Philosophy is the art of wisdom and knowledge, (the word philosophy consists of the words filos (to love) and sofia (knowledge, wisdom), hence). In order to acquire knowledge and especially to disseminate it (although the latter is not something that all famous philosophers were equally busy with) most philosophers over the years have tried to “make sense” of the world, and the inner thoughts of the man.
Within philosophy there are large so-called ‘movements’, a group of philosophers who more or less agree with each other on important aspects of philosophy, but absolutely not with other philosophers who fall outside that school. Within such movements, participants often have a more or less comparable view of philosophical questions such as ‘what is knowledge’,
These currents, however, are of course not quite as uniform and united as we now make it seem. Within the philosophical movements, philosophers can fight about their interpretation of the important questions. What often does agree between philosophers within a movement, however, is their attention to certain philosophical questions, the ‘classics’ (old philosophers from history) on which they base their own ideas, and often roughly the way these philosophers think about their own will, the possibility of one truth and man’s position relative to everything else in the universe. Based on such differing opinions on these ‘big questions’, a pattern can be woven more or less with different philosophical lines of thought.
Here we outline ten for you, in our opinion the ten most well-known, and relevant. They are taken from this interesting overview, which also shows more currents for the enthusiast. For the record, the order is not by importance, we are too small to make such an order, but more or less by time period of origin. We start in ancient times, and gradually work our way up to the present time.
10. Skepticism and Cynicism – Ancient Greece
To make miles we describe under the first two places (number ten and number nine) two currents that have been close to each other in time. First, Skepticism and Cynicism.
The skeptical current comes from about 350 BC to 250 BC, and like the cynicism from Greece. The founder of Skepticism is Pyrrho of Elis, and central to the idea of Skepticism is that man is by nature incapable of knowing anything with absolute certainty (although of course we can always speculate). According to Pyrrho, our assumptions about the world around us are always based on other assumptions, such that we can never say or know anything without basing it on (weak) assumptions.
According to him, the only ‘correct’ philosophical attitude is to abstain from judgment, or never to pass judgment. This can also be elaborated to the following conclusion: if for every argument there is always a counter-argument (as was the case according to Pyrrho) then the only good attitude is one of complete passivity, and that brings with it great tranquility and peace. Very briefly, Skepticism stands for a very passive attitude towards knowledge. Accumulation, after all, is a hopeless affair.
Note, philosophical skeptics have a very different view of the world than people who are scientifically ‘sceptical’. Climate skeptics, for example, generally don’t believe at all in the idea that abstinence from judgment is the right attitude. Nor do they agree that we cannot know for sure!
Short and sweet: be passive!
On to the cynicism. Cynicism also emerged in ancient Greece, roughly between 390 BC to 300 BC. Cynicism first finds its form in the thoughts of Diogenes of Sinope, or, according to others, Antisthenes of Athens. The school appears to be primarily a continuation of Socrates’ thought and life, centering on a way of life, rather than a theory or train of thought, as most other philosophical schools do. The way of life is one of rejection; rejection of worldly riches and customs. A cynic lives ‘like a dog’ and this is where the name comes from (cynical means dog in Ancient Greek).
This life is a life faithful to nature and one that rejects all cultural luxuries. Nor should a cynic never lie, or hide something from another (and so he must go through life naked, for clothes hide). This all sounds very barbaric, but there is also a nice side to cynicism, namely that it stands for a view of life in which one leaves rules and laws and simply lives according to one’s own wishes. Experience will then show that the best-fulfilling life is not one of hedonism, but of limitation (according to cynics, anyway).
Cynicism in this strict form lasted for quite some time, well into the fifth century AD, but has unfortunately disappeared from practice as an unpopular dogma. The word cynicism, however, has not disappeared from our vocabulary, because like skepticism, the word cynicism has a double meaning. Cynicism in psychology means a very suspicious attitude towards one’s good intentions, as well as an insensitivity to the consequences of one’s own actions or words. This kind of cynicism bears no resemblance to the original philosophical line of thought.
