views updated May 08 2018


Defining philosophy is itself a philosophical problem. Perhaps a great many philosophers would agree that whatever else philosophy is, it is the critical, normally systematic study of an unlimited range of ideas and issues. But this characterization says nothing about what sorts of ideas or issues are important in philosophy or about its distinctive methods of studying them. Doing this will require some account of the special fields of the subject, its methods, its connections with other disciplines, its place in the academy, and its role in human culture. The task is large. Philosophy pursues questions in every dimension of human life, and its techniques apply to problems in any field of study or endeavor. It may be described in many ways. It is a reasoned pursuit of fundamental truths, a quest for understanding, a study of principles of conduct. It seeks to establish standards of evidence, to provide rational methods of resolving conflicts, and to create techniques for evaluating ideas and arguments. Philosophy may examine concepts and views drawn from science, art, religion, politics, or any other realm.

The best way to clarify these broad characterizations of philosophy is to describe its principal subfields (all of which are addressed in more detail in entries in this Encyclopedia devoted to them alone). It is appropriate to start with what might be called traditional subfields of philosophy, most commonly taken to be epistemology, ethics, logic, metaphysics, and the history of philosophy. These remain central in philosophical research; and although they are by no means its exclusive focus, they are intimately connected with virtually every other field of philosophical research and are widely treated as core areas in the teaching of the subject.

Five Traditionally Central Subfields of Philosophy


Epistemology concerns the nature and scope of knowledge and justification. What does it mean to know (the truth), and what is the nature of truth? What sorts of things can be known, and can we be justified in our beliefs about what goes beyond the evidence of our senses, such as the inner lives of others or events of the distant past? Is there knowledge beyond the reach of science? What are the limits of self-knowledge? Can there be genuine moral knowledge? Quite apart from the depth, modality, or subject matter of knowledge, we may also ask: What are its basic sources? They have been widely thought to be perception, memory, introspection, and reason (understood as a kind of reflection). But what of testimony? And can any substantive knowledge, say in mathematics, be utterly independent of experience in the way a priori (reason-based) knowledge is sometimes held to be?

A major epistemological problem connected with all of these sources is the status of skepticism. Skepticism has many forms, depending on the kind of knowledge or justification it represents as unattainable. What is commonly called Humean skepticism (deriving from David Hume's writings on causation and inductive inference) challenges the belief that any inductive arguments (probable arguments, in Hume's terminology) can ground knowledge. Cartesian skepticism, powerfully stated in Descartes's Meditations, challenges the belief that we have knowledge at all. Quite apart from whether there can be knowledge or justified belief, there is the question of the structure that a body of knowledge or of justified beliefs must have. Must it, for instance, contain beliefs possessing a kind of axiomatic status, or can it consist of elements that all lack that status or, indeed, are in no way privileged relative to other elements? Traditional foundationalists, such as Descartes, have held a view of the first kind; moderate foundationalists (represented by a large proportion of epistemologists since the middle of the twentieth century) hold that foundational cognitions are necessary in a body of knowledge or justified belief but need only be in a certain way noninferentially justified as opposed to indefeasibly justified; and coherentists and other nonfoundationalists have posited various ways aimed at accounting for knowledge and justification without appeal to foundational elements.


Ethics is the philosophical study of morality, particularly conceived as a set of standards of right and wrong conduct. Its most theoretical branch (commonly called metaethics ) concerns the meanings or, more broadly, the logic, of our moral conceptssuch as right action, obligation, and justicethe kinds of evidence we have for propositions about the corresponding subject matter, and the sorts of properties that apparently underlie the application of the concepts. On some major ethical views, such as J. S. Mill's utilitarianism, our obligations derive from our potential contributions to enhancing what is good. For this reason, among others, the concept of the good and the distinction between intrinsic and instrumental goodness are also major concerns of ethical inquiry. On other major ethical views, such as Immanuel Kant's, moral obligatoriness is a property possessed by acts themselves by virtue of their falling under nonconsequentialist principles, for instance, a principle that, quite apart from the consequences of lying, prohibits it.

Normative ethics is commonly contrasted with metaethics and is concerned to formulate and assess principles meant to guide moral decisions, whether in private or public life. A major question it raises is what moral specific obligations we have. Another is what moral rights persons as such have and, related to this, what legal rights a just society must accord its citizens. Still another is what constitutes a valid excuse for wrongdoing. Any moral philosopher may be concerned with the broad question of how moral disagreements may be rationally settled, and here we have a question that has both metaethical and normative aspects.


Logic is concerned to provide sound methods for distinguishing valid from invalid arguments or, on a wider conception, good from bad arguments in terms of criteria for determining how much support the conclusion receives from the premise(s). Arguments may be considered ordered sequences of propositions in which somethe premise(s)are conceived as supporting anotherthe conclusion. A standard example is the following syllogism, which has a very common form: its premises are that all human beings are mortal and that Socrates is mortal ; its conclusion is that Socrates is a human being. Deductive logic is concerned with appraising arguments in relation to the question whether the premises entail (or logically imply) the conclusion, as with the syllogism just presented. Inductive logic is concerned with appraising arguments in relation to probabilistic support. From premises about the factors that cause influenza, medical experts may conclude that millions of people will be infected during the next flu season. Inductive logic addresses the problem of how we may tell what probability this conclusion has given those premises. More generally, logic helps us to assess how well our premises support our conclusions, to see what we are committed to accepting when we hold a view, and to avoid adopting positions for which we lack supporting reasons. As applied to everyday thinking, the use of logic also helps us to find arguments where we might otherwise simply see a set of loosely related statements, to discover assumptions we did not know we were making, and to formulate the minimum claims we must establish if we are to prove (or inductively support) our point.


Metaphysics seeks basic criteria for determining what sorts of things are real. Criteria of this kind are the special concern of ontology, which is central in metaphysics. Among major ontological questions are these: Are there mental, physical, and abstract things (such as numbers)? Or is there just the physical and the spiritual? Might there be merely matter and energy? Are persons highly complex physical systems, or do they have properties not reducible to anything physical? How much can a personor other kind of thingchange and remain the very person or thing it is? In the case of persons, this question is central for the problem of personal identity, which, in turn, is crucial for understanding the possibility of nonembodied life. Another question about persons is whether they can be free in a sense not possible for lower animals and whether their freedom is possible if the world should be a deterministic system, that is, one in which every event is entailed by a universal law of nature and some simultaneous or antecedent event. What constitutes a law of nature, and, in particular, what constitutes a causal law, are themselves major questions in metaphysics. Metaphysics has also been traditionally taken to include cosmology, which is concerned with the nature of the universe as a whole and pursues such questions as whether it must have a beginning in time, whether it can be infinite, and whether it must have been created and, if so, by what kind of being or in what way. The nature of time is itself an important metaphysical question.

history of philosophy

The history of philosophy might be thought to be a branch of the discipline of history rather than of philosophy, much in the way the history of science is a branch of history and not itself a branch of science. This conception would be quite inadequate to the standard conception of the history of philosophy in the field of philosophy. On that conception the history of philosophy is a genuine subfield of philosophy: It is the historical and philosophical study of the history of the subject. It commonly includes more in the way of philosophical interpretation andsometimesphilosophical appraisal of major texts than historiographic studies of either a single philosopher or whole periods in the history of the subject. This is in part because the interpretationand certainly the proper appraisalof a philosopher is itself a philosophical problem, often involving epistemological or metaphysical theorizing. A study of a single philosophical work important in the history of philosophy may thus count as a contribution to the history of philosophy and not just to the study of its author.

The history of philosophy, then, examines major philosophers, the influence of one philosopher on another (say, Aristotle on Aquinas, Husserl on Heidegger, or Frege on Russell) or entire periods in the development of philosophy, such as the Ancient, Medieval, Modern, Nineteenth Century, and Twentieth Century periods. It seeks to understand great figures, their influence on others, and their importance for perennial and contemporary issues. The history of philosophy in a single nation is often separately studied, as in the case of American Philosophy. So are major movements within a nation, such as German Idealism, as well as international movements with a substantial history, such as Existentialism, Logical Positivism, and Phenomenology.

From the wide scope of many of the questions pursued in these philosophical fields, it should be clear that philosophy has a kind of generality possessed by no other field. Metaphysics, for instance, concerns the basic categories encompassing everything that exists, and epistemology concerns standards of evidence that apply in any kind of thinking. It will also be evident that every other discipline presupposes answers to certain philosophical questions. All of the sciences, for example, presuppose that facts about the past can yield knowledge or justified beliefs about the future. Finally, it should be apparent that, although there are distinctively philosophical questions, no subject matter is (in all its aspects) beyond the reach of philosophical inquiry. Any subject matter can raise philosophical questions: about (for instance) the kinds of entities it concerns, its epistemological presuppositions, and its connection with other subjects.

Other Major Subfields of Philosophy

Many branches of philosophy have grown from the traditional core areas just described. What follows is a sketch of a number of the major ones. Comprehensiveness is not possible here, but a wider conception can be formed by reading the entries devoted to the subfields that will be described.

philosophy of mind

This subfield has emerged largely from metaphysical concerns with mental phenomena. The philosophy of mind addresses not only the possible relations of the mental to the physical (for instance, to brain processes) but to the many concepts having an essential mental element: belief, desire, intention, emotion, feeling, sensation, passion, will, personality, and others. To what extent are any of these concepts explicable in terms of behavioral tendencies? Quite apart from that, what is the relation between mental properties and physical ones? Are the former dependent on the latter, and if so, what kind of dependence is in question? Could two biological beings, for instance, be alike in all their physical properties and still differ in their mental ones? A number of major questions in the philosophy of mind cluster in the area of action theory : What differentiates actions, such as raising an arm, from mere body movements, such as the rising of an arm? A common answer has been that actions but not bodily movements must be caused by such mental events as volitions. But must mental elements, such as intentions, beliefs, and emotions enter into adequate explanations of our actions, or can actions be explained by appeal to ordinary physical events? And is a kind of mental causation, or at least the absence of a certain kind of deterministic causation, required for our actions to be free ?

philosophy of religion

Another traditional concern of metaphysics is to understand the concept of God, including special attributes such as being all-knowing (omniscient), all-powerful (omnipotent), and wholly good (omnibenevolent). Does omnipotence, for instance, entail the ability to alter the laws of logic? Both metaphysics and epistemology have been concerned to assess the various grounds offered to justify one or another form of theism (these include the famous cosmological and ontological arguments, among others treated in this encyclopedia). The philosophy of religionalso called philosophical theology systematically examines these topics and many related subjects, such as the relation between faith and reason, the nature of religious language, the relation of religion and morality, and the question of how a God who is wholly good could allow the kind and amount of evil the world apparently contains. Here the philosophy of religion overlaps the theory of value, a branch of ethics. It is common for a major question to cross philosophical fields in this way, and the same holds for the relation between theology and ethics, for instance in relation to the question whether the rightness of actions could be equivalent to divine commandedness.

philosophy of science

This is probably the largest subfield, generated in substantial part by epistemology and in part by metaphysics. Philosophy of science has been commonly divided into philosophy of the natural sciences and philosophy of the social sciences. It has recently been divided further, into philosophy of physics, of biology, of psychology, of economics, and of other sciences. Philosophy of science clarifies both the quest for scientific knowledge and the results yielded by that quest. It does this by exploring the logic of scientific evidence; the nature of scientific laws, explanations, and theories; the nature of the theoretical entities posited in explaining observable phenomena; and the possible connections among the various branches of science. How, for instance, is psychology related to brain biology, and biology to chemistry? And how are the social sciences related to the natural sciences? Are they methodologically like the latter but incapable of discovering universal as opposed to statistical laws? Must they work with mentalistic concepts such as belief and desire? Does explanation have the same form across the several sciences?

subfields of ethics

From ethics, too, have come major subfields. Political philosophy concerns the justificationand limitsof governmental control of individuals; the meaning of equality before the law; the basis of economic freedom; and many other problems concerning government. It also examines the nature and possible arguments for various competing forms of political organization, such as laissez-faire capitalism, welfare democracy (capitalistic and socialistic), anarchism, communism, and fascism. Social philosophy, often taught in combination with political philosophy (which it overlaps), treats moral problems with large-scale social dimensions. Among these are the ethics of journalism and the media, the basis of compulsory education, the possible grounds for preferential treatment of minorities, the justice of taxation, and the appropriate limits, if any, on free expression in the arts. The philosophy of law explores such topics as what law is, what kinds of laws there arefor instance, only positive (enacted) law or also, as Thomas Aquinas held, natural lawand how law is or should be related to morality. It also examines the sorts of principles that should govern punishment and criminal justice in general (ethical questions about law do not exhaust the philosophical questions about it but have been among those central in the philosophy of law). Medical ethics addresses many problems arising in medical practice and medical science. Among these are standards applying to physicianpatient relationships; moral questions raised by special procedures, such as abortion and ceasing of life-support for terminal patients; and ethical standards for medical research, for instance, genetic engineering and experimentation using human subjects. Business ethics addresses such questions as the place of business in society, how moral obligations may conflict with the profit motive, and how these conflicts may be resolved. Other topics often pursued are the nature and scope of the social responsibilities of corporations, their rights in a free society, and their relations to other kinds of organizations.

philosophy of art (aesthetics)

This is one of the oldest subfields. It concerns the nature of art, including both the performing arts and literature, painting, and sculpture. Major questions in aesthetics include how artistic creations are to be interpreted and evaluated and how the arts are related to one another, to natural beauty, and to morality, religion, science, and other important elements of human life. Aesthetics also deals with epistemological questions concerning the kinds of evidence we can have about an artwork andsometimesthe kinds it can give us about the world, particularly about human beings. There is also a metaphysics of the aesthetic: What kind of property is beauty in a painting, power in a symphony, or unity in a poem, and is a poem a physical entity existing where it is written or remembered, or is it something more abstract of which these mental and physical entities are in some sense vehicles?

philosophy of language

This field has close ties to both epistemology and metaphysics and, in the latter connection, to the philosophy of mind. It treats a broad spectrum of questions about language: the nature of meaning, the relations between words and things, the various theories of language learning, and the distinction between literal and figurative uses of language. A major concern in the field is the theory of reference: What, for instance, is required for us to succeed in referring to Socrates by using that name when we have never met him nor even read anything written by him? And if our thoughts are mental and in the mind, how can their content be about external objects? A question connected with all of these problems is the relation between the linguistic and the conceptual. To what extent, for instance, is it possible to have concepts at all without linguistic terms to express them, and is thought itself possible apart from language? Since language is crucial in nearly all human activity, the philosophy of language bears on our understanding both of other academic fields and of much of what we ordinarily do.

other important subfields

There are many other subfields of philosophy, and it is in the nature of philosophy as critical inquiry to develop new subfields when new directions in the quest for knowledge, or in any other area of human activity, raises new intellectual problems. There is no limit to the number of variety of possible subfields of philosophy. Among the subfields not yet mentioned, but often a focus or research or teaching (at least as a part of other courses), are Philosophy of Logic, Philosophy of History, Philosophy of Mathematics, Philosophy of Medicine, Philosophy of Education, Philosophy of Feminism, Philosophy of Linguistics, Philosophy of Criticism, Philosophy of Culture, Philosophy of Film, and Philosophy of Sport.

Philosophical Methods

The Dialogues of Plato made famous what might be called the Socratic method in philosophy. It is the dialectical method, pursued by Socrates as represented by Plato in the Dialogues, in which ideas are set out, explored in relation to their meaning and implications, and assessed by such criteria as consistency and plausibility in relation to various standards, sometimes including common sense. In both Plato and Aristotle, we find early examples of what may plausibly be called conceptual analysis. Aristotle provides a particularly good example of how this may be conceived. In his Nicomachean Ethics, for instance, he seeks to give an account of the concept (or anyway of a concept) of virtue. He saw himself as clarifying the essence of the phenomenon of virtue; but if this essentialist view is understood in terms of his philosophical practice, it seems consistent with construing some of what he did as a kind of conceptual analysis. He is guided by the use of the relevant Greek terms in what we may suppose was educated parlance; yet he is not talking merely about linguistic usage. This is not to assimilate his kind of conceptual analysis to a Platonic kind on which concepts are to be understood by intellectual apprehension of them as abstract entities accessible to reflection. Indeed, if there are times when his analytic technique recalls Plato, there are others when his attention to usage and to what is said brings to mind some moments in the later work of Ludwig Wittgenstein.

A major question here, on which there is persisting difference of judgment among philosophers, is the extent to which these intellective procedures (whether Aristotelian or Platonic) are genuinely different from linguistic analysis. A related question is the degree of the authority of linguistic usage in determining the content of a concept. As important as dialectical method and conceptual analysis are in philosophy, however, neither can be described as the method of philosophy. It may be that every major philosopher has used at least one of them at some point; but even supposing (what is certainly controversial) that philosophy cannot be competently pursued on a large scale without some measure of at least the latter, there are other methods of inquiry that should be considered philosophical.

An important route to understanding philosophy and, especially, philosophical method, is a comparison of philosophical method with scientific method. From at least the middle of the twentieth century, and in at least much of the Western philosophical tradition, there has been a (sometimes tacit) belief in scientific method as the paradigm of an objective, rational method of seeking truth. There has been an associated belief, or presupposition, that philosophy must, in methodology as well as doctrine, take account of the progress of science. This is not to say that the (or a) method of science, or some interpretation of scientific method, has become the dominant philosophical method. But there is a widely held assumptionwhich we might call the assumption of the philosophical primacy of scientific method that scientific method is the primary model of the rational pursuit of truth, in a sense implying both that our philosophical method, if not itself scientific, should bear an appropriate resemblance to scientific method and that our philosophical results are probably mistaken if they are at odds with, or even unable to account for the possibility of, well-established scientific findings. It will help to describe this primacy assumption in the three major areas of concern in this entry: epistemology, metaphysics, and methodology.


Where scientific method currently has the primacy that has been mentioned, then, first of all, we might expect the assumption of its primacy to have an antirationalist thrust. For despite the rationalist point that a priori truths do not compete with scientific statements in explanation or theorizing, such truths are also traditionally conceived as beyond refutation by scientific procedures and as knowable by a nonscientific method (a kind of reflection). The second point is positive: The influence of scientific method as a model of rational belief formation has given impetus to the view that much of what we know is discovered by inference to the best explanation (a kind of inductive inference), and much of what we understand is understood in terms of underlying theoretical states or entities. Thus, even self-knowledge can be taken to be not only constituted by corrigible belief (roughly, belief whose justification can be defeated) but, often at least, to comprise beliefs arrived at by unconscious (or at least unnoticed) inference from appropriate data. The fallibilism that comes with a deep appreciation of scientific method has similar implications in other areas of apparent human knowledge.


In metaphysics, the assumption of the philosophical primacy of scientific method implies a tendency to take science as the arbiter of the real. The obvious point here is that we should tend to countenance as real whatever our best confirmed scientific theories posit as such, or at least posit as explanatorily basic. (Granted, it is not always clear what this is even if we can decide what our best-confirmed theories are). But there is a further implication. We must also countenance as real whatever must be posited to understand science itself, for instance properties, numbers, or sets. And, in part on the basis of assuming Occam's Razor (roughly, the principle that in providing explanations we should not posit more entities or types of entities than necessary), many philosophers think we need countenance nothing else.

One good illustration of the point here is the effort to support realism in ethics by arguing (against both noncognitivist and epiphenomenalist views in metaethics) that moral properties have causal and explanatory power and hence can play an explanatory role substantially similar to the role of theoretical entities in the sciences. Moral realists need not be causalists, however; they all agree in holding the cognitivist metaethical view that moral claims have truth value (hence are true or false), but rationalists among them may deny that moral propertieseven if in some way grounded in nonmoral properties, such as lying, beating, and killing, that have causal powerare themselves causal properties. Most philosophers would grant, however, that whether or not genuine properties must have causal power, whatever does have that power is real.


If what has been said about the metaphysical implications of the assumption of the primacy of scientific method is correct, it should be easy to understand some of the methodological implications for philosophy. For in a way, the second metaphysical implication is methodological: Its basis is largely a commitment to scientific method as so well established, and so near to being self-evidently essential in the search for truth, that we should countenance whatever realities must be posited to account for its success and need not countenance any others. A further methodological implication is a tendency to solve philosophical problems, so far as possible, by construing them in a way that lends itself to scientific treatment. The mindbody problem is a good case in point, and eliminative materialism (which claims that explanations of behavior do not ultimately depend on appeals to the mental) illustrates how what seems unnecessary for scientific treatment of a problem may be ontologically discountenanced. Where the assumption of the philosophical primacy of scientific method is at its most influential, philosophical method is conceived as only locally autonomous: Scientific method and the results of its application are the basic determinants of both our standards of rationality and our inventory of reality.

Quite apart from the role in their thinking of scientific method as a model for philosophical inquiry, it may be that philosophers naturally tend to take one or the other of two central philosophical domains, epistemology or metaphysics, or some account developed therein, as primary, as first philosophy, in a suggestive but now uncommon terminology. If we give priority to epistemology, we tend to produce an ontology that posits the sorts of objects about which our epistemology says we can have knowledge or justified belief. If we give metaphysics priority, we tend to produce an account of justified belief which allows knowledge or justified belief about the sorts of things our ontology countenances as real. One's philosophical method affects both one's epistemology and metaphysics and one's sense of the relation between them. If our method is dominated by a priori reflection, we are likely to be rationalists in epistemology and realists in metaphysics, at least to the extent of countenancing whatever abstract objects must be posited to ground a priori knowledge. If our method is dominated by observation and experiment, or even by the idea that philosophical claims are ultimately responsible to observation and experiment, we are likely to tend toward empiricism in epistemology and, in metaphysics, to seek an ontology that countenances as real only what is either experienceable or necessary to account for our knowledge of what we experience.

Like epistemology or metaphysics, philosophical method can be primary in shaping a philosophical outlook. It is doubtful that it can wholly determine such an outlook; for apart from certain epistemological and metaphysical commitments, one cannot develop or even use a method. Similarly, one cannot develop an epistemology without making at least tentative metaphysical commitments or construct a metaphysics without making at least tentative epistemological commitments. Philosophers seem to accept as apparently axiomatic that what is knowable is in some sense real; and though, as many philosophers would regard as a lesson of skepticism, it is not self-evident that what is real is knowable, many philosophers cannot easily give up the conviction, or the quest to establish, that this is so. If this apparent asymmetry concerning the knowable and the real is genuine, then taken together with the primacy of our experience in our relations to others and the world, it may explain why epistemology tends, in at least many philosophers, to contribute even more than metaphysics to determining their overall views.

If philosophical method is to be clarified by the comparison with scientific method and not obscured by assimilation to the latter, it is essential that we distinguish scientific method from something of which it is an immensely impressive special case: theoretical method. The former is empirical and, broadly speaking, experimental. The latter is the more general method of building and rebuilding theories in relation to data: raising questions, hypothesizing, comparing and evaluating hypotheses in relation to data, revising theories in the light of the comparisons and evaluations, and adopting theories through assessing competing accounts of the same or similar problems. This distinction has not always been recognized or fully appreciated. For one thing, given the influence of empiricism (an influence to which few in modern philosophy are entirely immune), some thinkers tend to see scientific method as the only kind of theoretical method, at least outside logic and mathematics. But theoretical method is not the property of empiricism; rationalists can also use it, and so can both nonphilosophers and philosophers who are uncommitted with respect to, say, empiricism, rationalism, and pragmatism.

What is here called the theoretical method is very oldas ancient as systematic philosophy itself. It is illustrated in the Socratic attempt to refine definitions by revising them in response to examples and counterexamples; and it, or some major element in it, figures in all of the general philosophical methods considered here. However, the assumption of the primacy of scientific method and with it the often tacit view that scientific method is the only rational theoretical method outside logic and mathematics, is far from obvious.

Consider metaphysics: Properties and propositions, for example, far from being banished, are indispensable for many philosophers, including many who are scientifically oriented. Quite properly, this is in part because of what is required to understand science. But it may be in metaphysics, philosophy of language, and philosophy of mind that we find the greatest impetus toward preserving these common targets of Occam's Razor. Consider epistemology: There is to date no consensus that the traditional domain of the a priori has been accounted for on scientific or, especially, empiricist lines. If only a limited number of philosophers are willing to defend the view that there are synthetic a priori propositions (roughly, substantive propositions, such as basic moral principles, knowable on the basis of reflection on their content), increasingly, many philosophers are alive to the possibility that there may be. This is not to say that the analyticsynthetic distinction has been adequately clarified or is even important in many of the ways it has been thought to be. The suggestion is only that the categories of the analytic and the a priori are less and less widely thought to have been shown unintelligible or empty or even equivalent.

The Autonomy of Philosophy

Given what has been said in this entry, it should be plain that philosophy is a distinctive area of inquiry. Even if its concerns overlap those of various other disciplines, it has its own problems and at least some of its own methods. But distinctiveness is not the same as autonomy, which, as applied to a field of inquiry, implies a kind of independence of other such fields. Is philosophy autonomous in this sense? Positively, a rationalistic perspective can provide a stronger basis for the autonomy of philosophy than can an account of philosophy based on assuming the philosophical primacy of scientific method. The reference here is to hard autonomy the kind grounded in a distinctive conceptual and methodological status. This is quite different from soft autonomy the sociological and institutional independence of the discipline manifest chiefly in its generally having its own academic departments.

Soft autonomy is sustainable even if one's philosophical perspective is that of naturalism, which, in a strong form, might be described in rough terms as the view that nature is the whole of reality, and the only basic truths are truths of nature. On a form of this view associated with W. V. Quine, philosophy is continuous with natural science. This implies that there is no radical difference in the kinds of claims they can justify or in their standards of evidence: Indeed, epistemology itself is taken to be a kind of psychological inquiry into our cognitive standards and practices. The recently developed field of cognitive science, moreover, may from this perspective be viewed as a kind of naturalized philosophy of mind though its range may include more than problems addressed in that subfield of philosophy. This naturalistic approach to philosophy does not imply that there are no philosophical questions appropriately answered by reflection rather than through scientific inquiry, but the status of the answers is empirical rather than a priori; they are ultimately responsible to observation, as are scientific hypotheses, if in a less direct way. By contrast, on the traditional view that at least some major philosophical theses are a priori, it is clear why they are accountable to distinctively philosophical standards and need not be judged by the evidence drawn from sensory observation or scientific experiments.

To be sure, on the view that philosophy is simply more general than science or asks questions different in subject matter from those of the special sciences, a de facto autonomy may be sustained, an autonomy that is more than sociological and less than conceptual. But on that view, philosophy does not stand apart from science in the same way nor does it possess autonomous standards of assessment, particularly in normative matters. If, as has been common in the history of philosophy, it is seen as an autonomous cultural resource, as a normative critical enterprise responsible to its own standards, it would seem desirable that philosophy stand apart from science in the suggested way. But distinctness is not opposition nor does distinctness entail competition. Moreover, supposing the hard autonomy thesis is mistaken, soft autonomy may be retained with renewed emphasis. If (in ways to be sketched below) philosophy is, or at least should be, a cultural resource, then whatever philosophers think about hard autonomy, they have reasons to preserve the soft, sociological autonomy of the discipline.

Philosophy in Relation to Other Disciplines

There are many other disciplines, and here it is possible only to indicate how philosophy is related to some of the major ones. The place to begin is with the idea that philosophy is in a sense the metadiscipline, the one whose proper business includes accounting for the structure, methodology, and, indeed, the implicit metaphysics and epistemology, of the other disciplines.

For understanding other disciplines, philosophy is indispensable. Many important questions about a field, such as the nature of its concepts and its relation to other disciplines, do not belong to that discipline, are not usually pursued in it, and are philosophical in nature. Philosophy of science, for instance, is needed to supplement the understanding of the natural and social sciences, which may be derived from scientific work itself. Philosophy of literature and philosophy of history are of similar value in understanding the humanities, and philosophy of art is important in understanding the arts. Philosophy is, moreover, essential in assessing the various standards of evidence used by other disciplines. Since all fields of knowledge employ reasoning and must set standards of evidence, logic and epistemology have a general bearing on all of these fields.

Normative disciplines and their subfieldsthose subfields that overlap normative ethics or properly propose broadly ethical standardsdeserve special comment. These include (among others) law, theology, and aesthetics.


The field of law generates many philosophical questions. One concerns the very nature of law, which some have held to imply a connection with morality and others have taken to be entirely a matter of institutional realities, such as a structure of promulgations and enforcements. On either view, philosophy bears directly on important questions of what relation the law should have to morality. It also bears on the relevant standards of evidence. What, for instance, constitutes proof of guilt, and what should determine who counts as a reasonable person in relation to standards of negligence and due care? The topics of moral and legal responsibility, including the problem of diminished capacity and partial blameworthiness, are also areas in which philosophical and legal concerns overlap.


