The key to philosophy lies in the word itself. Etymologically speaking, Philosophy can be split into two parts: Philo, meaning love, and Sophia meaning wisdom, which tells us that, at its core, philosophy is the love of wisdom, the love of knowing. It encourages the search for a deeper understanding of truth in regard to the individual, the world, and how they interact with one another.
Although evaluative thinking and reasoning has long been present, philosophy as we now know it was pioneered in Ancient Greece in the 6th century (BCE). However, philosophical questions and matters can also be identified much earlier in ancient Egypt, India, and Mesopotamia. This dates all the way back to 4000 BCE, with depictions of gods and the afterlife of the Field of Reeds, in Mesopotamia before The Epic of Gilgamesh (a poem) was put into writing between 2150-1400 BCE, and finally in India during the Vedic period between 1500-1000 BCE.
Still, Ancient Greece is credited for being the site of the “Golden Age” of philosophy. The first known Greek philosophers were known as Pre-Socratic, including thinkers such as Thales, Anaximander, and even Pythagoras. Such individuals were characterised by their aim to better understand the world through the application of physical evidence around them, studying the natural world, knowledge, and the relationships between humans and gods. Centuries later, Socrates set off an intellectual revolution, challenging traditional morals and beliefs forever. Plato, his student, as well as Aristotle, Plato’s student, continued this line of philosophical thinking in order to pave the way for Western philosophy in their discussion of ethics, poetry, myths, politics, physics, metaphysics, etc. Their work was later on continued by different kinds of thinkers (Stoic, Epicurean, etc).
Nowadays, philosophy has come a long way, with new thinkers, developments in our knowledge, and areas of discipline, but it is still largely devoted to answering questions of life, those that arise upon reflection of our existence and the world around us. Despite to its constant expansion, it can be split into different disciplines, such as:
Metaphysics: The study of what exists in the world and within the limits of reality, as well as that which we can not physically see. Metaphysics may deal with questions of gods and higher powers, as well as what the world is composed of, what it means to be human, and so on.
Epistemology: The study of knowledge itself, both what we actually know, and how we are able to know it and thus prove it. For IB students, you may recall similar questions being asked in TOK.
Logic: A study of the arguments and reasons provided in someone's attempt to answer a question. This area dissects what makes reasoning good or bad, as well as tools to determine this.
Ethics: Fundamentally, this is the study of what is right and wrong, or what is best to do. This includes what makes actions or people right/wrong or good/bad and how we should best treat others.
Philosophers strive to understand the world in relation to nature, beauty, consciousness, organisation, etc, often guided by open-ended assumptions, making for a shortage in easy answers, and a surplus in deep thinking. Philosophical questions and debates can be present in many different disciplines, such as law, science, literature, the arts, history, politics, and more. Its versatility also means that it provides several benefits, and in studying/understanding philosophy, one stands to gain new skills. This includes critical thinking/reasoning, problem-solving, effective communication, and analytical evaluation of complex topics. These skills can be improved even if you just consider philosophical questions. Although the topic may come off as difficult and confusing, practising philosophical thought can be very simple in your daily life. In creating a reasoned line of thinking when faced with a broad and difficult question, you already set yourself up for success. Philosophy is about reflection and pondering, but most importantly, it is about curiosity. The passion for learning is more important than the contents of the knowledge itself, so seeking out to gain a deeper understanding of your interests is a great way to start!
As a student, developing philosophical thinking is of great benefit. Not only is reflective and abstract thinking a key to performing well in the IB Diploma programme, but it allows for a consistently well-reasoned approach to all of your subjects. Most importantly, it allows for us to reflect and understand our place in the world, as well as how our interactions with it may be of importance.