Evolution of Philosophy:
The Question of Human Existence

Philosophers attempt to overcome their sensual/physical nature to grasp truer reality via the intellect, and to seek an occasional glimpse of reality in everyday experience. This web page attempts to show the essential progress of this effort over the centuries, which has opened the door to a merging of human reason and mystical enlightenment.

Thales of Miletus, around 624 BC
All is one and the vital forces in the world are from the gods.

Pythagoras, around 571 BC
Numbers provide the principles of all, including matter and the meaning of the cosmos, especially music and astronomy.

Heraclitus of Ephesus, active 504 BC
All is one. There is even unity in opposites.

Parmenides, active 501 BC
There is truth as compared to “seeming.” The truth is that reality is one. Truth is unchanging and can be apprehended by thought. But seeming involves opposites which leads to errors.

Zeno of Elea, active 464 BC
There are more paradoxes for a plural, divided universe than for a unified universe.

A typical paradox: Can you infinitely subdivide a finite segment of time? Or can you end up with a segment of time that is not divisible? Logic fails to solve this dilemma
 -Achilles can never catch a tortoise in theory.) Reasoning thus conflicts with experience/appearance/sense. This raises issues about reality.

Socrates, born 469 BC
Turned philosophy away from physics. His emphasis was the seeking of virtuous living.

Plato, around 428-347 BC (follower of Socrates and teacher of Aristotle)
Ideas are reality; material objects are imitations. Ideas are eternal, unchanging, known by intellect. There is a dualistic reality: a temporal world of physical objects (experienced by the senses); and a timeless world of ideal Forms (comprehended by the mind via abstract thinking).

Forms function as a pattern for physical objects, the basis of standards of conduct and as objects of genuine knowledge. For example, you can intellectually grasp the essence of the form of beauty.

Humans occupy a transient world, but also, like the Forms, humans are eternal souls that exist before birth and after death.

Plato: “One fulfills the purpose of life by pursuing knowledge of eternal reality, giving up inessential physical satisfaction, and finally earning release from the cycle of birth and death into the eternal realm of Good itself.”

Platonic concept: “The basic element of reality is the abstract form reflected in material objects.”

Aristotle, 384-322 BC
All conclusions should be drawn from observed data using argument and reasoning. Except for God and other immaterial forms, all forms are composed of matter. Matter and form provides the basis for explaining the world. The essence of a human being can’t be separated from its material existence. Man can know the nature of God: a nonreligious first cause.

Epicurus, 341-270 BC,
Lived a secluded, austere life with his followers. Goal of life: stay free from things that disturb, including avoidance of pain or fear. Fear is an emotion that distracts from the true purpose of life. Death is not to be feared.

Pursued a pleasure of the soul, or pleasure of the mind, which included avoidance of the competitive life of politics, athletics, etc.

Humans should exercise free will since the gods aren’t concerned with us. Individuals are responsible for their own happiness (rather than depending on the outside world).

Perception is the path to knowledge.

Zeno of Citium, around 335-263 BC (founder of Stoic Philosophy)
Because nature is rational (and thus perfect), one should live in accord with nature. Everything that happens in life is fate. Don’t waste time trying to control fate, but instead control your emotions. But even though life’s events are preordained, you are still responsible for your own actions and conduct. Given this situation, morality is the most rational response you can have.

Epictetus, around 50-135 (Ideal model of a Stoic philosopher)
A human is governed by his sense of reason. The goal of philosophy is to lead a virtuous life. It helps to distinguish between what you can and can’t control.

He believed in a simple life that was focused on “discerning the will of the Logos, not on acquiring material comforts.” (Logos is the “rational principle of the cosmos,” i.e. the universal force controlling the universe.)

A wise person uses reason to act in accord with Logos; this brings a harmonious and virtuous life. A Stoic’s life must accept tragic results as well in order to be one with the Logos. A Stoic must be free from emotion, including desires and passions, which leads to true freedom. A virtuous life is that of a philosopher who discerns the will of the Logos and isn’t distracted by trivial desires and cravings.

Plotinus, 205 AD
When the soul dominates the body, it leads to harmony with a higher reality. But when the body dominates the soul, it disperses the soul among individual physical things which demand attention.

Everyone’s goal should be to contemplate and participate in the higher reality. Instead of your self seeing objects as separate, you can achieve a state of seeing that results in unity between your self and those objects. This is similar to the state of consciousness when someone is totally absorbed in reading a book.

