A Primer to Philosophy

Nothing livens up your conversation more than a gentle dose of philosophy into it. Philosophic tools and techniques are therefore essential to intellectual conversation because philosophy is the study of everything: science, religion, values. (The highest degree one can earn is Ph.D. or Doctor of Philosophy in the subject of choice, from mathematics to international relations). The word philosophy itself comes from Greek words meaning "of wisdom." Broadly, philosophy involves theoretical or conceptual examination, often of questions that arise in other contexts or disciplines. It includes as sub-fields: logic, metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics, aesthetics, and philosophy of language. It means serious thought about the most basic questions that human beings can ponder: What is the true nature of the universe? What is human nature really like, and what are a human being's moral responsibilities? Of what is matter composed of and why? What are the qualities of truth, goodness, and beauty?

People often associate philosophy with deep thinkers who are lost in their own world, making little sense to others—this stereotype belief is a carry-over from our understanding (or lack of it) of the people who created philosophy as a discipline—the Greeks, to whom the most important questions were: What are we made up of? Is there God? Why should we follow moral values? These arguments continue to make excellent choices for intellectual discussion, especially if you can relate them to contemporary issue:

• Should societies tolerate such large differences between the rich and the poor? 
• Is democracy for everyone?
• Isn’t it safe to believe in God? 
• Can we judge morality of today’s teens? Is it fair to judge? 
• New fashions bring new aesthetic values; are we changing fundamental values here? 
• If form follows function, what function would be served by today’s deformed society? 
• Are humans a species out to annihilate themselves? 
• Is what is good for society also good for individuals? Who or what takes precedence?

You can create hundreds of such arguments. Basically, questioning any observation with aim to get to the most basics or the fundamental argument or a value is a philosophic argument. Young children with their incessant rhetoric of "whys" adduce some of the best philosophic arguments--after Socrates.

The Basics

There are five basic areas of philosophic argumentation: logic, ethics, esthetics, epistemology and metaphysics.

Logic tells you what is valid and what is not valid; should we engage in endless arguments that can not be resolved. Logic is something that makes sense. In everyday language we use the word logic in a very different manner—we call things that don’t makes sense, illogical. On the contrary, things that do not make obvious sense make excellent ground for logical discussion. If a person is ready to commit suicide, we label it an illogical act—whereas killing one self is perfectly logical because a man does have the right to take his or her life, whether it is correct or not (whether society or self), that is an entirely different question. However, it is illogical to argue about the existence of God, for we would know the answer because according to the logical deduction, we can not solve a question with another question, the organism can not examine itself. So, in your conversation use the word logic very carefully—choose word like unnecessary, improper, nonsensical, or such to describe actions and use illogic for only those arguments that are not valid according to test of validity (as shown later).

Ethics refers to actions that are right and result in good things. Here we run into serious problems. Is it proper ethics if everything ends well? Is it ethical to lie to save an innocent life? Is it right to steal from a thief? These types of questions arise because of the difficulty we face in defining what is the good end. Are we more concerned with the good end for society or the individual? Can the individual be wronged to do right to the society? From the morality of politicians to children stealing candies, you can create many arguments of contemporary importance.

Aesthetics is setting standards. According to the Greek philosophers there are absolute standards of beauty, art and taste. All things that met these absolute standards were called classic—or absolute. Many thinkers have questioned the value of absolute aesthetics. Is beauty in the eye of the beholder? Or, perhaps we like only those things that are classic. Since people have different likes and dislikes for things such as art, music and corporeal attributes, the argument of aesthetics has been bounced around heavily. Questioning the wisdom of Greek philosophers in setting absolute standards gets you rolling on a lengthy argument when examining a piece of artwork, a human body or even cultural customs. If you want to play safe, stick with the Greeks to the extent that if absolute standards result in something good, absolute standards are acceptable. For example, aesthetically appealing design provide comfortable living quarters. Here the absoluteness of keeping things simple does well.

Epistemology is questioning whether we really know anything or we just seem to think that we know something. Kind of going in circles but it is a fundamental question. Does a tree exist in the jungle when there is no one to see it? Bats do not have eyes; do we appear to bats as we appear to other humans; do bats think humans do not exist. Who is right, bats or humans? Who is to decide who is right and who is wrong? An interesting scientific argument that you can bring here relates to our ability to see things. We do not see certain wavelengths of light and thus to us things that fall within this range are not visible to us—or they do not exist. Similarly, our vision of the universe and our view of things around is limited by our ability to observe. Here you can take a sharp turn to how people do not see things coming to them; some do not see the writing on the wall, some fail to see the wall. Gobbling up a cheese puff from your guest’s plate and asking her to prove that the cheese puff existed would get you many curious comments—not necessarily very friendly, but worth a few arguments.

Metaphysics deals with how things work be it God, the Universe, time, space, soul, etc. Much of the metaphysics has now been handed over to real physics and in the hands of scientists like Stephen Hawking. Modern philosophy does not rattle these issues too much and leaves the design of the Universe and self to scientists.

Besides dividing philosophy into five areas, it can be divided into two types: speculative (looking at) and practical. Metaphysics, epistemology, and aesthetics as described above are speculative approaches to philosophy. Their conclusions can never be verified. Since logic guides thinking, it is also a tool of speculative philosophy. That leaves only ethics is the practical philosophy.