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What is Philosophy?

What is Philosophy?

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June 14, 2010

Question: What is philosophy?

In order to live, man must act; in order to act, he must make choices; in order to make choices, he must define a code of values; in order to define a code of values, he must know what he is and where he is––i.e., he must know his own nature (including his means of knowledge) and the nature of the universe in which he acts––i.e., he needs metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, which means: philosophy. ––Ayn Rand, The Romantic Manifesto

If Objectivism is a philosophy, the first question to ask is "What is philosophy?"

A philosophy is a comprehensive system of ideas about the world and our place in it, about human nature, about the validity of our knowledge, about the values we should pursue, for ourselves and in our relationships to others. It is a guide for living, because it addresses the course we take in life.

Philosophy has distinct branches that address fundamental questions:

  • Metaphysics (What is reality?)
  • Epistemology (How do I know?)
  • Ethics (What is important for life as a human being?)
  • Politics (What is the purpose of government?)
  • Aesthetics (What is the role of art?)

The most widespread philosophical systems are religions such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or Buddhism. Each religion is a philosophy with its own specific views on issues in each branch. The belief in God, or gods, or a realm beyond the natural world is a metaphysical belief. Many religions have a lot to say about ethics, values, and moral principles.

What is ancient greek philosophy study guide

But religions are only one type of philosophy. In ancient Greece, for example, Plato and Aristotle developed distinctive philosophical systems to address all the major issues, from metaphysics to aesthetics, but did not include the idea of a personal god. Objectivism is similar in this respect.

In politics, philosophical views are often known as ideologies, such as liberalism, conservatism, socialism, and libertarianism. Political philosophies like these offer systematic views on issues such as the proper functions of government, the rights of individuals, and the role of democracy.

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David Kelley


David Kelley

David Kelley is the founder of The Atlas Society. A professional philosopher, teacher, and best-selling author, he has been a leading proponent of Objectivism for more than 25 years.

David Kelley Ph.D
About the author:
David Kelley Ph.D

David Kelley founded The Atlas Society (TAS) in 1990 and served as Executive Director through 2016. In addition, as Chief Intellectual Officer, he was responsible for overseeing the content produced by the organization: articles, videos, talks at conferences, etc.. Retired from TAS in 2018, he remains active in TAS projects and continues to serve on the Board of Trustees.

Kelley is a professional philosopher, teacher, and writer. After earning a Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton University in 1975, he joined the philosophy department of Vassar College, where he taught a wide variety of courses at all levels. He has also taught philosophy at Brandeis University and lectured frequently on other campuses.

Kelley's philosophical writings include original works in ethics, epistemology, and politics, many of them developing Objectivist ideas in new depth and new directions. He is the author of The Evidence of the Senses, a treatise in epistemology; Truth and Toleration in Objectivism, on issues in the Objectivist movement; Unrugged Individualism: The Selfish Basis of Benevolence; and The Art of Reasoning, a widely used textbook for introductory logic, now in its 5th edition.

Kelley has lectured and published on a wide range of political and cultural topics. His articles on social issues and public policy have appeared in Harpers, The Sciences, Reason, Harvard Business Review, The Freeman, On Principle, and elsewhere. During the 1980s, he wrote frequently for Barrons Financial and Business Magazine on such issues as egalitarianism, immigration, minimum wage laws, and Social Security.

His book A Life of One’s Own: Individual Rights and the Welfare State is a critique of the moral premises of the welfare state and defense of private alternatives that preserve individual autonomy, responsibility, and dignity. His appearance on John Stossel’s ABC/TV special "Greed" in 1998 stirred a national debate on the ethics of capitalism.

An internationally-recognized expert on Objectivism, he has lectured widely on Ayn Rand, her ideas, and her works. He was a consultant to the film adaptation of Atlas Shrugged, and editor of Atlas Shrugged: The Novel, the Films, the Philosophy.


Major Work (selected):

Concepts and Natures: A Commentary on The Realist Turn (by Douglas B. Rasmussen and Douglas J. Den Uyl),” Reason Papers 42, no. 1, (Summer 2021); This review of a recent book includes a deep dive into the ontology and epistemology of concepts.

The Foundations of Knowledge. Six lectures on the Objectivist epistemology.

The Primacy of Existence” and “The Epistemology of Perception,” The Jefferson School, San Diego, July 1985

Universals and Induction,” two lectures at GKRH conferences, Dallas and Ann Arbor, March 1989

Skepticism,” York University, Toronto, 1987

The Nature of Free Will,” two lectures at The Portland Institute, October 1986

The Party of Modernity,” Cato Policy Report, May/June 2003;and Navigator, Nov 2003; A widely cited article on the cultural divisions among pre-modern, modern (Enlightenment) and postmodern views.

"I Don't Have To" (IOS Journal, Volume 6, Number 1, April 1996) and “I Can and I Will” (The New Individualist, Fall/Winter 2011); Companion pieces on making real the control we have over our lives as individuals.

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