I have been pondering the question of what philosophy is and what it aims to achieve. One idea that came to mind is that philosophy might consist in defining the being of each thing. In other words, philosophy might be concerned with understanding the essence or nature of things, and providing definitions or explanations of what they are. Is this an accurate understanding of what philosophy is, or is there more to it than this?

  • Maybe we may say that philosophy is the rational discussion of "What is...?" questions: truth, good, beauty, justice, ... but this does not means that we can achieve in every case a definition (grasp the essence). See e.g. Duncan Pritchard (editor), What is this thing called Philosophy? (Routledge, 2015). Obviously, this point of view reflects what we may call "mainstream" Western philosophical traditions, since Socrates. Aug 23, 2023 at 12:48

4 Answers 4


No. There is a subdiscipline in philosophy called ontology, which deals with the nature of being. But "defining the being of each thing" already presupposes a series of things that are challenged by some philosphers and philosophies.

You might like this answer, which relates to your topic: (Why) is this negative outlook on the concept of philosophy misguided?

  • What about : philosophy consists in knowing what a thing is through reason ?
    – Olandelie
    Aug 23, 2023 at 12:36
  • when I talk about THINGS, I mean more like concepts
    – Olandelie
    Aug 23, 2023 at 12:37
  • @Olandelie: No, doesn't work either. I mean for physical objects that'd just be science. Then in philosophy, what 'things' are fundamental is under the topic of 'simples' en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simple_(philosophy) Defining philosophy, & demarcating other disciplines, is a core philosophical topic - which is to say, not easily settled & subject to a myriad of views. I argue here that Socrates defined philosophy through his actions, in contradistinction to previous wisdom-traditions: philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/88852/…
    – CriglCragl
    Aug 23, 2023 at 16:01

What exactly philosophy is is a matter of philosophical contention. I recommend An Introduction to Metaphilosophy (GB) for an overview of various claims about what philosophy is. There's not always agreement about what philosophy is or what it does, and a surprising number of scientific intellectuals often display an general ignorance of the topic.

While it's tough to sum up the work above in a post, we can take a look at what amounts to broad consensus and define philosophy tentatively by it's subdisciplines. Philosophers, particularly living professional ones, often specialize in an area such as epistemology or logic, or generally several interrelated disciplines such as philosophy of mind and language. Some ideas important to philosophy are:

  1. Metaphysics: from WP:

Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that studies the fundamental nature of reality. This includes the first principles of: being or existence, identity, change, space and time, cause and effect, necessity, actuality, and possibility.

  1. Epistemology: from WP:

Epistemology (/ɪˌpɪstəˈmɒlədʒi/ (listen); from Ancient Greek ἐπιστήμη (epistḗmē) 'knowledge', and -logy) is the branch of philosophy concerned with knowledge, and is considered a major subfield of philosophy, along with other major subfields such as ethics, logic, and metaphysics. Epistemologists study the nature, origin, and scope of knowledge, epistemic justification, the rationality of belief, and various related issues.

  1. Ontology: from WP:

In metaphysics, ontology is the philosophical study of being, as well as related concepts such as existence, becoming, and reality... Ontology addresses questions like how entities are grouped into categories and which of these entities exist on the most fundamental level. Ontologists often try to determine what the categories or highest kinds are and how they form a system of categories that encompasses the classification of all entities. Commonly proposed categories include substances, properties, relations, states of affairs, and events.

  1. Axiology: from WP:

Axiology (from Greek ἀξία, axia: "value, worth"; and -λογία, -logia: "study of") is the philosophical study of value. It includes questions about the nature and classification of values and about what kinds of things have value. It is intimately connected with various other philosophical fields that crucially depend on the notion of value, like ethics, aesthetics or philosophy of religion. It is also closely related to value theory and meta-ethics. The term was first used by Eduard von Hartmann in 1887 and by Paul Lapie in 1902.

  1. Aesthetics: from WP:

Aesthetics (also esthetics) is the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of beauty and the nature of taste; and functions as the philosophy of art. Aesthetics examines the philosophy of aesthetic value, which is determined by critical judgements of artistic taste; thus, the function of aesthetics is the "critical reflection on art, culture and nature"

  1. Ethics: from WP:

Ethics or moral philosophy is a branch of philosophy that "involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behavior". The field of ethics, along with aesthetics, concerns matters of value; these fields comprise the branch of philosophy called axiology.

