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History of philosophy

The history of philosophy is the systematic study of the development of philosophical thought. It focuses on philosophy as rational inquiry based on argumentation, but some theorists also include myths, religious traditions, and proverbial lore.

Western philosophy originated with an inquiry into the fundamental nature of the cosmos in Ancient Greece. Subsequent philosophical developments covered a wide range of topics including the nature of reality and the mind, how people should act, and how to arrive at knowledge. The following medieval period was focused more on theology. The Renaissance period saw a renewed interest in Ancient Greek philosophy and the emergence of humanism. The modern period was characterized by an increased focus on how philosophical and scientific knowledge is created. Its new ideas were used in the Enlightenment period to challenge traditional authorities. Influential developments in the 19th and 20th centuries were German idealism, pragmatism, positivism, formal logic, linguistic analysis, phenomenology, existentialism, and postmodernism.

Arabic–Persian philosophy was strongly influenced by Ancient Greek philosophers. It had its peak period during the Islamic Golden Age. One of its topics was the relation between reason and revelation as two compatible ways of arriving at the truth. Avicenna developed a comprehensive philosophical system that synthesized Islamic faith and Greek philosophy. After the Islamic Golden Age, the influence of philosophical inquiry waned, partly due to Al-Ghazali's critique of philosophy. In the 17th century, Mulla Sadra developed a metaphysical system based on mysticism. Islamic modernism emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries as an attempt to reconcile traditional Islamic doctrines with modernity.

Indian philosophy is characterized by its combined interest in the nature of reality, the ways of arriving at knowledge, and the spiritual question of how to reach enlightenment. Its roots are the religious scriptures known as the Vedas. Subsequent Indian philosophy is often divided into orthodox schools, which are closely associated with the teachings of the Vedas, and heterodox schools, like Buddhism and Jainism. Influential schools based on them were the Hindu schools of Advaita Vedanta and Navya-Nyāya as well as the Buddhist schools of Madhyamaka and Yogācāra. In the modern period, the exchange between Indian and Western thought led various Indian philosophers to develop comprehensive systems. They aimed to unite and harmonize diverse philosophical and religious schools of thought.

Central topics in Chinese philosophy were right social conduct, government, and self-cultivation. In early Chinese philosophy, Confucianism explored moral virtues and how they lead to harmony in society while Daoism focused on the relation between humans and nature. Later developments include the introduction and transformation of Buddhist teachings and the emergence of the schools of Xuanxue and Neo-Confucianism. The modern period in Chinese philosophy was characterized by its encounter with Western philosophy, specifically with Marxism. Other influential traditions in the history of philosophy were Japanese philosophy, Latin American philosophy, and African philosophy.

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Definition and related disciplines

The history of philosophy is the field of inquiry that studies the historical development of philosophical thought. It aims to provide a systematic and chronological exposition of philosophical concepts and doctrines as well as the philosophers that conceived them and the schools of thought they belong to. It is not a mere collection of theories but tries to show how the different theories are related to each other. For example, some schools of thought build on earlier theories while others reject them and try to provide alternative explanations.[1] Purely mystical and religious traditions are often excluded from the history of philosophy if their claims are not based on rational inquiry and argumentation. But some theorists treat the topic in a very wide sense to include the philosophical aspects of traditional worldviews, religious myths, and proverbial lore.[2]

The history of philosophy has both a historical and a philosophical component. The historical component is concerned with how philosophical thought unfolded throughout the ages. It asks which philosophers held what views and how they were influenced by their social and cultural context. The philosophical component concerns whether the studied theories are true. It reflects on the arguments presented for the positions and assesses their validity and hidden assumptions. It makes the philosophical heritage accessible to a contemporary audience and evaluates its continued relevance today. Some historians of philosophy focus primarily on the historical component. They hold that the history of philosophy is part of the wider discipline known as intellectual history. Other theorists put more emphasis on the philosophical component. They tend to claim that the history of philosophy goes beyond intellectual history because its interest is not exclusively historical.[3] It is controversial to what extent the history of philosophy can be understood as a discipline distinct from philosophy. Some theorists hold instead that the history of philosophy forms an integral part of philosophy.[4] According to Neo-Kantians like Wilhelm Windelband, for example, philosophy is essentially historical and it is not possible to understand a philosophical position without understanding how it emerged.[5]

Closely related to the history of philosophy is the historiography of philosophy. The historiography of philosophy examines what methods historians of philosophy use. It is also interested in how the dominant opinions in this field changed.[6] Different methods and approaches are used to study the history of philosophy. Some historians are mainly interested in philosophical theories and less in the fact that they were formulated in the past. They focus not on how the different positions evolved through time but on what claims they made and how they are still of interest. A different approach is to see the history of philosophy as an evolution. This approach is based on the assumption that there is a clear progress from one period to the next. In this process, earlier theories are refined or replaced by more advanced later theories. Other historians try to understand past philosophical theories as a product of their time. Their interest is in what positions past philosophers accepted and why they did so. The relevance of these positions for today is not their focus. They study, among other things, how the historical context and the philosopher's biography shaped their philosophical outlook.[7]

Another important methodological feature is the use of periodization. It consists in splitting the history of philosophy into distinct periods. Each period corresponds to one or several philosophical tendencies prevalent during that historical timeframe.[8] Traditionally, treatments of the history of philosophy often focused primarily on Western philosophy. But in a wider sense, it includes many non-Western traditions like Arabic–Persian philosophy, Indian philosophy, and Chinese philosophy.[9]


Western philosophy covers the philosophy associated with the geographical region and cultural heritage of the Western world. It started in Ancient Greece and then shifted to the Roman Empire. It later spread to Western Europe and eventually to many other regions, including North America, Latin America, and Australia. It spans over 2.5 millennia, starting in the 6th century BCE and continuing until the present day.[10]


Western philosophy originated in Ancient Greece in the 6th century BCE. This period ended by convention in 529 CE when the Platonic Academy and other philosophical schools in Athens were forced to shut down to stop their non-Christian doctrines.[11]


The first period of Ancient Greek philosophy is called Presocratic philosophy and lasted until about the mid-4th century BCE. The study of Presocratic philosophy is often difficult because many of the texts only survived in fragments and often have to be studied indirectly based on quotations found in other texts.[12]

A key innovation of Presocratic philosophy was its attempt to provide rational explanations of the cosmos as a whole. This was in contrast to commonly-held Greek mythology, which provided theological interpretations – such as the myth of Uranus and Gaia – to emphasize the role of various gods and goddesses who would continue to be worshipped even as Greek philosophy developed across the centuries. The Presocratic philosophers became some of the first to reject Greek theology, instead seeking in its place to provide empirical theories explaining how the world came to be and why it functions the way it does.[13]

Thales, (c. 624–545 BCE) who is usually seen as the very first philosopher, sought to describe the cosmos in terms of a first principle, or arche, which was the primal source of all things, and suggested that water was this arche. Anaximander (c.610–545 BCE) gave a more abstract explanation, arguing that the eternal substance responsible for the creation of the world lies beyond the world of human perception. He called his arche the apeiron, meaning "the boundless".[14]

Heraclitus (c. 540–480 BCE) saw a world where everything is in constant flux. This is exemplified in his famous statement that it is impossible to step into the same river twice. He also emphasized the role of logos as an order that governs both the inner self and the outer world.[15] Parmenides (c. 515–450 BCE) rejected this emphasis on flux, claiming that true reality is unchanging, eternal, and indivisible. Parmenides' student Zeno of Elea (c. 490–430 BCE) formulated various paradoxes in support of this idea, arguing that motion was an illusion and change was impossible. One paradox argues that it is impossible for the fast Achilles to overtake the slower tortoise.[16]

