What is philosophy?
To first understand or explain what philosophy is (and is not), one must understand that knowledge can be broken down into different categories. In English, this doesn’t tend to be a general recognition. When Greek/Latin words are translated into English, various different words can be translated as knowledge. This can be knowledge of a particular kind and/or with regard to some particular thing.
This is particularly a knowledge commonly associated with wisdom. Wisdom is specifically a type of knowledge related to judgment. It is knowledge of a higher kind, because to judge particularly in the sense of applying relevant knowledge to an opinion or situation presupposes the existence and knowledge of that knowledge.
Science is also an English word that means or is derived from a word that meant knowledge. Science is knowledge from the theoretical perspective–a theory being an idea in direct correspondence with actual phenomena; or alternatively, a thought that plays out practically as it is consistent in thought.
Speculative philosophy or first philosophy deals with the fundamentals of the human’s relation to reality, and it deals with the fundamentals of how theory or science is generated. It deals with knowledge at its different levels from basic ideas and experience (present in basic language and correspondence between symbols and images) to the stripping away of various elements, into their ontological (being) and essential categories, toward a higher understanding of how those basic ideas are fundamentally generated and turned into/set the foundations for/ scientific theory.
Natural philosophy or physics is the application of philosophical principals to studying nature.
Ethics, or moral philosophy, also connected with political philosophy, is the ultimate application to human behavior in terms of proper and improper actions and social arrangements.
René Descartes gives a great explanation of the various connections and levels of philosophy below:
“Thus philosophy as a whole is like a tree
whose roots are metaphysics, whose trunk is
physics, and whose branches, which issue from
this trunk, are all the other sciences. These
reduce themselves to three principal ones, viz.
medicine, mechanics and morals—I mean the
highest and most perfect moral science which,
presupposing a complete knowledge of the
other sciences, is the last degree of wisdom.”
René Descartes, – Selections from the
Principles of Philosophy
There also has to be a distinction drawn between what is “pop” or popular philosophy or just general study of the history of philosophy and dealing with philosophic ideas.
The remaining concepts to discuss are dialectic and logic. Dialectic controls the entire movement of philosophy, through the philosophical processes multi-sided nature and positing an answering of questions with concern for counterexamples and contradictions in logic. Dialectic will be further explained in the next fact. However, here it must be stated, that dialectic is the fundamental element that distinguishes philosophy proper.
Logic goes back to logos meaning “reason, idea, word”, it is particularly an art of reasoning in its modern form. A part of reasoning is the validity and soundness of arguments, in terms of premises and conclusions. If the premises are true, the conclusion must be true, and an individual must deal with true premises in order to develop proper philosophy. There, also, can be no jumps or assumptions that build upon themselves. That makes one of the core logical fallacies that of begging the question, i.e., attempting to establish that which is not self-evident by means of itself.
Along with dialectic, logic is a core element of philosophy. Logic can also be seen, insofar as it regulates reasoning, both as containing the entire system of philosophy, as laid out in Hegel’s Science of Logic, or as one element, in particular, like that of formal logic.
What is dialectic?
Dialectic is the process of reasoning that takes place through speech or dialogue. It is usually associated with various methods or techniques such as the ancient Eleatic philosophers – Parmenides, Zeno (paradoxes), etc. – or such as in the Socratic method from Plato’s dialogues, in Hegalian logic or within Freudian psychoanalysis.
One of the best places to start with reading philosophy is with the Complete Works of Plato. In addition to not being as difficult to read as works from like Spinoza or Hegel, it is a great introduction to fundamental ideas and dialectic.
The most notable works include: The Apology, Euthyphro, Gorgias, The Parmenides, The Republic, etc.
Spinoza expands upon Descartes philosophy, adding political elements and taking the metaphysics to a logical conclusion. Both Ethics and Tractatus Theologico-Politicus are groundbreaking in their political, theological and metaphysical implications.
Phenomenology is the best start to reading Hegel. You must already understand dialectic and fundamental metaphysics but those concepts are required for understanding Plato, Descartes and Spinoza. After reading other great philosophers, Hegel will only be a continuation. Kant (or any other German philosopher) is not required exept for context. To understand the context of philosophical ideas, it would help becoming familiar with Leibniz’s reaction to Spinoza and Descartes, his building on their ideas, other popular, German philosophy and Kant’s reaction, as well as English works, e.g., Hume and Locke.