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Introduction to Philosophy
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PHILOSOPHY is a study that seeks to understand the
mysteries of existence and reality. It tries to
discover the nature of truth and knowledge and to
find what is of basic value and importance in life.
It also examines the relationships between humanity
and nature and between the individual and society.
Philosophy arises out of wonder, curiosity, and the
desire to know and understand. Philosophy is thus
a form of inquiry--a process of analysis,
criticism, interpretation, and speculation.
The term philosophy cannot be defined precisely
because the subject is so complex and so
controversial. Different philosophers have
different views of the nature, methods, and range
of philosophy. The term philosophy itself comes
from the Greek philosophia, which means love of
wisdom. In that sense, wisdom is the active use of
intelligence, not something passive that a person
The first known Western philosophers lived in the
ancient Greek world during the early 500's B.C.
These early philosophers tried to discover the
basic makeup of things and the nature of the world
and of reality. For answers to questions about
such subjects, people had largely relied on magic,
superstition, religion, tradition, or authority.
But the Greek philosophers considered those sources
of knowledge unreliable. Instead, they sought
answers by thinking and by studying nature.
Philosophy has also had a long history in some
non-Western cultures, especially in China and
India. But until about 200 years ago, there was
little interchange between those philosophies and
Western philosophy, chiefly because of difficulties
of travel and communication. As a result, Western
philosophy generally developed independently of
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The Importance of Philosophy
Philosophic thought is an inescapable part of human
existence. Almost everyone has been puzzled from
time to time by such essentially philosophic
questions as "What does life mean?" "Did I have
any existence before I was born?" and "Is there
life after death?" Most people also have some kind
of philosophy in the sense of a personal outlook on
life. Even a person who claims that considering
philosophic questions is a waste of time is
expressing what is important, worthwhile, or
valuable. A rejection of all philosophy is in
By studying philosophy, people can clarify what
they believe, and they can be stimulated to think
about ultimate questions. A person can study
philosophers of the past to discover why they
thought as they did and what value their thoughts
may have in one's own life. There are people who
simply enjoy reading the great philosophers,
especially those who were also great writers.
Philosophy has had enormous influence on our
everyday lives. The very language we speak uses
classifications derived from philosophy. For
example, the classifications of noun and verb
involve the philosophic idea that there is a
difference between things and actions. If we ask
what the difference is, we are starting a
Every institution of society is based on
philosophic ideas, whether that institution is the
law, government, religion, the family, marriage,
industry, business, or education. Philosophic
differences have led to the overthrow of
governments, drastic changes in laws, and the
transformation of entire economic systems. Such
changes have occurred because the people involved
held certain beliefs about what is important, true,
real, and significant and about how life should be
Systems of education follow a society's philosophic
ideas about what children should be taught and for
what purposes. Democratic societies stress that
people learn to think and make choices for
themselves. Nondemocratic societies discourage
such activities and want their citizens to
surrender their own interests to those of the
state. The values and skills taught by the
educational system of a society thus reflect the
society's philosophic ideas of what is important.
The Branches of Philosophy
Philosophic inquiry can be made into any subject
because philosophy deals with everything in the
world and all of knowledge. But traditionally, and
for purposes of study, philosophy is divided into
five branches, each organized around certain
distinctive questions. The branches are (1)
metaphysics, (2) epistemology, (3) logic, (4)
ethics, and (5) aesthetics. In addition, the
philosophy of language has become so important
during the 1900's that it is often considered
another branch of philosophy.
Metaphysics is the study of the fundamental nature
of reality and existence and of the essences of
things. Metaphysics is itself often divided into
two areas--ontology and cosmology. Ontology is the
study of being. Cosmology is the study of the
physical universe, or the cosmos, taken as a whole.
Cosmology is also the name of the branch of science
that studies the organization, history, and future
of the universe.
Metaphysics deals with such questions as "What is
real?" "What is the distinction between appearance
and reality?" "What are the most general
principles and concepts by which our experiences
can be interpreted and understood?" and "Do we
possess free will or are our actions determined by
causes over which we have no control?"
