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A Quick History of Philosophy

Pre-Socratic Philosophy | Classical Philosophy | Other Ancient Philosophical Schools | Medieval Philosophy | Early Modern Philosophy | 19th Century Philosophy | 20th Century Philosophy

For younger readers and those with short attention spans, here is my own abbreviated and simplified history of Western Philosophy, all on one (long) page. The explanations are necessarily simplistic and lacking in detail, though, and the links should be followed for more information.

Pre-Socratic Philosophy Back to Top

Western Philosophy - by which we usually mean everything apart from the Eastern Philosophy of China, India, Japan, Persia, etc - really began in Ancient Greece in about the 6th Century B.C. Thales of Miletus is usually considered the first proper philosopher, although he was just as concerned with natural philosophy (what we now call science) as with philosophy as we know it.

Thales and most of the other Pre-Socratic philosophers (i.e. those who lived before Socrates) limited themselves in the main to Metaphysics (inquiry into the nature of existence, being and the world). They were Materialists (they believed that all things are composed of material and nothing else) and were mainly concerned with trying to establish the single underlying substance the world is made up of (a kind of Monism), without resorting to supernatural or mythological explanations. For instance, Thales thought the whole universe was composed of different forms of water; Anaximenes concluded it was made of air; Heraclitus thought it was fire; and Anaximander some unexplainable substance usually translated as "the infinite" or "the boundless".

Another issue the Pre-Socratics wrestled with was the so-called problem of change, how things appear to change from one form to another. At the extremes, Heraclitus believed in an on-going process of perpetual change, a constant interplay of opposites; Parmenides, on the other hand, using a complicated deductive argument, denied that there was any such thing as change at all, and argued that everything that exists is permanent, indestructible and unchanging. This might sound like an unlikely proposition, but Parmenides's challenge was well-argued and was important in encouraging other philosophers to come up with convincing counter-arguments. Zeno of Elea was a student of Parmenides, and is best known for his famous paradoxes of motion (the best known of which is that of the Achilles and the Hare), which helped to lay the foundations for the study of Logic. However, Zeno's underlying intention was really to show, like Parmenides before him, that all belief in plurality and change is mistaken, and in particular that motion is nothing but an illusion.

Although these ideas might seem to us rather simplistic and unconvincing today, we should bear in mind that, at this time, there was really no scientific knowledge whatsoever, and even the commonest of phenomena (e.g. lightning, water freezing to ice, etc) would have appeared miraculous. Their attempts were therefore important first steps in the development of philosophical thought. They also set the stage for two other important Pre-Socratic philosophers: Empedocles, who combined their ideas into the theory of the four classical elements (earth, air, fire and water), which became the standard dogma for much of the next two thousand years; and Democritus, who developed the extremely influential idea of Atomism (that all of reality is actually composed of tiny, indivisible and indestructible building blocks known as atoms, which form different combinations and shapes within the surrounding void).

Another early and very influential Greek philosopher was Pythagoras, who led a rather bizarre religious sect and essentially believed that all of reality was governed by numbers, and that its essence could be encountered through the study of mathematics.

Classical Philosophy Back to Top

Philosophy really took off, though, with Socrates and Plato in the 5th - 4th Century B.C. (often referred to as the Classical or Socratic period of philosophy). Unlike most of the Pre-Socratic philosophers before him, Socrates was more concerned with how people should behave, and so was perhaps the first major philosopher of Ethics. He developed a system of critical reasoning in order to work out how to live properly and to tell the difference between right and wrong. His system, sometimes referred to as the Socratic Method, was to break problems down into a series of questions, the answers to which would gradually distill a solution. Although he was careful to claim not to have all the answers himself, his constant questioning made him many enemies among the authorities of Athens who eventually had him put to death.

Socrates himself never wrote anything down, and what we know of his views comes from the "Dialogues" of his student Plato, perhaps the best known, most widely studied and most influential philosopher of all time. In his writings, Plato blended Ethics, Metaphysics, Political Philosophy and Epistemology (the theory of knowledge and how we can acquire it) into an interconnected and systematic philosophy. He provided the first real opposition to the Materialism of the Pre-Socratics, and he developed doctrines such as Platonic Realism, Essentialism and Idealism, including his important and famous theory of Forms and universals (he believed that the world we perceive around us is composed of mere representations or instances of the pure ideal Forms, which had their own existence elsewhere, an idea known as Platonic Realism). Plato believed that virtue was a kind of knowledge (the knowledge of good and evil) that we need in order to reach the ultimate good, which is the aim of all human desires and actions (a theory known as Eudaimonism). Plato's Political Philosophy was developed mainly in his famous "Republic", where he describes an ideal (though rather grim and anti-democratic) society composed of Workers and Warriors, ruled over by wise Philosopher Kings.

