An Overview of Philosophy

All Things Understood - Fundamentally


Philosophy has proven notoriously difficult to define.

However, it may be usefully thought of as the discipline that searches for the most certain, consistent, and complete set of concepts concerning those matters of most fundamental concern. Thus, there is a philosophy of economics, but not a philosophy of accounting, because accounting is at once very concrete and remote from the more fundamental theoretical issues of economics. Similarly, there is a philosophy of aesthetics, but not a philosophy of painting in oils, because painting in oils is a very concrete discipline, and not one that is intrinsically conceptual. Nevertheless, many disciplines require philosophical attention when theoretical issues in their foundations arise.

A central issue in philosophy has long been this: how do we get at philosophical truth? There are several important approaches, but we'll touch upon only one here.

Our most basic concepts exist in a state of mutual implication, or relatedness, in a way that is rather analogous to a crossword puzzle. Suppose we are trying to solve a typical puzzle of that kind. If we try one word of three letters for, say, 1 across, then the three letters that make up that word must also be consistent with the words that solve 1, 2, and 3 down. In a similar way, the logical consequences of any proposed philosophical contention can be compared to, and weighed against, other implied contentions. If the implications of any given philosophical concept are too outlandish, it may well be that the contention is false, in much the same way that a proposed three-letter word for "1 across" must be abandoned if it cannot also be made to work for 1, 2, and 3 down.

Progress in Philosophy

Progress in philosophy is, inevitably, slower than in many other disciplines. Whereas, in our crossword puzzle example, it was a given that 1 across is a three-letter word, nothing can be accepted as given in that way in philosophy. It is precisely the likelihood of the proposed truth of any and all relevant concepts that philosophers try to assess. So the situation is rather analogous to trying to solve a crossword puzzle when the word for "1 across" might be 3, 4, 5 or more letters in length, instead of being known for certain in advance to be 3 letters in length. And, at the same time, the lengths of 1, 2, and 3 down (as well as, possibly, 4 and 5) are also of similarly uncertain length. Moreover, the concerns of philosophy often touch upon issues which we, as human beings, feel very strongly about, and therefore have great difficulty in thinking about objectively.

But, as with the analogy of the far more challenging sort of crossword puzzle, philosophical possibilities, while large, are nevertheless finite so that, over time, areas of greater philosophical clarity have slowly been achieved, while interesting new problems have also emerged.

Philosophy at Everything Progressive

We commend a study of the entire field of philosophy to all of our readers, and provide some resources that point the way to acquiring general philosophical literacy. However, there are also more specific connections between philosophy and other key concerns at Everything Progressive that receive special attention here.

Philosophy and Rationalism

Rationalism has a special place of honor in all genuinely democratic nations. Why? Because all democracies require a well-educated citizenry, and one fully equipped with the tools needed to reason from evidence to good conclusions. To put this another way, the citizens of democracies need a full set of tools for successful critical thinking. These tools are supplied by philosophy, and to a lesser extent by science and mathematics, the component disciplines that together comprise rationalism. In pseudo-democracies, such as that of the United States, media propaganda has become highly sophisticated, making possession of the tools of critical thinking even more than usually indispensable. And the philosophy of economics and the philosophy of politics are important in assisting the citizenry of a democracy in understanding the nature of a truly democratic society — and economy. At present the philosophy of politics, for example, is so poorly taught and so little understood that the average American doesn't truly understand such basic concepts as authoritarianism and democracy. And the philosophy of economics isn't taught at all, even to most economists (to whom that subject is typically presented as a hodge-podge of mathematical models). Philosophy students are usually left equally in the dark.
At a minimum, we would like to see a year-long class in critical thinking skills taught in every single high school, and completion of this class made a mandatory condition of graduation. A more advanced version of this class should be taught to every college freshman. Moreover, Public Television and Radio should offer related snippets or, better still, entire programs that have, as their aim, the dissemination of basic philosophical literacy.

Philosophy and Religion

At present, no subject, not even politics, is more vexed than religion. There are two main camps: secularists, who see in religion nothing but foolish supersition, and fundamentalists, who think that their scripture is the literal word of God, not to be challenged in even the smallest detail (even when, as is often the case, these details flatly contradict one another).

We believe both of these attitudes are barren and problematical. Interested readers may see the religion link above for additional details; but, briefly, rational religion exists within the bounds of reason — and exclusively within those bounds. This sort of fully rational religion has three parts: a philosophical theory of morality, a philosophical theory of life purpose, and an ideal of human character that explores how these sorts of theories fit together, and can be lived in light of, in actual human lives.

Philosophy and Medicine

Most doctors would never suspect the existence of a philosophy of medicine, but while medicine was once far more primitive as a science, it was also far more sophisticated as a profession in more normative terms. The basic question here concerns the aims of medicine: is it simply to restore some aspect of normal functioning that has gone awry? Or should the aims of medicine instead also encompass more ambitious goals, such as increasing human vitality and life span, and improving physical and mental performance?

We believe this more ambitious approach to the aims of medicine is critical, and yet currently sadly underdeveloped. For further details, see the related link concerning medicine.

Philosophy and Physics

Physics, as usually taught, focuses on such basic physical properties as mass and acceleration. While valuable, this focus nevertheless leaves more practically important issues out of the picture. Physics classes should always include material devoted to the generation of electricity and to an understanding of the concept of entropy (and in particular, the 2nd law of thermodynamics), which has immense consequences for other disciplines, such as economics and biology. Implications such as this can be, and have been, explored by philosophers, as well as by physicists (who are however, more properly, concerned with investigating the facts of the matter than with investigating the significance of related concepts).

Philosophy, Economics, and Politics

Economics and politics are properly understood as branches of the philosophical discipline of ethics. Some works dealing with these subjects, such as that of Mortimer Adler, can be found in our primary philosophy resource (link), and others will be added in the future. Philosophical conservatism, such as it is, will also eventually be more fully evaluated.

Introductions to Philosophy

Our primary philosophical resource (link) will include reviews of the best introductions to philosophy.

More Advanced Topics

Readers who find these introductions interesting may then want to go on to acquire a deeper understanding of philosophy itself. Mortimer J. Adler's book The 4 Dimensions of Philosophy provides, essentially, a philosophy of philosophy (or metaphilosophy).

The Editor / Everything Progressive