Philosophers have developed a number of theories in
metaphysics. These theories include materialism,
idealism, mechanism, and teleology. Materialism
maintains that only matter has real existence and
that feelings, thoughts, and other mental phenomena
are produced by the activity of matter. Idealism
states that every material thing is an idea or a
form of an idea. In idealism, mental phenomena are
what is fundamentally important and real.
Mechanism maintains that all happenings result from
purely mechanical forces, not from purpose, and
that it makes no sense to speak of the universe
itself as having a purpose. Teleology, on the
other hand, states that the universe and everything
in it exists and occurs for some purpose.
Epistemology aims to determine the nature, basis,
and extent of knowledge. It explores the various
ways of knowing, the nature of truth, and the
relationships between knowledge and belief.
Epistemology asks such questions as "What are the
features of genuine knowledge as distinct from what
appears to be knowledge?" "What is truth, and how
can we know what is true and what is false?" and
"Are there different kinds of knowledge, with
different grounds and characteristics?"
Philosophers often distinguish between two kinds of
knowledge, a priori and empirical. We arrive at a
priori knowledge by thinking, without independent
appeal to experience. For example, we know that
there are 60 seconds in a minute by learning the
meanings of the terms. In the same way, we know
that there are 60 minutes in an hour. From these
facts, we can deduce that there are 3,600 seconds
in an hour, and we arrive at this conclusion by the
operation of thought alone. We acquire empirical
knowledge from observation and experience. For
example, we know from observation how many keys are
on a typewriter and from experience which key will
print what letter.
The nature of truth has baffled people since
ancient times, partly because people so often use
the term true for ideas they find congenial and
want to believe, and also because people so often
disagree about which ideas are true. Philosophers
have attempted to define criteria for
distinguishing between truth and error. But they
disagree about what truth means and how to arrive
at true ideas. The correspondence theory holds
that an idea is true if it corresponds to the facts
or reality. The pragmatic theory maintains that an
idea is true if it works or settles the problem it
deals with. The coherence theory states that truth
is a matter of degree and that an idea is true to
the extent to which it coheres (fits together) with
other ideas that one holds. Skepticism claims that
knowledge is impossible to attain and that truth is
Logic is the study of the principles and methods of
reasoning. It explores how we distinguish between
good (or sound) reasoning and bad (or unsound)
reasoning. An instance of reasoning is called an
argument or an inference. An argument consists of
a set of statements called premises together with a
statement called the conclusion, which is supposed
to be supported by or derived from the premises. A
good argument provides support for its conclusion,
and a bad argument does not. Two basic types of
reasoning are called deductive and inductive.
A good deductive argument is said to be valid--that
is, the conclusion necessarily follows from the
premises. A deductive argument whose conclusion
does not follow necessarily from the premises is
said to be invalid. The argument "All human beings
are mortal, all Greeks are human beings, therefore
all Greeks are mortal" is a valid deductive
argument. But the argument "All human beings are
mortal, all Greeks are mortal, therefore all Greeks
are human beings" is invalid, even though the
conclusion is true. On that line of reasoning, one
could argue that all dogs, which are also mortal,
are human beings.
Deductive reasoning is used to explore the
necessary consequences of certain assumptions.
Inductive reasoning is used to establish matters of
fact and the laws of nature and does not aim at
being deductively valid. One who reasons that all
squirrels like nuts, on the basis that all
squirrels so far observed like nuts, is reasoning
inductively. The conclusion could be false, even
though the premise is true. Nevertheless, the
premise provides considerable support for the
Ethics concerns human conduct, character, and
values. It studies the nature of right and wrong
and the distinction between good and evil. Ethics
explores the nature of justice and of a just
society, and also one's obligations to oneself, to
others, and to society.
Ethics asks such questions as "What makes right
actions right and wrong actions wrong?" "What is
good and what is bad?" and "What are the proper
values of life?" Problems arise in ethics because
we often have difficulty knowing exactly what is
the right thing to do. In many cases, our
obligations conflict or are vague. In addition,
people often disagree about whether a particular
action or principle is morally right or wrong.
A view called relativism maintains that what is
right or wrong depends on the particular culture
concerned. What is right in one society may be
wrong in another, this view argues, and so no basic
standards exist by which a culture may be judged
right or wrong. Objectivism claims that there are
objective standards of right and wrong which can be
discovered and which apply to everyone.
