Overview of Western Philosophy

Overview of Western Philosophy

by Collin Wynter

Philosophy. Philo, love, Sophos, wisdom. To have a desire for the apotheosis of what it means to be fulfilled. Self actualized, some modern theorists might say. How to achieve such an end? Theology, Science or Philosophy? They are interwoven, yet with distinct markers of what it means to be of one disciple or another. Our focus will be on the love for wisdom, but as will be seen, often it is both scientists and religious scholars, that share the same dreams. This is part one of a four part series. Below is Ancient Greece to the Scientific revolution. This overview will be presented as a flow of concepts, with names of the philosophers and their contributions, rather than an ordered list of individuals. Persons who contributed to mathematics and the physical sciences will be included minimally. An overview of the history of science is a project for another time.

The Pre-Socratics

The history of western philosophy originates in 5th century Greece, with the pre-Socratics; named as such because they lived prior to the influence of Socrates (470-399 BCE). Democritus (460-370 BCE), who was taught by Leucippus (500-401 BCE), is often included with them, although he lived contemporaneously to Socrates. Among the most significant were the Milesians: Thales (624- 545 BCE), Anaximander (610-546 BCE), and Anaximenes (flourished 545 BCE, birth & death unclear); Xenophanes (560-478 BCE) of Colophon, Parmenides (b. 515 BCE- ?), Heracleitus (540-480 BCE) of Ephesus, Empedocles (490-430 BCE), Anaxagoras (500-428 BCE), Zeno (495-430 BCE) of Elea, and Pythagoras (570-490 BCE). Much of their work was dedicated to the realm of metaphysics (and many other philosophical, religious and scientific endeavours), or what future natural scientists would consider cosmology and cosmogony; the creation of reality. Is the universe a foundation of water (Thales)? Air (Anaximenes)? Or atoms (Democritus)? Was the cosmos infinite or finite (Anaximander)? What part does mathematics play in all of this? Pythagoras may be recognized from the theorem that bears his name, used ubiquitously throughout mathematics still today. It is important to note, though they are grouped together, their ideas varied widely and across a great length of time. This is something that needs to be taken into account and remembered throughout this overview. Although thinkers who have made their mark and whose ideas have survived over two millennia come one after another in entries below, their lives may have been centuries apart. 

The Sophists

The Sophists are another group of thinkers that lived during the time of the pre-Socratics, and were part impetus to what Socrates, Plato and Aristotle responded in their philosophy. A sophist, which has come down to us in the word sophistry: false arguments and intent to decide; was a teacher of rhetoric and a guide to instruct on how to live one’s life. The most famous of them, Protagoras (490-420 BCE), was known for the maxim: “man is the measure of all things,” which suggests a relativist perspective on the nature of life.


Plato (429?–347 BCE), student of Socrates was born in Athens and founded the Academy (387 BCE). Credited as being the progenitor of western philosophical thought, his work spans: metaphysics, epistemology, politics, ethics and aesthetics. He applied what is known as the Socratic dialogue, a form of enquiry still used today. Socrates is immortalized in eternity as the antagonist in Plato’s philosophical works known as Dialogues. Instead of the essay, Plato used narrative dialogue to flesh out his ideas; idealism being the foundation of his thought. Ideal forms exist, he believed, that of the physical (a chair), a quality (colour), of a system (the city), or a concept, such as virtue (justice). Our reality is but a shadow of what is. Only the philosophers are able to obtain the truth and the populace will forever desire to ignore it. His dialogues and The Republic are necessary readings. Specific note should be made to his exegesis of politics and the arts.


A direct student of Plato, Aristotle (384–322 BCE) is perhaps the only philosopher that would contend for the seat of origin of western thought. Some religious philosophers, notably from Islam, referred to him as “The Philosopher” or “The First”. His extant writings (many have been lost to time) span a wide range of disciplines: logic, metaphysics, philosophy of mind, ethics, political theory, aesthetics, rhetoric and empirical biology. His writing is one of the first examples of the essay style format we see in use today. He was a teacher of Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE) and founded his own school, the Lyceum (334 BCE). A foundational concept of Aristotelian thought is teleology; that which is becoming toward what it is meant to be. This means that phenomenon is best described and understood as to its purpose, rather than its cause. Causality was a central investigation in his works. You may note as this series progresses, that Aristotle, along with Plato and Immanuel Kant, stand above the rest.