The third in the main trio of classical philosophers was Plato's student Aristotle. He created an even more comprehensive system of philosophy than Plato, encompassing Ethics, Aesthetics, Politics, Metaphysics, Logic and science, and his work influenced almost all later philosophical thinking, particularly those of the Medieval period. Aristotle's system of deductive Logic, with its emphasis on the syllogism (where a conclusion, or synthesis, is inferred from two other premises, the thesis and antithesis), remained the dominant form of Logic until the 19th Century. Unlike Plato, Aristotle held that Form and Matter were inseparable, and cannot exist apart from each other. Although he too believed in a kind of Eudaimonism, Aristotle realized that Ethics is a complex concept and that we cannot always control our own moral environment. He thought that happiness could best be achieved by living a balanced life and avoiding excess by pursuing a golden mean in everything (similar to his formula for political stability through steering a middle course between tyranny and democracy).

Other Ancient Philosophical Schools Back to Top

In the philosophical cauldron of Ancient Greece, though (as well as the Hellenistic and Roman civilizations which followed it over the next few centuries), several other schools or movements also held sway, in addition to Platonism and Aristotelianism:

  • Sophism (the best known proponents being Protagoras and Gorgias), which held generally relativistic views on knowledge (i.e. that there is no absolute truth and two points of view can be acceptable at the same time) and generally skeptical views on truth and morality (although, over time, Sophism came to denote a class of itinerant intellectuals who taught courses in rhetoric and "excellence" or "virtue" for money).
  • Cynicism, which rejected all conventional desires for health, wealth, power and fame, and advocated a life free from all possessions and property as the way to achieving Virtue (a life best exemplified by its most famous proponent, Diogenes).
  • Skepticism (also known as Pyrrhonism after the movement's founder, Pyrrho), which held that, because we can never know the true innner substance of things, only how they appear to us (and therefore we can never know which opinions are right or wrong), we should suspend judgment on everything as the only way of achieving inner peace.
  • Epicureanism (named for its founder Epicurus), whose main goal was to attain happiness and tranquility through leading a simple, moderate life, the cultivation of friendships and the limiting of desires (quite contrary to the common perception of the word "epicurean").
  • Hedonism, which held that pleasure is the most important pursuit of mankind, and that we should always act so as to maximize our own pleasure.
  • Stoicism (developed by Zeno of Citium, and later espoused by Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius), which taught self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions in order to develop clear judgment and inner calm and the ultimate goal of freedom from suffering.
  • Neo-Platonism (developed out of Plato's work, largely by Plotinus), which was a largely religious philosophy which became a strong influence on early Christianity (especially on St. Augustine), and taught the existence of an ineffable and transcendent One, from which the rest of the universe "emanates" as a sequence of lesser beings.
Medieval Philosophy Back to Top

After about the 4th or 5th Century A.D., Europe entered the so-called Dark Ages, during which little or no new thought was developed. By the 11th Century, though, there was a renewed flowering of thought, both in Christian Europe and in Muslim and Jewish Middle East. Most of the philosophers of this time were mainly concerned with proving the existence of God and with reconciling Christianity/Islam with the classical philosophy of Greece (particularly Aristotelianism). This period also saw the establishment of the first universities, which was an important factor in the subsequent development of philosophy.

Among the great Islamic philosophers of the Medieval period were Avicenna (11th century, Persian) and Averröes (12th century, Spanish/Arabic). Avicenna tried to reconcile the rational philosophy of Aristotelianism and Neo-Platonism with Islamic theology, and also developed his own system of Logic, known as Avicennian Logic. He also introduced the concept of the "tabula rasa" (the idea that humans are born with no innate or built-in mental content), which strongly influenced later Empiricists like John Locke. Averröes's translations and commentaries on Aristotle (whose works had been largely lost by this time) had a profound impact on the Scholastic movement in Europe, and he claimed that Avicenna's interpretations were a distortion of genuine Aristotelianism. The Jewish philosopher Maimonides also attempted the same reconciliation of Aristotle with the Hebrew scriptures around the same time.

