The History of Philosophy

    Philosophy like any other discipline has a history, one that is rich, illustrious and interesting. Generally, there seems to be many reasons behind the historical approach to any field.

    Mankind and the visible world are the products of the past in terms of e.g. genealogy, paleontology, astronomy, etc. The world did not start today and so the enquiring mind seeks to know the where, why of the beginning and the end of things. The answers to these questions cannot be satisfactorily given without reference to the past.

    A lot of scientific analysis is done through historical analysis. Examples are in Medicine, Psychology, Sociology, and Anthropology. Many of the present socio-political, economic and legal ills of man could be healed if we know their origin, hence the importance of history.

    Nowadays, many people especially the youths tend to think in terms of the future alone. The past is nearly relegated to the background. There are tremendous insights into this approach since they help to ease tension, which might be generated in recalling the past. However it seems the problem posed by the future cannot adequately be solved without reference to the past. This does not mean that the present will always be like the past. Rather it means that the present cannot be taken seriously, not the future without the help of past experiences.


    From the points given above, one cannot but agree that a cursory study of the History of Philosophy is essential for the understanding of different problematics in Philosophy.

    The History of Philosophy is the history of the human spirit. It is the history of man’s attempts to understand his experiences, of himself and the world he lives in. It is the history of man’s efforts to find order and unity in the multiplicity and diversity that surround him. It is the history of man’s most serious quest for an answer to the riddle of a precarious human existence which shows signs of a desire for a more permanent form of life, for something absolute, for… God.

    The history of Philosophy is, therefore, indispensable otherwise the Philosopher will run the risk of proceeding through blind alleys and repeating the mistakes of his predecessors. Only a study of the past can perhaps help in this regard.

    The beauty of the discipline of Philosophy can be found in its history, especially when one discovers that in spite of the many Philosophers who have travelled its road, there are certain common elements that run through Philosophers of particular epoch or time. It is these common elements that will be largely addressed in this section.

    Nobody can exactly say at what point men started to philosophise or became aware of their paradoxical mode of existence. It is however fairly safe to assume that the evolution of man to the stage of Homo Sapiens was a slow and progressive one. We know for a fact that at some stage he did ask himself questions about his origin, his nature and his destiny and that he attempted to answer these questions.

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    The first set of people who offered answers to questions that othersvwould have taken for granted in a manner akin to that ascribed to Philosopher were said to be the Greeks. In many aspects, Western Historians have traced the origin of Philosophy to the Greeks, especially the Ionians. Although some have argued that Africa is the ancestral home of philosophy, there are compelling reasons, in terms of systemization, logicality, abstraction and what have you to argue that the Greeks played a prominent role in the evolution of philosophical thinking.


    Four major periods have been identified in the history of western philosophy viz:

A. Ancient Greek Philosophy (Age of Reason).
B. The Medieval Period (Age of Faith)
C. The Modern Period (Age of Science)
D. The Contemporary Period (Age of Analysis)

    We shall examine these periods, not by examine individual Philosophers, but by paying attention to the issues raised and the methods used in the advancement of philosophy from age to age.


    Greek Philosophy started when men were no longer satisfied with the mythological cum religious explanation of reality. Thy were beginning to take account of the data of human experience. This does not imply a break with the religious conception of the universe, an attitude that led to the classification of Ionians as the first atheists.

    It means that reason replaced the mythological conception of the universe. The was followed by a natural and logical explanation. The old polytheistic, anthropomorphic gods were abandoned for a new and rational investigation of the true nature of the universe. This was undertaken out of the spirit of wonder or curiosity by the why question Ex qua constitutus materii mundus. What is the basic stuff of the universe? What is the origin of the universe? Why is there being rather than nothing? Or why is there anything rather than nothing?

    In order to obtain an overview of the various responses to these questions, we shall divide Ancient Philosophy into four periods:

(a) The first period:

    The first of these cover the time before Socrates and is referred to as the Pre-Socratic period, or “philosophising physicists,” or the seven sages of Ancient Greek times. This Philosophy has its home in the Greek Colonies, in Ionian, Southern Italy and Sicily. It was chiefly the Philosophy of nature. Notable philosophers in this period include Thales of Miletus, the first know Greek Philosopher. In answer to the above question, he replied that water is the basic stuff of the universe.

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    Other philosophers are Anaximander, Anaximenes, Empedocles, Pythagoras who propagated the Pythagorian theory in Mathematics and the theory of transmigration of the soul.

    The first part of Ancient Greek Period was essentially cosmological in orientation. Only later, when sophism appeared did man himself become the object of philosophical speculation and a problem to be solved.