Theology is another field that overlaps philosophy. Philosophy of religion concerns not only the problem of adequately characterizing the divine nature but the related question of the rationality conditions for religious faith. Another major question pursued in both philosophy and theology is the relation between ethics and religion. Both areas of inquiry are connected with understanding the nature of evilwhether moral, as with wrongdoing, or natural, as in the case of death from floodsand how evil is possible (in various kinds and degrees) in a world under a god who is all-knowing, all-powerful, and wholly good. Historically, philosophy has influenced theology, just as theology has influenced philosophy. Although it is widely thought that either can be pursued in abstraction from the other, philosophical assumptions are both inevitably presupposed and commonly discussed in the field of religion.


Philosophy of art has been mentioned; aesthetics also includes the theory of natural beauty and related questions concerning aesthetics value. Although it should be granted that practitioners of the arts need not know even the rudiments of the philosophy of their art, this is rarely, if ever, so for professional critics and interpreters of the arts. Even if it is possible for critics, philosophy provides a way of conceiving the work and products of the artist that helps critics to appreciate it and to see its place in the culture to which it belongs. Literature in particular may either raise philosophical questions in its own creative works or invite their philosophical interpretation. Philosophy itself constructs mininarratives as central examples, uses dialogueimplicitly or explicitlyand not infrequently relies on metaphors and other literary devices. It is a literary medium from the vantage point of which other kinds of literature can be viewed in relation to kindred standards of coherence, plausibility, clarity, and profundity.

The relation of philosophy to the professions should also be considered here. Its bearing on law has been noted. Not all of the professions can be mentioned, but it is appropriate to say something briefly about medicine, journalism and communication, and the broad field of business and economics.

medicine and other health professions

The very notion of health is normative, particularly in the case of mental health. In this connection, ethics is clearly pertinent; so is philosophy of mind, with its emphasis on understanding the human person. Philosophy of science may yield a better understanding ofand even a greater capacity forthe integration of medical research with medical practice. Philosophy of religion can lead to a better understanding of many patients and of various other people with whom physicians work closely. Aesthetics and the history of philosophy may enhance the common ground practitioners can find with patients or colleagues who are from other cultures or have unusual orientations or views. Philosophy of medicine and medical ethics are obviously of direct relevance.

journalism and communication

Journalists face a number of challenges on which philosophy bears. One is determining what is important enough to need coverage. Another is what constitutes objectivity in reporting on events and balance in editorializing. A third is ascertaining the quality of evidence on a given issue; this may be crucial in deciding whether to trust a source or to rely on an anonymous one. A comparative and, in some cases, a historical perspective is highly desirable (and arguably obligatory) in journalism; in achieving perspectives of these kinds, philosophical reflection is useful and sometimes indispensable. There are also more specific ways in which philosophy bears on journalism and communication: Philosophy of language, for example, should enhance understanding of communication, and philosophy of science should cast light on some of the technical subjects with which many people in journalism and communication must deal. Beyond this, political and social philosophy can deepen understanding of society and social institutions. For journalists with special interests, aesthetics, philosophy of law, and philosophy of religion are highly pertinent to the questions they face.


For many people in business and (applied) economics, the bearing of philosophy on the world of commerce seems at best tenuous. But what we have seen about business ethics alone should belie that impression. A sound ethical perspective is essential for producing a sound code of ethics; philosophical training is valuable in providing a clear, adequately comprehensive, and defensible code. Economic justice, as with employment policy and fair competition, is a major concern that is clarified by work in ethics. So are the nature and responsibilities of corporations, unions, and political parties. Moreover, if cost-benefit analysis is to be mastered, the understanding and assessment of probabilities is essential. These topics are treated by inductive logic and epistemology.

The Place of Philosophy in the Academy

Some of what should be brought out here is implicit in what has been said: That philosophy is a basic and comprehensive field of knowledge and, as such, has a place in higher education should now be evident. Philosophy also contributes to the capacity for problem solving in any field. In this respect its value is interdisciplinary and subject matter neutral.

critical thinking

The first thing to note in this connection is that the study of philosophy helps to develop both the capacity and the inclination to do critical thinking. Logic is the most general philosophical field that develops this ability. Ethics alone is quite general. Studies in the subject should show how philosophical reflection is applicable to moral problems of many kinds. Courses in ethics commonly aim both at giving students a better understanding of moral problems and at helping them develop a reasonable moral outlook from which to approach the moral problems that confront them in their own lives. No other discipline treats these problems in the same comprehensive and systematic ways. Indeed, scientists and others often explicitly hold that such problems are outside their professional domain. Epistemology may be cited as the only discipline that examines standards of evidence and criteria of rational belief systematically and in ways applicable to any subject matter whatsoever. A similar point holds for many other topics that are treated in depth by philosophy and are important for critical thinking; they include definition, knowledge, explanation, causation, justification, communication, meaning, and truth.

normative issues

Philosophy provides a unique and systematic approach to normative issuesthose concerning what ought or ought not to be, what is right or wrong, what is intrinsically desirable or undesirable, and so onas opposed to what is as a matter of fact simply the case. What are the basic moral rights of persons? What moral obligations do people in a society have to one another? What constitutes justice in the distribution of goods and in the determination of punishment? Inquiries in such areas as ethics, political philosophy, philosophy of law, and aesthetics treat normative questions in depth. Courses in these fields usually examine several theories proposed by philosophers in answering these questions, and typically, students in them are encouraged to formulate and defend their own answers to the questions using the methods and concepts introduced in the courses. Given the importance that moral, social, aesthetic, and other value questions have in human life, the contribution philosophy can make in a balanced curriculum is incalculable. It might be thought that these questions do or can receive adequate treatment in the social sciences or perhaps in literature and history. These other disciplines, however, do not, and do not claim to, deal with normative questions in the way philosophy does; and many of the important normative problems philosophers study are not raised in other fields.

interdisciplinary perspective

An important function of philosophy is to foster interdisciplinary perspective. For instance, although scientific explanation is, in one form or another, common to all the sciences, conceptual questions about its nature and comparative questions about its logic in the different sciences belong to the philosophy of science. Some of these questions have been treated by scientists but rarely with the comprehensiveness and generality required for a synoptic understanding of the topic. Every discipline generates some essentially philosophical questions about itself, and many questions about relations among different disciplines are also philosophical. Both kinds of questions are examined in such areas as philosophy of science, philosophy of art, philosophy of law, philosophy of history, and philosophy of language. Philosophy also critically examines methods of inquiry, both in science and in everyday life. Its approach in this is usually conceptual, evaluative, and comparative; and typically the philosophical study of these topics differs from other approaches in the techniques used, in the questions pursued, and in the scope of the theories produced in answering these questions. Both in exploring the interrelations among other disciplines and in examining their methods of inquiry, philosophy fulfills a unique and important role as a metadiscipline. It provides a kind of understanding of the other disciplinesparticularly of their presuppositions, standards of evidence, and modes of explanationwhich other fields of study neither attempt nor are able to provide.

writing and effective communication

A major aim of higher education is to contribute to the quality of discourse in and beyond its institutions of learning. The study of philosophy generally requires analytical writing, critical reading, and formulating intellectual problems and proposed solutions to them. For these reasons, work in philosophy can greatly improve writing and communication skills. Even if writing is taught virtually throughout the curriculum, philosophy can play a major and distinctive part in the task. No other discipline emphasizes, in the same ways, either verbal argumentation or conceptual analysis. Few other disciplines emphasize, to the same degree, students' producing their own theories or critical assessments as opposed to exposition of existing material. In addition, clarity, accurate interpretation, due consideration for others' positions, and the importance of using concrete examples are also stressed in competent teaching of the writing that philosophy requires. These qualities of philosophical training in writing and speaking make the study of philosophy especially valuable in preprofessional pursuits as well as for those seeking a more general education.

The Cultural Significance of Philosophy

intellectual history and cross-cultural vision

In its historical and cross-cultural investigations, philosophy provides a sense of intellectual history and contributes to one's understanding of one's own culture in relation to other cultures. Most philosophy departments and institutes have programs of research and teaching that address at least ancient, modern, and contemporary philosophy. Many departments offer courses in philosophies produced by cultures other than their own. Studies in these areas help people to locate themselves historically and culturally, to work out a reasonable system of values, and to achieve an understanding of alternatives among values, cultural patterns, and intellectual traditions.

examination of world views

A presupposition of higher education is that most reflective people seek a coherent view of the world that makes sense of their experience, guides them in certain major decisions, and gives them at least tentative answers to some of the perennial problems concerning human life and its place in the universe. The study of philosophy helps one to formulate and assess such views, whether they are drawn from the history of thought in a particular part of the world from comparative cross-cultural studies, from popular interpretations of current science, or from the one's ownperhaps quite unarticulatedreactions to one's experience. Among the (partial) world views commonly examined in philosophy are materialism, which construes everything there is, including persons, as essentially physical; dualism, which takes minds and hence persons to be radically different from purely physical entities; and, of course, theism in many of its forms. Often, sociopolitical orientations, such as liberal democracy and Marxian socialism, are associated with world views. In examining these positions and world views, the approach of philosophy is holistic, conceptual, and evaluative. Moreover, whatever world view philosophers may hold, in teaching philosophy, they normally make it their business to present forcefully arguments for and against their own positions. Their most characteristic concern in this kind of endeavor is to develop a framework for making rational decisions on world views and sociopolitical orientations, not to inculcate any particular one.

articulation and critique of public policy

A huge number of public policy issues are mainly moral, and most of them have significant parts that are moral. Normative ethics thus has special bearing on their proper resolution. Abortion and prostitution are mainly moral issues; this is because the chief disagreements are generally over moral rights and principles rather than over nonmoral facts. Distribution of wealth and the structure of the health care system are largely moral issues; but nonmoral factual questions, such as what effects one or another system has, are relatively more important for these issues than for the former two. Moral philosophy speaks directly to problems of public policy. For one thing, they involve questions of justice and of human rights. It is a major task of moral philosophy to develop an adequate theory of justice and a related theory of moral rights. These theories attempt to answer such questions as whether justice requires an equal distribution of wealth; whether everyone has a right to material well-being; whether punishment, as distinct from rehabilitation, is morally justified; and what moral obligations rich nations have to help poor nations. The abortion issue is of particular concern here. This is because a major aspect of it concerns the metaphysical question (also debated in theological contexts) of what constitutes a human person. The issue cannot be adequately understood, then, without a degree of both ethical and metaphysical sophistication.

Philosophers, like others, are divided on these questions, but on one important point they are largely agreed: that there are ways of distinguishing good from bad reasoning on moral questions and that some answers to these questions are better than others. In any case, it should be clear that philosophical reflection may help in clarifying issues, evaluating or constructing arguments on each side, determining the full range of policy options, framing definitions (particularly in drafting legislation), deducing consequences from a position so that we can see what it commits us to, eliciting and criticizing basic assumptions, and evaluating a moral issue in the light of the best theories and principles available in moral philosophy.

the philosopher

Philosophy is so broad and complex that no one is an expert in all of its fields. This does not entail that there is nothing of a general kind that can be said about what constitutes a philosopher. The simplest thing to say is that any philosopher will have a high level of competence in at least one of the subfields described here. That will imply using at least one method sketched above or a substantially similar method; it will also imply having a sense of some of the other subfields of philosophy. It does not imply taking any particular view or reflecting on any particular problem. Philosophical training and dialectic are, however, sources of intellectual versatility. In this and other ways, philosophy can add to the depth, scope, and acuity of the wise, much as wisdom can add to the powers of discernment and judgment of the philosopher.

It is widely known that, etymologically, philosophy is the love of wisdom. There is also a strong associationperhaps partly derived from the emphasis on practical wisdom in both Plato and Aristotleof philosophical reflection with wisdom. In part for these reasons, some people have assumed that a philosopher must be wise, particularly in practical matters. If wisdom in a domain (such as human relations) is taken to be knowledge and soundness of judgment in that domain, it is true that philosophical reflection has high potential for leading to a degree of wisdom, at least in some important domains. It is certainly true that wisdom is a characteristic of many philosophers and inclines many who have it to appreciate one or another philosophical problem. But philosophical competence is no guarantee of wisdom, and wisdom of many kinds is possible for nonphilosophers.

Perhaps the most positive point to be made here is that philosophical competence in a subject-matter area will reveal at least a substantial proportion of the truths and some of the conceptual resources that are needed by a person who has wisdom in that domain. Much depends on the area in question: The more conceptual or normative it is, the greater the bearing of philosophy. Philosophical competence brought to the field of law, for example, can go a long way: Major questions in the law concern evidence, conceptual distinctions, and such normative notions as justice and blameworthiness. These are areas in which epistemology and ethics have much to contribute. The connection of philosophy to computer science may be less close; but even apart from the importance of logic in this field, there are ethical questions of, for instance, privacy and intellectual property rights, for which competence in ethics is of great value.

Quite apart from whether philosophers are characteristically wise, their cultural role includes criticism of major elements in their culture, particularly those that are intellectual, ethical, aesthetic, religious, or political. Certain important kinds of philosophical criticism are in a certain way neutral: The charge of inconsistency or incoherence is morally neutral; the point that an argument is invalid is logical and leaves open whether the argument's constituent propositions are true. A not uncommon view among philosophers has been that, qua philosophers, they should remain neutral in this way, abstaining from moral and political positions. On this view, taking these positions is appropriate for philosophers in their role as citizens but not in their role as professional philosophers.

A less restrictive view is that philosophers as a group, as represented by, for instance, the American Philosophical Association, should not take moral or political positions in official resolutions; and a still less restrictive position would apply this restriction to political but not moral issues. Nonetheless, just as there are philosophical works that systematically defend normative ethical views, there are some defending normative political positions. Why, it may be asked, should philosophers who have well-developed normative political positions not put them forward for the general public as philosophically well grounded? Publication itself may be regarded as a step in this direction, particularly if the style of the work and the medium of publication lend themselves to wide reading by the general public. Moreover, as electronic publication becomes more widespread and more readily accessible to the general public, the distinction between what is published for a professional audience and what is addressed to a wide public audience may become harder to draw.

Disagreement among philosophers about the proper cultural role of philosophy is likely to continue, and they can quite reasonably hold different views on the kinds of public moral or political positions appropriate for wide dissemination by philosophers as individuals as opposed to philosophers acting institutionally or as a corporate body. But we may safely say that, particularly with the declining influence of positivism from the middle of the twentieth century to the present time, few philosophers now believe that taking normative positions in ethics, politics, and elsewhere is not properly philosophical. One way to put a major part of this point is to say that philosophers as such may be prescriptive as well as descriptive. Indeed, even counseling people to avoid slipshod reasoning is prescriptive. Moreover, quite apart from any explicit prescriptions, criticisms of reasoning or counterexamples to proposed ideas are implicitly prescriptive: Plainly, one should not rely on bad reasoning or maintain an idea to which there are clear counterexamples. As a critical enterprise, philosophy is implicitly normative. As appraising major guiding ideas in human life, it is implicitly prescriptive.


Philosophy is the systematic and critical study of ideas and issues, a reasoned pursuit of fundamental truths, a quest for a comprehensive understanding of the world, a study of principles of conduct, and much more. Every domain of human existence raises questions to which its techniques and theories apply, and its methods are applicable in the study of any subject or the pursuit of any vocation. Its inquiries encompass the critical study of knowledge and reality, of value and obligation, of religion and science, of language and literature, of art and the professions. In the academy, philosophical studies enhance the capacity for problem solving, the ability to understand and express ideas, and the power to frame cogent arguments. In the culture in which it is practiced, philosophy can be a critical voice, a defender of ideals, a creator of visions.

Philosophy also develops understanding and enjoyment of things whose absence impoverishes many lives: aesthetic experience, communication with many different kinds of people, discussion of current issues, the discerning observation of human behavior, and intellectual zest in the pursuit of knowledge. For individuals in or outside the academy, the study of philosophy provides a major route to developing a well-reasoned vision of the good life and an ability to communicate this vision, defend it, and where necessary modify it. A well-reasoned vision of what human life ought to be yields an ordered set of long-term goals and a sense of the significance of life; it provides, often, the steady intellectual stimulation of comparing a theory of human experience with the constantly changing, ever-surprising panorama that our experience is; and it anchors our relations with others in a framework that enables us to conceive human conduct with some measure of clarity and understanding.


This entry contains many proper names, as well as many terms common in philosophy, that have entries devoted to them in this encyclopedia. Readers seeking an overall perspective on the nature of philosophy are urged to consider entries on these philosophers or philosophically important terms. One may also find much of relevance to understanding what philosophy is by consulting the entries on special fields, say epistemology, ethics, metaphysics, and the philosophy of subfields, such as philosophy of mind, of religion, or of science. Also recommended are the philosophy entries in the first edition of this work (1967) and its supplement (1996). Some of the material in this entry is drawn (with permission) from parts of two documents (of which the author was principal writer) published by the American Philosophical Association with the idea of clarifying the nature of the field and its academic study: "The Role of Philosophy Programs in Higher Education." Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 53 (3) (1980): 363370; and "Philosophy: A Brief Guide for Undergraduates." Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 56 (2) (1982): ixviii. Some material is also based on the author's "Realism, Rationality, and Philosophical Method," written with a similar purpose and appearing in Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 61 (1987): 6574.

Robert Audi (2005)


views updated Jun 08 2018

312. Philosophy

See also 21. ARGUMENTATION ; 100. COSMOLOGY ; 104. CRITICISM ; 145. ETHICS ; 216. IDEAS ; 233. KNOWLEDGE ; 250. LOGIC ; 392. THEOLOGY ; 393. THINKING ; 402. TRUTH and ERROR ; 405. UNDERSTANDING ; 407. VALUES ; 422. WISDOM .

