Expanding the Arc

From Analysis to Argument

Introduction to Perennial Philosophical Questions

Since the beginning of our incredible journey—at least since we began writing things down—humans have questioned their surroundings and the reason things were as they were. We have always wanted to know where we came from—and where we go after death. We asked, and continue to ask, a lot of questions: Where does the sun go at night? Are physical things like rocks and trees all that there is? Why are some people evil? How should I live my life? For thousands of years such questions were answered by the religious shamans and leaders of individual tribes and groups of people: The sun god drives a chariot across the sky every day; people have a spirit or soul that lives on after their bodies die; we should live so as not to anger the gods.

But a little over 2,500 years ago, in ancient Greece, some men began to formulate specific questions and answers that were subject to analysis and debate. Philosophy (from Greek philos—love, and sophia—wisdom) was born. Among many others, the most renowned were Socrates (c. 470-399 BCE), his pupil, Plato (c. 424-347), and Aristotle (384-322). Socrates never taught formally, but became well-known in Athens for his pursuit of knowledge and his ability to embarrass those whose claims to knowledge could not stand up under his questioning. Plato founded the Academy in Athens, which was a center of learning for almost a thousand years. He also composed a series of Dialogs which featured his teacher, Socrates, and a number of other famous Athenians engaged in dialectical reasoning. Aristotle taught at the Lyceum in Athens, his followers becoming known as peripatetics, so called from Aristotle’s presumed habit of walking about as he lectured. Aristotle’s thinking on a host of subjects became the basis of learning throughout the middle ages in Europe. We still use his insights in a number of fields, such as logic and rhetoric.

These well-known Greek philosophers began the formal study of some of the most enduring questions in Western thought. They are still studied and debated today. If you take an Introduction to Philosophy course, you will encounter them, as well as many other famous thinkers. In such an introductory course, you will probably encounter the following sub-disciplines:

  • Metaphysics. Metaphysics asks what is real. Is the material world we encounter through our senses all that there is? What about our mental, subjective states? Do we have a soul as well as a body? Is there a god? Do we have free will, or do all of us have a destiny “written in the stars?”
  • Epistemology. Epistemology has to do with the grounds for our beliefs. How do we know that what we believe is true? Should reason be our only guide, or should we accept the traditions our parents and society teach us? How do we know if what appears to be true is true? Can our senses deceive us?
  • Ethics. Ethics has to do with choices, about what is right and wrong, about what is good and bad. Is there an ultimate standard of morality, something outside physical reality? Should we follow the golden rule in our relations with others, or should we pursue that which will promote the greatest good for the greatest number? Should the goal of our life be to pursue happiness, or to learn how to endure life’s inevitable suffering? How should we live? And how should we treat others?
  • Political Philosophy. Political philosophy looks at the way people organize themselves in social groups. What is the ideal society? Should everybody have a say in how society is organized and run? Or should the “best” or most qualified run things? And how do we determine who those people are? What sort of economic system is the best? Should everyone be equal?

In addition, you will encounter many isms, such as naturalism, pragmatism, dualism, idealism, realism, and mysticism. All these raise and explore fundamental questions about the nature of reality, what knowledge of something really means, what truth is, what the good is, and how to create a just society. You will be introduced to some of the world’s greatest thinkers. Besides the Greeks mentioned above, you will encounter Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas, René Descartes, John Locke, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, and a host of modern twentieth and twenty-first century thinkers. You will discuss exciting ideas. You will further develop your skills as an analytical thinker.

To give you an idea of the kinds of questions and general methodology employed in philosophy, three fundamental questions that people still debate today are: Is There a God? Do We Have Free Will? and What is the Best Way to Live?  Each of these questions, along with links to famous and contemporary essays, are discussed in separate sections of this Guide.