A Very Short History of Western Thought

A Very Short History of Western Thought

by Stephen Trombley

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780857896278
Publisher: Atlantic Books
Publication date: 01/01/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
File size: 492 KB

About the Author

Stephen Trombley is a writer, editor, Emmy Award–winning filmmaker, and president of the independent film and television production company Worldview Pictures. He was editor of the highly acclaimed The New Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought.

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A Very Short History of Western Thought

By Stephen Trombley

Grove Atlantic Ltd

Copyright © 2011 Stephen Trombley
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-85789-628-5



The Wisdom of the Ancients

6th century BC to 1st century AD

The first philosophers were called Presocratics, because they worked in the period before the Greek philosopher Socrates (c. 469–399 BC), from about 585 BC to 400 BC. The prefix pre- tells us that Socrates is a chronological marker indicating a change in thought. There is a before Socrates and an after – the before period is popularly understood as being characterized by a fragmented approach to knowledge, with the after Socrates period constituting a more systematic and sophisticated approach. But the work of the Presocratics might seem more fragmented than what came after only because the evidence we have of it is fragmentary. Very few original texts remain, and most of our knowledge of Presocratic thought is filtered through the verbal accounts, translations – and therefore prejudices – of those that followed.

For philosophy (and I include here the concepts of thought and thinking in general), the Socratic moment is important in the way that the moment represented by the birth of Jesus Christ (c. 5 BC–c. AD 30) is important. The establishment of Christ's birth as the year zero of Western civilization trumps the Socratic moment, for it determined that time and history would henceforth be regarded as Anno Domini (AD), 'in the year of the Lord', the past being referred to as Before Christ (BC). Socrates and Jesus Christ the man (Socrates made no claim to divinity!) had several things in common: both were teachers; both were executed for their beliefs; both left behind schools of followers who would guarantee the longevity of their ideas; and both abided by a one-word commandment. For Socrates it was think; for Christ, love.

Socrates' disadvantage

One advantage Socrates had over the Presocratics is that his thought was recorded by his pupil Plato (c. 428/7–c. 348/7 BC) and so survives intact to this day. The disadvantage that Socrates, Aristotle and the other Greek fathers of Western philosophy endured is that their light was hidden under a bushel for more than a thousand years, while Christian thought prospered and became dominant.

A fact that might annoy contemporary Islamophobes is that we owe our knowledge of the Greek philosophers to Islamic scholars who transcribed their texts into Arabic at a time when the Greek tongue had been lost in the West as a result of the dominance of Latin, the language of the Roman Empire.

Arabic translators preserved classical thought, and it is from their texts that the Greeks eventually found their way into Latin in the twelfth century, and into the vernacular during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It is remarkable to note that the first complete English translations of Plato and Aristotle (384–322 BC) did not appear until the nineteenth century. They were made by Thomas Taylor (1758–1835), and published posthumously in 1804 (Plato), and between 1806 and 1812 (Aristotle).

The Presocratics: wonder and wealth

The Presocratic philosophers were driven by the wonder that Aristotle describes as the chief motivator in philosophy. When I wonder, I do many things. I wonder about how the stars came to be in the sky – that is, I ask questions about how and why there are stars in the sky. Looking at the sky I am in a state of wonder as I behold its vastness; I am wonderstruck, yet I want to know: how big is the universe? I may also be filled with doubt: I may wonder if so-and-so's explanation of how the stars got there is correct. My doubt may even extend to wondering if my own explanation is correct.

The Greek city-state of Miletus – on the western coast of Anatolia in what is now modern Turkey – was the birthplace of Western thought in the sense that the first Presocratic philosophers lived there. Among the most famous were Thales (c. 624–c. 546 BC), Anaximander (c. 610–c. 546 BC), and Anaximenes (c. 585–c. 528 BC). While it is tempting to group thinkers together into 'schools', or to ascribe some common preoccupation among them, at the end of the day all that can said with any certainty is that these early men of ideas lived in the same place at the same time.

If we were to wonder why our Western tradition of thought began at Miletus, we could do worse than to notice the geographical position of that city: it was on a trade route that linked it with the cultures of Babylon, Lydia, Egypt and Phoenicia. As the classicist Robin Waterfield has remarked in The First Philosophers (2000), 'ideas always travel with trade'. We might also notice something about philosophy (and philosophers) that is true from the very start: it is an occupation of the leisured – and, therefore, wealthy – classes. The association of wealth with ideas is dominant right into the modern period: Michel de Montaigne's (1533–92) father was an extremely successful trader; Søren Kierkegaard's (1813–55) was a rich wool merchant; Isaac Newton's (1643–1727) family were rich landowners; Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951) came from one of the wealthiest families in Europe; Bertrand Russell (1872–1970) from one of the noblest in England; A. J. Ayer's (1910–89) mother was a member of the Citroën family, the eponymous French car manufacturer.