Subjectivism states that all moral standards are
subjective matters of taste or opinion.
Aesthetics deals with the creation and principles
of art and beauty. It also studies our thoughts,
feelings, and attitudes when we see, hear, or read
something beautiful. Something beautiful may be a
work of art, such as a painting, symphony, or poem,
or it may be a sunset or other natural phenomenon.
In addition, aesthetics investigates the experience
of engaging in such activities as painting,
dancing, acting, and playing.
Aesthetics is sometimes identified with the
philosophy of art, which deals with the nature of
art, the process of artistic creation, the nature
of the aesthetic experience, and the principles of
criticism. But aesthetics has wider application.
It involves both works of art created by human
beings and the beauty found in nature.
Aesthetics relates to ethics and political
philosophy when we ask questions about what role
art and beauty should play in society and in the
life of the individual. Such questions include
"How can people's taste in the arts be improved?"
"How should the arts be taught in the schools?"
and "Do governments have the right to restrict
The Philosophy of Language has become especially
important in recent times. Some philosophers claim
that all philosophic questions arise out of
linguistic problems. Others claim that all
philosophic questions are really questions about
language. One key question is "What is language?"
But there are also questions about the
relationships between language and thought and
between language and the world, as well as
questions about the nature of meaning and of
The question has been raised whether there can be a
logically perfect language that would reflect in
its categories the essential characteristics of the
world. This question raises questions about the
adequacy of ordinary language as a philosophic
tool. All such questions belong to the philosophy
of language, which has essential connections with
other branches of philosophy.
Philosophy and Other Fields
One peculiarity of philosophy is that the question
"What is philosophy?" is itself a question of
philosophy. But the question "What is art?" is
not a question of art. The question is
philosophic. The same is true of such questions as
"What is history?" and "What is law?" Each is a
question of philosophy. Such questions are basic
to the philosophy of education, the philosophy of
history, the philosophy of law, and other
"philosophy of" fields. Each of these fields
attempts to determine the foundations, fundamental
categories, and methods of a particular institution
or area of study. A strong relationship therefore
exists between philosophy and other fields of human
activity. This relationship can be seen by
examining two fields: (1) philosophy and science
and (2) philosophy and religion.
Philosophy and Science. Science studies natural
phenomena and the phenomena of society. It does
not study itself. When science does reflect on
itself, it becomes the philosophy of science and
examines a number of philosophic questions. These
questions include "What is science?" "What is
scientific method?" "Does scientific truth provide
us with the truth about the universe and reality?"
and "What is the value of science?"
Philosophy has given birth to several major fields
of scientific study. Until the 1700's, no
distinction was made between science and
philosophy. For example, physics was called
natural philosophy. Psychology was part of what
was called moral philosophy. In the early 1800's,
sociology and linguistics separated from philosophy
and became distinct areas of study. Logic has
always been considered a branch of philosophy.
However, logic has now developed to the point where
it is also a branch of mathematics, which is a
Philosophy and science differ in many respects.
For example, science has attained definite and
tested knowledge of many matters and has thus
resolved disagreement about those matters.
Philosophy has not. As a result, controversy has
always been characteristic of philosophy. Science
and philosophy do share one significant goal. Both
seek to discover the truth--to answer questions,
solve problems, and satisfy curiosity. In the
process, both science and philosophy provoke
further questions and problems, with each solution
bringing more questions and problems.
Philosophy and Religion. Historically, philosophy
originated in religious questions. These questions
concerned the nature and purpose of life and death
and the relationship of humanity to superhuman
powers or a divine creator. Every society has some
form of religion. Most people acquire their
religion from their society as they acquire their
language. Philosophy inquires into the essence of
things, and inquiry into the essence of religion is
a philosophic inquiry.
Religious ideas generated some of the earliest
philosophic speculations about the nature of life
and the universe. The speculations often centered
on the idea of a supernatural or superpowerful
being who created the universe and who governs it
according to unchangeable laws and gives it
purpose. Western philosophic tradition has paid
much attention to the possibility of demonstrating
the existence of God.