Another influential theory was the atomism of Democritus (c. 460–370 BCE), which states that reality is made up of many indivisible particles called atoms.[17] Further Presocratic philosophers are Anaximenes, Pythagoras, Xenophanes, Empedocles, Anaxagoras, and Leucippus, and the sophists, such as Protagoras and Gorgias.[18]

Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle

The philosophy of Socrates (469–399 BCE) and Plato (427–347 BCE) built on Presocratic philosophy but also changed the philosophical focus in many ways. Socrates did not write anything and owes his influence to the impact he made on his contemporaries. This concerns specifically his way to conduct philosophical inquiries in the form of so-called Socratic dialogues. They often start with simple questions in an attempt to explore a topic and critically reflect on underlying ideas and assumptions. In contrast to the Presocratics, his focus was less on metaphysical theories and more on moral philosophy. In many of his dialogues, he explored the question of what it means to lead a good life, by exploring virtues, like justice, courage, and wisdom. Despite being regarded as a great teacher of ethics, Socrates did not typically teach any specific moral doctrines. Instead, he tried to prompt his audience to think for themselves and become aware of their ignorance.[19]

Fresco showing Plato and Aristotle
Plato (left) and Aristotle (right) gesturing to illustrate the differences in their ideas as the two founders of Western philosophy, detail from the School of Athens

Most of what is known of Socrates comes from the writings of his student Plato. Plato's works take the form of dialogues between other philosophers. This makes it difficult to reconstruct which of his doctrines are his own theories. He articulated the theory of forms, which claims that the true nature of reality is found in abstract and eternal forms or ideas. Examples are the forms of beauty, justice, and goodness. The physical and changeable world of the senses, on the other hand, is only an imperfect copy of the forms. The theory of forms shaped subsequent views of metaphysics and epistemology to this day. Plato can also be regarded as a pioneer in the field of psychology. He divided the soul into three faculties: reason, spirit, and desire, which are responsible for different mental phenomena and interact with each other in many ways. Other contributions of Plato concern the fields of ethics and political philosophy.[20] Plato also founded his Academy, which is sometimes considered the first institute of higher education.[21]

Aristotle (384–322 BCE), who was initially a student at Plato's Academy, was a systematic philosopher. His teachings have been transcribed in the form of treatises on various subjects in the philosophy of nature, metaphysics, logic, and ethics. He introduced many technical terms in these fields that are still used today. He accepted Plato's distinction between form and matter, but he rejected the idea that forms can exist by themselves and claimed instead that forms and matter depend on each other. This issue was discussed by many subsequent philosophers as the problem of universals. In the field of metaphysics, he presented a set of basic categories of being as a framework for classifying and analyzing the different aspects of being. He also proposed his so-called four causes, which aim to explain why any movement or change in nature happens. According to the teleological cause, for example, everything in nature has a goal and moves towards it. Aristotle's ethical theory holds that to lead a good life, a person needs to cultivate virtues in order to flourish. In the field of logic, Aristotle codified rules of correct inferences.[22]

Hellenistic and Roman

Ancient philosophy after Aristotle was marked by the emergence of wider philosophical movements, like Epicureanism, Stoicism, and Skepticism, the so-called Hellenistic schools of thought. Their inquiry focused on fields like ethics, physics, logic, and epistemology. This period began with the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE and had its main impact until the end of the Roman Republic in 31 BCE.[23]

The Epicureans accepted and refined Democritus's idea that nature is composed of indivisible atoms. In the field of ethics, they saw pleasure as the highest good but rejected the idea that luxury and indulging in sensory pleasures lead to long-term happiness. Instead, they argued that a nuanced form of hedonism, a simple life characterized by tranquillity, was the best way to achieve this.[24]

The Stoics denied this hedonistic outlook; they saw desires and aversions as obstacles to their goal of living in tune with reason and virtue. In order to transcend or overcome these desires, they advocated self-mastery and an attitude of indifference.[25]

The skeptics explored the question of how judgments and opinions affect well-being. They claimed that dogmatic beliefs cause emotional disturbances. They recommended that people suspend judgments for issues where certainty is not possible. According to some skeptics, this applies to all beliefs and any form of knowledge is impossible.[26]

The school of Neoplatonism belongs to the later part of the ancient period. It started in the 3rd century CE and had its peak period until the 6th century CE. It inherited many ideas from Plato and Aristotle and transformed them in creative ways. Its core idea is that there is a transcendent and ineffable entity responsible for all existence. It is simply called "the One" or "the Good". The Intellect emerges from the One and contemplates it. This in turn gives rise to the Soul, which generates the material world. Influential Neoplatonists were Plotinus (204–270 CE) and his student Porphyry (234–305 CE).[27]


The medieval period in Western philosophy started between 400 and 500 CE and ended between 1400 and 1500 CE.[28] One of its core differences from earlier philosophers is its focus on religious thought. The Christian Emperor Justinian forced schools of philosophy, such as Plato's Academy, to close. Intellectual activity was centralized in the Church and departing from doctrinal orthodoxy carried many risks. For these reasons, some consider it a "dark age" in comparison to what came before and after it.[29] Central topics in this period were the problem of universals, the nature of God, proofs of the existence of God, and the relation between reason and faith. The early medieval period was particularly shaped by Plato's philosophy while Aristotelian ideas became dominant in its later parts.[30]

Augustine of Hippo (354–430 CE) was influenced by Platonism and used this perspective to explain the key concepts and problems of the Christian doctrine. He accepted the Neoplatonist idea that God or the ultimate source is both good and incomprehensible. This prompted him to address the problem of evil, i.e. to explain how evil could exist in a world created by a benevolent, all-knowing, and all-powerful God. His explanation is that God gave humans free will. This enables them to do good and evil together with the responsibility for their choice. Further influential ideas of Augustine were his arguments for the existence of God, his theory of time, and his just war theory.[31]

Boethius (477–524 CE) had a keen interest in Greek philosophy. He translated many of Aristotle's works and tried to integrate and reconcile them with Christian doctrine. He discussed the problem of universals and formulated a theory to harmonize Plato's and Aristotle's views. He tried to achieve this by claiming that universals exist in the mind without matter in one way. But they also exist in material objects in another way. This idea was influential in the subsequent medieval debate on the problem of universals: it inspired so-called nominalists to claim that universals exist only in the mind. In relation to the Christian doctrine, Boethius explored the problem of the trinity, i.e. the question of how God can exist in three persons at the same time as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.[32]


The later part of the medieval period was dominated by scholasticism. Scholasticism was strongly influenced by Aristotelian philosophy and followed a systematic and methodological approach.[33] Responsible for this intensified interest in Aristotle was the Arabic–Persian tradition. It preserved, translated, and interpreted many works of Aristotle that were lost in the Western world.[34]

Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109 CE) is often considered the father of scholasticism. He saw reason and faith as two complementary aspects that depend on each other to arrive at a proper understanding. He is most well-known for his ontological argument for the existence of God. He defined God as the greatest conceivable being and argued that God must exist outside his mind. This is based on the idea that God would not be the greatest conceivable being if He only existed in the mind.[35] Peter Abelard (1079–1142) also emphasized the harmony between reason and faith. He claimed that both emerge from the same divine source. For this reason, he concluded that there cannot be a contradiction between them. Another influential innovation was his nominalism, which claimed that universals exist only as mental constructs.[36]

Painting of Thomas Aquinas
Thomas Aquinas developed a comprehensive system of scholastic philosophy.

