philosophy [Gr.,=love of wisdom], study of the ultimate reality, causes, and principles underlying being and thinking. It has many aspects and different manifestations according to the problems involved and the method of approach and emphasis used by the individual philosopher. This article deals with the nature and development of Western philosophical thought. Eastern philosophy, while founded in religion, contains rigorously developed systems; for these, see Buddhism; Confucianism; Hinduism; Islam; Jainism; Shinto; Taoism; Vedanta; and related articles.

Distinguishing Characteristics

This search for truth began, in the Western world, when the Greeks first established (c.600 B.C.) inquiry independent of theological creeds. Philosophy is distinguished from theology in that philosophy rejects dogma and deals with speculation rather than faith. Philosophy differs from science in that both the natural and the social sciences base their theories wholly on established fact, whereas philosophy also covers areas of inquiry where no facts as such are available. Originally, science as such did not exist and philosophy covered the entire field, but as facts became available and tentative certainties emerged, the sciences broke away from metaphysical speculation to pursue their different aims. Thus physics was once in the realm of philosophy, and it was only in the early 20th cent. that psychology was established as a science apart from philosophy. However, many of the greatest philosophers were also scientists, and philosophy still considers the methods (as opposed to the materials) of science as its province.


Philosophy is traditionally divided into several branches. Metaphysics inquires into the nature and ultimate significance of the universe. Logic is concerned with the laws of valid reasoning. Epistemology investigates the nature of knowledge and the process of knowing. Ethics deals with problems of right conduct. Aesthetics attempts to determine the nature of beauty and the criteria of artistic judgment. Within metaphysics a division is made according to fundamental principles. The three major positions are idealism, which maintains that what is real is in the form of thought rather than matter; materialism, which considers matter and the motion of matter as the universal reality; and dualism, which gives thought and matter equal status. Naturalism and positivism are forms of materialism.

The History of Philosophy

Historically, philosophy falls into three large periods: classical (Greek and Roman) philosophy, which was concerned with the ultimate nature of reality and the problem of virtue in a political context; medieval philosophy, which in the West is virtually inseparable from early Christian thought; and, beginning with the Renaissance, modern philosophy, whose main direction has been epistemology.

Classical Philosophy

The first Greek philosophers, the Milesian school in the early 6th cent. B.C., consisting of Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes, were concerned with finding the one natural element underlying all nature and being. They were followed by Heraclitus, Pythagoras, Parmenides, Leucippus, Empedocles, Anaxagoras, and Democritus, who took divergent paths in exploring the same problem.

Socrates was the first to inquire also into social and political problems and was the first to use the dialectical method. His speculations were carried on by his pupil Plato, and by Plato's pupil Aristotle, at the Academy in Athens. Roman philosophy was based mainly on the later schools of Greek philosophy, such as the Sophists, the Cynics, Stoicism, and epicureanism. In late antiquity, Neoplatonism, chiefly represented by Plotinus, became the leading philosophical movement and profoundly affected the early development of Christian theology. Arab thinkers, notably Avicenna and Averroës, preserved Greek philosophy, especially Aristotelianism, during the period when these teachings were forgotten in Europe.

The Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century

Scholasticism, the high achievement of medieval philosophy, was based on Aristotelian principles. St. Thomas Aquinas was the foremost of the schoolmen, just as St. Augustine was the earlier spokesman for the church of pure belief. The Renaissance, with its new physics, astronomy, and humanism, revolutionized philosophic thought. René Descartes is considered the founder of modern philosophy because of his attempt to give the new science a philosophic basis. The other great rationalist systems of the 17th cent., especially those of Baruch Spinoza and G. W. von Leibniz, were developed in response to problems raised by Cartesian philosophy and the new science. In England empiricism prevailed in the work of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and David Hume, as well as that of George Berkeley, who was the outstanding idealist. The philosophy of Immanuel Kant achieved a synthesis of the rationalist and empiricist traditions and was in turn developed in the direction of idealism by J. G. Fichte, F. W. J. von Schelling, and G. W. F. Hegel.

The romantic movement of the 18th cent. had its beginnings in the philosophy of J. J. Rousseau; its adherents of the 19th cent. included Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche, as well as the American transcendentalists represented by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Opposed to the romanticists was the dialectical materialism of Karl Marx. The evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin profoundly affected mid-19th-century thought. Ethical philosophy culminated in England in the utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill and in France in the positivism of Auguste Comte. Pragmatism, the first essentially American philosophical movement, was founded at the end of the 19th cent. by C. S. Peirce and was later elaborated by William James and John Dewey.

The Twentieth Century

The transition to 20th-century philosophy essentially came with Henri Bergson. The century has often seen a great disparity in orientation between Continental and Anglo-American thinkers. In France and Germany, major philosophical movements have been the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and the existentialism of Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre. Positivism and science have come under the scrutiny of Jürgen Habermas of the Frankfurt School; he has argued that they are driven by hidden interests. Structuralism, a powerful intellectual movement throughout the first half of the 20th cent., defined language and social systems in terms of the relationships among their elements.

Beginning in the 1960s arguments against all of Western metaphysics were marshaled by poststructuralists; among the most influential has been Jacques Derrida, a wide-ranging philosopher who has pursued deconstruction, a program that seeks to identify metaphysical assumptions in literature and psychology as well as philosophy. Both structuralism and poststructuralism originated mostly in France but soon came to influence thinkers throughout the West, especially in Germany and the United States.

Major concerns in American and British philosophy in the 20th cent. have included formal logic, the philosophy of science, and epistemology. Leading early figures included G. E. Moore, Bertrand Russell, and Ludwig Wittgenstein; Anglo-American philosophy was later exemplified by logical positivists like Rudolph Carnap. In their close attention to problems of language, the logical positivists, influenced by Wittgenstein, in turn influenced the work of W. V. O. Quine and others in the philosophy of language. Later Anglo-American philosophers turned increasingly toward ethics and political philosophy, as in John Rawls' work on the problem of justice.


