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In Philosophy, Metaphysics17 is the study of basic assumptions. It is thus roughly equivalent to the "What do I know?" question, above. However, as the name itself implies,18 it is probably erroneous to attempt any exposition of the basic laws without being well versed in the experimental details of Philosophy, which are all of the special fields of knowledge which have grown out of the soil of Philosophy. This then leads to one of those problems of circularity which Philosophers must confront at nearly every turn: you cannot understand any field of knowledge without first understanding all of the assumptions which underlie that field of knowledge, and in every case, those assumptions include all of the assumptions which underlie Philosophy itself; but on the other hand, you cannot study those underlying philosophical assumptions without first cataloging, organizing, and to a large degree, understanding, all of the knowledge you currently possess about all of human knowledge. The solution to this problem of circularity is to use the concept of iterative thought to work through to a metaphysical answer which makes sense to you. The process is thus: 1) organize your knowledge and your thoughts; 2) derive your own metaphysical assumptions; 3) analyze your knowledge and all of your thoughts in light of your own metaphysical assumptions; 4) after performing that analysis, return to study the assumptions to see if they still make sense in light of this further study; 5) if one or more assumptions no longer makes sense, change it and begin again, or in the alternative, move on to Epistemology. In point of fact, if you do a thorough job of it, you will probably find it necessary to iterate back and forth between Metaphysics and Epistemology several times before you are ready to move on to Ethics, and I would be quite surprised if a study of Ethics did not force you to return to, once again, iterating between Metaphysics and Epistemology. Take heart: it does end, sooner or later. It ends when you must resign yourself to failure, having realized (as Will Durant points out) that the part can never fully understand the whole. Nevertheless, the richer treasures of the higher orders await those who give their best to this iterative process.

If Metaphysics deals with the question of "What do I know?", then Epistemology deals with the question of "How do I know it?" In point of fact, these two subjects are so closely related, that it is entirely doubtful they would ever be studied separately. The reason is that only by tagging your knowledge (the "What") with the source of that knowledge (the "How") can you rationally approach decisions as to the relative validity of each concept contained within your base of knowledge, and it is the relative validity of various concepts that you eventually find to be in conflict with one another which will eventually lead you to the development of the most important underlying metaphysical principles of your own philosophy.
Epistemology is probably the most difficult area of Philosophy because it calls into question each and every idea which you claim to possess, requiring you to go through an extremely difficult, and sometimes impossible, journey towards feeling comfortable with your understanding of "the Truth." And, as noted above, it is so closely related to the subject of Metaphysics, that you will find yourself spending a great deal of time bouncing back and forth between the two questions noted above. Each complex thought is to some degree derived from some combination of two or more less complex thoughts, or some logical process performed on one or more such thoughts. You must continue to challenge the sources of each component, keeping track of each "What" that you discover along the way, so that you will remember to study them all and break them all down into their most simple, and therefore fundamental, assumptions. At the base of your philosophy, you will find an irreducible idea or set of ideas where each is either entirely obvious as an axiomatic assumption, such as "I am,"19 or else you will have an alleged axiom which you cannot in any way justify, such as "God is."20
You then have a choice: either you can discard what you cannot justify, or you can accept the fact that others will criticize you for not doing so. In the latter case, you do not have to alter your beliefs, but (as Ayn Rand asserted) you must forever live with the self-doubt of being unable to justify your fundamental personal philosophy. In the former case, you are faced with the much more difficult task of reconstructing a philosophical system of your own out of what you can retain of your axiomatic beliefs. It is towards this latter goal that most courses in Philosophy are pointed; and it is for that reason that Religion abhors Philosophy, because Religion sees Philosophy as a source of conversions away from Religion.

