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Representative Historical Perspectives


Raphael (Italian, 1483-1520), The School of Athens (1511)
Detail of Plato (left) and Aristotle (right)

The problem of what philosophy is is itself a fundamental philosophical question that has elicited a rich historical diversity of distinctive philosophical definitions. Like other fundamental questions in Western philosophy, there is no definitive answer to this question universally accepted by all philosophers. However, one should strenuously resist the typical temptation to dismiss these diverse definitions as a bewildering array of mutually contradictory, and ultimately unsatisfactory, viewpoints. Rather, from an inclusive standpoint internal to the historical complexity of philosophical practice, it is more precise and productive to classify them as interpretive profiles or perspectives. As such, they propose individualized, partial philosophical interpretations that emphasize, as an essential element or central component of philosophy itself, a particular philosophical attitude, methodical practice, or theoretical tendency. Therefore, adapting an insightful and innovative concept of definition developed by Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), we will interpret the following definitions as pointing to distinct yet interrelated aspects of an interwoven network of family resemblances.* (Cf. the classical model of philosophical definition)**

*Family resemblance: Ludwig Wittgenstein’s (1889-1951) concept of definition, in contrast to the classical model, is composed of an interwoven set of similarities (like the similar facial features of family members) that lack a common denominator or essential core characteristic shared by every member of the class (like family members that don’t share one identical feature in common).

Example: As a college student, you see many new faces the first week of a new school year. Someone in your French class looks a little like someone in your History course, who looks a little like someone in your Philosophy class. Later in the semester you discover that two of them are brothers and the third is a cousin. In contrast to a strictly formal identity, we could say these three individuals exhibit a structural kinship, i.e., similarities that are not reducible to a singular characteristic.

** The Classical Model of Philosophical Definition: Inaugurated with Aristotle’s categorial distinction between genus and species, perceives an identical form or basic structure among dissimilar things (broadly interpreted, any kind of object, event, or entity). It opposes any premature, provincial, restrictive definition of the subject that excludes what is initially foreign, alien, or unfamiliar. It is a conceptual way of thinking that perceives structural (formal) identity among otherwise dissimilar things.

Example: After viewing, over a period of time, the sun, the moon, car tires, bicycle wheels, coins, Frisbees, baseballs, and dinner plates, a child realizes that they all express or exhibit the same shape. In other words, these objects are formally identical (same form, shape, structure) although they are concretely different (in their specific or particular content). This type of thinking is called abstract because the reasoning agent abstracts (separates out, extracts) the general, common form from the several objects that embody, express, or exhibit it. Accordingly, these diverse objects, despite specific differences, are all members of the class of circular things.

II) Representative Historical Perspectives

 1. Diogenes Laertius on Pythagoras (c. 550-500 BCE)
 2. Socrates (470-399 BCE)
 3. Plato (427-347 BCE)
 4. Aristotle (384-322 BCE)
 5. Epicurus (341-270 BCE)
 6. Epictetus (c. 50-130)
 7. Boethius (c. 480-524)
 8. Michel de Montaigne (1533-92)
 9. René Descartes (1596-1650)
10. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)
11. Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677)
12. David Hume (1711-1776)
13. Denis Diderot (1713-1784)
14. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)
15. G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831)
16. F. W. J. Schelling (1775-1854)
17. Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)
18. Auguste Comte (1798-1857)
19. Karl Marx (1818-1883)
20. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)
21. Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911)
22. C. S. Peirce (1839-1914)
23. William James (1842-1910)
24. Josiah Royce (1855-1916)
25. Edmund Husserl (1859-1938)
26. Henri Bergson (1859-1941)
27. John Dewey (1859-1952)
28. José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955)
29. Karl Jaspers (1883-1969)
30. Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947)
31. Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951)
32. Martin Heidegger (1889-1976)
33. Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973)
34. Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961)
35. A. J. Ayer (1910-1989)
36. Bertrand Russell (1872-1970)
37. Albert Camus (1913-1960)
38. Jürgen Habermas (1929—)


1. ...when Leon the tyrant of Philius asked him who he was, he said, "A philosopher," and that he compared life to the Great Games, where some went to compete for the prize and others went with wares to sell, but the best as spectators; for similarly, in life, some grow up with servile natures, greedy for fame and gain, but the philosopher seeks for truth.

