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The philosopher, by Rembrandt (detail).
The philosopher, by Rembrandt (detail).
The term philosophy comes from the ancient Greek word "Φιλοσοφία" ( philo- sophia), which means "love of wisdom". According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the original meaning of the word encompassed all knowledge. Over time, it gained the more specialized meaning of knowledge of the world, as contrasted with knowledge of the divine. For example, science was originally called "natural philosophy". Today, the word refers the study of ultimate reality and the most general causes and principles of reality.Informally, a "philosophy" may refer to a general world view or to a specific ethic or belief.

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Branches of philosophy
History of philosophy
Philosophical traditions
Other traditions

Definition - Contents

Philosophy is notoriously difficult to define, according to the Oxford Companion to Philosophy. The Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy notes that philosophy is the study of "the most fundamental and general concepts and principles involved in thought, action, and reality".Most philosophers agree that the philosophical method consists of rational discourse. But some philosophers have questioned whether man is capable of rational thought.The Penguin Encyclopedia says that philosophy differs from science in that philosophy's questions cannot be answered empirically, and from religion in that philosophy allows no place for faith or revelation.The goal of philosophy, according to the Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy, is "the disinterested pursuit of knowledge for its own sake".

Branches of philosophy - Contents

There is no universal agreement about which subjects are the main branches of philosophy. In The Story of Philosophy, Will Durant lists logic, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, and metaphysics, but there are many places where these subjects overlap, and many philosophical ideas that cannot be neatly put into one of these categories.Each branch has its own particular questions. Logic asks: What is truth? How or why do we identify a statement as true or false? How do we reason? Epistemology asks: Is knowledge possible? How do we know what we know? Ethics asks: Is there a difference between morally right and wrong actions, values, or institutions? Which actions are right and which are wrong? Are values absolute or relative? How is it best to live? Is there a normative value on which all other values depend? Are values 'in' the world (like tables and chairs) and if not, how should we understand their ontological status? Aesthetics asks: What is beauty? And metaphysics asks: What is reality? What exists? Do things exist independently of perception?Outside these five broad categories are other areas of philosophical inquiry. Politics (seen by Aristotle as part of ethics), physics (in the sense of the nature of matter and energy), and religion are all fields considered by philosophers.The Greeks, through the influence of Socrates and his method, developed the very general philosophical methods of definition, analysis, and synthesis.

History of philosophy - Contents

The history of western philosophy is traditionally divided into three eras: Ancient philosophy, Medieval philosophy, and Modern philosophy. Some philosophers have argued that human civilization has passed into a new, " post-modern" period.

Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy
Ancient Greek philosophy is typically divided into the pre-Socratic Period, the Socratic period, and the Post-Aristotelian period. The pre-Socratic period was characterized by metaphysical considerations. These arguments have often been preserved in the form of grand, sweeping statements, such as "All is fire". Important pre-Socratic philosophers included Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Democritus, Parmenides, and Heraclitus. The Socratic period is named in honor of the most recognizable figure in philosophy, Socrates, who, along with his pupil Plato, revolutionized philosophy. While Socrates wrote nothing, his influence as a skeptic survives through Plato's works. Plato's writings are often considered the basic texts in philosophy as they defined the basic issues of philosophy. The post-Aristotelian period ushered in such philosophers as Euclid, Epicurus, Pyrrho, and Sextus Empiricus.

Medieval Europe
St. Thomas Aquinas
St. Thomas Aquinas
The medieval period of philosophy came with the collapse of Roman civilization and the dawn of Christianity, Islam, and rabbinic Judism. The medieval period brought Christian scholastic philosophy, with great thinkers such as Augustine of Hippo, Boethius, Anselm, Robert Grosseteste, Albertus Magnus, Roger Bacon, Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, Nicholas of Cusa, and Francisco Suárez. The philosophers in the scholastic Christian tradition and philosophers in the other major Western religions, such as the Jewish philosophers Saadia Gaon and Maimonides, and the Muslim philosophers Avicenna, Al-Ghazali, and Averroes often interacted. These religious traditions took on questions about the relation of man to God. The philosophy of this period is characterized by analysis of the nature and properties of God; the metaphysics involving substance, accidents, form, and divisibility; and logic and the philosophy of language.

