The portal has been deactivated. Please contact your portal admin.

Lesson Explainer: Definitions and Functions of Philosophy Philosophy

In this explainer, we will learn how to recognize two different ways of defining philosophy and distinguish between three functions of philosophical thinking.

The term philosophy is derived from the Greek words meaning “love of wisdom.” Philosophers describe themselves as lovers of wisdom, rather than claiming to possess wisdom themselves.

They do this in order to recognize that the pursuit of truth is ongoing and that even the beliefs we are most confident in deserve to be challenged and examined.

Defining philosophy has always been a difficult task. Throughout history, philosophers have disagreed with each other about what philosophy is.

Here are two of the ways philosophy can be defined.

Philosophy can be defined as the search for knowledge of ourselves and the world we live in.

Orion Nebula M42 with Galaxy
Figure 1: A galaxy like the one we live in. Philosophy addresses numerous questions about the universe, such as how it originated and why it exists at all.

This way of defining philosophy emphasizes the theoretical aspect of philosophy; it is theoretical because it involves the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.

Like the natural sciences, theoretical philosophy is the search for fundamental explanations of the world.

Key Term: Theoretical Philosophy

Theoretical philosophy is the search for fundamental explanations of the world.

Philosophy is sometimes said to be the mother of all sciences because the natural sciences originated in theoretical philosophy.

Figure 2: Fundamental questions about the world.

If you have ever grappled with questions like the ones above, then you have asked fundamental questions about the world.

Example 1: Identifying a Definition of Philosophy

Complete the following: As the mother of sciences, philosophy is the search for .

  1. fundamental explanations of the world
  2. trivial facts about the world
  3. unsolvable mysteries of the world
  4. the best things about the world.

Answer

As the mother of all sciences, philosophy tries to answer questions like “Where does the universe come from?”, “How do I know if what I experience really exists or if I am only dreaming?”, and “What is the purpose of life?”

The answers to these questions are not trivial facts, nor are they necessarily unsolvable.

Instead, they involve fundamental explanations of the world.

Therefore, the correct answer is A.

The second definition of philosophy is the investigation of the meaning of life and how to act.

As such, philosophy looks for answers to practical questions.

Figure 3: Some of philosophy’s practical questions.

Defined this way, philosophy is not necessarily concerned with knowledge for its own sake. Instead, it seeks knowledge insofar as that knowledge helps us figure out how to live a good life.

Practical philosophy helps us figure out our roles in society, how to be good people, and how to achieve happiness and meaning in life.

Key Term: Practical Philosophy

Practical philosophy is the investigation of the meaning of life and how to act.

Example 2: Identifying a Definition of Philosophy

Complete the following: Practical philosophy is the investigation of .

  1. the meaning of life and how to act
  2. ways to achieve professional success
  3. the attributes of God
  4. the origin of the universe
  5. methods for attaining political power

Answer

The investigation of the attributes of God and questions about the origin of the universe belong to theoretical philosophy, not practical philosophy.

Although practical philosophy can be used to investigate ways to achieve professional success or methods for attaining political power, its primary concern is much broader.

Practical philosophy is the investigation of the meaning of life and how to act. This explanation is broad enough to encompass the variety of concerns of practical philosophy.

Therefore, the correct answer is A.

We have looked at two ways of defining philosophy. Now, let’s discuss what philosophy is for.

We are going to look at three functions of philosophy. The first function that philosophy fulfills is explaining reality. Reality raises many questions; perhaps you have asked some of them yourself.

Have you ever wondered why people like to be with one another? Maybe you wondered whether humans are naturally social or whether we could live our whole lives alone.

Get lost Hands and legs of children on the background of the tree roots.
Figure 4: A child in the woods. What would a person be like if they grew up in the wilderness all alone? Answering that question could tell us a lot about human nature.

These are questions about human nature, which is a part of reality.

Explaining reality means answering fundamental questions about reality, including how it is organized, how it originated, and whether it has a purpose.

Key Term: Explaining Reality

An important function of philosophy is explaining reality. Explaining reality means answering fundamental questions about reality, including how it is organized, how it originated, and whether it has a purpose.

The second function is changing society. Philosophy not only helps us make some sense of our world, but it also helps us figure out how to improve it. This is important because we do not just have to explain the world, we also have to live in it.

Philosophy can help us identify problems with the way that we live our lives and how our societies are organized. It can also help us solve these problems by changing the society we live in.

Society is the aspect of reality that has the biggest impact on our lives, but that we still have some control over. Therefore, philosophers attempt to change things by focusing on changing society.

Key Term: Changing Society

Changing society is the identification and correction of problems in society.

Philosophy helps us explain and shape the world. These functions—explaining reality and changing society—depend on each other. We cannot change the world for the better until we can explain it. On the other hand, if there are major problems in society, it is difficult to take on the task of explaining reality.

For example, if our philosophical explanations of reality show that any one human has as much value as any other, this may impact the way our societies should be structured. It may suggest that it is not okay for governments or corporations to discriminate between people because of their race, gender, or other characteristics.

This is just one of the ways that the functions of philosophy might interact.

The third function is allowing us to anticipate the future consequences of the current state of affairs.

It allows us to anticipate the sort of problems we might face in the future as well as the solutions they might have.

Key Term: Anticipating the Future

Anticipating the future involves predicting problems, solutions, and opportunities that do not exist currently. Anticipating the future is a function of philosophy.

Example 3: Identifying Functions of Philosophy

Which of the following are functions of philosophy?

  1. Debating pointlessly and wasting time
  2. Explaining reality, changing society, and anticipating the future
  3. Making weak arguments appear stronger and making strong arguments appear weaker
  4. Allowing philosophers to disengage from society and ignore social problems
  5. Thinking about our reality and explaining it without engaging with it

Answer

Philosophy has a number of functions.

One of philosophy’s functions is explaining reality. By explaining reality, philosophy aims to answer fundamental questions about reality, including how it is organized, how it originated, and whether it has a purpose.

The second function of philosophy is changing society. It does this by helping us identify and resolve problems with the way that we live our lives and how our societies are organized.

The third function is anticipating the future consequences of the current state of affairs.

Philosophy allows us to anticipate the sorts of problems we might face in the future as well as the solutions they might have.

Explaining reality, changing society, and anticipating the future are all functions of philosophy.

Therefore, the correct answer is B.

Let’s summarize some of the key points we have covered in this explainer.

Key Points

  • Throughout history, philosophers have disagreed with each other about what philosophy is.
  • Philosophy can be defined as the search for knowledge of ourselves and the world we live in.
  • Philosophy can be defined as the investigation of the meaning of life and how to act.
  • Three functions of philosophy are explaining reality, changing society, and anticipating the future.
  • Explaining reality is the task of finding explanations for fundamental questions about reality, including how it is organized, how it originated, and whether it has a purpose.
  • Changing society is the identification and correction of problems in a society.
  • Anticipating the future involves predicting problems, solutions, and opportunities that do not exist currently.

Nagwa uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Learn more about our Privacy Policy.