The function of Ethics is to provide answers to Ayn Rand's third question, "What do I do next?" A system of Ethics is basically a set of rules for the conduct of human affairs. As Ayn Rand makes clear in her essays, nobody can possibly give a proper answer to the third question without studying the first two. However, our education does not impart to us the tools necessary to answer the first two questions unless we specifically seek out that kind of training. Accordingly, most of us unquestioningly accept the system of rules (or Ethics) which is handed to us by our elders. In doing so, we surrender our own freedom of choice.
One of Ayn Rand's principal theories is that no person can be truly free until that person has developed his or her own personal philosophy out of the study of Philosophy. Thus, each of you reading this who believes yourself to be free, first ask yourself the first two questions: "What do I know?"; and "How do I know it?" If the answer to the first question is that you know a list of things which have been taught to you, and the answer to the second question is that your elders told you so, then you must realize that you are not free, but that instead, you are the slave of your elders. You trusted your elders; you unquestioningly adopted the ethical system they handed to you; and you have gone forward on that basis as a total slave to the thought pattern which they chose for you. You are NOT free.
Ethics is the most useful part of Philosophy because it has a set of practical rules to guide you through your life. As noted above, the only real question is whether you choose the rules for yourself, or in the alternative, you allow someone else to choose those rules for you.
The central tension in Ayn Rand's work is the choice between allowing each person to make their own rules or imposing a set of rules by some form of group action. This is also the central tension in our own political system here in the United States. It is an unfortunate fact of life that a day does not go by without a blizzard of new rules being promulgated by our government. The entirety of our system of laws is a code of conduct imposed upon us by our elected legislators.
But, you say, the opposite is clearly not the answer, because anarchy cannot yield an organized civilization. This is true, but that includes an assumption that an organized civilization is the destiny of mankind. Have you really thought about all of the implications of this concept? Probably not. Like most people, you take such thoughts for granted, and just "assume" that an organized civilization is "good." Just remember the old breakdown of the word "assume:" "ass-u-me."

When we say that "Politics is a branch of Philosophy," by "Politics" we mean a far greater scope than merely a question of the political party one feels the most affiliation for. The word itself derives from the title of the treatise by Aristotle, written in the fourth century b. c., dealing with the structure, organization, and administration of the state, and in particular, the Greek city-state.21 But in a more general sense, the word encompasses every aspect of how people organize themselves for group action.
This is the arena for debating how governments are organized, laws are created and enforced, taxes are exacted and spent, and what duties the citizen and the state owe to each other in return for the creation of their symbiotic relationship.
There is a strong interaction between Ethics and Politics because Ethics will be used to determine the rightness or wrongness of any use of compulsion by the group against the individual. In the Greek city-states, if an individual wished to disassociate from the government, it could be done by moving out of town beyond the territorial claim of the city-state in question. In modern times, there is no piece of land that does not fall under the rule of some government (or at least nearly so), so the individual can no longer choose to not be governed by any state, but may only choose which state to be governed by. And even that choice must be accomplished by moving to some land area which is ruled by that state. When someone makes a choice of which state to be ruled by, in essence that individual is choosing which Ethics is more compatible with their own beliefs.
Accordingly, the laws imposed by the state amount to a set of group Ethics. You agree to adhere to those group Ethics by remaining a citizen of that state. If you feel that the group Ethics need to be changed for some reason, that change should then be accomplished through Politics.
Diplomacy between sovereign states would also fall under the banner of Politics. In this case, one group of people is trying to relate to, or influence, actions taken by another group of people, or a group of such groups. When diplomacy deals with issues, it is usually a question of Ethics. In other words, one state, in accordance with the Ethics generally accepted by the citizens of that state, believes that another state ought to act in a particular way. Diplomacy is the use of the power of persuasion to cause the other state to conform to the ethical goals of the first state.22 It is in this context that the quotation "War is diplomacy by other means" has its true meaning. In that sense too, war is a branch of Politics.


17 From the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition, 1993, the definition reads: "1. the branch of philosophy that treats of first principles, includes ontology [which is the study of existence] and cosmology, and is intimately connected to epistemology. 2. philosophy, esp. in its more abstruse branches. 3. the underlying theoretical principles of a subject or field of inquiry. 4. (cap., italics) a treatise (4th century B. C.) by Aristotle, dealing with first principles, the relation of universals to particulars, and the teleological doctrine of causation."

18 The word itself comes from the Aristotle essay by the same name. The prefix "meta," when used with Greek loan words, means "after," "along with," "beyond," "among," or "behind." Aristotle used the word to imply his attempt to define fundamental underlying principles of the Universe after he had studied and cataloged all of the physical laws of nature.

19 There have truly been philosophers who would assert that they, themselves, did not exist. The usual rejoinder is to cause them some physical pain, which would remind them that they do so exist.

20 If you have personal contact with God, you would probably be able to honestly assert that God does exist; but if you tell this to any psychological professional outside of your own church, you will probably then have some fairly large possibility of ending up in an asylum.

21 Random House Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition, 1993, seventh definition.

22 Remember, Ethics would include the concept of allowing selfish action. Accordingly, you cannot exclude selfish diplomacy from Politics.

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