Value of Knowledge Reference

Western Philosophy


Derived from the Greek meaning “love of wisdom”, philosophy originally encompassed the love of all wisdom, but only in recent centuries came to refer to a special branch of enquiry, separate from other sciences, such as “natural philosophy”.

A special class of people called “philosophers” has defined itself, which makes a profession of studying things in their separation from human life and practice. [See Cyril Smith’s article: Some Communist Reflections on Philosophy.]

The main branches of Philosophy are Logic, Epistemology, Ontology and Ethics.

Western Philosophy

All the material on this site concerns “Western Philosophy,” as distinct from “Eastern Philosophy,” which is not to say that the West is somehow ‘superior’ to the East, but simply that it is the peculiar modes of living that grew up in Europe in the seventeenth century (bourgeois society), and the forms of thinking that reflect those ways of living, that gave rise to the principal problems confronting humanity today – “bourgeois society,” or capitalism.

In close connection with the practical struggle of the proletariat against bourgeois society, Marxism grew up out of Western philosophy, building on the achievements of Classical German Philosophy, French Socialism and British Political Economy, just as the socialist movement has grown up out of capitalist social relations – the worldwide division of labour, powerful productive forces, science and the modern proletariat.

However, Marxism not only differs from Western Philosophy, it is its opposite – it is a “critique” of bourgeois society, and its forms of thought described in Western Philosophy. “Critique” means getting to the roots of something and exposing what it really means, by and for the purpose of overcoming it.

Greek Philosophy

Although Western Philosophy traces its roots to the philosophy of ancient Greece, the philosophy of anceint Greece only reached Europe thanks to the Arabs. [See Hegel on Arabian Philosophy.] However, a long interval separates the bourgeois society, which began to emerge in Renaissance Europe of the 16th century, from the society of slave-owners of the 3rd to 6th century ancient Greek polis. The Greeks had no written history before them and the only basis of empirical observation was the day-to-day observations of the philosophers themselves. [See Engels’ reflections on Greek philosophy in the Introduction to the Dialectics of Nature].

The earliest Greek philosophers were the Milesian or Ionic School, materialist philosophers, mathematicians, geographers and astronomers of the 6th century BCE including Thales, Anaxamander and Anaximenes. Heraclitus of Ephesus for whom all was composed of fire, also lived in this period.

The Eleatics, of 5-6th century BCE around the town of Elea on Southern Italy, sought the immutable essence of things behind the illusory nature of all visible change, and included Xenophanes, Parmenides and Zeno of Elea. [See Hegel’s reflections on the beginnings of philosophy in the Doctrine of Being, and in the Science of Logic.]

The Sophists were professional “teachers of wisdom” of the 5th century BCE included Protagoras, Hippias of Elis and were the “Encyclopedists of Antiquity.”

Pythagorus of Samos (c 580-500 BCE) was influential in the 4th Century BCE, promoting the development of mathematics.

Leucippus (c 500-400 BCE) and Democritus (c 460-370 BCE) were the founders of Atomism — the view that matter was not infinitely divisble, but was composed of small “atoms”, whose properties gave the specific form to the various kinds of matter, a view which was for millennia identified with Materialism.

Socrates (469-399 BCE) initiated the turn away from the earlier materialist doctrines and his pupils included Plato (428-348 BCE), Antisthenes and Aristippus. His words are known only second-hand via Plato and Aristotle.

Aristotle of Thrace (384-322 BCE) the greatest of all Greek philosophers, founder of logic and many branches of science, was educated in Plato’s school.

The Stoics (Zeno of Citium (336-264 BCE) promoted individualism and the development of science.

The Sceptics included Pyrrho and Sextus Carneades (200-250 BCE).

Epicurus (341-270 BCE) was the most important proponent of the materialist philosophy of the Hellenic period. [See Marx’s comparison of Epicurus and Democritus in his Doctoral Thesis].

The Renaissance

In philosophy, the Renaissance refers to the period of the break-up of feudalism (15th to early 17th century), when trade grew up around the merchants and craftspeople of Northern Italy particularly, and a bourgeois society began to flourish and gave rise to a humanist culture in opposition to the official scholasticism.

