The Philosophy Book for Beginners: A Brief Introduction to Great Thinkers and Big Ideas
Thank you for opening this book. It offers an important message: your whole life up to this moment has been a dream. All your memories are false. Nothing around you really exists. Furthermore, your own body is part of the illusion. You have no idea who or where you really are. Nevertheless, the time has come for you to complete your mission—just kidding!
. . . Or maybe not. The scenario I just described is possible. Although it may seem far-fetched at first, on closer examination, the scenario raises some deeply important questions. What is truly real? How do I know? Has my life been determined in advance? Who am I? What am I supposed to be doing?
If you have ever seriously considered questions like these, you are not alone. You are a philosopher.
What Is Philosophy?
The word philosophy comes from the Greek words for “love of wisdom.” Philosophers have existed since human beings began wondering about the world around them and making theories to explain their experiences. However, philosophy became a movement during the golden age of ancient Greece through the thinking of an extraordinary man: Socrates.
Socrates lived in Athens in the fifth century BCE. He was proud of his city-state for establishing the world’s first democracy. But he was disturbed by how fragile this new kind of government could be. If the people were going to rule themselves, they needed wisdom.
Socrates questioned the teachers, lawyers, politicians, priests, and other authorities of Athens and found they were not as wise as they claimed to be. In fact, they were more interested in appearing wise than in actually being wise. (Sound familiar?) Socrates was forced to conclude that he was the wisest man in Athens simply because he was willing to admit that he was not wise!
The youth of Athens hailed Socrates like a rock star for pointing out the failings of society’s authorities. In retaliation, these authorities arrested Socrates for corrupting the youth and not believing in the right gods. At the trial, the jury found Socrates guilty. Though his friends offered to help him escape, Socrates insisted on accepting his death sentence.
Fortunately, this attempt to snuff out philosophy backfired. Outraged by his execution, Socrates’s followers established a school called the Academy at which both men and women could raise questions, propose theories, and debate issues. The Academy was the world’s first university. It was official—human beings were on a quest for wisdom.
More than two millennia have passed since the start of the Academy. Our society has come a long way (consider the fact that we officially abolished slavery), but we still have a long way to go (slavery continues to exist unofficially). Philosophy can help in at least three ways.
Philosophy provides a common ground. Society has gone global. We live and work with people from vastly different cultures. We cannot expect to agree with one another about God or the meaning of life, but we can all strive for wisdom. Like Socrates, the wise person begins by admitting how little they really know. This knowledge is a solid basis for appreciating a diversity of perspectives and uniting in the search for truth.
Philosophy helps us express our deepest beliefs. Socrates was not the only persecuted philosopher. Sadly, many of the authors discussed in this book were censored, punished, tortured, or killed for speaking their minds. Society will always try to silence us. But we must never be silenced. A philosopher who really strikes a chord with you will help you develop and voice your own philosophy.
Philosophy promotes listening. At his trial, Socrates famously said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Once you realize how hard it is to examine your life, you should become more interested in how other people do it. By debating the big questions, you can become an honorable adversary. In martial arts, we thank our opponents for challenging us to improve. The same is true in philosophy.
With the staggering advancement of technology, the power to save or destroy humanity is at our fingertips. Managing this power requires democratic cooperation. Socrates’s mission was to fortify democracy by loving wisdom. This mission is more important now than ever.
How to Use This Book
Philosophy is traditionally divided into four branches:
Metaphysics: the study of reality (what is real?)
Epistemology: the study of knowledge (what can we know?)
Axiology: the study of value, which include ethics (how should we live?) and aesthetics (what is beauty?)
Logic: the study of reasoning (how can we make good arguments?)
Most philosophical issues involve more than one of, if not all, the branches. For example, the question of whether free will is real or an illusion is a metaphysical question. But it might prompt you to ask how to identify an illusion in the first place, which is an epistemological question. Furthermore, someone might argue that free will is real because morality requires it, which brings us to ethics. Finally, all philosophical discussion should be reasonable—as determined by the rules of logic.
This book highlights the greatest ideas from around the world
in the first three branches of philosophy. Logic is better studied separately, since it is a skill rather than a body of ideas. However, we will have occasion to mention some especially important logical principles. Likewise, bear in mind that philosophy is not the same as religion. Although both subjects may concern God, faith, and the meaning of life, religion presupposes belief whereas philosophy questions belief.
Each chapter will end with a thought experiment, which is a hypothetical situation designed to explore the implications of a theory. Whereas scientists test physical substances in the lab, philosophers use their imaginations to test ideas. Thought experiments do not need to be realistic to do their job. At the age of 16, Albert Einstein imagined what a beam of light would look like if you were chasing it at the speed of light. This thought experiment led to his discovery of relativity. You can use the thought experiment at the end of each chapter to challenge old assumptions and make space for new ways of thinking.
Two philosophies popular today are stoicism and existentialism. Stoics believe that wisdom means living in accordance with cosmic harmony, indifferent to pleasure and pain. Existentialists believe that wisdom means living authentically by taking responsibility for free choices. These two contrasting approaches have their roots in a variety of perspectives from across the globe. Understanding these ideas, and understanding philosophy in general, requires the examination of influential philosophers throughout history.
The men and women featured in the following pages are the cream of the crop—geniuses who built on one another’s work and inspired humanity to improve. But learning about their contributions will be pointless unless you enter the story. What insights can you glean from them?
Sapere aude! This famous philosophical motto means “Dare to be wise!” May this book be a platform for you to develop your own philosophy of life. Standing on the shoulders of giants, you will see farther than you thought possible.
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