The Modern era

Rationalism and empiricism

Rene Descartes
Rene Descartes
The Modern era of philosophy is commonly said to begin with Descartes, though evidence of the cultural change can be found in the Renaissance philosophy of thinkers like Niccolò Machiavelli and Francis Bacon. Rene Descartes, who is often called the father of modern philosophy, proposed that philosophy should begin with a radical skepticism about the possibility of obtaining reliable knowledge. In 1641 in his Meditations on First Philosophy, he uses a method of doubt to determine what knowledge is most secure ("I am a thinking thing") and then attempts to rebuild a system of knowledge based on this single indubitable fact. His approach became known as rationalism and attracted such philosophers as Baruch Spinoza, Nicolas Malebranche, Gottfried Leibniz, and Christian Wolff.In response to the popularity of rationalism, John Locke wrote An Essay Concerning Human Understanding in 1689, developing a form of naturalism on roughly scientific principles. Hume's work, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40), combined naturalism with a spirit of skepticism, and these themes together united the tradition known as empiricism. Other philosophers who made major contributions to empiricism include Thomas Hobbes, Isaac Newton, George Berkeley, and Francis Hutcheson.During this era, religious philosophy still occurred but mostly apart from the main philosophical battles. Influential religious thinkers of this time include Blaise Pascal, Joseph Butler, and Jonathan Edwards. Other major thinkers of this time who do not really fit in these traditions include Giambattista Vico, Thomas Reid, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, and Edmund Burke. These individuals foreshadow the separation and specialization of different areas of philosophy that would come in the twentieth century.

Kantian philosophy and the rise of idealism

Immanuel Kant
Immanuel Kant
Immanuel Kant wrote his Critique of Pure Reason (1781/1787) in an attempt to reconcile the conflicting approaches of rationalism and empiricism and establish a new groundwork for studying metaphysics. Kant's intention with this work was to look at what we know and then consider what must be true about the way we know it. A major part of this project was focused on exposing the ideas that people are ignorant of due to the natural limits of the human faculties. Kant's work was continued in the work of Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Friedrich Schelling, and Arthur Schopenhauer.Kant's philosophy, known as transcendental idealism, would later be made more abstract and more general, in the movement known as German Idealism, a type of absolute idealism. German Idealism rose to popularity with G. W. F. Hegel's publication in 1807 of Phenomenology of Spirit. In that work, Hegel asserts that the aim of philosophy is to spot the contradictions apparent in human experience (which arise, for instance, out of the recognition of the self as both an active, subjective perceiver and a passive object in the world) and to get rid of these contradictions by making them compatible. Philosophers in the Hegelian tradition include Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach, Karl Marx, Benedetto Croce, Georg Lukács, and Jürgen Habermas.The Kantian and Hegelian idealisms led to another popular school of idealism in the late nineteenth century, British Idealism, which left its influence in the work of F. H. Bradley, Bernard Bosanquet, and later R. G. Collingwood. British idealism was influenced by Hegelian philosophy, but British idealism tended to be more modest and largely returned to the Kantian style of idealism.

American pragmatism

William James
William James
The late nineteenth century brought about the rise of a new philosophy in the New World. Charles Peirce and William James are considered to be the co-founders of loosely allied schools of pragmatism, which introduced what would later be called instrumentalism, the idea that what is important for a good theory is how useful it is, not how well it represents reality. Thinkers in this tradition included John Dewey, George Santayana, and C. I. Lewis. Though not widely recognized under the term "pragmatist", philosophers like Henri Bergson and G. E. Moore shared many of the same foundational assumptions with the pragmatists.

The prominence of logic

Bertrand Russell
Bertrand Russell
With the publication of Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead's Principia Mathematica in 1910-1913, logic became a central point in metaphysical arguments, a prominence that it hadn't had before. The steps needed to make logic important had been taken earlier in the work of Bernard Bolzano and Gottlob Frege, but it wasn't until publication of the Principia that the philosophical world began to take notice. With this came the rise in popularity for the view known as logical positivism and related theories, all of which shared a commitment to the reliability of empirical tests. Philosophers such as Rudolf Carnap and Karl Popper considered only confirmable or falsifiable claims to be genuine philosophy; anything that couldn't be deduced from testable claims was considered mere superstition and dogma.