The revival of the philosophical legacy of the Ancient Greeks (particularly the individualism and scientific interests of the Stoics) and a number of important natural scientific and technical discoveries, and challenges to the authority of the Church promoted the development of Rationalism. The principal figures were the Stoicist Petrarch, the Epicurean Laurentius Valla, and the astronomers and natural scientists Bruno Giordano (who was burnt at the stake for his materialist views), Nicholas of Cusa, Paracelsus, and later Copernicus, Galileo, the founder of political science Niccolo Machiavelli, the German Utopian Thomas Münzer, the English Empiricist Francis Bacon, the French philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes, the pantheistic philosopher Baruch Spinoza who wrote from the relatively liberal Dutch Republic.

[See the article Classical Epistemology].

The Enlightenment

The Enlightenment was a social and philosophical movement, particularly in France in the 18th Century, which sought to overcome the ills of society by promoting Reason and education. They included the French Encyclopaedists Denis Diderot (1713-1784), Charles Montesquieu (1689-1755), François Voltaire (1694-1778), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), Claude Helvétius (1715-1771) and Paul Holbach (1723-1789) who prepared the way for the French Revolution.

The German Enlighteners were the writers and naturalists Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) and Johann Goethe (1749-1832). The Enlightenment in Germany culminates with Kant and Classical German Philosophy.

The British representatives of the Enlightenment were the English Empiricists (Thomas Hobbes and John Locke) and the Scottish Enlightenment.

The Scottish Enlightenment

The Scottish Enlightenment was a movement centred around the University of Glasgow in the early 18th century, including the Political Economist Adam Smith and philosopher of scepticism David Hume.

British Political Economy

Political Economy developed out of Ethics as a branch of “social science” with the British Political Economists William Petty (1623-1687, the founder of political economy), Adam Smith (1723-1790, the first comprehensive system), Sir James Steuart (1712-1780), David Ricardo (1772-1823), Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832, more widely known for his Utilitarian ethics), Thomas Malthus (1766-1834, more widely known for his population theory), James Mill (1773-1836), John Stuart Mill (1806-1873, one of the founders of positivism), the positivist and evolutionist Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), William Stanley Jevons (1835-1882, one of the architects of the “Marginal Revolution”), Alfred Marshall (1842-1924, who stood half-way between classical political economy and “economic science”), John Neville Keynes (1852-1949) up to his son John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946, architect of Post-World War Two “Keynesianism”).

The Physiocrats, especially François Quesnay (1694-1774), renowned for their focus on land as the source of wealth, developed political economy during the French Enlightenment.

The Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Say (1767-1832) is renowned as a political economist, but Leon Walras (1834-1910) and the Italian Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923) would be better described as “Economic scientists,” belonging to the period of the “Marginal Revolution” and afterwards.

[See the article Theories of Value and Ethical Values].

British Philosophy

British philosophy had its beginnings in the relatively open social conditions of pre-Revolutionary England with the British Empiricists Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes and during the period of the Restoration, John Locke.

The growth of natural science was a major influence on the development of bourgeois thinking prior to the nineteenth century with Isaac Newton (1642-1727) among the most prominent of British natural scientists of the period prior to the Industrial Revolution. It is generally accepted that as the first to make a bourgeois revolution and the first to make an industrial revolution, the British felt the need to accumulate material for theory to work upon, rather than trying to make their way with theory. Even more than this, in order to make their revolution, the English had to launch an attack on the authority of existing (feudal) wisdom, and given conditions of relative political and economic freedom, the most effective way of contesting doing this was science, exploration and technology and industry – and making money!

After leading the way in the seventeenth century, the British bourgeoisie has remained strongly wedded to its characteristic Empiricist philosophy which in fact distrusts all theory, preferring to rely on experience and the accumulation of observation. Consequently, the English have not subsequently figured highly among the great figures of the history of philosophy. Apart from early Empiricists, the very many natural scientists contributing to every branch of science and those already listed under the heading of British Political Economy, the notables of British philosophy are the mathematicians Bertrand Russell and Alan Turing and British feminists from Sylvia and Adela Pankhurst to Sheila Rowbotham and Juliet Mitchell.

French Philosophy

France has a long and quite distinctive history of philosophy. With the English Revolution of 1640, the British Empiricists were free from the bonds of feudalism long before the French Revolution (1789), and the French began with a strongly Rationalist philosophy, but in preparing for the violent overthrow of the French aristocracy, the French bourgeoisie drew heavily on their British counterparts, particularly John Locke and David Hume, in the form of Sensationalist philosophy and overtly wielded the weapon of Reason and knowledge in their struggle against the autocracy. Thus the French were the first to disclose the social character of knowledge, and seizing power in the Revolution the French bourgeoisie attempted to apply Reason to society, legislating Rousseau’s contrat social. Thus in France philosophy and politics have always been closely linked and it was in France that the beginnings of Socialist theory arose.

