History of Literature, Fhilosophy and Religions

(contents)


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 » The pre-Socratic philosophers » Cosmology and the metaphysics of matter » Pluralistic cosmologies

Parmenides had an enormous influence on the further development of philosophy. Most of the philosophers of the following two generations tried to find a way to reconcile his thesis that nothing comes into being nor passes away with the evidence presented to the senses. Empedocles of Acragas (c. 490–430 bc) declared that there are four material elements (he called them the roots of everything) and two forces, love and hate, that did not come into being and would never pass away, increase, or diminish. But the elements are constantly mixed with one another by love and again separated by hate. Thus, through mixture and decomposition, composite things come into being and pass away. Because Empedocles conceived of love and hate as blind forces, he had to explain how, through random motion, living beings could emerge. This he did by means of a somewhat crude anticipation of the theory of the survival of the fittest. In the process of mixture and decomposition, the limbs and parts of various animals would be formed by chance. But they could not survive on their own; they would survive only when, by chance, they had come together in such a way that they were able to support and reproduce themselves. It was in this way that the various species were produced and continued to exist.

Anaxagoras of Clazomenae (c. 500–c. 428 bc), a pluralist, believed that because nothing can really come into being, everything must be contained in everything, but in the form of infinitely small parts. In the beginning, all of these particles had existed in an even mixture, in which nothing could be distinguished, much like the indefinite apeiron of Anaximander. But then nous, or intelligence, began at one point to set these particles into a whirling motion, foreseeing that in this way they would become separated from one another and then recombine in the most various ways so as to produce gradually the world in which human beings live. In contrast to the forces assumed by Empedocles, the nous of Anaxagoras is not blind but foresees and intends the production of the cosmos, including living and intelligent beings; however, it does not interfere with the process after having started the whirling motion. This is a strange combination of a mechanical and a nonmechanical explanation of the world.

By far of greatest importance for the later development of philosophy and physical science was an attempt by the atomists Leucippus (flourished 5th century bc) and Democritus (c. 460–c. 370 bc) to solve the Parmenidean problem. Leucippus found the solution in the assumption that, contrary to Parmenides’ argument, the nothing does in a way exist—as empty space. There are, then, two fundamental principles of the physical world, empty space and filled space—the latter consisting of atoms that, in contrast to those of modern physics, are real atoms; that is, they are absolutely indivisible because nothing can penetrate to split them. On these foundations, laid by Leucippus, Democritus appears to have built a whole system, aiming at a complete explanation of the varied phenomena of the visible world by means of an analysis of its atomic structure. This system begins with elementary physical problems, such as why a hard body can be lighter than a softer one. The explanation is that the heavier body contains more atoms, which are equally distributed and of round shape; the lighter body, however, has fewer atoms, most of which have hooks by which they form rigid gratings. The system ends with educational and ethical questions. A sound and cheerful person, useful to his fellows, is literally well composed. Although destructive passions involve violent, long-distance atomic motions, education can help to contain them, creating a better composure. Democritus also developed a theory of the evolution of culture, which influenced later thinkers. Civilization, he thought, is produced by the needs of life, which compel human beings to work and to make inventions. When life becomes too easy because all needs are met, there is a danger that civilization will decay as people become unruly and negligent.
 



Empedocles
Greek philosopher and scholar

born c. 490 bc, Acragas, Sicily
died 430, the Peloponnese, Greece

Main
Greek philosopher, statesman, poet, religious teacher, and physiologist.

According to legend only, Empedocles was a self-styled god who brought about his own death, as dramatized by the English poet Matthew Arnold in “Empedocles on Etna,” by flinging himself into the volcanic crater atop Mount Etna to convince followers of his divinity. To his contemporaries he did indeed seem more than a mere mortal; Aristotle reputedly hailed him as the inventor of rhetoric, and Galen regarded him as the founder of Italian medicine. Lucretius admired his hexametric poetry. Nothing remains of the various writings attributed to him other than 400 lines from his poem Peri physeōs (“On Nature”) and fewer than 100 verses from his poem Katharmoi (“Purifications”).