The chief goal of some philosophers is not
understanding and knowledge. Instead, they try to
help people endure the pain, anxiety, and suffering
of earthly existence. Such philosophers attempt to
make philosophic reflection on the nature and
purpose of life perform the function of religion.
There are two main traditions in Oriental
philosophy, Chinese and Indian. Both philosophies
are basically religious and ethical in origin and
character. They are removed from any interest in
Traditionally, Chinese philosophy has been largely
practical, humanistic, and social in its aims. It
developed as a means of bringing about improvements
in society and politics. Traditionally, philosophy
in India has been chiefly mystical rather than
political. It has been dominated by reliance on
certain sacred texts, called Vedas, which are
considered inspired and true and therefore subject
only for commentary and not for criticism. Much of
Indian philosophy has emphasized withdrawal from
everyday life into the life of the spirit. Chinese
philosophy typically called for efforts to
participate in the life of the state in order to
improve worldly conditions.
Chinese philosophy as we know it started in the
500's B.C. with the philosopher Confucius. His
philosophy, called Confucianism, was the official
philosophy of China for centuries, though it was
reinterpreted by different generations.
Confucianism aimed to help people live better and
more rewarding lives by discipline and by
instruction in the proper goals of life.
Candidates for government positions had to pass
examinations on Confucian thought, and Confucianism
formed the basis for government decisions. No
other civilization has placed such emphasis on
Other philosophic traditions in China were Taoism,
Mohism, and realism. Beginning in the 1100's, a
movement known as Neo-Confucianism incorporated
elements of all these doctrines.
We do not know exactly when Indian philosophy
began. In India, philosophic thought was
intermingled with religion, and most Indian
philosophic thought has been religious in character
and aim. Philosophic commentaries on sacred texts
emerge during the 500's B.C. The Indian word for
these studies is darshana, which means vision or
seeing. It corresponds to what the ancient Greeks
In India, as in China, people conceived of
philosophy as a way of life, not as a mere
intellectual activity. The main aim of Indian
philosophy was freedom from the suffering and
tension caused by the body and the senses and by
attachment to worldly things. The main
philosophies developed in India were Hinduism and
Buddhism, which were also religions. Yet some
Indian philosophers did develop a complex system of
logic and carried on investigations in
epistemology. Some Indian philosophic ideas have
been influential in the West. One such idea is
reincarnation, the belief that the human soul is
successively reborn in new bodies.
The History of Western Philosophy
The history of Western philosophy is commonly
divided into three periods--ancient, medieval, and
modern. The period of ancient philosophy extended
from about 600 B.C. to about the A.D. 400's.
Medieval philosophy lasted from the 400's to the
1600's. Modern philosophy covers the period from
the 1600's to the present.
Ancient Philosophy was almost entirely Greek. The
greatest philosophers of the ancient world were
three Greeks of the 400's and 300's B.C.--Socrates,
Plato, and Aristotle. Their philosophy influenced
all later Western culture. Our ideas in the fields
of metaphysics, science, logic, and ethics
originated from their thought. A number of
distinctive schools of philosophy also flourished
in ancient Greece.
The Pre-Socratics were the first Greek
philosophers. Their name comes from the fact that
most of them lived before the birth of Socrates,
which was about 469 B.C. The pre-Socratic
philosophers were mainly interested in the nature
and source of the universe and the nature of
reality. They wanted to identify the fundamental
substance that they thought underlay all phenomena,
and in terms of which all phenomena could be
Unlike most other people of their time, the
pre-Socratic philosophers did not believe that gods
or supernatural forces caused natural events.
Instead, they sought a natural explanation for
natural phenomena. The philosophers saw the
universe as a set of connected and unified
phenomena for which thought could find an
explanation. They gave many different and
conflicting answers to basic philosophic questions.
However, the importance of the pre-Socratics lies
not in the truth of their answers but in the fact
that they examined the questions in the first
place. They had no philosophic tradition to work
from, but their ideas provided a tradition for all
Socrates left no writings, though he was constantly
engaged in philosophic discussion. Our knowledge
of his ideas and methods comes mainly from
dialogues written by his pupil Plato. In most of
the dialogues, Socrates appears as the main
character, who leads and develops the process of
Socrates lived in Athens and taught in the streets,
market place, and gymnasiums. He taught by a
question-and-answer method. Socrates tried to get
a definition or precise view of some abstract idea,
such as knowledge, virtue, justice, or wisdom. He
would use close, sharp questioning, constantly
asking "What do you mean?" and "How do you know?"
