Western Philosophy

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edit index Western Philosophy

Raphael, School of Athens
(Greek Philosophers)

Western Philosophy is a line of related philosophical thinking, beginning in Ancient Greece, and including the predominant philosophical thinking of Europe and its former colonies up to the present day. The concept of philosophy itself originated in the West, derived from the ancient Greek word philosophia; literally, "the love of wisdom" (philein = "to love" + sophia = wisdom, in the sense of theoretical or cosmic insight). However, many non-Western Religions have adopted the term philosophy in reference to cosmic intellectual discourse analogous to Western Philosophy. See Eastern Philosophy.

Western Philosophy has had a tremendous influence on, and has been greatly influenced by, Western Religion, Science, and Politics. Indeed, the central concepts of these fields can be thought of as elements or branches of Western Philosophy. To the Ancient Greeks, these fields were often one and the same. Thus, in the West, Philosophy is an expansive and ambiguous concept. Today, however, what generally distinguishes Philosophy from other Western disciplines is the notion that Philosophy is a "deeper" and more rational, fundamental, and universal form of thought than other disciplines.


The introduction of the terms "philosopher" and "philosophy" has been ascribed to the Greek thinker Pythagoras (see Diogenes Laertius: "De vita et moribus philosophorum", I, 12; Cicero: "Tusculanae Disputationes", V, 8-9). The ascription is based on a passage in a lost work of Herakleides Pontikos, a disciple of Aristotle. It is considered to be part of the widespread legends of Pythagoras of this time.

"Philosopher" replaced the word "Sophist" (from sophoi), which was used to describe "wise men," teachers of Rhetoric, who were important in Athens' Democracy. Some of the most famous Sophists were what we would now call philosophers, but Plato's Dialogues often used the two terms to contrast those who are devoted to wisdom (philosophers) from those who arrogantly claim to have it (Sophists). Socrates (at least, as portrayed by Plato) frequently characterized the Sophists as incompetents or charlatans, who hid their ignorance behind word play and flattery, and so convinced others of what was baseless or untrue. Moreover, the Sophists were paid for their explorations. To this day, "sophist" is often used as a derogatory term for one who merely persuades rather than reasons.

The scope of Philosophy in the ancient understanding, and the writings of (at least some of) the ancient philosophers, was all intellectual endeavors. This included the problems of Philosophy as they are understood today; but it also included many other disciplines, such as Mathematics and Natural Sciences such as Physics, Astronomy, and Biology. (Aristotle, for example, wrote on all of these topics; and as late as the 17th century, these fields were still referred to as branches of "Natural Philosophy"). Over time, academic specialization and the rapid technical advance of the special Sciences led to the development of distinct disciplines for these Sciences, and their separation from Philosophy: Mathematics became specialized even in the ancient world, and "Natural Philosophy" developed into the disciplines of the Natural Sciences over the course of the Scientific Revolution. Today, philosophical questions are usually explicitly distinguished from the questions of the special Sciences, and characterized by the fact that (unlike those of Science) they are the sort of questions which are foundational and abstract in nature, and which are not amenable to being answered by experimental means alone.

Western Philosophy's Branches

As with any field of academic study, Philosophy has many subdisciplines, but few fields are as vast as Philosophy. Generally, the subdisciplines can be organized under the major branches below, much as Aristotle divided Philosophy originally. There is now a philosphical subdiscipline for nearly all other major fields of study, and most are concerned with the interpretations of those fields.

The axiological study of basic philosophical questions about Art and Beauty, as well as Art History, sometimes called the Philosophy of Art, and closely associated with Value Theory; bridging with Epistemology are questions in the Philosophy of Perception and Philosophy of Language.

The theory and study of Knowledge, Consciousness, and Intelligence, including the Mind-Body Problem in the Philosophy of Mind, including the Philosophy of Perception and Philosophy of Language; bridging with Logic and Metaphysics is the Philosophy of Science, with questions about the Philosophy of Psychology and other Social Sciences, and Artificial Intelligence.

The axiological study of moral problems, including right action, Metaethics, Value Theory, Theory of Conduct, Bioethics, Applied Ethics; Political Philosophy, which is concerned with Justice and Punishment, Human Rights, and the role of the State or Government; bridging with Metaphysics is the Philosophy of Religion, studying the rationality of Faith.

