In the first series of articles on Western Philosophy by Arshad Shaikh, we tried to understand it by classifying it in chronological order. Thus, we saw – Western philosophy as being ancient, medieval, modern, and contemporary. In this second of the series, we will look at the characteristics that define and describe the characteristics and features of Western Philosophy.
It is not easy to describe the exact characteristics of Western philosophy as it has evolved from the age of ancient Greek philosophy right up to modern times. Western philosophy is quite different from the (Eastern) philosophical traditions in Africa and Asia. Western philosophy has always been about trying to understand the world and society using thinking and reason. Western philosophy tried to bridge the gap between theology (religious beliefs) and science (empirical knowledge). Science deals with observation and laws of nature, while philosophy wrestles with questions that science cannot answer. Philosophers tried to understand the world comprehensively and go beyond mere data and observation.
One way to understand the characteristics of Western Philosophy is to look at it through different periods and influences it has passed through. Some very important philosophical questions and their answers began surfacing in ancient Greece around the sixth century B.C. After a while, with the rise of Christianity and the fall of the Roman Empire, theology (religious beliefs) started gaining prominence over philosophy. From the 11th to 14th centuries of the Common Era, the Catholic Church played a big role in shaping philosophical ideas. This period was eclipsed by the Reformation movement. The next period from the 17th century to today is deeply influenced by science. Most philosophers in this period did not follow traditional religious dogma and clung to the idea that religion should be confined to the individual’s personal life and should not have any role in collective affairs and governance by the state. Religion must be kept away from politics.
Western philosophy has the following main branches namely metaphysics (study of the fundamental nature of reality), epistemology (study of knowledge), and axiology (study of value).
Metaphysics can be divided into descriptive and reversionary metaphysics. Descriptive metaphysics describes how we think about the world as it is in our minds. It uses conceptual analysis to understand the general features of our thoughts about reality. Philosophers like Aristotle, Kant, and Strawson are known for descriptive metaphysics. Reversionary metaphysics, on the other hand, tries to change the way we normally think about things. It aims to create a better and more organized way of understanding the world, often going beyond what we can directly experience. Descartes, Leibniz, and Berkeley are associated with reversionary metaphysics.
The idea of appearance versus reality is important in metaphysics and leads to idealism. Idealism suggests that what we directly perceive through our senses is just mental representations of things, not the things themselves. Plato believed that the sensible world is less real than the unchanging, eternal “forms” known only through reason. Descartes distinguished between the mental and physical, creating a divide between appearances and reality. Kant’s transcendental idealism views appearances as representations, not things in themselves, and considers time and space as forms of our intuition. Hegel believed that no appearance is false; appearance is a less organized form of reality. For Hegel, reality includes and transcends appearances. Realism, on the other hand, argues that reality exists independently of our thoughts, and what we think and understand doesn’t define everything about reality. Descartes’ dualism, the separation of matter and mind, was challenged by Hobbes, who saw them as connected and subject to the same laws. Hobbes believed the true dualism was between matter and spirit, which is a matter for theology, not philosophy. Hobbes also suggested that space and time do not have a metaphysical reality; they are images of the physical world with a material nature. He explained religion in naturalistic terms, linking it to curiosity and fear.
From Physical World to Ethics and Human Behavior
Early Greek philosophers were mostly interested in understanding the physical world and its composition. Over time, the focus shifted to ethical questions about how people should behave.
Philosophers like the Sophists (secular atheists who were cynical about religious beliefs; they believed and taught that “might is right”) and Socrates turned their attention to the study of human knowledge and universal truth. They wondered if humans could discover universal truths and have a universal concept of goodness. Ethical discussions became a central part of philosophical systems. Different philosophers had varying views on ethics. The Sophists believed that pleasure is good and that humans are the measure of everything. Socrates emphasized virtue as knowledge and believed that an unexamined life is not worth living. Plato associated goodness with cardinal virtues. Medieval philosophers connected goodness with religious morality and the authority of religious texts. Modern philosophers aligned with humanism and secularism in developing ethical theories. Utilitarian philosophers like Bentham and Mill focused on the consequences of actions to determine what is good. Kant revised virtue ethics through the concept of goodwill (saying it was the only thing intrinsically valuable) and the categorical imperative (commands or moral laws all persons must follow, regardless of their desires or extenuating circumstances). G.E. Moore argued that good is indefinable and is known through intuition. A.J. Ayer’s emotive theory of ethics states that ethical statements express emotions rather than being positive or negative. In ancient and medieval times, ethics were based on religious morality. Modern ethical theories are developed based on human nature, with J.S. Mill emphasising the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain, and Kant arguing for universal moral duty based on human rationality. Existential thinker Jean-Paul Sartre believed there is no fixed human nature and that morality is subjective and, dependent on the individual’s situation.
Socrates developed a method of argumentation called dialectic. Plato organized various concerns of human thought into a unified system of knowledge. This comprehensive understanding of reality became a hallmark of Western philosophy and influenced later Western philosophers. Western philosophy’s history is often seen as a series of comments on Plato’s ideas. Early philosophers like the Milesians focused on the physical world’s constitution, not morality. Parmenides and Zeno believed in a single, unchanging reality. Heraclitus and the Pythagoreans saw reality as constantly changing, and full of diverse things. Socrates and the Sophists shifted philosophy’s focus from the physical world to morality. Plato’s influence comes from bringing all these diverse philosophical concerns into a unified system of thought.
Plato argued that the kind of knowledge used to distinguish between shadows, reflections, and real objects in the visible world is similar to the knowledge needed to lead a genuinely good life.
He believed that truth is revealed not through ordinary sense perception but through reason. Reason reveals necessary, eternal, and a priori truths, and cultivating reason allows us to understand God, the world, and us as they truly are, beyond the limitations of our sensory experiences.
(To be continued)