Diogenes Laertius on Pythagoras (C. 550-500 BCE)

2. The unexamined life is not worth living.

Socrates (470-399 BCE)

3. The feeling of wonder is the mark of the philosopher, for all philosophy has its origins in wonder.

Plato (427-347 BCE)

4. A sense of wonder started men philosophizing, in ancient times as well as today. Their wondering is aroused, first, by trivial matters; but they continue on from there to wonder about less mundane matters such as the changes of the moon, sun, and stars, and the beginnings of the universe. What is the result of this puzzlement? An awesome feeling of ignorance. Men began to philosophize, therefore, to escape ignorance....

Aristotle (384-322 BCE)

5. Let no young man delay the study of philosophy, and let no old man become weary of it; for it is never too early nor too late to care for the well-being of the soul. The man who says that the season for this study has not yet come or is already past is like the man who says it is too early or too late for happiness.

Epicurus (341-270 BCE)

6. The first and most necessary division in philosophy is that which has to do with the application of the principles, as, for example, Do no lie. The second deals with the demonstrations, as, for example, How comes it that we ought not to lie? The third confirms and discriminates between these processes, as, for example, How does it come that this is a proof?...Therefore...the most necessary of all, and the one in which we ought to rest, is the first (division in philosophy). But we do the opposite; for we spend our time in the third division, and all our zeal is devoted to it, while we utterly neglect the first.

Epictetus (C. 50-130)

7. The love of wisdom (or philosophy) is the illumination of the intelligent mind by the pure wisdom (defined as the self-sufficient living mind and sole primaeval reason of all things), and is a kind of return and recall to it, so that it seems at once the pursuit of wisdom, the pursuit of divinity and the friendship of that pure mind.

Boethius (C. 480-524)

8. Philosophy is doubt.

Michel de Montaigne (1533-92)

9. The word "philosophy" means the study of wisdom, and by "wisdom" is meant not only prudence in everyday affairs, but also a perfect knowledge of all the things that mankind is capable of knowing, both for the conduct of life and the preservation of health and the discovery of all manner of skills. In order for this kind of knowledge to be perfect, it must be deduced from first causes; thus in order to set about philosophizing--and it is this activity to which the term "to philosophize" strictly refers--we must start with the search for first causes or principles.

René Descartes (1596-1650)

10. By PHILOSOPHY is understood
the knowledge acquired by reasoning, from the manner of the generation of any thing to the properties; or from the properties, to some possible generation of the same; to the end to be able to produce, as far as matter, and human force permit, such effects, as human life requireth.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)

11. I do not know how to teach philosophy without becoming a disturber of the peace.

Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677)

12. While the (philosophers) attempt this arduous task, they are deterred by no difficulties; but proceeding from particular instances to general principles, they still push on their enquiries to principles more general, and rest not satisfied till they arrive at those original principles, by which, in every science, all human curiosity must be bounded.

David Hume (1711-1776)

13. The first step towards philosophy is incredulity.

Denis Diderot (1713-1784)

14. Philosophy is the system of all philosophical knowledge....the legislation of human reason (philosophy) has two objects, nature and freedom, and therefore contains not only the law of nature, but also the moral law, presenting them at first in two distinct systems, but ultimately in one single philosophical system. The philosophy of nature deals with all that is, the philosophy of morals with that which ought to be. All philosophy is either knowledge arising out of pure reason, or knowledge obtained by reason from empirical principles. The former is termed pure, the latter empirical philosophy.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

15. The love of truth, faith in the power of the mind, is the first condition in Philosophy....For Philosophy aims at understanding what is unchangeable, eternal, in and for itself: its end is the immediate source from which all else proceeds, both all the laws of nature and all the manifestations of life and consciousness....

G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831)

16. Philosophy means love of, striving for, wisdom. Thus, not just any sort of knowledge will satisfy the philosopher, but only the knowledge that is wisdom... There is no wisdom for man if there is none in the objective course of things. The first presupposition of philosophy as the striving for wisdom is thus that there is wisdom in...being, in the world itself.

