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Western Philosophy: Key Concepts & Beliefs

Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature and is completing a Ph.D. He has taught college English for 6 years.

Since the Middle Ages, Western Philosophy has built on the ideas of the ancient philosophers and developed new approaches including Scholasticism, Neo-Platonism, and Rationalism.

The Western Tradition

Why are we here? How does one lead an ethical life? How do we know what we think we know?

These are some of this basic questions explored by philosophy, the academic discipline dedicated to exploring the fundamental questions about the nature of the world, knowledge, and ourselves.

Philosophy in Europe and the United States, and other places influenced heavily by European culture, is known broadly as Western philosophy, and in many ways, it forms an ongoing conversation about these questions that stretches back to the beginning of philosophy in ancient Greece and Rome.

Since the medieval period, philosophers have built on the ancient ideas and developed new schools of philosophy, or broad groups of philosophers who agree on general principles.

Medieval Philosophy

The Medieval Period lasted roughly from 500-1500 CE. During this period, the most important school of philosophy was Scholasticism. Scholaticism grew up in the medieval universities that dominated European thought from the 12th to the 16th century.

Scholasticism used dialectical reasoning, in which two opposing arguments (thesis and antithesis) are debated until a synthesis, or resolution, can be reached. Scholastics used this method in particular to reconcile the differences between Catholic theology and ancient philosophy, particularly that of Aristotle, whom the Scholastics thought to be a superior philosopher to Plato.

Scholastics were known for detailed reading of texts and highly technical arguments, which often turned on differing interpretations of specific words.

Scholasticism was not just a philosophy but also a method of teaching and learning. It dominated the universities in the medieval period and therefore had a profound impact on all medieval philosphers. Other medieval schools of philosophy, like Thomism and Scotism, were offshoots of Scholasticism. Thomists were Scholastics who revered the work of theologian St. Thomas Aquinas, while Scotists rejected Aquinus.

Renaissance Philosophy

The Renaissance in Europe, which lasted roughly from the 14th to the 17th century, was marked by a rediscovery of many classical texts. In philosophy, this rediscovery led to a reclaiming of the reputation of Plato, whom the Scholastics deemed lesser than Aristotle.

Renaissance philosophy, therefore, is dominated by the philosophy of Neo-Platonism and the related philosophy of humanism. Humanists broke with the Scholastics and argued that philosophers should read the original classical texts on their own terms, without the centuries of Scholastic commentary that had accumulated around them. Other humanists like Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, in his book Oration, argued for a philosophy that did not rely on divine authority.

The Neo-Platonists built on the humanist critique of Scholastics by returning Platonic philosophy to the center of attention. Marsilo Ficino translated Plato's works from the Greek into Latin and lectured on them. The Neoplatonists often worked to show connections with Plato's theory of ideal forms and Christianity.

Modern Philosophy

Modern philosophy is said to begin with Rene Descartes and his school of Rationalism. Descartes' famous maxim, 'I think, therefore I am,' located philosophy entirely in the human intellect, as opposed to sensory experience or religious teaching. This break with religion and focus on only the rational faculties of the human intellect was a radical break with earlier schools like Scholasticism and Neo-Platonism.

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