Basic Philosophy (The “School in a Book” Series)

Whether or not you’ve studied philosophy, you’re probably already a philosopher. You think about the meaning of life, absolute and relative moral precepts, political ideals and the indelible qualities of human nature. For this reason, the formal study of philosophy isn’t so much about defining or comparing philosophical ideas–something you’re already quite capable of doing–but about the thinkers of the past who famously argued different sides of these questions. Basically, philosophy is history.

Here, I do briefly introduce some of the major questions of philosophical debate, with the caveat that the list is not comprehensive. There is philosophy in everything—every subject. Every … thing. But these are the questions that have so far seemed most fundamental (such as the meaning of life), most practical (such as political ideas) and have been most famously discussed (such as the empiricism versus rationalism debate). Then I introduce you to many of the major philosophers of history and their most notable contributions, which will hopefully give your philosophical discussions and debates more texture, context and depth.

Terms and Ideas

Philosophy: The study of the meaning and nature of life, consciousness and more. Every subject can be philosophically analyzed to determine the subject’s inherent qualities, purpose and right functioning. For example, the study of medicine has benefited from people asking what the ultimate goal of doctors should be, and then arriving at the Hippocratic Oath (“first, do no harm …”) The word “philosophy” literally means “love of wisdom.”

Some major questions of philosophy: What is the meaning of life? What qualities are fundamental to human nature? How can we know what we know (empiricism versus rationalism)? What is truth? How do we arrive at morality and values? What political structures are most beneficial? How does language shape our beliefs? What is the best way to live? Do humans have free will? What is the nature of existence? What is beauty?

Sub-fields of academic philosophy: Metaphysics (the study of ultimate, nonphysical reality), epistemology (the study of knowledge), ethics, ontology (study of what exists, i.e. God), cosmology (study of the cosmos), aesthetics (the study of beauty), political philosophy, logic and more

Eastern philosophy: The philosophical tradition of China, Japan, India and other eastern countries. Important contributions include Daoism (The Tao Te Ching of approximately 600 BCE), Confucianism (The Analects of Confucius of approximately 500 BCE) and Buddhism (which arose in India around 500 BCE). Eastern philosophy is characterized by an interest in the unknowable, the unspeakable and patterns and cycles. See the “Religions” section of this series for more information on these philosophies.

“The dao that can be told is not the dao.” – Laozi, who taught about the Tao/Dao, also known as The Way, the indescribable ultimate truth which can partly be discovered by acting in harmony with nature and meditating
“Happy is he who has overcome his ego.” – Siddhartha Gautama, later the Buddha, who prescribed meditation, the middle way (life balance) and letting go of suffering through wanting nothing
“Hold faithfulness and sincerity as first principles.” – Confucius, who emphasized virtuous living, loyalty and obedience to one’s leaders, sincerity and self-reflection
“Don’t grieve. Anything you lose comes around in another form.” – Rumi, a Persian who taught about reincarnation and Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam

Western philosophy: The philosophical tradition of the West dating from approximately 500 BCE with the Greeks (Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle), to the Romans (Cicero and Seneca), to medieval Christian philosophers (Aquinas and Augustine) and beyond. Western philosophy is marked by an interest in logic, absolute knowledge and the Christian faith.

History of Western Philosophy

The Greek Period (approximately 600-300 BCE): Thales influenced Pythagoras. Pythagoras influenced Socrates. Socrates taught Plato. Plato taught Aristotle.

Pythagoras combined math and philosophy. Socrates developed the Socratic Method in which he asked question after question in order to confound people who believed themselves to be wise, digging for deeper truths in everything. He was condemned to die due to his ideas. He drank hemlock.

Plato introduced the idea of the world of forms, an imagined place that holds the ideal of each type of real thing. (Example: A table has the essence–the form–of a table, even if it is old and broken. But the real table is a lesser version of the ideal table form.) He used the Allegory of the Cave to show how humans only see a mere shadow of what is ultimately real.

Plato disagreed with this idea. He was not a rationalist (a believer in the primacy of reason and ideas in discovering truth) but an empiricist (a believer in the primacy of evidence and material reality in discovering truth). Plato founded a famous school called the Academy in Athens. After him, Aristotle opened his school, the Lyceum, also in Athens.

Parmenides said that matter can’t die, and something can’t come from nothing, so everything that is real is eternal, unchanging, and containing some invisible unity. Protagoras argued for moral relativism.

“The life which is unexamined is not worth living.” – Socrates
“I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance.” – Socrates
“Earthly knowledge is but shadow.” – Plato
“Truth resides in the world around us.” – Aristotle
“All is one.” – Parmenides
“Man is the measure of all things.” – Protagoras

The Roman Period (approximately 300 BCE to 350 CE): The stoics (stoicism), led by Zeno, taught indifference to pleasure and pain and acceptance of one’s lot in life. By contrast, the epicureans (epicureanism), led by Epicurus, believed that the goal of life is pleasure. The cynics (cynicism) taught that happiness is contentment with little, particularly little material comfort.

The Middle Ages (approximately 350 to 1300 CE): St. Augustine of Hippo wrote extensively about free will. He attempted to explain why both God and evil exist. Boethius wrote about God’s foresight but maintained Augustine’s philosophy of free will. St. Anselm attempted an ontological argument for the existence of God, saying that if you can conceive of the greatest thing that could ever exist, it must exit, because the greatest thing has to exist or it wouldn’t be the greatest. Thomas Aquinas wrote extensively about the logical and scientific nature of Christianity.