The Medieval Christian philosophers were all part of a movement called Scholasticism which tried to combine Logic, Metaphysics, Epistemology and semantics (the theory of meaning) into one discipline, and to reconcile the philosophy of the ancient classical philosophers (particularly Aristotle) with Christian theology. The Scholastic method was to thoroughly and critically read the works of renowned scholars, note down any disagreements and points of contention, and then resolve them by the use of formal Logic and analysis of language. Scholasticism in general is often criticized for spending too much time discussing infinitesimal and pedantic details (like how many angels could dance on the tip of a needle, etc).

St. Anselm (best known as the originator of the Ontological Argument for the existence of God by abstract reasoning alone) is often regarded as the first of the Scholastics, and St. Thomas Aquinas (known for his five rational proofs for the existence of God, and his definition of the cardinal virtues and the theological virtues) is generally considered the greatest, and certainly had the greatest influence on the theology of the Catholic Church. Other important Scholastics included Peter Abelard, Albertus Magnus, John Duns Scotus and William of Ockham. Each contributed slight variations to the same general beliefs - Abelard introduced the doctrine of limbo for unbaptized babies; Scotus rejected the distinction between essence and existence that Aquinas had insisted on; Ockham introduced the important methodological principle known as Ockham's Razor, that one should not multiply arguments beyond the necessary; etc.

Roger Bacon was something of an exception, and actually criticized the prevailing Scholastic system, based as it was on tradition and scriptural authority. He is sometimes credited as one of the earliest European advocates of Empiricism (the theory that the origin of all knowledge is sense experience) and of the modern scientific method.

The revival of classical civilization and learning in the 15th and 16th Century known as the Renaissance brought the Medieval period to a close. It was marked by a movement away from religion and medieval Scholasticism and towards Humanism (the belief that humans can solve their own problems through reliance on reason and the scientific method) and a new sense of critical inquiry.

Among the major philosophical figures of the Renaissance were: Erasmus (who attacked many of the traditions of the Catholic Church and popular superstitions, and became the intellectual father of the European Reformation); Machiavelli (whose cynical and devious Political Philosophy has become notorious); Thomas More (the Christian Humanist whose book "Utopia" influenced generations of politicians and planners and even the early development of Socialist ideas); and Francis Bacon (whose empiricist belief that truth requires evidence from the real world, and whose application of inductive reasoning - generalizations based on individual instances - were both influential in the development of modern scientific methodology).

Early Modern Philosophy Back to Top

The Age of Reason of the 17th Century and the Age of Enlightenment of the 18th Century (very roughly speaking), along with the advances in science, the growth of religious tolerance and the rise of liberalism which went with them, mark the real beginnings of modern philosophy. In large part, the period can be seen as an ongoing battle between two opposing doctrines, Rationalism (the belief that all knowledge arises from intellectual and deductive reason, rather than from the senses) and Empiricism (the belief that the origin of all knowledge is sense experience).

This revolution in philosophical thought was sparked by the French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes, the first figure in the loose movement known as Rationalism, and much of subsequent Western philosophy can be seen as a response to his ideas. His method (known as methodological skepticism, although its aim was actually to dispel Skepticism and arrive at certain knowledge), was to shuck off everything about which there could be even a suspicion of doubt (including the unreliable senses, even his own body which could be merely an illusion) to arrive at the single indubitable principle that he possessed consciousness and was able to think ("I think, therefore I am"). He then argued (rather unsatisfactorily, some would say) that our perception of the world around us must be created for us by God. He saw the human body as a kind of machine that follows the mechanical laws of physics, while the mind (or consciousness) was a quite separate entity, not subject to the laws of physics, which is only able to influence the body and deal with the outside world by a kind of mysterious two-way interaction. This idea, known as Dualism (or, more specifically, Cartesian Dualism), set the agenda for philosophical discussion of the "mind-body problem" for centuries after. Despite Descartes' innovation and boldness, he was a product of his times and never abandoned the traditional idea of a God, which he saw as the one true substance from which everything else was made.

