Philosophy can be defined as a form of knowledge that, despite the wide variety of its expressions, exhibits as almost constant characteristics two vocations: one towards universality and one towards the prescription of wisdom. The former manifests itself in two ways: philosophy is presented as the perfect form of knowledge, in any case as the best possible form of knowledge for mankind, compared to other inferior ones, or at least as the most general and comprehensive form of knowledge; or it is presented as a knowledge that takes other forms of knowledge as its subject, to study their characteristics, their areas of validity, their implicit meanings.

In both cases, philosophy ends up involving all forms of human activity, which it critically examines within the individual fields identified by the current denominations of different philosophical disciplines: logic, ethics, metaphysics, aesthetics, the philosophy of history, of law, of religion, of nature, of science, and so on. The vocation towards the prescription of wisdom is presented as the code of conduct that conforms to the results of philosophical research.

The search for the principle of things

In the oldest manifestations of western tradition, philosophy presents itself as a science, or rather as the science par excellence, and it examines the origins and the structure of things. A common aspect to all philosophers is the search for the first principle of reality, for whatever exists as the foundation of the variety of phenomena and renders it intelligible. According to the Aristotelian testament, for the majority of the first philosophers, this principle is materialistic: in Thales, for example, water is the common principle of all things. But Anaximander goes beyond this understanding of a material principle and recognizes the ‘principle’ in an undeterminable reality, which he calls the limitless and in which he sees the cause of the creation and destruction of beings, that happens based on necessity.

The theme of cosmic legality is thus outlined, the unitary meaning to the variety of phenomena. This theme is found again in Heraclitus with the notion of the logos as the law of existence and as the rule to the opposing conflicts that form the flow of life. In Heraclitus, we also find the distinction between a vulgar knowledge and an authentic knowledge, the former belonging to the many, the latter belonging to the philosopher, or to the sage who, underneath the appearances, knows the true nature of things. With Parmenides of Elea, there is a clear distinction, or rather a juxtaposition, between truth and opinion, correlative to an evaluation of reality, of which the authentic and truly real substance is the being, what is opposed to the fickle and unstable world of becoming. With this, the concept was created of a reality that was superior, transphenomenal, deductible from reality, in antithesis with the world of ordinary experience, recognized by the senses.

Philosophy as “first science”

Towards the middle of the 5th century BC, the focus of philosophical research moves towards anthropological issues (knowledge, morality). The protagonists of this new school are the so-called sophists, to whom we also owe the critique of a series of traditional notions. Philosophy becomes critical of tradition, in its religious, ethical, juridical, and political aspects. Tradition and its certainties are replaced by debate (hence the vital importance of rhetoric, of the art of saying and persuading), with a strong relativistic accent. But in order for the debate to be fruitful, we need to have criteria, to give meaning to words, to define them. And this is the necessity brought forth by Socrates, a sophist as well by virtue of being the creator of debate and criticism, but an enemy of the sophists and more radical than them as a supporter of a correct and cohesive debate. Hence Aristotle’s judgment, according to whom Socrates is the inventor of the ‘concept’ or of the ‘universal’.

In Plato, different characterizations of philosophy, implicit or explicit, coexist. In the Symposium we find the acceptation of the word (‘love of knowledge’, and ϕιλοσοϕεῖν with the meaning of ‘examining’ and ‘researching’). Plato gives a typical representation of the philosopher who is only interested in scientific studies and uncaring of what pertains to practical life in the Theaetetus. The philosopher of the Theaetetus is also a mathematician and an astronomer: he discovers the very structure of the being. And in the Sophist, the philosopher is identified with the debater, as the dialectic is not just a research method or a spiritual exercise, but the objective nexus that holds the connections between ideas.

