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Philosophy (literally 'love of wisdom', from Greek φιλοσοφία (philosophía) &ndash from φίλος (phílos) friend lover; and σοφία (sophía) wisdom) is an academic discipline concerned with the most fundamental and general concepts and principles involved in thought, action, and reality. Philosophy progresses according to various methods of rational inquiry.

Philosophy is accurately described as both the first science and the "Queen of the Sciences". Until the late 19th century, what is now called "science" was subsumed under natural philosophy.

Philosophy in the West has its origins in Ancient Greece, ca. 600 B.C. After the fall of the Roman Empire, much of Greek philosophy was lost to the West, preserved only in the Arab world until the time of the Crusades and the Moorish conquest of Spain. Contact with Arab philosophers (especially al-Ghazali, who developed a version of the Cosmological argument and wrote more than 70 books, ibn Rushd, and ibn Sina) greatly influenced philosophical tradition in Europe, beginning the "Scholastic period", which ended with Descartes and the beginning of the Enlightenment. The late 18th and early 19th centuries saw a major split between British Empiricism and Continental Rationalism. This divide can be traced back to the late 17th century but culminated in a schism between rationalists like Descartes and Spinoza and empiricists like Berkeley, Locke, and Hume. This divide was rectified by the work of Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher famous for his treatise Critique of Pure Reason. With the divide healed, 20th century philosophy would spark a movement called modernism. Modernism would give birth to analytical philosophy and would culminate in logical positivism and verificationism before slowly dying out and giving way to postmodernism.

Branches of Philosophy

Rubens. The Four Philosophers.

The main branches of philosophy are Metaphysics, which is (broadly speaking) the study of what-is; Logic, the rules of reasoning; Epistemology, the study of knowledge; and Axiology, the study of values. Notable sub-branches include:

  • Philosophy of Language: the study of language and its effects on humanity
  • Philosophy of Religion: the study of religions, what defines a religion, and the tenets of religions
  • Philosophy of Mind: the study of how the mind and the body relate to each other
  • Ethics: the analysis of the nature of morality and morals, how and why we determine right from wrong.
  • Political Philosophy: the analysis of the nature of the human public sphere, which one may consider the ethics of the way society is arranged.
  • Philosophy of Science: the analysis of scientific concepts and methodology, which concerns itself mostly with the foundations of science, and interdisciplinary areas.
  • Aesthetics: the analysis of the nature and experience of art and beauty.

History of Philosophy

Conventionally the History of Western Philosophy is divided into four eras: Ancient, Medieval, Enlightenment, and Contemporary.

The Ancient era starts with the Presocratic philosophers and goes until the fall of the Roman empire; The Medieval goes until the end of the Middle Ages; The Modern up to the 20th century, and The Contemporary up to present.

Frederick Copleston, S.J. (1907 - 1994) was a Jesuit scholar who wrote the highly respected 9 volume A History of Philosophy.

Greek Philosophy

See also: Plato and Aristotle

Parmenides book.jpg

Philosophy in the West begins with Thales of Miletus, who was the first astronomer in recorded history to accurately predict a solar eclipse. The Milesian School founded by Thales included Anaxagoras, Anaximander, and Anaximenes. It was Pythagoras (ca. 582 - 504 BC) who first brought Philosophy into connection with practical life; he also gave Philosophy its name "the love of wisdom". Closely related to Milesianis is the work of Heraclitus of Ephesus. Around the time of Heraclitus, Parmenides of Elea, with his pupil Zeno, raised some serious objections to the project of Milesian philosophy. These objections laid the groundwork for Socrates and his pupil Plato, and Aristotle, as well as the Atomists, Democritus and Leucippus. After the Greek philosophical golden age other systems appeared during the Hellenistic period, like Cynicism, Stoicism, Epicureanism and Skepticism. At the closing period of Greek philosophy Neoplatonism was founded by Plotinus of Lycopolis. Parmenides' thoughts influenced Plato and through him, all of Western philosophy.[1]

Saint Augustine (354-430 A.D.), drawing greatly on the ideas of Plato, has been of momentous importance in the development of Christian thought.

Medieval era

In the West, until the twelfth century, little was known of Plato and Aristotle, except a few dialogues and some treatises on logic. St. Anselm (1O33-1109) made a first attempt at systematizing Scholastic philosophy. Some decades later, the Arabic and Byzantine thinkers entered into relation with Western culture, and affecting a philosophical revival; Al-Ghazali, founder of the Ash'ari school of Atomism, entered Europe through ibn Rushd; translations of the ancient authors were made and the philosophical works of ibn Sina and ibn Rushd became better known. In the thirteenth century important philosophers like [Maimonides]], Alexander of Hales (ca. 1185 - 1245), St. Bonaventure, Albertus Magnus, Roger Bacon, and St. Thomas Aquinas made significant contributions to thought and in the following century William of Occam, Eckhart,Nicholas of Cusa, Thomas More and Grotius made further contributions to philosophy during the scholastic period (cf: Ibidem Catholic Encyclopedia).

Classifications of Philosophy in this period are mostly akin to the Platonic division into logic, ethics, and physics.

The Enlightenment Era

The main figures from this era are: Thomas Hobbes, Rene Descartes , Gottfried Leibniz, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer, Auguste Comte, John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer, Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche.

Dividing philosophy, Kant distinguishes metaphysics, moral philosophy, religion, and anthropology as the main four branches.

The most widely accepted scheme, that which still governs the division of the branches of philosophy is due to Christian Wolff (1679-1755):

This scheme is as follows:

1. Logic. 2. Speculative Philosophy.

  • Ontology, or General Metaphysics.
  • Special Metaphysics.
o Theodicy (the study of God).
o Cosmology (the study of the World).
o Psychology (the study of Man).