The second great figure of Rationalism was the Dutchman Baruch Spinoza, although his conception of the world was quite different from that of Descartes. He built up a strikingly original self-contained metaphysical system in which he rejected Descartes' Dualism in favor of a kind of Monism where mind and body were just two different aspects of a single underlying substance which might be called Nature (and which he also equated with a God of infinitely many attributes, effectively a kind of Pantheism). Spinoza was a thoroughgoing Determinist who believed that absolutely everything (even human behavior) occurs through the operation of necessity, leaving absolutely no room for free will and spontaneity. He also took the Moral Relativist position that nothing can be in itself either good or bad, except to the extent that it is subjectively perceived to be so by the individual (and, anyway, in an ordered deterministic world, the very concepts of Good and Evil can have little or no absolute meaning).

The third great Rationalist was the German Gottfried Leibniz. In order to overcome what he saw as drawbacks and inconsistencies in the theories of Descartes and Spinoza, he devised a rather eccentric metaphysical theory of monads operating according to a pre-established divine harmony. According to Leibniz's theory, the real world is actually composed of eternal, non-material and mutually-independent elements he called monads, and the material world that we see and touch is actually just phenomena (appearances or by-products of the underlying real world). The apparent harmony prevailing among monads arises because of the will of God (the supreme monad) who arranges everything in the world in a deterministic manner. Leibniz also saw this as overcoming the problematic interaction between mind and matter arising in Descartes' system, and he declared that this must be the best possible world, simply because it was created and determined by a perfect God. He is also considered perhaps the most important logician between Aristotle and the mid-19th Century developments in modern formal Logic.

Another important 17th Century French Rationalist (although perhaps of the second order) was Nicolas Malebranche, who was a follower of Descartes in that he believed that humans attain knowledge through ideas or immaterial representations in the mind. However, Malebranche argued (more or less following St. Augustine) that all ideas actually exist only in God, and that God was the only active power. Thus, he believed that what appears to be "interaction" between body and mind is actually caused by God, but in such a way that similar movements in the body will "occasion" similar ideas in the mind, an idea he called Occasionalism.

In opposition to the continental European Rationalism movement was the equally loose movement of British Empiricism, which was also represented by three main proponents.

The first of the British Empiricists was John Locke. He argued that all of our ideas, whether simple or complex, are ultimately derived from experience, so that the knowledge of which we are capable is therefore severely limited both in its scope and in its certainty (a kind of modified Skepticism), especially given that the real inner natures of things derive from what he called their primary qualities which we can never experience and so never know. Locke, like Avicenna before him, believed that the mind was a tabula rasa (or blank slate) and that people are born without innate ideas, although he did believe that humans have absolute natural rights which are inherent in the nature of Ethics. Along with Hobbes and Rousseau, he was one of the originators of Contractarianism (or Social Contract Theory), which formed the theoretical underpinning for democracy, republicanism, Liberalism and Libertarianism, and his political views influenced both the American and French Revolutions.

The next of the British Empiricists chronologically was Bishop George Berkeley, although his Empiricism was of a much more radical kind, mixed with a twist of Idealism. Using dense but cogent arguments, he developed the rather counter-intuitive system known as Immaterialism (or sometimes as Subjective Idealism), which held that underlying reality consists exclusively of minds and their ideas, and that individuals can only directly know these ideas or perceptions (although not the objects themselves) through experience. Thus, according to Berkeley's theory, an object only really exists if someone is there to see or sense it ("to be is to be perceived"), although, he added, the infinite mind of God perceives everything all the time, and so in this respect the objects continue to exist.

The third, and perhaps greatest, of the British Empiricists was David Hume. He believed strongly that human experience is as close are we are ever going to get to the truth, and that experience and observation must be the foundations of any logical argument. Hume argued that, although we may form beliefs and make inductive inferences about things outside our experience (by means of instinct, imagination and custom), they cannot be conclusively established by reason and we should not make any claims to certain knowledge about them (a hard-line attitude verging on complete Skepticism). Although he never openly declared himself an atheist, he found the idea of a God effectively nonsensical, given that there is no way of arriving at the idea through sensory data. He attacked many of the basic assumptions of religion, and gave many of the classic criticisms of some of the arguments for the existence of God (particularly the teleological argument). In his Political Philosophy, Hume stressed the importance of moderation, and his work contains elements of both Conservatism and Liberalism.