(b) The second period

    The second period may be called Hellenic because during it, the motherland itself began to philosophise. This period is arguably the most productive period in the history of western philosophy. Some of the most popular and influential philosophers that ever lived belong to this period. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were the dominant figures of this period.

(c) The third period

    The third period of Greek philosophy lies between 300 and 30 B.C. In this era we find Philosophical schools that were the centre of attraction. The academy, the Peripatos, Stoa and the Garden of Epicurus, were such schools.

(d) The fourth period

    The fourth period embraces the philosophy of the age of the emperor dating from the first century A.D to 529 A.D. at which time Emperor Justinia closed the Platonic Academy at Athens, confiscated its properties and forbade all future philosophising in Athens. Thud period was not creative, it destroyed all the achievements of the earlier periods.

    The first historical epoch has been characterized as the Age of Reason, because of the gradual development of human thought from mythology to rationality.


    Medieval philosophy contains thoughts that flourished between the 5th Century A.D. to the 14th Century A.D. Despite the fact that Christian philosophy dominated this period, it would however be wring to limit the whole of medieval period to scholasticism. Islamic and Jewish philosophies were equally practised and cultivated during this era.

    The central philosophical issues during this period are as follows: the relationship between reason and faith, the proof of God’s existence, the immortality of the soul and the foreknowledge of God. The following philosopher flourished during this era: St. Augustine, Boethius, Duns Scotus, Scotus Eriugena, St. Anslem, St. Thomas Aquinas, Philo, Al. Gazili, Averros, Avicena, Al. Farabi, etc.


    The modern period was the era of the diminishing authority of the Church and the increasing authority of Reason and Science. If the medieval period was the golden age of idealism and religion, the modern period was the apogee of materialism, of reason and science. If philosophy ceased to be the handmaid of Theology, it has not yet become the charwoman of Science. It received stimulus from Science but it asserted its autonomy and independence.

    It is customary to divide modern period in philosophy into three main streams, the one comprising the Rationalist system of the continent from Descartes to Leibniz and his disciple Christian Wolff, the second comprising British Empiricism down to and including Hume, and the third comprising the idealist camp from Kant to the German idealist Hegel.

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(a) Rationalism

    A rationalist can be simply described as one who affirms the sole power of the human reason or intellect to acquire true knowledge independent of sense perception. The doctrine of rationalism is mostly associated with Descartes the first continental Rationalist, Spinoza and Leibniz.

    Philosophers such as Descartes and Leibniz accepted the idea of Innate or Apriori Truth. They did not think, of course, that a newly born infant perceives certain truths from the moment of birth.

(b) The Empiricist Tradition

    John Locke, Bishop Berkeley and David Hume are referred to as British empiricists. The empiricists rely on sense-experience as the key source of knowledge. Empiricism asserts that all human knowledge are derived from sense perception. For them, the five senses of hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting and feeling are the ways of getting acquainted with the external world.

(c) The German Idealism

    Immanuel Kant who was awakened from his dogmatic slumber by Hume heralded the advent of Germany Idealism. He is considered tone one if the greatest philosophers of the modern period. Some of his popular works include Critique of Pure ReasonCritique of practical reason, and Prolegomena to any future metaphysics. His distinction between Apriori and Aposteriori knowledge is very significant. He is further acknowledged for his distinction between analytic and synthetic propositions, and finally he was not sympathetic in Hus critique of traditional metaphysics. Kant’s general philosophical out-look opened the way for the emergence of Germany idealism, which flowered in the system building of Hegelianism.

    Towards the end of the modern period a new current of thought arose to fight the systemization, functionalization and abstraction in Philosophy. This current is called Existentialism. The existentialists include figures like Heidegger, J.P. Sartre, Nietzche, Kierkegaard, G. Marcel, M. Buber, A. Camus, K. Jaspers etc.

    Generally, the modern period is known as “the age of science.” This is because it heralded the world of science with its experimental methodology.


    The contemporary period represents various philosophic trends or orientations. Like the British Neo-Idealism, the Analytic School is an amalgamation of logical atomism, logical positivism and linguistic school of Wittgenstein.

    Towards the end of the 19th Century, Neo-idealism, which was largely a positive revival of Hegelianism, was resurrected and became prominent especially in Britain. Notable philosophers were Thomas Hill Green, James Mac Taggart, Bernard Bosanquet and Herbert Bradley.

    Mention must also be made of American Pragmatic Philosophy championed BT C.S. Pierce, developed by William James and John Dewey, and propagated today by Richard Sorry. The crux of pragmatic argument is that “what is true is what works in practice” or what is expedient is our way of thinking.