Western philosophy is the philosophical thought and work of the Western or Occidental world, as distinct from Eastern or Oriental philosophies and the varieties of indigenous philosophies.
Historically, the term was recently invented to refer to the philosophical thinking of Western civilization, beginning with Greek philosophy in ancient Greece, and eventually covering a large area of the globe, including North America and Australia. There is some debate of whether to include areas such as Northern Africa, some parts of the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and so on. The word philosophy itself originated in ancient Greece: philosophia, literally, "the love of wisdom" (philein "to love" and sophia "wisdom", in the sense of knowledge).
In contemporary terms, Western philosophy refers to the two main traditions of contemporary philosophy: analytic philosophy and continental philosophy.
Ancient Greek philosophy
Ancient Greek philosophy arose in the 6th century BCE and continued through the Hellenistic period, at which point Ancient Greece was incorporated in the Roman Empire. It dealt with a wide variety of subjects, including political philosophy, ethics, metaphysics, ontology, logic, biology, rhetoric, and aesthetics.
Many philosophers today maintain that Greek philosophy has influenced much of Western thought since its inception. Alfred Whitehead once noted: "The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato." Clear, unbroken lines of influence lead from ancient Greek and Hellenistic philosophers, to medieval Islamic philosophers, to the European Renaissance and Enlightenment.
Some claim that Greek philosophy, in turn, was influenced by the older wisdom literature and mythological cosmogonies of the ancient Near East. Martin Litchfield West gives qualified assent to this view, stating, "contact with oriental cosmology and theology helped to liberate the early Greek philosophers' imagination; it certainly gave them many suggestive ideas. But they taught themselves to reason. Philosophy as we understand it is a Greek creation."
Subsequent philosophic tradition was so influenced by Socrates as presented by Plato that it is conventional to refer to ancient Greek philosophy prior to Socrates as pre-Socratic philosophy. The period following this until the wars of Alexander the Great is referred to as classical Greek philosophy, followed by Hellenistic philosophy.
Socrates was a classical Greek Athenian philosopher. Credited as one of the founders of Western philosophy, he is an enigmatic figure known chiefly through the accounts of later classical writers, especially the writings of his students Plato and Xenophon, and the plays of his contemporary Aristophanes. Many would claim that Plato's dialogues are the most comprehensive accounts of Socrates to survive from antiquity.
Through his portrayal in Plato's dialogues, Socrates has become renowned for his contribution to the field of ethics, and it is this Platonic Socrates who also lends his name to the concepts of Socratic irony and the Socratic method, or elenchus. The latter remains a commonly used tool in a wide range of discussions, and is a type of pedagogy in which a series of questions are asked not only to draw individual answers, but also to encourage fundamental insight into the issue at hand. It is Plato's Socrates that also made important and lasting contributions to the fields of epistemology and logic, and the influence of his ideas and approach remains strong in providing a foundation for much western philosophy that followed.
As one recent commentator has put it, Plato, the idealist, offers "an idol, a master figure, for philosophy. A Saint, a prophet of the 'Sun-God', a teacher condemned for his teachings as a heretic."
Plato was a Classical Greek philosopher, mathematician, student of Socrates, writer of philosophical dialogues, and founder of the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. Along with his mentor, Socrates, and his student, Aristotle, Plato helped to lay the foundations of Western philosophy and science. In the famous words of A.N. Whitehead:
The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato. I do not mean the systematic scheme of thought which scholars have doubtfully extracted from his writings. I allude to the wealth of general ideas scattered through them.
Plato's sophistication as a writer is evident in his Socratic dialogues; thirty-six dialogues and thirteen letters have been ascribed to him. Plato's writings have been published in several fashions; this has led to several conventions regarding the naming and referencing of Plato's texts.
Plato's dialogues have been used to teach a range of subjects, including philosophy, logic, ethics, rhetoric, and mathematics.
Xenophon son of Gryllus, of the deme Erchia of Athens, also known as Xenophon of Athens, was a Greek historian, soldier, mercenary, philosopher and a contemporary and admirer of Socrates. He is known for his writings on the history of his own times, the 4th century BC, preserving the sayings of Socrates, and descriptions of life in ancient Greece and the Persian Empire.
Aristotle was a Greek philosopher, a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great. His writings cover many subjects, including physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, government, ethics, biology, and zoology. Together with Plato and Socrates (Plato's teacher), Aristotle is one of the most important founding figures in Western philosophy. Aristotle's writings were the first to create a comprehensive system of Western philosophy, encompassing morality and aesthetics, logic and science, politics and metaphysics.
Aristotle's views on the physical sciences profoundly shaped medieval scholarship, and their influence extended well into the Renaissance, although they were ultimately replaced by Newtonian physics. In the zoological sciences, some of his observations were confirmed to be accurate only in the 19th century. His works contain the earliest known formal study of logic, which was incorporated in the late 19th century into modern formal logic. In metaphysics, Aristotelianism had a profound influence on philosophical and theological thinking in the Islamic and Jewish traditions in the Middle Ages, and it continues to influence Christian theology, especially the scholastic tradition of the Catholic Church. His ethics, though always influential, gained renewed interest with the modern advent of virtue ethics. All aspects of Aristotle's philosophy continue to be the object of active academic study today. Though Aristotle wrote many elegant treatises and dialogues (Cicero described his literary style as "a river of gold"), it is thought that the majority of his writings are now lost and only about one-third of the original works have survived.
Alexander the Great
Alexander III of Macedon, commonly known as Alexander the Great, was a king of Macedon, a state in the north eastern region of Greece, and by the age of thirty was the creator of one of the largest empires in ancient history, stretching from the Ionian Sea to the Himalaya. He was undefeated in battle and is considered one of the most successful commanders of all time. Born in Pella in 356 BC, Alexander was tutored by the famed philosopher Aristotle. In 336 BC he succeeded his father Philip II of Macedon to the throne after Philip was assassinated. Philip had brought most of the city-states of mainland Greece under Macedonian hegemony, using both military and diplomatic means.
Alexander the Great, although not always accredited as the first practitioner of psychological warfare, Alexander the Great undoubtedly showed himself to be effective in swaying the mindsets of the populaces that were conquered in his campaigns.
To keep the new Macedonian state and assortment of powerful Greek tribes from revolting against their leader, Alexander the Great left some of his men behind in each city to introduce Greek culture, control it, oppress dissident views, and interbreed. Alexander paid his soldiers to marry non-Greek women. He wanted to assimilate people of all nations.