November 21 is World Philosophy Day* so we’re taking a quick look at what philosophy is all about and introducing you to some of the great philosophers.
Getting to grips with exactly what ‘philosophy’ means is about as tricky as some of the questions the discipline itself tries to answer. Philosophy, literally meaning ‘the love of wisdom’, is all about knowledge, learning and scholarship. Everyone who has achieved a PhD is officially a Doctor of Philosophy, but that doesn’t necessarily make them philosophers according to the common use of the word. The Oxford English Dictionary’s etymology of the word ‘philosophy’ includes the ‘love of truth and virtuous living’, ‘the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence, and the basics and limits of human understanding’ as well as ‘natural science’ and ‘alchemy’.
Philosophers are thinkers, intellectual fact-finders and theorists. They try to answer some of the fundamental questions about human existence, questions such as ‘Who am I?’, ‘Why am I here?’, ‘Do humans really have free will?’, ‘Does God exist?’, ‘Is what I see and experience real?’
‘I think therefore I am’, is a philosophical conclusion from René Descartes, who in order to work out what he really, really did know for sure, started by doubting everything. He knew that he definitely could and did think (what he thought about being irrelevant), and so concluded that if he could think, he must exist.
The concepts philosophy deals with are as old as the human race and the discipline of exploring them has given rise to science and logic with their many varied branches, including metaphysics and computing.
Speaking of branches, one philosophical question I’m sure you’ll all have debated at length was set by Bishop George Berkeley in 1710 – if a tree falls in a forest and no-one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? This isn’t a trick question, it’s all about unobserved reality – how can we be absolutely sure that something exists if we cannot perceive it ourselves?
If you’d like more philosophical riddles, check out this blog, which poses and discusses the questions: Should we kill healthy people for their organs? Are you the same person who started reading this article? Is that really a computer screen in front of you? Did you really choose to read this article?
Does your head hurt yet? If it does, try this slightly less intensive brain workout. Here are a dozen great philosophers that you can find in Europeana. How many can you name? Answers below!
From top to bottom, left to right, these great philosophers are: Aristotle, Confucius, Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, St Thomas Aquinas, John Locke, Avicenna, Plato, Socrates, Epicurus, Zeno of Elea.
* World Philosophy Day is celebrated every third Thursday of November.