Among the "non-aligned" philosophers of the period (many of whom were most active in the area of Political Philosophy) were the following:

  • Thomas Hobbes, who described in his famous book "Leviathan" how the natural state of mankind was brute-like and poor, and how the modern state was a kind of "social contract" (Contractarianism) whereby individuals deliberately give up their natural rights for the sake of protection by the state (accepting, according to Hobbes, any abuses of power as the price of peace, which some have seen as a justification for authoritarianism and even Totalitarianism);
  • Blaise Pascal, a confirmed Fideist (the view that religious belief depends wholly on faith or revelation, rather than reason, intellect or natural theology) who opposed both Rationalism and Empiricism as being insufficient for determining major truths;
  • Voltaire, an indefatigable fighter for social reform throughout his life, but wholly cynical of most philosophies of the day, from Leibniz's optimism to Pascal's pessimism, and from Catholic dogma to French political institutions;
  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose discussion of inequality and whose theory of the popular will and society as a social contract entered into for the mutual benefit of all (Contractarianism) strongly influenced the French Revolution and the subsequent development of Liberal, Conservative and even Socialist theory;
  • Adam Smith, widely cited as the father of modern economics, whose metaphor of the "invisible hand" of the free market (the apparent benefits to society of people behaving in their own interests) and whose book "The Wealth of Nations" had a huge influence on the development of modern Capitalism, Liberalism and Individualism; and
  • Edmund Burke, considered one of the founding fathers of modern Conservatism and Liberalism, although he also produced perhaps the first serious defense of Anarchism.

Towards the end of the Age of Enlightenment, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant caused another paradigm shift as important as that of Descartes 150 years earlier, and in many ways this marks the shift to Modern philosophy. He sought to move philosophy beyond the debate between Rationalism and Empiricism, and he attempted to combine those two apparently contradictory doctrines into one overarching system. A whole movement (Kantianism) developed in the wake of his work, and most of the subsequent history of philosophy can be seen as responses, in one way or another, to his ideas.

Kant showed that Empiricism and Rationalism could be combined and that statements were possible that were both synthetic (a posteriori knowledge from experience alone, as in Empiricism) but also a priori (from reason alone, as in Rationalism). Thus, without the senses we could not become aware of any object, but without understanding and reason we could not form any conception of it. However, our senses can only tell us about the appearance of a thing (phenomenon) and not the "thing-in-itself" (noumenon), which Kant believed was essentially unknowable, although we have certain innate predispositions as to what exists (Transcendental Idealism). Kant's major contribution to Ethics was the theory of the Categorical Imperative, that we should act only in such a way that we would want our actions to become a universal law, applicable to everyone in a similar situation (Moral Universalism) and that we should treat other individuals as ends in themselves, not as mere means (Moral Absolutism), even if that means sacrificing the greater good. Kant believed that any attempts to prove God's existence are just a waste of time, because our concepts only work properly in the empirical world (which God is above and beyond), although he also argued that it was not irrational to believe in something that clearly cannot be proven either way (Fideism).

19th Century Philosophy Back to Top

In the Modern period, Kantianism gave rise to the German Idealists, each of whom had their own interpretations of Kant's ideas. Johann Fichte, for example, rejected Kant's separation of "things in themselves" and things "as they appear to us" (which he saw as an invitation to Skepticism), although he did accept that consciousness of the self depends on the existence of something that is not part of the self (his famous "I / not-I" distinction). Fichte's later Political Philosophy also contributed to the rise of German Nationalism. Friedrich Schelling developed a unique form of Idealism known as Aesthetic Idealism (in which he argued that only art was able to harmonize and sublimate the contradictions between subjectivity and objectivity, freedom and necessity, etc), and also tried to establish a connection or synthesis between his conceptions of nature and spirit.

Arthur Schopenhauer is also usually considered part of the German Idealism and Romanticism movements, although his philosophy was very singular. He was a thorough-going pessimist who believed that the "will-to-life" (the drive to survive and to reproduce) was the underlying driving force of the world, and that the pursuit of happiness, love and intellectual satisfaction was very much secondary and essentially futile. He saw art (and other artistic, moral and ascetic forms of awareness) as the only way to overcome the fundamentally frustration-filled and painful human condition.

