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What is philosophy and why do we need it?

A brief introduction to making sense of just about everything.

Ah, philosophy. The systematized inquiry into the fundamental questions of existence, knowledge, values and mind. Or, if you like, the if, but, what and why of the what, where and who. I know right, but that is literally what it is, a study of life - and death’s - biggest questions. Today’s philosophers are those weirdos and outsiders that grace libraries with their awkward presence (myself included) and question just about everything, and their practices haven’t changed much in thousands of years (although Diogenes wins the prize for best weirdo, but he’d refuse a material prize of course).

Until a man named Socrates came on the scene of Ancient Greece in the 5th century BCE, not much is known about philosophy apart from the odd Thales or Pythagoras, and all stuffy academics would agree when I say philosophy began with Socrates. It was during this time that philosophy covered just about everything, and many different schools of thought had different ideas about different things. The Stoics believed in living in accordance to nature, the Cynics believed in a life without possessions, and the Epicureans believed in a life without pain and fear. Everything was talked about and debated, and to understand just how broad this scope was, what our ancient philosophers called philosophy is now understood by us as things like astronomy, physics, social sciences and linguistics.

As we move on through the pages of history, and Greek thinking falls out of fashion and back in again (what we like to call the Dark Ages and then the Renaissance) we eventually arrive in the early modern period. Here, we can distinguish academic philosophy into four key areas; metaphysics, epistemology, ethics and logic.1 Here’s your break-down;

Metaphysics: The study of nature, what exists and in what manner it is ordered. There’s your what.

Epistemology: The study of knowledge, where it comes from and how we get it. There’s your how.

Ethics: The study of what we ought to do, should and shouldn’t do. Here’s your what.

Logic: The study of the reasoning, nature and structure of arguments. There are your ifs and buts.

This was a time when philosophers were moving away from Church and religion, and trying to understand the world in a secular way – also known as the Enlightenment. In my opinion, the person who led this charge was none other than David Hume. Hume, born in Edinburgh in 1711, was among the most important philosophers of the enlightenment, and one of the writers that gave Edinburgh its reputation as a ‘City of Letters’. He rejected religion and believed that rational argument could not lead anyone to a deity – a belief that cost him his candidacy at university jobs.

The 18th century and the enlightenment formed the foundations for what was to become modern philosophy. Among these modern philosophers, we can count Nietzsche, who, as a critic of religion and Christianity, has perhaps contributed more to modern intellectual history than any other figure. March through the decades and we visit the utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill, the ideas of Karl Marx. By the late 19th century, we finally see some women on the scene as the fight to extend the right to vote begins on the back of the ideas of Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women.

As tensions, fascism and communism rise in the early 20th century, political philosophers pitch their ideas against each other over the Iron Curtain. Russian-American writer Ayn Rand proposes that selfishness is a virtue, and Michael Oakeshott believes we should all practice ‘the art of the possible’.

Philosophy often helps us to explain the incomprehensible, and allows us to give names to the things we see, feel and experience. Philosophy, in and of itself, is just as interesting as the questions it attempts to answer, as it not only solves problems but asks us how we got the solution. We need it because we crave understanding – and some of us just like libraries.

We need philosophy, and we are here to help you get it. History & Philosophy is a new department here at Madex Economics that aims to bring your understanding of the world and its history to life. We will be exploring people, places, ideas and beliefs that have shaped our understanding of our existence, and we invite you to join us – even if you’re not an awkward library-addict.


Edited and Reviewed by Tanish Bagga.


References/ Further Reading:

Rasmussen, D.C. (2019) The Infidel and the professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the friendship that shaped modern thought. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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