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Intro to Political Philosophy

Lesson Plan


"The point of philosophy is to start with something so simple as to seem not worth stating, and to end with something so paradoxical that no one will believe it."

Bertrand Russell


(From The Philosophy of Logical Atomism, Lecture II)




What is "philosophy"?


It is the branch of intellectual studies concerned with questions of how one should live (ethics); what sorts of things exist and what are their essential natures (metaphysics); what counts as genuine knowledge (epistemology); and what are the correct principles of reasoning (logic). The word itself is of Greek origin: filosofi°a (philosoph╠a), a compound of filo■ (ph╠los: friend, or lover) and sofi°a (soph╠a: wisdom).


It is very difficult to come up with a single expanded definition of what the field of philosophy really concerns itself with. Most philosophers agree in general principle that it is a method or tool of investigation, instead of a set list or canon of beliefs and theories. Key to the understanding of this field is that its investigations are based upon pure reason, with no unexamined assumptions and no reliance on unexamined faith or pure analogy. Within the field of philosophy many hold very different conclusions about the nature of reason, and even what is included among the subject matter of philosophy itself. One major school of thought holds that it examines the process of inquiry itself; or in other words, "thinks about thinking." The other major school of thought holds that there are essentially philosophical propositions which it is the task of philosophy to prove, such as the nature of reality or the simple validity of truth.


Yes, this is quite heavy material!



What is included in the study of philosophy?


There are four major divisions of the study of philosophy:


Metaphysics refers to the branch of philosophy that attempts to understand the fundamental nature of all reality, whether visible or invisible. It seeks a description so basic, so essentially simple, so all-inclusive that it applies to everything, whether divine or human or anything else. It attempts to tell what anything must be like in order to be at all.


This was first studied systematically by Aristotle, though he did not use that term. He calls it "first philosophy" (or sometimes just "wisdom"), and says it is the subject that deals with "first causes and the principles of things". The modern meaning of the term is any inquiry dealing with the ultimate nature of what exists. Within metaphysics, ontology is the inquiry into the meaning of existence itself, sometimes seeking to specify what general types of things exist (though sometimes the term is taken to be equivalent to metaphysics). The philosophy of mind is a part of metaphysics.



Epistemology is concerned with the nature and scope of knowledge, and whether knowledge is possible. It also attempts to answer a basic question: what distinguishes true (adequate) knowledge from false (inadequate) knowledge? Among its central concerns has been the challenge posed by skepticism: the idea that all our beliefs and thoughts may be somehow illusory or mistaken.


Defined narrowly, epistemology is the study of knowledge and justified belief. As the study of knowledge, epistemology is concerned with the following questions: What are the necessary and sufficient conditions of knowledge? What are its sources? What is its structure, and what are its limits? As the study of justified belief, epistemology aims to answer questions such as: How we are to understand the concept of justification? What makes justified beliefs justified? Is justification internal or external to one's own mind? Understood more broadly, epistemology is about issues having to do with the creation and dissemination of knowledge in particular areas of inquiry. This article will provide a systematic overview of the problems that the questions above raise and focus in some depth on issues relating to the structure and the limits of knowledge and justification.


Ethics, or 'moral philosophy', is concerned with questions of how agents ought to act. Plato's early dialogues constitute a search for definitions of virtue. Metaethics is the study of whether ethical value judgments can be objective at all. Ethics can also be conducted within a religious context.


The field of ethics involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behavior. Philosophers today usually divide ethical theories into three general subject areas: metaethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics. Metaethics investigates where our ethical principles come from, and what they mean. Are they merely social inventions? Do they involve more than expressions of our individual emotions? Metaethical answers to these questions focus on the issues of universal truths, the will of God, the role of reason in ethical judgments, and the meaning of ethical terms themselves. Normative ethics takes on a more practical task, which is to arrive at moral standards that regulate right and wrong conduct. This may involve articulating the good habits that we should acquire, the duties that we should follow, or the consequences of our behavior on others. Finally, applied ethics involves examining specific controversial issues, such as abortion, infanticide, animal rights, environmental concerns, homosexuality, capital punishment, or nuclear war. By using the conceptual tools of metaethics and normative ethics, discussions in applied ethics try to resolve these controversial issues. The lines of distinction between metaethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics are often blurry. For example, the issue of abortion is an applied ethical topic since it involves a specific type of controversial behavior. But it also depends on more general normative principles, such as the right of self-rule and the right to life, which are litmus tests for determining the morality of that procedure. The issue also rests on metaethical issues such as, "where do rights come from?" and "what kind of beings have rights?"