Chief figures in the history of French philosophy are:

German Philosophy

Caught in a political and economic backwater of the fragmented principalities of Germany, German philosophers worked out in their heads what was being done in Britain and France, not only philosophy, but natural science, music, poetry and art. The philosophers of the Enlightenment in Germany included Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805) and Johann Goethe (1749-1832).

But while the bourgeois political revolution was being fought in France and the Industrial Revolution was being made in Britain, the revolution in Philosophy was made in Germany. Immanuel Kant “taught philosophy to speak German” and essentially created the landscape on which Western philosophy has moved ever since.

Classical German Philosophy

Kant was the first of “Classical German Philosophy"; second was Johann Fichte, third was Friedrich Schelling and fourth was G W F Hegel. This movement is sometimes referred to as “German Idealism,” because it addressed itself to ideas as such.

See Hegel's History of Philosophy.

The Young Hegelians

After Hegel’s death a movement of young radical philosophers emerged who turned Hegel’s philosophy to work against Christianity and the Prussian establishment: The Young Hegelians were started by D. Strauss’s Life of Jesus (1835) followed by Bruno Bauer (1809-1882) and Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872), the founder of modern philosophical materialism and for a time Marx and Engels. The circle also included Max Stirner (1806-1856), the anarchist individualist and Mikhail Bakunin (1814-70), the founder of Russian Narodism.

Reactionaries of this period include the Romantic theologian Friedrich Scheiermacher (1768-1834), the voluntarist Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), the Schlegels August, Friedrich and Karoline. [See the article 1841.]

German Philosophy after 1848

In the latter half of the nineteenth century the struggle between materialism and idealism was fought out to a great extent within the domain of the natural and human sciences, and the Germans were very active in this field, notable names being:

[See the article Perception under the Microscope.]

A particularly important group, in relation to the revolution in natural science, was the Vienna Circle, convened from 1922 by Moritz Schlick and including Rudolph Carnap, Otto Neurath, Kurt Gödel, A J Ayer and drawing on the ideas of Ernst Mach and Ludwig Wittgenstein, and with influence that extended across the world.

Marx and Engels were also by no means the only revolutionaries to come out of Germany, other names worthy of note being Joseph Dietzgen (1828-88), Franz Mehring (1846-1919), Karl Kautsky (1854-1938), August Bebel (1840-1913), Wilhelm Liebknecht (1826-1900), Karl Liebknecht (1871-1919), Karl Korsch (1886-1961), Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), Theodor Adorno (1903-1969), Erich Fromm (1900-1980), Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979).

American Philosophy

It is remarkable that there is hardly a single American philosopher who is not a Pragmatist of one kind or another. It is said that the Americans took what had been worked out in the Old World and considered useful only that which worked in the conditions of the New World, regarding everything else as “silly answers to silly questions.” American philosophers of note are Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), William James (1842-1910), John Dewey (1859-1952), Willard Quine (b. 1908, Ohio), the behaviourist B.F. Skinner (1904-1990) and functionalist sociologist Talcott Parsons (1902-1979) and Richard Rorty.

Breaking the Pragmatist mould in more recent times have been the structural linguist Noam Chomsky (b. 1928), the historian of science Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996) and the marxist post-modern critic Frederic Jameson.

American Marxists of note are George Novack (1905-1992) and James P. Cannon (1890-1974) and American women have led the way in the development of feminist thinking, including Betty Friedan, Evelyn Reed (1905-1979), Kate Millett (b. 1934), Shulamith Firestone (b. 1945) and many, many others. [See the article Liberation Epistemology].

The U.S. has also produced many economists in more recent times such as Milton Friedman (b. 1912), Kenneth Arrow and others, who contribute albeit negatively to philosophy.

One important current of philosophy which has crossed all national borders is Positivism – the philosophy which places the results of science at its centre. Positivism went through three distinct stages: roughly (1) 1830-1867 from political economy and Auguste Comte to John Stuart Mill, associated with Progress and Laws of History and so on; (2) 1867-1917 from the “marginal revolution” to Mach and Weber; (3) Logical Positivism, Behaviourism and so on.

The above sketch leaves out of account the contribution of many of European national currents of philosophy. The intention was only to give an overview of the main national currents, and apologies are offered to Swiss, Austrian, Italian, Russian, Polish, etc., etc., etc., philosophers whose work has been omitted here.