We are going to discuss the branches of Philosophy. Now there is no single universally accepted division of philosophy into branches and it may be found as many taxonomies of philosophy as there are philosophers. But the following four-fold division has been helpful.
I divide philosophy into four parts according to its subject matter. Philosophers ask questions about, and debate theories explaining, reality knowledge, values, and the self. The classical names for these four topics are being (that’s reality), truth (that knowledge), goodness or beauty (that’s values) and man or the human person(that’s the philosophy of the self).
The names for these four branches of philosophy are metaphysics, Epistemology ethics or aesthetics, and philosophical anthropology.
It’s important to remember that these four categories are not mutually exclusive or absolute. For example, when Socrates declares that the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being he is making a claim both about what a human being is, that is, a claim in philosophical anthropology, and a claim about how a human being should behave, that is, a claim in ethics.
Or to take another example: Plato’stheory of forms is a metaphysical theory, a theory about whatis real, which is the forms or ideas, and it strongly implies a certain epistemology, that is a way of knowing the forms. If the forms are immaterial, then we cannotknow them using our senses; we have to use intellect and reason to know them. With that in mind let’s take a closer look at the four branches.
First, the branch of philosophy dealing with theories of reality is called metaphysics. In metaphysics we find philosophers using concepts such as being, becoming, nature, essence, causation, space-time, number, and God. Metaphysical questions that you will find dealt with in philosophy include what is real and what is apparent in our experience. It doesn’t too much reflection to realize that things are not always what they seem. A certain metaphysical theory might help us to sort out what is real and what is only apparently real, or what is more real and less real in the appearances that make up our experience. Another metaphysical question is: what is the ultimate reality, or what is the ground of reality?
Is there some aspect of reality which can help us to explain all the other aspects of reality or appearance? Here we would find a theory like reductionism, which would say that reality just consists of atoms moving through the void, along with their associated energy fields. This turns out to be a metaphysical theory; it’s telling us something about what is real and everything else that appears to be real is simply explainable in terms of those atoms and their energy fields. That’s a metaphysical theory we can contest; we can make arguments for or against it.
But what we’re doing this arguing about philosophical metaphysics. Here are some other metaphysical questions: Are there any nonsensible realities? These might be ideas, they might be gods or divine beings, and this would lead us then into the philosophy of religion and questions of how I should relate to these divine beings, and other nonsensible realities.
The second branch of philosophy deals with knowledge and truth and this is called epistemology. In epistemology we find philosophers using concepts such as truth, doubt, method, senses, reason, intuition, and perception. Epistemological questions include: How can we escape scepticism? Can we know anything, or are we just doomed to have a series of opinions?
What are the boundaries of human knowledge? Are there certain things that are unknowable for human minds? What methods reliably produce truth? What is the character of truth? It’s worth noting that much of modern philosophy since the sixteenth century has been devoted to working out epistemological problems associated with the knowledge generated by modern scientific methods.
The third branch of philosophy deals with values, broadly construed and is sometimes called value theory. It deals with how and what we value. More usually we speak of ethics, which deals with values of right and wrong, and aesthetics, which deals with values of beauty, and political philosophy, which deals with values of justice and the common good.
So in value theory, we find concepts such as: right and wrong, good and evil, virtue and vice, happiness or flourishing, beauty and justice, and their opposites. Questions in value theory would include: How ought I to behave? How should I govern my decisions? Are certain acts obligatory or forbidden for me, and on what grounds? How should politics and society be organized?
Lastly, The branch of philosophy deals with the human self. This branch is called philosophical anthropology, or sometimes philosophy of human nature. This branch especially concerns me, I, the one making the philosophical inquiry, the one asking these questions. What am I? What do the answers to these questions in the other branches of philosophy mean for me as a philosopher? Here we find concepts such as self, dignity, purpose, self-knowledge, freedom, and obligation.
Questions in philosophical anthropology might include: What am I? What is the human person? Is my selfhood dependent upon my relation to others? And if so, how? How should I relate to others, including divine beings if there any? Am I free or determined in my choice of actions? Now, a final word about the history of philosophy Simplifying somewhat, I think a good beginners approach to the history of philosophy is to think of the ancient philosophers, and Socrates especially, as motivated primarily by a concern for virtue, and for how to live the good life.
That is, their primary focus was ethics. Medieval philosophers, while they wrote and addressed all four branches of philosophy. The most famously attentive to metaphysical questions, questions of metaphysics dealing with the nature of and the question of the reality of universals. Modern philosophers, especially Descartes and Kant, make epistemological questions their primary concern, especially questions related to the new knowledge generated by modern scientific methods. And in the 20th century, some philosophers have focused even more intently on epistemology, while others turned to questions in philosophical anthropology, asking about the nature of the philosophy itself.