1. According to Wikipedia, science can be divided into empirical science (such as natural science and social science) and formal science (such as mathematics, logic, statistics). I was wondering if philosophy belongs to empirical science or formal science?

    I think it belongs to the formal science, because I think scientific method is what characterize empirical science and philosophy lacks it.

    However philosophy is listed as an area of social science, and social science belongs to empirical science. So it looks like philosophy belongs to empirical science?

  2. If philosophy belongs to neither, what does it belong to?

    I have read a previous post regarding if philosophy belongs to science or science belongs to philosophy, but the discussion there seems not clarify many things.

  3. Note that in my questions above, by philosophy, I am considering not its obsolete ancient meaning, but its contemporary one

    Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems, such as those connected with existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. 1 It is distinguished from other ways of addressing such problems by its critical, generally systematic approach and its reliance on rational argument.

    I also welcome alternative and maybe equivalent definition of philosophy that helps to distinct itself from non-philosophy.

Thanks and regards!

  • Possible duplicate? philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/41/what-is-philosophy
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Jun 19, 2011 at 17:30
  • 2
    Only a small part. The rest is not.
    – Tim
    Commented Jun 19, 2011 at 17:46
  • 1
    You might also find this answer to a similar question helpful (particulary points 1 and 2).
    – DBK
    Commented Mar 9, 2012 at 19:43
  • One of the most important critics of the view that philosophy is a science is Wittgenstein. He argued that philosophy makes no discoveries but can improve understanding by making clear things which are already known but might have been confused (especially by philosophers!). He also famously argued that logic is not a science, but that the propositions of logic are tautologies. Wittgenstein's arguments strongly challenge that supposition that philosophy and logic are scientific in nature.
    – adrianos
    Commented Apr 26, 2012 at 12:27
  • Philosophy is the general heuristic of each science mainly during the paradigm shifts
    – schizyfos
    Commented Sep 26, 2014 at 19:34

11 Answers 11


Philosophy isn't a homogeneous discipline: there are philosophers who understood their work as empiricism, others who take it to be something pure and formal; some even argue that philosophy is both -- for instance, Deleuze sometimes describes his position as "transcendental empiricism."

Given these differences in approach, sometimes even among thinkers who could be described as friendly, and whose work could be described as working through related questions, it is difficult to meaningfully answer this question as posed. Any philosopher worthy of the name will have serious doubts and pointed questions for those claiming the truth can be found only empirically, or only formally.


One thing to keep in mind is that modern philosophy can be roughly divided into two camps: analytic philosophy and continental philosophy.

Analytic philosophy was started by the works of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Gottlob Frege at the beginning of the twentieth century and was a movement to apply the formalisms of science to the problems of philosophy. Given that Frege is also the father of modern mathematical logic, it might be safe to assume that analytic philosophy is a formal science.

Continental philosophy is best defined as everything else that did not become analytic philosophy. They can be roughly characterized by an attempt to discover meaning through the human experience, and thus continental philosophy tends to be more culturally centered. This is why some would say philosophy has a social science element, however continental philosophers don't always limit themselves to using the scientific method, so it would not be appropriate to label continental philosophy as an empirical science.

  • 2
    This answer is true enough, and the divide is certainly one worth observing with respect to this question. But those continental philosophers just don't like to keep anything simple. In fact, Wittgenstein is highly influential to the continental tradition as well, and there is a lot of similarities between Wittgenstein's work and that of many members of the post-analytic school (e.g., Derrida). Commented May 2, 2012 at 8:14
  • Also, Russell is probably the best figure to point to as the "start of analytic philosophy". Minor addendum, though, and certainly not crucial to your points.
    – Dennis
    Commented Apr 5, 2013 at 3:38

First, taking your definition of philosophy

Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems, such as those connected with existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. 1 > It is distinguished from other ways of addressing such problems by its critical, generally systematic approach and its reliance on rational argument.