This procedure, called the Socratic method, became
the model for philosophic methods that emphasize
debate and discussion.
Socrates wanted to replace vague opinions with
clear ideas. He often questioned important
Athenians and exposed their empty claims to
knowledge and wisdom. This practice made him many
enemies, and he was put to death as a danger to the
state. He thus became a symbol of the philosopher
who pursued an argument wherever it led to arrive
at the truth, no matter what the cost.
Plato believed that we cannot gain knowledge of
things through our senses because the objects of
sense perception are fleeting and constantly
changing. Plato stated that we can have genuine
knowledge only of changeless things, such as truth,
beauty, and goodness, which are known by the mind.
He called such things ideas or forms.
Plato taught that only ideas are real and that all
other things only reflect ideas. This view became
known as idealism. According to Plato, the most
important idea is the idea of good. Knowledge of
good is the object of all inquiry, a goal to which
all other things are subordinate. Plato stated
that the best life is one of contemplation of
eternal truths. However, he believed people who
have attained this state must return to the world
of everyday life and use their skills and knowledge
to serve humanity. Plato also believed that the
soul is immortal and that only the body perishes at
death. His ideas contributed to views about the
body, soul, and eternal things later developed in
Aristotle, Plato's greatest pupil, wrote about
almost every known subject of his day. He invented
the idea of a science and of separate sciences,
each having distinct principles and dealing with
different subject matter. He wrote on such topics
as physics, astronomy, psychology, biology,
physiology, and anatomy. Aristotle also
investigated what he called "first philosophy,"
later known as metaphysics.
Aristotle created the earliest philosophic system.
In his philosophy, all branches of inquiry and
knowledge are parts of some overall system and
connected by the same concepts and principles.
Aristotle believed that all things in nature have
some purpose. According to his philosophy, the
nature of each thing is determined by its purpose,
and all things seek to fulfill their natures by
carrying out these purposes.
Aristotle's basic method of inquiry consisted of
starting from what we know or think we know and
then asking how, what, and why. In his
metaphysics, he developed the idea of a first
cause, which was not itself caused by anything, as
the ultimate explanation of existence. Christian
theologians later adopted this idea as a basic
argument for the existence of God. Aristotle
taught that everyone aims at some good. He said
that happiness does not lie in pleasure but in
virtuous activity. By virtuous activity, he meant
behaving according to a mean between extremes. For
example, courage is the mean between the extremes
of cowardice and foolhardiness. The highest
happiness of all, Aristotle believed, was the
contemplative use of the mind.
Stoic Philosophy and Epicureanism were the two main
schools of Greek philosophy that emerged after the
death of Aristotle in 322 B.C. Both schools taught
that the purpose of knowing is to enable a person
to lead the best and most contented life.
Stoic philosophy was founded by Zeno of Citium. He
taught that people should spend their lives trying
to cultivate virtue, the greatest good. The Stoics
believed in strict determinism--the idea that all
things are fated to be. Therefore, they said, a
wise and virtuous person accepts and makes the best
of what cannot be changed. Stoicism spread to
Rome. There, the chief Stoics included the
statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero, the emperor Marcus
Aurelius, and the teacher Epictetus.
Epicureanism was founded by Epicurus. Epicurus
based his philosophy on hedonism--the idea that the
only good in life is pleasure. However, Epicurus
taught that not all pleasures are good. The only
good pleasures are calm and moderate ones because
extreme pleasures could lead to pain. The highest
pleasures, Epicurus said, are physical health and
peace of mind, two kinds of freedom from pain.
Skepticism was a school of philosophy founded by
Pyrrho of Elis about the same time that Stoic
philosophy and Epicureanism flourished. Pyrrho
taught that we can know nothing. Our senses, he
said, deceive us and provide no accurate knowledge
of the way things are. Thus, all claims to
knowledge are false. Because we can know nothing,
in this view, we should treat all things with
indifference and make no judgments.
