What is Philosophy?

Everyone thinks of the world and their place in it in a unique way. Within everyone’s unique perspective, however, there are certain basic, very general ideas that we all share — ideas such as those of the self, personhood, knowledge, truth, reality, time, causality, nature, the supernatural, mind, language, action, skill, freedom, art, happiness, the good life, morality, responsibility, love, friendship, and society.

Rarely do we get the opportunity to reflect on these general ideas, to ask ourselves what they involve and whether they are appropriate bases for thinking about the world and our place in it. Philosophy, however, provides us with just this opportunity, for philosophy is the academic discipline that is specially dedicated to exploring and assessing the most general ideas in terms of which we think about the world and our place in it. This is what the ancient Greeks meant when they conceived of philosophy as the pursuit (or “love,” philo-) of reflective insight (or “wisdom,” sophia).

The main branches of philosophy may be distinguished from each other by means of the general ideas, or clusters of closely related general ideas, on which they focus. Metaphysics, for example, may be distinguished as the branch of philosophy that is specially dedicated to exploring and assessing the general idea of reality and its most closely related ideas. Ethics may be distinguished as the branch specially dedicated to exploring and assessing the general ideas of happiness, morality and their most closely related ideas. Epistemology may be understood as the branch that is specially dedicated to exploring and assessing the general idea of knowledge and its most closely related ideas. And so on.

The study of logic plays an important role in philosophy because the study of logic teaches us how to reason well about — hence how properly to explore and assess — ideas. The history of the discipline also plays an important role in philosophy, because it is often by reflecting on the insights (and insightful mistakes) of great past thinkers that we are inspired to come up with our own insights in the exploration and assessment of ideas.

Curious to learn more?

Try one of our introductory philosophy courses without prerequisites included:

Click here for a full list of courses in the Department of Philosophy

Philosophy at Carleton

The wide variety of exciting undergraduate courses offered by the department include first-year courses on contemporary social and religious issues, the history of philosophy, value theory, and the relationship between mind, world, and knowledge; second-year courses on logic and critical thinking, ancient philosophy, Asian philosophy, bioethics, feminist theory, the philosophy of human rights, the philosophy of religion, and moral psychology; and third-year courses in the history of modern philosophy, metaphysics, the philosophy of mind and language, epistemology, and contemporary ethical theory.

Honours students have the opportunity to take fourth-year seminars in our award-winning faculty members’ current areas of research, such as justice and exploitation in the marketplace, skilled action, the architecture of the mind, development ethics, causation and freedom in early modern philosophy, Aristotle and the philosophical roots of ableism, science and values in a democratic society, and contemporary theories of meaning in life.