Although strongly influenced by Parmenides, who emphasized the unity of all things, Empedocles assumed instead that all matter was composed of four essential ingredients, fire, air, water, and earth, and that nothing either comes into being or is destroyed but that things are merely transformed, depending on the ratio of basic substances, to one another. Like Heracleitus, he believed that two forces, Love and Strife, interact to bring together and to separate the four substances. Strife makes each of these elements withdraw itself from the others; Love makes them mingle together. The real world is at a stage in which neither force dominates. In the beginning, Love was dominant and all four substances were mixed together; during the formation of the cosmos, Strife entered to separate air, fire, earth, and water from one another. Subsequently, the four elements were again arranged in partial combinations in certain places; springs and volcanoes, for example, show the presence of both water and fire in the Earth.

Apparently a firm believer in the transmigration of souls, Empedocles declared that those who have sinned must wander for 30,000 seasons through many mortal bodies and be tossed from one of the four elements to another. Escape from such punishment requires purification, particularly abstention from the flesh of animals, whose souls may once have inhabited human bodies.

 

 



 



Anaxagoras
Greek philosopher

born c. 500 bc, Clazomenae, Anatolia [now in Turkey]
died c. 428, Lampsacus

Main
Greek philosopher of nature remembered for his cosmology and for his discovery of the true cause of eclipses. He was associated with the Athenian statesman Pericles.

About 480 Anaxagoras moved to Athens, then becoming the centre of Greek culture, and brought from Ionia the new practice of philosophy and the spirit of scientific inquiry. After 30 years’ residence in Athens, he was prosecuted on a charge of impiety for asserting that the Sun is an incandescent stone somewhat larger than the region of the Peloponnese. The attack on him was intended as an indirect blow at Pericles, and, although Pericles managed to save him, Anaxagoras was compelled to leave Athens. He spent his last years in retirement at Lampsacus.

Only a few fragments of Anaxagoras’ writings have been preserved, and several different interpretations of his work have been made. The basic features, however, are clear. His cosmology grows out of the efforts of earlier Greek thinkers who had tried to explain the physical universe by an assumption of a single fundamental element. Parmenides, however, asserted that such an assumption could not account for movement and change, and, whereas Empedocles sought to resolve this difficulty by positing four basic ingredients, Anaxagoras posited an infinite number. Unlike his predecessors, who had chosen such elements as heat or water as the basic substance, Anaxagoras included those found in living bodies, such as flesh, bone, bark, and leaf. Otherwise, he asked, how could flesh come from what is not flesh? He also accounted for biological changes, in which substances appear under new manifestations: as men eat and drink, flesh, bone, and hair grow. In order to explain the great amount and diversity of change, he said that “there is a portion of every thing, i.e., of every elemental stuff, in every thing,” but “each is and was most manifestly those things of which there is most in it.”

The most original aspect of Anaxagoras’ system was his doctrine of nous (“mind,” or “reason”). The cosmos was formed by mind in two stages: first, by a revolving and mixing process that still continues; and, second, by the development of living things. In the first, all of “the dark” came together to form the night, “the fluid” came together to form the oceans, and so on with other elements. The same process of attraction of “like to like” occurred in the second stage, when flesh and other elements were brought together by mind in large amounts. This stage took place by means of animal and plant seeds inherent in the original mixture. The growth of living things, according to Anaxagoras, depends on the power of mind within the organisms that enables them to extract nourishment from surrounding substances. For this concept of mind, Anaxagoras was commended by Aristotle. Both Plato and Aristotle, however, objected that his notion of mind did not include a view that mind acts ethically—i.e., acts for the “best interests” of the universe.

 





 
 



Leucippus
Greek philosopher

flourished 5th century bc, probably at Miletus, on the west coast of Asia Minor

Main
Greek philosopher credited by Aristotle and by Theophrastus with having originated the theory of atomism. It has been difficult to distinguish his contribution from that of his most famous pupil, Democritus. Only fragments of Leucippus’ writings remain, but two works believed to have been written by him are The Great World System and On the Mind. His theory stated that matter is homogeneous but consists of an infinity of small indivisible particles. These atoms are constantly in motion, and through their collisions and regroupings form various compounds. A cosmos is formed by the collision of atoms that gather together into a “whirl,” and the drum-shaped Earth is located in the centre of man’s cosmos.