The greatest and most influential of the German Idealists, though, was Georg Hegel. Although his works have a reputation for abstractness and difficulty, Hegel is often considered the summit of early 19th Century German thought, and his influence was profound. He extended Aristotle's process of dialectic (resolving a thesis and its opposing antithesis into a synthesis) to apply to the real world - including the whole of history - in an on-going process of conflict resolution towards what he called the Absolute Idea. However, he stressed that what is really changing in this process is the underlying "Geist" (mind, spirit, soul), and he saw each person's individual consciousness as being part of an Absolute Mind (sometimes referred to as Absolute Idealism).

Karl Marx was strongly influenced by Hegel's dialectical method and his analysis of history. His Marxist theory (including the concepts of historical materialism, class struggle, the labor theory of value, the bourgeoisie, etc), which he developed with his friend Friedrich Engels as a reaction against the rampant Capitalism of 19th Century Europe, provided the intellectual base for later radical and revolutionary Socialism and Communism.

A very different kind of philosophy grew up in 19th Century England, out of the British Empiricist tradition of the previous century. The Utilitarianism movement was founded by the radical social reformer Jeremy Bentham and popularized by his even more radical protegé John Stuart Mill. The doctrine of Utilitarianism is a type of Consequentialism (an approach to Ethics that stresses an action's outcome or consequence), which holds that the right action is that which would cause "the greatest happiness of the greatest number". Mill refined the theory to stress the quality not just the quantity of happiness, and intellectual and moral pleasures over more physical forms. He counseled that coercion in society is only justifiable either to defend ourselves, or to defend others from harm (the "harm principle").

19th Century America developed its own philosophical traditions. Ralph Waldo Emerson established the Transcendentalism movement in the middle of the century, rooted in the transcendental philosophy of Kant, German Idealism and Romanticism, and a desire to ground religion in the inner spiritual or mental essence of humanity, rather than in sensuous experience. Emerson's student Henry David Thoreau further developed these ideas, stressing intuition, self-examination, Individualism and the exploration of the beauty of nature. Thoreau's advocacy of civil disobedience influenced generations of social reformers.

The other main American movement of the late 19th Century was Pragmatism, which was initiated by C. S. Peirce and developed and popularized by William James and John Dewey. The theory of Pragmatism is based on Peirce's pragmatic maxim, that the meaning of any concept is really just the same as its operational or practical consequences (essentially, that something is true only insofar as it works in practice). Peirce also introduced the idea of Fallibilism (that all truths and "facts" are necessarily provisional, that they can never be certain but only probable).

James, in addition to his psychological work, extended Pragmatism, both as a method for analyzing philosophic problems but also as a theory of truth, as well as developing his own versions of Fideism (that beliefs are arrived at by an individual process that lies beyond reason and evidence) and Voluntarism (that the will is superior to the intellect and to emotion) among others. Dewey's interpretation of Pragmatism is better known as Instrumentalism, the methodological view that concepts and theories are merely useful instruments, best measured by how effective they are in explaining and predicting phenomena, and not by whether they are true or false (which he claimed was impossible). Dewey's contribution to Philosophy of Education and to modern progressive education (particularly what he called "learning-by-doing") was also significant.

But European philosophy was not limited to the German Idealists. The French sociologist and philosopher Auguste Comte founded the influential Positivism movement around the belief that the only authentic knowledge was scientific knowledge, based on actual sense experience and strict application of the scientific method. Comte saw this as the final phase in the evolution of humanity, and even constructed a non-theistic, pseudo-mystical "positive religion" around the idea.

The Dane Sřren Kierkegaard pursued his own lonely trail of thought. He too was a kind of Fideist and an extremely religious man (despite his attacks on the Danish state church). But his analysis of the way in which human freedom tends to lead to "angst" (dread), the call of the infinite, and eventually to despair, was highly influential on later Existentialists like Heidegger and Sartre.

The German Nietzsche was another atypical, original and controversial philosopher, also considered an important forerunner of Existentialism. He challenged the foundations of Christianity and traditional morality (famously asserting that "God is dead"), leading to charges of Atheism, Moral Skepticism, Relativism and Nihilism. He developed original notions of the "will to power" as mankind's main motivating principle, of the "Übermensch" ("superman") as the goal of humanity, and of "eternal return" as a means of evaluating one's life, all of which have all generated much debate and argument among scholars.

