Philosophy was the entire curriculum of the first institution of higher learning in the West: Plato’s Academy. The highest degree awarded in many fields of university study is a Ph.D. or Doctor of Philosophy.
To some people, the study of philosophy is somehow the paradigmatic or defining university study, and they feel that they would like to know more about it or even begin a serious engagement with it, but they are not sure how to get started.
As a study, philosophy seems so old, so Greek, so idly intellectual, or just too intimidating, so many would-be Socrates are reluctant to ask about it.
So, now that you have asked, in your heart anyway, how to get started in philosophy, I think I can point you in the right direction.
First, a little vocabulary. An important part of finding your way around a course of study, as it is in finding your way around a new country, is learning the language, so I’m going to give you four words plus one (“philosophy” itself) to get you started.
“Philosophy” comes from Greek, and it means something like “love of wisdom.” That’s all it really takes to be a philosopher; you have to love the truth. That is easy to say, but much more difficult to live.
The academic study of philosophy is sometimes thought of as consisting of four distinct area studies: metaphysics, ontology, epistemology, and axiology.
Metaphysics is the study of the basic characteristics of reality. That sounds simple (and maybe a little grandiose), but many professional philosophers will struggle when asked what metaphysics in fact is. They will say something like, “It is the sum of non-empirical inquiries into first principles and basic conditions that account for the universe such as it is.” And then they will remember that they have to be somewhere and run away.
A question such as “What is the mass of all of the matter in the universe?” would be taken up by an astronomer, who would describe and then use various measurements and calculations to arrive at an answer. But a question such as “Why is there a universe instead of just nothing?” would be taken up by a metaphysician, who would give a discursive answer rather than a quantitative one.
Ontology is the study of what kind of things there are in the universe and how they are. If someone were to say something like “There are horses, but there are no unicorns,” they would be making an ontological claim. To wit, that we can see and hear horses, so they exist, but we cannot see or hear unicorns except in stories, so they do not exist.
Now, a discussion might ensue from such claims, and people might express various degrees of agreement or its opposite, and many of their statements would be expressions concerning the ontological status of horses and unicorns.
Epistemology is the study of knowledge itself: what is it? how do we get it? It is an inquiry into what it means to say something like, “I know that Canada has a greater area than France.” Most of us would find that claim unobjectionable, but how is it different from, “I believe that Canada has a greater area than France”? Or, “I know that God loves me”?
Axiology is the study of value. What is the nature of value, and what things or kinds of things have it? When the subject involves human behavior, then we we might claim actions are right or wrong, good or evil. When the subject is a painting or a song, we might claim it is beautiful or ugly.
The inquiry into the value of human actions is ethics, and the inquiry into the value of art objects (and other things) is aesthetics. Okay, so I snuck in two extra words.
There are many books that introduce the study of philosophy by offering expanded versions of what is above or by giving short histories of Greece, or science, war, or exploration. Or they might start you out with the basics of argumentation and then move on to formal and informal logic.
I am a strong believer, however, that the best way to learn philosophy is to get into conversation with the great philosophers. Read what they wrote. It was written for people like us, not for gods, demigods, or even full professors (which did not exist until philosophy, the queen of sciences, was at about the same stage in her career as Queen Elizabeth II currently is in hers).
Here is where to start, and the really great part is the texts are all free online.
- Plato’s Apology: http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/apology.html
This is the story of Socrates’ career as a philosopher. It is a mighty defense of reason and integrity, and if you aren’t crying at the end or saying to yourself, “Where can I get more of this?” then philosophy is not your thing.
2. Plato’s Crito: http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/crito.html
This is Socrates’ argument for doing the right thing regardless of the cost to oneself.
If you find that Plato suits you, then you are a philosopher, and you can find all of his works online for free. Have at it. If you are not crazy about the Greekiness of Plato’s works, maybe you should come up to the modern era and try a little “I think; therefore, I am.”
3. Descartes’ Discourse on Method: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/59/59-h/59-h.htm
This is the start of modern philosophy. It was written in everyday French for the average reader and has no jargon or metaphysical folderol. It is a description of how to think correctly.
4. Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy: https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/descartes/1639/meditations.htm
This is a little more challenging, but it is one of the most influential pieces of writing ever. And, it is a short and beautifully rational and orderly piece for those of you who strive to have everything in its place.
My last recommendation was originally written in English by the Nobel Laureate Bertrand Russell. It is a short introduction to philosophical inquiry, again, without jargon or magic of any kind (but the magic effect of clear thinking). It is The Problems of Philosophy. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/5827/5827-h/5827-h.htm
That’s it for a start. I very much hope that you give these works a look. The world needs more lovers of truth. It needs more philosophers like you.