Short and to the point: do your own thing, simple and true to nature
9. Epicureanism and Stoicism
Epicureanism also comes from Ancient Greece, but especially had many followers in the Ancient Roman Empire. It dates from 310 BC to 250 BC. and the founder is according to many Epicurus (hence Epicureanism). Epicurus was a Greek materialist (more on this later, but in short it means Epicurus believed that all observable phenomena in the world are explicable through material processes), and believed that one should be preoccupied with imitating one’s greatest pleasure (pleasure ) in life. This followed from the fact that he concluded that the materialistic view of the world was correct: we can only base our behavior on the observations we make from the real world. Therefore, we must pursue our physical pleasures (which arise from our physical perceptions).
Like Pyrrho of cynicism, Epicurus believed that the best way to do this was to live modestly. One also had to zoom in on gaining knowledge of the world, in order to understand what the processes and barriers from the world were that limited him or her in obtaining pleasures and wishes. From this, according to Epicureans, followed a kind of ataraxia, a form of complete lethargic carelessness about what is happening in the world, and aponia, a total absence of both physical and emotional pain (this was for Epicureans the pinnacle of physical pleasure).
On the one hand, it can be said that Epicureanism is a hedonistic philosophy, in so far as it sees the only “good” in life as the individual gratification of pleasure and pleasure. However, the outcome, living a limited life and doing a lot of research into the processes that drive the world, is not exactly a ‘hedonic’ lifestyle as we see it today.
A fun fact about Epicureanism is that it was one of the few philosophies of ancient Greece that was accessible to people of all social groups, and even women (highly undervalued at the time) and slaves were drawn to this way of life. In addition, many Epicureans were vegetarian, such as Epicurus himself, although nothing had ever been established in the ‘doctrine’ about the necessity of this.
Short and sweet: Chase the subtle calm pleasure
On to the Stoics. Stoicism, like the previous movements, also came from Ancient Greece, from the capital Athens. The father of this movement is Zeno van Citium, and the central line of thought goes like this: destructive emotions arise from wrong judgments from the philosophy of others (extreme philosophies), and a wise man (or woman) would not suffer from such emotions, therefore make no judgments. Unlike the Epicureans and Cynics, Zeno believed in a combination of reason and perception through perception.
The Stoics were therefore preoccupied with the interaction between what appeared on the one hand to be a deterministic material world (cause and effect) and on the other hand the free will of Man. According to the Stoics, the best solution among these difficult-to-harmonize concepts was to possess a Will (prohairesis) that lives in harmony with the material and deterministic world. In other words, follow your free will, but do it within the limits that nature provides for us. Stoics also believed that the best way to judge a person was not by what he or she said, but by what he or she did.
The stoic composure (as we sometimes use the word today) comes from the idea that a truly wise man (or woman) is not touched by misfortune and bad times, only by living a virtuous life. This led life would be enough source of happiness for the true Stoic, regardless of material damage or discord around him/her.
Short and concise: In limitation the master shows himself
8. Empiricism (1690-1770)
We are now making a big leap (over the Old Roman Empire, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance) to a time of Enlightenment, in which (natural) science as we know it today finds its origin. Empiricism is a major component of this, and rationalism (to be discussed later) a second. Before we begin, our apologies to the intervening currents. In Europe, philosophy between Ancient Greece and the Enlightenment was heavily dominated by Christian thought, and while we would not suggest that this is unimportant, neither do other schools of thought such as Islamic philosophies, and Neoplatonism (not to mention the great diversity of philosophies from the East), we jump over it anyway, because of space savings.
Okay, so empiricism. Big names within this philosophical (and also scientific) movement are John Locke (also called the founder of this line of thought), George Berkeley, David Hume and many others. Like some ancient Greek philosophies, these Enlightened Empiricists believed in the fact that we can only gain knowledge from our perceptions. From this assumption, empiricists concluded that the only way to gain knowledge is to test scientific assumptions. Moreover, empiricists believe that in principle nothing (or according to modern empiricists at least little) is predetermined for a person, everyone starts his or her life with a tabula rasa, an unwritten sheet, and fills this in as one lives.