Aristotle confirms the platonic idea of philosophy as the science par excellence, superior in-depth to all other sciences. The sciences study their subjects within their necessary or more constant characteristics, while philosophy examines them in their most intimate essence, in what they have of substantial and that makes them what they truly are. Therefore, philosophy establishes the foundations of all other sciences. In this specific sense Aristotle defines philosophy as first science or first philosophy or even theology, and places it alongside the other sciences he calls theoretical, mathematics, and physics, but in a privileged position compared to them.

Philosophy as the practice of wisdom

The theme of philosophy as the search and practice of wisdom presents itself in its most specific form in the Epicurean and Stoic schools, and it can also be found in the Cynics, the Cyrenaics, and the Sceptics. The new accent gained by philosophy lies within the assumption that truth exists in the function of the self and that reaching individual happiness (and independence) is the most important objective in life. These philosophies rise in conjunction with the crisis of the ancient city and they express the desire of the individual to retire inside their personal peace. However, philosophy isn’t thus reduced to ethics; Epicureans consider both physics and the canon (theory of knowledge) to be its necessary premises, and even the stoics place logic and physics alongside ethics. Still, the aim is to achieve the happiness-serenity of the individual.

These forms of rational wisdom will soon be overtaken by typically religious wisdom, hence concerning not only happiness but rather individual salvation. And philosophy gains a religious and soteriological nuance: philosophy begins to be identified in religion, since the search for truth doesn’t seem to be achievable through a logical-rational examination, but it tries to be fulfilled in the form of a superior knowledge (γνῶσις) that stems from ineffable and divine realities. A strong religious inspiration crosses Neoplatonism, which will mainly try to present itself as a return to Plato: the transcendence of divinity, the division between the tangible and intangible world, but with a dynamic connection between the two in the context of more profound unity. In the later Neoplatonists, the assimilation of pagan mythology and mysterious, magical rituals will become more and more prominent.

Humanism and Renaissance

With Humanism and the Renaissance, philosophy continues to be a form of totalizing knowledge; however, its accent changes, because it begins to assume those characteristics of mundanity that are generally thought of when we speak of modern thought. As such, it is essentially focused on the earth, the individual, the historian, all interests obviously not absent in medieval philosophy and culture, but clearly surpassed by the interest in the transcendent. Nor, on the other hand, can one say that the philosophy of Humanism and the Renaissance is an irreligious philosophy. But religious necessity springs from the very dignity of the man himself, from his excellence before other creatures, from his centrality in the universe, from his being made in the image of God. The new attitude is manifested in the rediscovery of the classics, in the controversy against scholastic logic, in the controversy against theological dispute. The rediscovery of the classics is not a simple philological rediscovery, but more importantly their ‘imitation’ and at the same time the creation of a new ideal of life, taken from those models.

The polemic against scholastic (and Aristotelian) logic is configured as a polemic against an abstract discipline, in the sense of being artificial and useless for research. The polemic against theological dispute is also polemic against insubstantial and gratuitous mental contrivances. These forms of ‘abstractness’ are contrasted on the one hand by attempts at different logics, closer to the concrete processes of the mind and the psychological knowledge of man, and on the other by the concrete religious experience as lived by the believer. In this way, the principle of tolerance is affirmed, deduced from the importance of the characteristics common to the various faiths and from the inessentiality of the differential and contrasting elements.

From existentialism to hermeneutics

No less and even more vigorously than Husserl, M. Heidegger polemicizes with objective and calculating thinking. In Being and Time, he shows how conceptual abstractions presuppose lived experiences, of which those abstractions are the no longer living derivatives. The second phase of his philosophy is also characterized by the polemic against objectivist thinking (metaphysics and the scientific spirit).

At the center of his reflection, there is no longer that particular entity that is man, but rather the Being. Now, this Being is far from identifying itself with the most real being, because it is fluidity and temporalization, manifestation and concealment: it is the possible Being, its infinite possibilities, which have manifested, which have not manifested, or which will be able to manifest, and it is therefore by eminence never totally present, never circumscribable. The possible is therefore superior to the real and includes it. In both phases of his thought we, therefore, have a rigorously finite position, where man tends towards the Being, or, inauthentically, distances himself from it, and a rigorous anti-rationalism: discursive thought does not bring us closer to it but distances us from the Being, towards which tend instead poets, or rather some poets, and the wisdom placed in certain ‘original’ words.

