Philosophy for Beginners

Entering the world of philosophy can be difficult at first. We're going to present some useful guidelines. They explain, in a simple way, the history of this discipline.
Philosophy for Beginners

Last update: 04 June, 2023

Philosophy is an amazing discipline that addresses many fundamental issues and questions. They’re the kinds that have interested humans for more than two millennia. However, for beginners, this subject can be somewhat overwhelming and intimidating due to its vast content.

In this article, we’re going to offer a simple explanation of philosophy and its usefulness and give some guidelines for understanding its main currents.

Philosophy for beginners

Philosophy is a  specific discipline. It originated around the seventh century B.C. in ancient Greece. Ever since then, it’s been making us stop and think and question the world around us. There’s no one definition of the concept of philosophy, but we’ll try to establish its general framework.

According to its etymology, philosophy means love of wisdom. The term was coined by Pythagoras of Samos, a Greek mathematician and philosopher. He learned his profession in Egypt, where he lived for 22 years. According to an article published in the journal, Amauta, he sought to distinguish being a philosopher from being a sophist or sage.

Philosophy is seen as a discipline that strives to answer certain existential questions that are of interest to humans. For example:

  • What’s time?
  • What’s death?
  • What’s truth?
  • What’s freedom?
  • What’s nature?

The peculiarity of philosophy is that it doesn’t accept a single answer. For this reason, it’s often considered to be rather a disruptive discipline.

Since its inception, philosophy has been in charge of investigating and answering recurring questions, making use of the particular reasoning capacity of human beings, along with collective debates and logic.

The purpose of philosophy

There’s a great deal of debate surrounding the question of the purpose of psychology. Some say that it shouldn’t have a function of its own. Others see it as having a merely speculative or theoretical role, more akin to the academic field. But, it contains two important functions for daily life.

According to the book, Learning to Live: A User’s Manual (2010) by Luc Ferry, philosophy means salvation. It signifies giving us the means to overcome our anxieties. It appeals to our efforts, as humans, and our reasoning.

In this sense, we overcome our fears and anxieties by learning about the world, others, and ourselves. This perspective suggests we can live happily if we overcome our fears.

The second function is that it allows us to understand the world in which we live. Because reality can often be complex and problematic. So, we find ourselves asking why certain phenomena happen. And, what lies behind what we see with the naked eye? This vision of the function of philosophy suggests it’s shaped our values and thoughts over time.

To know the world in which we live and calm our anxieties via the use of this discipline, various branches of study have been systematized. Each one is in charge of a particular object. The branches are as follows:

  • Ethics.
  • Logic.
  • Metaphysics.
  • Epistemology.
  • History of philosophy.

Gustavo Bueno (1995) claims that philosophy is useful for the blacksmith, the journalist, the shoemaker…in fact, for anyone to defend an opinion without the need to present the theories as their own.

The history of philosophy

As Gaos specifies in his work, Introduction to Philosophy (1939), from antiquity to the present day, philosophy has undertaken a journey through different and extensive scenarios. We’re going to take a synthesized look at the various moments and dimensions that characterize this discipline.

Ancient philosophy

This period began in the 7th century B.C. in Greece. Aristotle called the first thinkers “the first to philosophize”. Among them were figures such as Thales, Anaximenes, Anaximander, and the so-called presocratics such as Heraclitus and Parmenides. Of course, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were also part of this illustrious group.

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, followers of the presocratic current introduced a new way of inquiring into the world and the place of human beings,

The most remarkable thing about this phase was the emergence of a scientific attitude. It proposed to take ideas or thoughts as the object of science. They founded a scientific attitude on the problem of nature. These philosophers saw the world as the beginning of everything that exists. They were also interested in the importance of good living and the social community.

Philosophy as religious science

During the Middle Ages, around the 5th century A.D., religions such as Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, were interpreted by Greek philosophy. God became the object of reflection and philosophical discussion. In fact, according to Wood (2021), Christian thinkers relied on discipline to answer questions regarding divine providence and human freedom.

These philosophers viewed humans as having the ability to think and reason on their own. Furthermore, they were seen as thinking of God through their own mental faculties. Therefore, they viewed the life and destiny of humans as being their own responsibility. As such, we rule our lives based on our own decisions.

The philosophical productions made during the Middle Ages were mostly translations from Greek. They were published in Latin, Hebrew, and Arabic.

It seems that Western philosophy has been nourished by the philosophers of ancient Greece. Indeed, the interpretations and commentaries it developed originated from this ancient discipline. It also published new works based on the earlier texts.

Modern philosophy

The modern era is considered to have begun at the end of the 16th century and lasted until the start of the 19th century. During this period, the ‘subjective turn’ occurred: giving priority and centrality to the human being. God ceased to be the object of philosophical interest and was replaced by the individual.

During this phase of history, there was great interest in knowing the truth and how to establish a safe science. These themes were based on the idea of humans being seen as the be-all and end-all. One of the most prominent philosophers of this period was René Descartes, with his works, Metaphysical Meditations (1641) and Discourse on Method (1637).

This viewpoint interprets and studies the world according to the possibilities of knowledge of the human being. Immanuel Kant was one of the great philosophers who dealt with these issues. He considered that we can know only what our faculties allow us. If we go beyond the limits of understanding, we say or think the wrong things.

Contemporary philosophy

We live in the period of contemporary philosophy, although many authors consider that it’s now the post-contemporary era. Whatever the case, contemporary philosophy began at the beginning of the 20th century. It was interested in topics such as the essence of what makes us human and what differentiates us from other beings.

The Encyclopedia Britannica claims that, in the contemporary period, philosophy became extremely aware of its method and nature.

Contemporary philosophy is also interested in the essence of objects. In other words, the properties that belong only to material things. In this branch of philosophy, phenomenology stands out.  It maintains that consciousness and experience are the starting point to understanding perception and human experiences.

Its most prominent representatives were Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Jean-Paul Sartre, among others.

You might be interested to read The Usefulness of Hellenistic Psychology Today

Final notes

It’s thanks to philosophy, that the fundamental questions about the human being, nature, and science continue to be explored. Although it may seem overwhelming at first, philosophy is accessible even for beginners. Indeed, anyone interested in expanding their mind and understanding the world in a deeper way will find an ally in this discipline.

Ultimately, philosophy invites us to reflect on the great questions of human existence. Moreover, it provides us with tools to better understand the world and our place in it.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.