History of Literature, Fhilosophy and Religions


Part III

A Brief History of Western Philosophy

Introduction Phylosophy

The nature of Western philosophy

Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy

Medieval philosophy

Renaissance philosophy

Modern philosophy

Contemporary philosophy


Western Philosophy







Western philosophy

Encyclopaedia Britannica




Western philosophy

History of Western philosophy from its development among the ancient Greeks to the present.

Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy

Because the earliest Greek philosophers focused their attention upon the origin and nature of the physical world, they are often called cosmologists, or naturalists. Although monistic views (which trace the origin of the world to a single substance) prevailed at first, they were soon followed by several pluralistic theories (which trace it to several ultimate substances).

Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy » The pre-Socratic philosophers » Cosmology and the metaphysics of matter » Monistic cosmologies

There is a consensus, dating back at least to the 4th century bc and continuing to the present, that the first Greek philosopher was Thales of Miletus (flourished 6th century bc). In Thales’ time the word philosopher (“lover of wisdom”) had not yet been coined. Thales was counted, however, among the legendary Seven Wise Men (Sophoi), whose name derives from a term that then designated inventiveness and practical wisdom rather than speculative insight. Thales demonstrated these qualities by trying to give the mathematical knowledge that he derived from the Babylonians a more exact foundation and by using it for the solution of practical problems—such as the determination of the distance of a ship as seen from the shore or of the height of the Egyptian pyramids. Although he was also credited with predicting an eclipse of the Sun, it is likely that he merely gave a natural explanation of one on the basis of Babylonian astronomical knowledge.

Thales is considered the first Greek philosopher because he was the first to give a purely natural explanation of the origin of the world, free from mythological ingredients. He held that everything had come out of water—an explanation based on the discovery of fossil sea animals far inland. His tendency (and that of his immediate successors) to give nonmythological explanations was undoubtedly prompted by the fact that all of them lived on the coast of Asia Minor, surrounded by a number of nations whose civilizations were much further advanced than that of the Greeks and whose own mythological explanations varied greatly. It appeared necessary, therefore, to make a fresh start on the basis of what a person could observe and infer by looking at the world as it presented itself. This procedure naturally resulted in a tendency to make sweeping generalizations on the basis of rather restricted, though carefully checked, observations.

Thales’ disciple and successor, Anaximander of Miletus (610–c. 546 bc), tried to give a more elaborate account of the origin and development of the ordered world (the cosmos). According to him, it developed out of the apeiron (“unlimited”), something both infinite and indefinite (without distinguishable qualities). Within this apeiron something arose to produce the opposites of hot and cold. These at once began to struggle with each other and produced the cosmos. The cold (and wet) partly dried up (becoming solid earth), partly remained (as water), and—by means of the hot—partly evaporated (becoming air and mist), its evaporating part (by expansion) splitting up the hot into fiery rings, which surround the whole cosmos. Because these rings are enveloped by mist, however, there remain only certain breathing holes that are visible to human beings, appearing to them as the Sun, Moon, and stars. Anaximander was the first to realize that upward and downward are not absolute but that downward means toward the middle of the Earth and upward away from it, so that the Earth had no need to be supported (as Thales had believed) by anything. Starting from Thales’ observations, Anaximander tried to reconstruct the development of life in more detail. Life, being closely bound up with moisture, originated in the sea. All land animals, he held, are descendants of sea animals; because the first humans as newborn infants could not have survived without parents, Anaximander believed that they were born within an animal of another kind—specifically, a sea animal in which they were nurtured until they could fend for themselves. Gradually, however, the moisture will be partly evaporated, until in the end all things will return into the undifferentiated apeiron, “in order to pay the penalty for their injustice”—that of having struggled against one another.

Anaximander’s successor, Anaximenes of Miletus (flourished c. 545 bc), taught that air was the origin of all things. His position was for a long time thought to have been a step backward because, like Thales, he placed a special kind of matter at the beginning of the development of the world. But this criticism missed the point. Neither Thales nor Anaximander appear to have specified the way in which the other things arose out of water or apeiron. Anaximenes, however, declared that the other types of matter arose out of air by condensation and rarefaction. In this way, what to Thales had been merely a beginning became a fundamental principle that remained essentially the same through all of its transmutations. Thus, the term arche, which originally simply meant “beginning,” acquired the new meaning of “principle,” a term that henceforth played an enormous role in philosophy down to the present. This concept of a principle that remains the same through many transmutations is, furthermore, the presupposition of the idea that nothing can come out of nothing and that all of the comings to be and passings away that human beings observe are nothing but transmutations of something that essentially remains the same eternally. In this way it also lies at the bottom of all of the conservation laws—the laws of the conservation of matter, force, and energy—that have been basic in the development of physics. Although Anaximenes of course did not realize all of the implications of his idea, its importance can hardly be exaggerated.