  1. Logic: from WP:

Logic is the study of correct reasoning. It includes both formal and informal logic. Formal logic is the science of deductively valid inferences or logical truths. It studies how conclusions follow from premises due to the structure of arguments alone, independent of their topic and content. Informal logic is associated with informal fallacies, critical thinking, and argumentation theory.

  1. Metaphilosophy: from WP:

Metaphilosophy, sometimes called the philosophy of philosophy, is "the investigation of the nature of philosophy".... Its subject matter includes the aims of philosophy, the boundaries of philosophy, and its methods.

  • A big problem of this list is the lack of science, which IS part of philosophy. I prefer the Aristotelian definition of philosophy that I learned in school, which covers simply two domains: 1-Physika (science), 2-Meta ta physika (Metaphysics, which includes moreover your points 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7).
    – RodolfoAP
    Aug 23, 2023 at 15:04
  • @RodolfoAP I'm proudly a purveyor of scientism. Positivism is the most important part of contemporary philosophical thinking, to be sure. But modern science and philosophy of science are not necessary elements of philosophy strictly speaking, because they are nothing more than a particular flavor of epistemology. Any attempt to stuff philosophy into a framework of science is a poorly conceived project and betrays a lack of understanding of the relationship between metaphysics and philosophy of science.
    – J D
    Aug 23, 2023 at 15:09
  • There are multiple arguments. 1. Historically, science was part of Philosophy. 2. Philosophy deals with all knowledge, not just metaphysical knowledge (logical, ontological, etc.). 3. Philosophy seeks truth, and science (part of Philosophy), seeks empirical truth (part of truth). 4. Seems you don't know the classical "Philosophy is the mother of all sciences" (which is not my poorly conceived project)... Evidently, it is easy to create opinionated taxonomies.
    – RodolfoAP
    Aug 23, 2023 at 15:58
  • And, according to your own argument, if science is "nothing more than a particular flavor of epistemology", then it is part of your own list, ergo science is part of Philosophy. However, science being epistemology (or part of it) is wrong, science studies experience, epistemology studies cognition.
    – RodolfoAP
    Aug 23, 2023 at 16:06
  • Hmm. I'd say Scientism involves a category error, & exactly not being a good scientist. I'd describe philosophy as for active development of new techniques, so science run on established rails isn't philosophy, but quantum-gravity where we know science fails requires a deep investigation of first principles, definitions, metaphysical grounding etc. When we have established self-enquiry or self-development, it's psychology or CBT or whatever, but to aspire to be wise or to live well needs tools of philosophy actively applied to our own lives, where they have not been.
    – CriglCragl
    Aug 23, 2023 at 16:11

In general, philosophy is a sustained, systematic inquiry into an area of understanding that is currently outside the realm of common, widely accepted, confirmed knowledge and beliefs. The philosopher is an explorer at the edges of human thought.

As they pass into the mainstream, things that start as philosophies can become sciences, religions, aesthetics, methods, or any of the other things that are learned by transmission and not by inspiration.

  • The particular branch of philosophy concerned with the existence and nature of things is (as mentioned by @CriglCragl) called ontology.

  • The branch of philosophy that deals with applied reasoning is called "logic" and is generally considered to have passed over into the realm of science.

  • A part of philosophy is 'the good life', how to live well. I don't think that is outside of current knowledge. But it is an art, that requires wisdom, & to Γνῶθι σαυτόν (know thyself)
    – CriglCragl
    Aug 23, 2023 at 16:04
  • 1
    @CriglCragl - so you think there's a common, accepted, confirmed definition of the "good life" and how to live it? Aug 23, 2023 at 16:52
  • Personalising it involves applying the tools. But the tools are established (although of course new philosophies create new ones). Stoicism or Existentialism can be applied in one's own life, without regarding domains of new knowledge.
    – CriglCragl
    Aug 23, 2023 at 16:58
  • Maybe I need to clarify to add language such as "uncontroversial." There's plenty of theories of the "good life" but I'd be hard pressed to find widespread agreement. Aug 23, 2023 at 17:15

No, your definition is too narrow and would apply only to a small sub-set of what is considered to be philosophy. I suggest you search online for a list of topics that fall within the scope of philosophy, and you will readily see how few of them can be satisfactorily summed up by your suggested definition.

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