Berkeley Connect Philosophy students explore branches of philosophy 

Last week, I joined Berkeley Connect Philosophy students and mentor Melissa Fusco as they discuss the many different branches of philosophy. When asked to name branches of philosophy, the students put together an impressive “crowd-sourced” list that included everything from epistemology to the philosophy of math.

When one student mentioned the history of philosophy as a branch, Melissa noted that it could further be broken down by period – ancient, medieval, and modern, as well as the newer, more controversial category of analytic philosophy. She explained that some found it unsettling to study the history of analytic philosophy because it is a living philosophical tradition, an approach that continues to dominate today. “A lot of people are used to studying the history of the past, but studying something that is ongoing is weird to them,” she observed. “A little like burying someone – or in this case, something – alive.” But she explains that philosophers who study the history of analytic philosophy are often interested in the chain of scholarship. One of her colleagues who studies Gottlob Frege, the father of analytic philosophy, has looked through library records to see what Frege was reading and who potentially influenced his ideas. “Many people don’t know that he was interested in a lot of obscure Italian philosophers.”

Another student asked whether the philosophy of math and the philosophy of science were really two different branches. “Aren’t they similar?,” he asked. But Melissa and others pointed out that there were key differences. For one, science has experiments, while math does not. But they agreed that the two were inter-connected. “Many philosophers of science were also interested in math,” Melissa said, citing Karl Popper, an influential philosopher of science who also studied the philosophy of arithmetic.

Melissa and the students also discussed the intersections between different branches. One intersection is that of metaphysics (which seeks to explain the fundamental nature of reality and the world) and epistemology (which studies the nature and scope of knowledge). “In order to study the world, you need to see it from an individual perspective,” one student pointed out. Or as Melissa put it, “to study the stuff in the world, we need to ask how we know about the stuff in the world.” Another student noted that epistemology was connected to psychology as well. Melissa agreed that many branches worked hand in hand with empirical sciences, although she also mentioned that math-oriented epistemologists often dispute their connection to psychology.

Another intersection the student discussed was the one between ethics (moral philosophy) and aesthetics (the philosophy of beauty). As students agreed, both were value theories. Ethics was concerned with the value of goodness, aesthetics with beauty. As students went on to point out many other intersections, Melissa drew connecting lines on the blackboard. What began as a clean diagram soon became cross-hatched with overlapping lines. The discussion made clear that the distinctions between branches of philosophy are not so black-and-white after all.

posted by Katherine Wang
Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant