosophical or theological questions, but some of those other questions can be important (for example, the nature of time is relevant to certain arguments about the existence and nature of God). And some seem relevant to philosophical reasoning in general (such as the distinction between necessary and contingent truths). Certain issues, like the question of determinism, I’m not sure can even be resolved, apart from divine revelation, if even then. Still, they are all questions I will try to address seriously at some point. I acknowledge my massive ignorance on the subject.

Axiology

Axiology can be divided into ethics, aesthetics, and politics. Here my feelings are even more divided. I care intensely about the value dimension of life (as I do about epistemology), but I have a certain despair about its arguability (as with metaphysics). With aesthetics it doesn’t matter so much. Getting your aesthetics wrong doesn’t usually carry serious consequences unless you’re a professional artist.

With ethics, on the other hand, the issues are vitally important, both to me personally and to society in general. They pop up everywhere every day. Two problems haunt me when I consider interacting with other people about ethical issues. One is that I feel that people are very bad at discerning the real issues in most moral debates. The other is that even if they do understand them, agreement is impossible if the participants don’t share certain fundamental moral assumptions. So I tend to avoid moral debates because they’re just so complicated and frustrating and generally painful to me. Maybe I’ll be more willing to engage in them after I’ve fully investigated the issues on my own.

I have a whole section of this site devoted to the arts, and I used to call that section “Aesthetics,” even though I also had a subsection of my philosophy page with the same name. It was just another example of the contents of my mind trying to burst through the boxes I shove them into. My discussions of aesthetics in the philosophy section will be more general and theoretical, while the material in the arts section will be more practical.

For convenience, I’m going to consider the philosophy of life to be a branch of ethics. One of my overarching aims in life is to understand the world so that I can fit myself into it. This amounts to forming a philosophy of life. It involves questions like, what is the meaning of life? What are its appropriate goals? What activities are worth spending one’s time on? These questions rival epistemology for the amount of thought I pour into them, so the material will probably pile up in this section as well. This topic overlaps significantly with spirituality.

Politics can be thought of as ethics applied on a societal level. It can also be thought of as a social science, and I will dip into that aspect of the subject, but I’d rather have a single place to put it all, and I’m more a philosopher than a social scientist. It may be a while before I write much in this section. My interests within the subject are rather vague, and so is my knowledge of it.

Topics on the national and international levels appeal to me, whereas local politics tends to leave me yawning. I think it’s because national and international politics are more dramatic and seem to more directly reflect the fundamental issues in political philosophy. As for my basic position, I was raised a conservative, and while I still am fairly conservative, I've been slowly drifting left over the past few years. However, my feelings about politics are a lot like my feelings about ethics, only less intense. The issues are important, but the answers are hard to nail down.

Despite the tension and frustration it sometimes puts me through, I like philosophy. It is the best way I have for dealing with life. I used to think I might make it my career, but now I’m headed for computer science. Whatever I end up doing, I will do it using philosophy’s tools.