By Tom Maguire

This synthesis is a summary of the philosophical movements between the 7th century BC and the present day. It has associated links that point to the corresponding chapters which describe in detail the relevant events and characters. In turn, every chapter ends with a list of links to websites where you can expand the topic. 

Aegean cultures before the 7 B.C.

Western philosophy has its origin in ancient Greece. However, even philosophers like Bertrand Russell admit that the sudden rise of civilization in Greece is difficult to explain. Could the Greeks have inherited their ideas from the Minoans?

The Minoans provided foundations for Greek thought in their political organization and mythological narratives. In fact, pre-Socratic philosophy began in what were once Minoan colonies, the Aegean islands. Crete pioneered the idea of ​​'city-state'. Minos, king of the Cretan capital Knossos, is also a part of Greek mythology in the legend of the minotaur and appears in The Iliad  and Odyssey. The Athenians implicated Minos in the founding myth of their city which chronicles the tale of the legendary founder of Athens, Theseus, killing the minotaur thus saving his compatriots.

After the fall of the Minoan empire around 1450 BC, the Mycenaeans ruled the Aegean during the Iron Age until 1100 BC. We also know them from the same poems attributed to Homer who describe the Achiles, the hero of the Mycenaean-Trojan war in The Iliadand the epic journey of Ulysses the protagonist of The Odyssey.
What most distinguishes both narratives is their different main characters and the interventions of the gods. Achiles is a demigod who chooses eternal glory in a tragic tale; Ulysses is the rational human who  triumphs over challenges thanks to his wisdom. He arrives at a happy ending, the harmony of his home. The gods of The Iliad interfere with human life by manipulating their creatures like puppets; in The Odyssey Ulysses is responsible for his actions and divine intrusion is minimal, to the point that his protector goddess, Athena, does not appear during his voyages.

These two texts along with Hesiod's Theogany formed the double Greek philosophical vision of the earthly and the heavenly, the natural and the divine. Many pioneering future philosophers will propose ways of synthesizing these two basic concepts of physics and metaphysics.

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The Presocratics (7 - 5 B.C.)

After the fall of the Mycenaean empire, the Greek Dark Ages began (1100 - 900 BC) and the population dispersed, founding micro-states on the islands off the Anatolian coast. This was the western frontier of the first great world empire, Persia, which extended to the Indus in the east. In their natural expansion the Persians invaded the Aegean in 547 BC. providing new ideas from the East on geometry and calculus.
Enriched by their contacts in the Persian empire the Greek micro-states began to investigate the physical structure of their 'Cosmos' and established a human vision of nature. They looked for the essence of nature as a cosmic explanation: on the island of Miletus, Thales pronounced that it was water; his disciple Anaxímedes declared that the essence was air; from the island of Samos Pythagoras argued that numbers were essential; Heraclitus of Ephesus considered the nature of the universe to be fire.

However, the metaphysical tradition was not lost and the Pythagoreans were a religious as well as philosophical movement. This tension between the physical and the metaphysical, the dual visions of the homeric poems, would remain engraved in the DNA of Western philosophical thought.

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The Socratics (5 - 4 B.C.)

Athens was the next great center of Greek thought with Socrates as the greatest example. He left no writings and we know him only through his biographer and disciple Plato. Socrates used a method of dialogue that employed incisive questions, similar to modern reporters or lawyers to hone an ethical approach to living together in city life. He followed the homeric tradition to understand the world using, not traditional myths, but a rationalist analysis. Socratic philosophers devised a new political coexistence within Athens that they called democracy.

The faithful disciple Plato posed another fundamental philosophical question: what is knowledge? He speculated on the limitations of the senses to know reality. This was probably provoked by the mathematics of the Aegean tradition which pointed to a reality beyond sensory perception. According to Plato, Ideas and Forms are separate realities from the world we perceive. His Allegory of the Caveproposes that the world of the senses is only a shadow and that ideas are reality. It is the principle of idealism in Western philosophy and is inherited from the Greek metaphysical conception.

Aristotle presents a correction to Plato. He bases the certainty of knowledge in the physical world. As a biologist he described the Cosmos in terms of classification into genus and species and he sought to reconcile the opposites of metaphysics and physics. This would become the method of advancing philosophical thought, the philosophical tradition of analyzing the known within a conversation between two opinions to arrive at a synthesis.

Socrates and his tradition sought a policy for coexistence that engendered the idea of ​​distributing power among the people: democracy; Plato began research on knowledge itself and introduced idealism as a philosophy. Aristotle laid the foundations of the philosophical method: discussion leading to synthesis.

