Philosophy doesn’t have to be confusing.
Sure, you can get into the weeds with Heidegger’s Dasein or Hegel’s Dialectical Logic. Some very smart people have devoted their entire lives to wrestling with tricky concepts that can start to seem pretty far removed from ordinary life.
But at its heart, philosophy is nothing more than the search for truth. That means the truth about ourselves, about the world around us, and about the nature of truth itself.
Most people have a vague idea that philosophy means thinking about thought, but often, they don’t go any further than that.
However, there are a few philosophical concepts that, while they may not be all that well-known, can provide real insight into our lives.
If you’re new to these concepts, hopefully this article will provide a jumping-off point for further philosophical investigation.
And if you’re already familiar with these ideas, you’re probably wiser than most of the people around you.
1) Plato’s Cave
Let’s start at the beginning.
The ancient Greeks weren’t the first people to wonder about the universe and seek the truth of existence.
But they were some of the first to write it down, so famous names in Greek philosophy like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle remain some of the most famous and widely-read thinkers in the world.
Plato had dozens of fascinating ideas, but one of the most enduring iis his separation of the world of things from the world of ideas.
Think about it: an idea about a thing exists separately from the thing itself.
So you can think of a cat. And you can see a real cat. Your thought of a cat may or may not resemble the real cat in front of you. But the idea and the thing will never be quite the same.
Plato illustrated this with his idea of the cave.
He imagined a cave where people were chained up facing a wall. Behind the prisoners, there is a fire that provides light. As people move between the fire and the back wall of the cave, their shadows are projected onto the wall, allowing the prisoners to see some of what’s going on.
But how clear an idea are they really getting when all they can see is shadows on the wall of the cave?
For Plato, this was how most people live their lives. Philosophy is the attempt to look beyond the shadows and see the thing itself.
2) Amor Fati
This concept comes from Nietzsche, and can be loosely translated as “love of one’s fate.”
Nietzsche was a controversial figure in his own time. His dense writings are full of mind-blowing ideas, many of which remain as shocking now as when they were first published in the late 19th century.
Bold statements such as ‘God is dead’ and ‘whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ made him famous. But one of his lesser-known but most powerful ideas is this one.
It’s probably best if I let him explain it himself:
“My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendacity in the face of what is necessary—but love it.”
In other words, we need to not merely accept what happens to us, good or bad. We need to actively embrace it.
This does not mean passively accepting whatever life hands to us. After all, Nietzsche wrote elsewhere of the Will to Power, the irrational force people can harness to achieve greatness in life.
On the other hand, amor fati means understanding that no matter what you do, life contains hardships and suffering, and often, those hardships and sufferings lead us to become greater versions of ourselves.
Solipsism is an old idea with roots that go back at least to the Greek philosopher Gorgias in the fourth century BC.
To put it simply, solipsism is the idea that nothing can be known. The only thing in existence you cannot question is your own mind. Everything else could just be an illusion.
While it may be an old idea, solipsism seems to only become more relevant as technology advances. These days, it is often framed as the idea that we may be living in a computer simulation.
But whether it’s a simulation or a hallucination of our own brains, everything you experience may not be real.
How do you know the people around you are real? How do you know the world you move through exists outside your mind?
French philosopher René Descartes famously wrote “Cogito, ergo sum,” usually translated as, “I think, therefore I am” to describe exactly this idea.
Because all our experiences are contained inside our minds, we can never be sure that there’s anything else out there.
For centuries, philosophy was dominated by religion, and in many ways was seen as just part of religious belief.
But as the church began to lose its political power, particularly in Western Europe, questions of God became more acceptable in philosophy.
Here’s the problem that anyone who believes in God must address sooner or later: if God is good and all-powerful, why is there so much evil in the world?
- God is incapable of getting rid of evil, and is therefore not all-powerful;
- or God can remove evil from the world, but chooses not to:
- or God can’t remove evil from the world, and wouldn’t even if they could;
- or God can remove evil from the world, and wants to.
Since evil exists, the fourth proposition can’t be true. But the idea of a loving and powerful God doesn’t work with any of the first three propositions.
Theodicy attempts to explain this contradiction by arguing that God is indeed good, but is not responsible for the evil in the world.
Perhaps instead, God allows evil so that humans have free will and consequences for their actions.
Whether you believe this or not, it’s an important idea to grapple with if you want to understand religion.
5) Good and evil
If you believe in a loving God, the problem of good and evil isn’t particularly troubling.
What God wants is good. What God doesn’t want is evil.
But if you are doubtful about the existence of God, things become trickier.
How do we know what is good and what is evil?
No one considers a soldier killing another soldier in a war the same thing as a serial killer targeting innocent people, for example.
So the same act – in this case, killing – can be moral in one context and immoral in another.
Moral relativism is the belief that there is no absolute good or evil, and that acts are only good or evil depending on the circumstances surrounding them.
It’s an uncomfortable idea when you consider some of the true horrors in the world. Nobody wants to think that genocide, for example, isn’t inherently evil.
But if you want to argue for an absolute good and evil, you’ll have to explain where they come from.
That’s what makes this a concept worth exploring.
6) The Golden Rule
One of the most important questions in philosophy is how to be good. And different thinkers approach this in many different ways.
One such thinker was German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who developed what he called the Categorical Imperative.
Kant argued that we should never treat people as a means to an end, but as an end in themselves.
He also wrote that a person should only act according to principles that they would be willing to see become a universal law.
If that’s making your head spin, it may be easier to think of it like this:
You should only do to other people what you would be willing to have them do to you.
This is an ethical code that you will find in dozens of religions from around the world, and it is sometimes called the Golden Rule.
When people think of existentialism at all, they think of gloomy-sounding ideas like the existential crisis.
Possibly, they think of French philosophers like Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, who is famous for writing, “Hell is other people.”
But existentialism is not the negative philosophy many people believe it to be.
Camus, for instance, argued that life is inherently meaningless. And people’s attempt to find meaning generates what he called the Absurd.
In other words, it’s absurd to ask the universe to mean anything a human could understand.
Instead, Camus argued that people ought to find their own meaning in life that will fulfill them.
In his fantastic essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus uses the old Greek myth of the man condemned to roll a boulder uphill every day and watch it roll downhill again at night.
“The climb to the top is enough to fill a man’s heart,” Camus writes. “We must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
Philosophy is a huge subject you can spend a lifetime studying, but the ideas represented above, although not all that well-known to the general public, represent some of the key concepts.
How many have you heard of? If you’re familiar with these big ideas, you may be more philosophically minded than most people.