Philosophy: Historical Overview and Recent Developments

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Philosophy: Historical Overview and Recent Developments

Philosophy is the noble art of thinking carefully, persistently, even obsessively, about the Big Questions of lifethe meaning of life and with it the business of living, that is living well. It is also, as Aristotle (384322 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 philosophyand 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. 580c. 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. 428348 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 scienceor to be at least "scientific." Since René Descartes (15961650) followed Galileo Galilei (15641642) 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 (354430) to St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 12241274), 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.

Dialectic in Philosophy

The dialectic between religious and secular philosophy and the split between those who think of philosophy as akin to poetry and those who insist that it be exact and rigorous are not the only oppositions that rend modern philosophy. There is also the perennial tug-of-war between those philosophers who stubbornly hold onto the ancient paradigm of philosophy as the more or less practical search for the good life and those who insist on philosophy being "heavenly" in a different sense, namely that philosophy is hopelessly impractical and esoteric and has nothing to do with the problems of real life. It is this opposition, perhaps, that best allows us to understand the current situation in philosophy. A good deal of contemporary philosophy has become quite technical, almost like mathematics. Philosophers are entranced by problems mainly of their own making and enraptured by the difficulty of solving them, with very little concern for others outside their academic circle, who have no interest anyway. Others have turned directly to real-life problems, in business and in medicine, for example, and "applied" the skills of philosophy to questions about fairness in the marketplace and to life and death issues in health care. Then, too, others have turned these skills at argument to an enhanced appreciation of the arts and aesthetics, to the improvement of psychology and the other social sciences, even to physics and evolutionary biology. For several decades, now, feminist philosophers have challenged the male archetypes of philosophy and argued that philosophy is in fact gender-defined and have elaborated in many directions, especially concerns with motherhood and "sisterhood," just what this amounts to. Still other philosophers, steeped in cultures outside the West, have turned their eye to comparing ideas and cultures, drawing sometimes dramatic contrasts between both strains of philosophy since Plato and Aristotle in the West and dramatically different (but sometimes dramatically similar) traditions in other parts of the world.

If one were to paint a broad-brush history of Western philosophy from ancient times, it would begin with the origins of philosophy and science together in ancient ontology and cosmogony (the Pre-Socratic philosophers from Thales to Democritus, culminating in Aristotle) along with a heavy emphasis on the Good and living well (Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle through the Stoics and the Skeptics). After Aristotle, science is almost totally eclipsed as the philosophy of religion becomes virtually the whole of philosophy, culminating in the rich convergence of Judaic, Christian, and Muslim ideas and cultures in the thirteenth century. With the Renaissance, the classics come alive again, humanism becomes the reigning philosophy, science is again on the rise, Niccolò Machiavelli (14691527) and Thomas Hobbes (15881679) revolt against the supposedly gentlemanly art of politics of the ancients. Then comes Descartes and with him the pre-occupation with epistemology ("the theory of knowledge") and skepticism. But whereas ancient Skepticism was always concerned with the best way to live, modern skepticism became narrowly epistemological, "absurd" even to its most illustrious defender, the Scot David Hume (17111776). Thus by the end of the nineteenth century, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (18441900) would complain, "Philosophy reduced to theory of knowledgethat is philosophy in its last throes." Over the course of the nineteenth century, philosophers in both Europe and America tried to regain their cosmic reach, in the magnificent multiple Critiques of Immanuel Kant (17241804), by way of the cranky pessimism of Arthur Schopenhauer (17881860), through the all-bracing Spirit of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's (17701831) phenomenology, and in the German-inspired American "Transcendentalism" of Ralph Waldo Emerson (18031882), Henry David Thoreau (18171862), Amos Bronson Alcott (17991888), and Margaret Fuller (18101850). This brings us to the border of the twentieth century and then philosophy today.

Philosophy West and East

If there is a single word that best captures the spirit of twentieth-century philosophy, it would be relativism. Nietzsche prefigured the new century in the 1880s with his doctrine of "perspectivism," the idea that there is no singular truth and no "God's eye" view of the world. Albert Einstein (18791955) defended relativity in physics at the same time that Pablo Picasso (18811973) was displaying it in the new art of "cubism." Not that every thinker of the twentieth century was a relativist, of course. Some fought bitterly against relativism: Edmund Husserl (18591938) and Alfred North Whitehead (18611947), for instance. But if the perennial struggle had been primarily between the this-worldly and the otherworldly, the new tension in philosophy was between relativism and one or another form of absolutism, whether it was the residue absolutism of religion (as in contemporary America) or by way of fascism, which gained a frightening foothold in Europe mid-century. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, this struggle has by no means been resolved. If anything, it has intensified, as absolutism takes the form of religious fundamentalism and relativism finds new stylistic expression in the writings and sometimes the ravings of the postmodernists.