the philosophic doctrine that claims that events can or do occur without cause. accidentalist, n.
the doctrine that all reality is animate, in motion, or in process. actualist, n. actualistic, adj.
aesthetics, esthetics
a branch of philosophy dealing with beauty and the beautiful. aesthete, aesthetic, n., adj. aesthetical, adj.
reasoning deductively, from a generalization to particular events.
the science of the systemization of knowledge. See also 20. ARCHITECTURE ; 23. ART .
the study of virtue.
the philosophy of Aristotle, especially an emphasis upon formal deductive logic, upon the concept that reality is a combination of form and matter, and upon investigation of the concrete and particular. Aristotelian, n., adj.
the theory that minute, discrete, finite, and indivisible elements are the ultimate constituents of all matter. Also called atomic theory . atomist, n. atomistic, atomistical, adj.
Averroism, Averrhoism
the philosophy of Averroës, chiefly Aristotelianism tinged with Neoplatonism, asserting the unity of an active and divine intellect common to all while denying personal immortality. Averroist, Averrhoist, n. Averroistic, Averrhoistic, adj.
the philosophical theory of Jeremy Bentham that the morality of actions is estimated and determined by their utility and that pleasure and pain are both the ultimate Standard of right and wrong and the fundamental motives influencing human actions and wishes. Benthamite, n. Benthamic, adj.
the philosophy of Henri Bergson, emphasizing time or duration as the central f act of experience and asserting the existence of the élan vital as an original life force governing all organic processes in a way that can be explained only by intuition, not by scientific analysis. Bergsonian, n., adj.
the philosophy and beliefs of George Berkeley denying the existence of the real world. Berkeleian, n., adj.
the philosophy of René Descartes and his followers, especially its emphasis on logical analysis, its mechanistic interpretation of physical nature, and its dualistic distinction between thought (mind) and extension (matter). Cartesian, n., adj.
the principles and practices of universal causation.
commonsense realism
naive realism.
positivism, def. 1.
the doctrine that universals exist only in the mind. Cf. idealism. conceptualist, n. conceptualistic, adj.
the personal philosophy of Kwame Nkrumah (1909-72), president of Ghana (1960-66), devised and named by him.
the branch of philosophy that studies the origin, evolution, and structure of the universe, especially such characteristics as space, time, causality, and freedom. cosmologist, n. cosmologic, cosmological, adj.
a Greek philosophy of the 4th century B.C. advocating the doctrines that virtue is the only good, that the essence of virtue is self-control and individual freedom, and that surrender to any external influence is beneath the dignity of man. Cynic, n. Cynical, adj.
the principles of the school of the philosopher Aristippus of Cyrene. Cyrenaic, n. Cyrenean, Cyrenian, adj.
the doctrines of a school of philosophy emphasizing empiricism and positivism. Cf. transcendentalism. descendentalist, n. descendental, descendentalistic, adj.
1. the doctrine that all f acts and events result from the operation of natural laws.
2. the doctrine that all events, including human choices and decisions, are necessarily determined by motives, which are regarded as external forces acting on the will. Also called predeterminism . Cf. fatalism. determinist, n. deterministic, adj.
the compiling of extracts from ancient Greek philosophers, with editorial commentary. doxographer, n. doxographical, adj.
1. any theory in any field of philosophical investigation that reduces the variety of its subject matter to two irreducible principles, as good/evil or natural/supernatural.
2. Metaphysics. any system that reduces the whole universe to two principles, as the Platonic Ideas and Matter. Cf. monism, pluralism. dualist, n. dualistic, adj.
any of various theories or philosophical systems that seek to explain natural phenomena by the action and interaction of forces, as mechanism or Leibnizianism. Cf. vitalism. dynamist, n. dynamistic, adj.
a doctrine denying the existence of a final cause or purpose in life or nature. Cf. teleology. dysteleologist, n. dysteleological, adj.
1. the use or advocacy of a method involving the selection of doctrines from various systems and their combination into a unified system of ideas.
2. such a system. eclectic, n., adj.
a school of philosophy founded by Parmenides and its doctrines, especially those contributed by Zeno (of Elea), asserting the unreality of motion or change. Eleatic, adj.
a theory of the origin of the world by a series of emanations from the Godhead. Also called emanatism . emanationist, n. emanational, adj.
1. the doctrine that all ideas and categories are derived from sense experience and that knowledge cannot extend beyond experience, including observation, experiment, and induction.
2. an empirical method or practice. empiricist, n. empirical, adj.
Vitalism. a vital agent or force directing growth and life. Cf. teleology. entelechial, adj.
the philosophical system of Epicurus, holding that the natural world is a series of fortuitous combinations of atoms, and that the highest good is f reedom from disturbance and pain. Also Epicurism. Epicurean, n., adj.
the doctrine that consciousness is a mere accessory and accompaniment of physiological processes and is powerless to affect these processes. epiphenomenalist, n. epiphenomenal, adj.
the branch of philosophy that studies the origin, nature, methods, validity, and limits of human knowledge. epistemologist, n. epistemic, epistemological, adj.
1. a philosophical theory asserting that metaphysical essences are real and intuitively accessible.
2. a philosophical theory giving priority to the inward nature, true substance, or constitution of something over its existence. Cf. existentialism. essentialist, n. essentialistic, adj.
ethical nihilism
the belief that there are no bases for establishing a moral or ethical philosophy. Cf. nihilism .
ethical relativism
the belief that morality is relative to the society where it exists and that its criticism and evaluation are irrelevant. Cf. relativism .
the branch of philosophy that considers the good, moral principles, and right action. ethicist, n. ethical, adj.
etiology, aetiology
the science of causation. etiologic, aetiologic, etiological, aetiological, adj.
1. the doctrine that man forms his essence in the course of the life resulting from his personal choices.
2. an emphasis upon mans creating his own nature as well as the importance of personal freedom, decision, and commitment. Also called philosophical existentialism . Cf. essentialism. existentialist, n., adj.
the philosophical theory that states that experience is the source of all knowledge. experientialist, n. experiential, adj.
the doctrine that all things are subject to fate or inevitable predestination and that man is ultimately unable to prevent inevitabilities. Cf. determinism. fatalist, n. fatalistic, adj.
theories and beliefs of J. G. Fichte, German philosopher and social thinker, a precursor of socialism. Fichtean, n., adj.
the doctrines of any of various dualistic sects among the Jews and the early Christians who claimed possession of superior spiritual knowledge, explained the creation of the world in an emanational manner, and condemned matter as evil. Gnostic, n., adj.
a theory maintaining that two seemingly conflicting notions are not radically opposed, but are part of a gradually altering continuity. gradualist, n., adj. gradualistic, adj.
theories and doctrines of Ernst Haeckel, German biologist and philosopher, especially the notion ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. Haeckelian, adj.
Hegelian dialectic
an interpretive method, originally used to relate specific entities or events to the absolute idea, in which an assertable proposition (thesis) is necessarily opposed by its apparent contradiction (antithesis), and both reconciled on a higher level of truth by a third proposition (synthesis). Also called Hegelian triad .
the philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and his followers, characterized by the use of a special dialectic as an analytical and interpretive method. See also Hegelian dialectic. Hegelian, n., adj.
Hermeticism, hermeticism
1. the ideas or beliefs set forth in the writings of Hermes Trismegistus.
2. adherence to these ideas and beliefs.
the philosophical beliefs of Thomas Hobbes, who maintained that an individual has the right to self-preservation and the pursuit of happiness. Hobbist, n. Hobbesian, adj.
the theory that whole entities, as fundamental components of reality, have an existence other than as the mere sum of their parts. Cf. organicism. holist, n. holistic, adj.
1. Ethics. the doctrine that mans obligations are concerned wholly with the welfare of the human race.
2. Theology. the doctrine that man may achieve perfection without divine assistanee. humanitarian, n., adj.
hylicism, hylism
1. the materialist theories of the early Ionic philosophers. hylicist, n.
2. the doctrines concerning the lowest of three Gnostic orders of mankind, the material or fleshly, unsavable as sons of the devil. Cf. pneumatism, psychism.
3. the theory that regards matter as the principle of evil, as in dualistic theology or philosophy. hylic, adj.
the theory derived from Aristotle that every physical object is composed of two principles, an unchanging prime matter and a form deprived of actuality with every substantial change of the object. hylomorphist, n. hylomorphic, adj.
the essential substance or underlying nature or principle of a thing. hypostatic, hypostatical, adj.
1. a principle or proposition that is assumed for the sake of argument or that is taken for granted to proceed to the proof of the point in question.
2. a system or theory created to account for something that is not understood. hypothesist, hypothetist, n. hypothetic, hypothetical, adj.
any system or theory that maintains that the real is of the nature of thought or that the object of external perception consists of ideas. Cf. realism. idealist, n. idealistic, adj.
a theory or doctrine that the material world is wholly or nearly wholly an illusion. illusionist, n. illusionistic, adj.
the belief that material things have no objective existence but exist only as mental perceptions. immaterialist, n. immaterial, adj.
a view that admits no real difference between true and f alse in religion or philosophy; a form of agnosticism. See also 28. ATTITUDES . indifferentist, n.
a pragmatic philosophy holding that it is the function of thought to be a means to the control of environment, and that the value and truthfulness of ideas is determined by their usefulness in human experience or progress. instrumentalist, n., adj.
1. a theory that nonrational forces govern the universe.
2. any attitude or set of beliefs having a nonrational basis, as nihilism. irrationalist, n., adj. irrationalistic, adj.
the philosophy of Emmanuel Kant, asserting that the nature of the mind renders it unable to know reality immediately, that the mind interprets data presented to it as phenomena in space and time, and that the reason, in order to find a meaningful basis for experience or in order for ethical conduct to exist, may postulate things unknowable to it, as the existence of a soul. Kantist, n. Kantian, adj.
the view of a school of Roman Catholic casuists who maintained that any chance of liberty, however slight, should be foliowed. laxist, n.
Leibnizianism, Leibnitzianism
the philosophy of Gottfied Wilhelm von Leibniz and his followers, especially monadism and the theory of preestablished harmony, the theory that this is the best of all possible worlds because God has chosen it (satirized by Voltaire in Candide ), and proposals for a scientific language and a method of symbolic computation. Leib-nizian, Leibnitzian, n., adj.
1. one who advocates liberty, especially with regard to thought or conduct.
2. the philosophical doctrine of free will. Cf. necessitarianism, determinism, fatalism. libertarian, n., adj.
logical positivism
positivism, def. 2.
a philosophical system that places strong emphasis on logic.
the theory that regards matter and its various guises as constituting the universe, and all phenomena, including those of the mind, as caused by material agencies. materialist, n., adj. materialistic, adj.
1. the theory that everything in the universe is produced by matter in process, capable of explanation by the laws of chemistry and physics.
2. the theory that a natural process is machinelike or is explainable in terms of Newtonian mechanics. mechanist, n. mechanistic, adj.
the doctrine that the world tends to become better of itself, or that it may improve more rapidly by proper human assistance. Cf. optimism, pessimism. meliorist, n. melioristic, adj.
the doctrine that objects of knowledge have no existence except in the mind of the perceiver, as in Berkeleianism. mentalist, n. mentalistic, adj.
the study of ways of attaining happiness.
a branch of philosophy concerned with the foundations of ethics and especially with the definition of ethical terms and the nature of moral discourse.
the doctrine that knowledge of the Absolute is within human reach, but through a higher religious consciousness rather than by logical processes. metagnostic, adj.
a branch of philosophy concerned with being, first principles, and often including aspects of cosmology and epistemology. metaphysician, n. metaphysical, adj.
a concept believed to be beyond but related to empirically gained data. Also metempirics.
the philosophy of pessimism.
the doctrines of Mo-Tze, Chinese sage of the 5th century B.C., who advocated government by an absolute monarch and universal love. Mohist, n., adj.
1. the Leibnizian doctrine of monads as unextended, indivisible, and indestructible entities that are the ultimate constituent of the universe and a microcosm of it. Also called monadology .
2. the doctrine of Giordano Bruno concerning monads as basic and irreducible metaphysical units that are psychically and spatially individuated. monadistic, adj.
1. Metaphysics. a theory that only one basic substance or principle exists as the ground of reality. Cf. dualism, pluralism.
2. Metaphysics. a theory that reality consists of a single element. Cf. pluralism.
3. Epistemology. a theory that the object and the sense datum of cognition are identical. monist, n. monistic, monistical, adj.
the philosophic doctrine that claims that the soul is mortal. mortalist, n.
naive realism
the theory that the world is perceived exactly as it is. Also called natural realism, commonsense realism . Cf. idealism, realism.
the belief that the human brain is capable of spontaneous or innate ideas. See also 169. FOREIGNERS . nativist, n. nativistic, adj.
natural realism
naive realism.
the doctrine of the determinism of the will by antecedent causes, as opposed to that of the f reedom of the will. Also called necessarianism . Cf. determinism, fatalism, libertarianism. necessitarian, n., adj.
any system of thought opposed to positivism; doctrines based upon doubt and skepticism. negativist, n., adj. negativistic, adj.
Neoplatonism, Neo-Platonism
a philosophical system originated in Alexandria in the 3rd century A.D., founded on Platonic doctrine, Aristotelianism, and Oriental mysticism, with later influences from Christianity. Neoplatonist, n. Neoplatonic, adj.
the neo-scholastic philosophy closely related to the teachings of Thomas Aquinas. neo-Thomist, n.
the philosophy of Nietzsche, especially its emphasis on the will to power as the chief motivating force of both the individual and society. Also called Nietzscheanism . Nietzschean, n., adj.
the belief that existence is not real and that there can be no objective basis of truth, a form of extreme skepticism. Cf. ethical nihilism. nihilist, n., adj.
Medieval Philosophy. the doctrine that abstract words or universals do not represent objectively existing entities, and that universals are only names applied to individual physical particulars that alone exist objectively. nominalist, n., adj. nominalistic, adj.
any of several philosophical concepts regarding the noumenon. noumenalist, n., adj.
noumenon Kantianism.
1. that which can be the object only of a purely intellectual, nonsensuous intuition, the thing-in-itself (Ding an Sich ).
2. an unknowable object (as God), the existence of which is not capable of proof. noumenal, adj.
1. any of various philosophical theories stressing the external or objective elements of cognition.
2. Ethics. any theory asserting that the moral good is objective and not influenced by human feelings. objectivist, n., adj.
the Cartesian philosophic doctrine that holds that mind and matter are incapable of affecting each other and that their reciprocal action must be owing to the intervention of God. occasionalist, n. occasionalistic, adj.
adherence to oligarchy as a principle. oligarchist, n.
philosophical inquiry into the nature of being itself, a branch of metaphysics. ontologist, n. ontologie, ontological, ontologistic, adj.
the idea that the concepts used in nonanalytical scientific statements must be deflnable in relation to identiflable operations. operationist, n. operationistic, adj.
1. the belief that good is ultimately triumphant over the evil in the world.
2. the Leibnizian doctrine that this is the best of all possible worlds.
3. the belief that goodness pervades reality. Cf. meliorism, pessimism. optimist, n. optimistic, adj.
the theory that vital activities stem not from any single part of an organism but from its autonomous composition. Cf. holism, mechanism, vitalism. organicist, n. organicistic, adj.
a method or means for communicating knowledge or for philosophical inquiry.
the doctrines developed or ascribed to the 3rd-century Christian theologian Origen, especially an attempt to develop a Christian philosophy combining Platonism and the Scriptures. Origenist, n. Origenistic, adj.
the doctrine that material nature is the source of all phenomena. pamphysicism, adj.
the theory that all matter has some consciousness.
1. the doctrine that the universe is a realization or act of the Logos.
2. the Hegelian doctrine that logos or reason informs the absolute or absolute reality. panlogist, n. panlogical, panlogistic, panlogistical, adj.
the doctrine that each object in the universe has a mind or an unconscious psyche and that all physical occurrences involve the mental. panpsychist, n. panpsychistic, adj.
the philosophical theory of Arthur Schopenhauer, who maintained that the ultimate reality of the universe is will.
the theory that mind and matter accompany each other but are not causally related.
the doctrine of the effects on the mind of pleasure and pain.
1. the philosophy of Aristotle, who taught while walking.
2. the followers of Aristotle and his school of philosophy. Peripatetic, n., adj.
1. the doctrine that all things naturally tend to evil.
2. the doctrine that this is the worst of all possible worlds. Cf. Leibnizianism.
3. the doctrine that the evil and pain in the world outweigh goodness and happiness, and that the world is basically evil. Cf. meliorism, optimism. pessimist, n. pessimistic, adj.
the mental image or representation of a real person or thing. See also 182. GHOSTS ; 309. PERCEPTION .
the doctrine that phenomena are the only objects of knowledge or the only form of reality. phenomenalist, n. phenomenalistic, adj.
1. the study of phenomena.
2. the philosophical system of Edmund Husserl and his followers, especially the careful description of phenomena in all areas of experience. phenomenologist, n. phenomenologic, phenomenological, adj.
a spurious philosophic argument. philosophist, n., adj.
a doctrine, related to logical positivism, that all meaningful statements, with the exception of necessary statements of logic and mathematics, must relate either directly or indirectly to observable properties of the temporal. physicalist, n., adj.
the philosophy of Plato and his followers, especially the doctrine that physical objects are imperfect and impermanent representations of unchanging ideas, and that knowledge is the mental apprehension of these ideas or universals. Platonist, n., adj. Platonistic, adj.
1. a theory positing more than one principle or basic substance as the ground of reality. Cf. dualism, monism .
2. a theory that reality consists, not of an organic whole, but of two or more independent material or spiritual entities. pluralist, n. pluralistic, adj.
the doctrines concerning the highest of three Gnostic orders of mankind, those who have received spiritual gifts and are therefore by nature capable of salvation. Cf. hylicism, psychism.
1. a philosophical system developed by Auguste Comte, concerned with positive facts and phenomena, the flrst verifled by the methods of the empirical sciences, the second explainable by scientific laws. Also called Comtism .
2. a contemporary philosophical movement stressing the task of philosophy as criticizing and analyzing science, and rejecting all transcendental metaphysics. Also called logical positivism . positivist, n. positivistic, adj.
a philosophical system stressing practical consequences and values as standards by which the validity of concepts are to be determined. pragmatist, n., adj. pragmatistic, adj.
the pragmatist philosophy of C. S. Peirce, especially his work in logic and problems in language. pragmaticist, n.
the doctrine, introduced by the Skeptics and influential in the seiences and social sciences in modified form, that certainty is impossible and that probability suffices to govern belief and action. probabilist, n. probabilistic, adj.
a doctrine of philosophy that is prudential.
Rare. a false, sham, or foolish philosopher.
the doctrines concerning the second of three Gnostic orders of mankind, those endowed with souls and free wills, savable through the right use of the latter. Cf. hylicism, pneumatism .
any of various theories of nature or of animal and human behavior based upon teleological doctrines. purposivist, n.
1. the Skeptic doctrines of Pyrrho and his followers, especially the assertion that, since all perceptions tend to be faulty, the wise man will consider the external circumstances of life to be unimportant and thus preserve tranquility.
2. extreme or absolute skepticism. Cf. Skepticism. Pyrrhonist, n. Pyrrhonian, Pyrrhonic, n., adj.
the essential nature or quality of something that makes it different and distinct from other things and establishes its identity. quidditative, adj.
Ancient and Medieval Philosophy. the fifth essence, of which the heavenly bodies were thought to be made, distinguished from the four elements of ure, air, water, and earth; hence, the most pure essence or most perfect embodiment of a thing or being. quintessential, adj.
a nice or fine point, as in argument; a subtlety. quodlibetal, adj.
a person who likes to talk about or dispute fine points or quodlibets.
the doctrines of Pierre de la Ramée (Ramus), who opposed scholasticism and the dialectics of Aristotle. Ramist, n., adj.
1. the doctrine that knowledge is gained only through the reason, a faculty independent of experience.
2. the doctrine that all knowledge is expressible in self-evident propositions or their consequences. rationalist, n. rationalistic, adj.
1. the doctrine that universals have a real objective existence. Cf. idealism.
2. the doctrine that objects of sense perception have an existence independent of the act of perception. realist, n.
1. a doctrine asserting the existence of relations as entities.
2. a theory maintaining the conditioning of any ideological perspective or system by its sociocultural context. relationist, n.
any theory maintaining that criteria of judgment vary with individuals and their environments; relationism. Cf. ethical relativism. relativist, n. relativistic, adj.
the philosophy that advocates restriction and restraint, as in trade dealings. restrictionist, n., adj.
the philosophy of Antonio Rosmini-Serbati, 19th-century Italian philosopher and ecclesiastic, who taught that the idea of true being is inborn and that through it true knowledge is made potential. Rosminian, n., adj.
the philosophy of idealism, as set forth by F. W. J. von Schelling.
the representation in outline of a particular systematic arrangement or of a particular concept. schematist, n.
a head of a school, especially the head of one of the ancient Athenian schools of philosophy.
the doctrines of the schoolmen; the system of theological and philosophical instruction of the Middle Ages, based chiefly upon the authority of the church fathers and on Aristotle and his commentators. Scholastic, n., adj.
the philosophy of John Duns Scotus, medieval Scholastic, especially his proposal that philosophy and theology be made separate disciplines. Scotist, n. Scotistic, Scotistical, adj.
1. the doctrine that all ideas are derived from and essentially reducible to sense perceptions. Also called sensuism .
2. Ethics. the doctrine that the good is to be judged only by or through the gratification of the senses. Also called sensualism . See also 145. ETHICS ; 248. LITERARY STYLE ; 265. MEDIA . sensationalist, n. sensationalistic, adj.
sensationalism, def. 2.
sensationalism, def. 1.
any philosophy that derives the universe from one principle.
Skepticism, Scepticism
the doctrines or opinions of philosophical Skeptics, especially the doctrine that a true knowledge of things is impossible or that all knowledge is uncertain. Cf. Pyrrhonism. Skeptic, Sceptic, n.
Soeraticism, Soeratism
some aspect of Socrates philosophy.
the theory that only the self exists or can be proved to exist. Also called panegoism . solipsist, n. solipsistic, adj.
1. the teachings and ways of teaching of the ancient Greek sophists.
2. subtle, superficially plausible, but actually specious or fallacious reasoning, as was sometimes used by the sophists.
the state or quality of appearing to be greater or more than is to be found on a close examination, as an argument that has the appearance of merit but does not stand up to a close look. speeious, adj.
the philosophy of Baruch Spinoza, who maintained that only thought and extension are capable of being apprehended by the human mind. Spinozist, n. Spinozistic, adj.
the school of philosophy founded by Zeno (of Citium), who asserted that men should be free from passion, unmoved by joy or grief, and submit without complaint to unavoidable necessity. Stoic, n., adj.
1. Epistemology. the doctrine that all knowledge is limited to experiences by the self and that all transcendent knowledge is impossible.
2. Ethics. the theory that certain states of feeling or thought are the highest good.
3. Ethics. the doctrine that the good and the right can be distinguished only by individual feeling. subjectivist, n. subjectivistic, adj.
the attempted reconciliation of different or opposing principles, practices, or parties, as in philosophy or religion. syncretic, syncretical, syncretistic, syncretistical, adj.
the process of deductive reasoning, as from cause to effect, from the simple elements to the complex whole, etc. See also 230. JOINING . synthesist, n. synthetic, synthetical adj.
the principles or practice of synthesis or synthetic methods or techniques.
a person who practices or believes in synthetic methods or principles.
1. the doctrine that final causes (purposes) exist.
2. the study of the evidences of design or purpose in nature.
3. such a design or purpose.
4. the belief that purpose and design are a part of or apparent in nature.
5. Vitalism. the doctrine that phenomena are guided by both mechanical forces and goals of self-realization. Cf. entelechy. teleologist, n. teleologie, teleological, adj.
the philosophical doctrine that emphasizes the ultimate reality of time instead of the reduction of time to a manifestation of the eternal. temporalist, n. temporalistic, adj.
the belief that God has set a term for the probation of individuals during which time they are offered grace. terminist, n.
the theological and philosophical doctrines of St. Thomas Aquinas and his followers. Thomist, n. Thomistic, adj.
1. any philosophy based upon the doctrine that the principles of reality are to be discovered only through the analysis of the processes of thought, as Kantianism.
2. a philosophy emphasizing the intuitive and spiritual above the empirical, as the philosophy of Emerson. Cf. descendentalism. transcendentalist, n. transcendentalistic, adj.
Casuistry. a position in the probabilistic controversy of the 16th and 17th centuries maintaining that, in the absence of moral certitude, only the most rigorous of any probable courses of ethical action should be taken. Also called rigorism . tutiorist, n.
the philosophical tenets set forth by John Stuart Mill based on the principle of the greatest good for the greatest number and holding that the criterion of virtue lies in its utility. utilitarian, n., adj.
1. the doctrine that phenomena are only partly controlled by mechanical forces and are in some measure self-determining. Cf. mechanism, organicism.
2. the doctrine that ascribes the functions of a living organism to a vital principle (as élan vital) distinct from physical or chemical forces. Cf. dynamism. vitalist, n., adj. vitalistic, adj.
any theory that regards the will rather than the intellect as the fundamental agency or principle in human activities and experience, as Nietzscheism. voluntarist, n. voluntaristic, adj.


views updated May 17 2018


PHILOSOPHY. In the sixteenth century, "philosophy" still meant Aristotelianism in its medieval Christian form, with Platonism and other ancient doctrines, including stoicism, Epicureanism, skepticism, eclecticism, and various occult traditions, remaining on the academic margins, though they were becoming lively topics of intellectual controversy. Philosophical practice of the period was increasingly devoted to the comparative study of these systems. Opposing these dogmatic (or skeptical) traditions, however, was the novel and unorthodox question posed by Tommaso Campanella (15681639), "whether it is useful for Christian philosophy to construct a new philosophy after that of the pagans, and if so, on what grounds." This was a challenge taken up by a number of fifteenth-, sixteenth-, and seventeenth-century thinkers, including Marsilio Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, and other Neoplatonists; Lorenzo Valla, Desiderius Erasmus, and other humanists; Rudolphus Agricola, Petrus Ramus, and other reformers of rhetoric and logic; Jacopo Zabarella, Giordano Bruno, and other Italian natural philosophers; and Francis Bacon, Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, René Descartes, Isaac Newton, and other champions of the "party of nature" and a self-proclaimed "new philosophy."

The study of these and other philosophical movements beyond the academic mainstream has been pursued in the past two generations, especially by Paul Oskar Kristeller and his students. This has opened up new perspectives on the history of Western thought, even though the older traditionswhich tend to jump from the medieval theologian-philosopher Thomas Aquinas (1224/12251274) and Scholasticism directly to Descartes (15961650), the French rationalist and metaphysician, and other seventeenth-century system buildershave remained dominant in the modern philosophical canon.


According to convention, modern philosophy begins with Descartes and the English empiricist and philosopher of science Francis Bacon (15611626), pivotal figures who broke decisively with the intellectual system of the late medieval world and helped to articulate a new agenda for philosophy. This simplifies a complex story, as medieval philosophy gave way to early modern systems of thought slowly, across several generations. But Bacon and Descartes indeed helped to usher in a revolutionary period in philosophy, with upheavals in crucial areas such as epistemology, metaphysics, philosophy of science, ethics, and political philosophy.

At the start of the seventeenth century, the presumptive authority of time-tested ancient thinkers, particularly the towering figure of Aristotle (384322 b.c.e.), still carried great weight in philosophy and the sciences. The overwhelmingly dominant philosophical system, firmly entrenched in the universities, was Aristotelian Scholasticism, a synthesis of Aristotle's philosophy with Christian doctrine that had been forged by Aquinas. But modern philosophers such as Bacon and Descartes rejected this traditional deference toward Aristotle and other ancient figures of authority and broke with the Scholastic system. The decline in respect for traditional philosophical authorities had various sources. The religious crises of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation had shaken the presumption in favor of tradition, opening space for a more assertive questioning of received doctrine. Humanist scholars had unearthed and reintroduced lost systems of thought, such as ancient Greek atomism and classical skepticism, that presented alternatives to the theories of Aristotle, encouraging critical debate on the merits of all these competing systems. Developments in Renaissance science and the burgeoning scientific revolution were also exposing the fallibility of Aristotelian physics and cosmology. While Scholastic philosophy continued to dominate the universities through the seventeenth century, the main developments in modern philosophy came from thinkers operating outside of this old establishment, usually men of independent means or supported by aristocratic patronage rather than a professor's salary. These philosophers typically addressed their works to the educated classes more broadly and wrote in the vernacular rather than the Latin of Scholastic academia.

In practice the break with the Scholastic intellectual system helped to reestablish philosophy as an autonomous discipline outside of theology. While most of the leading early modern philosophers were religious believers who sought to develop philosophical theories consistent with their religious commitments, nevertheless there was a marked shift toward the scientific study of human nature and the physical world, unmediated by an explicit emphasis on theological doctrine. The trend toward secularization encompassed even ethics and political philosophy, with philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes (15881679), David Hume (17111776), and Immanuel Kant (17241804) founding moral and political principles on reason or human nature, rather than the commands of God. (This "secularization thesis" is also part of the conventional story of modern philosophy, but it has been challenged by some recent scholars, most notably Hans Blumenberg.)


The agenda of early modern philosophy was closely connected with the new scientific worldview pioneered by figures such as Galileo (15641642), Kepler (15711630), and Newton (16421727). Bacon, Descartes, and the philosophers who followed them were gripped by the explanatory range and power of the new science and were concerned to articulate, codify, and defend its methods and to explore its implications for metaphysics and epistemology. Several philosophers of the period were involved firsthand in the practice of science: leading examples include Descartes and the German philosophers Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (16461716) and Kant. Early modern philosophers would also self-consciously import the experimental method of the new science into the realm of philosophy, as in the theories of mind developed by the British empiricists John Locke (16321704) and Hume.

The new scientific worldview brought a fresh range of philosophical questions to the fore. First, there were questions concerning scientific method (a particular interest of Bacon, Locke, and Hume). How could inductive extrapolation from observed phenomena to unobserved cases be justified? Would science ever show us the inner essence of things and explain their underlying causal powers, or was it limited to merely cataloging correlations and patterns among surface phenomena? Then there were the metaphysical questions. What did the success of the new mathematical, quantitative models of nature show us about the relationship between mathematics on the one hand and empirical reality on the other? In what sense were subjective features of experience like colors and sounds part of the material world? And, most pressingly, what was the status of human beings in the scientific world picture? Was there still room for free will, morality, religion, and the human soul in the vast, cold, deterministic world of the new mathematical sciences?


Early modern philosophy is justly famous for its reorientation toward epistemology, or the theory of knowledge. The examination of the processes by which we arrive at and justify knowledge claims took on a new primacy in the period, as philosophers such as Bacon, Descartes, Locke, Hume, and Kant each in their own way urged the importance of clarifying the nature and limits of our own cognitive faculties. Apart from the general wisdom of examining the sources and justifiability of our beliefs before boldly advancing theories on subjects that may exceed our capacities, the new emphasis on epistemology had several more immediate motivations. It was connected to the collapse in the prestige of traditional sources of authority such as Aristotle and church doctrine. If ancient authorities no longer commanded automatic deference, then whoor whatshould a responsible thinker take as a legitimate source of knowledge? It was also related to the questions of method and scientific procedure raised by the achievements of the new science. Most famously, it was prompted by the skeptical onslaught of figures like Michel de Montaigne (15331592), the great French essayist and popularizer of ancient forms of skepticism, who argued that all the bases of our so-called knowledge are inadequate.

It is customary to distinguish between two main factions in early modern epistemology: the empiricists on the one hand and the rationalists on the other. The distinction can be overemphasized at the risk of falsely caricaturing the rationalists as hostile to empirical investigation, or of obscuring a complex pattern of intellectual influences back and forth between the two groups. Nevertheless the distinction does capture an important difference in approaches to the theory of knowledge. The empiricistsled by Bacon, Locke, and Humeargued that all our ideas are ultimately acquired in experience, and that the limits of experience set boundaries on our knowledge. The empiricist thus counsels a certain humility: our knowledge is forever limited to the patterns and regularities we witness among the empirically observable features of the world; metaphysical speculation about the inner nature of things transcends our capacities. By contrast, the rationalistsled by Descartes, the Dutch Jewish metaphysician Baruch Spinoza (16321677), and Leibnizargued that our minds are innately furnished with certain ideas over and above those we acquire in experience. Using these innate ideas we can reason about things transcending experience. For the rationalist, this explains how we can have knowledge that goes beyond all possible empirical confirmation, either because of its universal nature (logic, mathematics, knowledge of the laws of nature) or because of its transcendent subject matter (God, the soul, morality).


Early modern philosophers explored a wide range of issues in metaphysics (the study of the ultimate nature of reality), including, notably, problems of space and time, causation, the ultimate structure of matter, the nature of morality, and God. However, the most characteristic metaphysical questions of the period focus on the connection between the human mind or soul on the one hand and the physical world on the other. Clearly these issues were related to the epistemological turn, and in particular to Descartes's famous skeptical problem of how we can know that there is a physical realm beyond our minds at all. But such questions were also forced by reflection on the new scientific worldview. Advocates of the new science such as Galileo and Descartes argued that the objective, mind-independent world described by science could be exhaustively characterized in terms of mathematically tractable "primary" qualities such as shape, size, and motion. "Secondary" qualities such as colors, tastes, sounds, and smells were then downgraded to a derivative status and were in some sense observer-relative and mind-dependent, more a feature of subjective experience than ultimate objective reality. This distinction had great appeal for most early moderns, but it would be challenged by figures such as the Irish cleric George Berkeley (16851753), Hume, and Kant, who pointed out that a clear distinction between mind-dependent and mind-independent properties is not so easy to draw. Kant argued that even space and time were mind-dependent or "ideal." For Berkeley the notion of any mind-independent reality whatsoever was fundamentally incoherent: all that exists are minds and their ideas.

Granted the existence of an objective material realm, the next question concerned the relationship between the mind and the physical body. Descartes developed the popular theory that the mind is an immaterial soul-substance over and above the material brain, arguing that this helped to explain the existence of consciousness and made room both for an afterlife beyond bodily death and for free will (as well as moral responsibility) outside the deterministic laws governing the material order. But others thought the theory raised more problems than it solved, including difficulties in accounting for the causal interaction between immaterial soul and material body. Materialists such as Hobbes and Spinoza insisted that the human animal, mind included, was just a complex material system; others such as Locke counseled a metaphysical agnosticism about the ultimate nature of the thinking self.


The medieval church and the Scholastic tradition had located the source of political legitimacy in implicit divine approval of established dynasties, a conservative doctrine that left little room for individual rights against the monarch or for systems of popular sovereignty. Leading Protestant theologians such as Martin Luther (14831546) reaffirmed the doctrine of divine right, although some of the more radical Anabaptist reformers preached against it. The main philosophical revolt against this medieval tradition came with the social contract theorists: the Dutch legal scholar and philosopher Hugo Grotius (15831645), Hobbes, Locke, and the Swiss-born social theorist Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778). These figures posited a hypothetical "state of nature" without government to explore the basic rights of the individual, and they argued that legitimate state authority was ultimately derived from such foundational individual rights, transferred conditionally through popular (though perhaps implicit) consent. The corollary was that individuals retained certain inalienable rights against government, that state authority was in some (perhaps quite attenuated) sense contingent on popular consent, and that regimes in breach of the implicit contract were illegitimate and could be justly overthrown. Locke would extend the contract theory to argue for religious toleration (although Catholics and atheists were excluded as beyond the pale) on the basis of natural rights, adding arguments premised on general empiricist epistemic humility and on the involuntary nature of religious belief. Conservatives such as Hume and Edmund Burke (17291797) attacked the contract theory, arguing that there was in fact no popular consent; the foundation of natural rights was metaphysically dubious; and the doctrine threatened to destabilize the ancient political settlements that secured peace and civic order.

In the international arena the Florentine diplomat and political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli (14691527) notoriously endorsed realism, the harsh doctrine that there are no moral constraints governing relations between distinct states. Here he was followed by Hobbes, a skeptic about political morality in the absence of an overarching sovereign power to coercively enforce duties. Opponents of realism included Grotius, who developed a substantial system of international law and moral precepts on the basis of treaty, and Kant, who argued that reason prescribed a universal political morality transcending national jurisdictions and advocated the creation of a "league of nations" to enforce international law.

See also Aristotelianism ; Bacon, Francis ; Berkeley, George ; Bruno, Giordano ; Burke, Edmund ; Descartes, René ; Empiricism ; Enlightenment ; Epistemology ; Erasmus, Desiderius ; Free Will ; Galileo Galilei ; Grotius, Hugo ; Hobbes, Thomas ; Hume, David ; Idealism ; Kant, Immanuel ; Kepler, Johannes ; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm ; Locke, John ; Logic ; Machiavelli, Niccolò ; Montaigne, Michel de ; Moral Philosophy and Ethics ; Nature ; Neoplatonism ; Newton, Isaac ; Political Philosophy ; Ramus, Petrus ; Renaissance ; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques ; Scholasticism ; Scientific Revolution ; Skepticism, Academic and Pyrrhonian ; Spinoza, Baruch ; Stoicism .


Primary Sources

Bacon, Francis. Selected Philosophical Works. Edited by Rose-Mary Sargent. Indianapolis, 1999.

Berkeley, George. Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous. Edited by Jonathan Dancy. Oxford and New York, 1998.

. A Treatise Concerning the Principle of Human Knowledge. Edited by Jonathan Dancy. Oxford and New York, 1997.

Descartes, René. Selected Philosophical Writings. Translated by John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch. Cambridge, U.K., 1988.

Hume, David. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Edited by Tom L. Beauchamp. Oxford and New York, 1999.

. An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. Edited by Tom L. Beauchamp. Oxford and New York, 1998.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by Werner S. Pluhar. Indianapolis, 1996. Translation of Kritik der reinen Vernuft (1781/1787).

. Ethical Philosophy: The Complete Texts of Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals and Metaphysical Principles of Virtue, Part II of the Metaphysics of Morals. Translated by James W. Ellington. Indianapolis, 1993. Includes a translation of Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten (1785).

Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm. Philosophical Essays. Translated and edited by Roger Ariew and Daniel Garber. Indianapolis, 1989.

Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Edited by Peter H. Nidditch. Oxford, 1975.

Spinoza, Baruch. A Spinoza Reader. Edited and translated by Edwin Curley. Princeton, 1994.

Secondary Sources

Ayers, Michael, and Daniel Garber, eds. The Cambridge History of Seventeenth-Century Philosophy. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1998. This collection of essays supplies impressive historical detail and covers many neglected figures from the period. It is extremely helpful for those already fairly familiar with the outlines of early modern philosophy, but perhaps a little overwhelming for the beginner.

Blumenberg, Hans. The Legitimacy of the Modern Age. Translated by Robert M. Wallace. Cambridge, Mass., 1983.

Chappell, Vere, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Locke. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1994.

Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy. 9 vols. New York, 19531963. Superseded in parts by recent scholarship, but still a classic survey. Volume 3 covers the Renaissance up to Bacon; volume 4 covers the rationalists Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz; volume 5 covers the British empiricists from Hobbes through Hume; and volume 6 covers the French Enlightenment and Kant.