See W. Windelband, A History of Philosophy (2d ed. 1901, repr. 1968); B. Russell, A History of Western Philosophy (rev. ed. 1961); W. K. C. Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy (3 vol., 1962-69); A. H. Armstrong, ed., The Cambridge History of Later Greek and Early Medieval Philosophy (1966); J. Passmore, A Hundred Years of Philosophy (2d ed. 1966) and Recent Philosophers (1985); A. Wedberg, A History of Philosophy (3 vol., 1982-84); F. Copleston, A History of Philosophy (9 vol., 1985); D. W. Hamlyn, A History of Western Philosophy (1987); R. Scruton, Modern Philosophy: An Introduction and Survey (1995); E. Craig, ed., Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1998); P. Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy (tr. 2002).

Not to be confused with the subiectum or hypokeimenon in Aristotelianism.

In philosophy, a subject is a being which has subjective experiences, subjective consciousness or a relationship with another entity (or "object"). A subject is an observer and an object is a thing observed. This concept is especially important in Continental philosophy, where 'the Subject' is a central term in debates over human autonomy and the nature of the self.

The sharp distinction between subject and object corresponds to the distinction, in the philosophy of Rene Descartes, between thought and extension. Descartes believed that thought (subjectivity) was of the essence of the mind, and that extention (the occupation of space) was of the essence of matter.

In the modern continental tradition, which may plausibly be said to date from Descartes, debates over the nature of the Subject play a role comparable to debates over personhood within the distinct Anglo-American tradition of analytical philosophy.

In critical theory and psychology, subjectivity is also the actions or discourses that produce individuals or 'I'; the 'I' is the subject — the observer; I/eye — the bearer of the gaze.

The subject in German idealism

Subject as a key-term in thinking about human consciousness began its career with the German Idealists, in response to David Hume's radical skepticism. The idealists' starting point was Hume's conclusion that there is nothing to the self over and above a big, fleeting bundle of perceptions. The next step was to ask how this undifferentiated bundle comes to be experienced as a unity - as a single subject. Hume had offered the following proposal:

"...the imagination must by long custom acquire the same method of thinking, and run along the parts of space and time in conceiving its objects.

Kant, Hegel and their successors sought to flesh out the process by which the subject is constituted out of the flow of sense impressions. Hegel, for example, stated in his Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit that a subject is constituted by "the process of reflectively mediating itself with itself."

Hegel begins his definition of the subject at a standpoint derived from Aristotelian physics: "the unmoved which is also self-moving" (Preface, pgph. 22). That is, what is not moved by an outside force, but which propels itself, has a prima facie case for subjectivity. Hegel's next step, however, is to identify this power to move, this unrest that is the subject, as pure negativity. Subjective self-motion, for Hegel, comes not from any pure or simple kernel of authentic individuality, but rather, it is

"...the bifurcation of the simple; it is the doubling which sets up opposition, and then again the negation of this indifferent diversity and of its anti-thesis" (Preface, pgph. 18).

The Hegelian subject's modus operandi is therefore cutting, splitting and introducing distinctions by injecting negation into the flow of sense-perceptions. Subjectivity is thus a kind of structural effect - what happens when Nature is diffused, refracted around a field of negativity and the "unity of the subject" for Hegel, is in fact a second-order effect, a "negation of negation". The subject experiences itself as a unity only by purposively negating the very diversity it itself had produced. The Hegelian subject may therefore be characterized either as "self-restoring sameness" or else as "reflection in otherness within itself" (ibid.)

Postmodern subjects

The thinking of Marx, Nietzsche and Freud provided a point of departure for questioning the notion of a unitary, autonomous Subject, which for many thinkers in the Continental tradition is seen as the foundation of the liberal theory of the social contract. These thinkers opened up the way for the deconstruction of the subject as a core-concept of metaphysics.

Nietzsche critiqued the groundworks of subjectivity, stating that the subject was a "grammatical fiction"; "there is no doer behind the doing".

Sigmund Freud's explorations of the unconscious mind added up to a wholesale indictment of Enlightenment notions of subjectivity.

Among the most radical re-thinkers of human self-consciousness was Heidegger, whose concept of Dasein or "Being-there" displaces traditional notions of the personal subject altogether.

Jacques Lacan, inspired by Heidegger and Saussure, built on Freud's psychoanalytic model of the subject, in which the "split subject" is constituted by a double bind: alienated from jouissance when he or she leaves the Real, enters into the Imaginary (during the mirror stage), and separates from the Other when he or she comes into the realm of language and difference in the Symbolic or the Name of the Father.

Thinkers such as Althusser, Foucault or Bourdieu theorize the subject as a social construction. According to Althusser, the "subject" is an ideological construction (more exactly, constructed by the "Ideological State Apparatuses").

It is constituted through the process of interpellation; according to Foucault, it is the "effect" of power and "disciplines" (See Discipline and Punish: construction of the subject as student, soldier, "criminal", etc.).

Subjectivity in analytic philosophy

In contemporary analytic philosophy, the issue of subject -- and more specifically the "point of view" of the subject, or "subjectivity" -- has received attention as one of the major intractable problems in philosophy of mind (a related issue being the mind-body problem). In the essay What is it like to be a bat?, Thomas Nagel famously argued that explaining subjective experience -- the "what it is like" to be something -- is currently beyond the reach of scientific inquiry, because scientific understanding by definition requires an objective perspective, which, according to Nagel, is diametrically opposed to the subjective first-person point of view. These additional features of subjective experience are often referred to as qualia (see Frank Cameron Jackson and Mary's room).

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