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Philosophy concerns itself with --

  • what is the best way to live (ethics),
  • what sorts of things really exist and what are their true natures (metaphysics),
  • what is to count as genuine knowledge (epistemology), and
  • what are the correct principles of reasoning (logic).

See ethics, metaphysics, epistemology, and logic. Also, see philosophers for a chronological presentation of the history of philosophy.

Fracture of philosophy and science (late 1700s) --
We can understand Man as a being within nature who can be studied by science. But the very act of studying Man in this fashion takes him outside of nature because our capacity to understand nature relies on making a distinction between inert, mechanical nature and active, thinking man.

The subject-object distinction and the human-nature cleavage, therefore, are both different ways of expressing the problem of representing the seemingly transcendent aspect of our humanity within a mechanical universe. Unfortunately, very rarely have these two aspects of the same fundamental problem been considered simultaneously. Modern philosophy has concerned itself, rather abstractly, with the problem of the relationship between subject and object. Philosophers have attempted to delineate what can be known of nature construed as 'external' reality, and whether humanity, as the knowing subject, is necessarily distinct from it. Scientists, on the other hand, have concerned themselves with the question of how the empirical knowledge we have of nature can be applied to understanding the specific qualities of Man. The reason for this division of labor lies in the fracture between science and philosophy established towards the end of the eighteenth century. (Malik, 2000, 53)

Today we tend to regard science and philosophy as different domains of knowledge and, occasionally, as contradictory domains of knowledge. Science provides objective information about the real world through experiment and analysis, while philosophy provides general, abstract principles about human knowledge and human conduct through the application of reason. For many people, science deals with 'hard facts', while philosophy revels in speculation.

In the seventeenth century no such distinction existed. Science and philosophy formed a common endeavour and created a common body of knowledge. Descartes, for instance, believed that human knowledge was a tree, the trunk of which was physics and the root metaphysics. Indeed, in Descartes' day, what we now call science was labelled 'natural philosophy' - the philosophy of nature. Much of what I discuss in this chapter we would today consider not science but philosophy.

Not until the mid-eighteenth century did the modern conception of the relationship between science and philosophy begin to emerge. The very success of the scientific method led to the separation of science and philosophy and to the distinction between scientific fact and philosophical speculation. This distinction proved invaluable in developing scientific knowledge, but it also became highly problematic in certain areas, particularly the science of Man. Science allowed scholars to ask new and revolutionary questions about the nature of humanity. At the same time, though, it created new and seemingly intractable dilemmas about what it meant to be human. These dilemmas were deepened by the separation of science and philosophy.

The biologist E. 0. Wilson once suggested that 'The history of philosophy consists largely of failed models of the brain.' One might equally say that the history of the science of man consists largely of failed philosophical theories. The separation of science and philosophy meant that scientists exploring the meaning of humanity could remain blind to the philosophical assumptions that animated their work, and at the same time pass off philosophical speculation as scientific fact. The problems of applying the scientific method to understanding Man, problems exacerbated by the separation of science and philosophy, have never been properly resolved. The consequences of this division between science and philosophy have been disastrous. Philosophers (and, following them, social scientists) debate the nature of human subjectivity without considering its rootedness in biology (except in the most superficial way). Natural scientists consider the biological origins of humanity's special qualities without entering into a discussion of human agency (again, except in the most superficial way). The result has been the creation of two mutually hostile camps, one viewing Man from a purely naturalistic viewpoint, the other seeing him as an entirely cultural being. Each is equally one-sided and equally flawed in its attempt to understand what makes us human."" (Malik, 2000, pp 53 - 54).