Brief Overview of the Areas of Philosophy

David Sanson

The word ‘philosophy’ comes from Greek, and translates literally as ‘love of wisdom’. Exactly what philosophy is or should be is something philosophers argue about, but philosophy tends to focus on fundamental questions: What is knowledge? What is beauty? What is truth? What is justice? What is happiness? What is the nature of reality?

Philosophy is often divided into different branches or subdivisions. Here are six common “areas” of philosophy:

The study of what there is and how things are. Questions include: Do the ordinary objects, like tables and chairs, trees and donkeys, really exist? Do abstract things like numbers, geometric shapes, and the color red, really exist? If so, what are they like? Does God exist? What are time and space? What is it to be a person? Do people have free will?
The study of knowledge. Questions include: What is knowledge? Can we really know anything? Does all knowledge depend on experience, or are there some things we can know by reason alone? Can I know something without knowing that I know it?
The study of correct and incorrect reasoning. Questions include: Which forms of reasoning are valid and which invalid? What makes a logical truth—like ‘if snow is white, then snow is white’—true?
The study of how we ought to live and how we ought to act. Questions include: Why are wrong acts wrong and good acts good? What is happiness, and how ought one to live in order to be happy? Are there some kinds of act that are absolutely morally wrong no matter the consequences, or does the rightness or wrongness of an act always depend on its consequences?
Social and Political Philosophy
The study of how we ought to live together. Questions include: What sort of governments are just and what sorts unjust? Are there limits on the just exercise of state power against individuals? If so, what are they? Do individuals have an obligation to obey laws that they disagree with?
The study of beauty and the arts. Questions include: Is beauty subjective or objective? What makes things beautiful? What is a work of art? Is art supposed to beautiful?

Sometimes these areas are grouped according to some broader category. For example, metaphysics and epistemology are said to be part of theoretical philosophy, while ethics and social and political philosophy are said to be part of practical philosophy. And often ethics, social and political philosophy, and aesthetics are grouped together as branches of value theory, on the grounds that they all concern questions about values—good and bad, just and unjust, beautiful and ugly.

It can also be useful to distinguish areas of philosophical inquiry that cut across these areas, but are united by a common subject matter. For example,

Philosophy of Science
The study of philosophical problems that concern the nature of science and scientific practice.

Some of questions addressed by philosophy of science have to do with metaphysics: Does physics describe the fundamental nature of reality? Does General Relativity show that time is not real? Does Quantum Mechanics show that reality is observer dependent? What is a biological species? Are biological species real? Other questions addressed by philosophy of science have to do with epistemology, logic, ethics, social and political philosophy, or even aesthetics (must good scientific theories be “beautiful”?)

Other examples of areas like this include Philosophy of Mind, Feminist Philosophy, Philosophy of Language, Philosophy of Religion, Philosophy of Law, Philosophy of Race, Philosophy of Mathematics, and Environmental Philosophy.

Finally, philosophers are often interested in studying the history of philosophy, and how positions and approaches vary and develop over time and across cultures. So we sometimes talk about Ancient (Greek) Philosophy, Medieval Philosophy, Modern Philosophy, and so on, and we talk about Western Philosophy and Eastern Philosophy, or—since philosophical traditions have often been tied fairly closely to religious traditions—Buddhist Philosophy, Hindu Philosophy, Christian Philosophy, Jewish Philosophy, Islamic Philosophy, etc.