Ibn al-Arabi, 1165-1240 (Islamic Sufi mysticism)
Need to distinguish God’s and Man’s perspective of time and eternity: For God, eternity includes all time visible at once, while man is trapped in a flow of time with only a moment that is visible. This moment is still an aspect of the divine.

The goal for man should be a mystical connection, symbolized by “polishing of the mirror” by being completely attuned to the divine. Then God is realized in the mirror of human consciousness and there is no duality. This is a continual process, not a single moment of mystical experience.

Rene Descartes, 1596-1650 (originator of the framework of modern philosophy)
Reason is the source of all knowledge, an intellectual tool to be used. The starting point of philosophy is the relationship between the mind and the world.

All knowledge based on your senses or on some authority must be doubted. “The only thing that cannot be doubted is one’s own doubting” (cogito ergo sum). Thus, human is a thinking being.

Our reality is made up of minds and bodies. Man is a thinking mind in a material body. This is Cartesian dualism: a close connection exists between mind and brain, but they are still separate. Our mind and body interact, even though they exist in different realms. What connects our minds to our brains?

We can’t doubt that we exist as thinking beings but we can doubt that we have physical bodys as we perceive them.

Blaise Pascal, 1623-1662
Claims an intense religious experience when he crossed the Seine during a storm.

In response to Montaigne’s argument that people are unable to know anything for certain because reason alone is insufficient: Pascal believed that knowledge can also come through intuition and divine revelation.

He is the source of the famous wager: maybe God exists, or maybe not. But it is better to bet that he exists. There is nothing to lose if he doesn’t exist (and you live a morally upright life). But there is hell to pay if God does exist.

However, there were flaws in his wager that were pointed out by others, particularly that it implies a moralistic judgmental God (which contradicts Pascal’s view of God).

Benedict de Spinoza, 1632-1677
All is God; God is the one substance or Nature (the physical universe). God has an infinity of attributes, like Thought. One of the modes of Thought is the human mind.

The human mind can conceive of only two aspects: thought (ideas) and extension of thought (bodies). Thought and extension are different aspects of one substance.

Humans should seek knowledge of God; this is the intellectual love of God

This rational understanding of being brings human freedom from passivity and suffering

George Berkeley, 1685-1753 (founder of Idealism)
Explained the relationship between ideas of the human mind and external reality. Experience, not reason, is source of human knowledge (from John Locke).

No reality exists outside the mind. Matter only exists when perceived by the human mind. But humans don’t know for sure if ideas that arise from their experience are true, unless repeating the same experience produces the same idea or perception or insight.

The external world is produced by the mind; there is no matter. But ideas are faint, unsteady, uncertain; what is perceived by the senses seems more real.

All is a “sign or effect of the power of God”; this is imprinted on our minds.

David Hume, 1711-1776
He destroyed empiricism, leading to the growth of unreason. He was an atheist who denied any “spiritual substance.”

He believed reason is derived “from nothing but custom” and ideas can be misleading, as a fantasy is misleading. Reason can’t judge reality; everything is uncertain.

He brought reason and the Enlightenment to a dead end.

Immanuel Kant, 1724-1804 (foremost Enlightenment philosopher)
Each individual unconsciously organizes sensory input according to the mind’s own rules. These rules are based on an individual’s conditioning of human sensibility, understanding and reason. Apart from this structure, the world is unknowable (because all knowledge is filtered by our minds).

God, soul, free will and other underlying realities are also unknowable: they don’t emit sensory information for humans to perceive. Thus there is thus no truth in the traditional claim to knowledge about God and immortality, etc. because those lie beyond sensory experience.

Although knowledge of metaphysics is impossible, one’s reason creates moral duties.

Johann Gottlieb Fichte, 1762-1814 (Transcendental Idealism)
We each can recognize our own self. The self then perceives its own limits as existing in time and space.

God is moral will of the universe. The goal should be a life of reason in order to perceive the divine order of the universe. His writings suggest a mystical union between God and the human self.

Hegel, 1770-1831
The ultimate reality is mind or spirit. However, individual minds are unaware of the oneness in the ultimate Mind. An individual mind is thus alienated from itself (i.e. the ultimate Mind). The goal should be for individual minds to become aware of One Mind.

(Side note: Karl Marx offered an atheistic version of this concept of alienation. He proposed that self-serving individual human natures can be unified into overall human oneness by overturning evil capitalism, leading to utopia. This idea continues to entice the naive and idealistic and to be exploited by the ruling and elite classes.)

Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1803-1882 (pioneer of Transcendentalism)
Transcendentalism attempts to find ultimate religious meaning by transcending the limitations of the physical world and achieving a consciousness of the non-physical universe.

All established teachings, especially religions and social custom, destroy freedom of thought, human freedom, individuality, etc.

Reality exists in an individual’s relation to nature.

Self-reliance is crucial. Individuals can find “enlightened self-awareness” in their souls. In essence, a man changes his own world.

Soren Aabye Kierkegaard, 1813-1855 (Existentialist Philosopher)
Only by detaching yourself from conventional world views can you discover the meaning of life.

There are three styles of living: aesthetic (focused on personal satisfaction), ethical (focused on moral obligation and commitment to others) and religious (focused on an active relationship with God). Only the religious version can lead to self-actualization.

A natural progression for an individual is to begin with the aesthetic stage, where he escapes boredom and pain by seeking pleasure. But this leads to despair. Then in the ethical stage, he follows a duty and obedience to morality in pursuit of meaning. However, there is only meaninglessness in the end. Finally, he goes through a faith stage. This involves acknowledging his limits and deepest fears. As a result, if he behaves rationally and tries to overcome those limits and fears, he will seek a relationship to God on a continuous basis.

Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, 1831-1891 (founder of Theosophical Movement)
Attempted to merge Eastern spirituality and Western thought. Had a major influence on New Age thought.

Matter and spirit are contained in a universal Reality. All souls are intertwined with an Oversoul which belongs to the ultimate Reality.

William James, 1842-1910
He believed that the existence of the divine was established by the abundance of human religious experience.

The events you experience are very important, especially in their pattern. Events are not experienced in isolation, but as part of an external world which comes to you as a stream of consciousness. This joins all experiences together and provides meaning.

Martin Buber, 1878-1965 (Jewish Existentialist)
Parallel of human relations to man and God: “I and it” vs. “I and you.”

For “I and it”: you see another person as a thing; i.e. there is distance separating the two of you. But for “I and you,” you enter into a relationship with your whole being (no separation). Only with “I and you” can there be genuine dialogue and interaction with that other person.

This relationship between humans is a parallel to the relationship between man and God.

Jean-Paul Sartre, 1905-1980 (Existentialist)
Every human is tremendously free: all choices are his; he is fully responsible. No God exists and there is no purpose in human life. Meaning only surfaces after an individual dies, at which time others can evaluate the overall meaning.

Albert Camus, 1913-1960 (Existentialist Novelist)
His novels describe the absurdity of human life.

He believed death makes life meaningless since an individual can’t make sense of his experience. For Camus, the fundamental question is that of suicide. If life is absurd, why bother to live on?

He finds human dignity in the awareness that hope is pointless, with no supernatural power or meaning, and that living is only meaningful in this absurd struggle because human life is sacred. This struggle against despair is the theme of his novels.

Jiddu Krishnamurti, 1895-1986
Considered “world teacher” of the Theosophical Society until he disavowed the idea in 1929.

Believed that “truth is a pathless land,” not to be achieved through any organization, creed, dogma, priest or ritual, philosophic knowledge or psychological technique.

Instead, he taught that achievement of truth requires self-knowledge in the mirror of relationship, not as an intellectual exercise but instead as a complete awareness, free of all conditioning from society and culture, leading to absolute silence of the mind. This offers freedom from the known.

But this only occurs “when the thinker is not there.” The mind can’t know the unknowable, but by understanding and transcending the known, we can open our minds to a higher experience.

This leads to the conclusion that the essential quality is genuine humility, without which the seeker is blind to his dilemma and on a fruitless path (from a talk he gave in India in 1956):

"As they are now, our minds are obviously very small, petty, limited, conditioned; and though a small mind may speculate about that otherness, its speculations will always be small. It may formulate an ideal state, conceive and describe that otherness, but its conception will still be within the limitations of the little mind, and I think that is where the clue lies -- in seeing that the mind cannot possibly experience that otherness by living it, formulating it, or speculating about it.

“With that mind we try to discover the unknowable; and to realize that such a mind can never discover the unknowable, is really an extraordinary experience. To realize that, however cunning, however subtle, however erudite one's mind may be, it cannot possibly understand that otherness -- this realization in itself brings about a certain factual comprehension and I think it is the beginning of a way of looking at life which may open the door to that otherness."