 





 
 



Democritus
Greek philosopher

born c. 460 bc
died c. 370

Main
Greek philosopher, a central figure in the development of the atomic theory of the universe.

Knowledge of Democritus’ life is largely limited to untrustworthy tradition: it seems that he was a wealthy citizen of Abdera, in Thrace; that he traveled widely in the East; and that he lived to a great age. According to Diogenes Laërtius, his works numbered 73; only a few hundred fragments have survived, mostly from his treatises on ethics.

Democritus’ physical and cosmological doctrines were an elaborated and systematized version of those of his teacher, Leucippus. To account for the world’s changing physical phenomena, Democritus asserted that space, or the Void, had an equal right with reality, or Being, to be considered existent. He conceived of the Void as a vacuum, an infinite space in which moved an infinite number of atoms that made up Being (i.e., the physical world). These atoms are eternal and invisible; absolutely small, so small that their size cannot be diminished (hence the name atomon, or “indivisible”); absolutely full and incompressible, as they are without pores and entirely fill the space they occupy; and homogeneous, differing only in shape, arrangement, position, and magnitude. But, while atoms thus differ in quantity, differences of quality are only apparent, owing to the impressions caused on our senses by different configurations and combinations of atoms. A thing is hot or cold, sweet or bitter, or hard or soft only by convention; the only things that exist in reality are atoms and the Void. Thus, the atoms of water and iron are the same, but those of water, being smooth and round and therefore unable to hook onto one another, roll over and over like small globes, whereas those of iron, being rough, jagged, and uneven, cling together and form a solid body. Because all phenomena are composed of the same eternal atoms, it may be said that nothing comes into being or perishes in the absolute sense of the words, although the compounds made out of the atoms are liable to increase and decrease, explaining a thing’s appearance and disappearance, or “birth” and “death.”

Just as the atoms are uncaused and eternal, so too, according to Democritus, is motion. Democritus posited the fixed and “necessary” laws of a purely mechanical system, in which there was no room for an intelligent cause working with a view to an end. He explained the origin of the universe as follows. The original motion of the atoms was in all directions—it was a sort of “vibration”; hence there resulted collisions and, in particular, a whirling movement, whereby similar atoms were brought together and united to form larger bodies and worlds. This happened not as the result of any purpose or design but rather merely as the result of “necessity”; i.e., it is the normal manifestation of the nature of the atoms themselves. Atoms and void being infinite in number and extent, and motion having always existed, there must always have been an infinite number of worlds, all consisting of similar atoms in various stages of growth and decay.

Democritus devoted considerable attention to perception and knowledge. He asserted, for example, that sensations are changes produced in the soul by atoms emitted from other objects that impinge on it; the atoms of the soul can be affected only by the contact of other atoms. But sensations such as sweet and bitter are not as such inherent in the emitted atoms, for they result from effects caused merely by the size and shape of the atoms; e.g., sweet taste is due to round and not excessively small atoms. Democritus also was the first to attempt to explain colour, which he thought was due to the “position” (which he differentiated from shape) of the constituent atoms of compounds. The sensation of white, for instance, is caused by atoms that are smooth and flat so as to cast no shadow; the sensation of black is caused by rough, uneven atoms.

Democritus attributed popular belief in the gods to a desire to explain extraordinary phenomena (thunder, lightning, earthquakes) by reference to superhuman agency. His ethical system, founded on a practical basis, posited an ultimate good (“cheerfulness”) that was “a state in which the soul lives peacefully and tranquilly, undisturbed by fear or superstition or any other feeling.”

