(c) Ian Martindale (www.ianmartindale.co.uk)

What is Philosophy?

Philosophy is more an activity than a body of knowledge. Philosophers seek an understanding of ourselves, the world in which we live, and the relationship between the two.

This may mean critically examining the ideas of scientists, writers, theologians, historians and thinkers of all kinds, and this can throw up all kinds of puzzles. For example, if we believe that all natural events are strictly governed by laws of nature, how can we have free will? And if we don't have free will, in what sense are we responsible for our actions …?

We assume that there are right and wrong (or better and worse) answers to this kind of question – but we can’t find them out by scientific experiment or mystical intuition! So the method philosophers use to assess possible answers and to try to arrive at the truth is rational argument.

Becoming a Philosopher

Since philosophy is an activity, studying philosophy is not like studying other subjects. Philosophers concentrate on identifying assumptions, constructing arguments and assessing their strength – often by conducting so-called 'thought experiments'.  For example:

  • What would you do if you were faced with a particular moral dilemma?
  • If time travel were possible, could you undo the past?
  • If your brain were transplanted into someone else's body, would the result be you or them?
  • If you spoke a different language, would your thoughts be different?

Philosophy requires - and develops - skills in reasoning, imagination and precise communication. Studying philosophy should enable you to assess your own ideas more rigorously, and to understand better why other people’s ideas may differ.