Cottingham, John, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Descartes. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1992.

Cropsey, Joseph, and Leo Strauss, eds. History of Political Philosophy. 3rd ed. Chicago, 1987.

Garrett, Don, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1996.

Guyer, Paul, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Kant. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1992.

Jolley, Nicholas. Locke: His Philosophical Thought. Oxford and New York, 1999.

Loeb, Louis E. From Descartes to Hume: Continental Metaphysics and the Development of Modern Philosophy. Ithaca, N.Y., 1981. Presupposing some basic knowledge of standard approaches to the history of early modern philosophy, Loeb criticizes the traditional distinction drawn between the rationalists and the empiricists.

Norton, David Fate, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Hume. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1993.

Thomas Holden


views updated May 18 2018


Of Greek origin (φιλσοφία), the term philosophy is a neologism attributed to pythagoras; it means literally "love of wisdom," and represents philosophy as a high or supreme achievement of man and philosophers as aspirants to or proponents of wisdom. In this relatively strict sense, philosophy implies both the process of questioning and the results of this interrogation as embodied in a personal or public enterprise of value to mankind. Such expressions as "the philosophy of X "when X can stand for art, advertising, government, and so forthreveal that philosophy is taken to mean also an outlook on or a background to a given topic, subject, or enterprise. This broader meaning embraces academic philosophy as well as the philosophy of the man on the street; it makes philosophy equivalent to the sum total of basic views or principles accepted by a particular age or group.

Even this general meaning of the term, however, implies a distinction between philosophy and its proponents. Each philosopher has a personal conviction, and this even before he may make this public by means of verbal or written symbols. Yet one praises and esteems or deprecates and condemns not philosophers but what they proffer. Thus arises the basic question: What is philosophy? Any significant answer implies some ability to identify the content of philosophy as distinct from that of other branches of learning or to characterize the invariants in different forms of philosophizing. The difficulty of this task arises from the very nature of philosophy itself. Unlike other branches of knowledge, philosophical knowledge is both involutional (in the sense of growing more inward through reflection) and evolutional (in the sense of opening new domains for consideration). Accordingly, as a whole it is not static and closed; rather, it is dynamic and evolutionary. Each generation, and each philosopher for that matter, limits or enlarges its scope and colors or shades its meaning.

This dynamic and evolving character helps to account for the disagreement among philosophers themselves and for the phenomenon of philosophical schools or systems (see pluralism, philosophical). Through such disagreement, however, as well as by genuine rapport, philosophers function as catalysts for the philosophical enterprise itself. Sometimes their efforts are misunderstood; this serves as the occasion for the rise of antiphilosophers, who attack philosophy from their own notions of what philosophy should be. They may underscore its failures in contrast with scientific success, deride its abstractness as opposed to the needs of daily life, or belittle its expressions as vacuous in comparison to religious vision. When the issues at stake have been settled, philosophy may have adopted a new position within culture or assisted in clarifying important issues for its very accusers. Thus man can be regarded as somehow trapped in a philosophical net; he can escape such confinement only by some point of view, but this itself will constitute his philosophy.

History. Granted that one may write the history of philosophy from a variety of points of view, there seem to be some common traits that the past life of philosophy reveals. In the first place, the philosophical enterprise seems to be a constant search for an integral and unified master plan as coextensive with, and explanatory of, the entire range of human experience. A second trait of philosophy derives from its constant renewal from the exigencies of practical life. Whether the problems be labeled as personal, social, political, or religious and whether they spring from technology or from other developments, man's everyday questions lead him to philosophical reflection. A third, and possibly more controversial, trait of philosophy is its zeal for truth and for certitude in knowing. This is at once its most demanding and its most frustrating characteristic, one that seems to motivate all philosophers but that leaves many of them unsatisfied with their accomplishments. The philosophical task requires, moreover, that the philosopher express his insights in meaningful symbols. This relatedness to the liberal arts is a fourth trait that seems to characterize most philosophical investigation.

Prior to Christianity. Considering philosophy in its broadest sense, one cannot name the first philosopher or delineate precisely philosophy's moment of nativity. Restricting consideration to academic philosophy, however, one may say that Western philosophy began with the Greeks partly as a result of their own genius and partly as an offshoot of Eastern thought. Compared, then, to the total age of the universe or of man, the life span of philosophy is short.

Western philosophy, which is of primary concern in this article, first began to take on a recognizable form or structure among the Greeks about the 6th century b.c. Its primitive trait can be designated as interest, or wonder, over the changes taking place in the universe. The first philosophers, far from being presumptuous in their attempts to understand nature and being, spoke of themselves not as wise men but as lovers of wisdom. Philosophy, wisdom, knowledge, and truthall were seen by them as synonymous and as valuable in themselves. They tended to identify philosophy with all true knowledge. Gradually, and especially in the eyes of the Ionians, it became a matter of privilege to have an orderly set of responses to questions concerning the nature and origin of both the universe and its contents, and especially of man himself. The ability to answer questions, then, came to be presupposed in the philosopher; the asking of the questions themselves, however, represented the first stage of the art of philosophizing.

Classical philosophy as a total outlook on the world and as somehow equivalent to knowledge in general developed largely with socrates, plato, and aristotle. The latter two thinkers especially can be regarded as having broached the major issues with which Western philosophical thought has concerned itself to the 20th century, albeit in different ways. What does it mean for anything to be or to become? What are the origins, the conditions, and the final terms of being and becoming? Who is man and how is he related to being? What does it mean to know and to be known, and what are the conditions and requirements of knowing? In what ways are being and knowledge related? The major branches or areas of interest for philosophers also were marked out during this period: orderly thought was pursued in logic, then came mathematics and the philosophy of nature, after which personal and political activity was studied, and all was finally seen to culminate in metaphysical wisdom.

Again, already with Socrates and Plato, philosophy became self-conscious. Anything worthy of the name philosophy was expected to possess certain attributes: (1) it was to be universal, orderly, and systematic; (2) it was not to be transitory but necessary, even an eternal type of knowledge; and (3) it was not merely a response to questions by the ordinary man, but something attained by the very few. In brief, it was to be science in the strict sense, and thus it came to be equated with all true and certain knowledge. To be a mathematician or a metaphysician, to be an astronomer or a musician was, in some participative sense at least, to be a philosopher. After about 400 years of growth, then, philosophy was considered as an open but all-embracing system, asking and answering questions about anything and everything, but answering them securely and definitively.

There were many attempts during this period, even by philosophers themselves, to challenge this concept of total and supreme wisdom. The sophists and the various proponents of skepticism introduced subsidiary currents that were to reappear in later centuries. But, by and large, the classical Greek thinkers had the greater influence. They set the course that philosophy was to follow, for the most part, in its subsequent history.

Philosophy and Christianity. It is somewhat surprising that philosophy survived the dramatic opposition of Christianity to its own world-view. Offering a set of new proposals, new terminology, and a complete way of life, Christianity claimed superiority over current and earlier forms of wisdom that were merely human. But philosophy was too well entrenched to succumb readily, and the need for a rapprochement soon became evident. True, in this first confrontation, there was the tendency of Christians to denigrate philosophy and of philosophers to ridicule or degrade Christianity. Both movements, however, survived and benefited from the encounter. Christianity opened new domains for philosophical consideration: the notion of a personal God and the possibility of knowing about His inner life; the idea of God as creator and as related to men and the world; the conception of a basic value of each man in God's sight. Christianity benefited likewise, especially in its aim to make all things Christian: it aspired to join the words of Christ with those of men to provide a unified outlook on the world. This task, however, was not accomplished with any tour de force for centuries. The first successful synthesis, in the 5th century, still perdures as the Augustinian-Platonic current of thought (see augustinianism). An alternate synthesis, Thomistic aristotelianism, took form in the 13th century after assiduous preparation by such thinkers as anselm of canterbury, Arabian and Jewish philosophers, abelard, and countless other Christians and non-Christians (see thomism). A third proposal was the via moderna of the 14th and 15th centuries, originating with william of ockham (see ockhamism; nominalism). Others may yet be in the offing, for the rapport between Christianity and rational thought is a perennial problem facing Christians, one that they may well solve differently in succeeding generations. (see patristic philosophy; scholasticism; christian philosophy.)

Philosophy and the Sciences. The new sciences of the 17th century and later did not originate completely de novo. The currents of ancient philosophy reappearing in the Latin West in the 12th and succeeding centuries, along with countless other influences, conspired to make science possible. No one can fail to give credit, of course, to Galileo and his fellow pioneers. But the contributions of medieval philosophers also played an important role, particularly by way of synthesizing and transmitting the aggregate of human knowledge to the innovators.

The first and most immediate effect of the new sciences on philosophy was that of deliberate or implicit imitation. As the sciences grew and expanded, a retinue of philosophers, with F. bacon in the forefront, hoped to found a "new philosophy" that would be, in effect, a universal science. R. descartes, B. spinoza, and G. W. leibniz were among those who sought to model the new philosophy on mathematics. British empiricists inclined more to the experimental sciences as a basis for their philosophizing. The many thinkers who conceptualized within the framework of kantianism and hegelianism, as well as logical positivism, endeavored to use both mathematics and the positive sciences as models for their philosophies. More recently, philosophers such as H. bergson and W. james saw philosophy and science as two complementary but radically distinct branches of learning.

Another effect of the new sciences on philosophy was the attempt to assimilate scientific findings into philosophy or even to erect philosophies exclusively on a scientific theory or viewpoint. Thus Darwin's theory of evolution, Einstein's theory of relativity, Brouwer's intuitionism, and Freud's libido have formed the basis for much philosophizing, to say nothing of the "scientific philosophy" of Hans Reichenbach and the Vienna Circle. Related to this development is the problem of philosophical methodology as contrasted with that of the sciences. Are the sciences themselves unified or distinguished by their methods; and, in any case, are their methods distinct from those of philosophy? [see methodology (philosophy)].

The increasing concern of science with problems earlier regarded as those of philosophy has forced philosophers to reconsider the various dimensions of the philosophical enterprise. The tendency of some to regard all knowledge as science and to leave the domain of spirit, élan vital, will, aesthetic experience, and life to philosophy occasionally has manifested itself. Others have seen the overlap of interest as an indication of the basic unity of science and philosophy as these seek satisfactory, if complementary, solutions to the same problems (see philosophy and science).

Transitional and Contemporary Trends. Apart from the concern with science, philosophers in the 20th century have become increasingly aware of man and his problems. Even the new philosophers of despair are as much prophets of hope as they are of man's ill-fated condition. Before pretending to discuss the very being of all things, these thinkers philosophize about man and his experience in the everyday world. They designate man as historical, as consciousness, as body-self, as transcendence, and in general as a being-in-process toward a future; but they also see an ontological dimension in human modes of being and activity. They regard men as the responsible authors, with or without God, of their private and public philosophies and their effects. In their opinion science, concerned with specialized experience, builds an abstracted world of its own; but, through technology, science can help free man for his historical tasks. Religion and the arts are seen as closer to man's workaday world, adding to the meaning of life in the present and for the limitless future.

Definition. There is no definition of philosophy that is agreed upon uniformly by all philosophers. However, if the consideration is restricted to views of philosophy that are commonly accepted in the classical and scholastic tradition on the one hand, and in the modern tradition on the other, it becomes possible to mark out fairly broad areas of agreement.

Classical and Scholastic Tradition. Thinkers in the classical and scholastic tradition tend to regard philosophy as a habit of mind or a body of natural knowledge that results from the use of special methods and that enables one to explain in a more or less profound way the sum of human experiences. It differs from common knowledge in that it is acquired and evolved systematically, although it must take its beginnings from ordinary experience. Insofar as it considers everything knowable and is not restricted to one or other species or kind of entity; it is more universal in its concern than are the special sciences; in a certain way it includes even them and their objects in its consideration.

A more detailed description of philosophy, as considered in this tradition, may be had by enumerating the questions and problems it commonly treats. Thus one of its areas of inquiry concerns the procedures to be used in the acquisition of knowledge; another concerns the world of nature and related topics such as motion, time, and space; yet another concerns life and its meaning, the nature of man, and his various cognitional and appetitive activities; another concerns morality, social and political life, the nature of law and other institutions that preserve the common good; still another concerns being, its attributes, its categories, and its principles.

Thinkers in the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition, particularly, accent the certain and causal character of philosophical knowledge. Though not holding that every subject investigated by philosophers permits absolutely certain judgment, they regard truth and certitude as the goal of philosophy and insist on the availability to the human mind of at least some starting points on which philosophical reasoning can be solidly grounded. Philosophy, in their understanding, remains ever open to further extension and development, but it is not subject to change with regard to first principles and other self-evident truths on which this development is based, except in the sense that these come to be more deeply comprehended and understood with the passage of time. Thus they define philosophy as all certain and evident knowledge, grasped either directly or through causal analysis and demonstration, that man can attain through human reason alone, and this both in the speculative order and in the practical order, but in the latter only as this enables man to reach his ultimate end. Being concerned with all knowledge, philosophy is not merely one science but is an aggregate of several different sciences; since its unity is merely analogical, it cannot be defined strictly. Its certain and evident character separates it from conjecture and from mere personal opinion, and also from divine faith which, though certain, is not evident to the human mind. Again, it is purely natural knowledge, and this separates it from sacred theology, which makes use of knowledge that can be had only through the acceptance of divine revelation.

Modern Tradition. Attempts by modern philosophers to define philosophy can be explained in terms of the interrelationship between subject and object; for them, the confrontation of subject and object is what generates philosophical content. No philosopher in the modern era denies the function of subject in philosophizing. Materialists, empiricists, and phenomenalists may reduce the subject or his experience to brute matter or to sense imagery, and a monist or a subjective idealist may merge subject with object. But all seem to concur that philosophy is a reflection on the subject's experience; it is the response of the self to whatever appears to be nonself. In the early 20th century greater emphasis than theretofore was placed on the subject as central in all philosophizing. Though philosophy may be a true report or counterpart of extramental objects, like all knowledge it is regarded as indigenously personal; it is evoked from, surrounded by, and presented in symbols that spring from a field of consciousness also manifesting the philosopher himself. From this point of view, philosophy is what a philosopher considers it to be. He himself is the final referent for its veridical meaning. Philosophers employ a wide variety of designationssuch as science, wisdom, freedom, Weltanschauung, Dasein, and Lebenswelt to denominate this personal aspect of the subject-for-philosophy.

But philosophy is generally conceded to be about somethingwhether this be termed object, being, idea, matter, principle, self, cause, thing, spirit, or will. The object of philosophy is regarded by some as that which comes to or is conveyed into the subject; others consider the object as that to which the subject reaches out, as that toward which he is tendential, or even as that which he finally attains. Object, as the counterpart of subject, is thus accorded different values by various philosophers. It is therefore evident that one can have philosophical content in the modern sense at its sober minimum in the solipsist subject or at its ecstatic maximum as concerned with a great plurality of objects. No matter which factors are highlighted, however, philosophy comes out to be a reflection on, and a derivative of, the fusion between subject and object. It is a content by way of personal reflection, and a content that is reflected also in the dialogue philosophers have, at least among themselves, about intersubjective relationships (see subjectivity; objectivity).

Scope. The following survey of the branches or domains of philosophy adopts the traditional classification of knowledge into speculative, with its three degrees or levels, and practical, with its realms of art, prudence, and moral science (see sciences, classification of). It may be argued that this distinction is either indefensible or inapplicable to modern thought, but the fact remains that no newer classification is generally accepted. The problem here proposed, of course, presupposes an answer to the question: What kind of totality is philosophy? Some hold that it is an integral, organic unity: it studies being in general and in particular: it encompasses large issues and ferrets out minor details; but it is uniform in outlook, the sole differentiation within it arising from the variety of topics it considers. Others view philosophy as, say, primarily metaphysics or logic: other branches they regard as philosophical only by way of participation. Whatever position is maintained, however, contemporary philosophy can be understood without too much distortion as a historical development from the following branches of classical philosophy: logic; philosophy of nature and psychology; mathematics and its philosophy; metaphysics, including epistemology and natural theology; and the practical domains of art, ethics, and politics.

Logic. Traditional philosophy views logic in one way as propaedeutic to higher learning. Logic teaches the modes of correct thinking in terms of the concept, the judgment, and reasoning. Throughout ancient and medieval times, logic was closely allied to other branches of learning, though there were some noteworthy attempts at liberating it from its affinity to psychology and to metaphysics. Bacon, Descartes, Leibniz, and Kant are key figures in the struggle to give logic an outlook and a domain of its own as distinct from metaphysics; G. Boole, G. Peano, G. Frege, B. russell, and E. husserl, on the other hand, are prominent among those who strove to depsychologize logic. As a result of these influences, one may identify at least three aspects of logic. In its first aspect, which is more traditional, logic functions as a tool or instrument subserving other branches of learning. In its second aspect, logic becomes a discipline in its own right that is concerned with the forms of thought; this usage is best exemplified in logistics, or mathematical logic, or symbolic logic. phenomenology unveils a third aspect of logic. It proposes a methodology whereby answers can be sought to the question: What is involved in, or what is the very meaning of, concepts such as God, or velvet, or atom? (see logic; logic, history of; logic, symbolic.)

Philosophy of Nature and Psychology. The earliest philosophies of nature served as a background for the rise of the physical, biological, and psychological sciences. Plato's Timaeus and its many commentaries, together with Aristotle's physical treatises and their medieval and early modern commentaries, go far to explain why 17th-century scientists came to regard themselves as the new philosophers of nature. A series of epochal discoveries, however, altered this situation and gradually separated the philosophical from the scientific world-view. Evolutionary theory and such sciences as biology, paleontology, geology, and anthropology challenged the static conception of nature latent in some presentations of ancient thought. The discovery of analytical geometry, of the calculus, and of non-Euclidean geometries provided new instruments for investigating the world of change. Similarly, new concepts associated with quantum theory and the theories of relativity led to the questioning of all centuries-old world pictures. As a result, the very possibility of a philosophical outlook on the world independent of scientific knowledge was seriously challenged. Philosophy was confined to the roles of evaluating the proposals of science and of defending human values against the encroachments of technology. More recently, however, the philosophy of science has made its appearance, and one finds scientists returning more to philosophical conceptions of the world of nature. The traditional philosophy of nature likewise has strong support among those who aspire to harmonize its basic tenets with the changed outlook of science. (see philosophy of nature.)

A similar upheaval led to the divorce of philosophy from psychology and its branches. The nature, function, and ultimate disposition of man is an age-old question treated extensively in the Platonic and the Aristotelian traditions. For both, the study of man was primarily the study of psyche or soul, and the problem of the body-soul relationship was of paramount importance. With the rise of new sciences more directly concerned with man, however, various philosophies (dualistic, monistic, materialistic, etc.) were developed in attempts to answer the question: Who is man? Psychology and its attendant disciplines, separated in time from these philosophies, developed a closer affinity to the natural sciences.

Mathematics and Philosophy. No branch of learning has longer or closer contact with philosophy than mathematics. Except for extreme empiricists and materialists, philosophers have frequently regarded mathematical science as the exemplar of sophisticated thought, as the limit of certitude toward which other branches of learning converge. Early philosophers, regarding mathematics as the science of quantified being, conceded it a position inter-mediate between those of metaphysics and of the philosophy of nature. Modern thinkers, influenced by new discoveries in mathematics, have modified these views. But the closeness of mathematics to philosophy still is witnessed in current concerns over the foundations of mathematics and related topics in the philosophy of mathematics. (see mathematics, philosophy of.)

Metaphysics, Epistemology, and Natural Theology. No subject of learning in man's history has been the recipient of warmer accolades or more virulent gibes than metaphysics. For some, metaphysics is more divine than theology; for others, more diabolical than astrology. Nor is any other subject matter as much confounded with other subjects and forced to wear the masks now of a logic, now of a psychology or an anthropology, and so on. Traditionally, metaphysics is the science of being in general, as contrasted with other branches of learning whose proper concern is particular being. Metaphysics, then, functions as a wisdom to all the sciences and arts, including the art of life itself. After its hegemony in this latter regard was challenged by the Christian faith, metaphysics became an instrument for exploring Christian mysteries. Throughout the early Christian and medieval periods of thought, it thus retained its contact with other branches of learning. The new sciences, however, made sport of metaphysics along with the decadent science with which it was associated. All too often, metaphysicians reacted by continuing to expound their science in traditional formneither receiving from, nor contributing anything to, the new sciences.

The outstanding success of these sciences, however, together with the rise of totally new philosophies, has served to awaken metaphysics from its slumber. Some scholars, appalled at the implications of the new sciences and their methods, raised the cry "back to metaphysics." The problem of the nature of human knowledge was reopened and led to the development of the branch of metaphysics called epistemologya discipline of key importance in modern philosophy. From the throes of these and other movements, a renewal of metaphysics is currently in progress. The new metaphysics sees man as intentional-toward-being, as consciousness, as freedom, as transcendenceas a questioner to whom being is both manifest and hidden. (see metaphysics; metaphysics, validity of.)

Traditionally, metaphysics culminates in natural theology, with its proofs for God's existence and its study of His nature. This is another area of metaphysics that is undergoing renewal as the result of many factors, e.g., the problems associated with the theories of evolution and relativity, the question of man's function in this world as a being-toward-death and his ultimate disposition, and the renewed interest in Eastern philosophy. Thus the principal questions of theodicy are again being brought into focus: Can God be conceptualized in human categories and regarded as totally immanent to all being? Does He transcend all human categories? Is He at once immanent and transcendent? A greater merging of religious, philosophical, and scientific thought is in evidence; and channels are being opened by Christian philosophers that may lead to more agreement on the concepts of God in metaphysics and in revealed religion. (see theology, natural; existential metaphysics.)

Arts and Philosophy. The ordering of the arts among themselves and the function and meaning of art were discussed by Greek thinkers as well as by their medieval heirs. A much discussed question was whether or not beauty is to be enumerated among the transcendental properties of being as such. The beauty of human works of art was seen to lie in their successful imitation of nature or in their exemplification of a truth of religious message. The introduction of Greek and Roman classics in the Renaissance gave great impetus to the arts, with the result that new theories of the nature of art were proposed by artists themselves and by philosophers. aesthetics generally has limited its analyses to the fine arts; its current tendency is to stress the creativity of the artist and the modes in which he symbolizes his cultural milieu [see art (philosophy); poetics (aristotelian); liberal arts].

Ethics and Politics. In traditional thought, the intellect has always been viewed as directive of human action. As in art, so in moral science, reason serves as a counselor and guide affording practical principles for all of man's activity. Two main areas have consistently been recognized: ethics, relating to the sphere of individual man and his responsibility, and politics, concerned with man's social and political nature.

The traditional outlook on ethics has insisted that the good is in things and that man's choice and conformity to this good affords him whatever happiness is available in this life. This doctrine, accepted for centuries, gave way in modern thought to Kant's ethical formalism. The notion of value, more recently, has opened up new directions for studying man's significance and his role in forming his future. (see ethics; ethics, history of; value, philosophy of.)

Among the Greeks, the social and political orders held primacy over the individual and his personal concerns. This effective subordination of ethics to social and political philosophy was only gradually challenged in the modern era by such writers as J. J. rousseau, T. hobbes and the British empiricists. Contemporary discussions are concerned with the basic tenets of social and political philosophy and how these are to be differentiated from, and at the same time related to, the findings of the social and political sciences.

Philosophy and the Catholic Church. The historical relationship of the Catholic Church to philosophy is a patchwork of light and darkness. No one can deny, of course, the greatness of an augustine or of a thomas aquinas. Lights of the philosophical world as well as of the Church, such thinkers are symbolic of the positive aspect of this relationship: the interest, concern, and support of philosophy by the Church. This general belief in reason and in philosophy is attested in various ways: (1) official pronouncements on the value of philosophy for Catholic and specifically for seminary education; (2) the traditional role of philosophy in the Church as subserving theological interests and needs; (3) discussions on the possibility of a Christian philosophy; (4) the notion of a philosophia perennis that continually reworks and reshapes a basic philosophical message in accord with Christian revelation. In the U.S., Catholics manifest their interest in philosophy by requiring it not only in seminaries but in collegiate education as well; by sponsoring philosophical journals; and by their membership and support of the American Catholic Philosophical Association and similar congresses and movements.

On the other hand, one cannot fail to acknowledge that leading authorities in the Church have often been unfriendly or openly inimical to certain philosophers and their teachings or that they favor some doctrines over othersoften for insufficient or prejudicial reasons. Some of these episodes are intelligible within their historical context, whereas others are not. Occasional clashes between philosophers and Church authorities illustrate the perennial tension within the Church itself between freedom and authority. It is not to the purpose to recount here the long history of these episodes. It need only be pointed outwhile admitting that tactical blunders have been made in the pastthat the Church can no more be indifferent to philosophy than philosophers can be to each other's proposals. If one believes in an open society and in the freedom of knowledge, he can no more deprive the Church of its say than he can other interested parties and critics.

Teaching of Philosophy. If the nature of philosophy and of its branches is difficult to describe and if the relationship of philosophy to other branches of knowledge is quite complex, what can be said of the teaching of philosophy? It is evident, in the first place, that this question can be asked (and answered) only by those who have a definite view of human knowledge and its personal and cultural functions. Both the order and the method of teaching philosophy must be determined by one's personal outlook as well as by cultural and student needs. For those who grant philosophy a place in the curriculum, its content and method of teaching vary depending on what philosophy is considered to be, viz, either a form of wisdom that completes other types of knowledge, or an introduction to religious knowledge, or a personal outlook on the totality of experience, or a rigorous academic discipline, or a combination of any or all of these views. Probably the best teachers of philosophy are those of Socratic lineage who are both generalists and specialists, who awaken their students to reflection and also give them material on which to reflect, and who thus propound the simple truth that philosophy is not only a search for wisdom but is itself the wisdom that is sought.

Bibliography: m. j. adler, The Conditions of Philosophy (New York 1965). v. mathieu, Enciclopedia filosofica 2:397411. a. m. moschetti, ibid. 412415. g. rabeau, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, 12.2:145994. Encyclopedia Française, v. 19 (Paris 1957). h. rombach, Lexicon für Theologie und Kirche, 472478. l. oeing-hanhoff, ibid. 8:471472. g. patzig, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart (3d ed. Tübingen 195763) 5:349356. s. ramÍrez, "De ipsa philosophia in universum secundum doctrinam aristotelico-thomisticam," La Ciencia Tomista 27 (1922) 3362, 325364; 28 (1923) 535; 29 (1924) 2529, 207220; "De propria indole philosophiae Sancti Thomae Aquinatis," Xenia thomistica 1 (Rome 1925) 5364. l. b. geiger, Philosophie et Spiritualité, 2 v. (Paris 1963). j. maritain, An Essay on Christian Philosophy, tr. e. flannery (New York 1955); On the Use of Philosophy (New York 1965). a. m. malingrey, Philosophia (Paris 1961). e. w. hall, Philosophical Systems: A Categorical Analysis (Chicago 1960). k. jaspers, The Perennial Scope of Philosophy, tr. r. manheim (New York 1949). m. merleau-ponty, In Praise of Philosophy, tr. j. wild and j. m. edie (Evanston, Ill.1963). j. ortega y gasset, What Is Philosophy?, tr. m. adams (New York 1961). j. a. passmore, A Hundred Years of Philosophy (New York 1957). j. h. randall, The Career of Philosophy: From the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment (New York 1962). w. dilthey, The Essence of Philosophy, tr. s. a. and w. t. emery (Chapel Hill, N.C. 1954). m. heidegger, Being and Time, tr. j. macquarrie and e. robinson (New York 1962). e. husserl, Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology, tr. w. r. boyce gibson (New York 1931; pa. 1962). j. p. sartre, Being and Nothingness, tr. h.e. barnes (New York 1956). j. h. randall, The Career of Philosophy: From the Enlightenment to the 19th Century (New York 1965).

[e. a. maziarz]


views updated May 23 2018


Philosophical attitudes towards gender, sexuality, and the corresponding roles of men and women find their roots in the mind-body distinction: The human being comprises a rational substance (the mind or the soul) and a material substance (the body). These substances were not viewed equally. The mind, which was assigned to men or the male, was privileged over the body, which was assigned to women, or the female. Although the distinction is present in the pre-Socratics, for example, in Pythagoras's (569–475 bce) Table of Opposites, development of this gendered distinction by Plato (c. 427–342 bce) and Aristotle (384–322 bce) had the greatest impact on the history of philosophy and the social institutions it influenced.