Phenomenology and hermeneutics

Edmund Husserl
Edmund Husserl
At the same time that logic was coming to prominence in America and Britain, a separate movement occurred in continental Europe. Under the influence of Franz Brentano, the great philosopher Edmund Husserl developed a new method to study human problems in his Logical Investigations (1901) and Ideas (1913). The method, known as phenomenology, was used to examine the details of human experience and consciousness in order to observe the most basic facts of human psychology; the examination included not just observations of the way the world appears but observations of one's thoughts, and when and why they occur. This method was developed further in the work of Alexius Meinong, Martin Heidegger, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty.Heidegger expanded the study of phenomenology into what would become a similar but distinct area of philosophy, hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is a method of interpreting historical texts by considering what thoughts the authors must have been having given the kinds of influences they were likely to encounter at that time and in that environment. Contributions to philosophical hermeneutics later came from Hans-Georg Gadamer, Wilhelm Dilthey, and Max Weber.


Søren Kierkegaard
Søren Kierkegaard
In the mid-twentieth century, existentialism, a popular philosophy that had its roots in the 19th century works of Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, was brought to Europe. Existentialism posits that the most important question in philosophy is how to live, and any philosophical method that puts any other ideal as primary is unacceptable. This movement became prominent with the work of Jean-Paul Sartre, most importantly in his Being and Nothingness (1943).

The Analytic tradition

Ludwig Wittgenstein
Ludwig Wittgenstein
The mid-twentieth century, for America and Britain, was not as united behind a major philosophical idea as it had been in the past, but a general philosophical method can be abstracted from the philosophy that was going on at the time. In 1921, Ludwig Wittgenstein published his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. As a response to this work, the "ordinary language philosophy" was developed by Gilbert Ryle and a few others. The "ordinary language philosophy" thinkers shared a common outlook with many older philosophers ( Jeremy Bentham, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and John Stuart Mill), and it was the philosophical inquiry that characterized English-language philosophy for the second-half of the twentieth century. The implied outlook for "ordinary language philosophy" is that problems in one area of philosophy can be solved independently of problems in other areas of philosophy. Philosophy is thus not a unified whole but is a set of unrelated problems. Great thinkers whose work indicates an acceptance of this general outlook include Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, P. F. Strawson, Donald Davidson, Hilary Putnam, John Rawls, Noam Chomsky, and the continental thinker Mikhail Bakhtin.There are indications that a new revolution may be underway in English-language philosophy. Drawing on the metaphilosophical observation made by Wittgenstein in his second major work, Philosophical Investigations (1953), in which he notes that a good approach to philosophy must itself be based on a careful examination of the meaning of language, a new group of philosophers have adopted a methodological skepticism. Seen most prominently in the work of W. V. O. Quine and Wilfrid Sellars (but with ideas going back to Auguste Comte and Whitehead), this group converges around the ideas of naturalism, holism (in opposition to most of what is considered analytic philosophy), instrumentalism, and the denial of Platonic universals.