The Renaissance Period (approximately 1300-1750): Here, philosophy becomes sharply more humanist. Erasmus introduced modern humanism, arguing that religion is folly. Niccolo Machiavelli argues that government can’t be bound by morality if it wants to succeed. Francis Bacon wrote about the value of the scientific method. Thomas Hobbes wrote that the nature of reality is purely physical, that there is no ultimate meaning to life. He introduced the idea of the social contract, saying that our agreements with each other are what enables a relatively peaceful society to exist.

Unlike Bacon and Hobbes, Rene Descartes was a rationalist. He believed that even the existence of physical matter cannot be proven and the only thing we can truly know exists is our own minds. Blaise Pascal was a practical thinker, arguing that it’s safer to bet on God’s existence than to bet against it (“Pascal’s Wager”). Benedictus Spinoza changed the argument, simply redefining God: everything is one, and everything is God.

John Locke returned us to empiricism, arguing that no truths are universal to all people and all cultures. He came up with the idea of the tabula rasa–the blank slate, which is a metaphor for the unknowing state in which each person is born before they are implanted with cultural ideas. George Berkeley foresaw quantum physics, saying that a thing only exists in so far as it perceives or is perceived, and that there is no material substance.

“To know nothing is the happiest life.” – Erasmus
“Happiness is reached when a person is ready to be what he is.” – Erasmus
“The ends justifies the means.” – Niccolo Machiavelli
“Knowledge is power.” – Francis Bacon
“Man is a machine.” – Thomas Hobbes
“And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.” – Thomas Hobbes
“I think, therefore I am.” – Rene Descartes
“Imagination decides everything.” – Blaise Pascal
“God is the cause of all things, which are in him.” – Benedictus Spinoza
“No man’s knowledge here can go beyond his experience.” – John Locke
“To be is to be perceived.” – George Berkeley

The Age of Revolution (approximately 1750-1900): Voltaire, a playwright, said that certainty is absurd. David Hume agreed, saying that custom is the source of knowledge.

Immanuel Kant sought to prove the existence of the physical world. He tried to marry empiricism and rationalism, saying that both reason and perceptions are needed for knowledge. Georg Hegel believed reality is constantly changing and suggested people use dialectic reasoning and avoid assumptions. Arthur Schopenhauer said that we are all limited in our knowledge due to our unique experiences of life.

On the political philosophy front, Jean-Jacques Rosseau argued that though man is fundamentally good, laws and government create injustice and oppression. Adam Smith, an economist, argued that the basis of society is trade. Edmund Burke said that governmental change should be slow and argued for a free market economy. Jeremy Bentham tried to calculate pleasure and proposed that laws are created by considering which give the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people. Mary Wollstonecraft founded feminism. John Stuart Mill agreed with Bentham, adding that people should be free to do with their own bodies as they wished, but not harm anyone else.

Soren Kierkegaard said that as much as we think we want freedom, we really don’t. He is the father of existentialism, the theory that there is no meaning inherent in existence, that existence precedes essence. Karl Marx said that class struggle is what causes all of the ills of society, arguing for communism, while Henry David Thoreau argued for individual liberty, non-conformism, and conscientious objection through non-cooperation and non-violent resistance. William James founded pragmatism, saying that people should just do the best they can in spite of uncertainty.

“Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.” – Voltaire
“Custom is the great guide of human life.” – David Hume
“Man was born free, yet everywhere he is in chains.” Jean-Jacques Rosseau
“Man is an animal that makes bargains.” – Adam Smith
“There are two worlds: our bodies and the external world.” – Immanuel Kant
“The greatest happiness for the greatest number.” – Jeremy Bentham
“Mind has no gender.” – Mary Wollstonecraft
“Reality is a historical process.” – Georg Hegel
“Over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” – John Stuart Mill
“Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” – Soren Kierkegaard
“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” – Karl Marx
“Must the citizen ever resign his conscience to the legislator?” – Henry David Thoreau
“Act as if what you do makes a difference.” – William James

The Modern World (1900-1950) and the Postmodern World (1950 to the present): Friedrich Nietsche, an existentialist, wrote about the insufficiency of religion. Bertrand Russell insisted that people attach too much importance to work. Ludwig Wittgenstein described the limits of language and the limits placed on our thinking by language. Martin Heidegger wrote about finding meaning in a meaningless world and about living authentically. Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus agreed, saying that we must create our own life purpose. Simone de Beauvior wrote about the oppression of women, Noam Chomsky argued for adherence to codes of ethics and Jacques Derrida was a deconstructionist who believed that knowledge is limited by language and by our ability (or lack of ability) to interpret it. Life is a series of flawed interpretations.

“God is dead.” – Nietzsche
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Sartayana
“It is only suffering that makes us persons.” – Miguel de Unamuno
“The road to happiness lies in an organized diminution of work.” – Bertrand Russell
“The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein
“We are ourselves the entities to be analyzed.” – Martin Heidegger
“Existence precedes essence.” – Jean-Paul Sartre
“Man is defined as a human being and woman as a female.” – Simone de Beauvoir
“Life will be lived all the better if it has no meaning.” – Albert Camus
“There is nothing outside of the text.” – Jacques Derrida
“We are all mediators, translators.” – Jacques Derrida


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