A Very Brief Review of the History of Philosophy

Some of the comments on Jim’s last post have me thinking a lot about 20th-Century Continental philosophy and the way that has informed the moral reasoning of almost anyone who has received a liberal arts education in the last 50 years. I wanted to do a post on that, and on the values of the Enlightenment, but it occurred to me that many readers of this blog don’t have a background in the history of philosophy and so would find my argument boring/hard-to-follow. So, I’m going to save that post for another day and instead present a highly biased and abridged 4-paragraph history of philosophy to set myself up for later posting. Anyone who wants to add additional comments to this sad little review is welcome to do so.

Ancient Philosophy
The word philosophy originated about 2,500 years ago in Greece, when a temperate climate and slave economy gave way to a small leisure class of citizens who had the time and interest to begin asking questions about the meaning of life and the how’s and why’s of the universe. Though there were a number of prominent thinkers talking about ideas in Athens, the philosophical method that we use today began with Socrates, who never actually wrote any philosophy but was a prolific debater and educator in Athens before the Athenian democracy voted to execute him for corrupting the youth. Plato was a student of Socrates who brought his method of “Socratic debate” to life in 35 or so dialogues which depict Socrates and other notable figures from Athens engaged in debate about the nature of such entities such as love, beauty, justice and virtue. Aristotle was a student of Plato. His contribution to philosophy is inestimable mainly because he took a rigorous, taxonomical approach different fields of inquiry and created many of the distinct branches of philosophy (ethics, metaphysics, epistemology) and science (biology, physics) that we know today.

Medieval Philosophy
After Aristotle’s death, lots of important things happened in Europe (the rise of Rome, the rise of Christianity, lots of wars, and diseases, and the Dark Ages), but if there were philosophers of the caliber of Plato and Aristotle, their work didn’t survive. Actually, Plato’s work was largely forgotten as well, but Aristotle caught on, mostly because the prominent Christian philosopher Thomas Aquinas worked to align Aristotle’s reasoning about natural law with Biblical Scripture. Actually, for most of the First Millenium (C.E.) and about half of the Second, the bulk of Western thought was preserved, and transcribed by religious clerics. The climate of papal decree, feudal poverty, and lots of disease and wars wasn’t particularly conducive to the flourishing of intellectual projects, the arts, or technology. So, it’s not surprising that we refer to those days the Dark Ages and the period afterward as the Renaissance (rebirth). But, in the middle of the Second Millenium (C.E.) lots of important things happened (e.g. the end of the Crusades and the rediscovery of Classical texts that had been preserved by scholars in the Middle East, the invention of the printing press, the Protestant Reformation and the subsequent decline in the power of the Catholic Church) that set the stage for a new era of philosophical inquiry, the Enlightenment.

Modern Philosophy

About 2,000 years after the Socrates, the Enlightenment began. Lots of important and influential philosophers began writing at this time. Renee Descartes, Benedict Spinoza, and Gottfried Liebniz are the most famous of the “Rationalists” in continental Europe, and Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Bishop George Berkely were the big names in “Empiricism” which was the primary philosophical contribution of the British Isles. The major debate between these two traditions of philosophy had to do with how reason and experience combined to give us Knowledge of the world. Generally speaking, it is thought that the Rationalists favored reason and the Empiricists favored experience, though of course any cursory reading of any of these philosophers shows this to be a piteously empty assessment of their views. At any rate, Empiricism reached its peak with the philosopher David Hume who made a very convincing argument that we have no non-circular reason to believe that the Sun will rise tomorrow. A German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, read the work of Hume, “was awoken from [his] dogmatic slumber,” and made arguably the most substantial contribution to metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics since Aristotle all because he wanted to show that we have some legitimate reason to hope for freedom, God, and immortality, and, more modestly, to believe that the Sun will rise tomorrow. Most scholars agree that Kant was the beginning of the big philosophical split between Anglo-American philosophy and the Continental philosophy, however, Kant himself defies that classification as people on both sides of the channel inspired and were inspired by him. At any rate, after Kant philosophy changed.

More Modern Philosophy: Continental and Analytic

In the late 19th-century, Continental Europe started producing a number of radical thinkers (Freud, Nietzsche, and Marx are sometimes considered the founding fathers.) who brought a new wave of skepticism to the previous philosophical treatment of concepts such as self-knowledge, morality, and justice. Continental philosophy eventually sired a number of sub-philosophies which will be familiar to the somewhat esoteric college undergraduate including Phenomenology, Existentialism, and Postmodernism. All of these philosophies owe a debt to Kant insofar as he brought about what has been called the "Copernican shift" in the way we talk about knowledge of the world, arguing that we have absolutely no access to the world in itself but only as it is to us. Kant’s thesis about the subjectivity of knowledge (or at least interpretations of it) is arguably the seed of the skeptical (and sometimes nihilistic) attitude about the objectivity of truth that is at the root of all Continental philosophy. Meanwhile, in Britain, and across the ocean in the US, the Empiricist tradition carried on and moved in the direction of so-called “Analytic” philosophy which, among other things, aspired to explain the study of knowledge and the study of being with the same kind of logical rigor with which mathematicians explain theorems. Though certain philosophical positions such as Logical Positivism are generally associated with Analytic philosophy, it is more easily understood as a method of philosophy in the Classical tradition because it focuses on clarity of arguments (sometimes in formalized logical syntax) and analysis of language. Also, the arguments made by Analytic philosophers parallel the experimental sciences as many philosophers characterize their work as "testing" the soundness of arguments with "thought experiments" just as scientists test hypotheses against empirical data. An uncharitable but not entirely untrue assessment of the difference between Analytic and Continental philosophy is that Analytic philosophers try to explain why some proposition must be (or must not be) true, while Continental philosophers want to know who has the power to define truth and how that shapes our understanding of the concept.

With all of this in mind, next week I hope to do a second post on where certain arguments in Continental philosophy go wrong and why I think questioning the power structure is not a good starting place for philosophical inquiry.

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One Response to “A Very Brief Review of the History of Philosophy”

  1. James Gray Says:

    A couple thoughts: Continental philosophers tend to be more interested in ethics and politics than metaphysics and epistemology. Some of them aren’t interested in metaphysics, but some of them are, and some of them will base their metaphysics on politics and ethics. I think this is especially true about Nietzsche. His idea of will to power is meant to reverse the influence that the prejudice of slave morality has on metaphysics. Instead of seeing everything in the universe as being pushed around like slaves, we can see everything in the universe doing exactly what its own nature would have it do.

    Although this interest in politics and ethics could be complementary to analytic philosophy, some continental philosophers might even deny that analytic philosophy has any credibility, other than some kind of a pragmatic function. They might also be scientific instrumentalists. I think this might be the position you want to attack.

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