The Basics


Did the study of some of the sciences get their start in philosophy?

Yes. Until the end of the seventeenth century, the physical sciences were called “Natural Philosophy,” and until the nineteenth century there were no social sciences. Social science work was done under the name of philosophy. Many sciences have their roots in philosophical debates. Western science began with the Pre-Socratics in the seventh century B.C.E. The Pre-Socratics were the first Westerners in recorded history to think about the world using reason instead of myth. Much later, Western science got another big boost from Isaac Newton (1643–1727), who practiced what was then called “natural philosophy” and persists to this day as “physics.”

Chemistry also got its start through philosophical inquiry by Newton’s contemporary Robert Boyle (1627–1691). In the early twentieth century, the philosopher William James (1842–1910) founded the science of psychology. And in the middle of the twentieth century, Noam Chomsky (1928–) combined philosophy with linguistics to get the new field of cognitive science started.

There are similar origins in the social sciences: ideals of government and forms of government—topics now falling into the category of political science—were first theorized by philosophers such as Plato (c. 428–c. 348 B.C.E.), Aristotle (384–322 B.C.E.), Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225–1274), Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), John Locke (1632–1704), and John Stuart Mill (1806–1873). Karl Marx (1818–1883), who is credited with developing the theoretical foundation of communism and socialism, modified the ideas of philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831).

The first systematic historian was a philosopher, Giovanni Battista (Giambattista) Vico (also Vigo; 1668–1744), as was the first sociologist, the philosophical positivist Auguste Comte (full name, Isidore Marie Auguste François Xavier Comte; 1798–1857); and the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) is usually credited with having founded anthropology.

In the twentieth century, social movements have received valuable inspiration from the work of philosophers: for instance, the women’s movement from Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986), the civil rights movement from W.E.B. Du Bois (1868–1963), the animal rights movement from Peter Singer (1946–), and the environmental preservation movement from Arne Naess (1912–2009), who introduced the term “deep ecology.”

The sciences that we have today—everything from astronomy and chemistry to physics and psychology—have their origins in philosophy (iStock).

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