Here is an infographic that is helpful for visualizing some of the historical and conceptual relations between thinkers and ‘scools of thought’ in the History of Western Philosophy. We see major figures in the Ancient and Hellenistic Greek and Roman traditions; Medieveal, Renaissance, and Modern European traditions; and Contemporary European and American traditions. Individuals are grouped together, according to time period, under generally recognized ‘schools of thought’ (or –isms). These schools are then related to one another by solid lines (representing agreements between schools) and/or by dotted lines (representing significant disagreements, i.e., one school’s rejection of central tenets of another school).
Representing and understanding the History of Western Philosophy is an ongoing project. It is carried out by individuals and groups who themselves identify to greater and lesser degrees with what they take to be the ‘spirit’ of the project, and who generally spend great amounts of time reading, interpreting, re-reading, discussing, and arguing amongst themselves concerning the correct conclusions to be drawn from the bodies of historical evidence we have at our disposal. For better or for worse, we don’t have any direct and infallible insight into how things really were, what people really thought, or what really led someone to think and argue in the ways that they did.
We do, however, as it turns out (for now, at least, and although it could presumably have been otherwise) have massive amounts of evidence concerning these things–we have texts of various kinds, we have traditions of interpreting these texts (and traditions of interpreting these traditions), we have archaeological traces and other cultural artifacts. We can consult all of these sources in forming and evaluating hypotheses concerning specific aspects of the intellectial traditions of the past and their influence on the ways we think about our world and ourselves in the present.
Like any other infographic (e.g., a map), what we can glean from this one is not an adequate familiarity with the History of Philosophy, its central figures and issues, and its development over time. It is, rather, some orientation points that may serve us along the way as we proceed, sometimes through careful and cautious steps, sometimes through quick and confident leaps, to construct our own understanding of this history, its central questions and answers, its major and minor figures, its characteristic insights and blindspots, and its relevance to how (or even if) we think about and live our lives.
It can be pretty easy to lose the forest for the trees (or, even, to lose the tree for the leaf, or the leaf for the molecules composing it) when we get caught up in analyzing and discussing the context, intensions, construction, and arguments of a single passage from a single text by a single author. Having a general outline to return to time after time as we assimilate what we gain to what we already know (or thought we knew) is an important part of developing an understanding that is both broad enough and deep enough to allow us to join conversations that we previously could barely even make sense of, and to make productive use of our knowledge–both for deciding what our goals and values are and for determining the best ways for us to pursue them.
Those of you who already have some familiarity with the thinkers and traditions represented in this infographic, feel free to respond to this post–with your general impressions of the information presented in the graphic, with more details concerning any of the figures or schools represented there that you find to be interesting, or with questions that it raises for you. This is a good way for me to learn a little bit about your background and interests, as well as for others in the class to benefit from your experience and insight.