Friedrich Schelling (1775-1854)

17. The two main requirements for philosophizing are: firstly, to have the courage not to keep any question back; and secondly, to attain a clear consciousness of any thing that goes without saying so as to comprehend it as a problem. Finally, the mind must, if it is really to philosophize, also be truly disengaged: it must prosecute no particular goal or aim, and thus be free from the enticement of will, but devote itself undividedly to the instruction which the perceptible world and its own consciousness imparts to it.... Philosophy, just as much as art and poetry, must have its source in perceptual comprehension of the world: nor, however much the head needs to remain on top, ought it be so cold-blooded a business that the whole man, heart and head, is not finally involved and affected through and through.

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)

18. The object of all true Philosophy is to frame a system which shall comprehend human life under every aspect, social as well as individual. It embraces, therefore, the three kinds of phenomena of which our life consists, Thoughts, Feelings and Actions.

Auguste Comte (1798-1857)

19. The immediate task of philosophy, which is in the service of history, is to unmask human self-alienation in its secular form now that it has been unmasked in its sacred form....Philosophy can only be realized by the abolition of the proletariat, and the proletariat can only be abolished by the realization of philosophy.

Karl Marx (1818-1883)

20. Great dilemma: is philosophy an art or a science? Both in its purposes and its results it is an art. But it uses the same means as science—conceptual representation. Philosophy is a form of artistic invention. There is no appropriate category for philosophy; consequently, we must make up and characterize a species [for it]….

The concept of the philosopher and the types [of philosophers]. What do they all have in common? The philosopher is either the product of his culture or else he is hostile towards it. He is contemplative like the plastic artist, compassionate like the religious man, and, like the man of science, is concerned with causes. He tries to permit all the sounds of the world to resonate within himself and to present this total sound outside of himself by means of concepts: expanding himself to the macrocosm while, at the same time, maintaining reflective circumspection—like the actor or dramatic poet who transforms himself and at the same time retains his circumspection so that he can project himself outwards….

A philosopher: that is a man who constantly experiences, sees, hears, suspects, hopes, and dreams extraordinary things; who is struck by his own thoughts as if they came from outside, from above and below, as a species of events and lightning flashes peculiar to him; who is perhaps himself a storm pregnant with new lightnings; a portentous man, around whom there is always rumbling and mumbling and gaping and something uncanny going on. A philosopher: alas, a being who often runs away from himself, is often afraid of himself—but whose curiosity always makes him “come to himself” again.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)

21. The task of philosophy today is human self-reflection and the reflection of society upon itself....For it alone can provide coherence, ultimate intelligibility, and a foundation for the various human projects, but it does so not by finding the solution to transcendent questions, but only by means of a fuller, more mature consciousness of reality.

Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911)

22. ...philosophy, which deals with positive truth...contents itself with observations such as come within the range of every man’s normal experience....These observations escape the untrained eye precisely because they permeate our whole lives, just as a man who never takes off his blue spectacles soon ceases to see the blue tinge.

C. S. Peirce (1839-1914)

23. Philosophy is at once the most sublime and the most trivial of human pursuits. It works in the minutest crannies and it opens out of the widest vistas....No one of us can get along without the far-flashing beams of light it sends over the world’s perspectives.

William James (1842-1910)

24. You philosophize when you reflect critically upon what you are actually doing in your world. What you are doing is, of course, in the first place, living. And life involves passions, faiths, doubts, and courage. The critical inquiry into what all these things mean and imply is philosophy.

Josiah Royce (1855-1916)

25. The task which the philosopher puts to himself, his life-goal as a philosopher: universal science of the world, universal, definitive knowledge, the universe of truths in themselves about the world, the world in itself.... From its earliest beginnings philosophy has claimed to be rigorous science. What is more, it has claimed to be the science that satisfies the loftiest theoretical needs and renders possible from an ethico-religious point of view a life regulated by pure rational norms.... During no period of its development has philosophy been capable of living up to this claim of being rigorous science....