 





Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy » The pre-Socratic philosophers » Epistemology of appearance

All of the post-Parmenidean philosophers, like Parmenides himself, presupposed that the real world is different from the one that human beings perceive. Thus arose the problems of epistemology, or theory of knowledge. According to Anaxagoras, everything is contained in everything. But this is not what people perceive. He solved this problem by postulating that, if there is a much greater amount of one kind of particle in a thing than of all other kinds, the latter are not perceived at all. The observation was then made that sometimes different persons or kinds of animals have different perceptions of the same things. He explained this phenomenon by assuming that like is perceived by like. If, therefore, in the sense organ of one person there is less of one kind of stuff than of another, that person will perceive the former less keenly than the latter. This reasoning was also used to explain why some animals see better at night and others during the day. According to Democritus, atoms have no sensible qualities, such as taste, smell, or colour, at all. Thus, he tried to reduce all of them to tactile qualities (explaining a bright white colour, for instance, as sharp atoms hitting the eye like needles), and he made a most elaborate attempt to reconstruct the atomic structure of things on the basis of their apparent sensible qualities.

Also of very great importance in the history of epistemology was Zeno of Elea (c. 495–c. 430 bc), a younger friend of Parmenides. Parmenides had, of course, been severely criticized because of the strange consequences of his doctrine: that in reality there is no motion and no plurality because there is just one solid being. To support him, however, Zeno tried to show that the assumption that there is motion and plurality leads to consequences that are no less strange. This he did by means of his famous paradoxes, saying that the flying arrow rests since it can neither move in the place in which it is nor in a place in which it is not, and that Achilles cannot outrun a turtle because, when he has reached its starting point, the turtle will have moved to a further point, and so on ad infinitum—that, in fact, he cannot even start running, for, before traversing the stretch to the starting point of the turtle, he will have to traverse half of it, and again half of that, and so on ad infinitum. All of these paradoxes are derived from the problem of the continuum. Although they have often been dismissed as logical nonsense, many attempts have also been made to dispose of them by means of mathematical theorems, such as the theory of convergent series or the theory of sets. In the end, however, the logical difficulties raised in Zeno’s arguments have always come back with a vengeance, for the human mind is so constructed that it can look at a continuum in two ways that are not quite reconcilable.
 



Zeno of Elea
Greek philosopher and mathematician

(c. 495 bc–c. 430 bc), Greek philosopher and mathematician, whom Aristotle called the inventor of dialectic. He is especially known for his paradoxes that contributed to the development of logical and mathematical rigour and that were insoluble until the development of precise concepts of continuity and infinity.

Zeno was famous for the paradoxes whereby, in order to recommend the Parmenidean doctrine of the existence of “the one” (i.e., indivisible reality), he sought to controvert the common-sense belief in the existence of “the many” (i.e., distinguishable qualities and things capable of motion). Zeno was the son of a certain Teleutagoras and the pupil and friend of Parmenides. In Plato’s Parmenides, Socrates, “then very young,” converses with Parmenides and Zeno, “a man of about forty”; but it may be doubted whether such a meeting was chronologically possible. Plato’s account of Zeno’s purpose (Parmenides), however, is presumably accurate. In reply to those who thought that Parmenides’ theory of the existence of “the one” involved inconsistencies, Zeno tried to show that the assumption of the existence of a plurality of things in time and space carried with it more serious inconsistencies. In early youth he collected his arguments in a book, which, according to Plato, was put into circulation without his knowledge.

Zeno made use of three premises: first, that any unit has magnitude; second, that it is infinitely divisible; and third, that it is indivisible. Yet he incorporated arguments for each: for the first premise, he argued that that which, added to or subtracted from something else, does not increase or decrease the second unit is nothing; for the second, that a unit, being one, is homogeneous and that therefore, if divisible, it cannot be divisible at one point rather than another; for the third, that a unit, if divisible, is divisible either into extended minima, which contradicts the second premise or, because of the first premise, into nothing. He had in his hands a very powerful complex argument in the form of a dilemma, one horn of which supposed indivisibility, the other infinite divisibility, both leading to a contradiction of the original hypothesis. His method had great influence and may be summarized as follows: he continued Parmenides’ abstract, analytic manner but started from his opponents’ theses and refuted them by reductio ad absurdum. It was probably the two latter characteristics which Aristotle had in mind when he called him the inventor of dialectic.

