Posted on behalf of Peter:
Any definition of Philosophy will inevitably be partially subjective, since it involves individual choices of emphasis and scope. For a birds-eye view however, the traditional division of philosophy into five main areas is still very useful. These areas are Logic and Epistemology (foundation thinking skills), Ethics and Aesthetics (how to assess the value of something), and Metaphysics (speculation on the ultimate nature of existence).
1. Logic: how to reason
This area is further divided into Formal Logic and Informal Logic - also referred to as Critical Thinking. Formal Logic can get very mathematical and self-referential, and tends to be the province of academic philosophers. Critical Thinking is much more accessible and is a key tool in assessing our own, and other people’s, arguments. (Note: in logic the word ‘argument’ means ‘an attempt to persuade by reason’, not ‘a dispute’).
2. Epistemology: how we know what we know
This area covers knowledge, and when it is justifiable to assert that we know something . It includes issues of scientific method (philosophy of science) and divine revelation (I know it is true because God revealed it to me / someone else).
3. Ethics: what is a moral act
We confront ethical questions both as individuals and at a societal level, where politics is hugely informed by ethical questions (e.g. assisted suicide, fairness of competing political theories).
4. Aesthetics: what is good / beautiful in art
This area has become less important over time, as the distinction between high and mass culture has become less significant. However it is still relevant in, for example, arts funding, where we have to ask why we should subsidise ‘x’ over ‘y’.
5. Metaphysics: the ultimate nature of being.
At one level, this area has also become less important over time due to the enormous discoveries about the world made using scientific methodology. But if one puts the philosophy of religion into this category, then it remains of huge importance to vast numbers of people.
At the next level down we find various permutations of the ‘philosophy of xxx’, where ‘xxx’ equates to mind, language, science, law etc. Here ‘philosophy’ tends to mean the underlying assumptions, goals, methodologies and scope of the topic. In most cases these can be linked back to one of the five main areas e.g. philosophy of science (epistemology), philosophy of law / jurisprudence (ethics).