Thomas Aquinas (1224–1274 CE) is often seen as the most influential medieval philosopher. Rooted in Aristotelianism, he developed a comprehensive system of scholastic philosophy. It covered areas like metaphysics, theology, ethics, and political theory. Many of his insights were summarized in his work Summa Theologiae. A key goal in most of his writings was to show how faith and reason work in harmony. He held that reason supports and reinforces the Christian tenets. But faith in God's revelation is still necessary since reason is unable to understand everything by itself. This concerns, for example, the claim that the world is eternal and the details of how God is related to His creation. In metaphysics, Thomas claimed that any entity is characterized by two aspects: essence and existence. Understanding a thing involves grasping its essence. This can happen without perceiving whether it exists. God constitutes a special case: His existence is unrestricted and is identical to his essence.[37] In ethics, Thomas held that moral principles are rooted in human nature. He thought that ethics is about doing what is good and that humans, as rational beings, have a natural inclination to pursue the Good.[38] In natural theology, his famous Five Ways are five arguments for the existence of God.[39]

Duns Scotus (1266–1308 CE) engaged with many of Thomas's ideas. In metaphysics, he rejected the claim that there is a real distinction between essence and existence. He held instead that this is only a formal distinction. This means that essence and existence are two different aspects of a thing. But they cannot be separated. He further claimed that there is a unique essence for each individual entity. This unique essence, called haecceity, is what makes an entity distinct from other entities of the same kind.[40]

William of Ockham (1285–1347 CE) is one of the last scholastic philosophers. He is the inventor of the methodological principle known as Ockham's Razor. This principle is used to choose between competing explanations of the same phenomenon. It states that simple explanations are to be preferred. In this context, an explanation is simpler if it assumes the existence of fewer entities. Ockham used the principle to argue for nominalism and against realism about universals. According to him, nominalism is the simpler explanation since it does not assume that universals exist.[41]


The Renaissance period started in the middle of the 14th century and lasted until the beginning of the 17th century. This movement had its roots in Italy and gradually expanded to other regions of Western Europe. Some of its key aspects were a renewed interest in Ancient Greek philosophy and the emergence of humanism. It also saw a shift toward scientific inquiry. This was a significant departure from the medieval period with its main focus on religious and scholastic traditions. A further change was that intellectual activity was not as closely tied to the Church as before: most scholars in this period were not clerics.[42]

An important part of the resurgence of Ancient Greek philosophy concerned a revived enthusiasm for the teachings of Plato. This Renaissance Platonism was still conducted on the background of Christian theology and often tried to show how Plato's philosophy is compatible with and can be applied to Christian doctrines. For example, Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499) argued that souls establish the connection between the realm of Platonic forms and the sensory realm. According to Plato, love can be understood as a ladder to reach higher forms of understanding. Ficino interpreted this in an intellectual sense as a way of relating to God through the love of knowledge.[43]

The revival of Ancient Greek philosophy was not restricted to Platonism. It encompassed other schools as well, such as Skepticism, Epicureanism, and Stoicism.[44] It was closely associated with the emergence of Renaissance humanism. Renaissance humanism is a human-centred worldview that highly values the academic disciplines studying human society and culture. This also included a shift in perspective by seeing humans as genuine individuals. Renaissance humanism was not primarily a philosophical movement. But it brought about many social and cultural changes that affected philosophical activity.[45] These changes were also accompanied by an increased interest in political philosophy. Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) argued that a key responsibility of rulers is to ensure stability and security. They should govern effectively to benefit the state as a whole, even if harsh circumstances require the use of force and ruthless action. A different political outlook was presented by Thomas More (1478–1535). He envisioned an ideal society that is characterized by communal ownership, egalitarianism, and devotion to public service.[46]

The Renaissance also saw various developments in the philosophy of nature and science, which helped prepare the scientific revolution. One of them concerned the emphasis on empirical observation for scientific inquiry. Another was the idea that mathematical explanations should be employed to understand those observations.[47] Francis Bacon (1561–1626 CE) is often seen as a transitional figure between the Renaissance and modernity. He tried to revolutionize logic and scientific inquiry with his Novum Organum, which was meant to replace Aristotle's influential work in this field. It discussed, for example, the role of inductive reasoning for empirical inquiry to arrive at general laws from many individual observations.[48] Another transitional figure is Galileo Galilei (1564–1642 CE). He played a key role in the Copernican Revolution by claiming that the Sun, and not the Earth, is at the center of the Solar System. [49]

Early modern

Early modern philosophy encompasses the 17th and 18th centuries. The philosophers in this period are traditionally divided into empiricists and rationalists. However, contemporary historians have argued that this is not a strict dichotomy and more a matter of varying degrees. These schools have in common that they seek a clearly established, rigorous, and systematic method of inquiry. This philosophical focus on method reflected the advances happening simultaneously as part of the scientific revolution. Empiricism and rationalism differ concerning the type of method they promote. Empiricism focuses on sensory experience. Rationalism emphasizes reason – particularly the principles of non-contradiction and sufficient reason – and innate knowledge. This focus on method was already foreshadowed in Renaissance thought but only came to full prominence in the early modern period. The second half of this period saw the emergence of the Enlightenment movement. It used these advances to challenge traditional authorities while promoting progress, individual freedom, and human rights.[50]


Oil painting of John Locke
John Locke is sometimes seen as the father of empiricism.

Empiricism in the early modern period was mainly associated with British philosophy. John Locke (1632–1704) is sometimes considered the father of empiricism. In his book An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, he rejected the idea of innate knowledge and claimed that knowledge is empirical. He held that the mind is a blank slate that depends on sensory experience to acquire ideas. He distinguished between primary qualities, which belong to external objects independent of observers, and secondary qualities, which are the powers of objects to cause sensations in observers.[51] George Berkeley (1685–1753) was strongly influenced by Locke. He proposed a different and more radical form of empiricism. He developed a form of idealism by giving primacy to perceptions and ideas over material things. He argued that objects exist only to the extent that they are perceived by the mind. This implies that there is no reality outside the mind.[52]

David Hume (1711–1776) also accepted the basic empiricist tenet that knowledge is derived from sensory experience. He concluded from this idea that it is not possible to know that one thing caused another thing. His reason for this view was that the relation between cause and effect is not perceptible. Instead, he argued that the mind only perceives regular patterns between earlier and later phenomena. This leads it into a habit of expecting a phenomenon to occur because another one just occurred.[53] The empiricism promoted by Hume and others had an important influence on the scientific method. This concerned specifically the focus on observation, experimentation, and rigorous testing.[54]


Another dominant school of thought in this period was rationalism. René Descartes (1596–1650) had a pivotal role in its emergence. He aimed to arrive at absolutely certain knowledge. To do so, he employed methodological doubt by questioning all his beliefs to find an indubitable foundation of knowledge. He encountered this foundation in the claim "I think, therefore I am". He employed various rationalist principles, such as the focus on deductive reasoning, to develop a comprehensive philosophical system based on this foundation. It is based on substance dualism and claims that body and mind are independent entities that coexist.[55]

The rationalist philosophy of Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677) gave even more emphasis to the role of deductive reasoning. He developed and used the so-called geometrical method to create his philosophical system. It starts with a small set of self-evident axioms. It proceeds by inferring a comprehensive philosophical system from them by using deductive reasoning. In contrast to Descartes, Spinoza arrived at a metaphysical monism.[56] Another influential rationalist was Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716). His principle of sufficient reason states that everything has a reason. He used this principle to develop his metaphysical system called monadology.[57]