Neoplatonism was a revived version of some of
Plato's ideas as adapted by Plotinus, a philosopher
who may have been born in Egypt in the A.D. 200's.
Neoplatonism tried to guide the individual toward a
unity--a oneness--with God, which is a state of
blessedness. Plotinus believed that the human soul
yearns for reunion with God, which it can achieve
only in mystical experience. Neoplatonism provided
the bridge between Greek philosophy and early
Christian philosophy. It inspired the idea that
important truths can be learned only through faith
and God's influence, not by reason.
Medieval Philosophy. During the Middle Ages,
Western philosophy developed more as a part of
Christian theology than as an independent branch of
inquiry. The philosophy of Greece and Rome
survived only in its influence on religious
Saint Augustine was the greatest philosopher of the
early Middle Ages. In a book titled The City of
God (early 400's), Augustine interpreted human
history as a conflict between faithful Christians
living in the city of God and pagans and heretics
living in the city of the world. Augustine wrote
that the people of the city of God will gain
eternal salvation, but the people in the city of
the world will receive eternal punishment. The
book weakened the belief in the pagan religion of
Rome and helped further the spread of Christianity.
A system of thought called scholasticism dominated
medieval philosophy from about the 1100's to the
1400's. The term scholasticism refers to the
method of philosophic investigation used by
teachers of philosophy and theology in the newly
developing universities of western Europe. The
teachers were called scholastics. The scholastic
method consisted in precise analysis of concepts
with subtle distinctions between different senses
of these concepts. The scholastics used deductive
reasoning from principles established by their
method to provide solutions to problems.
Scholasticism was basically generated by the
translation of Aristotle's works into Latin, the
language of the medieval Christian church. These
works presented medieval thinkers with the problem
of reconciling Aristotle's great body of
philosophic thought with the Bible and Christian
doctrine. The most famous scholastic was Saint
Thomas Aquinas. His philosophy combined
Aristotle's thought with theology, and it
eventually became the official philosophy of the
Roman Catholic Church.
The great contributions of the scholastics to
philosophy included major development of the
philosophy of language. The scholastics studied
how features of language can affect our
understanding of the world. They also emphasized
the importance of logic to philosophic inquiry.
Modern Philosophy. A great cultural movement in
Europe called the Renaissance overlapped the end of
the Middle Ages and formed a transition between
medieval and modern philosophy. The Renaissance
began in Italy and lasted from about 1300 to about
1600. It was a time of intellectual reawakening
stemming from the rediscovery of ancient Greek and
Roman culture. During the Renaissance, major
advances occurred in such sciences as astronomy,
physics, and mathematics. Scholars called
humanists stressed the importance of human beings
and the study of classical literature as a guide to
understanding life. Emphasis on science and on
humanism led to changes in the aims and techniques
of philosophic inquiry. Scholasticism declined,
and philosophy was freed of its ties to medieval
One of the earliest philosophers to support the
scientific method was Francis Bacon of England.
Most historians consider Bacon and Rene Descartes
of France to be the founders of modern philosophy.
Bacon wrote two influential works, The Advancement
of Learning (1605) and Novum Organum (1620). He
stated that knowledge was power and that knowledge
could be obtained only by the inductive method of
investigation. Bacon imagined a new world of
culture and leisure that could be gained by inquiry
into the laws and processes of nature. In
describing this world, he anticipated the effects
of advances in science, engineering, and
Rationalism was a philosophic outlook that arose in
the 1600's. The basic idea of rationalism is that
reason is superior to experience as a source of
knowledge and that the validity of sense perception
must be proved from more certain principles. The
rationalists tried to determine the nature of the
world and of reality by deduction from premises
themselves established as certain a priori. They
also stressed the importance of mathematical
procedures. The leading rationalists were Rene
Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, and Gottfried Leibniz.
Descartes was a mathematician as well as a
philosopher. He invented analytic geometry.
Descartes's basic idea was to establish a secure
foundation for the sciences, a foundation of the
sort he had found for mathematics. He was thus
much concerned with the foundations of knowledge,
and he started philosophy on its persistent
consideration of epistemological problems.