The finalistic approach is also at the basis of hermeneutical philosophy (H.G. Gadamer), of evident and confessed Heideggerian inspiration. Before understanding, it reflects on the understanding, on the conditions of understanding, and finds that understanding is interpreting, and is therefore conditioned by the situation of the interpreter. But if everything is interpretation nothing is indisputable, everything is subject to revision. The intent of hermeneutic philosophy is, once again, anti-objectivist: it denies absolute transparencies. The humble listening and not the superb seeing is the appropriate metaphor of thinking.

Philosophy as clarification and analysis

The ancient idea of philosophy as analysis and as the liberator from factors of conceptual confusion can be found in analytical philosophy. This idea is for example expressed by B. Russell when he affirms that only through rigorous methods of analysis it is possible to purify and transform, and thereby make correct and fruitful, otherwise vague and approximate notions and sources of errors such as intellect, matter, consciousness, knowledge, experience, causality, will, time.

For his part, L. Wittgenstein states in the Tractatus: «The aim of philosophy is the logical clarification of thought. Philosophy is not a doctrine, but an activity. A philosophical work consists essentially of elucidations. The fruit of philosophy is not philosophical propositions, but the clarification of propositions». In the second phase of his thought Wittgenstein speaks of a plurality of languages, correlatives of as many ‘forms of life’, i.e. cultural contexts within which those languages are intelligible (and with this a Hegelian, as well as hermeneutics, the movement seems to emerge).

R. Carnap observes that metaphysical problems are pseudo-problems and the correlative propositions are pseudo-propositions; therefore, a purification must be made to eliminate non-scientific elements from philosophy, and with this, the logic of science will take the place «of that inextricable tangle of problems which is known under the name of philosophy». A.J. Ayer likewise says that the philosopher must not seek out primary principles, nor make judgments a priori about the validity of our empirical beliefs, but limit himself to works of clarification and analysis.

The current debate

A renewed way of understanding cognitive activity (including science) in relation to history and with an alternative interpretative dimension to the traditional attempts at the normative foundation has transversally affected both philosophical areas in which it is now customary to distinguish philosophical, analytical and continental reflection, with the first label referring to the whole Anglo-American philosophical production, traditionally characterized by a linguistic approach to philosophical themes, and the second label referring to European production which, to a large extent, is recognized in hermeneutical philosophy.

The recognition of the impossibility of maintaining the concept of truth as the acquisition of objective knowledge, independent of cultural presuppositions, social contexts, and historical changes, has directly or indirectly marked much of the philosophical debate. There has been a vast convergence, though respecting the different approaches inspired by different philosophical traditions, on the impossibility of achieving, in the scientific, ethical or aesthetic field, certainties that are definitive, immutable and independent from history. This has had wide and profound repercussions on the very identity of philosophy.

Analytic philosophy

Current of thought developed mainly in England from the beginning of the 20th century, and aimed mainly at the study of language in its various aspects (scientific, daily, ethical, logical, etc.), favoring the analysis of specific problems over the elaboration of broad and comprehensive systems.

From the school of G.E. Moore to the Tractatus of L. Wittgenstein

Bringing the premises of traditional English empiricism to their final consequences, G.E. Moore founded a school in Cambridge, wherewith thirty years of teaching (1911-39) deeply influenced all English philosophy, a school destined to develop. The acceptance of a conscious realism leads Moore to assume as an essential task of a philosophy the clarification of the implicit assumptions, on the linguistic level, of common sense, in order to more rigorously guarantee the realistic assumptions (even if his method is composite and still suffers from psychological suggestions).