The definition of Formal Science

The formal sciences are the branches of knowledge that are concerned with formal systems, such as logic, mathematics, theoretical computer science, information theory, systems theory, decision theory, statistics, and some aspects of linguistics.

and the definition of 'Empirical'

The word empirical denotes information gained by means of observation or experiments.[1] Empirical data is data produced by an experiment or observation.

It would be my opinion that philosophy is a Formal Science, due to its focus on logic, which consists of formal language and a set of inferred rules (as per the definition of formal system included in the definition of Formal Science).

  • Thanks! Do you feel that philosophy is not formal enough to be qualified as formal science?
    – Tim
    Commented Jun 19, 2011 at 18:34
  • 2
    @Tim I feel philosophy is formal enough to be counted as a formal science. Commented Jun 19, 2011 at 18:44
  • @EdwardBlack In my experience large parts of philosophy are significantly less formal than any part of physics, which is not a formal science. So if there is any sense of actual division here, your feeling does not accord with the math.
    – user9166
    Commented Oct 14, 2014 at 15:38

I think philosophy bridges various sciences. So it ends up being a bit of both.

But I would think it more lives in the social sciences, meaning it is an empirical science.

just like other empirical sciences make a lot of use of logic / mathematics / proof, they take a very formal science approach to pose reasoning about real things.

I think philosophy is pretty much the same. It has a lot of formal science to justify and support ideas about life.


I would argue along with @Geremia that the OP's framing is reversed. Science is part of philosophy, philosophy is not an area of science. So it is impossible to classify it among the branches of science. But I would give a less classical and authoritarian reason for believing so.

Kuhn would say that sciences arise out of philosophy when they become paradigmatically embedded. They accept a certain philosophical basis and no longer consider it progressive to think foundationally. Even large shifts in foundations, such as the contributions of Einstein to physics, can be borne without abandoning a standard for progress judged from a single philosophical framework.

One can interpret challenges like that of Feyerabend as attempts not to abolish paradigms, but to require paradigms with equally strong philosophical roots to be allowed to run in parallel over the same domain of discourse. This emphasizes that each science's system does in fact have philosophical roots.

We see this relationship played out clearly when, occasionally, the foundations of a science truly break, like those of mathematics did around basic conflicts between negation and universality, and like physics did around finding an interpretation of quantum behavior. In those cases, those sciences turn to the surrounding areas of philosophy (including theology) in which they are embedded, for ideas on which to base new foundations.

  • This is pretty much exactly how it was once explained to me. And I never found anything to contradict this in any way.
    – Einer
    Commented Oct 13, 2014 at 17:35

Philosophy is not a science but includes the Philosophy of Science. The Philosophy of Science is an attempt to deal with epidemiological problem of what is truth and true representations of reality. The original objective of discovering natural laws was its primary objective with the secondary objective being to find the best theory known given our current understanding. The scientific process by which we formulate our objective is with the use of formal science and we then verify it with the use of empirical science. The problem is mis-specified and reflects a common misunderstanding in philosophy.


Philosophy is not a science. Every philosophical theory is impossible to prove and is open to interpretation. Some philosophers might consider their work empirical and some formal (philosophy evades categorization), but to refer to any kind of philosophy as a science is wrong. Science suggests experimentation and proof, which does not exist in any philosophical dilemma as philosophy studies ideas and ideas cannot be proven or tested, only debated. One might provide a counter-argument and say that many objects at question in philosophy can be tested. For example, they might say that the subject of moral philosophy can be tested in that you could put two people on an isolated island and observe their behaviors. This is only a situation, the philosophy itself arises when we ask whether or not what those individuals did was moral. Morality can not be tested as it is up to the individual to determine their beliefs on what is or is not moral. To call philosophy a social science is a misnomer. Social science studies human behavior and human behavioral patterns, not whether the ramifications of human behavior is moral.

