Shortest History of Philosophy Ever!

01.16.2012 by Reed Dunn


What is the shortest way to explain the entire history of Western Philosophy?  Or, maybe the better question is why does it matter?  I think this is a helpful exercise for those who struggle to see the forest for the trees or just can't understand philosophy.  It is an important exercise because philosophy is the nest from which the ideas of our world hatch.  To understand the 1960's Cultural Revolution, look no further than Nietzsche.  To understand why artsy movies end so abruptly, look no further than the existential philosophers.  Philosophy is all around us - it helps to understand it.  To get a handle on this, we will use the illustration of the lamp on my desk.  I hope it makes sense.  Of course, as with any big picture get ready for some major overgeneralizations.

  1. Greek Philosophy – These guys got us started by considering the lamp in “heaven” – the lamp above my lamp (heaven is not the best word but it will work).  The lamp on my desk is a kind of shadow of the True Lamp.
  2. Medieval Philosophy – Then philosophy moved its gaze to the relationship between the “heavenly” lamp and my lamp (the Eucharist is a good example).  They weren't ready to get rid of that True Lamp idea, but now the lamp is more a mix of heaven and earth.
  3. Modern Philosophy – Now comes the interest in my lamp as a completely independent object – free of any heaven, god, or thinker.  You can understand my lamp without revelation, you can know it fully if you just try hard enough.
  4. Early Post-Modern Philosophy – Then philosophers began to consider the person doing the thinking about the lamp (I am thinking mostly of Husserl).  These guys began to notice that we do bring some baggage to our idea of lamps.
  5. Post-Modern Philosophy – And lastly, all that became important was the lamp in the thinker’s mind and experience.  They think the lamp on my desk is of almost no importance, but my own experience with lamps is tantamount.  Am I biased against lamps because mine always shocks me when I turn it on?  That’s the real question… it is all about perspective.

That’s it.  For the most part, this little history works.  We started out thinking above the lamp and ended up behind it.  Once you see this pattern, you may start to notice all over the place - especially in the liberal arts.  Whether it is literature, movies, paintings, orchestral music, plays, it doesn’t matter; this pattern is everywhere.  I am not sure if it is in all these disciplines because of the influence of philosophy or because it is simply the natural progression of things.  Here is a similar pattern concerning the study of the Bible…

  1. Allegorical Question – what truth has God hidden in this earthly vessel?
  2. Traditional Question – what does God want to say to us in Scripture?
  3. Critical Question – how did the Scripture-as-Scripture come to be formed?
  4. Post-Modern Question – from what perspective do we read the Scripture?

What’s Next?
Seeing philosophy this way awakens the question of where it goes from here.  We already see more and more questions about this from thinkers like Derrida.  He states that what matters most is the vocabulary that lies prior to the thinker.  You see?  He is pushing our gaze even further back.  But where does it go from here?  Back to “heaven”?

Topics: philosophy

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