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Hellenism (3 B.C. - 1 A.D.)

Alexander the Great inherited the Macedonian throne in 336 BC. and he undertook a territorial expansion that in 13 years conquered the Persian Empire and reached the Indus to the east and Egypt to the south. The established commercial flow and the excellent communication routes left by the Persians generated a great exchange of commerce, texts and ideas within the Hellenistic empire.

The two intellectual centers were the libraries of Alexandria and Pergamon, which incorporated philosophical ideas from the eastern part of the empire. Mathematics was beginning to take over the abstract speculation of the earlier tradition. Thus Euclides went to Alexandria to develop concepts of geometry; Archimedes as an astronomer and mathematician; Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the earth; Claudio Tolomeo, mathematician, geographer and astrologer; Diophantus of Alexandria, the father of algebra. In Pergamon, Galen was trained in medicine and Hipparchus of Nicaea investigated texts from Babylon.

The Hellenistic era established the two fundamental references of Western culture: the Greek tradition and Christianity (the Gospels were written in Greek, transmitted by its empire and influenced by its culture).

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Roman (1 B.C. to 5 A.D.)

In 197 BC the Romans conquered Macedonia and in the year 27 they colonized Greece: the Greco-Roman era was established. Following the Greek tradition, philosophy opted for two traditions of reflection: the politics of coexistence and knowledge itself. Thus the ethical systems expanded: Stoicism and Epicureanism, together with the traditions of abstract reflection: Skepticism and Neoplatonism.

In political thought, Stoicism continues the Socratic search for virtue and order. Seneca embraced it in Rome as did Cato the younger. Epicureanism defends the idea that simple pleasures and living like hermits are the basis of happiness. Lucretius introduced it into the Roman world.

In the tradition of abstract thought, skepticism starts from the belief that the truth cannot be known with certainty. Cicero, the Roman consul, was skeptical. Neoplatonism, brought to Rome from Egypt, was the most accepted philosophy in the Greco-Roman period. Hypatia was a Neoplatinist who taught in Alexandria but when she was assassinated in the street Neoplatonism died with her and was replaced by Christianity.

Augustine of Hippo, father of the church, synthesized Neoplatonism and Christianity.

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Middle East (6th - 12th c.)

At the fall of Rome Christianity was the predominant Mediterranean faith, but from the 7th century onwards Islam prevailed and at the end of the century it dominated North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula.

In the 8th century the Arabs established research institutions in their territories such as the libraries and educational centers of Baghdad, Damascus and Córdoba. The latter city attracted many European researchers who thus helped Europe emerge from the post-Roman dark ages. The Cordovan, Averroës (Ibn Rushd), made translations from Greek to Arabic and commentaries on Aristotle that served as the basis for the later development of scholasticism in Europe. Moisés Maimonides, a Judeo-Spanish philosopher in Córdoba, set out to reconcile Neoplatonism with the Torah. He influenced among others the scholastics Aquinas and Duns Scotus.

The revival of Greek culture in Europe was possible because Muslim Spain shared knowledge with Christianity and transmitted the traditions of Greek and Eastern civilizations.

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Western Middle Ages (6th - 13th c.)

The Roman Empire came to an end in the 4th century and its territory was invaded by a chaotic migration of Goths, Visigoths, Arabs, and Huns.

The Christian reconquest began in Tours, France, and continued in the Iberian peninsula, but Cordoba remained an Arab cultural capital where European scholars reencountered the Greek tradition lost in the West. Their objective was to harmonize Greek knowledge, kept and translated by the Arabs, with Christianity. Among them are Michael Escoto, Alfonso X the wise, Thomas Aquinas, Dante Alighieri and Ramón Llull.

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Renaissance Italy (13th - 14th c.)

This Italian period began in the 'quattrocento' with the rise of the arts and humanism. It was a renewed search for identity after the fall of the Roman Empire and the loss of references during the Middle Ages.  The new identity was founded on politics, the literary vernacular, and in Christian and Greco-Roman art.

Dante and laid the groundwork for the use of the vernacular instead of Latin, an example followed by Petrarca and Boccaccio. The wealthy Florentine merchants and the Popes invested funds in works of art that stimulated painters, sculptors, and architects. Civic life saw political ups and downs with the beginning of a religiously based social revolution with Savoranola and the proclamation of the Republic of Florence. The Medici seized power and established an autocratic regime.

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Renaissance: Rest of Europe (14th c.)

