Western Philosophical Tradition: Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Periods


Western Philosophical Tradition: Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Periods

In this topic, you would be introduced to some of the major traditions of western extraction that have dominated the discipline of philosophy. Of course, there are other traditions such as the African, Asian and Middle Eastern (Islamic philosophical tradition).

Our focus on Western philosophy in this article would cover particularly the ancient, medieval and early modern periods. The contents of this unit will be examined in the following headings:

(i) Western philosophical tradition in the ancient and medieval periods, which essentially examines the method of system-building among the philosophers of the periods.

(ii) Western philosophical traditions in early modern period, which further divides into Analytic and language philosophy.

In examining these aspects of the tradition of Western philosophy it is important to note that each of these sub-areas of philosophy is neither exhaustive nor mutually exclusive.

By the end of this article, you should be able to describe Western philosophical tradition, explain key concepts in Western philosophical tradition and identify essential characteristics of Western philosophical tradition.

Ancient and Medieval Western Philosophical Traditions Historically, the term, Western philosophy, refers to the philosophical thought and work associated with Western culture, particularly beginning with Greek philosophy of the pre-Socratics such as Thales and eventually covering a large area of the world.

Recall that the word, ‘philosophy’ itself originated from the Ancient Greek expression, philosophía (φιλοσοφία), which literally translates as “the love of wisdom.” This comes however from two Greek words phileîn (φιλεῖν) “to love” and sophia (σοφία), “wisdom”.

Western philosophy has often been divided into some major branches, or schools, based either on the questions typically addressed by people working in different parts of the field, or based on notions of ideological undercurrents.

In the ancient world of the West, the most influential division of the subject was the Stoics’ division of philosophy into logic, ethics, and physics (conceived as the study of the nature of the world, and including both natural science and metaphysics).

In contemporary philosophy, specialties within the field are more commonly divided into metaphysics, epistemology, ethics and aesthetics (the latter two of which together comprise axiology or value theory). Logic is sometimes included as a main branch of philosophy; it is sometimes treated as a separate branch that philosophers happen to work on, and sometimes just as a characteristically philosophical method applying to all branches of philosophy. 

It would be stated here that philosophy in the medieval period was a further development on the achievements of ancient philosophers and their philosophy, albeit in relation to theological or religious concerns of the time.

Indeed, medieval philosophy bequeathed the Modern world with an understanding of the relation between philosophy and theology, between reason and faith. Even within these broad branches, there are numerous sub-disciplines of philosophy during this period such as the analytic philosophy and language philosophy.


The Tradition of System-building

The idea of system-building among the ancient and medieval philosophers is that the scope of their philosophical analyses and understanding, as well as the writings of (at least some of) the ancient philosophers are seen to encompass the range of ‘all’ intellectual endeavours at the time. 

In the pre-Socratic period, ancient philosophers first articulated questions about the “archḗ” (the cause or first principle of all things) of the universe.

Western philosophy is generally said to begin in the Greek cities of Western Asia Minor, or Ionia, with Thales of Miletus, who philosophised around 585 BC and was responsible for the dictum, “all is water.” His most noted students were Anaximander, who taught that “all is apeiron”, meaning roughly, “the unlimited” and Anaximenes, who claimed that “all is air”. Both were from Miletus.

Western philosophy at this time also saw the emergence of Pythagoras, who was from the island of Samos, off the coast of Ionia. Pythagoras held that “all is number.”

By this, he gave a formal (non-material) accounts, in contrast to the previous material account of the Ionians. Pythagoras and his followers, the Pythagoreans, also believed in metempsychosis, which meant the transmigration of souls, or reincarnation.

In the philosophers referred to as the pre-Socratics, the tradition of system-building is evident in how they sought to provide an account of the explanation of how individual particular things observed in the world came to be.

Indeed, it was such that for them, what was supposed as the primary stuff of all things was supposed to also account for the phenomenon of change, which, at the time, was considered an integral process of all things.

So, when Thales, for instance, said “all is water,” he also had to say how all came to be through water; that is, he also had to explain how water accounted for the phenomenon of change.

A key figure in ancient Greek philosophy, one that came after other pre-Socratic philosophers, is Socrates himself.

Socrates studied under several Sophists but transformed Greek philosophy into a branch of philosophy that is still pursued today: Ethics or Moral philosophy. 

It is said that following a visit to the Oracle of Delphi, he spent much of his life questioning anyone in Athens who would engage him in order to disprove the oracular prophecy that there would be no man wiser than Socrates.

Socrates used a critical approach called the “elenchus” or Socratic Method to examine people’s views. He aimed to study human life in relation to the good life, justice, beauty, and virtue.

Although Socrates wrote nothing himself, some of his many disciples wrote down his conversations. He was tried for corrupting the youth and impiety by the Greek democratic regime of the time. He was found guilty and sentenced to death.

