Joshua J. Mark
published on 02 September 2009
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Antisthenes Bust, British Museum (by Trustees of the British Museum, Copyright)

From the Greek 'philo’, Love, and 'Sophia’, wisdom, Philosophy is, literally defined, “the love of wisdom”. More broadly understood, it is the study of the most basic and the most profound matters of human existence. Philosophy, in the West, began in the Greek colony of Miletus with Thales (who, according to ancient sources, was the first to ask “What is the basic stuff of the universe from which all else comes?”) but spread outward in the works of subsequent thinkers and writers to reach its heights in the works of Plato and his pupil Aristotle. The mathematician and mystic Pythagoras (famed for his Pythagorean Theorem today) was the first to call himself a philosopher.

The Branches of Philosophy

Metaphysics – The Study of Existence (so named for Aristotle’s work on the subject. Far from being a definitive term in Aristotle’s day, the word 'metaphysics’ was given to the book by his editor who placed it after his work 'Physics’. In Greek, 'meta’ simply means 'after’ and the title was originally only meant to mean the one piece came after the first).

Epistemology – The Study of Knowledge (from the Greek 'episteme’, Knowledge, and 'logos’, word. Epistemology asks how we know what we know, what exactly is 'knowledge’, why do we have it. Plato attempts, in his dialogue of Meno, and elsewhere, to answer these questions by claiming we do not 'learn’ but, rather, 'remember’ what was learned in a previous existence).

Ethics – The Study of Behavior/Action (from the Greek 'ta ethika’, on character, popularized by Aristotle in his Nichomachean Ethics which he wrote for his son, Nichomachus, as a guide to living well. Ethics is concerned with morality, how one should live and upon what basis to make decisions).

Politics – The Study of Governance (from the Greek 'Polis’, city, Politikos meant 'that which has to do with the city’. Far from simply being concerned with running a government, however, Politikos also has to do with how to be a good citizen and neighbor and what one should contribute to one’s community. This branch, like all the others, was first definitively examined and popularized in the work by Aristotle).

Aesthetics – The Study of Art (from the Greek 'aisthetikos’, sense/sentience, or 'aisthanomai’, to perceive or feel, Aesthetics concerns itself with the study of beauty, perception of beauty, culture and even nature, asking the fundamental question, “What makes something that is beautiful or meaningful 'beautiful’ or 'meaningful’?” Both Plato and Aristotle give answers to this question attempting to standardize objectively what is 'beautiful’ while the famous Sophist Protagoras argued that if one believes something to be 'beautiful’ then it is beautiful, and that all judgements are entirely subjective).

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About the Author

Joshua J. Mark
A freelance writer and former part-time Professor of Philosophy at Marist College, New York, Joshua J. Mark has lived in Greece and Germany and traveled through Egypt. He has taught history, writing, literature, and philosophy at the college level.

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Cite This Work

APA Style

Mark, J. J. (2009, September 02). Philosophy. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from

Chicago Style

Mark, Joshua J. "Philosophy." Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified September 02, 2009.

MLA Style

Mark, Joshua J. "Philosophy." Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 02 Sep 2009. Web. 29 Sep 2020.

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