But this broad-brush sketch leaves out most of the world. As noble as the philosophical traditions of the West may be, they should be humble in comparison to the much longer-standing traditions of Asia. The first philosophical scriptures were the Vedas, produced in India some thirty-five hundred years ago. Indian philosophy progressed through scholarly commentary and argument by way of Vedanta and the great literature of the Mahabharata and through the breakaway philosophies of Buddhism and Jainism. Buddhism migrated north and east through Tibet and southeast Asia to China, where it joined with the indigenous Chinese philosophies of Daoism and Confucianism, and on to Japan where it transformed the local spirit-worship called Shintoism and gave rise to the dramatic philosophy of Zen, captivating the Samurai class who ruled the country. But the fate of philosophy in Asia displayed some dramatic differences from the fate of philosophy in the West. In Asia there was never so much of an opposition between philosophy and religion, nor for that matter were the various philosophy-religions so antagonistic. Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism, and Hinduism had more of a mix-and-match relation to each other, and they were treated more as a spiritual smorgasbord than as competing occasions for a "leap of faith." Beneath the Eastern emphasis on spirituality is that thread familiar to us from the ancient Greeks, the ultimate ideal of living a good life, philosophically. And, ironically, the Asians pursued this ideal in what is supposed to be the prototypical American fashionpragmatically.

Contemporary Philosophy

Philosophy from its inception has always been all-embracing and thus lends itself to both a learned eclecticism as well as dilettantism. Ironically, then, philosophy has also always tended to encourage a certain sense of superiority as well as schoolishness, even cultishness. The schools of the ancient worldSkeptics, Stoics, Cynics, and Academicsand the schools of medieval Scholasticism were paralleled (unknowingly) by the many competing schools of Confucianism, Daoism, Legalism, Buddhism, Zen, and neo-Confucianism in Asia. In the "professional" philosophy of the twentieth century, especially in American universities, the tendency to overspecialization can be partly explained by philosophers' efforts to distinguish philosophy from all of those other disciplines that it originally spawned from its womb. But it is also the very nature of philosophy itself, which while striving for the all-embracing universal has always tended to be laughably parochial. Thus contemporary philosophy has predictably become Balkanized, not quite to say cult-like. In particular, there is the well-known opposition between "analytic" and "continental" philosophy, although it should be said from the first that the distinction itself is problematic as well as destructive. To begin with, the contrast is a false one. "Analysis" refers to a method that, superficially at least, concentrates on the use of language and is mainly concerned with logic and conceptual analysis. "Continental" refers to a place, namely, Continental Europe. Apart from the fact that "the Continent" so referred to usually includes only Germany and France and the fact that "analytic philosophy" includes a fair number of contrasting and competing methodologies, there are many twisted and interwoven schools, methods, and styles of philosophy that are not distinguished by such a narrow body of water as the English Channel.

Analytic philosophy is often defined in terms of its interest in logic and language, but that interest emerges first in Germany (with Gottlob Frege [18481925], in particular) and is fully shared by the progenitor of this century's "Continental" movements, Edmund Husserl. The most influential philosopher of the century, Ludwig Wittgenstein (18891951), who was twice the definitive philosopher of the "analytic" tradition, came to England from Austria, never leaving his "Continental" roots behind him. He was particularly interested in the limits of language, but so are such contemporary poststructuralists as Jacques Derrida (1930), the nemesis of most analytic philosophers. There are analytic philosophers who, like their peers on the Continent, talk and write about sex, gender, death, and the meaning of life. And despite the more polemical pronouncements of some of its practitioners, analytic philosophy is not just logic, devoid of concern for content. Though it still prides itself on being "scientific," analytic philosophy is not wholly devoid of interest in history, context, empirical content, and etymology. If Bertrand Russell (18721970) misrepresented the analysts' case against the Hegelians at Cambridge in his day, he was, nevertheless, the very model of an engaged and popular philosopher, with a great deal to say to ordinary people about immensely important issues. At the start of the twenty-first century, too, there are philosophers at the barricades, which means on television, talking about the vital issues of the day. One of the areas of contemporary interest in philosophy is "cognitive science," which brings together the empirical research of neurologists, evolutionary biologists, computer specialists, psychologists, and linguists with the conceptual demands and arguments of the philosophers. At its best, contemporary philosophy breaks through its traditional provincialismas it always has in those golden epochs of the pastand synthesizes as well as analyzes the knowledge of the world. In this endeavor, analytic and continental philosophers work best when they work together, when they try to overcome their respective mind-numbing technical devices and jargon and grapple with what Husserl kept referring to as "the things themselves," the distinctive content of human experience and the Big Questions of philosophy that get us all started down the philosophical road to begin with.