The study of Meaning and Truth through Argumentation (or Argument), Deduction, Induction and Reasoning, including Propositional Logic and Computation; the Philosophy of Language and the Philosophy of Mathematics; bridging with Epistemology and Metaphysics is the Philosophy of Science, concerned with problems of Induction, Scientific Method and progress.

The study of the most basic categories of things in Ontology and Teleology, such as Existence, objects, properties and Causality, including Free Will and Determinism; bridging with Logic and Epistemology is the Philosophy of Science, including the Philosophy of Physics, concerned with Physical Laws, Space, Time, and Force, the Philosophy of Biology and other Sciences like Analytical Chemistry and Cosmology; the Philosophy of Religion, which studies the meaning of the concept of God and of the rationality of Faith.

The History of Philosophy
The study of what philosophers have written, their interpretations and influences; Meta-Philosophy: the study of Philosophical Method and the goals of Philosophy; Philosophy of History; Philosophy of Education, and other issues linking with History and Value.

Philosophy and Related Disciplines

Science: Many of the natural Sciences historically developed as branches of Philosophy, reflecting ancient attitudes that Philosophy covered the whole of intellectual endeavours. Aristotle practiced what would now be called Biology, Meterology, Physics, and Cosmology, alongside his Metaphysics and Ethics. As recent as the 18th century, Physics and Chemistry were still classified as Natural Philosophy, the philosophical study of Nature. Psychology, Economics, Sociology, and Linguistics all owe their very existence to Philosophy, and more recently, Cognitive Science and Artificial Intelligence have been forged out of the Philosophy of Mind.

Philosophy is done a priori, and in prose form does not rely on experiments. Philosophy supports the methods of Science without depending on them, and also depends upon non-scientific methods, such as Interpretation. Analytic Philosophy adherents often urged philosophers to emulate the methods of Natural Science, and W. V. Quine claimed Philosophy was a branch of Natural Science, the most abstract branch, and aproach now called "Philosophical Naturalism". Philosophers have always devoted study to the sciences and logic. Philosophy is concerned with explaining the foundations and character knowledge in general, in science or history, thus Philosophy of Science was branched as an active discipline from Logic and Metaphysics, pursued by trained philosophers and scientists. Some areas of the Philosophy of Science aim to fully understand experimental work in terms of the larger metaphysical questions, rather than show scientists how to conduct those experiments.

Mathematics: Mathematics uses a very specific set of rigorous methods of proof based on the rules of Logic. Most Philosophy is written in ordinary, if sometimes obtuse, prose, and while it strives to be precise, it does not usually attain anything like logical or mathematical clarity. As a result, mathematicians rarely disagree about their results, while philosophers do indeed disagree about theirs, as well as the methods used to attain those results.

The Philosophy of Mathematics" is another branch of the Philosophy of Science, but in many ways, Mathematics has a special relationship with Philosophy. This is directly due to the position of Logic, of Reasoning, which has traditionally been considered a major branch of Philosophy. Mathematics is a most rigorous, rule-governed type of Logic, and has always been cited as the paradigmatic example of what Logic can do. In the late 19th and 20th centuries, Logic made great advances, and Mathematics was proven to be reducible to Logic, in terms of First-Order Predicate Calculus and Set Theory. The use of formal, Mathematical Logic in Philosophy now closely resembles the use of Math in Science, and attracts a very different philosopher than those in Ethics or Aesthetics.

Theology and Religious Studies: Like much of Philosophy, religious reasoning is not experimental. Parts of Theology, including questions about the existence and nature of God or Gods, clearly overlap with Philosophy of Religion. In fact, Aristotle considered Theology a branch of Metaphysics, the central field of Philosophy, and most philosophers prior to the twentieth century have devoted significant effort to theological questions. Yet, other part of Religious Studies, such as the comparison of different World Religions, can be easily distinguished from Philosophy in just the way that the Social Sciences can be distinguished from Philosophy. These are closer to History and Sociology, and involve specific observations of particular phenomena. In Theology, particular religious practices are the focus.

Religion now plays a more marginal role in Philosophy, and both Empiricists and Rationalists (in Modern Philosophy) often held that religious questions were beyond the scope of human Knowledge. Many have claimed religious language is itself literally meaningless, questions which cannot be answered. Some philosophers have argued these difficulties are evidence that religious beliefs are are closely related to moral and ethical questions, while others have argued the two were very separate.

Philosophy of Science Connections

See Also

External Links

Some content adapted from the Wikinfo article "Western_philosophy" under the GNU Free Documentation License.
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M.R.M. Parrott