Western Philosophy


philosophy [Gr.,=love of wisdom], study of the ultimate reality, causes, and principles underlying being and thinking. It has many aspects and different manifestations according to the problems involved and the method of approach and emphasis used by the individual philosopher. This article deals with the nature and development of Western philosophical thought. Eastern philosophy, while founded in religion, contains rigorously developed systems; for these, see Buddhism; Confucianism; Hinduism; Islam; Jainism; Shinto; Taoism; Vedanta; and related articles.

Distinguishing Characteristics

This search for truth began, in the Western world, when the Greeks first established (c.600 BC) inquiry independent of theological creeds. Philosophy is distinguished from theology in that philosophy rejects dogma and deals with speculation rather than faith. Philosophy differs from science in that both the natural and the social sciences base their theories wholly on established fact, whereas philosophy also covers areas of inquiry where no facts as such are available. Originally, science as such did not exist and philosophy covered the entire field, but as facts became available and tentative certainties emerged, the sciences broke away from metaphysical speculation to pursue their different aims. Thus physics was once in the realm of philosophy, and it was only in the early 20th cent. that psychology was established as a science apart from philosophy. However, many of the greatest philosophers were also scientists, and philosophy still considers the methods (as opposed to the materials) of science as its province.


Philosophy is traditionally divided into several branches. Metaphysics inquires into the nature and ultimate significance of the universe. Logic is concerned with the laws of valid reasoning. Epistemology investigates the nature of knowledge and the process of knowing. Ethics deals with problems of right conduct. Aesthetics attempts to determine the nature of beauty and the criteria of artistic judgment. Within metaphysics a division is made according to fundamental principles. The three major positions are idealism, which maintains that what is real is in the form of thought rather than matter; materialism, which considers matter and the motion of matter as the universal reality; and dualism, which gives thought and matter equal status. Naturalism and positivism are forms of materialism.

The History of Philosophy

Historically, philosophy falls into three large periods: classical (Greek and Roman) philosophy, which was concerned with the ultimate nature of reality and the problem of virtue in a political context; medieval philosophy, which in the West is virtually inseparable from early Christian thought; and, beginning with the Renaissance, modern philosophy, whose main direction has been epistemology.

Classical Philosophy

The first Greek philosophers, the Milesian school in the early 6th cent. BC, consisting of Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes, were concerned with finding the one natural element underlying all nature and being. They were followed by Heraclitus, Pythagoras, Parmenides, Leucippus, Empedocles, Anaxagoras, and Democritus, who took divergent paths in exploring the same problem.

Socrates was the first to inquire also into social and political problems and was the first to use the dialectical method. His speculations were carried on by his pupil Plato, and by Plato's pupil Aristotle, at the Academy in Athens. Roman philosophy was based mainly on the later schools of Greek philosophy, such as the Sophists, the Cynics, Stoicism, and epicureanism. In late antiquity, Neoplatonism, chiefly represented by Plotinus, became the leading philosophical movement and profoundly affected the early development of Christian theology. Arab thinkers, notably Avicenna and Averroës, preserved Greek philosophy, especially Aristotelianism, during the period when these teachings were forgotten in Europe.

The Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century

Scholasticism, the high achievement of medieval philosophy, was based on Aristotelian principles. St. Thomas Aquinas was the foremost of the schoolmen, just as St. Augustine was the earlier spokesman for the church of pure belief. The Renaissance, with its new physics, astronomy, and humanism, revolutionized philosophic thought. René Descartes is considered the founder of modern philosophy because of his attempt to give the new science a philosophic basis. The other great rationalist systems of the 17th cent., especially those of Baruch Spinoza and G. W. von Leibniz, were developed in response to problems raised by Cartesian philosophy and the new science. In England empiricism prevailed in the work of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and David Hume, as well as that of George Berkeley, who was the outstanding idealist. The philosophy of Immanuel Kant achieved a synthesis of the rationalist and empiricist traditions and was in turn developed in the direction of idealism by J. G. Fichte, F. W. J. von Schelling, and G. W. F. Hegel.

