Frequently Asked Questions

What Is Philosophy?

The word “philosophy" comes from the Greek, and it means "love of knowledge." The Athenian Socrates (470-399 BCE) coined the word in order to distinguish himself from the "Sophists," who offered to teach rhetoric in exchange for payment. In contrast, Socrates claimed to be a "philo-sophist" - not one who claimed to have wisdom, but rather someone who loved it.

Socrates spent his life questioning what others take for granted: that the world exists as we see it, that some art is good while some is bad, that democracy is the ideal form of government, that there are right and wrong ways to behave, and so forth. As Socrates demonstrated (to anyone who would listen), even casual reflection reveals that these beliefs are just that - things we take for granted, without reflection. And, as Socrates urged, we ought to investigate these beliefs, for "the unexamined life is not worth living."

Central Philosophical Topics

To begin doing philosophy, try answering the following questions:

  • Personal Identity
    Are you the same person you were when you were born? Would you be the same person if you lost all of your memories? What if you changed bodies?
  • Ethics
    What kind of life should you live? What are your responsibilities to others? Are there moral standards that everyone ought to adhere to, or are morals relative to a person's culture? Either way, how can we know?
  • Mind and Body
    Is your mind distinct from your body? If so, can your mind outlive your body? Could machines have minds?
  • Knowledge
    What is the difference between knowledge and mere belief? Can there be false knowledge, or must it be true? How is knowledge related to certainty?
  • Religion
    Do deities (such as the Christian God) exist? If so, how can this be proven? Is faith a satisfactory grounds for belief?

What Courses Are Appropriate for a First-Year Student?

Introduction to Philosophy gives a broad introduction to philosophy, but students should not be afraid to take courses at the 200-250 level that sound interesting to them. Accessible courses generally have a course number below 250, while numbers above 250 indicate that some familiarity with philosophy is beneficial. Courses below 250 include: Ethics, Ancient Greek Philosophy, Modern Philosophy (i.e., philosophy of the 17th and 18th centuries). See the courses section of this site for more information.

Is Logic Like Mathematics?

No. Logic was developed to understand something we all do every day: Reason. For example, when you decide that you cannot go to a movie because, if you did, you would miss an important meeting, you are reasoning - you are giving reasons for holding a certain position on an issue (namely, whether or not to go to the movie). Logic was developed in order to investigate this incredibly common phenomenon. Consequently, students are often surprised to find that even though they hate studying mathematics, they quite like logic.

That being said, once we use logic to understand how to reason effectively, we can easily see that the sort of reasoning described in logic happens to be the same sort of reasoning employed in mathematics (after all, it's rather important to mathematicians that they reason effectively!). Because of this, some students even become very interested in mathematics after taking logic.