20th Century Philosophy Back to Top

20th Century philosophy has been dominated to a great extent by the rivalry between two very general philosophical traditions, Analytic Philosophy (the largely, although not exclusively, anglophone mindset that philosophy should apply logical techniques and be consistent with modern science) and Continental Philosophy (really just a catch-all label for everything else, mainly based in mainland Europe, and which, in very general terms, rejects Scientism and tends towards Historicism).

An important precursor of the Analytic Philosophy tradition was the Logicism developed during the late 19th Century by Gottlob Frege. Logicism sought to show that some, or even all, of mathematics was reducible to Logic, and Frege's work revolutionized modern mathematical Logic. In the early 20th Century, the British logicians Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead continued to champion his ideas (even after Russell had pointed out a paradox exposing an inconsistency in Frege's work, which caused him, Frege, to abandon his own theory). Russell and Whitehead's monumental and ground-breaking book, "Principia Mathematica" was a particularly important milestone. Their work, in turn, though, fell prey to Kurt Gödel's infamous Incompleteness Theorems of 1931, which mathematically proved the inherent limitations of all but the most trivial formal systems.

Both Russell and Whitehead went on to develop other philosophies. Russell's work was mainly in the area of Philosophy of Language, including his theory of Logical Atomism and his contributions to Ordinary Language Philosophy. Whitehead developed a metaphysical approach known as Process Philosophy, which posited ever-changing subjective forms to complement Plato's eternal forms. Their Logicism, though, along with Comte's Positivism, was a great influence on the development of the important 20th Century movement of Logical Positivism.

The Logical Positivists campaigned for a systematic reduction of all human knowledge down to logical and scientific foundations, and claimed that a statement can be meaningful only if it is either purely formal (essentially, mathematics and logic) or capable of empirical verification. The school grew from the discussions of the so-called "Vienna Circle" in the early 20th Century (including Mauritz Schlick, Otto Neurath, Hans Hahn and Rudolf Carnap). In the 1930s, A. J. Ayer was largely responsible for the spread of Logical Positivism to Britain, even as its influence was already waning in Europe.

The "Tractatus" of the young Ludwig Wittgenstein, published in 1921, was a text of great importance for Logical Positivism. Indeed, Wittgenstein has come to be considered one of the 20th Century's most important philosophers, if not the most important. A central part of the philosophy of the "Tractatus" was the picture theory of meaning, which asserted that thoughts, as expressed in language, "picture" the facts of the world, and that the structure of language is also determined by the structure of reality. However, Wittgenstein abandoned his early work, convinced that the publication of the "Tractatus" had solved all the problems of all philosophy. He later re-considered and struck off in a completely new direction. His later work, which saw the meaning of a word as just its use in the language, and looked at language as a kind of game in which the different parts function and have meaning, was instrumental in the development of Ordinary Language Philosophy.

Ordinary Language Philosophy shifted the emphasis from the ideal or formal language of Logical Positivism to everyday language and its actual use, and it saw traditional philosophical problems as rooted in misunderstandings caused by the sloppy use of words in a language. Some have seen Ordinary Language Philosophy as a complete break with, or reaction against, Analytic Philosophy, while others have seen it as just an extension or another stage of it. Either way, it became a dominant philosophic school between the 1930s and 1970s, under the guidance of philosophers such as W. V. O. Quine, Gilbert Ryle, Donald Davidson, etc.

Quine's work stressed the difficulty of providing a sound empirical basis where language, convention, meaning, etc, are concerned, and also broadened the principle of Semantic Holism to the extreme position that a sentence (or even an individual word) has meaning only in the context of a whole language. Ryle is perhaps best known for his dismissal of Descartes' body-mind Dualism as the "ghost in the machine", but he also developed the theory of Philosophical Behaviourism (the view that descriptions of human behavior need never refer to anything but the physical operations of human bodies) which became the standard view among Ordinary Language philosophers for several decades.