Philosophical traditions - Contents

The modern period in philosophy, beginning in the late nineteenth century to the 1950s, was marked by a developing schism between the 'Continental' tradition and the English and American 'Analytic' tradition.Both traditions appear radically different, yet they have a common root. Both reject the Cartesian and empiricist traditions that dominated philosophy since the early modern period, and each also rejects the " obsession with psychological explanation" that pervaded the logic and method of Idealist philosophy.What underlies the analytic tradition is the view (originally defended by Ockham) that philosophical error arises from misunderstandings generated by language. We imagine that to every word (e.g. 'baldness', 'existence') there corresponds something in reality. According to analytic philosophers, the true meaning of ordinary sentences is, somewhat misleadingly, concealed by their grammatical form, and we must translate them into their true form (known as logical form) in order to clarify them. The difficulty, as yet unresolved, is to determine what the correct logical form must be. Some philosophers (beginning with Frege and Bertrand Russell) have argued that first order logic shows us the true logical form of ordinary sentences.'Continental' philosophy, in the hands of the phenomenologists such as Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, took a different turn in its preoccupation with consciousness. A fundamental assumption of this school is that mental phenomena have intentionality; they have objects external to, and independent of, the mind itself. Thus an important theme of phenomenology is an attack on the subject-object dualism of Cartesianism.Yet this is an assumption shared by analytic philosophers. A similar idea (though developed from a somewhat different starting point) is the view known as externalism, defended recently by philosophers such as John McDowell and Gareth Evans. Externalism posits that proper names ('Socrates', 'George Bush') refer directly to their bearers, and that their meaning is not mediated by any 'sense' or subjective meaning. Thus the thought 'Socrates is wise' has Socrates himself as a component, and there can be no question of our being radically mistaken as to the nature or existence of an external world. Such a mistake would literally make no sense. If the question of whether the Eiffel Tower or London existed were intelligible, we would have to admit the possibility that those names have no meaning, and thus that the question was not intelligible in the first place. This is strikingly similar to themes considered by 'Continental' writers such as Heidegger, who argued that the 'scandal of philosophy' is not that the proof of the existence of an external world has yet to be given, but that such proofs are expected and attempted again and again. To have faith in the reality of the "external world" presupposes a subject which is worldless. But we are embedded in the world.

Other traditions - Contents

Members of many societies have considered philosophical questions and built philosophical traditions based upon each other's works. Eastern and Middle Eastern philosophical traditions have influenced western philosophers. Russian, Jewish, Islamic and recently Latin American philosophical traditions have contributed to, or been influenced by, western philosophy, yet each has retained a distinctive identity.The differences between traditions are often based on their favored historical philosophers, emphases on ideas, styles or written language. The subject matter and dialogues of each can be studied using methods derived from the others, and there are significant commonalities and exchanges between them.Other philosophical traditions, such as African, are rarely considered by foreign academia. Since emphasis is mainly placed on western philosophy as a reference point, the study, preservation and dissemination of valuable, but relatively unknown, non-western philosophical works faces many obstacles.Languages can either be a barrier or a vehicle for ideas. The question of which specific languages can be considered essential to philosophizing is a theme in the works of many recent philosophers.

Eastern philosophy
Muhammad Iqbal (1877–1938)
Muhammad Iqbal (1877–1938)
"Eastern philosophy" refers to the broad traditions that originated or were popular in India, Persia, the Middle East, and China.In China, the Tao Te Ching of Laozi and the Analects of Confucius both appeared around 600 BCE, about the same time that the Greek pre-Socratics were writing. In India, major philosophical texts include the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, from circa 500 BCE (see Hindu philosophy). Around the same time, the shramana schools including Jainism and Buddhism developed their own ideas. In Persia, Zarathustra's teachings, which were a new basis for the Iranian branch of Indo-Iranian philosophy, appeared around 900 BC. Islamic civilization also produced many philosophical geniuses such as, Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Ibn Rushd (Averroës), and Al-Ghazali (see Islamic philosophy).

Applied philosophy
Though often seen as a wholly abstract field, philosophy is not without practical applications. The most obvious applications are those in ethics – applied ethics in particular – and in political philosophy. The political philosophies of Confucius, Kautilya, Sun Tzu, Immanuel Kant, John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Niccolo Machiavelli, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill, Mahatma Gandhi, Robert Nozick, and John Rawls have shaped and been used to justify the existence of governments and their actions.In the field of the philosophy of education, progressive education as championed by John Dewey has had a profound impact on educational practices in the United States in the twentieth century.Other important applications can be found in epistemology, which aid in understanding the notions of what knowledge, evidence, and justified belief are. The philosophy of science discusses the underpinnings of the scientific method. Aesthetics can help to interpret discussions of art. Even ontology, surely the most abstract and least practical-seeming branch of philosophy, has had important consequences for logic and computer science.In general, the various "philosophies of..." such as the philosophy of law, can provide workers in their respective fields with a deeper understanding of the theoretical or conceptual underpinnings of their fields.Often, philosophy is seen as an investigation into an area not understood well enough to be its own branch of knowledge. What were once philosophical pursuits have evolved into the modern day fields of psychology, sociology, linguistics, and economics (among others). Computer science, cognitive science and artificial intelligence are modern areas of research that philosophy has played a role in developing.
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