The medieval philosophers continued to emphasize this distinction. Significantly the strong influence of the three monotheistic religions on this period produced philosophies that had a significant impact on the cultures in which they developed. Thus the modern period from which the Enlightenment emerged strongly reacted to the Church philosophies of the medieval period. Modern philosophy resisted the role of faith and religious discourse in philosophy. Yet, in spite of this resistance, many of the vestiges of mind-body dualism and sexed characteristics that defined subjectivity in masculine terms remained intact.

The emergence of both existentialism and phenomenology in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century philosophy challenged the view of the subject conceived in terms of the mind-body distinction. This new formulation of the subject provided other avenues of understanding gender, sexuality, and sex roles since the typical mapping was now contested. Deconstruction and post-structuralist movements provided a methodology for men and women to challenge normative views of sex and sexuality that until then had been accepted as biological or even social facts.


Plato's most explicit references to the mind-body distinction are found in the Phaedo (c. 380–360 bce) and the Republic (c. 380–360 bce). The Phaedo, the retelling of Socrates's death, describes the philosopher's aim: to live life such that in death the soul will be liberated from the body. The philosopher must not become attached to worldly goods—to friends, children, sensuous pleasures, and so forth. When Socrates's friend begins to weep for him, Socrates tells him that he is acting a like a woman and threatens to expel him from the room.

The Republic provides the most developed account of the mind-body distinction and the correlated views of men and women. Plato divides the human being into the soul and body and then further divides the soul into three parts, where each part is responsible for a different activity. The appetitive part controls sensuous desires—hunger, thirst, and so forth; the spirited part of the soul controls emotional response such as righteous indignation; and the rational part of the soul, or reason, is intended to keep these two parts of the soul in balance. Plato's description of the three different groups of people in the Republic—male or female—corresponds to the three different parts of the soul. Each group is determined by the dominant power of one of the three parts: an appetitive person; a spirited person; a rational person. These three groups of people then correspond to the three different classifications of jobs and social roles in the Republic—each person can do one and only one task. Appetitive people will be merchants; spirited people will be the guardians of the city; and rational people will be the philosopher kings.

Plato's categories do not assume that all men will have rational souls nor does it assume that only men will have rational souls. In Book V of this dialogue, Plato responds to the following question, "What is the role of women in the Republic?" He demonstrates that although childbearing is part of women's nature, it is not a task that will prevent them from performing other tasks simultaneously. Childbearing is a temporary act while childrearing is ongoing. Although he does conclude that childrearing is not an essential part of women's nature, insofar as women rear children, they are incapable of doing anything else.

The varied and often conflicting scholarship on Plato's attitude towards women as philosopher-guardians of the republic reveals the ambiguity with regard to gender in his philosophical project. He nonetheless claims that women are not necessarily excluded from the class of individuals whose soul is controlled by the rational part. Yet it is also clear that in order to live the life of the philosopher there is a cost: women must give up childrearing responsibilities, which tie them to their bodily life. The separation of matter and form, picked up by Aristotle and carried into the Middle Ages, permeated the history of philosophy and had a substantial impact on early feminist theory.

Although Aristotle, Plato's most famous student, developed his own ideas, apart from those of his teacher, there are significant ways in which one can see the latter's influence. First and foremost is Aristotle's understanding of biology, and in particular, reproduction. Plato's mind-body dualism appears in Aristotle's description of what each, male and female, contribute to the reproductive process. Although Aristotle's renderings of how reproduction occurs are not always consistent with each other, the received view states that the male contributes the seed while the female contributes the warm place for this seed to develop. Another description of reproduction has the male contributing power (dunamis) to the act whereas the female contributes the matter upon which the power acts.

The significance of either rendering, however, is the assumption of the relative passivity of the female's contribution to the process. In the first description, the female is simply seen as a vessel in which the seed develops. In the second rendering, the female provides the matter, but the matter is nothing until it is acted upon by the power provided by the male. Aristotle's descriptions of reproduction reinscribe the characteristics of active male/passive female that influenced not only the medieval philosophers, but also had a significant impact on how science understood reproduction and the role of the woman in that process well into the twentieth century.

In spite of this view of reproduction, however, Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics provides a space for reconsidering stereotypical feminine and masculine characteristics. For example, Aristotle's focus on [the] phronesis, practically wise judgment, acknowledges the important, even necessary role, that emotions play in ethical judgment. The practically wise person considers context—the right decision or reaction in one instance might not be appropriate in another. Although Aristotle was not looking to women for his model, his understanding of the role of emotions provided an important contrast to the ethical theories that developed in the modern period.


The medieval philosophical period is marked by the intersection of the three monotheistic religions: Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. As a result, philosophical motivations are often blurred with theological presuppositions. Generally speaking, Christian medieval philosophy, dominated by Saint Augustine (354–430) and Thomas Aquinas (1224–1275), and Jewish medieval philosophy, dominated by Maimonides (1135–1204) and Gersonides (1288–1344), adopts the Platonic/Aristotelian model of soul and body, which accorded a privileged status to rationality. As a result, the philosophers of the medieval period endorsed the respective views of male and female, men and women that correspond to that model.

Christian Philosophy

Early Christianity promoted both chastity and celibacy. However this early view did not result from a negative view of the body or bodily behaviors; rather it emerged from a sense of liberation from the restrictive laws governing marriage during this time period. As Pagels explains, young women and men were required by the state to marry at very early ages. For men, marriage was connected to their entrance into civic responsibility. Men and women took vows of celibacy, which they viewed as liberating in the face of oppressive state responsibility. Augustine, ironically, is credited with contributing to the negative view of the body that continues to exist in Christian thinking while also providing a positive view of sexuality. Augustine argued that sexuality should be expressed through marriage and only then for the primary purpose of procreation. Significantly this view differed radically from the Jewish view that sexual pleasure for its own sake was not only morally acceptable; it was also frequently lauded in rabbinic sources. Augustine condemns sexual pleasure even in marriage that is pursued for its own sake and without any intention to procreate. Augustine refers to the wife as "the husband's harlot," and to the man as "the wife's adulterer." (Augustine Book 1, Chapter 17).

Aquinas's view of sexuality as described in his Summa Theologica followed Augustine's view. Insofar as one's action accords with reason, the action is not sinful. Thus sexual acts that keep with the end of human procreation follow the order of reason. Aquinas also contributed significantly to the discussion of sexuality within a Christian context. Influenced by Aristotle, Aquinas held that a fetus was not ensouled until quickening—when the woman could feel the baby kick. He held that up to this point the termination of the fetus was life destroying, but it was not a homicidal act. In spite of Aquinas's influence on early Catholicism, the Catholic view of abortion has changed dramatically. In the early-twenty-first century, abortion is not sanctioned by the Catholic Church even to save the life of the mother, unless the principle of double effect can apply: The intention is not to kill the fetus, but rather to do something else. For example, in the case of uterine cancer, the intention would be to remove the uterus, not the fetus per se.

The impact on church dogma and practice are clear. First, any sexual activity pursued outside of a recognized marriage is sinful. Second, any sexual activity pursued without the express intention to procreate, even if pursued within a recognized marriage, is sinful. On this view, all homosexual activity and self-gratifying sexual activity is sinful. To the extent that heterosexual activity does not satisfy these criteria, it is also sinful. Augustine's view of marriage, sexuality, and divorce was widely influential. Catholicism recognizes still the rhythm method as the only legitimate form of birth control, greatly restricting sexual relations both inside and outside of Church-recognized marriages. Insofar as sexual behavior was not regulated by the Church, couples, and in particular women, continue to risk pregnancies that are unwanted, whether due to financial, emotional, social, or personal concerns (e.g., if pregnancy would be life-threatening). Finally, insofar as abortion is restricted save in very specific circumstances, a woman's life appears to be subordinated to the life of the fetus.

Jewish Philosophy

Jewish philosophy, even in the medieval period, presents a more complex system. The primacy of reason that characterizes much of the western philosophical canon is found primarily in Maimonides and Gersonides, but is absent in the pietistic philosophers such as Judah Halevi (1075–1141). Yet even as the Aristotelian presence is noticed, it is nonetheless a modified Aristotelianism. As pre-Christian philosophers, Plato and Aristotle had a tremendous impact on the formation of Christian metaphysics. Their philosophical impact continued into the modern period and well into the twentieth century. Because Judaism as a religion emerged before the Greek philosophical period, individual Jewish philosophers were influenced by the social milieu in which they lived, but that influence was mitigated by the philosophical underpinnings of the Jewish religion as expressed in its sacred texts.

For example, in Judaism, specific dimensions of bodily life are not disparaged and are even encouraged and lauded—sexual pleasure, the enjoyment of children and family life, and so forth. The Laws of Onah and the marriage contract itself (the ketubah) specify that the husband is obligated to provide sexual satisfaction to his wife, even if she is unable to bear children (e.g., she is beyond the reproductive years). Yet, in spite of this view, Maimonides, in adopting an Aristotelian model of form trumping matter, also adopted a negative view of the body, women, and human sexuality. For Maimonides, the relationship between form and matter ultimately points to the necessity of female subordination to the male. She, as matter, must be dominated by masculine reason. Either she is, in which case the point is proven. Or she is not, in which case the characterization of her as recalcitrant is proven. Although Maimonides is often viewed as the dominant Jewish philosopher of the medieval period, he is certainly not the only one of importance. Philosopher Sarah Pessin argues that Spanish poet and mystic philosopher Solomon Ibn Gabirol (1021–1058) provides a counter to the Maimonidean view. Gabirol does not offer a specifically feminist view of women. Rather he explicitly privileges materiality by linking it to the divine. In so doing, he allows for the privileging of the feminine and the traits associated with it.

Islamic Philosophy

Islamic philosophy, similar to Christian and Jewish philosophy, raises questions regarding the relationship between philosophy and theology. One branch of Islamic philosophy utilized Greek philosophy, in particular Aristotle's work, to counter orthodox Islamic principles. Yet the attitudes towards gender in philosophy and theology were not necessarily consistent. Insofar as Islamic philosophy appropriated Aristotle's metaphysics, its view of gender ought to have been parallel to that developed by Aristotle. Spanish philosopher and physician Averroës (1126–1198) is most noted for his view that philosophy is incompatible with religion, if each is done properly—a view not much different from that found in both modern and contemporary philosophy. In particular, the difference can be seen in Persian philosopher and scientist Avicenna's (980–1037) criticism of Aristotle's theory of generation.

Contrary to Aristotle, Avicenna claimed that the female did provide a formal contribution. However, even with this concession, Avicenna's description of the account of generation reveals that this formal contribution is inferior and secondary to that of the male. The Aristotelian influence on Avicenna can be attributed to music theorist and scholar Abu Nasr Al-Farabi (870–950), who is credited with introducing Aristotle and Plato to the Arabic world. Avicenna's concept of a person included a concept of the soul that was differentiated as male or female. Although Avicenna believed in eternal life, his lack of belief in preexisting souls—souls can be differentiated only through matter, and thus embodiment—led him also to believe that even after souls were separated from their bodies they retained their sexed differentiation. Thus even after being separated from their respective bodies, sexed souls will not attain equality. Avicenna accepted Aristotle's view of men and women (i.e., women are the privation of men), even though he was critical of Aristotle's theory of generation. Avicenna advocated the husband's required care of the woman, which allowed her the financial freedom, ironically, to pursue nontechnical forms of education—poetry, philosophy, law, and music. Although Avicenna's criticisms of Aristotle were not enough to limit Aristotle's future influence, Avicenna's The Canon of Medicine (c. 1593), which included discussions of pregnancy, natural abortion, and lactation, was important in the study of medicine.

In contrast to Avicenna, Averroës accepted Aristotle's account of generation: The female contributes matter and the male contributes form. Averroës claims that the latter is due to more heat in the male. Additionally Averroës held that men and women could not attain friendships of equality with each other. Interestingly the Platonic influence on Averroës led to a view of gender relations different from that yielded by the Aristotelian influence. Like Plato, Averroës believed that men and women had the same end, and that women were capable of philosophy. Insofar as he believed that Law commands the study of philosophy, one might infer that women were included in this view. In this regard, it is not clear if Plato or Aristotle had the greater impact on Averroës. Also not clear is whether Averroës's turn from Plato to Aristotle changed his mind with regard to women. Yet Averroës is noted for expressing dismay at the treatment of women in Islamic culture and he worried that women were destined to become nothing more than child bearers or servants to their husbands. His express concern that there was no space for women to develop their talents reveals an underlying Platonic influence. Interestingly these views angered religious zealots and Averroës was eventually removed from his post as jurist to the king. The fact that Aristotle's views had a lasting effect on the masses makes it difficult to determine what lasting impact Averroës's platonic views had.

Iranian philosopher Suhrawardi (1154–1191), the founder of the Illuminationist School, was influenced by doctrines of belief of both Aristotle and Avicenna. Explicitly critical of Avicenna's philosophy in many ways, Suhrawardi's philosophy resembles Plato's theory of the forms more than Aristotle's metaphysics. Suharawardi's philosophy is characterized by a focus on light, emanating from the light of lights, and decreasing evermore in intensity. This light is then governed by the light that governs reality. Most notably, in his treatise on chivalry, Suhrawardi advocates more compassion in human actions towards others. For example, if a woman has been accused of sexual immorality, he advocates compassion towards her rather than adherence to the cultural norm of obtaining four reputable witnesses to the action and then stoning her to death. His notes on chivalry, rather than paternalistic as in other such codes, genuinely advocate a sympathetic approach to both men and women, not only for their sake, but also for the spiritual development of those who would administer the accepted and expected punishment.

Islam as a practiced religion functions differently from the philosophical positions that are classified as Islamic. For example, in Islam the way to the divine is through the heart, viewed as distinctly feminine. There are numerous references in the Koran that exalt Mary, mother of Jesus, as the mediator or the connection between God and God's creation. As in Suhrawardi's philosophy, Sufism extols the typically feminine characteristics of joy, love, tenderness, and self-sacrifice. Like Judaism, the attitudes towards gender, found in the sacred texts, may differ altogether from how gender and gender roles are viewed and treated within the social-political context of the lived religion. And like Judaism and Christianity, Islam is not monolithic. Islam's emphasis on the mind or spiritual development of the individual promoted a positive view of woman.


The modern philosophical period (1550–1900) begins with French mathematician and philosopher René Descartes (1596–1650) and Dutch philosopher Benedict Spinoza (1632–1677), both of whom were influenced by the medieval period—philosophically, politically, and religiously. Descartes is noted for his extreme mind-body dualism. Spinoza is credited with providing a corrective to this dualism. Most significantly, Spinoza's emphasis on reason gave birth to Enlightenment philosophy. The modern period is characterized primarily by the emergence of the French and British Enlightenments, which emphasized the universality of reason. This emphasis laid the ground for universal human rights even as it contributed to maintaining gender stereotypes. In spite of claims to universality, women were often excluded from the category of beings capable of rationality. Even when women successfully entered these elite circles, the general attitude towards their supposed natural behavior remained. Women's social roles and female biological roles that fell outside the realm of rationality were ascribed a lower status.

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), in his essay "What is Enlightenment?" (1784), concludes that women and others are unable to think rationally not because of human defect but because they have not been permitted to use or develop this faculty. Kant's view is consistent with the Enlightenment project. Yet, in so far as the dualism was accepted, behavior that could be viewed as irrational or arational was treated as less important. Including women in the category of rational beings did not necessarily improve their status or the opinion of behavior and labor that was defined as female or feminine.

In addition to maintaining the privileged status of reason, the early modern period also emphasized autonomy, freedom, and independence in its definition of human subjectivity, once again by implication lowering the status of those behaviors—childbearing, childrearing, and the nurturing of others—that were characteristic of women. Although this description is both common and accurate, it disregards the nuances that typify many of the philosophers of the modern period. For example, Swiss philosopher and writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau's (1712–1778) political philosophy reveals his desire for human subjects to be autonomous and independent in order to make wise and ethical political decision and his wish for those human beings to have healthy relationships with others. A close examination of Rousseau's educational treatise Emile (1762) exposes both a supremely negative view of women and also a view of women that portrays them as both ethically wise and epistemically privileged. In fact, they are presented as the model for human subjectivity. Rousseau is also clear, however, that there is a distinction to be made between men and women, male and female, and this difference is to be maintained.

Developing Rousseau's political thought, German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel (1770–1831) appropriates the gendered description of civil society. Women are incorporated into the civil society through their participation in the family. Using the example of Greek dramatist Sophocles's (c. 496–406 bce) character of Antigone in his Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel contrasts the gendered duty of Antigone's responsibility to bury her treasonous brother, an act that directly defies Creon's rule of political law, with her responsibility to the state. Even as women participated in civil society, their duties to the family would necessarily exclude them from any authentic participation.

Hegel's view of women, or gender, in both the Phenomenology and The Philosophy of Right is the source of controversy even among feminist theorists. Some twentieth-century scholars such as Luce Irigaray and Patricia Mills argue that Hegel's emphasis on the family and the role of women in the family necessarily excludes them from participation in civil society, even according them a lower status than the slave who eventually moves the dialectic. Irigaray argues that Hegel overlooked the potency of this gendered division. Using Hegel's own example of Antigone, Irigaray shows that insofar as women are confined to a particular gendered role, the fulfillment of this sexed behavior actually becomes the cause of civil society's undoing. Antigone had no choice but to act as a woman—to respect the religious law and obey it even if this obedience meant disobeying Creon's political order. The modern period brings to the fore the tension in masculinity and femininity, especially as these ideals relate to the political community.


Several philosophical developments in the twentieth century provided radical critiques of the European and North American philosophical conception of subjectivity. Phenomenology allowed for the reconsideration of the traditional model of mind-body dualism in discussions of subjectivity. German philosopher Edmund Husserl's (1859–1938) Cartesian Meditations (1931) and Maurice Merleau-Ponty's (1908–1961) Phenomenology of Perception (1945) challenged the idea of a disembodied consciousness. Although neither of these philosophers made explicit reference to gender per se, the implications of their philosophical project for feminist thought and conceptions of subjectivity have been far reaching. Despite this, feminists have taken issue with Husserl's emphasis on the ego as not bodily enough and with Merleau-Ponty's examples of sexuality in the Phenomenology of Perception. The concern with regard to the latter is that his examples presume a traditional conception of sexuality as heterosexuality. Though the theories of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty led to the radical overturning of both Platonic and then Cartesian dualism that had gendered subjectivity for centuries, the examples used in their philosophical treatises point to a traditional conception of sexuality subtly at work.

Utilizing an existentialist framework, French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986) presents a developed account of how woman has been conceived of as other. Beauvoir's work demonstrates how a theory such as existentialism, though not itself concerned with gender, can be applied to discussions of sex and sexuality. Though radical in the way it challenges European and North American conceptions of gender, Beauvoir's philosophical project repeats many of the same themes. On the one hand, Beauvoir investigates the sustained treatment of woman as other—the second sex—to the male subject. On the other hand, her response to this conception replicates many of the same flaws found in Plato's theory and again in modernity: Women can transcend their bodies and participate in the world of the mind, but it means leaving behind or subordinating behaviors that are closely associated with women. In particular, childbearing, childrearing, and marriage are treated negatively. To be fair to Beauvoir, however, the context in which she is writing must be acknowledged. Adequate birth control was not available, marriage laws were confining if not outright oppressive, and good childcare was not readily available. Women were often forced to choose between careers and childrearing, not because of any metaphysical definition of themselves but because of the social, political, and legal context in which they lived. It should also be noted that H. M. Parshley's English translation of The Second Sex (1949) is not faithful to the original French in significant ways. The influence of the English translation led to widespread interpretation of Beauvoir as unsympathetic to women and the choices they made.

Inflecting phenomenology with a Jewish accent, Lithuanian philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1906–1995) provided yet another conception of human subjectivity, one which inverted the subject-other relationship. Influenced by the German Jewish philosopher, Franz Rosenzweig (1886–1929), Levinas claimed that human subjectivity arises in ethical response to the other. This reformulation of subjectivity challenged traditional gender roles by elevating ethical response to the other over the Enlightenment values of freedom, autonomy, and rationality. This reformulation utilizes the conception of the feminine as other, but in this project, the other is accorded a privileged position. Levinas presents the feminine in three distinct manifestations. In Time and the Other (1947) the feminine inaugurates the experience of alterity. In Totality and Infinity (1961), the feminine is conceived as hospitable and welcoming. Finally in Otherwise than Being (1974), the feminine is reconceived in the image of maternity, which he calls the ethical relation par excellence.

Levinas's ethical project transformed philosophy's relationship to otherness. Noting this transformation, feminist theorists such as Irigaray and Tina Chanter offer nuanced readings of Levinas's use of the feminine and the implications for gender and sexuality. Despite the privileged position of the other, these scholars argue that Levinas maintains the feminine stereotypes that proved so dangerous. Scholars of Jewish philosophy, such as Leora Batnitzky, while noting these concerns, also emphasize the influence of Judaism on Levinas's philosophical thought and how this can contribute to a positive reformulation of women and gender. Values such as dependence and vulnerability, associated with women by European and North American philosophy, are seen in Judaism as human values, and signs of humanity itself.

The late-twentieth century French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926–1984) radically departs from the philosophical systems that preceded him. Foucault's contribution to the discussion of sexuality and gender is not a critique of gender roles and attitudes per se—rationality versus the body. Instead Foucault analyzes the very way that the discussion develops. In The History of Sexuality (1976–1984), he reveals the power structures that control discourse on sexuality, in particular those surrounding sexual repression. He is less interested in what has been said about sexuality than he is in who has said it, how they said it, in what context they said it, and what has not been said. Foucault's primary interest lies in the production of knowledge and power, which he believes are intertwined. The genealogical method employed for his exploration of the history of sexuality radically influenced how twentieth and twenty-first century philosophy examines historical claims to power, truth, and the normative practices in which people engage. The application of this methodology to gender has proved productive for uncovering how discourse on birth control, abortion, marriage, prostitution, and so forth lies in certain premises that are uncritically accepted with particular historical presuppositions.

Feminist responses to mind-body distinction varied widely even though they did not contest the distinction itself. One line of response claimed that women were just like men and could aspire to the same rational capacities even if that meant transcending their bodily identities. A converse response was to claim that women were in fact different from men and that these differences should themselves be valued. It was not until the mid-nineteenth century and well into the twentieth century that philosophy offered a critical analysis of the received view of human existence and the mind-body distinction itself. Early twenty-first century feminist scholarship reveals the history of European and North American philosophy to be more complex with regard to the mind-body distinction and philosophy's attitudes towards sexuality and gender than has previously been assumed. Although feminist inquiries reveal a pattern of misogyny, it is difficult to reject the values of the Enlightenment in their entirety. However twentieth century European philosophy, which includes phenomenology, existentialism, deconstruction, post-structuralism, and critical theory, provided a new way for thinking about philosophy with regard to sex, gender, and sexuality.

see also Philosophy, Feminist.


Allen, Prudence. 1997. The Concept of Woman. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Aquinas, Thomas. 1997. "De Ente et Essentia." The Medieval Sourcebook, trans Robert T. Miller. Available from

Aristotle. 1984. Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Augustine. 1893. "On Marriage and Concupiscence." The Medieval Sourcebook. Available from

Batnitzky, Leora. 2004. "Dependence and Vulnerability: Jewish and Feminist Existentialist Constructions of the Human." In Women and Gender in Jewish Philosophy, ed. Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, 127-152. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Beauvoir, Simone de. 1953. The Second Sex, trans. H. M Parshley. New York: Knopf.

Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.

Chanter, Tina. 1995. The Ethics of Eros: Irigaray's Re-Writing of the Philosophers. London: New York and Routledge.

Foucault, Michel. 1990. The History of Sexuality. 3 vols. New York: Vintage.

Gilligan, Carol. 1993. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hegel, G. W. F. 1977. Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller, analysis of the text and foreword by J. N. Findlay. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press.

Hegel, G. W. F. 1991. Elements of the Philosophy of Right, trans. H. B. Nisbet. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Husserl, Edmund. 1977. Cartesian Meditations: An Introduction to Phenomenology, trans. Dorian Cairns. Berlin: Springer.

Irigaray, Luce. 1985. Speculum of the Other Woman, trans. Gillian C. Gill. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Kant, Immanuel. 1784. "What is Enlightenment?" Available from

Katz, Claire Elise. 2003. Levinas, Judaism, and the Feminine: The Silent Footsteps of Rebecca. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Levinas, Emmanuel. 1946. Time and the Other and Additional Essays, trans. Richard A. Cohen. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press.

Levinas, Emmanuel. 1961. Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press.

Levinas, Emmanuel. 1974. Otherwise Than Being, or Beyond Essence, trans. Alphonso Lingis. Hague, Netherlands: Nijhoff.

Levinas, Emmanuel. 1990. "Judaism and the Feminine." In Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism, trans. Seán Hand. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Lewisohn, Leonard. 1998. "Private Discipline." In Windows on the House of Islam: Muslim Sources on Spirituality and Religious Life, ed. John Renard. Berkeley: University of California Press. Available from

Lloyd, Genevieve. 1993. The Man of Reason: "Male" and "Female" in Western Philosophy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1995. The Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith New York: Routledge.

Pagels, Elaine. 1989. Adam, Eve, and the Serpent. New York: Vintage.

Pessin, Sarah. 2004. "Loss, Presence, and Gabirol's Desire: Medieval Jewish Philosophy and the Possibility of a Feminist Ground." In Women and Gender in Jewish Philosophy, ed. Hava Tirosh-Samuelson. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Plato. 1963. The Collected Dialogues of Plato: Including the Letters, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 1911. Emile, or On Education, trans. Barbara Foxley. London: J. M. Dent and Sons. (Orig. pub. 1762.)

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. "A Discourse Upon the Origin and Foundation of Inequality among Mankind." Available from

Spelman, Elizabeth V. 1982. "Woman as Body: Ancient and Contemporary Views." Feminist Studies 8(1): 109-131.

Tirosh-Samuelson, Hava. 2004. Women and Gender in Jewish Philosophy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

                                            Claire Katz


views updated May 18 2018


Philosophy in the latter part of the nineteenth century was multifarious, being found not only in the colleges and emerging universities but also in lecture halls and journals published outside of academia. Its practitioners included clergymen, college presidents, public lecturers, journalists, scientists, and a small number of university specialists. And if Jack London's account in Martin Eden (1909) is at all reflective of life at the turn of the century, nonprofessionals engaged in knowledgeable discussion of philosophical issues as those issues had been defined by prominent philosophers. Most usually the philosophy taught in the colleges was understood to be supportive of Christianity or at least not in open conflict with it. It was also just beginning to be distinguished from what was to become the social science of psychology. (The two disciplines began to separate in 1892 with the formation of the American Psychological Association.) By the 1920s, however, philosophy was primarily a professionalized, academic specialty that religion could no longer count on for support and from which psychology had separated itself. To be sure, there continued to be colleges teaching philosophy in the nineteenth-century tradition, but they were not the leading ones.


Jack London's Martin Eden, in the 1909 novel of the same name, finds himself—in chapter 36—in San Francisco's "working-class ghetto, south of Market Street," participating in an animated philosophical discussion.

The books were alive in these men. They talked with fire and enthusiasm, the intellectual stimulant stirring them as he [Martin] had seen drink and anger stir other men. What he heard was no longer the philosophy of the dry, printed word, written by half-mythical demigods like Kant and Spencer. It was living philosophy, with warm, red blood, incarnated in these two men [Kreis and Norton] till its very features worked with excitement. Now and again other men joined in, and all followed the discussion with cigarettes going out in their hands and with alert, intent faces.

Idealism had never attracted Martin, but the exposition it now received at the hands of Norton was a revelation. The logical plausibility of it, that made an appeal to his intellect, seemed missed by Kreis and Hamilton, who sneered at Norton as a metaphysician, and who, in turn, sneered back at them as metaphysicians. Phenomenon and noumenon were bandied back and forth. They charged him with attempting to explain consciousness by itself. He charged them with word jugglery, with reasoning from words to theory instead of from facts to theory. At this they were aghast. It was the cardinal tenet of their mode of reasoning to start with facts and to give names to the facts. . . .

"You have given me a glimpse of fairyland," Martin said [to Brissenden] on the ferry-boat [to Oakland]. "It makes life worth while to meet people like that. My mind is all worked up. I never appreciated idealism before. Yet I can't accept it. I know that I shall always be a realist. I am so made, I guess."

London, Martin Eden, in Novels and Social Writings, pp. 840–842.


