Meaning of Philosophy

The term “philosophy” has various senses and uses.

Wambari (1992) distinguishes the following: ideological, stoical and technical or professional usage


Usages of philosophy

 Ideological usage

This is the sense in which we talk about “philosophy of life.” Philosophy, in this sense, is an attitude or approach to life, a guide to action or a set of beliefs concerning morality, politics or life in general. Ideological philosophies are helpful in religion, business and politics in terms of mobilizing people psychologically towards some desired goal. This is a narrow conceptualization of philosophy. Properly understood, philosophy involves criticizing and evaluating such ideologies in order to determine their meaning, underlying assumptions, implications, justification and value.


 Stoical usage

Stoicism was a philosophical school of thought which had its origin in Athens in the third century B.C. stoicism taught the following:


  • The universe is orderly due to the operation of a universal force they called God.
  • God was understood as a material but invisible substance permeating all things and all beings.
  • God determines the laws of nature and the orderliness of the universe is natural and rational.
  • Everything that occurs is inevitable and is governed by reason.
  • Human nature and human life is governed by inviolable universal force or law. Everything humans do or experience is inevitable.
  • God assigns to all beings their particular place and role in the universe. Life is therefore, a package.
  • A wise person recognizes his/her role and accepts it.


Stoicism taught people to adjust their thought to reality as it is and accept it in order to save themselves the agony of trying to change what cannot be changed.

The stoical sense of philosophy reflects the teaching of stoicism. When one is claimed to be philosophical, it is meant that one is realistic and sensibly calm under trying circumstances.


The technical or professional usage

This is a special sense that transcends the popular usages described above. It implies a way of thinking that involves examining, questioning and doubting much of what we normally take for granted. It is in this sense that the term “philosophy” itself was coined by the Greek thinker Pythagoras. The word itself means “love of wisdom”. Wisdom is neither inheritable nor instantly available. It is earned through diligent and disciplined mental activity. One has to set the mind in motion toward examining concepts, relating ideas, developing new concepts and seeing through and beyond mere words and facts. This is the sense in which we shall understand philosophy as “a reflective and reasoned attempt to infer the character and the content of the universe, taken in its entirety and as a single whole, from an observation and study of the data presented by all its aspects”.


  Distinctive Characteristics of Philosophy

Philosophy, in the technical and professional sense, is an intellectual activity characterized by among others, the following:

 Inquiry based on philosophical questions. Philosophers ask and attempt to answer difficult but important questions about the universe and their experience within it. Such questions include: what makes actions right or wrong? How can we know that we know? What is real? Is reality one or many? What is beauty? Are truth and beauty related? Lavine (1984) Calls these questions stubborn, indestructible questions the kind of which “time will not banish them or get rid of them for you. To be a human being is to ask these questions. ” Philosophical inquiry is based on such questions. It also generates them.


This is the process by which complex concepts are broken down into their component parts for the sake of clarification and simplification analyzed concepts are easier to examine, relate and understand.


This is careful examination of issues, arguments, points of view and claims in order to determine their foundations, assumptions, meaning and implications. It is an assessment of the strengths as well as weaknesses of an argument or a position taken in a given issue. This assessment is based on reasons and evidence and is, therefore, impartial and rational. Criticism, in philosophy, is not merely looking for faults. It is impartial scrutiny geared toward the pursuit of truth and understanding.


Open minded discussion is central in philosophy. Dialogue enables people to freely express their opinions and beliefs as well as attempt to justify them. Through discussion, ideas are subjected to criticism and review. New ideas are generated and subjected to further discussion. In such discussions, persons address issues instead of attacking persons.


This is the process of ascertaining the worth or worthlessness of ideas or arguments on the basis of clear and reasonable criteria. It involves the making of judgements regarding ideas.


This is reconstruction of ideas concepts and arguments in order to develop better and well justified ones. Such synthesis is based on reasoned thought.


Areas in Professional Philosophy

There are four main areas of study in professional or technical philosophy namely: metaphysics, epistemology, axiology and logic. In addition, there is applied philosophy or called “philosophy of – “category as explained below.

Metaphysics:  This is also called the study or theory of reality. It is reasoned thought about reality. The main question of metaphysics is: what is reality? Other related questions include: Is reality one or many? How is reality accessible if at all?

Epistemology:   This is also called the theory of knowledge. It is reasoned thought about knowledge. The main question of epistemology is: what is knowledge? Other related questions include: How is knowledge attained if at all? How do we know that we know?

Axiology:  This is also called the theory of value. The main question raised is: What is value as such. This question is indifferent to any specific sort of values. They may be economic, cultural, political or moral values. However, greater focus has historically been given to moral and aesthetic values leading to focus on ethics and aesthetics.


 Functions of Philosophy

Olela (1988, 19-26) discusses the following functions of philosophy.

Integration of experience

The universe as we experience it is both diverse and unified. Reasoned thought helps us to integrate and harmonize these apparently opposed aspects of reality.

Nurturing of our awareness and sensitivity

Reasoned thought assists us to not only understand the universe but also ourselves as part of it. Self-examination enhances the consciousness of our own limitations and capabilities. This awareness and sensitivity is crucial in assisting us to adapt to the challenging and complex situations of life.

Clarification and justification of belief

Beliefs are the basis of our actions. Reasoned thought about our beliefs enables us to ensure that they are well-founded and thus rationally justifiable. If our actions are to be effective in enhancing our well-being, they should be founded on a clear and rationally justifiable beliefs.

Bridging the gap between theory and practice

Philosophy raises questions regarding the meaning, foundations, purpose, justification, verification and application of theories. This is useful in ensuring that theories inform practice appropriately. Philosophy also evaluates practice and raises questions regarding the extent to which practice confirms to theory and why.

Providing a condition for the freedom of the mind

Philosophy seeks to literate us from the slavery of ignorance and irrationality. It helps us to examine our own beliefs, assumptions and prejudices. It assists us to, act rationally and justly. This broadens our realm of freedom and enhances our capacity to act and respond responsibly, intelligently and creatively.



Considering the above functions of philosophy “can you imagine a world in which nobody any longer asked the philosophic questions, nobody was philosophical?

It would be a world in which nobody penetrated below the facts of everyday life to think about what is real, true, valuable, just and meaningful in life. It would be a world of mechanical men, women and children moving among physical objects; a world in which we would have become hollow men going through meaningless motions and speech would be empty chatter.”



Destiny Namwamba. Essentials of Critical and Creative Thinking