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Philosophy - Historical Overview and Recent Developments - Dialectic In Philosophy

philosophers century ancient life

The dialectic between religious and secular philosophy and the split between those who think of philosophy as akin to poetry and those who insist that it be exact and rigorous are not the only oppositions that rend modern philosophy. There is also the perennial tug-of-war between those philosophers who stubbornly hold onto the ancient paradigm of philosophy as the more or less practical search for the good life and those who insist on philosophy being "heavenly" in a different sense, namely that philosophy is hopelessly impractical and esoteric and has nothing to do with the problems of real life. It is this opposition, perhaps, that best allows us to understand the current situation in philosophy. A good deal of contemporary philosophy has become quite technical, almost like mathematics. Philosophers are entranced by problems mainly of their own making and enraptured by the difficulty of solving them, with very little concern for others outside their academic circle, who have no interest anyway. Others have turned directly to real-life problems, in business and in medicine, for example, and "applied" the skills of philosophy to questions about fairness in the marketplace and to life and death issues in health care. Then, too, others have turned these skills at argument to an enhanced appreciation of the arts and aesthetics, to the improvement of psychology and the other social sciences, even to physics and evolutionary biology. For several decades, now, feminist philosophers have challenged the male archetypes of philosophy and argued that philosophy is in fact gender-defined and have elaborated in many directions, especially concerns with motherhood and "sisterhood," just what this amounts to. Still other philosophers, steeped in cultures outside the West, have turned their eye to comparing ideas and cultures, drawing sometimes dramatic contrasts between both strains of philosophy since Plato and Aristotle in the West and dramatically different (but sometimes dramatically similar) traditions in other parts of the world.

If one were to paint a broad-brush history of Western philosophy from ancient times, it would begin with the origins of philosophy and science together in ancient ontology and cosmogony (the Pre-Socratic philosophers from Thales to Democritus, culminating in Aristotle) along with a heavy emphasis on the Good and living well (Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle through the Stoics and the Skeptics). After Aristotle, science is almost totally eclipsed as the philosophy of religion becomes virtually the whole of philosophy, culminating in the rich convergence of Judaic, Christian, and Muslim ideas and cultures in the thirteenth century. With the Renaissance, the classics come alive again, humanism becomes the reigning philosophy, science is again on the rise, Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) and Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) revolt against the supposedly gentlemanly art of politics of the ancients. Then comes Descartes and with him the pre-occupation with epistemology ("the theory of knowledge") and skepticism. But whereas ancient Skepticism was always concerned with the best way to live, modern skepticism became narrowly epistemological, "absurd" even to its most illustrious defender, the Scot David Hume (1711–1776). Thus by the end of the nineteenth century, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) would complain, "Philosophy reduced to theory of knowledge—that is philosophy in its last throes." Over the course of the nineteenth century, philosophers in both Europe and America tried to regain their cosmic reach, in the magnificent multiple Critiques of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), by way of the cranky pessimism of Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860), through the all-bracing Spirit of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's (1770–1831) phenomenology, and in the German-inspired American "Transcendentalism" of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), Amos Bronson Alcott (1799–1888), and Margaret Fuller (1810–1850). This brings us to the border of the twentieth century and then philosophy today.

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