This Italian period began in the 'quattrocento' with the rise of the arts and humanism. It was a renewed search for identity after the fall of the Roman Empire and the loss of references during the Middle Ages.  They found a new identity in politics, the literary vernacular, and in Christian and Greco-Roman art.

Dante and laid the groundwork for the use of the vernacular instead of Latin, an example followed by Petrarca and Boccaccio. The wealthy Florentine merchants and the Popes invested funds in works of art that stimulated painters, sculptors, and architects. Civic life saw political ups and downs with the beginning of a religiously based social revolution with Savoranola and the
proclamation of the Republic of Florence. The Medici seized power and established an autocratic regime. 

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Modern Age: Northern Europe (15th. - 16th. c.)

After expelling the Arabs from the peninsula, the Spanish united the Eurasian and American continents by sea. A period of cultural instability opened up, characterized by already established desires for religious and social reform and an interest in the vernacular to express itself in literature.

Nordic religious humanism led a social change that the established religion was unable to bring about. However, some authors continued to prefer Latin. Martin Luther rebelled against corruption in the church of Rome and began the Protestant Reformation. He inspired the translation of the bible into the vernacular and thus removed from the Church the power of unique interpreter of the book. In Switzerland Zwingli and Calvin, in Scotland Presbyterianism, in England Anglicanism, in France the Huguenots, and in Holland Calvinism followed the Protestant tradition. The Catholic Church responded with the Council of Trent, the Jesuits, mysticism, and the Inquisition.

In science Francis Bacon stands out because he envisioned a scientific reform liberated from the Aristotelian procedures and biblical beliefs of the Mediterranean world basing it on empirical research. Copernicus drew a new heliocentric world.

In this uncertain period Shakespeare developed  the relationship between fiction and reality in his plays, the concept of life as an illusion.

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Modern Age: Southern Europe (15th. - 16th. c.)

At this time the truth was religious and scientists accepted it or died at the stake.

In science Versalius introduced human dissection in Europe by improving on Galen. Giordano Bruno rejected the traditional geocentrism of the earth and was burned at the stake. Galilei made planetary observations with his telescope, but had to retract because they did not correspond to Aristotelian astronomy.

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Age of Reason Northern Europe (17th. c.)

The thinking models that prevail at this time are rationalism, empiricism and political philosophy. The homeric vision of a humanity determining its own life was imposed .

The empirical philosophy of Hobbes and Locke followed the tradition of Bacon and was influenced by contemporary deterministic scientific movements based on mathematical calculus. Even their options about social coexistence arose from their concrete experience of living during the English Civil War. Hobbes chose the autocratic king; Locke sided with parliamentarism and the separation of powers.

Espinoza was a rationalist, but he rejected the Cartesian division of mind and body, just like Leibniz. In religion Espinoza embraced a deterministic pantheism and Leibniz affirmed that God determines everything and denied causality. Both philosophies have their roots in the deterministic culture of the time and a parallel in the predestination of Luther and
In ethics, Espinoza sought the philosophical path to happiness within the tradition of the ancient skeptics.

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Age of Reason Southern Europe (17th. c.)

Thought in southern Europe was divided between knowledge by revelation and knowledge by reasoning, an inheritance from the traditional philosophical double vision between human and divine, material and spiritual.

Pascal was an opponent of rationalism and empiricism, proposing the alternative of revelation within faith.

Descartes took the philosophical power out of the hands of the theologians of the medieval tradition by questioning it and redirecting it towards analysis based on reason.

Malebranche adopted rationalism, opposing empiricism. He tried to synthesize cartesianism with augustinian thought to explain divine activity in the world. He theorized about the relationship between universal divine ideas and human sensory knowledge. This influenced the philosophy of knowledge of Berkeley, Leibniz, and Hume.

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The Enlightenment Northern Europe (18th c.)

In the north of the continent, the traditional confrontation of thought between the human and the divine, physics and metaphysics continued. Empirical vision predominated and philosophers faced a culture of materialistic perception of the world against its philosophical rationalism. In an attempt to synthesize both approaches, they rephrased Plato's question about knowledge: how do we know?

George Berkeley, with extreme empiricism, affirmed that our perception of the world is built with mental ideas that are rooted in God. By ourselves we only know the sensory, not the external reality.

David Hume argued for two concepts of knowledge: ideas based on reason and calculation and facts based on the sensory.

Emmanuel Kant worked towards a synthesis of rationalism and empiricism arguing that knowledge resulted from a combination of experience and concepts. He distinguished between rational truths, explainable by words, and factual truths that need further explanation. He also proposed a priori concepts, rational deductions, and a posteriori knowledge that result from experience. Starting from the notion that it is not possible to know objects themselves, he theorized in an innovative way that the mind is creative in its representation of reality because it is stimulated by objects and is not subject to knowing them themselves.