The Greek philosopher was a wealthy, upper-class man whose leisure time was purchased with slave labour. So, with some exceptions, philosophy was a male profession from which women were excluded. One such exception was Theano (sixth century BC), who may have been the wife of Pythagoras (c. 570–c. 495 BC), and whose school was said to contain twenty-eight women. We can compare the situation of philosophy in ancient Greece with our own time, in which – despite the fact that more philosophers may be women or people of colour or come from modest social origins – it remains a profession dominated by white men.

Thales: philosopher and scientist

Thales was the quintessential Presocratic thinker. He was more than 'just' a philosopher; he was an engineer, a mathematician and a scientist. Increasingly, the philosophers of our own age are specialists who cultivate a very narrow patch of knowledge that is of interest only to other professional philosophers (which, lucky for them perhaps, is a surprisingly large number – more than 10,000 worldwide). But every now and again a person is born with the wonder and the intellectual wherewithal to be a philosopher like Thales; in modern times, the American C. S. Peirce (1839–1914) comes to mind.

Thales was regarded as something of a wizard by his contemporaries, for he correctly predicted the solar eclipse of 28 May 585 BC. (In fact, he predicted a range of dates within the year 585 BC, not the precise date.) During these early years of philosophy, an epistemological sea change was taking place, a move from mythology-based belief systems to a systematic use of reason to acquire knowledge. However, this was known only to a very small group that comprised philosophers themselves, their students and their friends. The shift from belief to knowledge occurred over a very long period of time, and it involved a minority of people, because of the hierarchical structure of Athenian society. The slaves who made up a significant portion of the population in ancient Greece were not educated, and nor were most of the 51 per cent of Greeks who were women. So, while Thales' prediction of the solar eclipse of 585 BCwas based more on science than superstition, most people would not have appreciated the difference.

How did Thales predict the eclipse? Babylonian astronomers had kept a record of eclipses called the Saros cycle. There was also a second, more accurate cycle called the Exeligmos cycle, and it is likely that Thales knew both of them. In examining such records Thales was doing what most scientists do every day of their working lives: that is, bench science, working with experimental data and the observations of other scientists, moving knowledge along inch by inch.

But Thales was also doing wholly original philosophy when he asked the question: what is the primary principle at work in the world? What is the one thing that is irreducible? His answer was water. For Thales, water is the substance from which everything originates, and to which everything returns. In water Thales saw the kinds of transformations into different states – solid, liquid, gas – that would account for many other natural phenomena.

Thales was important because he sought to explain the natural world without reference to gods. He replaced the divine with the physical. He proposed that the stuff of the universe was one primary, organizing substance. He set off a tradition that made the search for one irreducible substance a kind of grail quest in philosophy. Aristotle would later say that several substances exist in their own right, without being dependent upon any others. But the Presocratics wanted one ultimate substance and it was variously proposed to be water, fire, air or earth. Thales' contemporary Anaximander contributed the wholly original concept of apeiron, which translates as 'without limits' or 'boundless'. Like many philosophical concepts that would follow, apeiron was mysterious and hard to grasp. Sometimes, philosophers are praised for their precision and clarity; such diverse figures as John Stuart Mill (1806–73) and William James (1842–1910) would be good examples. And then again, philosophers are sometimes prized for their opacity: the German Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) is a fine twentieth-century example; he and Anaximander would have made good colleagues.

Ultimately, Christian philosophers of the medieval period would replace the natural concept of ultimate substance with that of God; later still, G. W. F. Hegel (1770–1831) would posit the Absolute or Spirit as the ultimate substance.

Four elements, four humours: philosophy, medicine and the Presocratic worldview

Thales' contemporary Anaximenes thought fire was the ultimate substance, but one that could be transformed in various ways to become earth, air or water, thus accounting for all four elements. The concept of the element is an enduring one, as can be seen from the periodic table first proposed in 1869 by the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev (1834–1907). In 1789 the Frenchman Antoine Lavoisier (1743–94), who is sometimes called the father of modern chemistry, had published a list of 33 chemical elements. Mendeleev's periodic table now contains 118 of them. But the Greeks had just four elements, and these would correspond to the four humours of Greek medicine as developed by Hippocrates (c. 470–c. 360 BC).

Hippocrates is the father of Western medicine and his most enduring legacy is the Hippocratic Oath, which is still sworn by new doctors in the twenty-first century. The oath is ascribed to Hippocrates, although it might have been composed by another – some claim it was written by followers of Pythagoras. No matter, for it is the spirit of the oath that counts: 'In every house where I come I will enter only for the good of my patients.' But the Hippocratic Oath is more than a promise not to harm present and future patients; it is also a promise to honour the past teachers from whom physicians had received their knowledge. It is the document that best summarizes the value that ancient Greeks placed on learning: 'To consider dear to me, as my parents, him who taught me this art; to live in common with him and, if necessary, to share my goods with him; to look upon his children as my own brothers, to teach them this art.'

