1. WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY ?
Philosophy is a peculiar discipline since its subject matter can be almost anything. Philosophers are the jacks of all trades of the academic world (although hopefully they do master some of these trades!), and specialisations in the discipline range from the philosophy of music, to political philosophy, to metaphysics, to the philosophy of biology, to applied philosophy, to the philosophy of abstract mathematics and on. What unites these discussions that range from the philosophical analysis of Bach’s fugues to searching for a conceptual distinction between terrorists and freedom fighters can be challenging to pin point, but I want to suggest that at the heart of all philosophical endeavours is an interest in critical argumentation. Essentially all philosophers are concerned with good arguments, with reasoning well. As such it doesn’t really matter whether one’s subject is ethics or epistemology, both are concerned with good arguments and all philosophers share the same critical perspective that has as its main objective independent and original reasoning.
Moral philosophy, or ethics – the two terms will be used interchangeably through-out – is a branch of philosophy that concerns itself with questions of right and wrong conduct, with what one ought to do, with what kind of person one should aim to become, with what kind of lives human beings should live. Ethics is sometimes perceived as easier or more approachable than philosophy, indeed some inter-disciplinary teaching makes a virtue of pointing out the subject matter is ‘useful ethics’ rather than ‘abstract, useless philosophy’, however this is a misunderstanding. It is certainly true that some aspects of ethical thinking may appear more interesting or easier to identify with depending on one’s perspective.
For example, a medical student will probably find a discussion of the three conditions for valid consent more interesting and relevant to his future career than a discussion of the tripartite theory of knowledge, however this is because of the student’s own interests in medicine rather than a fundamental division within the discipline of philosophy. Both topics are concerned with good reasoning. Both topics engage in conceptual analysis, “What is ‘consent’?” is a very similar type of question to “What is ‘knowledge’?”. Both topics adopt a similar approach, i.e. the identification of necessary and sufficient conditions. Both are subject to the same type of objections, i.e. objections that challenge the necessity of one of the conditions, or examples that fulfil all three conditions but still fail to result in valid consent or true knowledge. Fundamentally all philosophy is concerned with the same thing, good reasoning skills, these skills can be applied to different subject matters, some of which will be more relevant to some people than others, but the skills are the same across the discipline. Therefore no particular sub-set of philosophical thought is intrinsically easier or more useful, rather it all depends on the interests of the pupil (and the skills of the teacher of course!).