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What Is Western Philosophy?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated Jan 27, 2024
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Western philosophy covers all philosophical thought from Western civilization. This covers a diverse range of philosophers and ideas ranging from Socrates to Nietzsche. The Western region once covered classical Roman and Greek culture, then all of Europe and now includes parts of the new world such as North America and Australia. Western philosophy is broken down into four broad eras: classical, medieval, renaissance and modern.

Greek philosophers believed Western philosophy originated with Thales of Ionia. Ionia is a region of modern-day Turkey in Anatolia, but was once a Greek city state on the Aegean. Thales was the first to separate philosophical thought from mythology and religion. This made him the most influential pre-Socratic philosopher.

The most influential classical philosopher of all in Western philosophy is Socrates. He is best remembered for developing Socratic irony and the Socratic method of learning/discussion. Socrates is also well-known for believing a wise man is someone who knows he knows nothing.

His pupil, Plato, recorded their discussions and later established ideas such as political philosophy in his ‘Republic’ and the idea of Platonic Love. He also believed that knowledge and belief were two elements separated by justification; this is to say that knowledge had proof, whereas belief only possessed faith. Plato established the first Western philosophy school that was eventually shut down in 529 AD by Justinian I because it was deemed a threat to Christianity.

As Christianity developed and took over the institutions of the Western and Eastern Roman Empires, it also came to dominate philosophical thought. Most philosophical endeavors were aimed at trying to prove God’s existence. Christian philosophy built upon ideas from Jewish and Islamic traditions, but found itself at loggerheads with classical Greek philosophy. Thomas Aquinas later reconciled the two.

Christianity’s domination of Western philosophy ended with the Reformation at the end of the 15th century. Lead by religious leaders such as Martin Luther and John Calvin, it led to debates on free will and the nature of faith and God. By breaking the mold, it also allowed the development of political philosophy under Niccolo Machiavelli, humanism under Erasmus and science under philosophers such as Copernicus and Galileo Galilei.

During the Enlightenment, science came to the fore, and as with Thales 2,000 years earlier, Western philosophy divorced itself from religion and mythology. This led to philosophers as diverse as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who had ideas on pedagogy, and Rene Descartes. Soren Kierkegaard helped lead philosophy away from abstract notions and back towards issues that affected the ordinary person. Under these philosophers and others such as Sigmund Freud and Noam Chomsky, philosophy moved into all areas of life from psychology to linguistics via modern technology.

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