• Book Title:
 The Philosophy Book Big Ideas Simply Explained
  • Book Author:
Marcus WeeksPeter J. KingWill Buckingham
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24 Mb
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Philosophy is not just the preserve of brilliant but eccentric thinkers that it is popularly supposed to be. It is what everyone does when they’re not busy dealing with their everyday business and get a chance simply to wonder what life and the universe are all about. We human beings are naturally inquisitive creatures, and can’t help wondering about the world around us and our place in it. We’re also equipped with a powerful intellectual capability, which allows us to reason as well as just wonder. Although we may not realize it, whenever we reason, we’re thinking philosophically.

Philosophy is not so much about coming up with the answers to fundamental questions as it is about the process of trying to find these answers, using reasoning rather than accepting without question conventional views or traditional authority. The very first philosophers, in ancient Greece and China, were thinkers who were not satisfied with the established explanations provided by religion and custom, and sought answers which had rational justifications.

And, just as we might share our views with friends and colleagues, they discussed their ideas with one another, and even set up “schools” to teach not just the conclusions they had come to, but the way they had come to them. They encouraged their students to disagree and criticize ideas as a means of refining them and coming up with new and different ones.

A popular misconception is that of the solitary philosopher arriving at his conclusions in isolation, but this is actually seldom the case. New ideas emerge through discussion and the examination, analysis, and criticism of other people’s ideas.

Debate and dialogue

 The archetypical philosopher in this respect was Socrates. He didn’t leave any writings, or even any big ideas as the conclusions of his thinking. Indeed, he prided himself on being the wisest of men because he knew he didn’t know anything. His legacy lay in the tradition he established of debate and discussion, of questioning the assumptions of other people to gain deeper understanding and elicit fundamental truths.

The writings of Socrates’ pupil, Plato, are almost invariably in the form of dialogues, with Socrates as a major character. Many later philosophers also adopted the device of dialogues to present their ideas, giving arguments and counterarguments rather than a simple statement of their reasoning and conclusions. The philosopher who presents his ideas to the world is liable to be met with comments beginning “Yes, but …” or “What if …” rather than wholehearted acceptance. In fact, philosophers have fiercely disagreed with one another about almost every aspect of philosophy.

Plato and his pupil Aristotle, for example, held diametrically opposed views on fundamental philosophical questions, and their different approaches have divided opinions among philosophers ever since. This has, in turn, provoked more discussion and prompted yet more fresh ideas. But how can it be that these philosophical questions are still being discussed and debated? Why haven’t thinkers come up with definitive answers? What are these “fundamental questions” that philosophers through the ages have wrestled with?


 When the first true philosophers appeared in ancient Greece some 2,500 years ago, it was the world around them that inspired their sense of wonder. They saw the Earth and all the different forms of life inhabiting it; the sun, moon, planets, and stars; and natural phenomena such as the weather, earthquakes, and eclipses. They sought explanations for all these things—not the traditional myths and legends about the gods, but something that would satisfy their curiosity and their intellect.

The first question that occupied these early philosophers was “What is the universe made of?”, which was soon expanded to become the wider question of “What is the nature of whatever it is that exists?” This is the branch of philosophy we now call metaphysics. Although much of the original question has since been explained by modern science, related questions of metaphysics such as “Why is there something rather than nothing?” are not so simply answered.

Because we, too, exist as a part of the universe, metaphysics also considers the nature of human existence and what it means to be a conscious being. How do we perceive the world around us, and do things exist independently of our perception? What is the relationship between our mind and body, and is there such a thing as an immortal soul? The area of metaphysics concerned with questions of existence, ontology, is a huge one and forms the basis for much of Western philosophy.

Once philosophers had started to put received wisdom to the test of rational examination, another fundamental question became obvious: “How can we know?” The study of the nature and limits of knowledge forms a second main branch of philosophy, epistemology. At its heart is the question of how we acquire knowledge, how we come to know what we know; is some (or even all) knowledge innate, or do we learn everything from experience? Can we know something from reasoning alone?

These questions are vital to philosophical thinking, as we need to be able to rely on our knowledge in order to reason correctly. We also need to determine the scope and limits of our knowledge. Otherwise we cannot be sure that we actually do know what we think we know, and haven’t somehow been “tricked” into believing it by our senses.


 Reasoning relies on establishing the truth of statements, which can then be used to build up a train of thought leading to a conclusion. This might seem obvious to us now, but the idea of constructing a rational argument distinguished philosophy from the superstitious and religious explanations that had existed before the first philosophers. These thinkers had to devise a way of ensuring their ideas had validity. ❯❯

Superstition sets thewhole world in flames;

philosophy quenches them.


Wonder is very much the

affection of a philosopher;

for there is no other

beginning of philosophy

than this.


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