The empiricism described here was primarily a British ‘intention’ in the beginning. The Enlightenment Thoughts split quite geographically into two groups, and the Empiricists (again in the beginning) were primarily an English affair. The continental polar opposite we find in the following position.
In short: all knowledge comes from observations, so research scientifically.
7. Rationalism (1640-1800)
As we said, science as we know it today arose in the Enlightenment (around the year 1700), in which two philosophical approaches were particularly central, namely empiricism (described above), and the other central mindset: rationalism.
Rationalism was a continental (Western European) phenomenon, with well-known philosophers such as René Descartes, Baruch de Spinoza and Gottfried Leibniz as great thinkers. Central to rationalism is the idea that rather than perceptions, reason is our only source of knowledge. Logical structure of reason should help us to acquire new knowledge. Thus Descartes was the first to reason that he existed, and that this is all he could know for sure, purely by thinking (and not perceiving) that he existed.
In fact, rationalists believe that there is ‘reason’ to distrust perceptions (after all, does one trust the perceptions made in a dream, or during hallucinations?). Only ideas and truths that we can rationally substantiate and create can be trusted, and this can help us get a ‘picture’ of the reality around us.
Today science is often a mixture of both empirical and rationalistic thoughts, but it is clear that every scientific discipline has its origin in one of the two. For example, (experimental) physics and chemistry are often mainly concerned with observations from experiments (empiricism), while mathematics and philosophy are often concerned with what we can discover through reason and logic (rationalism).
Short and to the point: always follow the Rede
6. Idealism (1800-1900)
After the Enlightenment, an era of ‘progress’ dawned, an era of inventions, economies of scale, commercialization and also great poverty and war (French Revolution, American Revolution, et cetera). We also call this time the time of Industrialization. It was in this ‘exciting’ century that idealism emerged, with the great thinker Georg (Willhelm Friedrich) Hegel. Many sub-movements can be identified within idealism, but all these sub-movements in any case have in common that they only ascribe ‘reality value’ to objects ‘in our minds’.
In other words, physical or ‘external’ objects have no reality value to usbecause we cannot really perceive them. All we can really perceive is the idea of the world around us, and that is in our mind (or brain). Hegelian idealism, for example, observes that if we take rationalism seriously, we must conclude that we cannot ‘know’ anything about the world around us, only about the ideas we think we have about that world.
So we only know ‘images’ in our head of the things around us. As such, there is a kind of spiritual ‘pictures’ world that people share (universal ideas), and this can be the True Truth, those shared ideas of reality. In the centuries before Christ, Plato already had a similar conception of things in the world, which is known as the ‘Theory of Ideas’.
Short and to the point: Big (universal) ideas are reality
5. Materialism (1600-1900)
Earlier we mentioned (Ancient Greek) materialists, but only later, in the Enlightenment and Industrialization, did a real popular movement (popular within the intelligentsia, that is) arise, namely materialism. Well-known names among materialists are Thomas Hobbes, Karl Marx, and Charles Darwin. Within materialism, everything in reality, even our emotions, thoughts and ‘mind’, can be reduced to matter, nowadays in the form of atoms, neutrons and electrons and even smaller particles of matter (quarks and the like ). These material particles are ultimately what produces thought, not the spiritual “ideas” of the preceding idealistic train of thought.
According to materialists, we must assume that we know or cannot know anything other than our physical world, and so we must rely on what we can find there. Like empiricists (and note, empiricists are often materialists and vice versa), materialists therefore believe in a knowable world that can be ‘know’ through observations and ‘laws of nature’. There is, according to materialists, nothing Higher than that which is material, no soul, no God (unless it is material, and thus bound to the sciences of nature, such as gravity).
Short and to the point : Stick to the physical
4. Phenomenology (1879-1930)
With phenomenology we finally arrive at the ‘Modern’ Philosophy. The name comes from the ancient Greek words for ‘the visible’ and ‘learn’; phainomenon and logos, and with that not much is said, alas, after all, what does the doctrine of the visible mean? Phenomenology deals with experience, but only direct and intuitive experience of phenomena (phenomena), and tries to derive its essential properties from it.