Enlightenment and other late modern philosophy

The later half of the modern period saw the emergence of the cultural and intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment. It employed tendencies of both empiricism and rationalism to challenge traditional authorities and promote the pursuit of knowledge. It advocated individual freedom and had an optimistic outlook toward progress and the improvement of society.[58] Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) was one of the central thinkers of the Enlightenment. He emphasized reason as a tool to understand the world and used it to criticize dogmatism and blind adherence to authority. He provided a comprehensive philosophical system to synthesize both empiricism and rationalism. His transcendental idealism explored how the mind and its pre-established categories shape human experience of reality. In ethics, he developed a deontological moral system that is based on universal moral duties.[59] Other important Enlightenment philosophers were Voltaire (1694–1778), Montesquieu (1689–1755), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778).[60]

Political philosophy in this period was shaped by the book Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679). Hobbes had a negative opinion of the natural state of humans and argued that it involves a war of everyone against everyone. The reason and purpose of civil society is to avoid this state. This happens through a social contract in which everyone cedes some of their rights to a central and immensely powerful authority to protect them from external dangers.[61] Rousseau also theorized political life on the model of a contract. His political outlook, however, was quite different because of his more positive assessment of human nature. This led him to argue in favor of democracy.[62]

19th century

The 19th century was a rich and diverse period in philosophy. In it, the term "philosophy" acquired the distinctive meaning used today as a discipline that is distinct from the empirical sciences and mathematics. A rough division between two types of philosophical approaches in this period can be drawn. Some philosophers tried to provide comprehensive and all-inclusive systems, like the German and British idealists. Another approach seen in Bentham, Mill, and the American pragmatists was the focus on more specific questions pertaining to particular fields, such as ethics and epistemology.[63]

German idealism was among the most influential philosophical schools in this period. This tradition was inaugurated by Immanuel Kant, who argued that the conceptual activity of the subject is always partially constitutive of experience and knowledge. Subsequent German idealists objected to what they saw as theoretical problems with Kant's dualisms and the contradictory status of the thing-in-itself.[64] They sought a single unifying principle as the foundation of all reality. According to Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762–1814), this principle is the activity of the subject or transcendental ego, which posits both itself and its opposite. Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling (1775–1854) rejected this focus on the ego. He sought a more abstract principle, referred to as the absolute or the world-soul, to act as the foundation of both consciousness and nature.[65]

Painting of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel developed the philosophy of absolute idealism.

The philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) is often described as the culmination of this tradition.[66] Hegel reconstructed a philosophical history according to which the measure of progress is the actualization of freedom. He did this not only with respect to political life, but also with respect to philosophy, the aim of which, he claimed, is a form of self-knowledge characterized by the identity of subject and object. His term for this is "the absolute" because such knowledge – which occurs in art, religion, and philosophy – is entirely self-conditioned.[67]

Further influential currents of thought in this period were historicism and neo-Kantianism. Historicists such as Johann Gottfried Herder emphasized the validity and unique nature of historical knowledge of individual events in contrast to universal knowledge of eternal truths. Neo-Kantianism was a diverse philosophical movement that revived and reinterpreted Kant's ideas.[68]

British idealism developed later in the 19th century and was strongly influenced by Hegel. For example, Francis Herbert Bradley (1846–1924) argued that reality is an all-inclusive totality of being that is identified with absolute spirit. He is also famous for claiming that external relations do not exist.[69]

Karl Marx (1818–1883) was another philosopher inspired by Hegel's ideas. He applied them to the historical development of society based on class struggles. But he rejected the idealistic outlook in the formulation of his dialectical materialism. For him, economy rather than spirit was the basic force behind historical development.[70]

According to Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860), the underlying principle of all reality is the will, which he saw as an irrational and blind force. Influenced by Indian philosophy, he formed a pessimistic outlook by coming to the conclusion that the expressions of the will ultimately lead to suffering.[71] He had a profound influence on Friedrich Nietzsche, who saw the will to power as a fundamental driving force in nature. He used this concept to criticize many religious and philosophical ideas: he saw them as disguised attempts to wield power rather than pure spiritual achievements.[72]

In the field of ethics, Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) developed his philosophy of utilitarianism. It states that whether an action is right depends on its utility, i.e., on the pleasure and pain it causes. The goal of actions is to maximize happiness or to produce "the greatest good for the greatest number". His student John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) became one of the foremost proponents of utilitarianism. He further refined the theory by claiming that what matters is not just the degree of pleasure and pain, but also their type or quality.[73]

Toward the end of the 19th century, the philosophy of pragmatism emerged in the United States. Pragmatists evaluate philosophical ideas by how useful and effective they are at guiding action. Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914) is usually considered the founder of pragmatism. He held that the meaning of ideas and theories lies in their practical and observable consequences. According to this view, to say that an object is hard just means that, on a practical level, it is difficult to break, pierce, or scratch this object. He held that a true belief is a stable belief that works even if it has to be revised in the future. His pragmatist philosophy reached a wider popularity thanks to his life-long friend William James (1842–1910). James applied Peirce's ideas to psychology. He argued, for example, that the meaning of an idea consists in its experiential consequences. He rejected the claim that experiences are isolated events and talked instead of a stream of consciousness.[74]

20th century

Philosophy in the 20th century is usually divided into two main traditions: analytic philosophy and continental philosophy.[a] Analytic philosophy was dominant in English-speaking countries. It emphasizes the importance of clarity and precise language. It often employs tools like formal logic and linguistic analysis to examine traditional philosophical problems in the fields of metaphysics, epistemology, science, and ethics. Continental philosophy was more prominent in European countries, particularly in Germany and France. It is used as an umbrella term without a precisely established meaning. It covers philosophical movements like phenomenology, hermeneutics, existentialism, deconstruction, critical theory, and psychoanalytic theory.[76] Interest in academic philosophy increased rapidly in the 20th century in terms of the number of philosophical publications and of philosophers working at academic institutions.[77] Another change in this period was the increased presence of female philosophers. However, despite this improvement, they remained underrepresented.[78]

Photo of Simone de Beauvoir
Simone de Beauvoir was one of the philosophers responsible for the rise of feminism.

Some schools of thought in 20th-century philosophy do not clearly fall into either analytic or continental philosophy. Pragmatism further evolved from its 19th-century roots thanks to scholars like Richard Rorty (1931–2007) and Hilary Putnam (1926–2016). It was applied to new fields of inquiry, such as epistemology, politics, education, and the social sciences.[79] Philosophy in the 20th century also saw the rise of feminism, which studies and criticizes traditional assumptions and power structures that disadvantage women, through philosophers such as Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986), Martha Nussbaum (1947–present), and Judith Butler (1956–present).[80]


George Edward Moore (1873–1958) was one of the founding figures of analytic philosophy. He emphasized the importance of common sense and used it to argue against radical forms of skepticism. He was particularly influential in the field of ethics, where he claimed that our actions should promote the good. He held that the concept "good" cannot be defined in terms of other concepts. According to him, whether something is good can be known through intuition.[81]

Photo of Gottlob Frege
Gottlob Frege was one of the pioneers of analytic philosophy.