Descartes was a mechanist--that is, he regarded all
physical phenomena as connected mechanically by
laws of cause and effect. Descartes's philosophy
generated the problem of how mind and matter are
Spinoza constructed a system of philosophy on the
model of geometry. He attempted to derive
philosophic conclusions from a few central axioms
(supposedly self-evident truths) and definitions.
Spinoza did not view God as some superhuman being
who created the universe. He identified God with
the universe. Spinoza was also a mechanist,
regarding everything in the universe as determined.
Spinoza's main aim was ethical. He wanted to show
how people could be free, could lead reasonable and
thus satisfying lives, in a deterministic world.
Leibniz believed that the actual world is only one
of many possible worlds. He tried to show how the
actual world is the best of all possible worlds in
an effort to justify the ways of God to humanity.
Thus, he attempted to solve the problem of how a
perfect and all-powerful God could have created a
world filled with so much suffering and evil.
Leibniz and Sir Isaac Newton, an English scientist,
independently developed calculus. Leibniz' work in
mathematics anticipated the development of symbolic
logic--the use of mathematical symbols and
operations to solve problems in logic.
Empiricism emphasizes the importance of experience
and sense perception as the source and basis of
knowledge. The first great empiricist was John
Locke of England in the 1600's. George Berkeley of
Ireland and David Hume of Scotland further
developed empiricism in the 1700's.
Locke tried to determine the origin, extent, and
certainty of human knowledge in An Essay Concerning
Human Understanding (1690). Locke argued that
there are no innate ideas--that is, ideas people
are born with. He believed that when a person is
born, the mind is like a blank piece of paper.
Experience is therefore the source of all ideas and
Berkeley dealt with the question "If whatever a
human being knows is only an idea, how can one be
sure that there is anything in the world
corresponding to that idea?" Berkeley answered
that "to be is to be perceived." No object exists,
he said, unless it is perceived by some mind.
Material objects are ideas in the mind and have no
Hume extended the theories of Locke and Berkeley to
a consistent skepticism about almost everything.
He maintained that everything in the mind consists
of impressions and ideas, with ideas coming from
impressions. Every idea can be traced to and
tested by some earlier impression. According to
Hume, we must be able to determine from what
impression we derived an idea for that idea to have
meaning. An apparent idea that cannot be traced to
an impression must be meaningless. Hume also
raised the question of how can we know that the
future will be like the past--that the laws of
nature will continue to operate as they have. He
claimed that we can only know that events have
followed certain patterns in the past. We cannot
therefore be certain that events will continue to
follow those patterns.
The Age of Reason was a period of great
intellectual activity that began in the 1600's and
lasted until the late 1700's. The period is also
called the Enlightenment. Philosophers of the Age
of Reason stressed the use of reason, as opposed to
the reliance on authority and scriptural
revelation. For them, reason provided means of
attaining the truth about the world and of ordering
human society to assure human well-being. The
leading philosophers included Descartes, Locke,
Berkeley, and Hume. They also included Jean
Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, Denis Diderot, and
other members of a group of French philosophers
called the philosophes.
Locke's philosophic ideas were characteristic of
the Age of Reason. Locke sought to determine the
limits of human understanding and to discover what
can be known within those limits that will serve as
a guide to life and conduct. He tried to show that
people should live by the principles of toleration,
liberty, and natural rights. His Two Treatises of
Government (1690) provided the philosophic base for
the Revolutionary War in America and the French
Revolution in the late 1700's.
The Philosophy of Immanuel Kant, a great German
philosopher of the late 1700's, became the
foundation for nearly all later developments in
philosophy. Kant's philosophy is called critical
philosophy or transcendental philosophy. Kant was
stimulated by the skeptical philosophy of Hume to
try to bring about a synthesis of rationalism and
empiricism. In his Critique of Pure Reason (1781),
Kant tried to provide a critical account of the
powers and limits of human reason, to determine
what is knowable and what is unknowable. Kant
concluded that reason can provide knowledge only of
things as they appear to us, never of things as
they are in themselves. Kant believed that the
mind plays an active role in knowing and is not a
mere recorder of facts presented by the senses.
The mind does this through basic categories or
forms of understanding, which are independent of
experience and without which our experience would
not make sense. Through such categories and the
operations of the mind, working on sense
experience, we can have knowledge, but only of
things that can be experienced.