The Post-Socratics

During the time, and directly after Plato and Aristotle, other modes of thought were burgeoning: Cynicism, Skepticism, Epicureanism and Stoicism. Cynicism, not to be confused with how the word is used in modern parlance, referred to virtuous behaviour, self-sufficiency and the rejection of luxury. An anecdote relating to one of the proponents of the method, Diogenes of Sinope, is quite enlightening. Alexander the Great (356-32BCE) came to seek his philosophical advice. In response to Alexander’s greeting, Diogenes said “stand a little out of my sun.” Skepticism or Pyrrhonism, as first formulated by Pyrrho of Ellis (365?-275? BCE) involved a life devoted to inquiry, an aim not to affirm anything, and that they may be considered as “those who suspend.” Sextus Empiricus (2nd-3rd c. CE birth & death unclear) is considered to be the last member of the ancient Pyrronhic skeptics. Epicurus, whose philosophical endeavours is known as Epicurus (341–270 BCE), sought to formulate a complete interdependent system including human values, epistemology, cosmology, and evolution of life on earth. His theory is considered to be a radically materialist point of view; he refutes, absolutely, the Platonic ideal forms. Zeno of Citium (334-262 BCE) is credited with being the founder of Stoicism. While, one of the most famous Stoics was Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE). He work, Mediations is still read today. Essentially, this philosophical treatise focused on the ethics of human behaviour and aestheticism; what is the good? A good and ethical life, then, is a virtuous life. While, vices lead to a life of negative outcomes. Stoicism is seeing a revival in contemporary discourse, particularly through the work of William Braxton Irvine (b.1952). As is made evident, there were many competing philosophies to that of Plato, Aristotle and the pre-Socratics. How much did any of them know each other? Information did not traverse the way it does on the internet today. However, there certainly was communication, influence and antagonism. Perhaps even some synthesis and consilience. 

The Gregorian Calendar

Looking at the period of the pre-Socratics, Plato, Aristotle and the post-Socratics, you will note a shift in the denotation of time from BCE (before common era) to CE (common era). Originally, the acronyms were: BC (before Christ) referring to the time before Jesus Christ, from the Christian religion, was born; and AD (Anno Domini) meaning in the year of the Lord Jesus Christ. This calendar denomination is considered the Gregorian calendar, also called New Style calendar, which is based off of a solar dating system and is now in general use. It was proclaimed in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII (1502-1585) as a reform of the Julian calendar. Considering the multi-religious aspect of the world today that uses the Gregorian calendar, the terms BC and AD were changed to BCE and CE, respectively. Please note, all following dates in the overview will only have an adage added if required for clarification.

In the common era, we begin to see an increasing number of religious scholars, Jewish, Christian and Muslim (remember, this overview is focused solely on the western philosophical tradition) seeking to meld the Abrahamic religion with Greek and Roman philosophy. But first, we will discuss the revival of Platonism.


Neoplatonism is a school of thought that lasted several centuries (~3rd-7th) and was the beginning of the endeavour to synthesize prior systems. Proponents of this considered Plato’s works to be of the highest regard, over that of Aristotle, and the pre and post-Socratics. Only Stoicism and Epicureanism appear to be rejected fully. A fundamental concept in their thinking was the nous (perhaps best translated as consciousness) is the creation of existence. Thus, all of reality extends from this ontological principle, which is to be deemed to be greater that what comes after it. They expanded upon Plato’s ideas in the exploration of cosmology. Plotinus (204/5–270) is recognized as the founder of neoplatonism.

The Abrahamic Turn

Prior to neoplatonism, during, and after, a series of religious scholars pierced philosophical works in an attempt to reconcile them with their theological teachings. A few names to mention are: the Jewish philosophers: Philo Judaeus (20-50) and Maimonides (1138-1204); Saint Anselm (1033-1109) and Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) who were Christians; and Ibn Sina [Avicenna] (980-1037) and Ibn Rushd [Averroës] (1126–1198) from the Islamic tradition. It is debated whether Philo Judeaus should be considered a philosopher, as one of that distinction is meant to develop a sense of being, while Philo attempted to demonstrate that one is nothing without the connection to God. He placed logos (reason) directly in the sphere of God. St Anslem is also noted for his ontological argument for God. Maimonides attempted to solve the divide between the secular and the religious using a blend of Neoplatonism, Aristotelianism and Islamic thought, citing Avicenna as an influence. Saint Thomas Aquinas, a Dominican Friar, lived during a time of Aristotelian resurgence, and the proliferation of the university. He sought to counter the Averroistic interpretations of Aristotle and the Franciscan (another order of friars) tendency to reject Greek philosophy. There are many more who contributed during the medieval age (which also goes by the misnomer of the Dark Ages). We shall only mention one more, William of Ockham (1288-1348), who is best known for his maxim, the Ockham’s Razor: “don’t multiply entities beyond necessity.” This can also be understood conversely as: to make something as simple as possible, but nothing simpler.

Part two will begin with the Scientific Revolution and its affect on philosophical thought. Man is constrained by his ability, and his times.

Published by Collin Wynter

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