What are the Major Branches of Philosophy?
The major branches of philosophy are (roughly), metaphysics (what is), epistemology (what we can know), logic and reason, ethics and morality, and aesthetics (beauty and art). There are also many subdivisions of these branches including, but in no way limited to, theology and ontology (the branches that deal with religion) and the often discussed social philosophies (philosophies of politics and economics).
There is no one way to express either the major or minor branches of philosophy, but with that in mind, we present an overview of each major branch of philosophy, each minor branch, and how to understand them.
How to Understand Philosophy: The Major and Minor Branches of Philosophy
Each field of study in modern life (arts, sciences, etc.) has subdivisions. Philosophy can be divided into political philosophy, philosophy of language, philosophy of the mind (psychology), philosophy of religion, philosophy of economics, philosophy of making a great vegan taco, etc., etc. One could argue that the underlying concepts of each branch are more important than the exact naming of divisions (although some terms like metaphysics are accepted and common), but regardless we explain both below.
What is Philosophy?: Crash Course Philosophy #1: A great overview of philosophy by CrashCourse. The other great resource for YouTube philosophy is The School of Life. These are great resources.If you like them, remember that we introduced you to them and you can find lots great supplemental content on our site.
TIP: If you want another viewpoint, see Introduction to the Five Branches of Philosophy.
FACT: We used to call science “natural philosophy,” while metaphysics was the book that comes after physics. Before the scientific revolution, most academics were a considered to be a branch of philosophy including everything from science, to element theory, to theology.
Philosophy loosely translated means “the pursuit of wisdom” or “the love of wisdom”. It is any line of reasoning that questions that which we can’t know for sure.
More than giving each type of philosophy a name, we can understand philosophizing about each art, science, the mechanics of society and existence, and those philosophical arguments, questions, and musings can always be categorized under the five major branches, and then minor branches. Rarely does a line of questioning only relate to one area of philosophy.
Documentary – Western Philosophy, Part 1 – Classical Education.
TIP: To understand the basics of western philosophy you only really need to read a few philosophers. Start with Aristotle 350 BC. a prolific Greek, who wrote books on each of the major philosophies. Skip ahead to the scientific revolution with Descartes in the 1600’s who sums everything up at that point. Do a quick overview of Locke in the same period as Descartes, and then Kant in the early 1700’s. Review Smith and Marx for a look at economic and political theories, then maybe study Nietzsche and Rawls. It isn’t that they are the only important ones; it is that philosophers tend to be versed in general knowledge with each having read the greats before them. So you’ll see a lot of recurring themes, and importantly for our conversation, you’ll be able to spot the types of philosophies employed.
What are the Minor Branches of Philosophy?
We can consider the branches of philosophy to include, but not be limited to, the philosophy of education, language, mind, religion (ontology and theology), science, art, math, society, economics, laws, politics, games, and more. If one can muse on a subject, and explore meaning which can’t be defined as math, science, and empirical evidence, one is partaking in philosophy and the style of questioning and the subject can be categorized academically.
Branches Of Philosophy. A basic overview of the branches, see our more complete list below.
A List of All the Branches of Philosophy – Explained Simply
With this in mind, below is a list of all major and minor branches of philosophy as they are understood today:
Epistemology – The study of what we can know, the study of truth. Descartes said we couldn’t trust our senses or what we read, all we can know is “I think therefore I am.” On FactMyth.com we try to define what is “a fact” and what is “myth” and label things as true or untrue. Socrates said, “all I know is that I don’t know”. The scientific method is a rule-set with which we can debunk our theories. What is the truth? How do we know? How can we know we know? Why do we believe it? How do we perceive it?
Metaphysics – The study of being, The book that comes after physics, the study of what is there and what is it like. If we take Einstein, Newton, and Michio Kaku’s theories, and then go one step further to look at what is beyond the laws of motion, mass-energy, and string theory, then we are musing on metaphysics. Literally, “meta” coupled with “physics”, meaning “what is beyond physics.” This makes the most sense with cosmology, which is the philosophy of space, time, and the universe. Metaphysics also studies determinism versus free will, the duality of mind and body, and other aspects of being, including religious concepts (ontology and theology, noted below). If we consider this broadly, then metaphysics implies the philosophical study of the physical universe, so it is all questions about reality that we can’t answer with science. Metaphysics can broadly contain all the other philosophies (but even the Greeks considered ethics, logic, epistemology, and aesthetics separately, and we still do today). If you think about it, when we consider the nature of being, it is metaphysics, when we go beyond being
Ontology and Theology – The philosophies that deal with God and religion. Both ontology and theology can be filed under metaphysics; both explore the concept of god. The main difference is theology assumes there is a God as a starting point, and ontology doesn’t. It typically employs logic and other forms of reasoning to try to prove that there is a God. Ontological and Theological arguments are typically paired with other philosophical lines of reasoning.