Although his friends offered to help him escape from prison, he chose to remain in Athens and abide by his principles. His execution consisted of drinking the poison hemlock and he died in 399 BC.

The method of Socrates was essentially defined by the search for the definitions and meaning of concepts, notions, and ideas.

Through Plato, we learn that Socrates was interested in this because he realized that the stable things from which and through which we come to understand the world and our place in it as moral beings is through a correct understanding of these concepts, such as justice, courage, truth, knowledge and so on. 

In building his system, Socrates insists that an understanding of the concepts by which we guide our daily lives, would help us choose correctly the right course of action.

Plato and Aristotle were the other two of ancient philosophy’s most prominent philosophers that make up what is now described as the golden age of Greek philosophy; the first figure in that age being Socrates. Plato was one of the most illustrious students of Socrates. Plato founded the Academy of Athens and wrote a number of dialogues, which applied the Socratic method of inquiry to examine philosophical problems.

Some central ideas of Plato’s dialogues are the immortality of the soul, the benefits of being just, that evil is ignorance, and, very importantly, the theory of forms. Forms are universal properties that constitute true reality and contrast with the changeable material things he called “becoming”.

For Plato, the theory of Forms was the basis of all of his philosophy, particularly regarding the true nature of reality as well as the object of knowledge.

The Forms were at the center of his explanations regarding the ‘Good’. Aristotle, who was a pupil of Plato, and the first to be considered a truly systematic philosopher and scientist, wrote about physics, biology, zoology, metaphysics, aesthetics, poetry, theater, music, rhetoric, politics and logic. Aristotelian logic was the first type of logic to attempt to categorize every valid syllogism.

Aristotle tutored Alexander the Great, who in turn conquered much of the ancient world at a rapid pace. Indeed, Hellenization and Aristotelian philosophy exercised considerable influence on almost all subsequent Western and Middle Eastern philosophers, including Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Western medieval, Jewish and Islamic thinkers.

It is pertinent to state here that following Socrates, a variety of schools of thought emerged. In addition to Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Peripatetic school, other schools of thought derived from Socrates included the Academic Sceptics, Cynics, Cyrenaics, and Stoics.

In addition, two non-Socratic schools derived from the teachings of Socrates’ contemporary, Democritus. These were, Pyrrhonism and Epicureanism. The tradition of Western philosophy finds its longest period to be what philosopher-historians now refer to as medieval philosophy.

But it must be noted here that what is generally regarded as medieval philosophy includes the philosophy of Western Europe and the Middle East during the Middle Ages, roughly extending from the Christianization of the Roman Empire until the Renaissance.

Medieval philosophy is defined partly by the rediscovery and further development of early Greek and Hellenistic philosophy, and partly by the need to address theological problems and to integrate the then widespread sacred doctrines of Abrahamic religion (Islam, Judaism, and Christianity) with secular learning. Early medieval philosophy was influenced by the likes of Stoicism, Neoplatonism, but, above all, the philosophy of Plato himself.

Some of the problems discussed throughout this period are the relation of faith to reason, the existence and unity of God, the object of theology and metaphysics, the problem of knowledge, the problem of universals, and the problem of individuation.

The prominent figure of this period was Augustine of Hippo (one of the most important Church Fathers in Western Christianity) who adopted Plato’s thought and Christianize it in the 4th century, and Thomas Aquinas, whose influence dominated medieval philosophy, perhaps, from the 13th century up to end of the period.

Whereas it is widely accepted that the philosophy of Augustine was the preferred starting point for most philosophers of medieval period, up until the 13th century, the arrival of Aquinas, who, following Aristotelian philosophy, contributed to the reintroduction of Aristotle’s philosophy to the West. 

These philosophers to be sure developed philosophical systems that were based on a merging of their faith and the philosophical traditions of the ancient Greek philosophers, and were able to attempt the analyses of the questions that caught their attentions in the period.

The decline of medieval philosophy saw the emergence of what is sometime referred to as the interlude between the Medieval period and the Modern period in the tradition of Western philosophy; that is, the Renaissance.

The Renaissance (meaning “rebirth,” in this instance the rebirth – rediscovery – of classical texts) was a period of transition between the Middle Ages and modern thought, in which the recovery of classical texts helped shift philosophical interests away from technical studies in logic, metaphysics, and theology towards eclectic inquiries into morality, philology, and mysticism.

The study of the classics and the humane arts generally, such as history and literature, enjoyed a scholarly interest hitherto unknown in Christendom, a tendency referred to as humanism.

Displacing the medieval interest in metaphysics and logic, the humanists followed the writer, Petrarch, in making man and his virtues the focus of philosophy.

Also read: Issues in African Philosophy

Early Modern Western Philosophical Traditions

The term “modern philosophy” has multiple usages. For example, Thomas Hobbes is sometimes considered the first modern philosopher because he applied a systematic method to political philosophy.

