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What Is the History of Philosophy?

By Lee Johnson
Updated May 23, 2024
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The history of philosophy is a timeline of great thinkers and the ideas that they presented on the nature of the world, thought, ethics, and existence. Philosophy is broad in its definition, and as such the specific beginning of philosophy is hard to determine. Arguably, the first Homo sapien to wonder why he or she was alive could be classed as the first philosopher. The first recorded philosophers were the Milesians and pre-Socratics, who were around in the seventh century B.C., and the eastern philosophers of the sixth century B.C. Philosophy then moved through religious periods, the scientific revolution of thinkers such as Copernicus, and then into modern times with Descartes, Hume, Sartre, and Mill.

The seventh century B.C. is the beginning of the recorded history of philosophy. Thinkers such as Heraclitus wondered what the universe was made of and began to shape the scientific method. Early eastern philosophers such as Lao-Tse began to debate ethics in the sixth century B.C. Pre-Socratic philosophers such as Pythagoras and Euclid began to advance logic and mathematics between the seventh and fifth century B.C. Many people believe philosophy really began with the work of Socrates, Aristotle, and Plato, who began to formalize the quest for knowledge in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.

Christian doctrines dominated the history of philosophy in Europe from the first century A.D. to around the 15th century. Philosophers such as Aquinas, Ockham, and Dante tackled religious questions of faith and the nature of God. This period saw further advances towards rationalism, but usually deferred to God as the creator of all knowledge. Many philosophies from this time focus on proving God’s existence and that faith is necessary for a soul to be saved, not reason.

The 15th century saw the beginning of modern science and a new chapter in the history of philosophy. Copernicus famously reasoned that the earth traveled around the sun, and not vice versa, and Galileo furthered scientific experimentation and thought. Francis Bacon formed empiricism in this period, which is the belief that knowledge can only be obtained through experimentation and observation. Machiavelli, a famous amoral political philosopher, also operated during this period.

The “Modern” period of the history of philosophy occurred between the 17th and 19th centuries. Thinkers such as Descartes, Spinoza, Hume, and Kant came from this time. Descartes famously reasoned “I think, therefore I am,” as the only way to know he existed at all. Philosophers such as Descartes and Spinoza furthered the cause of rationality, but still believed in a rational God. Hume believed that skepticism was the safest way to approach any questions of knowledge.

Amongst the most recent movements in the history of philosophy are nihilism and existentialism. These schools of thought were championed by thinkers such as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Sartre. Nietzsche is one of the most famous exponents of nihilism, which is the rejection of meaning or purpose in the world and the idea of a right and wrong. Existentialism examines existence and concludes that life has no essential value or meaning. Kierkegaard founded the existentialist school of thought, and thinkers such as Sartre and Camus expanded on it while removing Keirkegaard's religious elements.

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