The ancient quest for the good life has all too often tended to get lost, or at any rate eclipsed, by the contemporary squabbling over the name "philosophy." (Is philosophy, indeed, nothing but logic and conceptual analysis? Or is it worry about matters of "ultimate concern"? Or is it a bottomless spiral of self-reference that ultimately leads to nothing at all?) The perennial quest for the good life, shared by philosophers and non-philosophers alike, ensures that everyone is a philosopher, not just a few thousand university-trained specialists. (French philosopher Maurice Riseling has commented, "sooner or later, life makes philosophers of us all.") This explains, in the face of increasingly specialized and inaccessible academic philosophy, why there continues to be widespread fascination with Eastern philosophy, often repackaged as "New Age" philosophy. If philosophy abandons what has always been its noble aim, to teach us how to live well, other alternatives will always be attractive. But this particular fascination with the East only began in the nineteenth century (Arthur Schopenhauer's flirtation with Buddhism was particularly significant), when the first wave of professionalized academic philosophy swept over Germany in the wake of Immanuel Kant. (Before that, most of the great philosophers were "independent scholars," except perhaps for Plato and Aristotle, who owned their own academies.) The importance of the East and cosmopolitan philosophy has only become more intense as the distortions of the Cold War on geopolitics came to an abrupt end, as global markets open up, and now that Islam has made a new forceful entrance into the world of ideas. But despite its disdained "popular" appeal and the intricacies of ideology and ideas, the fascination with non-Western and comparative philosophies is one of the most exciting late developments of the twentieth and now the twenty-first century.

To contrast "Eastern" with "Western" philosophy is not to suggest that false stereotype too long accepted among Western philosophers, namely, that Eastern philosophy is all religion and mysticism devoid of concern about knowledge and science. Buddhist philosophy, in particular, has a long rich history of logic and brilliant logicians. But the theme of living a good life is pervasive, and it is this, perhaps, that explains the appeal of the generic "East" in the West. There is also the obvious concern with spirituality that pervades so much of Eastern philosophy. Spirituality should not be confused with mysticism, nor should it be conflated with mindlessness. (It is instructive than one of the favorite terms in New Age philosophy today is "mindfulness.") Spirituality is, as the present author has written, "the thoughtful love of life." But in the pursuit of a rigorously "scientific" philosophy, Western philosophy since the Enlightenment has tended to dump all mention of spirituality as just so much "superstition" and sentimentality. Thus it is often said that there is a widespread "spiritual hunger" that is not satisfied by either philosophy or traditional organized religion. But if scientific philosophy has thrown out the baby with the bath water, traditional organized religion has violated philosophy's new insistence on pluralism (relativism), even if orthodox (absolutist) pretensions still remain. Much of Eastern philosophy, not burdened with the antagonism between philosophy and religion, has less trouble capturing both spirituality and truth in the same intellectual package, even where the main conclusion is that neither spirituality nor truth can be captured intellectually.


What is happening in philosophy at the start of the twenty-first century? Philosophy is as vibrant as ever, an opinion that is shared by the various Balkanized citizens of the philosophical profession, although from dramatically different perspectives on what that vibrancy consists of. Analytic philosophers will puff with pride about the technical abilities that are so much in evidence among the newly minted philosophers among them. Poststructuralist philosophers will point with pride to the number of art and literature departments, especially, that have been converted to their ways of thinking. Comparative philosophers with an eye on the East (and, to a lesser extent, on the southern hemisphere) will make sure to mention the number of courses and the extensive interest in ideas from beyond the ever more narrow borders of Anglo-American and European philosophy. Philosophers who do "cognitive science" will beam with satisfaction at the progress being made in understanding the human brain and its manifestations. And more practical ("applied") philosophers will tell you about the number of philosophers employed by business schools, law schools, medical schools, and hospitals. But the truth is that philosophy continues as always, stimulating wonder and argument and spawning intelligent if not always loving attention to the world and to the myriad of human activities that, on reflection, become philosophical.

See also Analytical Philosophy ; Continental Philosophy ; Philosophy and Religion in Western Thought ; Philosophy of Religion ; Structuralism and Poststructuralism .


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Robert C. Solomon

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Philosophy: Historical Overview and Recent Developments

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