By contrast, however, Rene Descartes is usually regarded as the first modern philosopher because he grounded his philosophy in problems of knowledge, rather than problems of metaphysics.

Modern philosophy and especially Enlightenment philosophy is distinguished by its increasing independence from traditional authorities such as the Church, academia, and Aristotelianism and a turn to the foundations of knowledge and metaphysical system-building and the emergence of modern physics out of natural philosophy.

Some central topics of the tradition of Western philosophy in its early modern (also classical modern – 17th and 18th centuries) period include the nature of the mind and its relation to the body, the implications of the new natural sciences for traditional theological topics such as free will and God, and the emergence of a secular basis for moral and political philosophy.

These trends first distinctively coalesce in the philosophy of Francis Bacon, who called for a new, empirical program for expanding knowledge, and soon found massively influential form in the mechanical physics and rationalist metaphysics of Rene Descartes.

Other notable modern philosophers include Baruch Spinoza, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, John Locke, Bishop George Berkeley, David Hume and Immanuel Kant.

The approximate end of the early modern period is most often identified with Immanuel Kant’s systematic attempt to limit metaphysics, justify scientific knowledge, and reconcile both of these with morality and freedom.

The latter part of this period which saw the birth of late modern philosophy is usually considered to begin around the year, 1781, when Gotthold Ephraim Lessing died and Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason appeared in print.

German philosophy exercised broad influence in this century, owing in part to the dominance of the German university system.

German idealists, such as Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and the members of Jena Romanticism, Friedrich Holderlin, Novalis, and Karl Wilhelm Schlegel, transformed the work of Immanuel Kant by maintaining that the world is constituted by a rational or mind-like process, and as such is entirely knowable.

Arthur Schopenhauer’s identification of this world-constituting process as an irrational ‘will to live’ influenced later 19th- and early 20th-century thinking, such as the work of Friedrich Nietzsche.

The 19th century took the radical notions of self-organization and intrinsic order from Goethe and Kantian metaphysics, and proceeded to produce a long elaboration on the tension between systematization (or system-building) and organic development (analysis by piece-meal).

Foremost was the work of Hegel, whose Phenomenology of Spirit (1807) and Science of Logic (1813–1816) produced a “dialectical” framework for ordering of knowledge.

As with the 18th century, developments in science arose from philosophy and also challenged philosophy: most importantly the work of Charles Darwin, which was based on the idea of organic self-regulation found in philosophers such as Smith, but fundamentally challenged established conceptions. 

After Hegel’s death in 1831, 19th-century philosophy largely turned against idealism in favor of varieties of philosophical naturalism, such as the positivism of Auguste Comte, the empiricism of John Stuart Mill, and the historical materialism of Karl Marx.

Logic began a period of its most significant advances since the inception of the discipline, as increasing mathematical precision opened entire fields of inference to formalization in the work of George Boole and Gottlob Frege.

Indeed, philosophers who initiated lines of thought that would continue to shape philosophy into the 20th century include:

(i) Gottlob Frege and Henry Sidgwick, whose work in logic and ethics, respectively, provided the tools for early analytic philosophy.

(ii) Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, who laid the groundwork for existentialism and post-Structuralism.


Analytic Philosophy

Since the end of the Second World War, 20th century philosophy has been divided mostly into analytic and continental philosophical traditions; the former has been carried out in the English-speaking world and the latter on the continent of Europe.

The perceived conflict between continental and analytic schools of philosophy remains prominent, though there is an increasing skepticism regarding the distinction between the two traditions.

The basis for this is that 20th century philosophy is marked by a certain readiness for a series of attempts to reform and preserve, as well as to alter older knowledge systems by the application of methods, and beginning with assumptions that are diverse in perspectives.

This, in part, was necessitated by the upheavals produced by a sequence of conflicts within philosophical discourse over the basis of knowledge. This led to the overthrow of classical certainties regarding knowledge.

To the extent that the methods and assumptions that motivated the concerns in the early 20th century were diverse, a distinction between the analytic and the continental traditions is discernable.

Seminal figures in the tradition of analytic philosophy include Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, while those in the continental tradition include Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, and Jean-Paul Sartre. It is pertinent to state here that the traditions of analytic and continental philosophies do not represent exclusive approaches and methods in the Western tradition of philosophy.

In this vein, for instance, the publication of Husserl’s Logical Investigations (1900-1901) and Russell’s The Principles of Mathematics (1903) is taken to have marked the beginning of 20th-century analytic philosophy. In the English-speaking world, analytic philosophy became the dominant school for much of the 20th century.

The term “analytic philosophy” roughly designates a group of philosophical methods that stress detailed argumentation, attention to semantics, use of classical logic and non-classical logics and clarity of meaning above all other criteria. Though the movement has broadened, it was a cohesive school in the first half of the century.

