A Brief Summary of Western Philosophy


Author: Tao Xu

Date: 12/08/2019

To begin with, there were these guys called the pre-Socrates, who mostly concerned about the nature of the universe, and asked questions like - What regulates the Physical process? But they didn’t really have answers until Socrates showed up. He mostly wandered around Greece, asking irritating questions, and Athens got quite pissed about this and sentenced him to death. He never really wrote anything down, but luckily his student Plato did, who then instituted a fairly impactful philosophy that still shapes our lives today.

Plato has a student called Aristotle who shaped the so-called “Modern Logic”. He also argued that what separates humans from the animal kingdom is our ability to reason and not much else - an idea you will find everywhere in the modern age.

Besides Aristotle, more exciting ideas have been left by the ancient Greeks, such as The Hedonism - meaning maximizing your own pleasure; Atomism, which means the world is made of two fundamental principles - atoms and void; and then Skepticism, which is pretty self-explanatory.

Anyway, the dark age came long and lasted for about one thousand years. Around the 11th century, universities, as we know, popped up in Spain, France, and England. After a few centuries, people were into this so-called Scholasticism, which basically brings the dogma to an academic level, and was all about trying to marry ancient Greek thought to Christian thought. Then there came St. Anselm who came up with the ontological argument for the proof of God, which people still use today.

About a century later, came the Ockham’s razor theory, which supposes there exist two explanations for an occurrence. In this case, the one that requires the smallest number of assumptions is usually correct. Later the black death exploded and wiped out nearly 40% of Europeans and everyone got a bit health-conscious. Around the 15th century, the situation got a lot better that leads to the Renaissance - which literally means rebirth, where people got all nostalgic for the Greeks and Romans again.

During the 18th century, the Age of Enlightenment began. A modern philosophy started to shape. René Descartes was first known by his big idea - let’s assume we doubt everything, what can we know for certain? Meanwhile, over in Britain, John Locke and David Hume are cooking up this thing called Empiricism, which mostly says, knowledge comes from the outside world, not from your thinking. There is also some other stuff going on - Thomas Hobbes, who is also British, says humans are nasty by nature, and we need the “Social Contract Theory”. Adam Smith, who invented modern economics(sort of), wrote the famous “The Wealth of Nations”. In 1724, Immanuel Kant was born, whom we shall henceforth refer to as the cornerstone of the modern philosophy. He says Rationalism and Empiricism could work together. Everyone was happy, no more fights.

Kant’s idea sparked a whole new movement in philosophy called German idealism, the king of which is a guy called Hegal. Basically they want to know what can you know from the objects that you can’t know anything about (wait…what?).

Over in America, Pragmatism is getting started, which asks the question like - All right, Europe, lovely ideas, but do they work in practice? Then natural philosophy came out, which by then is being called science. Science also now has the scientific method, the basic rules of which is a trial-error type of experiments.

Meanwhile, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche hated everyone, including God, whom he declared was dead. He also said the civilization was heading towards catastrophe, and there’s no structure for the world except what we gave it. Basically, what he was trying to say was that no matter what we do, we’re going to die anyway.

Now we’ve entered the 20th century, philosophy by now has official categories, namely

  • Epistemology - means ‘Knowledge Understanding’ - Are we able to understand how things work
  • Metaphysics - How does everything ultimately work
  • Ethics - How do we know what is right from wrong
  • Logic - How do we reason
  • Aesthetics - Why things look so nice

And there are tons of movements popping up such as Existentialism, Postmodernism…

So where are we now? Recently, Philosophy has largely boiled down to moral questions, such as “Is abortion a right?”; “How should we run our society?”; “Can science determine morality?”.

Today science has already addressed some philosophy questions. So does Philosophy still have a purpose? It did once. It used to be the mother of knowledge. The adventure of uncovering those great thoughts is beautiful. We still do not know what we’re doing here. Consciousness is still a mystery. Do humans really have free will? Or are we just slaves of our own genes? Those big questions are remained unanswered by human-being and yet worth being thought about carefully.