What Distinguishes Philosophy From Sociology?


College students and people entering the workforce have myriad options when it comes to choosing an academic major or a career. People who are interested in the fundamental questions of life and the universe, or who take a keen interest in society and how it functions, may gravitate toward philosophy or sociology. These two fields are distinct, but sometimes overlap.

Philosophy Overview

  • Philosophy is a very broad field that touches on many areas of study. Traditionally, philosophy strives for a systematic, logically consistent view of phenomena or concepts, although many anti-systematic philosophies also exist. Political philosophy examines the nature of political systems, and their underlying assumptions. Philosophy of mind tackles tough questions about consciousness, and the relationship between perception, reality and the self. Moral philosophy engages with questions of right and wrong, and explores how individuals and groups act under different circumstances.

Sociology Overview

  • Unlike philosophy, sociology is a social science, and a relatively new field. It emerged in the 19th century, and developed as a full-fledged academic discipline in the 20th century. Sociology is the study of the dynamic relationship of individuals and groups to social structures, institutions and culture. On a practical level, it seeks to understand and improve how people live and interact within society.

Practical Applications of Philosophy

  • Because it is often abstract and theoretical, some people accuse philosophy of being an impractical pursuit divorced from real-world applications. However, philosophy underpins or influences many fields that are firmly rooted in practical concerns. For example, philosophers who study and comment on politics and political systems may seek to improve the effectiveness of government and the administration of justice. Moral philosophy applies to the everyday ethical decisions of individuals, as well as to huge, national questions of moral action, like warfare or environmental problems. More recently, philosophy and experimental psychology have grown increasingly intertwined, as philosophers explore the deeper questions of consciousness. Philosophy, therefore, may help to answer crucial questions about how our minds and brains operate.

Practical Applications of Sociology

  • Sociology applies scientific methods to the study of social phenomena and problems. As such, it offers an empirical and systematic method for addressing the most perplexing conundrums facing human civilization. For example, some sociologists study the effects of deprivation on children, and identify ways to break the cycle of poverty. Other sociologists study workplaces and other social institutions to observe and render conclusions about how people interact, for the sake of improving our relations with one another. Because we all live within a society, sociology is ultimately relevant to everyone, and can serve to demystify the fundamental workings of the social structures in which we spend our lives.

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