That Zeno was arguing against actual opponents, Pythagoreans who believed in a plurality composed of numbers that were thought of as extended units, is a matter of controversy. It is not likely that any mathematical implications received attention in his lifetime. But in fact the logical problems which his paradoxes raise about a mathematical continuum are serious, fundamental, and inadequately solved by Aristotle.

 




Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy » The pre-Socratic philosophers » Metaphysics of number

All of the philosophies mentioned so far are in various ways historically akin to one another. Toward the end of the 6th century bc, however, there arose, quite independently, another kind of philosophy, which only later entered into interrelation with the developments just mentioned: the philosophy of Pythagoras of Samos (c. 580–c. 500 bc; ). Pythagoras traveled extensively in the Middle East and in Egypt and, after his return to Samos, emigrated to southern Italy because of his dislike of the tyranny of Polycrates (c. 535–522 bc). At Croton and Metapontum he founded a philosophical society with strict rules and soon gained considerable political influence. He appears to have brought his doctrine of the transmigration of souls from the Middle East. Much more important for the history of philosophy and science, however, was his doctrine that “all things are numbers,” which means that the essence and structure of all things can be determined by finding the numerical relations they express. Originally, this, too, was a very broad generalization made on the basis of comparatively few observations: for instance, that the same harmonies can be produced with different instruments—strings, pipes, disks, etc.—by means of the same numerical ratios—1:2, 2:3, 3:4—in one-dimensional extensions; the observation that certain regularities exist in the movements of the celestial bodies; and the discovery that the form of a triangle is determined by the ratio of the lengths of its sides. But because the followers of Pythagoras tried to apply their principle everywhere with the greatest of accuracy, one of them—Hippasus of Metapontum (flourished 5th century bc)—made one of the most fundamental discoveries in the entire history of science: that the side and diagonal of simple figures such as the square and the regular pentagon are incommensurable (i.e., their quantitative relation cannot be expressed as a ratio of integers). At first sight this discovery seemed to destroy the very basis of the Pythagorean philosophy, and the school thus split into two sects, one of which engaged in rather abstruse numerical speculations, while the other succeeded in overcoming the difficulty by ingenious mathematical inventions. Pythagorean philosophy also exerted a great influence on the later development of Plato’s thought.

The speculations described so far constitute, in many ways, the most important part of the history of Greek philosophy because all of the most fundamental problems of Western philosophy turned up here for the first time. One also finds here the formation of a great many concepts that have continued to dominate Western philosophy and science to the present day.
 



Pythagoras
Greek philosopher and mathematician

born c. 580 bc, Samos, Ionia [now in Greece]
died c. 500, Metapontum, Lucania [now in Italy]

Main
Greek philosopher, mathematician, and founder of the Pythagorean brotherhood that, although religious in nature, formulated principles that influenced the thought of Plato and Aristotle and contributed to the development of mathematics and Western rational philosophy (see Pythagoreanism).

Pythagoras migrated to southern Italy about 532 bc, apparently to escape Samos’s tyrannical rule, and established his ethico-political academy at Croton (now Crotone, Italy).

It is difficult to distinguish Pythagoras’s teachings from those of his disciples. None of his writings have survived, and Pythagoreans invariably supported their doctrines by indiscriminately citing their master’s authority. Pythagoras, however, is generally credited with the theory of the functional significance of numbers in the objective world and in music. Other discoveries often attributed to him (e.g., the incommensurability of the side and diagonal of a square, and the Pythagorean theorem for right triangles) were probably developed only later by the Pythagorean school. More probably the bulk of the intellectual tradition originating with Pythagoras himself belongs to mystical wisdom rather than to scientific scholarship.

 





 
 



Hippasus of Metapontum
Greek philosopher

Hippasus of Metapontum (Ancient Greek: Ἵππασος), b. c. 500 B.C. in Magna Graecia, was a Greek philosopher. He was a disciple of Pythagoras. To Hippasus (or Hippasos) is attributed the discovery of the existence of irrational numbers. More specifically, he is credited with the discovery that the square root of 2 is irrational.