3. Practical Philosophy.

  • Ethics
  • Politics
  • Economics

(cf: Ibidem)

All the interests of my reason, speculative as well as practical, combine in the three following questions:
1. What can I know? 2. What ought I to do? 3. What may I hope? Immanuel Kant.

The Twentieth Century

This century has offered a wide diversity of orientations. The best known are the French school of Existentialism, the German study of linked Phenomenology, the Positivists of the Vienna Circle, and the post-Positivist Analytic movement.


The earliest existentialist was the Christian philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Other prominent existentialists include Henri Bergson (1859 – 1941), winner of the 1927 Nobel Prize in Literature, Karl Jaspers, and the noted philosopher, playwright, and novelist Jean-Paul Sartre (1905 – 1980).

Phenomenology and Hermeneutics

Edmund Husserl (1859 – 1938) founder of phenomenology, Martin Heidegger (1889 – 1976), and Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002) are the core writers here.

Logical Positivists

The Vienna Circle philosophers, most notably Moritz Schlick, Rudolf Carnap, Herbert Feigl, the famous mathematician Kurt Godel, and Otto Neurath established a rigorous tradition called "Logical Empiricism", but usually referred to as logical positivism. This tradition, a stricter development of Auguste Comte's positivism, is no longer an active research program, unlike Existentialism and Phenomenology.

Often thought of as a logical positivist Karl Popper was in fact a fierce critic.


Structuralism is a theory that uses culturally interconnected signs to reconstruct systems of relationships rather than studying isolated, material things in themselves, with proponents such as Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857 – 1913), Russian linguist Roman Jakobson (1896 – 1982), French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908 – 2009 ), French literary critic Roland Barthes (1915 – 1980), and French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault (1926 – 1984). Foucault, who is often classified as a post-structuralist, is renowned for historical studies that reveal the sometimes morally disturbing power relations inherent in social practices.[2]


The Frankfurt School, a group of researchers associated with the Institut für Sozialforschung (Institute of Social Research), founded in 1923 as an autonomous division of the University of Frankfurt; members were Max Horkheimer, Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno, his friend Walter Benjamin (1892 – 1940), a German essayist and critic known for his synthesis of eccentric Marxist theory and Jewish messianism and Herbert Marcuse (1898 – 1979).[3] Jürgen Habermas (1929-), a critic of Positivism is the most famous German professor of the tradition of critical theory.

British philosophers from the beginning of the 20. Century are: George Edward Moore (1873 – 1958), Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970), philosopher, mathematician, and social reformer, and the Austrian Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889 – 1951), who taught in Cambridge.

Surge of theistic philosophers in latter part of 20th century

In the latter half of the 20th century, theism made revolutionary advances within philosophy in terms of its influence within Anglo-American philosophy.[4] The majority of philosophers of religion, or those who have extensively studied the issue of the existence of God, are theists - about 70 percent.[5]

In 2001, the atheist and philosopher Quentin Smith declared:

Naturalists [atheists] passively watched as realist versions of theism … began to sweep through the philosophical community, until today perhaps one-quarter or one-third of philosophy professors are theists, with most being orthodox Christians…. God is not 'dead' in academia; he returned to life in the 1960's and is now alive and well in his last academic stronghold, philosophy departments."[6]

In 2004, Professor Alister McGrath, professor of historical theology at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University declared, "The golden age of atheism is over."[7] McGrath is an ex-atheiest.

American Philosophy

For a more detailed treatment, see American Enlightenment.

Some scholars have said that American philosophers’ focus on the interconnections of theory and practice, on experience and community, but different concerns and themes have waxed or waned at different times. Through the middle of the 20th century, at least, American philosophers were actively engaged in shaping and reflecting the development of American culture.[8]


For a more detailed treatment, see Transcendentalism.

Founded by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 - 1882) who became the most widely known man of letters in America in the 19th century. Transcendentalism, of which Emerson was the leading figure, resembled British Romanticism in its precept that a fundamental continuity exists between man, nature, and God, or the divine... Matter and spirit are not opposed. [9]


Main figures are: Charles Peirce (1839-1914), William James (1842-1910), John Dewey (1859-1952), and Richard Rorty (1931-2007).

Philosophy of Religion

The best-known American philosopher of religion is without a doubt Alvin Plantinga (1932- ) at the University of Notre Dame; also well-known are John Hick (1922- ), who, though born in England, did much of his work at Claremont University in southern California, and professor William Alston (1921- ) working at Syracuse University.

Analytic Philosophers

Harvard philosopher John Rawls.

America has produced a great many philosophers in the Analytic tradition. A brief list of notables:

  • W.V.O. Quine
  • Donald Davidson
  • Saul Kripke
  • John Searle
  • Paul Grice
  • Richard Montague
  • Hilary Putnam
  • Nelson Goodman
  • Kit Fine
  • Ted Sider
  • Robert Stalnaker
  • Daniel Dennett

Especially well known to non-philosophers is John Rawls (1921 - 2002) (political and moral philosophy) author of A Theory of Justice (1971), Political Liberalism (1993), The Law of Peoples (1999), and Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (2001).

Eastern Philosophy

Eastern Philosophy comprises mainly the thought of: Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Taoism, Islamism and Jainism. Some scholars include Ayurveda, Babylonian philosophy and Korean philosophy.

See also

External links


  1. Parmenides by Raymond Tallis. Quote, "While Plato's dialogues are among the supreme philosophical works of the western tradition, it was Parmenides who established the implicit framework of their debates."
  2. Structuralism
  3. Philosophy
  4. Debate - Michael Payton vs William Lane Craig - Does God Exist - 2009
  5. Does it matter that many scientists are atheists?
  6. Theistic critiques of atheism by William Lane Craig
  8. American Philosophy
  9. Ralph Waldo Emerson