What is Philosophy?

What is Philosophy?

Philosophy studies the ideas that shape our thought and action. It deals with basic questions and problems. They are about reality, truth, existence, logic, and morality. Studying philosophy will help you develop the skills needed to think for yourself. You will also gain some key skills. These include critical thinking, logical analysis, and argument construction. Here at UTSC, our courses cover many topics. These include art, ethics, feminism, politics, and techniques of argument. They also cover theories of knowledge and the mind.


What do philosophers think about?

Value theory

We live our lives within a matrix of morality, obligations and all the things we personally value. But this matrix raises a vast number of philosophical questions. Value theory explores answers. It explores the theories that provide them to questions like: What is it to be a good person? How should I live my life? How should I interact with others? What things are right and wrong? What are right and wrong? When something is right or wrong, why? What is justice? How should a government work? How should people elect a government? What are rights? What rights are there? What is it to own something? What rights do I have when I own something? How should a business operate ethically? Is abortion or euthanasia or triage sometimes not OK, and if not, when? What do we owe to animals, or the environment? What is beauty? What makes something an artwork?


Metaphysics is the study of fundamental reality in all its forms. Some of its questions include: What is existence? Why is there something rather than nothing? When are a and b two rather than one? What is it for two things to be similar? Is the world a one or a many? What are the most basic things? How does nature hang together? What is the difference between are and could have been? What happens when some small things make up a big thing?

Epistemology and philosophy of science

Epistemology is the study of knowledge itself. We seek knowledge, but philosophers want to find out the nature of knowledge and the means to get it. Important questions raised by epistemology include: What is knowledge? Can we be certain we have got it? Why might we want it? Is there a world outside my mind? How do I know the world wasn’t created five minutes ago? Is it all a dream? Is all knowledge based in individual persons or do we have group knowledge? How do we know that two plus two equals four?

Questions studied the philosophy of science include: What is science? What is matter? What is space? What is time? What are numbers? What is an animal? What are the data in support of evolutionary theory? What are genes? What is good about science? To what extent should society support or limit science?

Mind, language, and logic

Human beings have feelings, emotions and thoughts. The philosophy of mind seeks to understand our mental nature. It also seeks to understand the strange fact that we are conscious. Philosophers of mind wonder: What am I? What is a person? What is thinking? What is seeing? What is it to do something? What is consciousness? What is freedom? Are we free?

The philosophy of language connects to the philosophy of mind. Language is the most human behavior. It sets us apart from all other animals. The philosophy of language asks: Do we think in words? Or in pictures? Or in something else? How do we understand language? How does language get its meaning? How do words refer to things? Does language depend on thought, or could it be the other way around? What is communication?

Logic is the study of argument. It is the foundation of philosophy, and all rational thought. Logicians study how arguments work at a formal level. They ask: What is rationality? What is a good argument? How is it that one statement logically implies another? Is it the case that every statement is either true or false? What is truth?


What will I learn in philosophy courses?

Philosophical theories

Philosophical theories explain what philosophers have thought about certain mysteries. These philosophers can include anyone from ancient Greek or Asian thinkers. They go up to the start of the scientific revolution in Europe and continue to today. We often teach our students what our teachers and friends have thought. Or, we teach what we ourselves think or have thought. The point of this is

  1. To help students find their way around the steep and foggy terrain we cover
  2. Don't let students reinvent the wheel or go down a blind alley. Let them know what has been tried.
  3. To make a student more creative: people are more creative in dialogue than alone. But, dialogue can include a 'pretend' dialogue with Socrates.

Intellectual techniques

Sophisticated reading is a key skill. It's the ability to pick up almost anything, read it, and understand it. Reading philosophy carefully is tough. It will help a student read anything better.

Another key technique is understanding how reasoning chains fit together. You need to see how people get from their starts to their ends. You need to see what makes sense and what doesn’t. We teach this as logic, which is a significant part of our curriculum.

Another key technique is modeling. It's about making something fuzzy or foggy a bit mathematical. Isaac Newton used calculus to describe how bodies move. That is an example of modeling. In philosophy, we teach students how to start modeling anything.

One final technique is clear writing. We are picky about both style and substance. We push our students to write better about hard topics.