The first three Greek philosophers have often been called “hylozoists” because they seemed to believe in a kind of living matter. But this is hardly an adequate characterization. It is, rather, characteristic of them that they did not clearly distinguish between kinds of matter, forces, and qualities, nor between physical and emotional qualities. The same entity is sometimes called “fire” and sometimes “the hot.” Heat appears sometimes as a force and sometimes as a quality, and again there is no clear distinction between warm and cold as physical qualities and the warmth of love and the cold of hate. To realize these ambiguities is important to an understanding of certain later developments in Greek philosophy.

Xenophanes of Colophon (c. 560–c. 478 bc), a rhapsodist and philosophical thinker who emigrated from Asia Minor to Elea in southern Italy, was the first to articulate more clearly what was implied in Anaximenes’ philosophy. He criticized the popular notions of the gods, saying that people made the gods in their own image. But, more importantly, he argued that there could be only one God, the ruler of the universe, who must be eternal. For, being the strongest of all beings, he could not have come out of something less strong, nor could he be overcome or superseded by something else, because nothing could arise that is stronger than the strongest. The argument clearly rested on the axioms that nothing can come out of nothing and that nothing that exists can vanish.

These axioms were made more explicit and carried to their logical (and extreme) conclusions by Parmenides of Elea (born c. 515 bc), the founder of the so-called school of Eleaticism, of whom Xenophanes has been regarded as the teacher and forerunner. In a philosophical poem, Parmenides insisted that “what is” cannot have come into being and cannot pass away because it would have to have come out of nothing or to become nothing, whereas nothing by its very nature does not exist. There can be no motion either, for it would have to be a motion into something that is—which is not possible since it would be blocked—or a motion into something that is not—which is equally impossible since what is not does not exist. Hence, everything is solid, immobile being. The familiar world, in which things move around, come into being, and pass away, is a world of mere belief (doxa). In a second part of the poem, however, Parmenides tried to give an analytical account of this world of belief, showing that it rested on constant distinctions between what is believed to be positive—i.e., to have real being, such as light and warmth—and what is believed to be negative—i.e., the absence of positive being, such as darkness and cold.

It is significant that Heracleitus of Ephesus (c. 540–c. 480 bc), whose philosophy was later considered to be the very opposite of Parmenides’ philosophy of immobile being, came, in some fragments of his work, near to what Parmenides tried to show: the positive and the negative, he said, are merely different views of the same thing; death and life, day and night, and light and darkness are really one.


Thales of Miletus
Greek philosopher

flourished 6th century bc

philosopher renowned as one of the legendary Seven Wise Men, or Sophoi, of antiquity (see philosophy, Western: The pre-Socratic philosophers). He is remembered primarily for his cosmology based on water as the essence of all matter, with the Earth a flat disk floating on a vast sea. The Greek historian Diogenes Laërtius (flourished 3rd century ad), quoting Apollodorus of Athens (flourished 140 bc), placed the birth of Thales during the 35th Olympiad (apparently a transcription error; it should read the 39th Olympiad, c. 624 bc) and his death in the 58th Olympiad (548–545 bc) at the age of 78.

No writings by Thales survive, and no contemporary sources exist; thus, his achievements are difficult to assess. Inclusion of his name in the canon of the legendary Seven Wise Men led to his idealization, and numerous acts and sayings, many of them no doubt spurious, were attributed to him, such as “Know thyself” and “Nothing in excess.” According to the historian Herodotus (c. 484–c. 425 bc), Thales was a practical statesman who advocated the federation of the Ionian cities of the Aegean region. The poet-scholar Callimachus (c. 305–c. 240 bc) recorded a traditional belief that Thales advised navigators to steer by the Little Bear (Ursa Minor) rather than by the Great Bear (Ursa Major), both prominent constellations in the Northern Hemisphere. He is also said to have used his knowledge of geometry to measure the Egyptian pyramids and to calculate the distance from shore of ships at sea. Although such stories are probably apocryphal, they illustrate Thales’ reputation. The poet-philosopher Xenophanes (c. 560–c. 478 bc) claimed that Thales predicted the solar eclipse that stopped the battle between King Alyattes of Lydia (reigned c. 610–c. 560 bc) and King Cyaxares of Media (reigned 625–585 bc), evidently on May 28, 585. Modern scholars believe, however, that he could not possibly have had the knowledge to predict accurately either the locality or the character of an eclipse. Thus, his feat was apparently isolated and only approximate; Herodotus spoke of his foretelling the year only. That the eclipse was nearly total and occurred during a crucial battle contributed considerably to his exaggerated reputation as an astronomer.

