Philosophy: Nothing to It
You could take that either way, but for now take it as meaning a simpler topic to understand than most stuffy professors would like their final exams to be. Or not to be.
Five philosophy “areas” were set up by the Ancients. Ancients didn’t have either computers or flush toilets, but they were really smart, smart enough to think about basic matters such as you, and the universe, and everything that’s stuffed in between.
Voilà these five areas-branches-into which the ancient Ancients divided philosophy, partly because they said so, and partly because nobody else has outsmarted those old guys for two and one-half millennia. Thinking about those branches will actually make your life interesting, as well as preparing you to be an irritating snob. The Big Five:
1. Metaphysics. This branch of philosophy deals with things like the meaning of existence-what it means “to be,” the meaning of space/time/God/no-gods/first causes. Why are you (or anybody else) here? Are you here? Before you go yawning about what’s for breakfast tomorrow, consider a very famous chunk of metaphysics: mathematics. What “is” in mathematics, is, because mathematical truths simply are; unless they aren’t (see Logic below). A famous mathematician-philosopher supposedly joked that metaphysics was, “a good way to befuddle yourself, logically.” Of course, he himself wrote a huge, huge book on metaphysics. Fun so far, ‘eh?
2. Epistemology. A big Greek word. E?pis?tem?ol?o?gy is neither a religion, nor is it a complete sentence when spoken slowly. Rather, it’s more like: What do we know? What do we know about what we do know? How do we know about what we know? How do you know, etc.? You get the idea. This, along with metaphysics forms the foundation of all the rest of the branches, and gives us great power to pooh-pooh our politicians. René Descartes breezed past the metaphysics part with his famous, “I think, therefore I am.” Who can argue with that? And where did M. Descartes go from there to tell us how he knew what to do next (epistemology), now that he “thought-therefore-was”? It turns out that he did volumes on the subject, to the point where he should be crowned the Modern King of Epistemology, but luckily we know we haven’t time here for that. Instead, on to:
3. Aesthetics. Pronounced with that Æ vowel. The Greeks invented the word, they can bloody-well spell it how they like. This, no surprise, covers things like art, beauty, and judgments about all that. Why do we like what we like? Can any jumble of colors and sounds equal art and music (as a matter of fact, yes)? Is there a point to art? Does art interact with the viewer? What is good? Is beautiful, good? Can you harm someone who disagrees with your choice of art? Probably not, because you have:
4. Ethics. Which actions are right? Which actions are good? Does goodness equal rightness of actions? Does virtue flow from right actions? Are there degrees of rightness or goodness? How do we judge human actions, and relative to what? And which relatives? Whew! Political talk again, but should be done using:
5. Logic. You think you understand logic? Deep-down, you certainly do. What is valid, what is invalid? What can be proved, and cannot be proved? Testing syllogisms, which you could do at home, but it’s not worth it. You would think that the grouping called “mathematics” would be a rock-solid, metaphysically-yes-true thing. Yet it took Dr. Kurt Gödel in 1930 to show that not all truths of arithmetic can be proved (or disproved) by axiomatic logic. What the heck does that mean? Nothing that will affect balancing your checkbook or your municipal bond yield, or adding up your groceries before pushing into the checkout line, but crucial for computer systems depending on electronic true-false decisions. Which is pretty much all of them.
Summarizing with a mnemonic (Greeks, again) to keep these at the fingertip:
Those first letters form a sort-of word, MEÆL. This will help you think of a sloppy, stretched-out meal, such as lukewarm noodle and okra soup, as you rattle off those Flaming Five for your friends. And take heart-a father of philosophy, James (“The Sock”) Socrates, is said to have raised thousands of questions in his lifetime-and then turned around and answered none of them. You can be just as smart.
My sincere and grateful thanks to Anne Haycock Sansbury for spotting some important errors, importantly including the correct spelling of “judgment”; this was far more help than Socrates could have ever afforded me