Gottlob Frege (1848–1925) was another pioneer of the analytic tradition. His development of modern symbolic logic had a significant impact on subsequent philosophers even outside the field of logic. He employed these advances in his attempt to prove that arithmetic can be reduced to logic. This thesis is known as logicism.[82] The logicist project of Bertrand Russell (1872–1970) was even more ambitious since it included not only arithmetic but also geometry and analysis. Their attempts were very fruitful but did not fully succeed since additional axioms, besides the axioms of logic, are required. In the philosophy of language, Russell's theory of definite descriptions was influential. It explains how to make sense of paradoxical expressions like "the present King of France", which do not refer to any entity.[83] He developed the theory of logical atomism, which was further refined by his student Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951). According to Wittgenstein's early philosophy, the world is made up of a multitude of atomic facts. The world and language have the same logical structure, which is why it is possible to represent these facts using propositions. Despite the influence of this theory, Wittgenstein came to reject it in his later philosophy. He argued instead that language consists of a variety of games, each with its own rules and conventions. According to this view, meaning is determined by usage and not by referring to facts.[84]

Logical positivism developed in parallel and was strongly influenced by empiricism. It is primarily associated with the Vienna Circle and focused on logical analysis and empirical verification. One of its members was Rudolf Carnap (1891–1970). He defended the verification principle, which claims that a statement is meaningless if it cannot be verified through sensory experience or the laws of logic. He used this principle to reject the discipline of metaphysics in general.[85] This principle was criticized by Carnap's student Willard Van Orman Quine (1908–2000) as one of the dogmas of empiricism. One of the core ideas of Quine's philosophy was naturalism, which he understood as the claim that the natural sciences provide the most reliable framework for understanding the world. He used this outlook to argue that mathematical entities have real existence because they are indispensable to science.[86]

Wittgenstein's later philosophy formed part of ordinary language philosophy, which analyzed everyday language to understand philosophical concepts and problems. The theory of speech acts by John Langshaw Austin (1911–1960) was an influential early contribution to this field. Other theorists in this tradition were Gilbert Ryle (1900–1976) and Sir Peter Frederick Strawson (1919–2006). The shift in emphasis on the role of language is known as the linguistic turn.[87]

Richard Mervyn Hare (1919–2002) and John Leslie Mackie (1917–1981) were influential ethical philosophers in the analytic tradition. John Rawls (1921–2002) and Robert Nozick (1938–2002) made significant contributions to political philosophy.[88]


Photo of Martin Heidegger
Martin Heidegger made contributions to phenomenology, hermeneutics, and existentialism.

In the tradition of continental philosophy, phenomenology was an important early movement. It tried to give an unprejudiced description of human experience from a subjective perspective. It used this description as a method to analyze and evaluate philosophical problems belonging to diverse fields like epistemology, ontology, philosophy of mind, and ethics. Its founder was Edmund Husserl (1859–1938). He emphasized the importance of suspending all antecedent beliefs to give a pure and unbiased description of experience as it unfolds.[89] His student Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) adopted this method into an approach he termed fundamental ontology. He explored how human pre-understanding of reality shapes human experience of and engagement with the world. He thought that pure description alone is not sufficient for phenomenology. Instead, it should be accompanied by interpretation to discover and avoid possible misunderstandings.[90] This line of thought was further developed by his student Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900–2002). Gadamer held that human pre-understanding is dynamic and changes in the process of interpretation. He tried to explain this process as a fusion of horizons. The fusion of horizons involves an interplay between the person's current horizon and the horizon of the object of interpretation.[91]

Another influential current of thought in Heidegger's philosophy is his emphasis on how humans care about the world. He explored how this is related to phenomena like anxiety and authenticity. These ideas influenced Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980), who developed the philosophy of existentialism. Existentialists hold that humans are fundamentally free and responsible for their own choices. They also claim that life lacks a predetermined purpose and choosing one's path without such a guiding purpose can lead to anxiety. The statement that the universe is meaningless was especially emphasized by absurdist intellectuals like Albert Camus (1913–1960).[92]

Critical Theory emerged in the first half of the 20th century in the Frankfurt School of philosophy. It is a form of social philosophy that aims to provide a reflective assessment and critique of society and culture. Unlike traditional theory, its goal is not only to understand and explain but also to bring about change on a practical level, in particular, to emancipate people and liberate them from domination and oppression. Some of its key themes are power, inequality, social justice, and the role of ideology. Notable figures include Theodor Adorno (1903–1969), Max Horkheimer (1895–1973), and Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979).[93]

The second half of 20th-century continental philosophy was characterized by a critical attitude toward many traditional philosophical concepts and assumptions, such as the concepts of truth, objectivity, universal explanations, reason, and progress. This outlook is sometimes labelled postmodernism. Michel Foucault (1926–1984) examined the relation between knowledge and power. He tried to show how knowledge is always shaped by power. Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) developed the philosophy of deconstruction. Deconstruction aims to expose hidden contradictions within philosophical texts by subverting the oppositions they depend on. Examples are the opposition between presence and absence or between subject and object. Gilles Deleuze (1925–1995) drew on psychoanalytic theory to criticize and reimagine traditional concepts like desire, subjectivity, identity, and knowledge.[94]


Arabic–Persian philosophy covers the philosophical tradition associated with the intellectual and cultural heritage of Arabic- and Persian-speaking regions. Other common labels for roughly the same tradition are Islamic philosophy or philosophy in the Islamic world.[95]

The classical period of Arabic–Persian philosophy started in the early 9th century CE, roughly 200 years after the death of Muhammad. It spanned until the late 12th century CE and formed part of the Islamic Golden Age. The early classical period covered the philosophy before Avicenna and had a particular emphasis on translations and interpretations of Ancient Greek philosophy. The late classical period after Avicenna was shaped by the engagement with his comprehensive philosophical system.[96]

Arabic–Persian philosophy proved influential for Western philosophy. During the early medieval period, many of the Greek texts were not available in Western Europe. They became accessible in the later medieval period thanks to the preservation and transmission by the Arabic–Persian intellectual tradition.[97]

Kalam and early classical

The early Arabic intellectual tradition before the classical period was characterized by various theological discussions. They focused primarily on the question of the correct understanding of the Islamic revelation. Some historians see this already as part of Arabic–Persian philosophy while others draw a more narrow distinction between theology (kalam) and philosophy proper (falsafa). Theologians implicitly accepted the truth of the revelation and restricted their inquiry to the field of religion, such as proofs of the existence of God. The philosophers, on the other hand, investigated a wider range of topics and also explored claims not directly covered by the scriptures.[98]

Early classical Arabic–Persian philosophy was strongly influenced by Ancient Greek philosophy. This concerned specifically the philosophy of Aristotle but includes also other philosophers, such as Plato. It happened both through translations and comprehensive commentaries. A key motivation of this process was to integrate and reconcile Greek philosophy with Islamic thought. Islamic philosophers emphasized the role of rational inquiry and examined how to harmonize reason and revelation.[99]

Postage stamp depicting Al-Kindi
Al-Kindi drew on Aristotle and Neoplatonism in formulating his Islamic philosophy.

Al-Kindi (801–873) is often considered the first philosopher of this tradition in contrast to the more theological works of his predecessors.[100] He followed Aristotle in seeing metaphysics as the first philosophy and the highest science. From his theological outlook, it studies the essence and attributes of God. He drew on Plotinus's doctrine of the One to argue for the oneness and perfection of God. For him, God emanates the universe by "bringing being to be from non-being". In the field of psychology, he argued for a dualism that draws a strict distinction for humans concerning their immortal souls in contrast to their mortal bodies. Al-Kindi was a prolific author and published about 270 treatises in his lifetime.[101]

Al-Farabi (c. 872–950) was strongly influenced by Al-Kindi and accepted his emanationist theory of creation. Al-Farabi claimed that philosophy, rather than theology, is the best pathway to truth. His interest in logic earned him the title "the second master" after Aristotle. He came to the conclusion that logic is universal and constitutes the foundation of all language and thought. This contradicts certain passages in the Quran which assign this role to Arabic grammar. In his political philosophy, Al-Farabi accepted Plato's idea that a philosopher-king would be the best ruler. He discussed the virtues such a ruler should have, the tasks they should engage in, and the reasons why this ideal is not realized. Al-Farabi also provided an influential classification of the different sciences and fields of inquiry.[102]