Throughout the nineteenth century various denominational colleges were the main locus of higher education. Typically, the college president would be a Protestant clergyman and would teach the senior course in philosophy. Every senior would study—in a single yearlong course—a wide range of fields, including logic, epistemology, metaphysics, and moral philosophy. The latter would encompass not only ethics but also what were to become the social sciences. The philosophy being taught found its origins in European thought, notably an amalgam of Christianity and empiricism, often referred to as "Scottish common sense realism." The realism is to be understood as the expectation that reality was independent of the mind and could be known empirically or through sense experience. (Philosophical realism is not to be confused with literary realism or the faithful representation of reality. The philosophical usage, while varied, focuses on the nature of this reality. Often, the point for realist philosophers is to identify a reality outside of the mind; reality is not a projection of the mind but something that exists whether there were any minds or not.) This realism was Scottish in that it had been mediated through several prominent philosophers who taught in Scottish universities—Thomas Reid (1710–1776), Dugald Stewart (1753–1828), and Thomas Brown (1778–1820)—and the graduates of these universities who immigrated to the United States, notably John Witherspoon (1722–1794), a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and James McCosh (1811–1894), both of whom were presidents of Princeton, albeit a century apart. McCosh, in particular, came to represent this collegiate philosophy. But the important claim for these realists was that they thought that what was real was knowable by ordinary human understanding; what humans took to be real was in fact what was real. Hence "common sense realism." It was "commonsensical" in two senses: it was knowable by the ordinary understanding of everyone, and it constituted the generally accepted beliefs of everyone. As such it countered the skeptical conclusions of the scientifically oriented David Hume (1711–1776) and the metaphysical idealism of George Berkeley (1685–1753), who regarded all of reality as either a mind or dependent on a mind for its existence.

In general, according to the contemporary account of G. Stanley Hall (1844–1924), collegiate instruction was uninspired and controlled by the theological commitments of the college (Mind [1879]). Hall was a knowledgeable but hardly dispassionate observer. Recipient of the first PhD in psychology awarded in the United States (Harvard, 1878, under the direction of William James [1842–1910]), Hall studied in Germany, taught at the newly established Johns Hopkins University, and was later president of Clark University. He clearly reflected the view of the newly emerging scientific and professional orientation of philosophy in the United States. The aim of the instruction in the collegiate philosophy course was not to develop independent and original thinking, as Hall desired, but to complete the student's introduction to the existing body of knowledge. According to Hall and other sources, the total faculty in many colleges would have numbered ten or less and would have covered mathematics, science, languages ancient and modern, history, literature, and oratory. The conditions, as Hall pointed out, were hardly conducive to originality.

Hall acknowledged that there were a small number of educational institutions that embodied the values he prized—Williams, Yale, and Harvard Colleges. And he had hope for the newly formed University of Baltimore (as Johns Hopkins was initially known), whose faculty he would join two years later. But on the whole his view of academic philosophy in the United States was that it was "backward." Other observers, such as Elizabeth Flower and Murray G. Murphey (1:203–204), acknowledge many of Hall's criticisms and record that many more recent historians share his judgment. But Flower and Murphey attempt to counter this "jaundiced appraisal," emphasizing that Scottish common sense realism inherited from the Scottish Enlightenment an empirical and scientific orientation that served to liberalize and humanize a Christian and philosophic synthesis that admittedly was neither fresh nor exciting in approach and presentation yet was open to new developments in geology, biology, and psychology.

But, significantly, philosophy in the nineteenth century was carried on only in part in educational institutions. Keep in mind that the transcendentalists lived, wrote, and lectured largely outside of such institutions. Also, as Hall reported, there was much original and stimulating thought being done in journals and elsewhere by practicing scientists, such as Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914), one of the originators of pragmatism, and professional men of "partial leisure," in which category he apparently placed the St. Louis Hegelian William Torrey Harris (1835–1909). It would be unusual in the twenty-first century for "amateurs," such as Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), the elder Henry James (1811–1882), Peirce, and Harris, to be considered as serious contributors to philosophical reflection. But it was not unusual in their day, for there was no expectation that philosophy was a narrow, academic, technical field. Thus to call them "amateurs" is to import a twentieth-century, professionalized understanding into the more diverse and fluid nineteenth-century situation.


This broad nineteenth-century understanding of philosophy is clearly seen in the movement that developed in St. Louis that has become known as the St. Louis Hegelians. The movement played a prominent and significant role in the latter part of the nineteenth century primarily because of the work of several individuals who came together in 1866 to form the St. Louis Philosophical Society and then became prominent in Missouri and elsewhere politically, educationally, and philosophically.

Harris, who was superintendent of the St. Louis public schools from 1868 to 1880, founded and edited the Journal of Speculative Philosophy (1867–1893) and served as the first U.S. commissioner of education from 1889 to 1906. Prior to the American Civil War the New Englander Harris had met a German immigrant, Henry Conrad Brokmeyer (1828–1906), following a talk that Harris had given at the St. Louis Mercantile Library. Brokmeyer, who was to become a lieutenant governor (and, for a time, acting governor) of Missouri (1876–1881), challenged Harris's defense of Victor Cousin (1792–1867) and urged him to study Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831). This they did over the decades that followed, providing a Hegelian orientation to the group they formed after the war. An early participant in the group, but oriented toward Greek philosophy and culture rather than Hegel, was Thomas Davidson (1840–1900), a graduate of St. Andrews University (Scotland), who joined the St. Louis Philosophical Society in 1868. Later, with financial assistance from Joseph Pulitzer (1847–1911), Davidson would organize the Glenmore Summer School of the Culture Sciences in New York. Many prominent philosophers, including William James (1842–1910), Josiah Royce (1855–1916), and John Dewey (1859–1952) lectured at the school.

All three—Harris, Brockmeyer, and Davidson—exemplified a commitment to public service, education, and scholarship that formed a distinctive understanding of philosophy, one that had commonalities in differing ways with the transcendentalists, pragmatists, and ethical culture movement. But this edifying, publicly engaged orientation has largely been lost in the professionalized philosophy of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Yet during the latter third of the nineteenth century this distinctive approach played a major role in the development of American philosophy, for it informed the only American philosophical journal for much of the period, the Journal of Speculative Philosophy. The first English-language philosophical periodical, it provided a publishing outlet not only for the St. Louis group but also for many other American philosophers and had an international readership.


In the late 1870s the long-held dream of many of the transcendentalists, notably Ralph Waldo Emerson and Amos Bronson Alcott (1799–1888), to establish a school of philosophy was realized in the establishment of the Concord School of Philosophy. It began with a six-week session in the summer of 1879 and held sessions every summer through 1887. It has been estimated that some two thousand people participated in the sessions over the nine years of its existence.

Intended to provide an institutional base for the various idealisms—Platonic, Hegelian, and transcendental—current at the time, the school's main lecturers that first summer included not only Emerson and Alcott but also Harris and the Platonist Hiram Jones of Illinois College. Davidson also lectured that summer. The next year, further strengthening the ties between West and East, Harris moved to Concord, and according to Flower and Murphey, "quickly emerged as the strongest lecturer on the faculty" (2:506). In succeeding years Noah Porter (1811–1892), the president of Yale, and McCosh, Princeton's president, also lectured at the Concord School of Philosophy, as did William James in 1883. The school survived Emerson's death in April 1882 and Alcott's stroke later that year, but less emphasis was given to philosophy in the remaining years and more to literature. With Alcott's death in the spring of 1888, the school failed to resume. With its passing, philosophic idealism increasingly found its home in the emerging universities.


The Harvard philosopher Josiah Royce (1855–1916) most successfully articulated the idealist, or mind-constituted reality, orientation in the United States at the turn of the century. A Californian, Royce was a prominent member of the brilliant philosophy department that included William James and their student, George Santayana (1863–1952). James, one of the originators of pragmatism, along with Peirce, can only be considered briefly in this general article, but his significance is too great, then and now, to be passed over completely.

Royce and James were not only colleagues but also neighbors who carried on an extensive conversation in letters, in walks to and from their offices, over the fence, and in their published writings. James, who was more empirical in his approach, was critical of the idealist position, for it too neatly accounted for the diverse phenomena of everyday existence. Failing to develop a systematic alternative to the idealisms and often materialist empiricisms of his day, James had to settle for a probing, restless, questioning result. Royce was a constant adversary against which he contended. Yet one should not think that their sharp intellectual differences created animosity between them, for they were dear friends.

Royce, unlike James, sought to comprehend reality in a single vision and articulate it systematically. This, of course, was not unusual for a philosopher in the nineteenth century, but Royce attempted the grand synthesis with considerable knowledge of the scientific and intellectual developments of his day and the history of philosophy. The "strong impression" of the essayist John Jay Chapman (1862–1933), during his freshman year at Harvard, was that Royce "was very extraordinary and knew everything and was a bumblebee—a benevolent monster of pure intelligence, zigzagging, ranging, and uncatchable. I always had this feeling about Royce—that he was a celestial insect" (Clendenning, p. 118). Moreover, he pursued his project in the face of James's continuing challenges. His way into the project was also distinctive. He would show that the opening to absolute truth begins with an understanding of the "logical conditions of error" (Clendenning, pp. 119–120). Or as Edward Everett Hale (1822–1909), author of The Man without a Country, put it to the pluralistic idealist philosopher George H. Howison (1834–1916) upon hearing Royce lecture, Royce attempted to show that "our human ignorance is the positive proof that there is a God—a Supreme Omniscient Being" (Howison p. 234).

Royce's formidable project was developed in several books, and he enjoyed considerable prominence within the profession and increasingly in the public at large, but his project did not meet the concerns of the new generation. They were impressed with his learning, vision, intellectual passion, and dialectical skill, but rather than being persuaded, they became his critics. Idealism, and its most forceful American academic advocate, would give way to the new realists.


George Santayana entered Harvard as a freshman in 1882, the same year that Royce began as an instructor. Although born in Spain, Santayana was reared in Boston, educated there and in Cambridge, and then taught at Harvard for twenty-three years before retiring to Europe, where he spent most of his time in France and Italy. Nevertheless his influence on philosophy in America was considerable.

In 1912 Santayana went to Europe. The Harvard philosophy department hoped that he would recruit new faculty on his visit. Instead, he resigned, blasting the "unintelligible sanctimonious and often disingenuous Protestantism" that he associated with Royce. Detesting "the Absolutes and the dragooned myths by which people try to cancel the passing ideal, or to denaturalize it," Santayana signaled the significant philosophic change that was occurring at the beginning of the twentieth century (Clendenning, p. 344). The coming years would clearly reveal the backward orientation of Royce's overall approach despite his immense learning and attention to new developments in science and logic.

In 1896 Santayana published an early book, The Sense of Beauty, which employed an empirical and psychological approach with regard to aesthetic experience, similar to what his teacher James was to do in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). Nine years later Santayana published the five-volume Life of Reason, in which, with much learning and considerable literary grace, he proposed an inclusive naturalism. Philosophic naturalism understands reality to be fundamentally material rather than mental or spiritual. Thus it opposes metaphysical idealism. Naturalists differ over the nature of matter, with some naturalists regarded as reductionistic, reducing reality to matter, whereas others, such as Santayana, attempt to be inclusive, or nonreductionist. Santayana not only paid considerable attention to the arts, imagination, and religion, he also argued that material nature could have "spiritual functions" and "spirit a natural cause" (1:282).

Various materialisms (reality is composed of matter) and positivisms (reality is what science says it is; it is what there are positive facts of) had come to the fore in the nineteenth century, primarily in Europe. And the possibility of a naturalistic—that is nonsupernaturalistic—account of the origins of life had clearly been opened with Charles Darwin's (1809–1882) evolutionary theory. The English thinker Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) attempted a synthesis of science and religion that appealed to many in Europe and the United States. He was widely read; his ideas on the necessity of progress toward a society of cooperative, free individuals was welcomed by a public whose traditional beliefs had been challenged by the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859). He was also influential. John Fiske (1842–1901), lawyer, historian, philosopher, and lecturer, was one of several writers and thinkers to popularize Spencer's views. But Spencer's approach lacked rigor and was unacceptable in many ways to a variety of sophisticated readers. Although it appeared to be a form of mechanistic, positivistic, and behavioristic materialism, it can be regarded, according to Flower and Murphey, as "a form of Berkeleyan idealism, for matter is defined in terms of force, and force is regarded as the direct action of God upon us" (2:531).

James, although an empiricist, did not find the materialisms of his day acceptable. His pragmatism was, he thought, a way beyond the standoff between intellectualist idealism and crude materialism. Santayana did not follow James in his pragmatism, but he did openly embrace materialism. Yet his materialism accommodated his aesthetic sensibility. This was something new, and it opened the way for those who would embrace both religion and science and yet reject idealism. The philosophical naturalists associated with Columbia University in the early to middle part of the twentieth century regarded Life of Reason as a "classic" (Eldridge, p. 54).


Santayana also played a role in the critical realism movement that would eventually supplant idealism. This realism, unlike the nineteenth-century realism that idealism had vied against, was much reduced in scope and focus. The earlier one had been a part of a total view of reality and a way of life. The new realism was a movement within academic philosophy, limiting itself to the concerns of philosophers as philosophers.

One can trace this realism to the work of James; reviews of Royce's books by two recent Harvard PhDs (and students of both James and Royce), William Pepperell Montague (1873–1953) and Ralph Barton Perry (1876–1957); and the origins of British analytic philosophy in the work of Bertrand Russell (1872–1970) and George Edward Moore (1873–1958). But the triggering event for realism was the 1910 manifesto "The Program and First Platform of Six Realists," that is, Montague, Perry, Edwin Bissell Holt, Walter T. Marvin, Walter B. Pitkin, and Edward Gleason Spaulding. Philosophical disagreement, these six contended, was due to the use of imprecise language and the failure of philosophers, unlike scientists, to cooperate in research. Accordingly, they proposed a collaborative program of research that would set the language and guiding principles of investigation and apply these agreed-upon ideas and careful language to "a program of constructive work" (Campbell, p. 124). This manifesto and a subsequent book soon became the focus of discussion among academic philosophers, and thus a three-way debate was joined of idealists, pragmatists, and realists.

This new realism was unable to sustain itself in the ensuing debate, due in part to disagreements among its proponents and their inability to answer their external critics on the problem of error and illusion. The new realists asked how one could know if what was regarded as knowledge was actual knowledge rather than an illusion. But the nascent movement quickly developed a response. In 1916 Roy Wood Sellars (1880–1973) published Critical Realism, which led to a new cooperative volume, Essays in Critical Realism: A Co-operative Study of the Problem of Knowledge (1920). Among the authors were Sellars, Santayana, and Arthur O. Lovejoy (1873–1962).

Sellars, like Santayana, was willing to declare himself a materialist and, also like Santayana, was not anti-religious. But where Santayana was quick to withdraw from teaching and society, spending his later, but very active, years as a wandering solitary figure in Europe, Sellars participated in public life and taught at the University of Michigan for forty-five years. That he was able to enjoy a successful career at a state university as a philosophical materialist is telling. When George Sylvester Morris (1840–1889) and Dewey taught at Michigan in the 1880s, the philosophy department, according to a colleague in the Latin department, was "pervaded with a spirit of religious belief" (Dykhuizen, p. 47). By the time Sellars was declaring himself a materialist, Dewey had come to share roughly similar views about reality and religion. Both, for instance, signed the Humanist Manifesto in 1933, the initial draft of which had been prepared by Sellars.

Lovejoy, a feared and respected critic, taught at Johns Hopkins from 1910 to 1938. In 1908 he published "Thirteen Pragmatisms," in which he distinguished thirteen distinct meanings of "pragmatism," thus establishing himself both as critic of pragmatism and a careful, precise thinker. A cofounder of the American Association of University Professors in 1915, Lovejoy also developed the "history of ideas" approach in his Great Chain of Being (1936). But what is worthy of some notice here is his presidential address, titled "Some Conditions of Progress in Philosophy," at the sixteenth annual meeting of the American Philosophical Association in 1916. Lovejoy thought it scandalous that philosophers so readily accepted disagreement among themselves. Instead, he felt philosophers, like scientists, should aspire to overcome disagreement by a much more careful, collaborative effort than was the case at the time. Problems should be isolated and attacked piecemeal by many investigators who have developed a common terminology. What was most important was that philosophers attempt to avoid the "overlooked consideration." Only by adopting this attitude, Lovejoy believed, could they leave behind the "good, old fashioned, casual, disconnected, individualistic, disorganized, and essentially amateurish way" that then prevailed (p. 139).

Lovejoy's proposal was neither universally accepted nor implemented precisely as he wished. The attitude he recommended became the ideal not only of realists such as himself but also of the analytic philosophers who practiced a rigorous examination of philosophical problems by a careful examination of language. Philosophy became not just academic but highly specialized and technical. That which was considered to be within the grasp of every college senior in the nineteenth century would become remote from the concerns and abilities of most educated persons in the last half of the twentieth century.

Pragmatism's second generation, led by Dewey most prominently but also by George Herbert Mead (1863–1931) and James Hayden Tufts (1862–1942), came of age during the period after the Civil War. These "social pragmatists," as James Campbell in The Community Reconstructs has rightly termed them, taught together at the University of Chicago before Dewey—who became America's best-known philosopher in the first half of the twentieth century—moved to Columbia University in 1904. Mead, Tufts, and Dewey remained friends and collaborators and sought to develop pragmatism as an inclusive naturalism that would enhance human practices. Their efforts met with considerable success in a variety of ways, both within academia and with the public at large, yet they were regarded as not sufficiently rigorous by the emerging realist-analytic movement, which came to dominate the profession of philosophy.

Not included among Campbell's "social pragmatists" but someone who should have been, according to Charlene Haddock Seigfried (pp. 43–45), is Jane Addams (1882–1935). The founder of Hull-House, the author of several books, and the 1931 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Addams was not regarded as either a philosopher or a pragmatist, despite her close association with her academic colleagues at the University of Chicago (Seigfried, p. 44) and her public lectures and books; she was marginalized as a social worker and activist. Seigfried also makes the case that Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860–1935), author of Women and Economics (1898) and "The Yellow Wall-Paper" (1899), should be regarded as both a pragmatist and a philosopher. But like Addams, with whom she cofounded the Women's Peace Party in 1915, Gilman did not fit the masculine academic model of what a philosopher should be (Seigfried, pp. 40–41).

In addition to the plurality of approaches already cited—idealism, realism, and pragmatism—there was some attention to European philosophers who are not easily characterized, such as Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860), Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), and Henri Bergson (1859–1941). Although they were read within academic philosophy, they had perhaps greater appeal in the wider reading public. Bergson, in particular, with his embrace of both spirituality and evolution, was attractive to novelists such as Willa Cather (1873–1947), whose O Pioneers! observes Tom Quirk, "may be fairly characterized as a vitalistic novel, and the author clearly took much of her inspiration from Henri Bergson" (p. 122). Bergson's thought also appealed to William James, who summarized and commented on Bergsonism in his sixth Hibbert lecture, "Bergson and His Critique of Intellectualism," and in A Pluralistic Universe in 1909 (pp. 52–53).

James, more than most academic philosophers, was open to a variety of approaches and ideas. But this inclusiveness was to give way to the more narrowly professional path championed by Lovejoy and the realists, who initiated, as this article has shown, what was to become by the middle of the twentieth century the preferred orientation of academic philosophers. Philosophy, which had been a diverse affair practiced by many sorts of people, was well on its way to being primarily concerned with the problem of knowledge and the possibilities of close attention to language and logic.

see alsoPragmatism; Pragmatism; Scientific Materialism


Primary Works

Hall, G. Stanley. "Philosophy in the United States." Mind 4 (January 1879): 89–105.

London, Jack. Novels and Social Writings. 1909. New York: Library of America, 1982.

Lovejoy, Arthur. "On Some Conditions of Progress in Philosophical Inquiry." Philosophical Review 26 (March 1917): 123–163.

Santayana, George. The Life of Reason; or, The Phases of Human Progress. 5 vols. New York: Scribners, 1905–1906.

Secondary Works

Campbell, James. The Community Reconstructs: The Meaning of Pragmatic Social Thought. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992.

Campbell, James. "The Early Years of the American Philosophical Association." Unpublished manuscript, 2003. This manuscript originated in six talks presented at several meetings of the American Philosophical Association (APA) during 1998–2000 and were sponsored by the APA's History Committee.

Clendenning, John. The Life and Thought of Josiah Royce. Rev. and expanded ed. Nashville, Tenn.: Vanderbilt University Press, 1999.

Dykhuizen, George. The Life and Mind of John Dewey. Edited by Jo Ann Boydston. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1973.

Eldridge, Michael. "Naturalism." In The Blackwell Guide to American Philosophy, edited by Armen T. Marsoobian and John Ryder, pp. 52–71. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2004.

Flower, Elizabeth, and Murray G. Murphey. History of Philosophy in America. 2 vols. New York: Capricorn Books, 1977. A full, authoritative treatment of the major figures and movements.

Good, James A. "The Development of Thomas Davidson's Religious and Social Thought." The Autodidact Project.

Good, James A. "The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, 1867–1893." Thoemmes Continuum.

Howison, George H. "Josiah Royce: The Significance of His Work in Philosophy." Philosophical Review 25 (May 1916): 231–244.

Kuklick, Bruce. A History of Philosophy in America, 1720–2000. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. A readable survey of the entire sweep of philosophy in America, but some of his expositions must be supplemented with a reading of the text that he is explicating to be understandable.

Quirk, Tom. Bergson and American Culture: The Worlds of Willa Cather and Wallace Stevens. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990.

Seigfried, Charlene Haddock. Pragmatism and Feminism: Reweaving the Social Fabric. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Michael Eldridge


views updated May 23 2018


American philosophy in the early nineteenth century was an enterprise shaped by beliefs in common sense, moral feeling, and self-culture. In addition to being decisively influenced by democratic values, however, philosophy in antebellum America was also divided by controversies about the roles science and faith would play in constituting knowledge. Scientific empiricism, Protestant theology, and Romantic literary theory contended with one another for the philosophical high ground in the colleges, churches, intellectual societies, and debate clubs of 1830s and 1840s. In this period of intellectual generalism, almost all philosophical debates were by nature interdisciplinary affairs. As a result, early American philosophy sometimes seems like an incoherent negotiation between irreconcilable ideas. Further complicating matters, philosophy was often voiced in the common tongue of the ordinary, self-taught citizen instead of the recondite language of the elite professor or minister. Ralph Waldo Emerson's (1803–1882) assertion in "The American Scholar" (1837) that the creative mind of the self-taught individual would matter much more than the trained thinking of highly educated bookworms in the creation of a more intellectual American culture suggests not only Emerson's radical individualism but also something of the reality on the ground. With an ear listening, then, to the philosophy of the street and of the classroom; an eye focused on the philosophical debates among religious reformers and political activists; and a mind attuned to the Scottish, English, and German thinkers who most influenced their American counterparts, this essay explores three central features of the philosophical landscape of antebellum America: (1) the role of Lockean empiricism and Scottish common sense realism in American debates about science and faith; (2) the significance of international Romanticism to New England transcendentalism and New England transcendentalism to modern and contemporary American and international philosophy; and (3) the impact of the problem of slavery and the cause of abolitionism on antebellum American philosophy.


Like all things American, philosophy went through a creative process of democratization in the nineteenth-century United States. Readers in the antebellum literary marketplace wanted their philosophy to be useful in helping them to manage themselves and to cultivate self-trust in the emerging marketplace culture. This need for democracy and practicality in part accounts for the popularity among Americans of ideas adapted from the Scottish Enlightenment. While ordinary Americans did not read the works of Scottish common sense philosophers such as Francis Hutcheson (1694–1746) and Thomas Reid (1710–1796), these philosophers contributed profoundly to the developing American moral philosophy by charting a middle way between the Calvinist legacy of the Anglo-American, puritanical past and the eighteenth-century taste for scientific empiricism.

Reacting against Calvinistic beliefs in predetermined fate and innate human depravity at the time of the Puritan Revolution in England, John Locke (1632–1704)—the most important influence on both Scottish common sense and early American philosophy—conceives of the human mind as a blank slate on which impressions are written by experiences. According to Lockean psychology, human beings have no ideas that are innately their own. Sense impressions mark the mind, which in turn forms these impressions into simple but accurate ideas. Humans are consequently free agents who have a large say in how their understanding of the world is composed: they are neither predetermined nor depraved. But, according to Locke, the mind needs a rigorous education into an empirical method. Without such education, the mind tends to combine simple ideas into complex ones. Complex ideas, in turn, engage the memory and the imagination, which often cloud subsequent perception and comprehension. Thus, to retain a clear sense of things, the world must be grasped through a strictly empirical method.

Only when addressing the miracles of the Bible does Locke equivocate about empiricism. But where Locke seeks to retain a place in empirical philosophy for religious faith, David Hume (1711–1776) takes empiricism to a logical and skeptical extreme. Many philosophers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries felt that Lockean psychology and Humean skepticism worked together. To defenders of religious faith, the empiricism of Locke and Hume rendered problematic the notion that ideas of good and bad are derived from objective, universal moral laws. They seemed to suggest that all knowledge is based in sense, and what is sensed about God or anything else is both subjective and probabilistic—anything but objective and absolute.

In response to such doubts about the moral design of the universe, Francis Hutcheson—a Scotsman who more fully theorized ideas already proposed by the third Earl of Shaftesbury, Antony Ashley Cooper, in England—postulated that moral absolutes could be found within the self as a faculty of human sense. Hutcheson's idea is not that human beings have godlike intelligence, but, as Barbara Packer suggests, that "the same deity who has endowed us with bodily senses acute enough to preserve our lives has also instilled in us a moral sense whose operation . . . is as ineluctable as gravity" (p. 342). More than a feeling in the work of most common sense thinkers, the moral sense is a kind of mental function, which as Thomas Reid clarified, comes to human beings through intuitions or "immediate beliefs." In other words, according to Scottish common sense realism, the knowledge of right and wrong, of good and bad, is a part of human existence. The only thing needed to make use of common sense is an education into the higher, sociable impulses, which these thinkers variously called "benevolence," "gregariousness," or "sympathy."

Among professional philosophers in America influenced by common sense theorists, James McCosh (1811–1894)—who was appointed president of The College of New Jersey, later Princeton University, in 1868 and wrote the influential history The Scottish Philosophy (1875)—was probably most important. But across the wider culture in the nineteenth century, the idea that there exists a moral sense—like the senses of taste, touch, sight, hearing, and smell—endowed by a benevolent creator in humankind was widely accepted. Some have argued that Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence (1776) and his confidence in the ability of ordinary people to govern themselves owes nearly as much to a Scottish faith in human nature as to a Lockean political calculus. A dyed-in-the-wool empiricist, Jefferson takes it as a universal that "Reason and free inquiry are the only effectual agents against error" (p. 211). But he also admits in an 1814 letter to a friend that "I sincerely . . . believe with you in the general existence of a moral instinct" (p. 543). Even slaves—whom Jefferson otherwise demeans through purportedly empirical observation in Notes on the State of Virginia (1787)—have a fully formed moral sense in his account.

The Protestant Unitarians who held office at Harvard College in the early nineteenth century also combined a Lockean pedagogy demanding strenuous efforts at self-culture through memorization and drills with a generally sunny belief in the innate goodness of individuals and a benevolent God. In the 1830s and 1840s Emerson and other transcendentalists would repudiate the empiricism of Harvard Unitarians while retaining their prevailing healthy-minded faith that human beings can know themselves, nature, and the ways of God. And although Herman Melville (1819–1891), who had a very stern vision of nature and God, would scoff in his darkly metaphysical fiction at the childishness and ignorance about evil he attributed to the evasive northern intellectual culture, other genteel cultural leaders besides Emerson—including Harriet Beecher Stowe and Frederick Douglass—readily deployed Scottish philosophical ideals and metaphysics as part of their literary and philosophical arsenal against slavery. Indeed, a majority of the antebellum public intellectuals who are still read today subscribed to a democratically republican belief that everyone has access to the laws of the conscience and, thus, to universal moral truth.

All of this suggests that common sense philosophy had its greatest significance in antebellum America in the way it informed popular understandings of democratic ethics and cultural pedagogy. In the emerging marketplace society, where social mobility and capitalistic competition destroyed aristocratic forms of social cohesion, moral ideas derived from common sense philosophy helped to assure individuals and communities that they still lived in a morally accountable universe. As Thomas Augst in particular has shown, in the lyceums and lecture halls, debate societies and libraries where people spent their leisure hours, common sense moral philosophy helped to shape an emerging cultural pedagogy about the ethical and spiritual care of the self. By writing letters to family members, reflecting on their lives in their journals, reading useful literature, participating in polite conversation, and listening to oratorical performance, ordinary antebellum citizens sought to develop "character," to account for their actions, and to socialize themselves into democracy. Moral philosophy, thus, was a widespread social practice of literate citizenship; it had civic appeal in early America.