Logic has two broad divisions: mathematical logic (formal symbolic logic) and what is now called philosophical logic, the logic of language. It is concerned with characterizing notions like inference, rational thought, truth, and contents of thoughts, in the most fundamental ways possible, and trying to model them using modern formal logic.


The notions in question include:

-           Reference: a relation between objects in which one object designates, or acts as a means by which to connect to or link to, another object

-           Predication: a high level pursuit that defines which statements of first order logic are provable

-           Identity: is whatever makes an entity definable and recognizable, in terms of possessing a set of qualities or characteristics that distinguish it from entities of a different type. Or, in layman's terms, identity is whatever makes something the same or different.

-           Truth: There are differing claims on such questions as what constitutes truth; how to define and identify truth; what roles do revealed and acquired knowledge play; and whether truth is subjective, relative, objective, or absolute.

-           Negation: an operation on logical values, for example, the logical value of a proposition, that sends true to false and false to true. Intuitively, the negation of a proposition holds exactly when that proposition does not hold. In grammar, not is an adverb which acts as a coordinating conjunction.

-           Quantification: has several meanings, general and specific. Primarily it covers all those acts which quantify observations and experiences by converting them into numbers through counting and measuring.

-           Existence: a branch of philosophy known as ontology. Many questions arise concerning existence. Is what we experience and observe all there is to existence? Do abstract ideas, such as virtue, exist? Is existence orderly and knowable or chaotic and unknowable? Does there exist an external reality that is completely ontologically independent of our conceptual schemes, linguistic practices, and beliefs?

-           Necessity: a complex set of concepts like possibility, existence, and contradictions

-           Definition: a statement of the meaning of a term, word or phrase.

-           Entailment: (or logical implication) is a relation between sets of formulae such that, if A and B are sets of formulae of a formal language, then A entails B if and only if every model (or interpretation) that makes all the members of A true, makes at least one of the members of B true.


Philosophical logic is not concerned with the psychological processes connected with thought, or with emotions, images and the like. It is concerned only with those entities Ń thoughts, sentences, or propositions Ń that are capable of being true and false. To this extent, though, it does intersect with philosophy of mind and philosophy of language.




What is "political philosophy"?


It is the study of fundamental questions about the state, government, politics, liberty, justice, property, rights, law and the enforcement of a legal code by authority: what they are, why (or even if) they are needed, what makes a government legitimate, what rights and freedoms it should protect and why, what form it should take and why, what the law is, and what duties citizens owe to a legitimate government, if any, and when it may be legitimately overthrownŃif ever. In a vernacular sense, the term "political philosophy" often refers to a general view, or specific ethic, belief or attitude, about politics that does not necessarily belong to the technical discipline of philosophy.


Three central concerns of political philosophy have been the political economy by which property rights are defined and access to capital is regulated, the demands of justice in distribution and punishment, and the rules of truth and evidence that determine judgments in the law.



Who are the major political philosophers, that directly impacted the American political system?


-           Plato

-           Thomas More

-           Thomas Hobbes

-           John Locke

-           Jean Jacques Rousseau

-           Adam Smith




Do we really need to know all this?


No. It is just an interesting field to explore. You need to know the basic definitions, which I will outline in class, and the basic set of political philosophers, ditto. 






The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (not all is online yet): http://plato.stanford.edu/


The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: http://www.iep.utm.edu/e/ethics.htm


Wikipeida (yes, yes, I know!): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philosophy



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