Structure of Philosophy

The last thread we discussed what philosophy is in the broadest sense. In this one, we'll talk about how to break it up into smaller chunks, and the advantages and disadvantages of this process.

Objectivism is broken up into 5 categories, or branches of philosophy. Metaphysics, Epistemology, Ethics, Politics, and Esthetics. Like any process of categorizing, the point is to divide it into more manageable pieces. Also, you can always have more or less divisions, depending on what is appropriate. When we talked about philosophy in general, we didn't bother to subdivide the category, but as we go further, the categories will help. It'll keep our attention on similarities between some ideas, and how they differ from others.

The first three branches are the most basic questions of philosophy. Esthetics and Politics can be considered subsections of the others. So let's first look at the three big ones. Metaphysics, Epistemology, and Ethics.

Now remember we're trying to understand a world view here. One of the most basic questions is, what's the nature of the world? Ignore for a moment that we have lives to live, or that we're viewing the world. What is the world if we weren't around? If we die, will reality still exist? What does it mean to exist? How do we explain how things change? All of these kinds of questions revolve around what the world actually is. This is Metaphysics.

Objectivist Metaphysics discusses things like the Law of Identity, the nature of consciousness, causality and change, what it means to exist or not exist, and those kind of things.

The next question is how do we know what reality is? Can we know what the world is? What mechanisms would we use? Is there a right way and wrong way? That's the realm of Epistemology, which deals with the philosophical ideas related to knowledge of reality.

Objectivist Epistemology deals with ideas like reason vs. faith, sense perception, the nature and function of emotions, concept formation, and how our knowledge is organized, integrated, and differentiated.

You might notice that even this distinction is not universally accepted. The idea that allows Objectivism to claim the two are separate is the belief in an objective reality, meaning it exists outside of our minds. If instead you believed that the world is a figment of our imagination, then the nature of the world and how we know it wouldn't be different. It'd be whatever we happen to imagine. But because we do accept the two as different, we break it into two chunks. What is the world? And how do we know it?

That point should be obvious, but I'll repeat it in another form. The way you break up philosophy is dependent on what the philosophy believes. Where we see two different categories, some will see only one. So we talk about Objectivism being broken up into 5 different branches. But if we were to discuss another philosophy, it may not have the same categories. Still, it's generally useful to discuss things in terms of these basic branches of philosophy, even if you have to qualify it occasionally. That way, you get a good idea of where the major differences are.

The last major category is ethics. It ultimately asks the question of how we should act. How do we make choices, and are some better than others? What's required to say that one is better than another. Should we follow moral rules? Or should we seek particular ends? What is good and what is evil, or do they exist at all?

Objectivist ethics is an ethics of rational self-interest. It deals with ideas like standards of value, moral principles, the nature of values, virtues, etc.

This categorization is particularly controversial. Often people talk about ethics vs. morality, claiming that one is for how you deal with other people, while the other is what you do for your self. For example, if you think helping other people is the definition of good, then you've got one category for that kind of action and decision making. But you have a different way of determining what actions you should do to help yourself. Objectivists reject this dual-system, or any other. When you make choices, you have to make it between all of your options. Having a self-interested choice and a other-interested choice doesn't tell you which of the two you should do. Objectivism says you need a single decision making process that leads to a single result. So this is a place where we may have less branches than other philosophies.

I talked earlier about how philosophy is inescapable. Everyone has one. Well, the same is true for these branches as well. Metaphysics, Epistemology, and Ethics are all necessary parts of your world view. Everyone has some view of what the world is, and how they know it. Everyone has some view of what the right course of action is, or how they should make decisions. It may not be consistent or logical, it may be horribly flawed, but everyone has it. So these categories are appropriate in that respect. They're universal, even if some people blur the distinctions between them, or subdivide them ever further.

The last two branches are Politics and Esthetics. Politics is sometimes referred to as Objectivist ethics in society. It's not true. This is along the lines of the morality/ethics split I mentioned above, as if there are two standards you use, one when alone, the other when surrounded by people.