Transcendentalism grew up as a generational movement in the 1830s and 1840s. Many of the transcendentalists were Harvard-educated divinity students who fought against the religious historicism and empiricism of their Unitarian predecessors. Influenced by international and especially German Romanticism, they championed individual intuition and spiritual self-trust over Christian dogma and religious institutionalism. Becoming a kind of antiestablishment avant-garde, the transcendentalists—including Emerson, Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), Margaret Fuller (1810–1850), Amos Bronson Alcott (1799–1888), Theodore Parker (1810–1860), and others—were not philosophers in any strict sense of the vocation. However, they wove together theology, philosophy, literature, pedagogy, and political activism with genuine originality in their essays and treatises.

As the evangelical revivalism of the Second Great Awakening inspired an array of iconoclastic spiritual movements across the northeastern United States, transcendentalism emerged as the most philosophically subtle and intellectually cosmopolitan of these. The transcendentalists essentially fashioned a more Romantic Unitarian theology. While validating the Unitarian impulses toward self-culture, self-trust, and the humanization of Christ, the transcendentalists tended to repudiate the Unitarian appeal to "facts" to buttress their form of liberal Christianity. Christianity for the transcendentalists would not be sustained through Lockean powers of observation or exacting scholarship about the miracles of the Gospels. Instead, the way to universal godly truth for transcendentalists was through the portal of the inviolate self. Self-reliance—cultivated through intuitive experiences of solitary, often emotional revelation to the divinity within the self—became the guiding Romantic and spiritual ethos of transcendentalism. In addition, since the transcendentalists, as Lawrence Buell and others have shown, conceived of self-reliance as a process that involved freeing themselves from provincial intellectual entanglements as much as anything else, they helped to bring into being a more cosmopolitan philosophical culture in the United States. At a most basic level, the transcendentalists read fewer British and Scottish philosophical sources and more German ones.

In the 1820s and 1830s German philosophy arrived in the United States indirectly, through the works of translators and interpreters including Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Madame de Staël, and Thomas Carlyle. James Marsh (1794–1842), the leading figure among Vermont transcendentalists and the president of the University of Vermont, published the first American edition of Coleridge's Aids to Reflections in 1829. Marsh's edition of Coleridge, perhaps more than any other single text, helped to spark American transcendentalism. For Marsh, Emerson, and many others, Coleridge's engagement with German philosophy offered a way to diffuse the Enlightenment-era rage for empiricism by retheorizing the mind so as to elevate individual intuition as a means for discovering truth. Coleridge freely (and often inaccurately) adapted the terminology of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) to his own purposes. What Coleridge gained from a creative reading of Kant was the idea that knowledge is immanent in experience and not simply derived from it. Coleridge and Marsh were both philosophically and religiously conservative, whereas Emerson and many other Boston transcendentalists were radically progressive or anarchic. Whatever their persuasion, however, the transcendentalists were fascinated by the distinction Coleridge made between "understand-ing"—the faculty of mind that derives knowledge from sense perceptions and methodical rationation—and "reason"—the higher faculty of mind that enables people to apprehend divinity and universal law through revelation.

As Emerson argues in Nature (1836), his provocative, essayistic reckoning with philosophical idealism, this specific distinction between understanding and reason enables transcendentalists to account for nature and the mind "by other principles than those of carpentry and chemistry" (p. 508). Emerson's claim is that, in moments of insight, "spirit does not act upon us from without . . . but . . . through ourselves" (pp. 508–509), bringing about "delicious awakenings of the higher powers, and the reverential withdrawing of nature before its God" (p. 503). Emerson also draws inspiration from Carlyle's heated, mystic responses to German philosophy, and both Emerson and Walt Whitman (1819–1892) endorse Carlyle's sense—inspired by J. G. Fichte and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe—of the poet's heroic, philosophic role: to perceive and seize the Universal idea and clothe it in an inspiring and accessible language.

Although professional philosophers often discount Emerson's writing for its lack of logic and consistency, its refusal to engage in reasoned argument, its aphorisms and flighty idiosyncrasies, Emerson's influence has nevertheless been profound on a range of important modern and contemporary philosophers, including William James, Frederich Nietzsche, Stanley Cavell, and Richard Rorty. Many literary critics interested in philosophy have found in Emerson's thought the origins of American pragmatism, and philosophers from around the globe who value the active mind more than systemic philosophical exposition continue to respond enthusiastically to the two sides of Emerson that Buell identifies: the democratic idealist and the anarchic provocateur. In addition, Thoreau's philosophy of civil disobedience, which hangs on a transcendental understanding of self-reliance, helped to inspire the movements of peaceful revolution set in motion by Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Futhermore, Whitman's radically cosmic belief in the unique grandeur of every self and every mind—his Romantic vision of a universal oversoul connecting slave, whore, president, and preacher all alike through a daily sharing in the erotics of experience, as expressed in Leaves of Grass (1855)—amounts to the first philosophically significant statement of tolerance and multicultural acceptance in American letters.

This is not to say that the transcendentalists dominated academic philosophical debate in the United States of their day; they did not because they were not academics. More formally trained, establishment figures of Unitarian theology and philosophy like Harvard's Francis Bowen (1811–1890) sought to stem the revolution in American ideas that the transcendentalists helped to initiate. According to one widely respected history of American philosophy, Harvard establishmentarians like Bowen "consistently outmaneuvered the Transcendentalists philosophically" (Kuklick, p. 10). Still, while Bowen and his circle have been largely forgotten, Emerson and his peers discovered and inspired an American philosophical movement that was more dynamic, democratic, and cosmopolitan than anything that came before it.


In the broadest sense, many American abolitionists argued that common sense made it transcendentally apparent that slavery—whether conceived of as a sin against a Christian God, a violation of nature, or some combination of the two—was immoral. Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896), for instance, felt that slavery violated the common sense that every woman in the Republic could derive from her experience of sympathetic, maternal feelings. In Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), the most influential antislavery novel ever written, Stowe repudiates reason as an unreliable male faculty for assessing moral truths—reason enables marketplace sophistries that allow the selling of humanity as chattel—in order to champion the bedrock truth value of women's tears and affections. Organizing her entire antislavery philosophy around the relationship between mother and child, Stowe, like other philosophers of the domestic hearth, including her sister Catharine Beecher, genders common sense. She elevates women above men as intuitive philosophers and conceives of slavery as a patriarchal institution that the mothers of America needed to repudiate for the sake of children and motherhood itself. Frederick Douglass (1818–1895), by contrast, rationalizes his rage at being denied his right to manhood into an emphatically virile antislavery philosophy. The philosophy of masculine emancipation he elaborates in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845) still has considerable influence in the African American protest tradition. Gender differences aside, however, both Stowe and Douglass draw from a Lockean emphasis on the importance of personal liberty combined with universalized appeals to familial affection and human rights in their antislavery writings. Both also suggest the central role literary culture played in popularizing philosophical ideas during the period and in linking philosophy to activist politics and the ethics of social life.

Douglass's Narrative is not often thought of as a landmark philosophical work, because philosophy is not often conceived of as an expressive, autobiographical project among Europeans, as it frequently has been among African Americans. Arguing that literacy is the pathway from slavery to modern democratic consciousness, Douglass shows his mastery of republican political discourse; he crafts an intellectually balanced, concise, straight-talking style that embodies his claim to reason and the rights of humankind. Yet, Douglass's narrative, as Paul Gilroy suggests, is more significant from the perspective of philosophy because it uses the philosophical methods and the ideals of the Enlightenment to subvert the "scientific racism" afflicting works by thinkers as various as Hume, Jefferson, Kant, and G. W. F. Hegel (1770–1831).

In particular, Douglass's Narrative shows that he was conversant with the German idealist tradition out of which Hegel's thinking emerged. Like Hegel, Douglass conceives of the Ideal as something that can be expressed only through a historical process of progressive development. Both also work dialectically, by setting up dichotomies and then attempting to resolve them through philosophical or narrative exposition. In The Phenomenology of Mind (1807), Hegel presents an allegory of lordship and bondage. In the Narrative, Douglass uses more immediate language and imagery to deconstruct the dichotomies of nineteenth-century American society—white/black, free/slave, literate/ illiterate, mind/body—in order to advance human history. Like Hegel, Douglass also asserts that there comes a time when one must fight in a life-and-death struggle in order to claim a fully modern consciousness. But here too Douglass ultimately theorizes a more cosmopolitan understanding of modern consciousness than does Hegel; Douglass himself, through his struggle with a white slave breaker, gains the empowered, autonomous sense of "the consciousness that exists for itself " (Hegel, p. 234) that is reserved for the white European in Hegel's account. "It was a glorious resurrection" (p. 113), Douglass states of his experience putting down the slave breaker, thereby writing himself into modern history in a way Hegel would have deemed impossible for a black man. Whereas Hegel arrives at a theory of power, Douglass conceives of a philosophy of emancipation.


Herman Melville in "Benito Cereno" (1855) presents a more strictly Hegelian allegory of lordship and bondage, in that no one escapes the encounter between slave and master without disillusioning self-consciousness, except for the naive New Englander, Amasa Delano, a believer in common sense and beneficent nature. Delano's worldview, which fuses anti-intellectual parochialism and an arrogant sense of Manifest Destiny, is based according to Melville on the fundamental misconception of the Scottish Enlightenment: that the senses are reliable and human perception is direct and comprehensive. In Melville's modern world, none of this is true. Melville's descent into skepticism suggests how common sense philosophy met its demise as the antebellum aura of confidence, faith, and certainty wore off after the Civil War. In the new, post–Civil War era of intellectual specialization, as industrialization increasingly alienated human beings from the products of their labor, and urbanization separated them from nature, the certainty of common sense gave way to philosophic uncertainty, doubt, and provisionalism. Although William James and most other pragmatists attempted to resist the pull of amorality, determinism, and pessimism in post-Darwinian philosophical conversations, this pull was very real, as the realist and naturalist fiction of the late nineteenth century suggests.

A forward-looking belief system shaped by notions about the common sense and the potential to experience divinity found within everyone, American philosophy was forged in the first half of the nineteenth century as a more accessible and practical response to European philosophies. Debated, democratized, and deified, philosophy found its largely optimistic American temper in the efforts of several generations of thinkers to modernize religion, humanize science, and repudiate slavery. While Darwinian science and the social fragmentation and modernization of the Gilded Age would challenge that temper, American pragmatists like William James, John Dewey, and Jane Addams sought to adapt the foundational healthy-mindedness they inherited as cultural baggage from the earlier era to the less confident, more complicated, social, cultural, and intellectual contexts in which they thought and wrote.

See also"The American Scholar"; "Benito Cereno"; German Scholarship; Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass;Nature;Romanticism; Transcendentalism


Primary Works

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of FrederickDouglass, an American Slave. 1845. New York: Penguin, 1986.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature. 1836. In The NortonAnthology of American Literature, 6th ed., edited by Nina Baym, et al., pp. 486–514. New York: Norton, 2003.

Hegel, G. W. F. The Phenomenology of Mind. 1807. Translated by J. B. Baillie. London: Allen and Unwin, 1964.

Jefferson, Thomas. The Portable Thomas Jefferson. 1975. Edited by Merrill D. Peterson. New York: Viking Penguin, 1977.

Secondary Works

Augst, Thomas. The Clerk's Tale: Young Men and Moral Life in Nineteenth-Century America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Buell, Lawrence. Emerson. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003.

Camfield, Gregg. Sentimental Twain: Samuel Clemens in theMaze of Moral Philosophy. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994.

Fox, Richard Wrightman, and James T. Kloppenberg, eds. A Companion to American Thought. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1995.

Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and DoubleConsciousness. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Kloppenberg, James. Uncertain Victory: Social Democracy and Progressivism in European and American Thought, 1870–1920. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Kuklick, Bruce. The Rise of American Philosophy: Cambridge,Massachusetts, 1860–1930. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1977.

Menand, Louis. The Metaphysical Club. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001.

Packer, Barbara L. "The Transcendentalists." In The CambridgeHistory of American Literature, vol. 2, Prose Writing 1820–1865, edited by Sacvan Bercovitch, pp. 329–604. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

William M. Morgan


views updated May 29 2018


In his article on the Jewish involvement in philosophy in the Dictionnaire des sciences philosophiques, written over a century ago, Solomon *Munk pointed out that the Jewish mission to know God and to make Him known to the world was not basically involved with philosophy. After surveying the part played by Jews in philosophy, he concluded that "the Jews, as a nation, or as a religious society, play only a secondary role in the history of philosophy." As a nation or as a religious society this may be true, but even when Munk wrote it was not the case that Jewish participation in philosophy had been insignificant. Since his day the participation of Jews in philosophical activities has become extremely important.

It used to be said that the peculiarly Jewish role in philosophy had been that of middleman, transmitting the ideas of one culture to another, as some Jewish scholars had done in Spain, translating Arabic thought into forms available to Christian Europe. This, of course, was only part of the Jewish involvement in philosophy in the Middle Ages. Since the Renaissance many thinkers of Jewish origin have made central contributions to philosophy, and have played seminal roles in the development of modern Western thought. Some have played roles as Jews; others, who are of Jewish descent, have functioned as individual intellectuals, or sometimes as Christian thinkers.

14th to 17th Centuries

It may have been because they could not function within the Jewish nation or the Jewish religious society that many intellectuals of Jewish origin from Spain and Portugal, functioning in Iberia, Italy, France, and Holland, developed crucial philosophical views. Being spiritually dispossessed, and forced into an alien Christian intellectual world, the Marrano intellectuals may have been led into a more profound philosophical examination of their situation, and through it to a new evaluation of man's place in the cosmos. The drama of the forced conversions, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, and the terror of the Inquisition created a class of Marrano thinkers trying to find their place in the world, trying to find meaningful values, and trying to use the intellectual tools of the Christian world they found themselves in to justify their appreciation of the nature and destiny of man. In Spain and Portugal, the efforts of many Jewish Conversos now went into explorations of theology and philosophy to find a viable and significant theory. From the time of *Pablo de Santa Maria (converted in 1390), until well into the 17th century at least, Iberian intellectuals of Jewish origin were in the forefront in developing creative interpretations of the human scene, trying to define a Christian view that they could participate in. Most of the novel theories developed during Christian Spain's Golden Age were the product of this group. Spanish scholasticism, with its emphasis on universal law and natural rights, started from the views of Francisco de *Vitoria, and was developed by the humanists, Las Casas and Alonzo de la Vera Cruz. Spanish Erasmianism, with its emphasis on liberal Christianity, Christianity without theology, and a Christianity based on moral teachings rather than doctrines, was mainly a convert view. The Jesuit obedience theory was set forth by Diego Lainez, a theologian of Jewish ancestry. Christian kabbalism as a justification of the position of the New Christians was developed by Luis de *Leon, showing the role of Jewish Christians in an apocalyptic age.

Outside of Spain, exile thinkers of Jewish origin played an important role in philosophical thought. Judah *Abrabanel in Italy provided a major statement of Renaissance Platonism that was influential all over Europe. Juan Luis *Vives in the Lowlands was one of the chief exponents of humanism. It has been suggested that Montaigne's closest friend, the French humanist Etienne de la Boétie (1530–1563), was of Marrano origin. His Discours de la servitude voluntaire (1576; Eng., Anti-Dictator, 1942) is a plea for human freedom and dignity against the tyranny of rulers and is the first modern statement of nonviolence as a means of protest.

The Marranos who settled in Amsterdam in the 17th century had been trained in Christian philosophy, and debated their problems in terms of European philosophical thought. *Manasseh Ben Israel, known as the Hebrew philosopher, provided the main perspective through which philosophers like Mersenne, Grotius, and Cudworth saw Jewish ideas in philosophical terms. Within the Jewish community of Amsterdam, Marrano intellectuals like Uriel da *Costa and Juan de *Prado raised basic philosophical challenges not only to Judaism, but to the whole framework of revealed religion. Coupled with the radical biblical criticism of Isaac *La Peyrère, their criticisms led to the formulation of a new basic metaphysical ideology for a naturalistic nonreligious world in the theory of Baruch *Spinoza. Spinoza, starting from issues raised by heretical thinkers within the Jewish world in Holland, quickly developed a rationalistic, scientific metaphysics to explain the cosmos in terms of logic, psychology, and the 'new science.' Spinoza's naturalism soon became one of the fundamental presentations of the ideology of modern man, greatly affecting the materialists of the Enlightenment, the German idealists, and other movements. Spinoza has become the symbol of the pure modern philosopher, persecuted by religious orthodoxy, but preserving his philosophical ideals and mission. One of his opponents, *Orobio de Castro, tried to provide a philosophical defense of Judaism against Prado, Spinoza, Catholicism, and the liberal Christianity of Limborch and John Locke. Orobio de Castro, originally a professor of metaphysics in Spain, played a significant role in late 17th-century thought, influencing Locke, Bayle, and Fénelon.

18th to 19th Centuries

Philosophical activity in Amsterdam died out in the 18th century. The last thinker of note was Isaac de *Pinto who challenged *Voltaire's antisemitism, and Enlightenment atheism. His most influential work was in proposing the theory of modern capitalism against Hume and Mirabeau. He was one of the very first to understand the role of credit and circulation in the modern economic world.

The Enlightenment world, starting in Germany, led to another level of Jewish participation in philosophy. As Jewish intellectuals were emancipated and could participate in the full range of gentile society, they began to apply themselves to philosophical problems, especially of an ethical and general religious nature. The first to make his entry into the general philosophical scene in Germany was Moses *Mendelssohn. His writing on aesthetics, psychology, metaphysics, and philosophy of religion made him a central figure in Enlightenment thought, influencing his close friends, Theodor *Lessing and Immanuel *Kant. Mendelssohn sought to show that 18th-century Deism, the universal religion of reason, was the same as essential Judaism. In the spirit of the Enlightenment, he advocated religious toleration and equality for the Jews. Mendelssohn became a symbol in the general philosophical world of the enlightened and liberated Jew, who could contribute greatly to the mainstream of culture.

A Jewish doctor, Marcus *Herz, a friend of both Kant and Mendelssohn, played an important role in the development of Kant's philosophy. He was Kant's official "advocate," and discussed the latter's theories with him as they were being formed. Lazarus *Bendavid, at the end of the 18th century, became one of the major expositors of Kant's philosophy. One of the first, and most important, critics of Kant's views was the Lithuanian émigré, Solomon *Maimon, who came to Germany, learned philosophy, and offered a skeptical critique of Kant. Kant considered Maimon's views to be the most astute of any of his opponents, and some of his theories regarding the creative function of the mind became important in the development of German idealism.

People of Jewish origin only begin to play a role in the course of the development of 19th-century German thought around the middle of the century. Moses *Hess and Karl *Marx redirected German idealism into a materialistic socialist ideology. Julius *Frauenstadt became Schopenhauer's main follower, exponent, and editor of his writings. Adolf *Lasson was one of the very few advocates of Hegelianism. One of the founders of neo-Kantianism, Otto *Liebmann, attacked the various metaphysical theories after Kant, and urged a return to the master. As a result of his efforts the neo-Kantian movement developed, and one of its most important leaders was Hermann *Cohen, head of the Marburg school. Cohen emphasized a panlogistic transcendental version of Kant's thought, as opposed to some of the speculative metaphysical interpretations. Cohen stressed the objective side of Kant, and sought to justify a priori knowledge of nature and values. He also tried to identify Kantian ethics with liberal socialism. Cohen played a very significant role in the development of German philosophy. One of his students, Arthur *Liebert, edited the journal Kantstudien, in which many of the discussions of neo-Kantianism took place.

In the course of the 19th century, Jews were gradually able to attend the universities and hold positions in them (often only if they were converts). They began to participate in the full range of intellectual activities. Jacob *Freudenthal of Breslau became one of the foremost scholars of ancient thought, both Greek and Hebrew, as well as one of the most important Spinoza scholars. Adolphe *Franck in France, the first Jewish professor at the Collège de France, a follower of Victor Cousin, made important contributions in the history of thought, philosophy of religion, and philosophy of law. Xavier *Léon founded the Revue de métaphysique et de morale to combat positivism and encourage speculative philosophy. The reform rabbi, Felix *Adler, started the *Ethical Culture movement, and played an important role in formulating and advocating a humanistic nonreligious ethical view.

20th Century

By the end of the 19th century secularization and assimilation had proceeded to the point where large-scale participation by Jews in philosophy was possible since antisemitic barriers were gradually being removed. Jewish intellectuals could devote their energies to trying to give philosophical interpretations of man's situation and his achievements. Many of the most original theories in 20th-century philosophy are the products of thinkers of Jewish origin, who have come to play a larger and larger role in European thought.

Starting with Henri *Bergson at the end of the 19th century, some of the major speculative philosophers have been Jews. Bergson's Creative Evolution and Samuel *Alexander's Space, Time and Deity have been two of the most prominent efforts to develop metaphysical systems in terms of modern knowledge. Vladimir *Jankélévitch in Paris, starting from Bergsonism, continued to try to find metaphysical meaning in human existence. Léon *Brunschvicg devoted himself both to historical scholarship and to maintaining the idealistic tradition in France. Karl *Joel developed a system called "the new idealism" in Germany. In America Paul *Weiss has been developing an original metaphysics influenced by Whitehead, and Mortimer *Adler has been advocating neo-Thomism. Nathan *Rotenstreich, in Jerusalem, has been setting forth a theory about human nature and the bases of values. The neo-Kantian movement in its many forms was led by Jewish thinkers, the most prominent of whom were Ernst *Cassirer and Leonhard *Nelson. Cassirer set forth a developmental Kantianism. Nelson, founder of the New Fries School, emphasized the psychological side of Kantianism. Other major figures who came out of the neo-Kantian movement were Emil *Lask, Franz *Rosenzweig, Samuel Hugo *Bergman, and Fritz *Heinemann. The phenomenological movement, which has been so important in 20th-century thought, was started by Edmund *Husserl. Seeking an unshakable foundation for human knowledge, he developed his phenomenological method and transcendental phenomenology. Max *Scheler applied the phenomenological approach to Catholic doctrines and to social psychology. Edith *Stein (who became a nun), influenced by Scheler, combined Thomism with phenomenology and existentialism. Aron *Gurwitsch has emphasized the application of phenomenology to psychology, Adolf *Reinach to the philosophy of law, and Moritz *Geiger to aesthetics. Herbert *Spiegelberg wrote the history of the phenomenological movement, and was a leading exponent of it in America along with Fritz *Kaufmann. Emanuel *Levinas, one of those who introduced phenomenology into France, played an important creative philosophical role in the contemporary European scene. Jewish thinkers, and some of Jewish origin, have played important parts in the existentialist movement. Jean *Wahl in France was a leading spokesman and theoretician. Martin *Buber was one of the most important figures in religious existentialism. The writings of Simone *Weil have played a significant role in postwar Christian existentialism. Jacques *Derrida was the founder of postmodern deconstructionism. George *Simmel was one of the most important figures in the naturalistic movement, both for his biological and Darwinian interpretation of Kant, and for his theory of sociology. Wilhelm *Jerusalem followed out some of the implications of pragmatism, Darwinism, and positivism. In America, Morris Raphael *Cohen, Horace *Kallen, and Sidney *Hook have developed some of the naturalistic ideas of James and Dewey.

In radical philosophy some of the major figures have been Jewish thinkers who have developed new interpretations of Hegel and Marx. Gyorgy *Lukacs, Ernst *Bloch, and Walter*Benjamin set forth creative versions of Marxism, extending its insights into many cultural fields. Alexandre *Kojève has played a most important role in reinterpreting Hegel's thought. Herbert *Marcuse combined *Freud's and Marx's views, including those of the early Marx, into a powerful critique of modern society that was very influential on New Left thinkers. On the other side, two thinkers of Jewish origin were leaders of Russian Orthodox thought in Russia. Semyon *Frank, originally a Marxist, developed a metaphysical defense of Christianity. Lev *Shestov was a leading anti-rationalist fideist. Among non-Marxist social philosophers and social critics, Jewish thinkers have also made significant contributions. Julien *Benda criticized the role of the intellectuals. Elie *Halévy wrote against the tyrannies of fascism and communism. Hannah *Arendt analyzed the bases and nature of totalitarianism, and the nature of political freedom. Chaim *Perelman has done important work on the nature of justice.

In the analytic philosophical movement, which has been important in the English-speaking world, philosophers of Jewish origin have been in the forefront. One of the first proponents of linguistic analysis was Fritz *Mauthner. Leaders of the logical positivist movement included Herbert *Feigl, Philipp *Frank, and Friedrich *Waismann. Ludwig *Witgenstein established himself as one of the towering figures of 20th-century philosophy. The work of the logician Alfred *Tarski was also most important in this movement. Among the important American analytic philosophers are Max *Black, Nelson *Goodman, Arthur *Pap, and Morton *White. Thinkers of Jewish origin have played basic roles in 20th-century work in the philosophy of science and logic. Emile *Meyerson developed a philosophical view of the world based on modern science. Sir Karl *Popper has been one of the most important in evaluating the nature of science and the problems involved in gaining scientific knowledge.

In the area of historical studies and interpretations of philosophy, Jewish scholars have been in the forefront throughout this century. They have developed the best of European scholarship and have provided some of the most important ways of understanding various philosophical traditions, as well as editing some of the basic texts. Raoul *Richter wrote an important history of skepticism from antiquity onward. George *Boas wrote on Greek philosophy and on French thought. Hans *Jones, through his demythologizing method, helped in the understanding of Gnosticism. Richard *Waltzer examined the transition of Greek thought into Arabic philosophy. Shlomo *Pines wrote on Arabic and Jewish medieval philosophy. Harry Austryn *Wolfson examined the religious philosophical tradition from Philo, through the Church Fathers and medieval Islamic, Jewish, and Christian thought up to Spinoza. Raymond *Klibansky was influential in medieval and Renaissance studies. Paul O. *Kristeller was a leading figure in the many areas of Renaissance studies. One of Ernst Cassirer's contributions was a monumental study of the development of the modern problem of knowledge from the Renaissance onward. He also wrote on English Platonism and the philosophy of the Enlightenment. Alexandre *Koyré was a leading figure in the study of the history of science from the Renaissance onward, as well as an important Descartes scholar. Leon *Roth wrote important interpretations of Descartes and Spinoza and showed their relationship to Maimonides' thought. R.H. Popkin wrote on the history of skepticism from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment. David *Baumgardt did important work on the philosophy of Jeremy Bentham, and Elie Halévy wrote the basic study of British philosophical radicalism.

The historical scholarship done on German thought from Kant onward is too copious to mention in detail. Neo-Kantians, especially, have studied the development of German philosophy extensively, and much of the basic work on Kant, Fichte, Hegel, and Schelling, has been done by scholars of Jewish origin.

Participation in philosophy by Jews has grown rapidly, especially in this century. Jewish concern with fundamental issues about man and the world has, no doubt, contributed to this, as has the growing toleration in academic-intellectual circles, especially in the West. The decline of Christianity as a central factor in European philosophy has also made it more possible for Jews to play a role in this area. At the present time in America, and to a lesser extent in England and France, among younger philosophers there are many important figures of Jewish origin who will probably play a most significant role in the decades to come. In Central Europe there are few Jewish intellectuals left, and in Eastern Europe they are being driven from their positions.


L. Magnus, The Jews in the Christian Era (1929), 241–8, 330–65, and passim; C. Lehrmann, L'élement juif dans la pensée européenne (1947), 43–66; A.A. Roback, Jewish Influence in Modern Thought (1929), 333–53, 401–40, incl. bibl.; H.G. Gadamer, in: L. Reinisch (ed.), Die Juden und die Kultur (1961), 78–90; H. Landry, in: S. Kaznelson (ed.), Juden im deutschen Kulturbereich (1959), 242–77; A. Altmann, in: L. Finkelstein (ed.), Jews, Their History, Culture, and Religion, 2 (19603), 954–1009.

[Richard H. Popkin]


views updated May 29 2018


PHILOSOPHY in America has encompassed more or less systematic writing about the point of our existence and our ability to understand the world of which we are a part. These concerns are recognizable in the questions that thinkers have asked in successive eras and in the connections between the questions of one era and another. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, theologians asked: What was the individual's relation to an inscrutable God? How could human autonomy be preserved, if the deity were omnipotent? After the English naturalist Charles Darwin published his Origin of Species in 1859, philosophers asked: How could human freedom and our sense of the world's design be compatible with our status as biological entities? Early in the twentieth century academic thinkers wanted to know: If we were biological organisms, enmeshed in a causal universe, how could we come to have knowledge of this universe? How could mind escape the limits set by causal mechanisms? By the second half of the twentieth century, professional philosophers often assumed that we were of the natural world but simultaneously presupposed that knowledge demanded a transcendence of the natural. They then asked: How was knowledge possible? What were the alternatives to having knowledge?

