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Critical examination of the rational grounds of our most fundamental beliefs and logical analysis of the basic concepts employed in the expression of such beliefs. Philosophy may also be defined as reflection on the varieties of human experience, or as the rational, methodical, and systematic consideration of the topics that are of greatest concern to humanity. Philosophical inquiry is a central element in the intellectual history of many civilizations. Difficulty in achieving a consensus about the definition of the discipline partly reflects the fact that philosophers have frequently come to it from different fields and have preferred to reflect on different areas of experience. All the world's great religions have produced significant allied philosophical schools. Western philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas, George Berkeley, and Søren Kierkegaard regarded philosophy as a means of defending religion and dispelling the antireligious errors of materialism and rationalism. Pythagoras, René Descartes, and Bertrand Russell, among others, were primarily mathematicians whose views of reality and knowledge were influenced by mathematics. Figures such as Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and John Stuart Mill were mainly concerned with political philosophy, whereas Socrates and Plato were occupied chiefly by questions in ethics. The Pre-Socratics, Francis Bacon, and Alfred North Whitehead, among many others, started from an interest in the physical composition of the natural world. Other philosophical fields include aesthetics, epistemology, logic, metaphysics, philosophy of mind, and philosophical anthropology. See also analytic philosophy; Continental philosophy; feminist philosophy; philosophy of science.
© 2010 Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.
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