Later classical

Avicenna (980–1037) drew on the philosophies of the Ancient Greeks and Al-Farabi to develop a comprehensive philosophical system. It aimed to provide a holistic and rational understanding of reality that encompasses science, religion, and mysticism. He saw logic as the foundation of rational inquiry. In the field of metaphysics, he held that substances can exist by themselves while accidents always depend on something else. For example, color is an accident that requires a body to exist. Avicenna distinguished between two forms of existence: contingent and necessary existence. God has necessary existence. Everything in the world was caused by God and only exists contingently. In the field of psychology, he saw souls as substances that bring things to life. Plants have the lowest form of souls. The souls of animals and humans have additional faculties, like the ones responsible for the power to move, sense, and think rationally. In the field of ethics, Avicenna recommended the pursuit of moral perfection, which can be achieved by following the teachings of the Quran. His system exerted a profound influence on both Islamic and Western philosophy.[103]

Al-Ghazali (1058–1111) was very critical of Avicenna's rational method and his adoption of Greek philosophy. He was skeptical about the capacity of reason to arrive at a true understanding of reality, God, and religion. He saw the philosophy of other Islamic philosophers as an illness. In his book The Incoherence of the Philosophers, he claimed that many philosophical teachings are filled with contradictions and incompatible with Islamic faith. However, he was not outright opposed to philosophy and assigned it a positive but limited place in Islam. He argued that philosophy should be accompanied by a form of mystical intuition to come to a deeper understanding. This intuition relies on direct personal experience and spiritual insight.[104]

Averroes (1126–1198) rejected the skeptical outlook of Al-Ghazali. He tried to show the harmony between the philosophical pursuit of knowledge and the spiritual dimensions of faith. His philosophy relied heavily on Aristotle's teachings. He often criticized Avicenna for departing too much from Aristotle. In the field of psychology, Averroes claimed that there is only one universal intellect shared by all humans. Averroes did not have much influence on subsequent Islamic scholarship but had a more significant impact on European philosophy.[105]


Averroes is often considered the last philosopher of the classical era. The traditional view is that the following post-classical period was marked by a decline on different levels. On the one hand, it is concerned the global influence of Islam. On the other hand, it affected scientific and philosophical inquiry in the Islamic world. Al-Ghazali's doubts about the power of reason and the role of philosophy played an important part in this development. The focus shifted instead to theology and religious doctrine.[106] However, some contemporary scholars have questioned the magnitude of this decline. According to their view, it is better understood as a shift of philosophical interest than a decline. This means that philosophy did not cease but was absorbed and lived on in theology.[107]

Mulla Sadra (1571–1636) is often seen as the most influential philosopher after the classical era. He belonged to the philosophical and mystical school known as illuminationism. He saw philosophy as a spiritual practice to foster wisdom and transform oneself into a sage. In metaphysics, his theory of existence was particularly influential. Mulla rejected the traditional idea, associated with Aristotle, that reality is made up of substances that possess static essences. Instead of this substance metaphysics, he advocated a process philosophy that emphasized continuous change and novelty. According to this view, the creation of the world is not a singular event in the past but an ongoing process. Mulla argued for a synthesis of monism and pluralism by claiming that there is a transcendent unity of being that encompasses all individual entities. He further defended panpsychism by claiming that all entities are conscious but have different degrees of consciousness.[108]

The movement of Islamic modernism emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries in response to the cultural changes associated with modernity and the increasing influence of Western thought. Islamic modernists aimed to understand the role of traditional Islamic doctrines and practices in the emerging modern world. They sought to reinterpret and adapt Islamic teachings to show how the core tenets of Islam are compatible with the principle of modernity in the context of topics like democracy, human rights, science, and colonialism.[109]


Indian philosophy is the philosophical tradition that originated on the Indian subcontinent. It can be divided into the ancient period, which lasted until the end of the 2nd century BCE,[b] the classical and medieval period, which lasted until the end of the 18th century CE, and the modern period afterward.[111] Indian philosophy is characterized by a deep interest in the nature of ultimate reality. It relates this topic to the field of spirituality and asks questions about how to connect with the divine and reach a state of enlightenment. In this regard, Indian philosophers often acted as gurus in their role of guiding spiritual seekers.[112]

Indian philosophy is traditionally divided into orthodox and heterodox schools of thought. They are referred to as āstikas and nāstikas. Their exact definition is disputed. The orthodox schools usually accept the authority of the religious scriptures known as the Vedas. They tend to accept the existence of the self (Atman) and ultimate reality (Brahman). There are six orthodox schools: Nyāyá, Vaiśeṣika, Sāṃkhya, Yoga, Mīmāṃsā, and Vedānta. The heterodox schools are defined negatively as those that are not orthodox. The main ones are Buddhism and Jainism.[113]


Photo of a manuscript page from the Rigveda
A passage from the Rigveda, written in Sanskrit.

The ancient period in Indian philosophy started roughly 900 BCE and lasted until 200 BCE. In this period, the Vedas were written. They are the religious texts that form the foundation of a lot of Indian philosophy. They cover many topics, including hymns and rituals. Of special interest to philosophy are the Upanishads. They are late Vedic texts that discuss philosophical topics. Some theorists see the Vedas as part of philosophy proper while others treat them as a form of proto-philosophy. This period also saw the emergence of non-Vedic movements, like Buddhism and Jainism.[114]

The Upanishads introduce key concepts in Indian philosophy, like Atman and Brahman. Atman is the self. It is seen as the eternal soul that constitutes the essence of every conscious being. Brahman is ultimate reality. It is the highest principle governing the universe. The Upanishads explore how Atman and Brahman are related. A key idea is that gaining a proper understanding of their relation is a step on the spiritual path toward liberation. Some Upanishads associate this with an asceticist ideal that involves withdrawing from the world to reach self-realization. Others put more emphasis on an active engagement with the world. This is based on the idea that people have social duties to their families and other people. The laws they prescribe are called dharma and depend both on one's social class and one's stage of life. Another influential idea is that individual souls are caught in a cycle of rebirth. According to this view, a person's actions in their past life affect their next life. This is known as the law of karma.[115]

The Vedas had a wide influence but not all Indian philosophy originated from them. For example, the non-Vedic movements of Buddhism and Jainism emerged in the 6th century BCE. They agreed with certain Vedic teachings about the cycle of rebirth and the importance of seeking liberation. But they rejected many of the rituals and the social order described in the Vedas. Buddhism was founded by Gautama Siddhartha (563–483 BCE). Gautama challenged the Vedic idea of Atman by arguing that there is no permanent, stable self. He claimed that the belief in a permanent self leads to suffering and that liberation can be attained by realizing the absence of a permanent self.[116]

Jainism was founded by Mahavira (599–527 BCE). Jainists practice respect toward all forms of life. This is expressed in their principle of non-violence. It prohibits killing or harming other beings in action or in thought. Another pillar of Jainism is the claim that there are no absolute truths. It is based on the idea that reality is complex and has many different sides to it, which is why it can not always be adequately expressed in language. The last pillar of Jainism is the practice of asceticism or non-attachment. It implies that practitioners do not become emotionally attached to worldy things and do not cling to them.[117]

Classical and medieval

The classical and medieval period in Indian philosophy started roughly 200 BCE and lasted until 1800 CE. Some theorists use the term "classical period" to refer to this whole duration. Others divide this age into two distinct periods: a classical period until 1300 CE and a medieval period afterward. The orthodox schools, known as the darsanas, developed in the first half of this period. Their foundational scriptures usually take the form of sūtras. Sūtras are aphorisms or short texts that explain key ideas. The second half of this period was characterized by detailed commentaries on the individual sutras. They aimed to provide comprehensive explanations and interpretations.[118]