Logic – The study of reason. In logic, arguments of rhetoric, justice, law, political philosophy and importantly mathematics are mixed. In ways, logic is the math of philosophy (or often, when dealing with rhetoric and politics, the social science of philosophy). We won’t consider how to organize a society based strictly on morality; we will try to use critical thinking, deductive reasoning, and structured arguments. We can say logic is the philosophy of mind, while ethics is the philosophy of the heart. Almost every theory can be categorized under logic, as logic is almost always employed when trying to prove philosophical arguments or explore philosophical problems. Logic, unlike more metaphysical and theological arguments
Ethics – The study of Morality. Ethics is probably the most important and undervalued philosophy in the modern day. It is just what it sounds like, the study of what is right, moral, ethical, and good. The Supreme Court of the United States and the Legislative Branch is meant to be a branch of government rooted in the concept of ethics. We can apply ethics to the self, interpersonal relationships, large groups, and even states. When we consider political and economic philosophy we focus on ethics. Many modern philosophers like John Rawls try to argue for justice and ethics without using ontological or theological arguments, but even the forefathers of philosophy like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle argued for ethics. If we consider the point of life happiness, then we can see the city-state (and thus political science) as the ultimate vehicle with which to spread goodness and happiness in society. When we consider ethics, we think of concepts like good and bad, right and wrong, and virtue and vice.
Political, Economic, Legal, and Social Philosophy – The study of how to organize a society. Many would argue that the most important philosophies are those that have real world application. No lines of reason have more influence on society than political, economic, and social philosophies. If you think of the impact that philosophers like Marx, Smith, Kant, and Locke had on cultures around the world, you can see how this area of philosophy is one of the greatest importance. Almost all of the great thinkers are most widely know for the political, economic, legal, and or social philosophies they have presented. The United States of America is very literally founded in the political, economic, and or social philosophies of the scientific revolution and enlightenment period. This is clear from the wording of the Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and even from the symbolism on the back of the dollar bill. Given this, we should do away with any ideas we may have about philosophy “not being real” or “not being important”. Concepts like the freedom the pursue happiness, life, and liberty in a just society that values enlightenment are philosophical in nature. This line of thinking can also include philosophies of groups such as feminist philosophy.
Tamar Gendler: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Politics and Economics.
Aesthetics – The study of beauty and art. What makes something beautiful? This simple question is its school of philosophy. It is the perception of art and culture as it pertains to aesthetic qualities rather than more anthropological or functional qualities. Aesthetics can also be called Esthetics.
TIP: Sometimes aesthetics is combined with ethics, politics, and other “related” aspects as Axiology.
Philosophy of Mind – The study of self and group thinking. We can break off from metaphysics and the study of being and consider the study of mind. This encompasses individual, interpersonal, and group psychology and theories of group decision making and collective intelligence.
Philosophy of History, Language, and the Humanities – When we study the philosophy of the humanities or history, but not from an aesthetic viewpoint it can be labeled its type of philosophy. We can study filmmakers and film history by looking at the philosophy of film, or we can do the same thing for music. When we study the semantics, structure, or use of language it is the philosophy of language. We can consider how rhetoric relates to political philosophy and philosophy of the mind.
Philosophy of other Arts and Sciences – We can study the foundations, methods, and histories behind any field or pop-culture item. There are no limits when we muse on a subject we partake in a philosophy of it. If we want to muse on the philosophical nature of Pez dispensers, we are at the very least partaking in Pez philosophy. We can consider the beauty of Pez, what we can know about Pez, the philosophical economics, and politics of Pez, etc. It won’t always have a name, but by knowing how the branches of philosophies work, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what line of reasoning you are following.
TIP: Eastern philosophy can be categorized and understood through the lens of western philosophy, or it can be explored on its own merits. To keep this page readable we won’t explore ancient philosophy or Eastern philosophy. You can learn more about philosophies and philosophers at Wikipedia.
EASTERN PHILOSOPHY – Lao Tzu. Here is an Eastern philosophy starter kit. Buddha, Lao Tzu (the Tao), and Confucius should be your first stop.
- Branches of Philosophy
- Divisions of Philosophy
- Introduction to the Five Branches of Philosophy