Western philosophy

Western philosophy

Western philosophy is a term that refers to philosophical thinking in the Western or Occidental world, as distinct from Eastern or Oriental philosophies and the varieties of indigenous philosophies. Historically, the term was recently invented to refer to the philosophical thinking of Western civilization, beginning with Greek philosophy in ancient Greece, and eventually covering a large area of the globe, including North America and Australia. There is some debate of whether to include areas such as Northern Africa, some parts of the Middle East, Russia, and so on. The word "philosophy" itself originated in ancient Greece and was not originally considered as Western: "philosophia" (φιλοσοφία), literally, "the love of wisdom" (philein = "to love" + sophia = wisdom, in the sense of knowledge and the courage to act accordingly).

In contemporary terms, "Western Philosophy" refers to the two main traditions of contemporary philosophy: Analytic philosophy and Continental philosophy.


The scope of philosophy in the ancient understanding, and the writings of (at least some of) the ancient philosophers, was "all" intellectual endeavors. This included the problems of philosophy as they are understood today; but it also included many other disciplines, such as pure mathematics and natural sciences such as physics, astronomy, and biology. (Aristotle, for example, wrote on all of these topics; and as late as the 17th century, these fields were still referred to as branches of "natural philosophy"). Over time, academic specialization and the rapid technical advance of the special sciences led to the development of distinct disciplines for these sciences, and their separation from philosophy: mathematics became a specialized science in the ancient world, and "natural philosophy" developed into the disciplines of the natural sciences over the course of the scientific revolution. Today, philosophical questions are usually explicitly distinguished from the questions of the special sciences, and characterized by the fact that (unlike those of the sciences) they are the sort of questions which are foundational and abstract in nature, and which are not amenable to being answered by experimental means.

Western philosophical subdisciplines

Western philosophers have often divided into several major branches based on the questions typically addressed by people working in different parts of the field. In the ancient world, the most influential division of the subject was the Stoics' division of philosophy into Logic, Ethics, and Physics (conceived as the study of the nature of the world, and including both natural science and metaphysics). In contemporary philosophy, specialties within the field are more commonly divided into metaphysics, epistemology, ethics and aesthetics (which together comprise axiology). Logic is sometimes included as another main branch of philosophy, sometimes as a separate science which philosophers often happen to work on, and sometimes just as a characteristically philosophical method applying to all branches of philosophy.

Within these broad branches there are now numerous sub-disciplines of philosophy. At the broadest level there is the division between Analytic and Continental Philosophy.For Continental Philosophy subdividing philosophy between "experts" is problematic for the very nature of the unifying task of philosophy itself; however, for most of Analytic Philosophy further divisions simplify the task for philosophers in each area.

The interest in particular sub-disciplines waxes and wanes over time; sometimes sub-disciplines become particularly hot topics and can occupy so much space in the literature that they almost seem like major branches in their own right. (Over the past 40 years or so philosophy of mind — which is, strictly speaking, mainly a sub-discipline of metaphysics — has taken on this position within Analytic philosophy, and has attracted so much attention that some suggest philosophy of mind as "the" paradigm for what contemporary Analytic philosophers do.)

Philosophy contrasted with other disciplines

Natural science

Originally the term "philosophy" was applied to "all" intellectual endeavours. Aristotle studied what would now be called biology, meteorology, physics, and cosmology, alongside his metaphysics and ethics. Even in the eighteenth century physics and chemistry were still classified as "natural philosophy", that is, the philosophical study of nature. Today these latter subjects are popularly referred to as sciences, and as separate from philosophy. But the distinction is not clear; some philosophers still contend that science retains an unbroken — and unbreakable — link to philosophy.

More recently, psychology, economics, sociology, and linguistics were once the domain of philosophers insofar as they were studied at all, but now have only a weaker connection with the field. In the late twentieth century cognitive science and artificial intelligence could be seen as being forged in part out of "philosophy of mind."

Philosophy is done primarily through reflection. It does not tend to rely on experiment. However, in some ways philosophy is close to science in its character and method; some Analytic philosophers have suggested that the method of philosophical analysis allows philosophers to emulate the methods of natural science; Quine holds that philosist in any more than clarifying the arguments and claims of other sciences. This suggests that philosophy might be the study of meaning and reasoning generally; but some still would claim either that this is not a science, or that if it is it ought not to be pursued by philosophers.

All these views have something in common: whatever philosophy essentially is or is concerned with, it tends on the whole to proceed more "abstractly" than most (or most other) natural sciences. It does not depend as much on experience and experiment, and does not contribute as directly to technology. It clearly would be a mistake to identify philosophy with any one natural science; whether it can be identified with science very broadly construed is still an open question.

Philosophy of science

This is an active discipline pursued by both trained philosophers and scientists. Philosophers often "refer to", and interpret, experimental work of various kinds (as in philosophy of physics and philosophy of psychology). But this is not surprising: such branches of philosophy aim at philosophical understanding "of" experimental work. It is not the philosophers in their capacity "as" philosophers, who perform the experiments and formulate the scientific theories under study. Philosophy of science should not be confused with science it studies any more than biology should be confused with plants and animals.

Theology and religious studies

Like philosophy, most religious studies are not experimental. Parts of theology, including questions about the existence and nature of gods, clearly overlap with philosophy of religion. Aristotle considered theology a branch of metaphysics, the central field of philosophy, and most philosophers prior to the twentieth century have devoted significant effort to theological questions. So the two are not unrelated. But other part of religious studies, such as the comparison of different world religions, can be easily distinguished from philosophy in just the way that any other social science can be distinguished from philosophy. These are closer to history and sociology, and involve specific observations of particular phenomena, here particular religious practices.

The Empiricist tradition in modern philosophy often held that religious questions are beyond the scope of human knowledge, and many have claimed that religious language is literally meaningless: there are not even questions to be answered. Some philosophers have felt that these difficulties in evidence were irrelevant, and have argued for, against, or just about religious beliefs on moral or other grounds. Nonetheless, in the main stream of twentieth century philosophy there are very few philosophers who give serious consideration to religious questions.


Mathematics uses very specific, rigorous methods of proof that philosophers sometimes (only rarely) try to emulate. Most philosophy is written in ordinary prose, and while it strives to be precise it does not usually attain anything like mathematical clarity. As a result, mathematicians hardly ever disagree about results, while philosophers of course do disagree about their results, as well as their methods.

The philosophy of mathematics is a branch of philosophy of science; but in many ways mathematics has a special relationship to philosophy. This is because the study of logic is a central branch of philosophy, and mathematics is a paradigm example of logic. In the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries logic made great advances, and mathematics has been proven to be reducible to logic (at least, to first-order logic with some set theory). The use of formal, mathematical logic in philosophy now resembles the use of math in science, although it is not as frequent.

See also

* Philosophy
* Analytic philosophy
* Continental philosophy
* Eastern Philosophy
* History of philosophy
* List of philosophers
* List of philosophical isms (with definitions)
* List of philosophical topics
* List of philosophies
* Pseudophilosophy

External links

* [http://forums.philosophyforums.com/ Philosophy Forums]
* [http://www.tau.ac.il/humanities/philos/links.htm Philosophy Sites on the Internet - Tel Aviv University list]
* [http://plato.stanford.edu/ The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy]
* [http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/ The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy]
* [http://www.rep.routledge.com/views/home.html The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy]
* [http://www.btinternet.com/~glynhughes/squashed/index.htm Glyn Hughes' Squashed Philosophers] - condensed and abridged versions of the books which defined the way The West thinks now.
* [http://sophiasdialectic.com Philosophy Wiki]

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