Samkhya is the oldest of the darśanas. It is a dualistic philosophy claiming that reality is made of two principles: Purusha, or pure consciousness, and Prakriti, or matter. Samkhya teaches that Prakriti is characterized by three qualities called gunas. Sattva is the guna associated with calmness and harmony. Rajas corresponds to passion and activity. The guna of tamas involves ignorance and inertia.[119] The Yoga school formed initially part of Samkhya and only became an independent school later. It is based on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and gives special importance to the practice of physical postures and different forms of meditation.[120]

Nyaya and Vaisheshika are further orthodox schools. In the field of epistemology, Nyaya claims that there are four sources of knowledge: perception, inference, analogical reasoning, and testimony. It is particularly interested in the role of inference and developed an influential theory of logic. According to it, inference depends on a prior perception of an object. It aims to arrive at new information, for example, about the cause of this object. The school of Vaisheshika is known for its atomistic metaphysics. Nyaya and Vaisheshika were originally treated as separate schools but were later seen as a single tradition.[121]

The schools of Vedānta and Mīmāṃsā focus on the interpretation of the Vedic scriptures. Vedānta deals primarily with the Upanishads. It discusses metaphysical theories and explores how knowledge and liberation are possible. Mīmāṃsā, on the other hand, is more concerned with the ritualistic practices found in the Vedas.[122]

Buddhist philosophy in this period was also vibrant and saw the development of the four main schools of Indian Buddhism. They are Sarvāstivāda, Sautrāntika, Madhyamaka, and Yogācāra. They all agree with the core teachings of Gautama but have certain key differences. The Sarvāstivāda school holds that "all exists", including past, present, and future entities. This position is denied by the Sautrāntika school, which claims that there is nothing outside the present. The Madhyamaka school was founded by Nagarjuna (c. 150–250), who claimed that all phenomena are inherently empty. This means that nothing has a permanent essence or an independent existence. The Yogācāra school is traditionally interpreted as a form of idealism that argues that the external world is an illusion constructed by the mind.[123]

Both the orthodox and the heterodox schools of Indian philosophy saw various developments in the later half of the classical period. Those developments often happened in the form of detailed commentaries focusing on their foundational sutras. The impact of the Vedanta school significantly grew during this period. It developed different schools, like the school of Advaita Vedanta under the influence of Adi Shankara (c.700–750). Shankara defended a radical monism. He claimed that Atman and Brahman are identical and that the impression of a universe consisting of many distinct entities is an illusion.[124]

This idea was slightly modified by Ramanuja (1017–1137),[c] who developed the school of Vishishtadvaita Vedanta. He agreed that Brahman is the ultimate reality. However, he argued that individual entities, like qualities, persons, and objects, are also real as aspects or parts of the underlying unity of Brahman.[126] He emphasized the role of Bhakti or devotion toward the divine as a spiritual path and helped to popularize the Bhakti movement, which lasted until the 17th to 18th century.[127]

Another important development in this period in the Nyaya school was the emergence of the Navya-Nyāya movement. It provided a more sophisticated framework of logic with a particular focus on linguistic analysis.[128]


The modern period in Indian philosophy started roughly 1800 CE. This period saw many social and cultural changes, specifically as a result of British rule and the introduction of English education. This had various effects on Indian philosophers. Previously, philosophy was done mostly in the language of Sanskrit but now many began to write in English. An example is the influential multi-volume book A History of Indian Philosophy by Surendranath Dasgupta (1887–1952). Philosophers in this period stood under the influence of both their own traditions and new ideas from Western philosophy.[129]

Photo of Swami Vivekananda
Swami Vivekananda argued that all religions are valid paths toward the divine.

Various philosophers in this period tried to provide encompassing systems to unite and harmonize the diverse philosophical and religious schools of thought. For example, Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902) emphasized the validity and universality of all religions. He tried to use the ideas of Advaita Vedanta to show how the different religious traditions are different paths that lead to the same spiritual truth. According to Advaita Vedanta, there is only one ultimate truth without any distinctions or divisions. It sees the diversity and multiplicity in the world as an illusion that hides the underlying divine oneness. According to Vivekananda, different religions are different ways of realizing this divine oneness.[130]

A similar project was pursued by Sri Aurobindo in his integral philosophy. His complex philosophical system aims to show how the different historical and philosophical movements form part of a global evolution of consciousness.[131] Other contributions to Indian philosophy were made by spiritual teachers like Sri Ramakrishna, Ramana Maharshi, and Jiddu Krishnamurti.[132]


Chinese philosophy covers the philosophical thought associated with the intellectual and cultural heritage of China. Various periodizations of this tradition exist. One periodization divides Chinese philosophy into an early period before the Qin dynasty, a period until the emergence of the Song dynasty, a period until the end of the Qing dynasty, and a modern era afterward. The three main schools of Chinese philosophy are Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. Other influential schools are Mohism and Legalism.[133]

Within traditional Chinese thought, philosophy was not clearly distinguished from religious thought and other types of inquiry.[134] It was primarily concerned with the topics of ethics and society. In comparison to other traditions, it gave less emphasis to metaphysics. Philosophical practice tended to focus on practical wisdom and philosophers often had the role of a sage or a thoughtful advisor.[135]


The first period in Chinese philosophy started in the 6th century BCE and lasted until the rise of the Qin dynasty in 221 BCE.[136] The concept of Dao played a central role in this period. The term is often translated as "the Way" and has different functions in the different schools of thought. Early Chinese philosophy was dominated by the teachings of Confucius (551–479 BCE). For him, a good life is a life that aligns with the Dao. He understood this primarily in terms of moral conduct and acting in accordance with virtues. For example, he argued that people should respect their elders and should practice a form of universal altruism. The family plays a central role in his philosophy. He held that each member of a family has to fulfill their role to ensure that the family as a whole flourishes. He conceptualized the state as a large family and emphasized the importance of harmony in society.[137]

Bust of Laozi
Laozi is usually seen as the founder of Daoism.

Laozi (6th century BCE) is traditionally seen as the founder of Daoism. Like Confucius, he held that to live a good life is to live in harmony with the Dao. Unlike Confucius, his main focus was not only on society but included the relation between humans and nature. His concept of wu wei was particularly influential. The term is usually translated as "effortless action". It refers to acting in a natural flow that is in accordance with the Dao. Laozi saw this as an ideal state involving spontaneity and ease.[138]

The Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi (399–295 BCE) used parables and allegories to convey his ideas. To clarify the concept of wu wei in everyday life, he gave the example of a butcher. After many years of practice, the butcher arrived at a point where his knife automatically followed the optimal line when cutting an ox without any conscious effort. Zhuangzi is also known for his story of the butterfly dream, which questions the nature of subjective experiences. In this story, he wakes up from a dream in which he was a butterfly. Now he is not sure anymore whether he is a man who dreamt that he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming that it is a man.[139]

The school of Mohism was founded by Mozi (c. 470-391 BCE). Central to Mozi's philosophy is the concept of jian ai, which expresses a form of universal love or impartial caring. Based on this concept, he advocated an early form of consequentialism by arguing that political action should promote the welfare of the people.[140]