Kant criticized the traditional arguments for the
existence of God. He argued that they are all in
error because they make claims that go beyond the
possibility of experience and thus go beyond the
powers of human reason. In his Critique of
Practical Reason (1788), Kant argued that practical
reason (reason applied to practice) can show us how
we ought to act and also provides a practical
reason for believing in God, though not a proof
that God exists.
Philosophy in the 1800's. Kant's philosophy
stimulated various systems of thought in the
1800's, such as those of G. W. F. Hegel and Karl
Marx of Germany. Hegel developed a theory of
historical change called dialectic, in which the
conflict of opposites results in the creation of a
new unity and then its opposite. Hegel's theory
was transformed by Marx into dialectical
materialism. Marx believed that only material
things are real. He stated that all ideas are
built on an economic base. He believed that the
dialectic of conflict between capitalists and
industrial workers will lead to the establishment
of communism, which he called socialism, as an
economic and political system.
Friedrich Nietzsche, a German philosopher, was an
atheist who proclaimed in Thus Spake Zarathustra
(1883-1885) that "God is dead." Nietzsche meant
that the idea of God had lost the power to motivate
and discipline large masses of people. He believed
that people would have to look to some other idea
to guide their lives. Nietzsche predicted the
evolution of the superman, who would be beyond the
weakness of human beings and beyond the merely
human appeals to morality. He regarded such
appeals as appeals to weakness, not strength. He
felt that all behavior is based on the will to
power--the desire of people to control others and
their own passions. The superman would develop a
new kind of perfection and excellence through the
capacity to realize the will to power through
strength, rather than weakness.
The dominant philosophy in England during the
1800's was utilitarianism, developed by Jeremy
Bentham and John Stuart Mill. The utilitarians
maintained that the greatest happiness for the
greatest number of people is the test of right and
wrong. They argued that all existing social
institutions, especially law and government, must
be transformed to satisfy the test of greatest
happiness. In The Subjection of Women (1869), Mill
wrote that the legal subordination of women to men
ought to be replaced by "a principle of perfect
equality." That idea was revolutionary in Mill's
Philosophy in the 1900's has seen five main
movements predominate. Two of these movements,
existentialism and phenomenology, have had their
greatest influence in the countries on the mainland
of western Europe. The three other movements,
pragmatism, logical positivism, and philosophical
analysis, have been influential chiefly in the
United States and Great Britain.
Existentialism became influential in the
mid-1900's. World War II (1939-1945) gave rise to
widespread feelings of despair and of separation
from the established order. These feelings led to
the idea that people have to create their own
values in a world in which traditional values no
longer govern. Existentialism insists that choices
have to be made arbitrarily by individuals, who
thus create themselves, because there are no
objective standards to determine choice. The most
famous of the existentialist philosophers is the
French author Jean-Paul Sartre.
Phenomenology was developed by the German
philosopher Edmund Husserl. Husserl conceived the
task of phenomenology, hence the task of
philosophy, as describing phenomena--the objects of
experience--accurately and independently of all
assumptions derived from science. He thought that
this activity would provide philosophic knowledge
Pragmatism, represented in the 1900's by William
James and John Dewey of the United States,
maintains knowledge is subordinate to action. The
meaning and truth of ideas are determined by their
relation to practice.
Logical positivism, developed in Vienna, Austria,
in the 1920's, believes philosophy should analyze
the logic of the language of science. It regards
science as the only source of knowledge and claims
metaphysics is meaningless. It bases this claim on
the principle of verifiability, by which a
statement is meaningful only if it can be verified
by sense experience.
Philosophical analysis generally tries to solve
philosophic problems through analysis of language
or concepts. Some versions of this philosophy
attempt to show that traditional philosophic
problems dissolve--that is, disappear--on proper
analysis of the terms in which they are expressed.
Other versions use linguistic analysis to throw
light on, not dissolve, traditional philosophic
problems. The most influential philosophers
practicing philosophic analysis have been Bertrand
Russell of England and Ludwig Wittgenstein, who was
born in Austria but studied and taught in England.
Contributor: Marcus G. Singer
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