What is Philosophy?
Philosophy is a controversial subject which deals with the most fundamental aspects of reality and value. Every area of inquiry and endeavour - from physics and mathematics through to art and history - generates philosophical problems. Philosophers will debate the meaning of life and the meaning of adverbs, the analysis of Divine foreknowledge and the analysis of colour, the nature of mathematics and the nature of nuclear deterrence. Hardly any philosophical question has a 'correct' answer agreed on by all the qualified experts, but this does not mean that in philosophy anything goes. There are some very good answers as well as some quite incompetent ones, and many in between.
A good philosophical answer is one that is backed up by well-ordered and clear arguments indeed an answer without supporting argument is worthless and sometimes barely intelligible. Moreover an answer must be informed must take account of the arguments advanced and of the criticisms and distinctions made by others who have thought deeply about the same questions. These others need not be philosophers; philosophical discussion is at its best when it is informed by the insights and anxieties of other disciplines as well as the resources of its own tradition.
In learning philosophy you have to learn to argue for or against philosophical opinions and to understand and assess philosophical visions and you have to become familiar with some of the arguments and outlooks that have been advanced on certain topics in the past. The latter, however, involves no great effort of memorizing: the difficulty is one of understanding rather than of remembering. Broadly speaking, you learn in lectures what are the traditional and contemporary arguments and theories that have been advanced on a certain topic. This can involve attention to some important period in the over two-thousand-year-long history of the subject or a study of more recent debates; and in tutorials and written work you acquire by practice the skill of advancing cogent and informed arguments of your own.
It is very difficult to give a short and helpful explanation of what a philosophical question is, and how it differs from other sorts of questions. Perhaps the best idea is to give a few examples (although the handful that follow will scarcely give an adequate idea of the range of different topics in which philosophers have taken an interest).
A problem of free will
Advances in scientific knowledge suggest that thoughts and actions are wholly determined by prior natural causes. But if people's actions are so determined, it seems that they cannot have free will and so cannot justly be praised or blamed for their actions. Yet surely you are sometimes free to choose one course of action rather than another? Surely you can be justly praised or blamed for what you do?
A problem of belief
Many people in our community believe in God but can the existence of God be proved? If it cannot, does it follow that their belief is irrational? Then again, theological statements about God's goodness or love cannot be shown to be true by ordinary observation. What sort of evidence would count for or against such a theological statement?
A problem about mathematics
Chemists study substances of various kinds, geologists study rocks, botanists plants, and so on. What do emmathematicians/em study? Numbers? But what are they? 'What is a number?' is not an easy question. Nor is it precisely a mathematical question.
A problem about morality
We all hold that some actions are right and some wrong. But what is it to say that an action is right or wrong? Is it to state a special sort of fact about the action? Is it to say how you feel about the action? Is it to report an arbitrary convention adopted by a particular human society? Is it to register God's mere commands about what to do? Is it to conform actions to the requirements of human nature? Or what?
A problem about scientific method
The laws which scientists state are supposed to hold for all time. But how do they know that the laws they now state will hold in the future? On the basis of past experience? But they are justified in going from 'this always has happened' to 'this always will happen' only if they can be sure the future will be like the past. And how do they know that in future the future will be like the past? All we know is that in the past the future has (so far) been like the past. And surely to rely on this fact would be question-begging (that is, assuming what has to be proved).
To find out more about the question, What is Philosophy?, view the 15 minute online video presentation by Professor Graham Priest, the University of Melbourne's Boyce Gibson Chair in Philosophy.