Thales has been credited with the discovery of five geometric theorems: (1) that a circle is bisected by its diameter, (2) that angles in a triangle opposite two sides of equal length are equal, (3) that opposite angles formed by intersecting straight lines are equal, (4) that the angle inscribed inside a semicircle is a right angle, and (5) that a triangle is determined if its base and the two angles at the base are given. His mathematical achievements are difficult to assess, however, because of the ancient practice of crediting particular discoveries to men with a general reputation for wisdom.

The claim that Thales was the founder of European philosophy rests primarily on Aristotle (384–322 bc), who wrote that Thales was the first to suggest a single material substratum for the universe—namely, water, or moisture. A likely consideration in this choice was the seeming motion that water exhibits, as seen in its ability to become vapour; for what changes or moves itself was thought by the Greeks to be close to life itself, and to Thales the entire universe was a living organism, nourished by exhalations from water.

Thales’ significance lies less in his choice of water as the essential substance than in his attempt to explain nature by the simplification of phenomena and in his search for causes within nature itself rather than in the caprices of anthropomorphic gods. Like his successors the philosophers Anaximander (610–546/545 bc) and Anaximenes of Miletus (flourished c. 545 bc), Thales is important in bridging the worlds of myth and reason.




Greek philosopher

born 610 bc, Miletus [now in Turkey]
died 546/545 bc

Greek philosopher often called the founder of astronomy, the first thinker to develop a cosmology, or systematic philosophical view of the world.

Anaximander is thought to have been a pupil of Thales of Miletus. Evidence exists that he wrote treatises on geography, astronomy, and cosmology that survived for several centuries, and that he made a map of the known world. As a rationalist he prized symmetry and introduced geometry and mathematical proportions into his efforts to map the heavens. Thus, his theories departed from earlier, more mystical conceptions of the universe and prefigured the achievements of later astronomers.

Only one sentence of Anaximander’s writings survives, however, so that reports from later writers form the primary record of his discoveries. That sentence describes the emergence of particular substances such as water or fire in metaphors drawn from human society, in which injustices are penalized. For example, neither hot nor cold prevails permanently, but each “pays reparations” in order to keep a balance between them.

Anaximander derived the world from a nonperceptible substance called the apeiron (“unlimited”). This state preceded the “separation” into contrasting qualities, such as hot and cold, wet and dry, and thus represents the primitive unity of all phenomena. Anaximander subscribed to the philosophical view that unity could definitely be found behind all multiplicity. A novel element in Anaximander’s theory was his rejection of the older notion that the Earth was somehow suspended or supported from elsewhere in the heavens; instead, he asserted that the Earth remained in its unsupported position at the centre of the universe because it had no reason to move in any direction and therefore was at rest.




Anaximenes of Miletus
Greek philosopher

flourished c. 545 bc

Greek philosopher of nature and one of three thinkers of Miletus traditionally considered to be the first philosophers in the Western world. Of the other two, Thales held that water is the basic building block of all matter, whereas Anaximander chose to call the essential substance “the unlimited.”

Anaximenes substituted aer (“mist,” “vapour,” “air”) for his predecessors’ choices. His writings, which survived into the Hellenistic Age, no longer exist except in passages in the works of later authors. Consequently, interpretations of his beliefs are frequently in conflict. It is clear, however, that he believed in degrees of condensation of moisture that corresponded to the densities of various types of matter. When “most evenly distributed,” aer is the common, invisible air of the atmosphere. By condensation it becomes visible, first as mist or cloud, then as water, and finally as solid matter such as earth or stones. If further rarefied, it turns to fire. Thus hotness and dryness typify rarity, whereas coldness and wetness are related to denser matter.

Anaximenes’ assumption that aer is everlastingly in motion suggests that he thought it also possessed life. Because it was eternally alive, aer took on qualities of the divine and became the cause of other gods as well as of all matter. The same motion accounts for the shift from one physical state of the aer to another. There is evidence that he made the common analogy between the divine air that sustains the universe and the human “air,” or soul, that animates people. Such a comparison between a macrocosm and a microcosm would also permit him to maintain a unity behind diversity as well as to reinforce the view of his contemporaries that there is an overarching principle regulating all life and behaviour.

A practical man and a talented observer with a vivid imagination, Anaximenes noted the rainbows occasionally seen in moonlight and described the phosphorescent glow given off by an oar blade breaking the water. His thought is typical of the transition from mythology to science; its rationality is evident from his discussion of the rainbow not as a goddess but as the effect of sun rays on compacted air. Yet his thought is not completely liberated from earlier mythological or mystical tendencies, as seen from his belief that the universe is hemispherical. Thus, his permanent contribution lies not in his cosmology but in his suggestion that known natural processes (i.e., condensation and rarefaction) play a part in the making of a world. This suggestion, together with Anaximenes’ reduction of apparent qualitative differences in substances to mere differences of quantity, was highly influential in the development of scientific thought.




