Author : Arshad Shaikh

In the third series of articles on Western Philosophy, Arshad Shaikh continues looking at the characteristics and features of Western Philosophy.

Scientific Method

Rational understanding is a dominant feature of philosophy. Rational understanding in philosophy has evolved with the scientific method, challenging dogmatic and orthodox religious traditions. Descartes played a pivotal role in 17th-century continental rationalism. Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz introduced a new ideal for philosophy. The development of science significantly influenced philosophy in the early modern era. Early modern philosophers saw scientific methods as a fresh way of developing knowledge. Modern philosophy reflects the spirit of science, as outlined by Frederic Mayer in “A History of Modern Philosophy.” Natural and physical sciences influenced philosophy in the 16th and 17th centuries. It largely changed the outlook of philosophers. 18th-century philosophers were optimistic about achieving progress by making the world more rational, eliminating obsolete traditions, and combating prejudice. In the 19th century, new biological concepts stimulated philosophical thinking, but the conclusions of biology were less comforting. Scientific theories by Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo revolutionized humanity’s concept of the physical world. Scientific discoveries and methods have significantly altered the direction and conception of Western philosophy.

Philosophical Methods:

The Philosophical method encompasses rules, assumptions, procedures, and examples to determine the scope and limits of a subject and establish ways to attain truth. The Philosophical method is empirical and rational, inductive and deductive. Philosophers historically disagreed about the appropriate philosophical method. Philosophical schools or movements are often characterized by the methods they adopt. Ancient philosophy was influenced by various interpretations of the dialectic method (concluding through logical and rational discussion), while modern philosophy began with Descartes’ method of doubt. Analytic philosophy relies on linguistic methods, while non-analytic European philosophy employs phenomenological, historical, and textual methods. The relationship between philosophical and scientific methods is a matter of dispute among philosophers, with some considering philosophy as part of science and others arguing it to be before science. Some well-known philosophical methods are:


It involves philosophical inquiry without prior criticism of knowledge. It assumes fundamental principles without questioning them and deduces conclusions without examining the premises.
This method characterizes ancient philosophy and reflects an inclination to act without self-questioning.


Skepticism is rejecting the possibility of attaining true knowledge. In ancient Greece, the Sophists provided their arguments based on scepticism. Descartes introduced the method of doubt, which influenced Western philosophy significantly. Descartes considered doubt as the source of knowledge, a process of purification, and arriving at unshakable foundations of truth.
Doubt implies the reality of our thoughts and self-consciousness (Cogito ergo sum – I think, therefore I am) Hume and J.S. Mill pioneered Modern scepticism, which was a reaction against dogmatic metaphysics and a logical consequence of thorough empiricism. For Locke, scepticism was a prelude to a more scientific philosophy, not an end in itself. Scepticism has been a recurring feature in Western philosophy and has played a major role in its growth and evolution.


It is a form of reasoning, which finds contradictions or opposites. It can be classified into negative and positive dialectic. Negative dialectic exposes inconsistencies in opinions, while positive dialectic reconciles opposites. Socrates employed negative dialectic, and Hegel used positive dialectic, viewing human thought as involving contradiction and reconciliation.

Phenomenological Method:

It focuses on studying phenomena, which are not just appearances but things that reveal themselves to consciousness.

Approaches to Reality:

Philosophers have different approaches to reality, with Descartes proposing dualism (the mind or the soul is comprised of a non-physical substance, while the body is constituted of the physical substance known as matter), Spinoza advocating monism (postulates unity of the origin of all things), and Leibniz supporting pluralism (existence of multiple truths, substances, and/or ways of knowing). These varied approaches highlight the diversity of philosophical methods in the Western philosophical tradition.

Theories of Knowledge

In Greek philosophy, knowledge is associated with perception, as held by atomists and the Sophists, with Protagoras and Gorgias as notable thinkers. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle criticize this theory, emphasizing that knowledge should be universal, valid, and free from contradiction, unlike perception, which is momentary and relative to individuals. Aristotle argues that no sense contradicts itself about the same object at the same moment, highlighting the need for consistency in knowledge. Modern philosophy contrasts with the medieval view, emphasizing the human capacity to know the world and relying on natural explanations rather than supernatural ones.