On the other hand, starting from mathematical investigations and taking cues from the work of G. Frege and G. Peano and from the mathematical teaching of A. Whitehead, without however neglecting theories such as those of A. Meinong on ‘objects’, B. Russell arrives at a logical and linguistic investigation of mathematical propositions, which leads on the one hand to the theory of defined descriptions, and on the other to the theory of types. L. Wittgenstein’s Tractatus logico-philosophicus (1922), in which the results and problems of both Frege’s and Russell’s researches converge, as well as the introduction of original logical techniques (propositional calculation using the matrix method), poses the need to formulate a philosophy of language in which traditional gnoseological, metaphysical and ethical problems are absorbed.

It is usual to trace back to philosophy the logical positivism that, by drawing inspiration from some statements of Tractatus, elaborates with M. Schlick the so-called principle of verification («The meaning of a proposition is the method of its empirical verification»), proposing a radical anti-metaphysical reductionism. The meeting of logical positivism and American pragmatic currents, following the emigration to the USA of most of the exponents of the neo positivist movement (such as R. Carnap, H. Reichenbach, C.G. Hempel), determines a confluence of interests and creates a mutual stimulus.

The most significant products can be considered W.V. Quine’s essays on ontological and semantic problems, N. Goodman’s research on phenomenal languages and inductive inference, H. Putnam’s studies on the problems of meaning, truth, and realism, and S. Kripke’s studies on modal logic and the reference of linguistic terms.

New hypotheses of language analysis

Meanwhile, in the second phase of his thinking, Wittgenstein, whose teaching at Cambridge (1929-47) had proved to be extremely fruitful, and had influenced the whole English cultural environment, turned his attention to language not so much in its structure as in the multiplicity and variety of its uses and functions, proposing the theory of linguistic games.

The Platonic-Aristotelian conception of language supported by Wittgenstein in the Tractatus and implying a mirroring language-reality correspondence is thus abandoned; the prerequisites for the construction of a rigorously formalized ideal language are dropped, as well as the model of reductionist analysis, and the investigation shifts to the problem of the different linguistic levels, the different roles of the various grammatical parts of discourse in various contexts, and the possibility of identifying varied syntaxes.

These theses are linked to the exponents of Oxonian philosophy whose most significant representatives, besides A.J.T.D. Wisdom, are G. Ryle, who links his analyses on the mind to behavioral cues, J.L. Austin, P.F. Strawson, who particularly develops the theme of the relationships between formal logic-informal logic and linguistic analysis, M. Dummett, who reformulates the ontological dispute between realism and idealism in terms of rival theories of meaning, and S. Toulmin, R.M. Hare and P.H. Nowell-Smith for ethical problems, preceded on this ground by the important study of the American C. Stevenson (Ethics and Language, 1944).

Starting from the second half of the 1960s, the perspective of analysis inaugurated by Austin with the posthumous How to do things with words (1962) has become increasingly more widespread in philosophy. This perspective conceives discourse as a set of linguistic acts characterized by their particular strength. Austin’s proposal of the concept of performative utterances, i.e. utterances that do not describe an act but serve to perform it, has been welcomed with interest. H.P. Grice’s work, who proposes a definition of meaning not related to words or phrases but to the ‘intentions’ of the speaker to produce effects on the audience, derives from the same perspective aimed at explaining language in pragmatic terms.

A systematic presentation of the concept of language and philosophical problems initiated by Austin can be found in J.R. Searle’s work, Speech acts (1969), where speech is presented as a form of behavior and its rules are fully described. In D. Davidson, perhaps the author who has enjoyed the greatest fortune since the 1970s, the study of meaning, in line with the positions of his master Quine (whose strict behaviorism he rejects, however), is above all equivalent to an empirical investigation of the statements believed to be true by the speakers of a community and the connections between these statements and the wider background of the speakers’ beliefs.