Another important philosopher in the Analytic Philosophy of the early 20th century was G. E. Moore, a contemporary of Russell at Cambridge University (then the most important center of philosophy in the world). His 1903 "Principia Ethica" has become one of the standard texts of modern Ethics and Meta-Ethics, and inspired the movement away from Ethical Naturalism (the belief that there exist moral properties, which we can know empirically, and that can be reduced to entirely non-ethical or natural properties, such as needs, wants or pleasures) and towards Ethical Non-Naturalism (the belief that there are no such moral properties). He pointed out that the term "good", for instance, is in fact indefinable because it lacks natural properties in the way that the terms "blue", "smooth", etc, have them. He also defended what he called "common sense" Realism (as opposed to Idealism or Skepticism) on the grounds that common sense claims about our knowledge of the world are just as plausible as those other metaphysical premises.

On the Continental Philosophy side, an important figure in the early 20th Century was the German Edmund Husserl, who founded the influential movement of Phenomenology. He developed the idea, parts of which date back to Descartes and even Plato, that what we call reality really consists of objects and events ("phenomena") as they are perceived or understood in the human consciousness, and not of anything independent of human consciousness (which may or may not exist). Thus, we can "bracket" (or, effectively, ignore) sensory data, and deal only with the "intentional content" (the mind's built-in mental description of external reality), which allows us to perceive aspects of the real world outside.

It was another German, Martin Heidegger (once a student of Husserl), who was mainly responsible for the decline of Phenomenology. In his groundbreaking "Being and Time" of 1927, Heidegger gave concrete examples of how Husserl's view (of man as a subject confronted by, and reacting to, objects) broke down in certain (quite common) circumstances, and how the existence of objects only has any real significance and meaning within a whole social context (what Heidegger called "being in the world"). He further argued that existence was inextricably linked with time, and that being is really just an ongoing process of becoming (contrary to the Aristotelian idea of a fixed essence). This line of thinking led him to speculate that we can only avoid what he called "inauthentic" lives (and the anxiety which inevitably goes with such lives) by accepting how things are in the real world, and responding to situations in an individualistic way (for which he is considered by many a founder of Existentialism). In his later work, Heidegger went so far as to assert that we have essentially come to the end of philosophy, having tried out and discarded all the possible permutations of philosophical thought (a kind of Nihilism).

The main figurehead of the Existentialism movement was Jean-Paul Sartre (along with his French contemporaries Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir and Maurice Merleau-Ponty). A confirmed Atheist and a committed Marxist and Communist for most of his life, Sartre adapted and extended the work of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Husserl and Heidegger, and concluded that "existence is prior to essence" (in the sense that we are thrust into an unfeeling, godless universe against our will, and that we must then establish meaning for our lives by what we do and how we act). He believed that we always have choices (and therefore freedom) and that, while this freedom is empowering, it also brings with it moral responsibility and an existential dread (or "angst"). According to Sartre, genuine human dignity can only be achieved by our active acceptance of this angst and despair.

In the second half of the 20th Century, three main schools (in addition to Existentialism) dominated Continental Philosophy. Structuralism is the broad belief that all human activity and its products (even perception and thought itself) are constructed and not natural, and that everything has meaning only through the language system in which we operate. Post-Structuralism is a reaction to Structuralism, which stresses the culture and society of the reader over that of the author). Post-Modernism is an even less well-defined field, marked by a kind of "pick'n'mix" openness to a variety of different meanings and authorities from unexpected places, as well as a willingness to borrow unashamedly from previous movements or traditions.

The radical and iconoclastic French philosopher Michel Foucault, has been associated with all of these movements (although he himself always rejected such labels). Much of his work is language-based and, among other things, he has looked at how certain underlying conditions of truth have constituted what was acceptable at different times in history, and how the body and sexuality are cultural constructs rather than natural phenomena. Although sometimes criticized for his lax standards of scholarship, Foucault's ideas are nevertheless frequently cited in a wide variety of different disciplines.

Mention should also be made of Deconstructionism (often called just Deconstruction), a theory of literary criticism that questions traditional assumptions about certainty, identity and truth, and looks for the underlying assumptions (both unspoken and implicit), as well as the ideas and frameworks, that form the basis for thought and belief. The method was developed by the Frenchman Jacques Derrida (who is also credited as a major figure in Post-Structuralism). His work is highly cerebral and self-consciously "difficult", and he has been repeatedly accused of pseudo-philosophy and sophistry.

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