Until Hippasus' discovery, the Pythagoreans preached that all numbers could be expressed as the ratio of integers. Despite the validity of his discovery, the Pythagoreans initially treated it as a kind of religious heresy and they either exiled or murdered Hippasus. Legend has it that the discovery was made at sea and that Hippasus' fellow Pythagoreans threw him overboard.

But there are two other stories about Hippasus. The first says that Hippasus was expelled from the Pythagorean school because he published doctrines of Pythagoras, while the second says that he was drowned at sea for revealing the construction of the dodecahedron in the sphere and claiming it as his own. But since the Pythagoreans' supposed pledge to secrecy was most likely false[citation needed], the authenticity of these stories is questioned.

He was also noted as an early experimenter in acoustics and resonance. Few of his original works now survive.

 


 


Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy » The pre-Socratic philosophers » Anthropology and relativism

In the middle of the 5th century bc, Greek thinking took a somewhat different turn through the advent of the Sophists. The name is derived from the verb sophizesthai, “making a profession of being inventive and clever,” and aptly described the Sophists, who, in contrast to the philosophers mentioned so far, charged fees for their instruction. Philosophically they were, in a way, the leaders of a rebellion against the preceding development, which increasingly had resulted in the belief that the real world is quite different from the phenomenal world. “What is the sense of such speculations?” they asked, since no one lives in these so-called real worlds. This is the meaning of the pronouncement of Protagoras of Abdera (c. 485–c. 410 bc) that “man is the measure of all things, of those which are that they are and of those which are not that they are not.” For human beings the world is what it appears to them to be, not something else; Protagoras illustrated his point by saying that it makes no sense to tell a person that it is really warm when he is shivering with cold because for him it is cold—for him, the cold exists, is there.

His younger contemporary Gorgias of Leontini (flourished 5th century bc), famous for his treatise on the art of oratory, made fun of the philosophers in his book Peri tou mē ontos ē peri physeōs (“On That Which Is Not; or, On Nature”), in which—referring to the “truly existing world,” also called “the nature of things”—he tried to prove
(1) that nothing exists,
(2) that if something existed, one could have no knowledge of it, and
(3) that if nevertheless somebody knew something existed, he could not communicate his knowledge to others.

The Sophists were not only skeptical of what had by then become a philosophical tradition but also of other traditions. On the basis of the observation that different nations have different rules of conduct even in regard to things considered most sacred—such as the relations between the sexes, marriage, and burial—they concluded that most rules of conduct are conventions. What is really important is to be successful in life and to gain influence over others. This they promised to teach. Gorgias was proud of the fact that, having no knowledge of medicine, he was more successful in persuading a patient to undergo a necessary operation than his brother, a physician, who knew when an operation was necessary. The older Sophists, however, were far from openly preaching immoralism. They, nevertheless, gradually came under suspicion because of their sly ways of arguing. One of the later Sophists, Thrasymachus of Chalcedon (flourished 5th century bc), was bold enough to declare openly that “right is what is beneficial for the stronger or better one”—that is, for the one able to win the power to bend others to his will.
 



Protagoras

Greek philosopher

born c. 485 bc, Abdera, Greece
died c. 410

Main
thinker and teacher, the first and most famous of the Greek Sophists.

Protagoras spent most of his life at Athens, where he considerably influenced contemporary thought on moral and political questions. Plato named one of his dialogues after him. Protagoras taught as a Sophist for more than 40 years, claiming to teach men “virtue” in the conduct of their daily lives. He is best known for his dictum “Man is the measure of all things,” probably an expression of the relativity to the individual of all perceptions and, according to some, of all judgments as well. He acquired great wealth and reputation from his teaching, prompting his appointment as lawgiver for the Athenian colony of Thurii in Italy. Though he adopted conventional moral ideas, Protagoras expressed his agnostic attitude toward belief in the gods in Concerning the Gods. He was accused of impiety, his books were publicly burned, and he was exiled from Athens about 415 bc for the rest of his life.

 

 

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