Greek poet and philosopher

born c. 560 bc, Colophon, Ionia
died c. 478

Greek poet and rhapsode, religious thinker, and reputed precursor of the Eleatic school of philosophy, which stressed unity rather than diversity and viewed the separate existences of material things as apparent rather than real.

Xenophanes was probably exiled from Greece by the Persians who conquered Colophon about 546. After living in Sicily for a time and wandering elsewhere in the Mediterranean, he evidently settled at Elea in southern Italy. In one of his poems, which survive only in fragments, he declared that his travels began 67 years earlier, when he was 25; if this is so, he would have been at least 92 at his death.

Xenophanes’ philosophy found expression primarily in the poetry that he recited in the course of his travels. Fragments of his epics reflect his contempt for contemporary anthropomorphism and for popular acceptance of Homeric mythology. Most celebrated are his trenchant attacks on the immorality of the Olympian gods and goddesses. In his elegiac fragments he ridicules the doctrine of the transmigration of souls, condemns the luxuries introduced from the nearby colony of Lydia into Colophon, and advocates wisdom and the reasonable enjoyment of social pleasure in the face of prevalent excess.

Some critics consider Parmenides (fl. c. 450 bc) as the founder of the Eleatic school, but Xenophanes’ philosophy probably anticipated his views. The tradition that Xenophanes founded the school is based primarily on the testimony of Aristotle, whose views Xenophanes also anticipated. Among the few other Greek writers who subsequently mentioned Xenophanes are Plato, who said that “The Eleatic school, beginning with Xenophanes and even earlier, starts from the principle of the unity of all things,” and Theophrastus, who summed up Xenophanes’ teaching in the formula “The all is one and the one is God.”

Xenophanes was less a philosopher of nature in the manner of Parmenides, who looked for abstract principles underlying natural change, than a poet and religious reformer who applied generally philosophical and scientific notions to popular conceptions. His system and critiques of the works of other thinkers appear primitive in comparison with later Eleaticism, which developed its philosophy of appearance and reality into a sophisticated system.




Greek philosopher

born c. 515 bc

Greek philosopher of Elea in southern Italy who founded Eleaticism, one of the leading pre-Socratic schools of Greek thought. His general teaching has been diligently reconstructed from the few surviving fragments of his principal work, a lengthy three-part verse composition titled On Nature.

Parmenides held that the multiplicity of existing things, their changing forms and motion, are but an appearance of a single eternal reality (“Being”), thus giving rise to the Parmenidean principle that “all is one.” From this concept of Being, he went on to say that all claims of change or of non-Being are illogical. Because he introduced the method of basing claims about appearances on a logical concept of Being, he is considered one of the founders of metaphysics.



Greek philosopher
also spelled Heraclitus
born c. 540 bc, Ephesus, in Anatolia [now Selçuk, Tur.]
died c. 480

Greek philosopher remembered for his cosmology, in which fire forms the basic material principle of an orderly universe. Little is known about his life, and the one book he apparently wrote is lost. His views survive in the short fragments quoted and attributed to him by later authors.

Though he was primarily concerned with explanations of the world around him, Heracleitus also stressed the need for people to live together in social harmony. He complained that most people failed to comprehend the logos (Greek: “reason”), the universal principle through which all things are interrelated and all natural events occur, and thus lived like dreamers with a false view of the world. A significant manifestation of the logos, Heracleitus claimed, is the underlying connection between opposites. For example, health and disease define each other. Good and evil, hot and cold, and other opposites are similarly related. In addition, he noted that a single substance may be perceived in varied ways—seawater is both harmful (for human beings) and beneficial (for fishes). His understanding of the relation of opposites to each other enabled him to overcome the chaotic and divergent nature of the world, and he asserted that the world exists as a coherent system in which a change in one direction is ultimately balanced by a corresponding change in another. Between all things there is a hidden connection, so that those that are apparently “tending apart” are actually “being brought together.”

Viewing fire as the essential material uniting all things, Heracleitus wrote that the world order is an “ever-living fire kindling in measures and being extinguished in measures.” He extended the manifestations of fire to include not only fuel, flame, and smoke but also the ether in the upper atmosphere. Part of this air, or pure fire, “turns to” ocean, presumably as rain, and part of the ocean turns to earth. Simultaneously, equal masses of earth and sea everywhere are returning to the respective aspects of sea and fire. The resulting dynamic equilibrium maintains an orderly balance in the world. This persistence of unity despite change is illustrated by Heracleitus’ famous analogy of life to a river: “Upon those who step into the same rivers different and ever different waters flow down.” Plato later took this doctrine to mean that all things are in constant flux, regardless of how they appear to the senses.

Heracleitus was unpopular in his time and was frequently scorned by later biographers. His primary contribution lies in his apprehension of the formal unity of the world of experience.



Discuss Art

Please note: site admin does not answer any questions. This is our readers discussion only.

| privacy