Analytic philosophers were shaped strongly by logical positivism, united by the notion that philosophical problems could and should be solved by attention to logic and language. 

Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore are also often regarded as founders of analytic philosophy, beginning with their rejection of British idealism, their defense of realism and the emphasis they laid on the legitimacy of analysis.

Russell’s classic works, The Principles of Mathematics, On Denoting, and Principia Mathematica (with Alfred North Whitehead), aside from greatly promoting the use of mathematical logic in philosophy, set the ground for much of the research program in the early stages of the analytic tradition, emphasizing such problems as: the reference of proper names, whether ‘existence’ is a property, the nature of propositions, the analysis of definite descriptions, and discussions on the foundations of mathematics. 

These works also explored issues of ontological commitment and metaphysical problems regarding time, the nature of matter, mind, persistence and change, which Russell often tackled with the aid of mathematical logic.


Language Philosophy

According to Michael Dummett in Origins of Analytical Philosophy, published in 1993, Gottlob Frege’s Foundations of Arithmetic (1884) was the first analytic work.

In this way, Frege took what is now referred to as the “the linguistic turn,” by analyzing philosophical problems through language. The assumption here follows the claim of some analytic philosophers who hold that philosophical problems arise through misuse of language or because of misunderstandings of the logic of human language.

In 1921, Ludwig Wittgenstein, who studied under Russell at Cambridge, published his Tractatuc Logico-Philosophicus, which offered a rigidly “logical” account of linguistic and philosophical issues. He proposed the picture theory of meaning by which he claimed that the meaning use of language is when language is used to mirror reality in the same way a picture represents what it is it pictures.

Years later, Wittgenstein reversed a number of the positions he set out in the Tractatus, in his second major work, Philosophical Investigations (1953).

The Investigations was one of the works that was influential in the development of “ordinary language philosophy,” which was promoted by, especially two other philosophers, Gilbert Ryle and J.L. Austin. 

Though geographically the United States is not part of Western Europe, culturally some of its philosophy is considered in the tradition of Western philosophy.

It is in this vein that the philosophy of Willard Van Orman Quine, who was at the time in the United States, is considered to have had major influence in the development of analytic philosophy, with the paper “Two Dogmas of Empiricism”.

In that paper, Quine criticized the distinction between analytic and synthetic statements, arguing that a clear conception of analyticity is unattainable. Notable students of Quine include the American philosophers, Donald Davison and Daniel Dennet.

It is instructive to state here that the later work of Bertrand Russell and the philosophy of Willard Van Orman Quine are influential exemplars of the naturalist approach dominant in the second half of the 20th century. But the diversity of analytic philosophy from the 1970s onward defies easy generalization: the naturalism of Quine was in some precincts superseded by a “new metaphysics” of possible worlds, as in the influential work of David Lewis.

More recently, the experimental philosophy movement has sought to reappraise philosophical problems through social science research techniques. Some influential figures in contemporary analytic philosophy are: Timothy Williamson, David Lewis, John Searle, Thomas Nagel, Hilary Putnam, Michael Dummett, John McDowell, Saul Kripke, Peter van Inwagen, and Paul and Patricia Churchland.

From the view of analytic philosophers, Philosophy is done primarily through selfreflection and critical thinking. It does not tend to rely on experiment.

However, in some ways philosophy is close to science in its character and method. Some analytic philosophers have suggested that the method of philosophical analysis allows philosophers to emulate the methods of natural science.

Quine holds that philosophy does no more than clarify the arguments and claims of other sciences. This suggests that philosophy might be the study of meaning and reasoning generally; but some still would claim either that this is not a science, or that if it is it ought not to be pursued by philosophers.

Analytic philosophy has sometimes been accused of not contributing to the political debate or to traditional questions in aesthetics.

However, with the appearance of A Theory of Justice by John Rawls and Anarchy, State and Utopia by Robert Nozick, analytic political philosophy acquired respectability. 

Analytic philosophers have also shown depth in their investigations of aesthetics, with Roger Scruton, Nelson Goodman, Arthur Danto and others, developing the subject to its current shape.

Also read: Orientations in African Philosophy

Conclusion on Western Philosophical Tradition: Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Periods

Western philosophy has often been divided into some major branches, or schools, based either on the questions typically addressed by people working in different parts of the field, or based on notions of ideological undercurrents. All of these branches or schools make up the major traditions that have impacted the discipline of philosophy.

We have examined some of the major traditions of western extraction that has dominated the discipline of philosophy.

To this end, we examined the ancient and medieval periods, most especially the method of system-building among the philosophers of the periods.

We also examined some Western philosophical traditions in early modern period, such as Analytic and language philosophy.

In examining these aspects of the tradition of Western philosophy, we explained that each of these sub-areas of philosophy is neither exhaustive nor mutually exclusive.

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