The five main branches of philosophy that every student needs to know

In any intro to philosophy you will learn about the main branches of philosophy. In this article I will discuss the 5 branches of philosophy that have historically always been taught. Traditionally most consider these fundamental disciplines within philosophy. But before we delve into them it is important to note that this categorization is not universal. They make most sense for western philosophy. Buddhist philosophy  is not so easily categorized in parts and definitely not in the 5 parts that make up western philosophy. But even western philosophy itself lends itself to different divisions. Instead of the main branches of philosophy, it can be divided into continental and analytic philosophy. The division becomes even more problematic when we consider that these branches overlap heavily. Many philosophers and their texts are not so neatly pushed in one of these categories. But nevertheless it is an important division because it helps us better understand what philosophy is about. But it is important to remember that these categories have evolved through a historical process and are not universal by nature.


Metaphysics is one of the oldest philosophical disciplines. Aristotle called it  ‘First Philosophy.’ In contemporary philosophy metaphysics is almost exclusively taught as a historical relic which has not significance left. Starting with Immanuel Kant the project of metaphysics has been severely critiqued. Metaphysics, or ontology as it is also called, is the study of what is real. It tries to uncover the fundamental base or the first principles of reality. Its scope is beyond the natural sciences because it refers to what we perceive through the senses. Metaphysics by its very nature attempts to go beyond our senses. It asks questions likes ‘what is matter’, ‘what is space’ or ‘how is existence possible?’branches of philosophy


Epistemology concerns itself with knowledge. Its project is threefold. First epistemology tries to find the nature of knowledge. What does it mean to have knowledge? It also tries to find our sources of knowledge. Are we born with innate ideas or do we acquire knowledge through experience by way of our sense? Kant solved this problem, but the way knowledge arises is still in debate. Finally epistemology tries to find the limits of knowledge. In this respect epistemology and metaphysics are closely related.


Logic is as an independent branch of philosophy and  an instrument for the other major branches of philosophy. As one of the main branches of philosophy it asked the question: ‘what are the correct rules for reasoning?’ Keep in mind that it does not concern itself with truth. One can reason logically correct with false premisses and arrive at a false conclusion. But  the conclusion’s truth does not impede on the process of reasoning’s validity. Logic is only concerned with laws of valid reasoning.


Ethics concerns itself with the value of human actions. It can also be called moral philosophy. But ethics is not only moralistic . Not all kinds of ethics regard stealing as bad . Ethics concerns itself with what classifies some actions as right and some as wrong. But also on the nature of what is good and bad. Lastly it tries to find methods for classifying actions as praiseworthy or blameworthy. Within ethics we distinguish meta-ethics, normative ethics and applied ethics. Meta ethics research morality and whether it exists. Normative ethic discusses how we should develop moral values. The name applied ethics speaks for itself.


Aesthetics studies art and beauty. It tries to uncover why we find something beautiful and another ugly. We distinguish between two main schools of aesthetics. The objective school suggests that beauty is something measurable and real. the subjective school asserts the role of the beholder. ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ is a statement of this school.

Besides the main branches of philosophy one can also create a philosophy about different topics. Leadership philosophy is an important example. Philosophers research what makes a good leader in this field and translate their findings to concrete instructions for aspiring leaders. But in sports one can also do philosophy. If one thinks about a great athlete and what their characteristics are, they can develop a philosophy of sports. But also coaching philosophy is widespread. It is possible to research the qualities of a good coach and argument for them philosophically.

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