The romantic movement of the 18th cent. had its beginnings in the philosophy of J. J. Rousseau; its adherents of the 19th cent. included Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche, as well as the American transcendentalists represented by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Opposed to the romanticists was the dialectical materialism of Karl Marx. The evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin profoundly affected mid-19th-century thought. Ethical philosophy culminated in England in the utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill and in France in the positivism of Auguste Comte. Pragmatism, the first essentially American philosophical movement, was founded at the end of the 19th cent. by C. S. Peirce and was later elaborated by William James and John Dewey.

The Twentieth Century

The transition to 20th-century philosophy essentially came with Henri Bergson. The century has often seen a great disparity in orientation between Continental and Anglo-American thinkers. In France and Germany, major philosophical movements have been the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and the existentialism of Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre. Positivism and science have come under the scrutiny of Jürgen Habermas of the Frankfurt School; he has argued that they are driven by hidden interests. Structuralism, a powerful intellectual movement throughout the first half of the 20th cent., defined language and social systems in terms of the relationships among their elements.

Beginning in the 1960s arguments against all of Western metaphysics were marshaled by poststructuralists; among the most influential has been Jacques Derrida, a wide-ranging philosopher who has pursued deconstruction, a program that seeks to identify metaphysical assumptions in literature and psychology as well as philosophy. Both structuralism and poststructuralism originated mostly in France but soon came to influence thinkers throughout the West, especially in Germany and the United States.

Major concerns in American and British philosophy in the 20th cent. have included formal logic, the philosophy of science, and epistemology. Leading early figures included G. E. Moore, Bertrand Russell, and Ludwig Wittgenstein; Anglo-American philosophy was later exemplified by logical positivists like Rudolph Carnap. In their close attention to problems of language, the logical positivists, influenced by Wittgenstein, in turn influenced the work of W. V. O. Quine and others in the philosophy of language. Later Anglo-American philosophers turned increasingly toward ethics and political philosophy, as in John Rawls' work on the problem of justice.


See W. Windelband, A History of Philosophy (2d ed. 1901, repr. 1968); B. Russell, A History of Western Philosophy (rev. ed. 1961); W. K. C. Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy (3 vol., 1962–69); A. H. Armstrong, ed., The Cambridge History of Later Greek and Early Medieval Philosophy (1966); J. Passmore, A Hundred Years of Philosophy (2d ed. 1966) and Recent Philosophers (1985); A. Wedberg, A History of Philosophy (3 vol., 1982–84); F. Copleston, A History of Philosophy (9 vol., 1985); D. W. Hamlyn, A History of Western Philosophy (1987); R. Scruton, Modern Philosophy: An Introduction and Survey (1995); E. Craig, ed., Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1998); P. Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy (tr. 2002).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Philosophy and Philosophers: An Introduction to Western Philosophy
John Shand.
UCL Press, 1993
Temporarily FREE! The Columbia History of Western Philosophy
Richard H. Popkin.
Columbia University Press, 1999
History of Western Philosophy
Bertrand Russell.
Routledge, 2004
Western Philosophic Systems and Their Cyclic Transformations
Robert S. Brumbaugh.
Southern Illinois University Press, 1992
Our Philosophical Traditions: A Brief History of Philosophy in Western Civilization
Sterling P. Lamprecht.
Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1955
Ideas and Men: The Story of Western Thought
Crane Brinton.
Prentice-Hall, 1963 (2nd edition)
Great Visions of Philosophy: Varieties of Speculative Thought in the West from the Greeks to Bergson
W. Pepperell Montague.
Open Court Pub. Co., 1950
From Religion to Philosophy: A Study in the Origins of Western Speculation
F. M. Cornford.
Harper & Row, 1957
The Origins of Science: An Inquiry into the Foundations of Western Thought
Ernest H. Hutten.
Allen & Unwin, 1962
Classical Thought
Terence Irwin.
Oxford University Press, 1989
Age of Belief: The Medieval Philosophers
Anne Fremantle.
Houghton Mifflin, 1955
The Empiricists
R. S. Woolhouse.
Oxford University Press, 1988
The Rationalists
John Cottingham.
Oxford University Press, 1988
Fifty Major Philosophers: A Reference Guide
Diane Collinson.
Routledge, 1988
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