You Gotta Know These Schools of Western Philosophy

  1. Stoicism is an ancient Greek school that idealized freedom from emotions. It was founded by Zeno of Citium, who taught at the “painted porch” in Athens. (The name of the movement derives from the Greek word “stoa,” which means “porch.”) An important Stoic idea was that of the “pneuma,” or the “breath of life,” which is the life force that structures matter and the soul. Important thinkers include Epictetus, a slave whose views were recorded by his student Arrian in the Discourses, and the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.
  2. Skepticism encourages the rejection of truths unless they are supported by sufficient evidence. Academic Skepticism, which states that no truths can be certain, was led by such men as Arcesilaus and Carneades. Another form of skepticism is known as “Pyrrhonian,” after Pyrrho of Elis, who is considered the founder of skepticism. The thinker Sextus Empiricus, who lived in the second century AD, provided one of the most complete accounts of skepticism in his Outlines of Pyrrhonism.
  3. Scholasticism was taught at medieval Christian universities and sought to reconcile Christian thought with classical thinkers such as Aristotle. This school included Thomas Aquinas, who provided five arguments for the existence of God (called the “quinque viae”) in his Summa Theologica. Other thinkers include Pierre Abelard (who wrote Sic et Non) and Peter Lombard (who wrote The Four Books of Sentences).
  4. Empiricism is the view that all knowledge derives from sensory experience. John Locke, whose works include An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, thought that the mind starts out as a tabula rasa—i.e., a blank slate—and that we gain knowledge through experiences. Other empiricist philosophers include George Berkeley (who wrote A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge) and David Hume (who wrote An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding).
  5. Rationalism, which is often contrasted with empiricism, asserts that we gain knowledge through intuition or our rational nature rather than through experience. A version of this doctrine was espoused by the Greek philosopher Plato in his Theory of Forms, which states that abstract ideas (“forms”) are more real than the material world of the senses. Later rationalists include René Descartes (who wrote Meditations on First Philosophy) and Baruch Spinoza (who wrote Ethics).
  6. Positivism encourages the use of the scientific method to discover the laws that govern society. It was founded by the 19th-century Frenchman Auguste Comte, who believed that society develops through three stages (which he termed the theocratic, metaphysical, and positive). It should not be confused with logical positivism, a 20th-century movement whose leaders included the young Ludwig Wittgenstein (who wrote Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus) and which holds that the only meaningful statements are those that are logically verifiable.
  7. Pragmatism is a movement that values ideas based on their practical application (what is sometimes known as the “cash value” of an idea). Its prominent thinkers include William James (who wrote Pragmatism) and John Dewey (who wrote Democracy and Education). The founder of pragmatism was James’s friend C. S. Peirce, who expounded its ideas in such essays as “The Fixation of Belief” and “How to Make Our Ideas Clear.”
  8. Utilitarianism is a school of ethics that advocates the maximization of “utility,” which is often identified with pleasure or happiness. Its most influential early thinker was Jeremy Bentham, who asserted that it is the “greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.” The foremost utilitarian was Bentham’s disciple, John Stuart Mill, who expounded his views in such books as Utilitarianism and On Liberty.
  9. Existentialism is a loosely defined movement of 19th- and 20th-century thinkers who focused on the importance of leading an “authentic” life. Many thinkers that are now thought of as “existentialists” would either not have recognized the term, as it emerged after their time, or would not have accepted it as a description of their outlook. The movement is often identified with the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who asserted that “existentialism is a humanism.” Others associated with the movement include the 19th-century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (who wrote Either/Or), the 20th-century German philosopher Martin Heidegger (who wrote Being and Time), and Sartre’s contemporary Albert Camus (who wrote The Myth of Sisyphus).

This article was contributed by NAQT writer Ashwin Ramaswami.

Back to the You Gotta Know homepage.