  • 2
    First off, welcome to philosophy.se. There's a lot of terms getting thrown about in your answer without definitions. (1) Your answer would be much clearer if you defined science and philosophy at the outset. Sure, you do later explain that "Science suggests experimentation and proof" but you also tell us that this does not exist for philosophy which "studies ideas and ideas cannot be proven or tested." But this is far from the accepted definition of philosophy. (2) Your example about moral philosophy should be a new paragraph -- as should your rejection of philosophy as social science.
    – virmaior
    Commented Oct 9, 2014 at 4:37
  • I tend to agree with you, but something that could clear up in your argument: many scientists can't run lab experiments, so they do observational experiments. Similarly, philosophers do observational experiments to draw conclusions. How are these different? Commented Sep 29, 2015 at 20:44

The question of the division of the sciences has a long history.

Aristotle, Boethius (d. ca. 525 A.D.), et al. divided philosophy as follows (cf. St. Thomas Aquinas's Division & Methods of the Sciences):

    Speculative Sciences
        Natural Sciences
    Practical Sciences

Christian von Wolff (1679-1754), whom Kant called "the greatest of all dogmatic philosophers," identified metaphysics with philosophy itself, placing it first in his division of the sciences:

PHILOSOPHY (Metaphysics)
    General Metaphysics (Ontology)
    Special Metaphysics
        Metaphysics of Bodies
        Metaphysics of Spirits
            of Created Spirits
            of Uncreated Spirits

Also, sophistry is non-philosophy.


Philosophy, in the classical sense, attempts to provide metanarratives to explain the ideas behind empirical science - such as metaphysics, for instance - by relying on formal science, and by explaining the derivation of logic from first principles, and the application of logic in the sciences. In the post-modern sense, however, philosophy takes much more of an epistemological turn, questioning the origin and credibility of empirical and formal knowledge. Postmodern philosophers such as Lyotard, Derrida, and Baudrillard argue that we be more skeptical of the origins of empirical knowledge, since knowledge can so often come from those in power who have questionable motives - for instance, the scientific notion of racism was considered an empirical fact in the 1700s, and it was only until much later that the previously unquestionable fact had begun to be doubted. In addition, other postmodern philosophers such as Feyerabend go after formal knowledge, questioning whether methodical, logical inquiry can truly provide truth; in the words of novelist Thomas Pynchon, "You can put together clues, develop a thesis, or several…You can waste your life that way and never touch the truth". In this way, postmodern philosophy takes importance over both empirical and formal knowledge, and does not easily ascribe itself to being one or the other.


The concept of philosophy comes from the greek word "φιλοσοφία" which means Knowledge lover. Although the main objective of this science was getting the Truth, nowadays it deals with questions that worry humans and can´t be solved by another science.

To achieve this goal, philosophy takes advantage of the rest of the sciences, but it doesn't mean that is as the science used. In the same way that although physics is helped by mathematics it isn´t a formal science, philosophy is able to use logic without having to be formal. Moreover, the fact of being helped by other sciences which are not formal such psychology doesn't allow it to be formal.

The easiest way to notice that philosophy isn´t a formal science is seeing that we cannot get an exact and accurate answer to its questions.

  • 1
    Welcome to philosophy.se, thank you for your contribution. Sophia means wisdom not knowledge. There's a lot of problems with the English here, but I would also recommend starting with definitions for ideas like "formal science." I am also not sure my colleagues in psychology would appreciate being told they cannot do formal science.
    – virmaior
    Commented Oct 12, 2014 at 2:28

I would say the classification itself is flawed. Philosophy is the more fundamental discipline compared to the sciences. Given any topic of interest X, you will inevitably find a Philosophy of X. That is why we have Philosophy of Science, but not the science of Philosophy. In fact, right until the seventeenth century natural science was studied as Natural Philosophy.

In my view therefore, scientific disciplines are more accurately characterized as branches of Philosophy that rely heavily on the scientific method and have a preponderance of inductive (model based) reasoning.

Mathematics is a whole different category which is useful to both the empirical sciences and philosophy. And attempts to reduce mathematical systems to philosophical logic (Logicism) are now rejected universally.

I would say though that pure mathematics is closer to philosophy in its methods and formalities (rigorous formulation, deductive reasoning), but it has more utility for the empirical science fields.

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