2 minute read


Historical Overview and Recent DevelopmentsDialectic In Philosophy, Philosophy West And East, Contemporary Philosophy, Conclusion, Bibliography

Philosophy is the noble art of thinking carefully, persistently, even obsessively, about the Big Questions of life—the meaning of life and with it the business of living, that is living well. It is also, as Aristotle (384–322 B.C.E.) famously said, looking with wonder at ourselves and the world around us, being intrigued by both nature and the way we look and talk about nature, and the ways in which we think and talk about ourselves. But philosophy—and even the word philosophy—is shot through with contentiousness and is subject to endless debate. This was true in the days of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle (teachers and students, respectively) and it is certainly true today. The word itself is a Greek coinage, supposedly by Pythagoras (c. 580–c. 500 B.C.E.), who when asked if he was wise gave the modest answer "no, but I am a lover of wisdom." Thus the words love (philein) and wisdom (sophia) were fused into "philosophy," the love of wisdom. But the true nature of philosophy is perhaps better captured by Socrates, who showed quite clearly that philosophy is essentially the love of argument. Or, as Bertrand Russell cynically noted, "philosophy is an unusually ingenious attempt to think fallaciously."

The prototype of philosophical disagreement was captured by Raphael Stanza in his well-known painting The School of Athens, where he depicts Plato (c. 428–348 or 347 B.C.E.) and Aristotle in animated conversation, elderly Plato pointing up to the heavens and a younger Aristotle, no longer just the pupil, making a down-to-earth gesture, palm toward the ground. Thus the history of Western philosophy displays profound disagreement between those philosophers who would appeal to the otherworldly and those who would remain unabashedly worldly. If the long history of medieval philosophy kept its eyes fixed on the heavens, the subsequent history of "modern" philosophy has tended to be resolutely worldly and secular, even when religion remained lurking in the background, in awe of science and often taking philosophy itself to be a science—or to be at least "scientific." Since René Descartes (1596–1650) followed Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) and embraced the scientific revolution in the fifteenth century, philosophy has been primarily concerned about the objectivity of knowledge. Since the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, in particular, the philosophy of religion has been a marginal specialty and not the whole or at any rate the heart of philosophy, as it was from St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430) to St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1224–1274), almost a millennium. But before that, Plato, writing in playful, witty dialogues, and Aristotle, whom we know only through his matter-of-fact lectures, exemplified a dramatic difference in philosophical style, already raising the question whether philosophy is a science or an art, the literal pursuit of truth or the metaphorical expression of deep inner longings. From Plato and Aristotle, two opposed but complementary threads of the history of philosophy continue to interweave.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Pebi- to History of Philosophy - Indifferentism