At the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries, perhaps the most important novelty is the attention to psychological and ‘mental’ issues. The interest in the philosophy of the mind (or philosophical psychology) is obviously not new in philosophy: it goes back at least to Ryle and Wittgenstein, who was however interested in depriving of any foundation, based on their linguistic analyses, the traditional mind-body dualism of Cartesian origin. Over the years, although the monistic orientation of the majority of analytical philosophers has not disappeared, more and more space has been given to the typically mental and psychological aspects that oversee the main human activities.

The study of the mental aspects related to meaning has had the effect of overlapping the investigations of the philosophy of language in the strict sense with those of philosophy of the mind, and particular emphasis has been acquired, in this area of intersection between the two sub-areas of philosophy, by the problem of intentionality, i.e. the tendency (theorized in the Middle Ages, but rediscovered by F. Brentano) of linguistic assertions and mental states to be typically addressed to extra-linguistic or extra-mental objects, so to have an intrinsic content (intentionality).

Intentionality is at the center of the attention of many analytical philosophers, from Searle and D.C. Dennett to J. Fodor, and it is probably the subject that reveals more than any other the broadening of philosophy’s interest in that type of psychological and mental questions, once considered to be only analyzable in exclusively linguistic terms.

Practical philosophy

This is a branch of philosophical sciences whose origins lay on the distinction theorized by Socrates and the Sophists and clarified in Plato, who generally divides science into πρακτική (referring to πρᾶξις, action), and γνωστική (referring to γνῶσις, knowledge), and more fully in Aristotle, who adds the poetic (ποιητική, referring to ποίησις, productive action) to the theoretical (ϑεωρητική) and practical sciences. The term “practical,” that post-Aristotelians substituted with “ethical,” can be found again in medieval and scholastic terminology.

In the Kantian system, which hinges on the dyad of theoretical reason and practical reason, the distinction between practice and ethics or morals becomes clearer, with the former concerning, in general, the world of action and the latter determining, within this world, the sphere of morally valid activity. This distinction, present again in post-Kantian philosophy, was nullified by the actualistic idealism of G. Gentile, who conceptualized theory itself as a praxis and denied the possibility of an autonomous practical philosophy. From the second half of the 20th century, the distinction was reintroduced and re-proposed by the main German schools of thought, on the basis of a renewed critical reflection on the themes of action and political rationality.

Modern philosophy

In Francis Bacon, we find, as in the whole Renaissance, the ideal of the regnum hominis, of the rational domination of nature, which is the purpose of knowledge and also of the practical organization of knowledge. Bacon offers an encyclopedia of the different forms of knowledge, an organic arrangement of the different sciences. We have a philosophy understood as rational knowledge and including various disciplines, and philosophy in the strictest sense or first philosophy, including the more general notions, i.e. the valid axioms for different sciences.

Modern philosophy, therefore, develops in close connection with the sciences, to which its relationship is dual: on the one hand, philosophy wants to imitate their methodical rigor and, from this point of view, to become a science itself; on the other hand, it claims to have its own specific field of investigation that establishes the foundations of sciences. R. Descartes says that it is ‘first’ philosophy, dedicated to more general notions. From this the image of knowledge as that of a tree, « the roots of which are the metaphysics, the trunk is physics, and the branches rising from this trunk are all the sciences».

T. Hobbes, B. Spinoza, G.W. Leibniz conceive philosophy according to an analogous rationalistic scheme, i.e. as the science that studies the ultimate reasons for phenomena, using a rigorous method borrowed from mathematics. But while in Leibniz there is a theological recovery, in Hobbes and Spinoza we find a clear separation of philosophy and theology, because theology concerns notions not subject to rational analysis and because its object is faith, whose purpose is obedience and piety, and not the truth, which is the only purpose of philosophy.

With J. Locke philosophy takes as its essential task the examination of the validity and the limits of knowledge, thus becoming a critical philosophy. Before proceeding to the construction of metaphysical buildings it is necessary to analyze our ability to know. The result of the investigation is that experience is the foundation and origin of all our knowledge, and thus the methodical basis of philosophy.


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