Instead, politics is best summed up as the branch of philosophy that deals with the use of force between men. That means it deals with the nature of force and coercion as well as the nature and legitimacy of government. Objectivist Politics deals with ideas like force and fraud, whether force is an initiation or retaliation, the need and role of government, the limits of government, the legitimacy of self-defense, the Law, etc.

Politics is not a separate branch like the first three. In fact, it's an aspect of ethics. The fundamental question is how do we act towards our fellow men in the context of the use of force. But since the question is how do we act, it necessarily falls under ethics. Politics is a subset of ethics. But the context of force is so important, and so different from other kinds of choices, that it is granted special recognition as an entire branch. This is helped by the fact that philosophies with wildly different ethics bases sometimes end up with very similar politics. Altruists who think the poor should be helped at any costs might draw the line at actually forcing people to do it, for instance. But it's important to remember that politics is a part of ethics. We'll discuss this more in the future.

Esthetics (or Aesthetics) is the branch of philosophy that deals with nature of art, and man's need for it. The crucial role it fulfills in man's life is actually epistemological, so you can think of esthetics as a branch of epistemology. Esthetics deals with the question of whether art provides anything useful to us, how does our conceptual (abstract) thinking work and what problems can arise from it, what is a Sense of Life and how does art trigger a Sense of Life response, etc. This is a greatly misunderstood branch of philosophy, and many people don't even recognize it as being important. Even Objectivists, who are usually attracted to the philosophy through Rand's fictional works, often ignore the power of art, and the source of that power.

Now I mentioned that there are strengths and weaknesses to doing a subdivision. The truth is, each branch has a lot of dependence on the other branches. In Epistemology, Objectivists promote logic, which is a method of analyzing data in a non-contradictory way. But logic is only appropriate if reality is in fact non-contradictory. So each branch is not some floating field of information unrelated to the others. They're very well integrated. So you have to resist the temptation to stay within the particular category and ignore the others.

Another problem is that some ideas span more than one of these branches. For instance, we could ask ourselves how is it that we should organize our thoughts. This is a question that can't be answered correctly outside of the context of ethics. In order to know how you should organize your thoughts, you have to know what purpose you're trying to fulfill, and what are the costs and benefits. For instance, you'll learn later in the concept formation discussion that you can create an infinite number of concepts. But does that mean you should? Ethics gives you the purpose and allows you to evaluate costs and benefits, but epistemology is also needed. You can't tell what's a good course of action without evaluating whether it'll actually satisfy its purpose.

Does that make sense? Another example would be in choosing your values. In some kind of fantasy land, you might like to start from scratch, and evaluate every possibility, ensuring that you're properly weighing every possible choice correct, and coming up with the optimal solution. Ethics would tell you that this task would take a billion years, so you have to pick something else. What's our minds method of organizing all of our choices? How do we do it without thinking about every possibility that exists? At this point, epistemology comes in. It gives us insight into how our minds work, how we retain the information that we do, and make the choices that we do. We can use this information to then go and make better choices.

So this downside of the categories is that in real life some ideas straddle the categories. By breaking it up, we run the risk of thinking within a single box. The categories are useful in some contexts, but we have to know their limits.

And they are useful. A lot of confusion happens when someone hasn't properly distinguished between metaphysics and epistemology. The two are different, and problems happen in each branch. If you jumble the two, you won't be able to keep it clear whether you're talking about what the world actually is, or what our knowledge of the world is. Similarly, ethics has to be guided by what choices we're aware of, not by choices we aren't aware of, even if they exist. That sounds simple, but when judging a choice after the fact, some people fall into that trap.

It also helps because in each branch, you can judge the idea by the criteria of the branch. In ethics, you judge the ideas based on whether they're useful in helping you make choices. Everything in ethics revolves around this, so it's important to note and refer to it. In epistemology, it's all about knowledge of reality. You judge the ideas by whether they're compatible with this benchmark. You get the idea.

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