Welcome to philosophy.org.za! This website is a free, non-profit, online resource for studying philosophy at a graduate level, aimed at those who may already have an interest in philosophy but never pursued a systematic study of the subject. Here you will be able to work through as many (or as few) topics at your own pace and at no cost. Because philosophy.org.za is hosted privately and is not affiliated with any institution, we can focus exclusively on the task at hand: making philosophy accessible and interesting.
What is Philosophy? Philosophy literally means love of wisdom from the Greek word φιλοσοφία (philosophia) and while that may give you an idea of what philosophers hold dear it doesn’t actually say what it is. Philosophy has sometimes been described as the most general of disciplines relying principally on systematic, rational argument. In ancient times this included such subjects as Mathematics, Astronomy, Physics and Psychology that have long since matured to become disciplines within their own rite. Today philosophy remains essentially concerned with five key areas of enquiry, namely:
Metaphysics – problems of reality and existence (ontology)
Epistemology – how we come to know and the limits of knowledge
Logic – correct methods of reasoning and inference
Ethics – questions of value and morality
Aesthetics – beauty and artistic appreciation.
Then there are the numerous, important, derivative Philosophies of special interest, where the methods philosophical enquiry are employed in examining specific questions or even entire disciplines. These include, amongst others: Philosophy of Science, Philosophy of Mind, Philosophy of Language, Philosophy of Law (Jurisprudence,) Philosophy of Religion and even Philosophy of Philosophy (or Metaphilosophy.) Indeed the tendency to “go meta” (from the Greek preposition μετά for "after", "beyond", "adjacent" or "self") in regarding concepts, disciplines, even our own lives, from some level of abstraction, often self-referential, is a hallmark of philosophical thinking.
Then there are various “Schools of Philosophy” which this website has deliberately eschewed because they entail unquestioning allegiance to an ideal, figure or cause. We will however follow the broadly Analytic Tradition, which proceeds in a piecemeal, logical fashion, relying on clear definitions and well developed arguments, rather than Grand Syntheses. In this sense, the Analytic Tradition is continuous with Science.
Why does Philosophy matter? For many people Philosophy does not matter to them and never will; however the fact that you have read beyond the first paragraphs so far probably means that Philosophy does matter to you, though you may not know why or have thought about the question in a systematic way.
In the following example, Plato and Aristotle suggest that Philosophy begins in awe or wonder. In the Theaetetus (155 d) Plato puts the following words in the mouth of Socrates when he observes, "I see, my dear Theaetetus, that Theodorus had a true insight into your nature when he said that you were a philosopher, for wonder is the feeling of a philosopher, and Philosophy begins in wonder." Later Aristotle, a pupil of Plato for many years, endorses the same sentiment in his Metaphysics (982b12) that, "It was their wonder, astonishment, that first led men to philosophise and still leads them."
If you have ever been in awe of the grandeur of the Universe, the majesty of Life, the power of the human mind to create and comprehend, as well as our capacity to destroy; whether there are any other such minds, different from our own; indeed if you have ever wondered why there is something rather than nothing, seeming order rather than chaos, or any meaning at all in a meaningless world or why we are ever altruistic towards strangers rather than always selfish, then you have already been pondering some of Philosophy’s enduring questions.
In another oft cited quotation from Plato’s Apology (38a) Socrates clams that: “The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being.” To the best of our knowledge, humans are unique in being capable of reflecting on their lives: “Is my life authentic? Do I really know what I believe to be true? Do I act ethically? Am I happy? If not, in either case, what would make me so?” These are questions that should concern everybody, not just philosophers.
Sources of philosophical knowledge: Every item of philosophical knowledge began with a thought, and since one can think seriously anywhere, there is nowhere where philosophy can’t be practiced; however thoughts are elusive unless we write them down. Most likely, a serious philosophical thought has already occurred to someone very capable and intelligent in the past. And if there were one such thought it was probably connected by many other such thoughts. The fact that we know about them today is that they were recorded in writing for posterity. Books, and recently journal articles, remain the primary resources for philosophers. Only so much can be achieved by reflection alone; therefore reading and understanding philosophical books and other texts are the foundation of any serious study of philosophy. Even if you are a reluctant reader, we hope that what we have provided and recommended will be stimulating, thoughtful and will encourage you to read more widely.