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From Socrates to modern science: New perspectives in European philosophy

It’s likely that most people go through their everyday lives without really considering the value of philosophy or how it continues to exert an influence on the way society functions. For those of us who are exposed to the great thinkers of Western Philosophy, from Socrates onwards, it’s usually only during our school and university education, and then after that we begin our careers and never really actively engage with these thinkers’ ideas or works again.

“The answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything is 42” – The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy

So why is philosophy taught at all? Philosophy is the foundation of critical thinking, a skill which is absolutely essential in so many professions that now make up the ‘knowledge economy’. And indeed, whilst our postmodern and post-industrial society is very different from the ancient civilisations that cultivated Plato and Aristotle, the fundamental nature of philosophy and its value to us as humans is the same now as it was then. Philosophy is essentially the human way of putting the ‘big’ questions about our lives and existence onto the table and working towards an answer. What is justice? What is right? What is happiness? What is a good life? What is the ideal society? What are we, actually? All of these questions are just as relevant today as they were all the way back in antiquity. One may grumble that these questions are pointless because we can never reach a conclusive answer, not in the way that scientists make an educated hypothesis, conduct the experiment and then reach a conclusion. But that’s not the point of philosophy. Science is indeed incredibly important (it’s the backbone of this entire magazine of course) and we heavily rely on science and the scientific method to understand our world and advance our technological capabilities. With enormous upcoming challenges for the whole of humanity, such as the fight against climate change, science is indeed vital for our survival as a species. But this doesn’t negate what philosophy can still bring to the table. Philosophy helps us to evolve our morals, our values and helps us to conceive why favouring human happiness over human misery is not just in our material interest but is actually fundamentally right. In short, science doesn’t have all the answers – it can help us to understand how the universe ticks, but it can’t definitively tell us what our place in the universe is or what leading a ‘worthwhile’ life actually means. That’s the realm of philosophy. ‘Philosophy’ itself is a highly multifaceted discipline, covering everything from political philosophy to metaphysics, to logic and mathematics, to the philosophy of language and linguistics and yes, the philosophy of science too. In essence, philosophy is the discipline of absolutely everything – it bleeds into and leaves its mark on every other academic discipline. Whatever your profession and wherever you live, you engage with philosophical ideas every day, mostly without realising it. Philosophy is the engine of our humanity. Under Horizon 2020, large multi-country consortia comprising several major organisations are the most common structure of an EU-funded project. Naturally, this is not the case for EU-funded initiatives that focus on philosophy. But Horizon 2020 does fund promising and exciting individual researchers in the philosophy discipline, most commonly through the grants of the European Research Council (ERC) and individual fellowships of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions programme. Through this special feature of Research*eu, whilst we can’t tell you the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything, we can shine a light on seven of those talented researchers and their work. We look forward to receiving your feedback. You can send questions or suggestions to editorial@cordis.europa.eu.

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