Edmund Husserl (1859-1938)

26. What philosophy has lacked most of all is precision. Philosophical systems are not cut to the measure of the reality in which we live; they are too wide for reality.... We were saying that philosophy must be brought to a higher precision, put in a position to solve more special problems, be made an auxiliary to, and if need be, reformer of positive science. Let us have done with great systems embracing all the possible, and sometimes even the impossible! Let us be content with the real, mind and matter.

Henri Bergson (1859-1941)

27. These remarks are preparatory to presenting a conception of philosophy; namely, that philosophy is inherently criticism, having its distinctive position among various modes of criticism in its generality; a criticism of criticisms, as it were....Philosophy is and can be nothing but this critical operation and function become aware of itself and its implications, pursued deliberately and systematically. It starts from actual situations of belief, conduct and appreciative perception which are characterized by immediate qualities of good and bad, and from the modes of critical judgment current at any given time in all the regions of value; these are its data, its subject-matter. These values, criticisms, and critical methods, it subjects to further criticism as comprehensive and consistent as possible.

John Dewey (1859-1952)

28. Philosophy is---a thing which is inevitable.... This position of the philosopher, which accompanies his extreme intellectual heroism and would be so uncomfortable if it did not bear with it his inevitable vocation, imposes on his thought what I call the imperative of autonomy.... Philosophy is a science without suppositions.

José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955)

29. For even though it is linked to science and never occurs without it, philosophy is wholly different from science. Philosophy is the thinking by which I become aware of Being itself through inner action; or rather it is the thinking which prepares the ascent to Transcendence, remembers it, and in an exalted moment accomplishes the ascent itself as a thinking act of the whole human being.

Karl Jaspers (1883-1969)

30. Philosophy is an attitude of mind towards doctrines ignorantly entertained.... The philosophic attitude is a resolute attempt to enlarge the understanding of the scope of application of every notion which enters into our current thought. The philosophic attempt takes every word, and every phrase, in the verbal expression of thought, and asks, What does it mean? It refuses to be satisfied by the conventional presupposition that every sensible person knows the answer.

Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947)

31. Philosophy is concerned with tracing the limits of language and therefore of thought from within.... Philosophy, as we use the word, is a fight against the fascination which forms of expression exert upon us....Philosophy is therefore no theory, something with dogmas, and so on, but it is an activity. It deals with reality as it is simultaneously given to us and distorted in language.

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951)

32. Everyone considers the assertion correct that philosophy is a matter of reason. However, this assertion is perhaps a premature and hasty answer to the question, "What is philosophy?" for we can immediately oppose new questions to this answer. What is reason? Where and through whom was it decided what reason is?...We find the answer to the question, "What is philosophy?" not through historical assertions about the definitions of philosophy but through conversing with that which has been handed down to us as the Beings of beings.

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976)

33. What can be expected of philosophy at this particular moment in history is first of all that it make clear, as I have just done in a partial but significant way, the danger of dehumanization which accompanies the intensive development of technology in our world. Philosophy must bring to light the profound but usually unarticulated uneasiness man experiences in this technocratic or bureaucratic milieu where what is deepest in him is not only ignored but continually trampled underfoot.

Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973)

34. Philosophy...arouses us to what is problematic in our own existence and in that of the world, to such a point that we shall never be cured of searching for a solution....Philosophy is in history, and is never independent of historical discourse....It is never content to accept its historical situation (as it is not content to accept its own past). It changes this situation by revealing it to itself and, therefore, by giving it the opportunity of entering into conversation with other times and other places where its truth appears.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1907-1961)

35. It should now be sufficiently clear that if the philosopher is to uphold his claim to make a special contribution to the stock of our knowledge, he must not attempt to formulate speculative truths, or to look for first principles, or to make a priori judgments about the validity of our empirical beliefs. He must, in fact, confine himself to works of clarification and analysis....

A. J. Ayer (1910-1989)

36. The value of philosophy is, in fact, to be sought largely in its very uncertainty. The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason.

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970)

37. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest
whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categoriescome afterwards. These are games....I have never seen anyone die for the ontological argument...the meaning of life is the most urgent of questions.

Albert Camus (1913-1960)

38. ...philosophy is the guardian of rationality.

Jürgen Habermas (1929)