Much philosophical exchange existed across national boundaries, and it is not clear that anything unique characterizes American thought. Nonetheless, standard features of philosophy in this country stand out. In the period before the Revolutionary War, thinkers often looked at the "new learning" of Europe with distaste, and the greater religious coloration of American thought resulted from self-conscious attempts to purge thinking of the evils of the Old World. In the nineteenth century the close association of thinkers in Scotland and America revealed both their dislike of England and their sense of inferiority as its intellectual provinces. In the twentieth century the strength and freedom of the United States, especially in the period of Nazi dominance, made America an attractive destination for European intellectuals and dramatically altered philosophy at home. During the period of the Vietnam War suspicion of the United States also affected thought.

From the middle of the eighteenth century American thinkers have been attracted to idealism, that speculative view that existence is essentially mental. The position of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, that the physical world did not transcend consciousness, or of objective or absolute idealism, that the world was an aspect of an absolute mind, has repeatedly been formulated as a viable option. Thinkers have also enunciated communitarian idealism—that one or another aggregate of finite minds defines reality. But there has been a long circuitous march from a religious to a secular vision of the universe. In America this march has taken a longer time than in other Western cultures. One might presume that the march would diminish the role of the mental, a term often a step away from the spiritual or religious. But despite the growing emphasis on the nonreligious, the deference to one or another kind of idealism has meant in America that realism—the view that physical objects at least exist independently of mind—has often been on the defensive, although a constant option. The eccentric journey away from religion has meant the relatively slow growth of what is often thought to be realism's cousin, materialism—that monistic position opposed to idealism, stipulating that the mental world can be reduced to the physical. More to the point, idealism and a defense of science have often coincided. Philosophers have regularly conceded that scientific investigation could easily but erroneously combine with materialism, but they have usually argued that only some sort of idealism can preserve scientific priorities. The varieties of idealism have also been characterized by a strong voluntaristic component: the will, volition, and the propensity to act have been crucial in defining the mental or the conscious.

The Era of Jonathan Edwards

In the eighteenth and most of the nineteenth century, people in America known formally as philosophers were part of a wider dialogue that had three major components. Most important were parish ministers, primarily in New England, who wrote on theology and participated in a conversation that embraced a religious elite in England and Scotland, and later Germany. These clerics expounded varieties of Calvinist Protestantism. Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) was the most influential and talented member of this ministerial group, which later included Horace Bushnell (1802–1876) and Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882). But the latter two lived at a time when such thinkers were deserting their congregations and turning away from traditional Protestant doctrine.

The second major component of American speculative thought was located in the seminaries that grew up

in the Northeast, the South, and the old Midwest throughout the nineteenth century. These institutions, often independent entities not connected to American colleges, were—aside from law and medical schools—the only places where an aspiring young man could receive instruction beyond what an undergraduate received; they arose to train a professional ministry. The specialists in theology at these centers gradually took over the role played by the more erudite ministry. Leonard Woods (1774–1854) of Andover Theological Seminary, Henry Ware (1764–1845) of the Harvard Divinity School, Nathaniel William Taylor (1786–1858) of the Yale Divinity School, Charles Hodge (1797–1878) of the Princeton Theological Seminary, and Edwards Amasa Park (1808–1900) of Andover belong to this cadre. Among these institutions Yale was primary.

The divinity school theologians had the major power base in the nineteenth century. They trained the ministers and controlled much learned publication. Their outlook tended to be more narrow and sectarian than that of those speculators who were not professors of divinity, but it is difficult to argue that they were not the intellectual equals of those outside the divinity schools.

A final group were actually known as philosophers; they were the holders of chairs in mental, moral, or intellectual philosophy in the American colleges of the nineteenth century. Their function was to support theoretically the more clearly religious concerns of the divinity school theologians and the most serious ministers on the hustings. The philosophers were inevitably ministers and committed Protestants themselves, but in addition to showing that reason was congruent with faith, they also wrote on the grounds of the social order and politics and commented on the affairs of the world. Frequently the presidents of their institutions, they had captive student audiences and easy access to publication. Worthies here include Francis Bowen (1811–1890) of Harvard, James McCosh (1811–1894) of the College of New Jersey (Princeton), and Noah Porter (1811–1892) of Yale, again the leading educator of philosophical students.

This philosophical component of the speculative tradition was provincial. Until after the Civil War, the American college was a small, sleepy institution, peripheral to the life of the nation. It leaders, including philosophers, participated in the shaping of public discourse but were generally undistinguished. Their libraries were inadequate, their education mediocre, and the literary culture in which they lived sentimental and unsophisticated. Europe barely recognized these philosophers, except when they went there to study. Yet the philosophers found senior partners in transatlantic conversations and were on an intellectual par with American clergymen and divinity school theologians.

The intersecting dialogues among amateurs, divinity school theologians, and college philosophers focused on the ideas of Edwards, expressed in works like his Religious Affections (1746) and Freedom of the Will (1754). His ruminations

on the moral responsibility of the solitary person confronting a sometimes angry, at least mysterious, deity controlled subsequent thinking, which tended to emphasize a priori deliberation about the fate of the individual soul. Indeed, the founding fathers of the Revolutionary and Constitutional period—men like Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790), Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), James Madison (1751–1836), Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804), and John Adams (1735–1826)—were rarely considered philosophers. They had denigrated the study of theology, made politics primary, and grounded their thought in history and experience.


In the last third of the nineteenth century the work of Darwin dealt a body blow to the religious orientation of American speculative endeavors. The primacy of divinity schools in the scholarly world ended, and the explicit Christian thought that governed intellectual life all but disappeared. At the same time, in the space of thirty years, many old American colleges were transformed into large,

internationally recognized centers of learning, while new public and private universities commanded national attention. Students who a generation earlier would have sought "graduate" training in Europe, especially Germany, or in an American seminary, would by 1900 attend a postbaccalaureate program in an American university to obtain the Ph.D., the doctoral degree. Many of these students now found in philosophy what previously had been sought in the ministry or theological education. Those who, in the nineteenth century, had been a creative force outside the system of the divinity schools and the colleges, vanished as professional philosophers took their place.

Among the first generation of university thinkers from 1865 to 1895, philosophical idealism was the consensus. At the end of the nineteenth century, one form of idealism—pragmatism—came to dominate the discourse of these thinkers. Pragmatism won out not only because its proponents were competent and well placed but also because they showed the philosophy's compatibility with the natural and social sciences and with human effort in the modern, secular world. A rich and ambiguous set of commitments, pragmatism associated mind with action and investigated the problems of knowledge through the practices of inquiry, tinting the physical world with intelligence and a modest teleology. Knowledge of the world was ascertainable, but the pragmatists did not define it as the intuitive grasp of a preexisting external object. Knowledge was rather our ability to adjust to an only semi hospitable environment. Beliefs were modes of action and true if they survived; experience competitively tested them. The pragmatists used Darwinian concepts in the service of philosophy. Nonetheless, at another level, pragmatism's use of Darwin permitted the reinstatement, in a chastened fashion, of beliefs that were religious if not Protestant. Pragmatists emphasized the way that ideas actually established themselves in communities of investigators and what their acceptance meant. If beliefs about the spiritual prospered, they were also true. In part, the world was what human beings collectively made of it. When most influential, pragmatism was a form of communitarian idealism.

There were two main variants of pragmatism. One was associated with Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts (a tradition that eventually extended to the end of the twentieth century). It included Charles Peirce (1839–1914), William James (1842–1910), Josiah Royce (1855–1916), and later C. I. Lewis (1883–1964), Nelson Goodman (1906–1998), W. V. Quine (1908–2000), Thomas Kuhn (1922–1996), and Hilary Putnam (1926–). This group of thinkers made mathematics, logic, and the physical sciences the model of inquiry, although William James, the most influential of them, famously held that science and religion were similarly justified and could each be defended.

The second variant of pragmatism was called "instrumentalism" by its leading light, John Dewey (1859–1952). Dewey's vision inspired a school of thinkers at the University of Chicago, where he taught in the 1890s, and shaped the intellectual life of New York City and its universities—New York University, City College of New York, the New School for Social Research, and Columbia—after he moved to Columbia in 1904. Instrumentalism in Chicago and New York took the social sciences as the model of inquiry and, especially in the person of Dewey, was far more interested in social and political issues than the pragmatism of Harvard.

While the philosophers in this period wrote for their own learned journals, they also contributed to the leading non-religious journals of opinion such as The Nation and The New Republic. Through the first third of the twentieth century, philosophy rationalized the work of the scholarly disciplines that promised solutions to the problems of life for which religion had previously offered only consolation. Public speaking went from ministerial exhortation to normative social-science reformism. This mix of the popular and the professorial in what is called the "golden age" of philosophy in America extended from the 1890s until Dewey's retirement in 1929. It gave philosophy its

greatest influence and public import and produced a series of notable works—among them Peirce's essays in the Popular Science Monthly of 1877–1878, James's Pragmatism (1907), and Dewey's Quest for Certainty (1929).

Professional Philosophy

Although variants of pragmatism were never absent from discussion, in the second third of the twentieth century a number of vigorous academics conducted a refined epistemological critique of the empirical bases of knowledge. Pragmatic assumptions were called into question. C. I. Lewis of Harvard in Mind and the World-Order (1929) and Wilfrid Sellars (1912–1989) of the University of Pittsburgh in "Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind" (1956) were regarded as the preeminent writers in this area. The intellectual migration from Europe caused by the rise of totalitarianism in the 1930s contributed to this argument when a uniquely stringent empiricism, logical positivism, made an impact on the debate after World War II. The United States became known for its "analytic philosophy, " which emphasized clarity and precision of thought, often using logic and the foundations of mathematics to make its points, denigrating much "normative" reasoning in the areas of social and moral philosophy, and presupposing an apolitical sensibility. Leading philosophers

in the United States were secular in their commitments, but in a culture still oriented to Judeo-Christian belief, they turned away from the civic sphere.

These developments gave American thought worldwide honor in circles of scholars, but came at great cost to the public presence of philosophy and even to its audience in the academy. In contrast to what philosophy had been, both in and outside the university, during the period of James, Royce, and Dewey, philosophy after World War II had narrow concerns; it became a complex and arcane area of study in the university system. The 1960s accentuated the new academic status of philosophy. The radicalism and spirit of rebellion surrounding the Vietnam War condemned professional thought as irrelevant.

In the last quarter of the century a cacophony of voices competed for attention in the world of philosophy. A most influential movement still had a connection to Cambridge, originating in the "pragmatic analysis" developed after World War II by Goodman and Quine. This movement was often materialistic in its premises but also skeptical of all claims to knowledge, including scientific ones. The pragmatic analysts had an uneasy connection to an extraordinary publication of 1962, Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Although Kuhn's work was ambiguous, it soon justified a much more romantic attack on the objectivity of science and on the pursuit of analytic philosophy itself. The publications of Richard Rorty (1931–) in the last twenty years of the century, especially Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979), gave a deeper philosophical justification for these ideas, as many philosophers in philosophy departments rejected straitened approaches to their field without being able to assert a compelling vision of another sort. Moreover, scholars in other disciplines—most importantly in English departments—claimed that traditional philosophy had reached a dead end. These nondisciplinary philosophers challenged philosophers for the right to do philosophy. These developments took American philosophy from the high point of achievement and public influence of the "classic" pragmatists to a confused and less potent role at the end of the twentieth century.


Brent, Joseph. Charles Sanders Peirce: A Life. Rev. ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.

Clendenning, John. The Life and Thought of Josiah Royce. Rev. ed. Nashville, Tenn.: Vanderbilt University Press, 1999.

Feigl, Herbert, and Wilfrid Sellars, eds. Readings in Philosophical Analysis. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1949.

Kuklick, Bruce. Philosophy in America: An Intellectual and Cultural History, 1720–2000. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. A comprehensive survey.

Miller, Perry. Jonathan Edwards. New York: William Sloane Associates, 1949. The first and still the most influential of modern works on Edwards.

Muelder, Walter G., Laurence Sears, and Anne V. Schlabach, eds. The Development of American Philosophy: A Book of Readings. 2d ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960.

Perry, Ralph. The Thought and Character of William James. 2 vols. Boston: Little, Brown, 1935. Still the authoritative work.

Rorty, Richard, M., ed. The Linguistic Turn: Essays in Philosophical Method. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Simon, Linda. Genuine Reality: A Life of William James. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1998. The most recent of many biographies.

Stuhr, John J. ed. Pragmatism and Classical American Philosophy: Essential Readings and Interpretative Essays. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Westbrook, Robert B. John Dewey and American Democracy. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University, Press, 1991.


See alsoExistentialism ; Positivism ; Post-structuralism ; Pragmatism ; Religious Thought and Writings ; Transcendentalism .


views updated May 17 2018


The modern discipline of philosophy has resisted the explicit inclusion of LGBT areas of inquiry. Official recognition of LGBT scholarly work was initiated in 1988, when John Pugh organized the first newsletter of the Society for Lesbian and Gay Philosophy. Pugh and Claudia Card were the initial cochairs of this pioneering organization, which first offered a program at the 1990 American Philosophical Association (APA) meeting in New Orleans. In 1997 an official APA Committee on the Status of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender People in the Profession was formed. Its "Newsletter on Philosophy and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Issues," first edited by Timothy Murphy, was regularly published in the APA Newsletter beginning in 1999. The APA Committee was cochaired by Edward Stein and Jacob Hale for its first three years, and then by Mark Chekola and Christopher Horvath. Card celebrated the opening of philosophy's closet by proclaiming:

This committee differs from all of the other committees in the APA in backing outlaws….Beingoutlaws means we risk censure for being shameless enough not to hide, or else we lead a life of duplicity that produces real shame because it makes us dishonest in acquiescing in others' false assumptions and accepting trust we might not otherwise have been given. (APA Newsletter, Spring 1999)

Card also called for the collection of narratives about LGBT philosophers' experiences in the discipline, which were later published in the APA Newsletter.

Lesbian Feminist Philosophy

While the formation of the APA Committee was a milestone in the history of professional philosophy in the United States, there was prior to this a groundswell of lesbian feminist philosophy that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s in the Society for Women in Philosophy (SWIP). Especially in the midwestern SWIP, lesbian feminist philosophy took root and flourished in a set of distinctive theoretical works first published after nearly a decade of conference presentations and discussions. These include Sara Lucia Hoagland's Lesbian Ethics (1988), Claudia Card's Adventures in Lesbian Philosophy (1994) and Lesbian Choices (1995), Marilyn Frye's Politics of Reality (1983) and Willful Virgin (1992), Joyce Trebilcot's Mothering (1983) and Dyke Ideas (1994), and Jeffner Allen's Lesbian Philosophies and Cultures (1990) and Lesbian Philosophy (1986). While influenced by second wave feminism in the 1970s, these feminist philosophers attempted to place female heterosexuality at the center of feminist analyses of the oppression of women, foregrounding the institution of heterosexuality and women's sexual subordination to men as major impediments to a more fully emancipated female sex. Many lesbian feminist philosophers attempted to theorize "lesbian" as a site of resistance to male heteronormative sexual oppression.

According to Frye and Monique Wittig, for example, restricting male access to women is the first act of challenging male power, as the social construction of male dominance relies on nearly unconditional access to women's sexual, reproductive, spiritual, and physical energies. Wittig argued that "women" constitute a class of people appropriated by men and that "lesbian" offers a site of resistance to sexual captivity. She offered the provocative claim that if lesbians are not "women" to men, then lesbians are not "women." This highlighted the social construction of gender as a sexual project and the social appropriation of female anatomy and sexuality as phenomena that serve heterosexualized male hegemony. Lesbian feminist philosophy and practice created a renaissance in writing and new social organizations that prioritized the ontology and values of lesbian sex, love, and community. While the more recent emergence of queer theory has largely overshadowed these feminist philosophical writings (even while building on their insights), lesbian feminist philosophy still offers a challenging paradigm for thinking about the oppression of women; its entanglements with sexual violence, misogyny, lesbophobia, and compulsory heterosexuality; and the possibilities of female agency, sexual liberation, and alternative communities of resistance.

The enclaves of SWIP chapters and the disruptions caused by early lesbian feminist philosophy linked feminist movements and artistic literatures with academic philosophy, but lesbian feminist influence in the APA was limited. Meanwhile, the paradigm of lesbian feminist philosophy was complicated in the 1980s by questions about race, class, culture, status, and sexual differences, which challenged some of the universalizing claims made by lesbian feminist philosophers. In the same period, the AIDS crisis disrupted allegiances to lesbian separatist trajectories and offered instead new and more inclusive social movements engaging in civil rights struggles for LGBT people and in transgressive queer politics.

Philosophical Queer Theory

In the early 1990s, postmodern queer theory emerged as a more exciting hot spot for philosophical work on the body, sex, gender, sexuality, desire, and agency. Queer theory quickly overshadowed lesbian feminism philosophy, largely by replacing feminism's growing commitment to exploring social differences with a new emphasis on desire, pleasure, and—despite claims to the contrary— new forms of humanist individualism centered on the body. Queer theory, however, was not initially embraced in the circles and societies of academic philosophy in the United States, despite the fact that some of the most influential queer theorists such as Judith Butler are philosophers. This is partially a reflection of U.S. philosophical traditions that swing mostly counter to continental philosophy and the philosophical metaphysicians used in high queer theory, such as Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Sigmund Freud, Georg Hegel, Louis Althusser, and Slavoj Zizek. Although queer theory has influenced philosophical analyses of postmodernity, it has had much greater influence in providing philosophical animation for work in areas outside of academic philosophy, such as literary criticism, film studies, cultural studies, rhetoric, speech communication, sociology, political science, history, and anthropology. Queer theory has also been very influential in interdisciplinary areas such as women's and gender studies, LGBT and sexuality studies, and more recently transgender and gender identity studies. This has had the effect of situating profound philosophical challenges related to sex, gender, and sexuality in places where this type of thinking is allowed, which encouraged and reinforced the separation of queer theory from academic philosophy.

The durable resistance of U.S. academic philosophy to lesbian feminist, queer, and transgender theory can also be seen in the fragile "love of knowledge" practices that define the discipline itself. Identified by some scholars (Evelyn Fox Keller, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and David M. Halperin) as remarkably homoerotic, the practices of philosophy's love of wisdom (stretching back to the Greeks) have traditionally involved intense textual exchange and an intimate dialectic between aged male philosophers and their aspiring male students. Academic philosophy pictures itself as a discipline based on the preservation and reading of canonical philosophical texts, a highly regulated analytic method of inquiry, writing, and critique, and on a recurring set of unanswerable questions that ignore or sidestep more contemporary questions about sex and gender in all of their variations. The notion that philosophy commonly takes place on the streets or in the sheets is only of remote professional interest to a largely Cartesianized priesthood of philosophical experts practicing the mind's labors of abstraction. While normative bodies present challenges to American philosophy's mind-centered practices, queering the body is even more deeply unsettling.

Social Justice and State Politics

What one finds more commonly in contemporary U.S. academic philosophy is a different kind of heretical courage, one that has emerged in new LGBT philosophical inquiry into the foundational values and policies of social justice and liberal state politics. These new explorations, influenced by developments in political philosophy, differ from earlier, more conventional modes of sex inquiry (such as Roger Baker and Frederick Elliston's Philosophy and Sex, 1975) that focused on the morality of specific sexual acts, the nature of perversion, and the cogency of scientific etiological accounts of homosexuality. In addition to exploring these topics, new LGBT philosophical work tends to focus on issues of social justice and the erotic rights of individuals, largely in response to the growing visibility of LGBT movements. These topics are often framed by a "queering" of liberal politics. Examining identity politics, the empirical truth of sexuality for the self, and the representation of LGBT minoritarian suffering, these analyses circulate around issues of rights, responsibilities, and discrimination against LGBT people. Published work includes legal, ethical, and civil rights arguments for and against same-sex marriage, same-sex parenting, same-sex adoptions, surrogacy rights and responsibilities, rights to privacy and outing practices, military and Reserve Officer Training Corps regulations concerning homosexuality, state regulation of sex acts and pornography, sex education in the schools, homophobia and institutional practices, desire and obligation in the age of AIDS, and other questions related to the personal ethics of relationships and the incursions of state and institutional disciplinary power into personal life.

Many of these philosophical controversies query the relationship of the state to the individual and explore the rights, responsibilities, and harms of calling on the state or the higher powers of law to protect or prohibit human sexual behaviors and to regulate the lives of sexual subjects. Typically, philosophical journals have cast these questions as controversies, allowing for the anti-LGBT positions of, for example, John Finnis, Michael Levin, and Roger Scruton, to be matched with the supportive LGBT positions exemplified in the work of Timothy Murphy, David Mayo, Elizabeth Daumer, Frederick Suppe, Mark Chekola, Richard Mohr, Claudia Card, Edward Stein, Lisa Heldke, Jacob Hale, John Corvino, and Abby Wilkerson.

Conceptual and Normative Philosophy

Alan Soble, in "The Fundamentals of the Philosophy of Sex" (2002), makes a primary distinction between conceptual and normative philosophical analysis. In LGBT philosophy, "conceptual analysis" refers to the analysis and clarification of central notions, such as what counts as "a sex act," "sexual activity," "sexual desire," "homosexual acts," "homoeroticism," and " sex difference." Examples include Frye's analysis of "lesbian sex"; Heldke's, Peg O'Connor's and Amanda Udis-Kessler's writings on bisexuality; Hale's and Jacquelyn N. Zita's work on transgender concepts; and Butler's work on the ontology of sex, gender, and resistance. In contrast, "normative analysis" is concerned with the value and evaluation of sexual activities and sexual pleasures, as exemplified by the work of Murphy, Janice Moulton, Michael Slote, Graham Priest, and Linda LeMoncheck, all of whom interrogate the values of various sexual practices and the cogency of normative judgments regarding "sexual perversions."

Alan Soble contrasts "moral evaluations" with "non-moral evaluations" of sex: "Nonmorally good sex is sexual activity that provides pleasure to the participants or is physically or emotionally satisfying, while nonmorally bad sex is unexciting, tedious, boring, unenjoyable, or even unpleasant" (Philosophy of Sex). In other words, good sex can be morally bad or good, depending on the value and ethical systems deployed in a philosophical analysis. These value inquiries can be further separated from "pragmatic considerations" related to sexual practices and questions about what is safe, useful, and effective, both at the level of physical sex acts and in the intersubjective sexual encounters of emotional intimacy. Alongside these types of analyses, political and social philosophy take up questions related to the state and social regulation of human sexuality: legal permissibility; civic rights and responsibilities; privacy entitlements; institutional regulations; and individual and community rights to erotic self-determination and access to space, resources, and protection from harm.

The Natural and Unnatural

The question of the "naturalness" of LGBT activities, including various sexual practices such as sadomasochism and fetishism, and the "naturalness" of transgender and transsexual bodies still produces an annual harvest of academic philosophical work that draws upon queer, intersex, transgender, and sex theory developed mostly outside of academic philosophy. In traditionally conservative philosophy, what is "unnatural" in human sexuality is based on appeals to the ontology of human nature or its normative imprinting on the body (in particular, on sexual organs and the uses to which they can be put). Given that LGBT bodies, desires, and practices have been considered "unnatural" in many, but not all, human cultures, the question of the natural versus the unnatural is recast in philosophy as a moral controversy grounded in a normative ontology of the body's nature. In these controversies, LGBT critics have often invoked the naturalistic fallacy to argue against any easy alignment between what is (in nature) and what should be (in cultural practices).

A second line of philosophical analysis interrogates the cogency of biological explanations for LGBT bodies, practices, and desires. In these inquiries, nature is often positioned as a limit-concept, establishing what the body cannot but otherwise do. Inquiry into the ontology of sex, gender, and sexuality—the question of whether sexed bodies, gendered identities, or sexual orientations are culturally constructed categories or expressions of deeply personal and hence revealing facts of constitutional being—remains a lively and interminable domain of philosophical debate between social constructionists and essentialists of various types. Edward Stein has argued philosophically that the relevance of scientific research into the origins of sexual orientation does not imply any conclusions about moral entitlements or civil rights.


Philosophy as a discipline has always prided itself in asking the grand and mostly indeterminate questions of human existence: What can I/we know? How should I/we live? What exists? What is the good? What is right? What has been done to me/us? What can I/we hope for? What is to be done? Philosophy offers a palette of the grandest of the grand human universals, often pondering the meaning of value, truth, being, meaning, self, personhood, subject, agency, power, matter, and reality. To challenge the construction of these universals in the name of particularity or in the name of identitarian interests such as those emerging in LGBT philosophy is to make note of a possible contaminant in philosophy's closet. When the contaminants speak, this also calls attention to the (phallicized) male heterosexual body—the hidden body of the mind-body dualism that has determined the endgame of philosophy in Western culture. Queer philosophical writing about the body offers challenges to the austerely kept body of philosophy, a challenge articulated in the feel of the slimy holes in Christine Pierce's analysis of Jean-Paul Sartre, the oozing drips in Elizabeth Grosz's analysis of women's bodies, the gaping holes in Leo Bersani's anal writing, and the melancholic velvet in Judith Butler's theorization of the heteronormative bodily ego. In this movement of LGBT theorizing, difference over deviance, fluidity over rigidity, plurality over dualism, and bodily pleasure over disdain show signs of emerging in the future of philosophical writing, most assuredly when queer philosophers acquire the securities of post-tenured life.

At this time, however, emergent LGBT work in feminist theory, race theory, queer theory, and intersex and transgender theory has not reshaped the categorical paradigms of mainstream academic philosophy. However, LGBT academic philosophers have made some inroads using traditional methods to frame new questions and queries. This new work in conceptual, normative, ethical, ontological, social, and political philosophy has made its own mark. The slow but steady emergence of LGBT philosophy on the sidelines of this long-standing and largely somatophobic discipline is a remarkable moment in U.S. philosophy, often making dangerous demands on those who "risk censure for being shameless enough not to hide." Within new LGBT academic philosophy, the philosopher's body and the place from which she or he thinks are changing and becoming visible. Standpoint theory and the partial and subjugated knowledges that have been articulated in the work of LGBT theorists may someday help bring about a new period of philosophical thought, perhaps not a future that will turn philosophy on its head, but one that will enable philosophy to embrace the sex and gender variant body.


Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.

——. Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex." New York: Routledge, 1993.

——. Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performance. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Card, Claudia. Lesbian Choices. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.

Card, Claudia, ed. Adventures in Lesbian Philosophy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

Corvino, John, ed. Same Sex: Debating the Ethics, Science, and Culture of Homosexuality. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield. 1997.

Frye, Marilyn. "Lesbian Sex." In her Willful Virgin: Essays in Feminism 1976–1992. Freedom, Calif.: Crossing Press, 1992.

——. The Politics of Reality. Trumansburg, N.Y.: Crossing Press, 1983.

Hale, Jacob. "Are Lesbians Women?" Hypatia 12 (Spring 1997): 94–121.

Halperin, David M. "Is There a History of Sexuality?" In his One Hundred Years of Homosexuality: And Other Essays on Greek Love. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Hoagland, Sara Lucia. Lesbian Ethics: Toward New Value. Palo Alto, Calif.: Institute of Lesbian Studies, 1988.

Keller, Evelyn Fox. "Love and Sex in Plato's Epistemology." In her Reflections on Gender and Science. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985.

Mohr, Richard D. Gays/Justice: A Study of Ethics, Society, and Law. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.

Murphy, Timothy F., ed. Gay Ethics: Controversies in Outing, Civil Rights, and Sexual Science. New York: Haworth Press, 1994.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosexual Desires. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

Soble, Alan. Philosophy of Sex: Contemporary Readings. 4th ed. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002.

Stein, Edward. The Mismeasure of Desire: The Science, Theory, and Ethics of Sexual Orientation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Trebilcot, Joyce. Dyke Ideas: Process, Politics, Daily Life. Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 1994.

Wittig, Monique. The Straight Mind and Other Essays. Boston: Beacon, 1992.

Zita, Jacquelyn N. Body Talk: Philosophical Reflections on Sex and Gender. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.

Jacqueline N. Zita

see alsoqueer theory and queer studies.

About this article


All Sources -
Updated Aug 13 2018 About content Print Topic