What is Philosophy?

What is Philosophy?


Philosophy is the study of the ideas that shape our thought and action, and it addresses fundamental questions and problems associated with reality, truth, existence, logic, and morality. Studying philosophy will help you develop the intellectual abilities and techniques required to think effectively for yourself at a deeper level. By doing philosophy, you will explore the ideas that underlie controversial issues in politics, morality, science, religion, art, and more. You will also gain some universally valuable skills in critical thinking, logical analysis and argument construction. Here at UTSC, our courses cover a wide range of topics including art, ethics, feminism, politics, techniques of argument, and 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 and the theories which provide answers to such questions as: 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 a government be elected? 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 acquire 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 just 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?

It seems that science is our best and most successful way of acquiring knowledge. Philosophers want to understand the nature of science and explain why it is so good at generating knowledge.

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 are not just fleshy bags of water. We have feelings, emotions and thoughts. The philosophy of mind seeks to understand our mental nature and the strange fact that we are conscious beings. 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 is closely connected to the philosophy of mind. Language is the most distinctively human behaviour that distinguishes us from all the other animals. The philosophy of language asks such questions as: Do we think in words, pictures, or 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 the nature of argumentation at a formal level, asking questions such as: 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 philosophers, up through the dawn of the scientific revolution in Europe, until today: often we teach our students what our teachers and friends have thought, or 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. To give students a sense of what has been tried so that they don’t reinvent the wheel or go down a blind alley; and
  3. To make a student more creative: people are more creative in dialogue than solo, but dialogue can include a ‘pretend’ dialogue with Socrates.

Intellectual techniques

One very important technique is sophisticated reading: being able to pick up nearly anything and read it and (if not too jargony or complicated) understand it. Reading philosophy very carefully is a hard workout that will help a student read anything with more understanding.

Another very important technique is understanding how chains of reasoning fit together: how people get from their starting-points to their conclusions, what makes sense and what doesn’t—this is known as logic, and it is a large part of our instruction.

Still another very important technique is modeling: how to take something fuzzy or foggy and make it a bit mathematical. If you think of how Isaac Newton used calculus to describe the motion of bodies, that is an example of modeling: in philosophy, we teach students how to get started modeling anything.

A final important technique is writing clearly: we are very picky about style and substance; we push our students to write more professionally and convincingly about difficult topics.