Qin to pre-Song dynasties

The following period started with the establishment of the Qin dynasty in 221 BCE and lasted until the rise of the Song dynasty in 960 CE. This period stood under the influence of Xuanxue philosophy, legalist philosophy, and the spread of Buddhism. Xuanxue, also known as neo-Daoism, tried to synthesize Confucianism and Daoism. At the same time, it developed a metaphysical framework for these schools of thought. It assumed that the Dao is the root of ultimate reality. It questioned whether this root should be understood as being or non-being. According to the philosophers He Yan (c. 195–249 CE) and Wang Bi (226–249 CE), it is a formless non-being that acts as the source of all things and phenomena. This view was rejected by Pei Wei (267–300 CE), who argued that non-being is unable to give rise to being. Instead, he held that being gives rise to itself.[141]

In the field of ethics and politics, the school of legalism became particularly influential. It rejected the Mohist idea that politics aims at the promotion of general welfare. Instead, legalists argued that statecraft is about wielding power and establishing order. They also rejected the Confucianist emphasis on the role of virtues and moral conduct to have a harmonious society. By contrast, they argued that the best way to achieve order is to establish laws and punish people who transgress them.[142]

Buddhism arrived in India in the 1st century CE. In the early phase, Buddhist philosophers were primarily concerned with the translation of the original Sanskrit texts into Chinese. But later, new and distinctive forms of Chinese Buddhism developed. For example, Tiantai Buddhism was founded in the 6th century CE. Its doctrine of the Threefold Truth tries to reconcile two opposed positions. The first truth of conventional realism affirms the existence of regular things. The second truth is a more skeptical position holding that all phenomena are illusory or empty. The third truth aims to reconcile these two positions by claiming that the mundane world is both real and empty at the same time. This period also saw the rise of Chan Buddhism, which later prompted the development of Zen Buddhism in Japan. In the field of epistemology, Chan Buddhists hold that there is a form of immediate acquaintance with things. They claim that it avoids the distortions of linguistic distinctions and results in direct knowledge of ultimate reality.[143]

Song to Qing dynasties and modern

The next period started with the emergence of the Song dynasty in 960 CE. Some scholars take it to end with the opium wars in 1840 while others extend it all the way to the emergence of the Republic of China in 1912. In this period, neo-Confucianism was particularly influential. In contrast to earlier forms of Confucianism, it placed more emphasis on metaphysics. This came about as a reaction to similar developments in Daoism and Buddhism. It rejected their emphasis on non-being and emptiness. It focused on the concept of li instead as a positive foundation of metaphysics. Li is understood as the rational principle that is the ground of being and governs all entities. It also underlies human nature and is the source of virtues. Li is sometimes contrasted with qi as a material and vital force.[144]

Photo of Mao Zedong
Mao Zedong interpreted and implemented Marxist philosophy.

The later part of the Qing dynasty and the following modern period were characterized by the encounter with Western philosophy. This included various philosophers, like Plato, Kant, and Mill as well as movements like pragmatism. But of special importance were Marx's ideas of class struggle, socialism, and communism. His critique of capitalism and his ideal of a classless society led to the development of Chinese Marxism. In this regard, Mao Zedong (1893–1976) acted both as a philosopher expounding these ideas as well as a revolutionary leader committed to their practical implementation. Chinese Marxism differed in various respects from classical Marxism. For example, in classical Marxism, the proletariat is responsible both for the rise of the capitalist economy and for the subsequent socialist revolution. In Mao's Marxism, on the other hand, this role falls to the peasantry guided by the Communist Party.[145]

The influence of traditional Chinese thought also remained strong in the modern period. This is reflected, for example, in the philosophy of Liang Shuming (1893-1988). Liang was influenced by Confucianism, Buddhism, and Western philosophy. He is often seen as the founder of the school of thought known as new Confucianism. He advocated a balanced life attitude characterized by a harmony between humanity and nature as a way to true happiness. He criticized the modern European attitude for being overly concerned with exploiting nature for satisfying desires. He saw the Indian attitude with its focus on the divine and abstaining from desires as a mistake in the other direction.[146]


There are various traditions which developed their own distinctive philosophical ideas. In some cases, these developments happened independently while in others, they were influenced by the main traditions.[147]

Photo of Kitaro Nishida
Kitaro Nishida was the founder of the Kyoto School.


Japanese philosophy is characterized by its engagement with various traditions, including Chinese, Indian, and Western schools of thought. Ancient philosophy was shaped by Shinto, its indigenous religion. It included a form of animism that saw natural phenomena and objects as spirits, the so-called kami. The arrival of Confucianism and Buddhism in the 5th and 6th centuries CE transformed the intellectual landscape and led to various subsequent developments. Confucianism influenced political and social philosophy and was further developed in different strands of neo-Confucianism. Japanese Buddhist thought developed particularly in the traditions of Pure Land Buddhism and Zen Buddhism. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the interaction with Western thinkers was a major influence on Japanese philosophy. This concerned in particular the schools of existentialism and phenomenology. This period saw the foundation of the Kyoto School. It was founded by Kitaro Nishida (1870–1945). He criticized Western philosophy associated with Kantianism for relying on the distinction between subject and object. He tried to overcome this problem by developing the concept of basho. Basho—usually translated as "place"—may be understood as an experiential domain that transcends the dichotomy between subject and object. Other influential members of the Kyoto school were Tanabe Hajime (1885–1962) and Nishitani Keiji (1900–1990).[148]

Latin American

Philosophy in Latin America is often included in Western philosophy. However, in a more narrow sense, it is a distinct tradition that features its own characteristics despite the strong Western influence. Philosophical ideas concerning the nature of reality and the role of humans in it are found in its indigenous civilizations, like the Aztecs, the Maya, and the Inca. This theorizing happened independently of European influence. But most discussions usually focus on the colonial and post-colonial periods since very few texts of the pre-colonial period survived. The colonial period was dominated by a focus on religious philosophy in the form of scholasticism. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the emphasis shifted to enlightenment philosophy and the adoption of a scientific outlook in the form of positivism. An influential current in the later part of the 20th century was the philosophy of liberation. It was inspired by Marxism and focused on topics like political liberation, intellectual independence, and education.[149]


Merged photos depicting a copy of the ancient Egyptian papyrus "The Dispute Between a Man and His Ba"
Ancient Egyptian papyrus "The Dispute Between a Man and His Ba" written in hieratic text, thought to date to the Middle Kingdom, likely the 12th Dynasty

In the widest sense, African philosophy covers philosophical ideas that originated anywhere in the African continent. However, the term is often understood in a more narrow sense to relate primarily to the regions of western and sub-Saharan Africa.[150] The philosophical tradition in Africa derived from both ancient Egypt and scholarly texts in medieval Africa.[151] While early African intellectual history was focused on folklore, wise sayings, and religious ideas, it also included some philosophical ideas, such as the concept of Ubuntu. It is usually translated as humanity or humanness. Ubuntu philosophy emphasized that people are connected to each other on a moral level and should practice kindness and compassion.[150] During the 17th century, Ethiopian philosophy developed a literary tradition as exemplified by Zera Yacob.[152] The emergence of systematic African philosophy is often traced to the beginning of the 20th century. An important movement in this period was excavationism. It aimed to reconstruct traditional African worldviews, often with the goal of rediscovering a lost African identity. However, this approach was rejected by so-called Afro-deconstructionists, who denied the existence of a unique African identity. Other influential strands and topics in modern African thought are ethnophilosophy, négritude, pan-Africanism, Marxism, postcolonialism, and the critique of Eurocentrism.[153]



  1. ^ Some historians also include pragmatism as a third tradition.[75]
  2. ^ The exact periodization is disputed with some sources stating it ended as early as 500 BCE, while others argue it lasted until 200 CE.[110]
  3. ^ These dates are traditionally cited but some recent scholars suggest that his life ran from 1077 to 1157.[125]


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History of philosophy
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