The development of medicine and the rise of philosophy in ancient Greece are contemporaneous, and the researches of physicians and philosophers inform one another. For instance, the concept of the four elements finds a correspondence in the four humours by which Hippocrates understood the human body and which he used to diagnose and treat ailments. The four humours or basic elements of the human body were black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood. It is worth pausing to look at the relationship of these concepts with those of the four elements of air, fire, earth, and water, because it constitutes what mid-nineteenth-century German philosophers would come to describe as a Weltanschauung or worldview. A worldview is an orientation towards the world that is shared by a large number of people at a given time; it is the way a society or group views the world, and it reflects the knowledge, beliefs, traditions, theoretical tendencies and prejudices that determine the way in which the world is understood. In the period before the Presocratics, the prevailing worldview was mythological. Starting in the seventeenth century, the scientific worldview arose and challenged that of the Church (we find, again, a conflict between knowledge and belief).

The worldview developed by the Presocratics was a complex mix of metaphysics and science, as can be seen from the humoral pathology of Hippocrates and his followers (who followed him all the way into the nineteenth century, until experimental science and medical technology developed sufficiently to replace Hippocratic ideas). The four humours of blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm corresponded, in order, to a range of organizational and conceptual quartets. The corresponding elements were air, fire, earth and water. The temporal correspondences were spring, summer, autumn and winter. The four humours corresponded to the organs thought to govern health: the liver, gall bladder and spleen, with phlegm doing double duty governing both brain and lungs. Qualities were associated with the four humours: warm and moist (blood); warm and dry (yellow bile); cold and dry (black bile); and cold and moist (phlegm). Four temperaments are identified with the humours: sanguine (blood);choleric (yellow bile); melancholic (black bile); and phlegmatic (phlegm). Apart from melancholic (sad, suffering from melancholy), the human characteristics ascribed to the humours have fallen out of common usage. But, up until the Second World War it was not uncommon to hear someone described as sanguine (healthy, optimistic), choleric (passionate, angry) or phlegmatic (calm, unemotional).

Homer to Heraclitus: the emergence of the soul

The clash of religious belief and philosophy took a new turn with Xenophanes (c. 570–c. 475 BC) who roundly rejected the prevailing religion that was based on the poetry of Homer, who is thought to have flourished around 850 BC, and was the author of the epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey. Homer's religion was populated by gods who lived on Mount Olympus and were ruled by Zeus. The gods were immortal and had human form. Xenophanes dispensed with Homer's polytheistic, anthropomorphic religion and replaced it with a single god who, while he might be embodied, did not take human form. Xenophanes influenced Heraclitus (c. 535–c. 475 BC), though not other contemporaries. Xenophanes' cosmology was not as sophisticated as those of his fellow Presocratics, but he did introduce the idea that the earth had once been covered with mud, and would be again. As evidence of this he cited marine fossils that he discovered inland – the type of fieldwork that in a later age would lead Charles Darwin (1809–82) to develop his theory of evolution and the origin of species.

Of the four elements, it was fire that most fascinated Heraclitus. His fragments are full of images of war and fire. He not only believed that the soul was animated by fire, he is also thought to have concluded that the world was periodically consumed in a fiery conflagration.

Heraclitus was the first philosopher to identify the self with a soul, rather than the body. His manner was prophetic, a quality exaggerated by his key concept, which he called the logos. The literal translation of logos is word, but Heraclitus means more than that. He talks of wisdom as being the ability to open oneself to the logos, which speaks through him, and can be heard by those with ears to hear. The concept of logos harks back to the apeiron of Anaximander, and forward to the Absolute or Spirit of Hegel. From our current perspective we could argue that Heraclitus was a kind of pre-existentialist of the Heideggerian kind. It was Heraclitus who first described time as a river into which one can never enter twice at the same place. Indeed, much of Heidegger's thinking is an attempt to continue ancient Greek thought, rather than trade barbs with his contemporaries on the interpretation of Immanuel Kant or Hegel in early twentieth-century German philosophy. In the winter semester of 1966–7 at the University of Freiburg, Heidegger and Eugen Fink (1905–75) conducted a seminar on Heraclitus, finding common themes of life, death and being, and relating it all to Hegel.


Excerpted from A Very Short History of Western Thought by Stephen Trombley. Copyright © 2011 Stephen Trombley. Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic Ltd.
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Table of Contents


What is Philosophy?,
PART ONE: The Wisdom of the Ancients (6th century BC to 1st century AD),
PART TWO: Christianity Triumphant (1st century to 16th century),
PART THREE: The Scientific Revolution (16th century to 18th century),
PART FOUR: The Landscape of Modernity (late 18th century to early 21st century),
AFTERWORD: Philosophy's Future,
A Note to the Reader,
Bibliographical Note,

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