In economics Adam Smith became interested in the old theme of coexistence and morality to apply them to the means of production. It is based on empathy motivated by personal interest and the invisible hand as factors that regulate human economic interactions.

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The Enlightenment: Southern Europe (18th c.)

The French Revolution was the trigger for the Enlightenment in southern Europe. Philosophical efforts concentrated on going beyond the traditional separation between empiricism and metaphysics.

Voltaire positioned himself between the rational materialism of emerging science and the prevailing theological transcendence. He argued in favor of free will and at the same time for recognizing the weight of natural laws. In ethics he relied on reason as a guide.

Montesquieu wanted to find rules for political governance with a historical analysis of how the different ways of managing power had worked. His model, based on Locke's separation of powers, had a great influence.

Denis Diderot used the Encyclopédie to change the political status quo by showing that rationalism would bring progress. He radicalized the empirical vision to build a metaphysical materialism.

Jean Le Rond d'Alembert distinguished between memory, reason and imagination in knowledge. His goal was to synthesize metaphysical rationalism and sensory empiricism, but he did not succeed.

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Contemporary Age: USA (19th. & 20th. c.)

The Unites States thinkers addressed the traditional questions of philosophy: the knowledge formulated by Plato and the skeptics, the Aristotelian synthesis between physics / metaphysics, the rationalism / empiricism dichotomy of Descartes and Bacon, and the Socratic and ethical question of coexistence. Their interpretations of these basic questions were influenced by three contemporary movements of the time: Romanticism, Darwinism, and Pragmatism.

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Contemporary Age - Northern Europe (19th. & 20th. c.)

The evident advances of science stimulated the philosophers of this period to found their theories on solid ground. Some like Bentham, Marx, and Engels based them on social transformation, others, like Fichte, Mill, and Ayer on an empirical approach to philosophy, others, like Hegel, on philosophical systematization.

A majority like Husserl, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Russell, Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Schopenhauer were in favor of a skeptical approach as a starting point. All were looking for certainties but most found themselves facing a
 question of identity .

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Contemporary Age - Southern Europe (19th. & 20th. c.)

The philosophers in the south of the continent also sought their certainties by synthesising opposing currents, especially the personal Self and external reality.

Auguste Comte synthesized positivism, ecclesiastical discipline and the progressive thought of the Enlightenment as well as summarizing general human thought in 3 stages.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty synthesized the dualism between subject and object in the ontological concept of Being, existence itself, using linguistics, structuralism and phenomenology.
Claude Levi-Strauss brought the cultural and scientific vision closer by applying structuralism to cultural facts. In the same way, Foucault pointed to the cultural nature of scientific truths.
Derrida argued that we traditionally think in a binary fashion, through oppositions, and proposed the deconstruction of this traditional method of knowing to achieve a synthesis between the observer and the observed.

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Contemporary Age - Quantum Mechanics (20th. cent)

The history of quantum theory is that of a revolution in the philosophical vision of reality uniting observer and observed. The classical philosophical theory of knowledge was seriously challenged by quantum mechanics which posited that we can only know where the light particles are if there is an observer, and even then only probabilistically.

Einstein maintained the classical view and declared that the theory was incomplete because the natural world was independent of the observer, not probabilistic but deterministic. Bohr believed otherwise, arguing that classical physics might not apply in the quantum domain. This discussion followed the usual development of the philosophical discussion: thesis versus antithesis. Bohr's vision was random and microscopic; Einstein's deterministic and macroscopic. Both are based on philosophical beliefs about the ancient Platonic question of how we know reality.

After 1945, metaphysics was put aside and scientists adopted a pragmatic approach applying the ideas of quantum physics. This led to advances in semiconductors, electronics and nuclear energy.

However, to date there is no complete theoretical explanation for the strange results from quantum mechanics and we are still waiting for a synthesis.

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Aristotle had already presented the fundamental pattern of Western philosophical thought in his dialectical model: the opposition between different philosophical currents in the West normally ends in a synthesis. It seems that the course of Western thought has been marked by aristotelian philosophical theory and follows this path: opposition, agreement and advance (summarised in the Final Syntheses chapter).

Looking at the history of Western philosophy, the apparent objective of its thought has been none other than to clarify human identity. This returns this synthesis to its starting point: the Minoans. The summary of the later philosophical search was already announced in times of this first western culture with the inscription that we read in the first temple at Delphi (VII BC): "Know thyself."

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