Philosophy: Definition & Purpose

Philosophy: Definition & Purpose
Coming up next: The Branches of Philosophy

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  • 0:02 Deep in Thought
  • 0:41 What is Philosophy?
  • 2:56 Doing Philosophy
  • 4:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

In this lesson, explore one definition of philosophy and why it is hard to pin down in simple terms. Learn what it means to go beyond having a philosophy to 'doing philosophy.'

Deep in Thought

Janice is deeply engaged in reading from her philosophy textbook. Her roommate, Paula, watches her focusing and finally asks her, ''What is it you're learning, when you read about philosophy?''

Janice is tongue-tied. She tries to explain it simply and finds that it's not easy to summarize. But she knows if she thinks through it, she'll find a way to describe what she's learning and why it's important to her.

This lesson describes what philosophy is and why we study the subject. You'll come away with a better sense of what it means for someone to do philosophy and how each of us has an opportunity for this.

What is Philosophy?

Janice tells Paula that not everyone agrees on one individual definition of what it means to study philosophy, but she'll do her best to give a clear answer. ''Philosophy is the study of how we understand our existence and how we come to know what is real, good, and true. It's an academic discipline and so has branches that focus on specific areas. Philosophy aims to discuss questions such as: 'What is real?,' 'What is truth?,' and even 'What is beautiful?' And how do we come to know what is real, true, good, and beautiful?''

Paula looks at Janice and reacts, ''Say what? You've got to give me a better example of what you mean.''

Janice thinks for a moment, then says to Paula, ''How do you know what the right thing is to do next in your life today?''

Paula thinks about this and says, ''I weigh out all the options and decide what's best.''

Janice says, ''How do you know what fits into the category of Best?''

Paula says, ''I think about what will bring me happiness.''

''And what if what you want brings unhappiness to others, like eating your roommate's ham sandwich?''

Paula laughs and then pauses. That's a tougher question. She says, ''I would have to weigh my needs with those of others. I would not eat your ham sandwich because it matters to me that you're happy, too. And I wouldn't want you to eat my sandwich, either. It could get more complicated than just doing what I want, I guess.''

Janice explains that the complications of determining the right thing to do make up one branch of philosophy known as ethics. In short, ethics focuses on whether actions are praiseworthy or not.

Philosophy overall aims to question assumptions we make about our lives and really dig in to the details of why we think what we think and how we choose to act. It can get complicated at times, but it can also help a person to see more clearly that there are other ways of looking at the world than is our habit. Other branches deal with different types of questions. The topic of the different branches of philosophy will be covered in another lesson.

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