Empiricists ground their philosophical positions in everyday empirical experiences, asserting that the mind is like a blank slate (tabula rasa), devoid of preconceived ideas. According to empiricism, knowledge is primarily acquired through sensory experience. In this view, the human mind is seen as receptive to information gained from the external world. British empiricists such as Locke, Berkeley, and Hume champion this perspective, advocating for empirical methods as the foundation of knowledge. Locke, in particular, rejected the notion of innate ideas, a belief popular among continental philosophers like Descartes, Leibniz, and Spinoza, as well as having ancient roots in Plato’s philosophy. Locke’s argument challenged the necessity of innate ideas, contending that the universality of ideas did not require their acceptance.


Rationalists place their faith in the human intellect as an independent source of knowledge. They assert the existence of innate (inborn) or “a priori” ideas (that originate from theoretical deduction rather than from observation or experience). In the rationalist view, these innate ideas serve as the foundation of knowledge, offering self-evident universal truths, particularly in fields like mathematics. Thinkers like Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz introduced a new ideal for philosophy, underlining the rational capacity of the human mind. Their inspiration came from the successes of science and mathematics. They aimed to provide philosophy with mathematical precision and clear rational principles for deriving accurate information about the world, free from reliance on supernatural revelation. This approach marked a departure from the empiricist perspective and emphasized the role of reason and innate ideas as fundamental to human knowledge.

Theories of Truth:

The correspondence theory: defines truth as a claim corresponding to the facts or reality; it is true if it aligns with what is so. What we believe or say is true when it corresponds to the way things are. This view has roots in the history of Western philosophy. Analytical philosophers like Russell and G.E. Moore in modern times supported this theory.
The coherence theory of truth: defines truth as a statement being logically consistent with other true beliefs and false if it contradicts them. A belief is true if it is part of a coherent system of beliefs, and this theory is favoured by idealistic philosophers and British idealists.
The pragmatic theory of truth: defines truth as a statement that allows effective and efficient interaction with the world. A belief is less true if it hinders interaction and is false if it facilitates none. Truth is seen as the end of inquiry and satisfactory to believe. William James, an American philosopher, is a famous advocate of the pragmatic theory of truth.

Political Philosophy

It evolved from the individualism of the 17th century. This ideology placed a central focus on progress, freedom, and the primacy of individuals in society, essentially redefining the relationship between individuals and God. Liberalism portrays the individual as the sole owner of his/her person, owing nothing to society. It regarded society as a network of free and equal individuals engaged in mutually beneficial exchanges. The role of political society was primarily seen as safeguarding property and ensuring orderly transactions. Over time, liberalism has taken different forms, but the emphasis on individual rights and democracy has remained a core principle.


Conservatism represents another influential strand of Western political philosophy that views society through the lens of community, upholding tradition, religion, and customs as vital pillars of social order. Conservatives maintain that human nature’s inherent imperfections necessitate a strong state to regulate anti-social behaviour and preserve societal stability. In the conservative perspective, the bonds of community and the shared values of tradition are essential for maintaining a harmonious society. This tradition places a strong emphasis on the importance of maintaining the established order.


Within Western political philosophy, radicalism has emerged as a response to the challenges posed by the inherent class differences brought about by market society. Radical political theories, including proletarian politics and Marxist theory, seek to address these disparities and emphasize the need for fundamental societal change. Radicalism challenges the status quo and calls for a more equitable distribution of resources and power, often advocating for revolutionary measures to achieve these goals.

Communitarianism :

Communitarianism offers a distinct perspective on Western political philosophy, emphasizing the significance of communities and their traditions in shaping the standards of justice and nurturingvirtues for democratic self-government. Unlike liberals who view individuals as autonomousand voluntarily entering social associations, communitarians contend that individuals areinherently connected to their social contexts, which shape their dispositions and commitments. This tradition asserts that communal ties and shared values within a specific society should play a central role in defining justice and guiding political decision-making.


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