The (rather complicated) idea is that if we conclude that knowledge depends on how our own brain processes work, then we have a chance to come to knowledge of reality through thought analysis. So it is a way of circumventing the idealistic idea that nothing is “knowable outside the mind.” So when you see a chair, you see this thing as an idea in your head. A phenomenologist can then figure out what are the essential properties of this entity, and what are not.
The fabric color may not be essential for a chair, but the four legs might be? Is a chair a chair with three or five legs? If so, the four-legged strength of a chair is not an essential feature. However, phenomenologists are not talking about the essence of chairs, but they mainly focus on the essence of what one experiences (something that, in contrast to a chair, is much less visible and tangible). An important concept within phenomenology is intentionality; the idea that everything we think or experience is always aimed at something else.
Although phenomenology originally comes from the Franz Brentano School, most of the material comes from Edmund Husserl. The reasonably well-known philosopher Heidegger was also a philosopher within this movement, as was Jean-Paul Sartre.
Short and concise: Analyze the mind (thoughts)
3. Existentialism (1850-1950)
Existentialism is both a philosophical and a literary movement, in which subjectivity is central in its philosophy. Everyone is unique and therefore responsible for his own actions but also his own fate (always and everywhere). In the absence of an omnipotent God, according to this philosophy, everyone must give their own meaning to an otherwise utterly meaningless life. If one does not make one’s own sense, then one must at least accept that life is completely meaningless. Important existentialists include Friedrich Nietzsche, Sören Kierkegaard and Jean-Paul Sartre. Within existentialism, views can differ dramatically between philosophers, and sometimes even within the philosopher himself, for example when his or her earlier views differ from later reservations. However,
2. Pragmatism (1880-1980)
Pragmatists are known for their (pragmatic) connection between philosophical theory and practice. Pragmatism dictates that in fact these two are not independent of each other, nor is this ever possible. Their most famous slogan is the pragmatic theory of truth: something is true if it works in practice. So if something has practical use or social benefit, then it may be true. However, in another situation, the same may not be true. This ambiguity is not easy for a pragmatist, for in their definition a Truth can be true in one situation, and not true in another.
Pragmatism is one of the first movements in Western philosophy that did not originate in Europe, but in America. Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, John Dewey and Willard van Orman Quine were all American philosophers and the founders and protagonists of this movement.
Short and to the point: Follow what works
1. Postmodernism (1970-1990)
As the name suggests, postmodernism is a reaction to modernism. It is also a movement in art. Postmodernists like to question things, especially concepts like Truth and Authenticity. In addition, postmodernists believe that there is only a flawed foundation for knowledge-gathering, there is no ‘best’ method to investigate reality, nor is man autonomous, or capable of consciously making his own choice.
This is because of the subconscious, emotions, others, and finally the ‘language’. According to postmodernists, this is called decentralization of the subject. One is irrational (does not behave according to conscious thought reason), and one can only communicate poorly with others, because of a sub-optimal language (language causes miscommunication, misunderstandings and other translation errors). Therefore it is difficult to know ‘self’, and much more difficult to pass on that knowledge. Pluralism everywhere is the result.
The consequence of all the pluralism is clear to many postmodernists: all one can do is be compliant and see where the ship strands, not expecting too much, especially no stable truth, science or ethics. Well-known postmodern thinkers mainly build on the aforementioned phenomenologists; Baudrillard, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Short and sweet: relax!
Finally, another bonus stream (call it number 11 or 0) that wasn’t in the list but we don’t want to skip: analytic philosophy. This movement of philosophy was very influential, especially in the 1880s to 1980s, and was of both British and American origin. Possibly the most famous thinker is Bertrand Russell, a favorite of the author of these top ten. Central is the belief that if we cut the search for truth and reality into small pieces and apply exact logic and empirical (observations) to these pieces, we can eventually arrive at the ultimate truth. In this way we can make progress step by step and ultimately arrive at a bigger picture.
In short: analyze everything into small particles.
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