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British Philosophy

Updated on August 21, 2009

Philosophy in the British Isles has for hundreds of years been distinguished by its empirical approach to philosophical questions. Empirical philosophers accept the evidence of their senses as the only trustworthy source of knowledge. They try to look openly, without preconceived notions, at what is happening before deciding what it means. They also ask: "How do we know what is happening?" They concern themselves with the ways in which man obtains knowledge and decides how reliable it is.

The three greatest empirical philosophers lived in the 1600s and 1700s. They were John Locke, George Berkeley, and David Hume. Philosophers of the 1900s, such as Bertrand Russell and A. J. Ayer, have also been concerned with discovering how men know what they think they know.

Empiricism has been Britain's most important contribution to world philosophy. But British philosophers have also helped to develop other schools of philosophy, including Idealism, Utilitarianism, Evolutionary Philosophy, and Linguistic Philosophy.

The Middle Ages

British philosophers in the Middles Ages shared the same concerns as philosophers in other countries of Europe. Scholars who were also priests studied philosophy in universities such as Oxford and Paris. Irish monasteries were known throughout Europe as centres of learning. One of the earliest Irish philosophers was Johannes Scotus Erigena. He tried to reconcile Christian doctrines with philosophical ideas based on the teaching of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato.

Most medieval philosophers set themselves, as the main purpose of their work, to reconcile the teaching of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle with the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. Their philosophy was called scholasticism, and its greatest figure was Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), the Italian philosopher. Two great British scholastics, John Duns Scotus (1265-1308) from Scotland, and William of Occam (1300-1349) from England, played an important part in scholasticism. Another scholastic, Roger Bacon (1214-1294), was hostile to Aquinas. He was probably the first scholastic philosopher to make scientific experiments. People thought him a magician, in league with the devil.

The 1500s and 1600s

Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was the first independent British philosopher, and the first to break the tradition of writing in Latin. He was a barrister, a Member of Parliament, and Lord Chancellor under King James I. Francis Bacon was contemptuous of scholasticism. He founded something quite new, a scientific philosophy based on direct observation of nature. He insisted on the use of induction, by which he meant the collection of a sufficient number of facts or instances to permit the establishment of firm laws about things or events. Francis Bacon set scientific standards for all British philosophy after him.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was a pupil of Francis Bacon. He carried forward his teacher's scientific philosophy. In an important work called Leviathan, Hobbes applied the philosophy to the founding of states and the powers of rulers.

John Locke (1632-1704), the first of the great empirical philosophers, was an important political philosopher. His theory about society, known as the social contract theory, influenced the thought behind the American Declaration of Independence. As an empiricist, Locke believed that all our knowledge comes to us from our senses. According to Locke, we can reflect on that knowledge, but we cannot claim any other source of knowledge. As a result, Locke argued, "the simple ideas we receive from sensation and reflection are the boundaries of our thoughts".

The 1700s and 1800s

George Berkeley (1685-1753), an Irish bishop, continued the lines of thought laid down by John Locke. He argued: If sensations and reflections, which are ideas in our minds, are all that we have, can anything exist that is not an idea? If something does exist, and we can form no idea of it, we cannot possibly know it. As a result, Berkeley claimed, it is not possible that things "should have any existence out of the minds of thinking things which perceive them". The theory that only ideas are real is known as idealism. Bishop Berkeley was the first British idealist.

David Hume (1711-1776) developed Berkeley's extreme scepticism about the reality of matter even further. Hume argued that we can be certain of nothing our reason tells us. All we receive through our senses, Hume claimed, is a stream of quite separate sense impressions. How, Hume asked, can we argue existence in time and space of real objects that affect each other, when we "see" only impressions, not objects? Hume claimed that reason can tell us nothing about objects in themselves. Even our experience of our "selves" is a delusion, according to Hume. We can never know ourselves, but only changing streams of sense impressions. Hume concluded that only sense impressions exist. The classical period of British empiricism ended with Hume on "a note of extreme pessimism about everything that ordinary men took for granted. He influenced the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) considered moral and political matters in the same practical spirit as Locke, Berkeley, and Hume had considered sources of knowledge. The philosophy that Bentham and Mill developed became known as utilitarianism. Jeremy Bentham, inspired by Hume, asked questions about laws. He asked what use a law was, and what purpose it served. If a law or custom contributed to the happiness of the individual, and to "the greatest happiness of the greatest number", then it was a good law. If it did not contribute to happiness, then it should be reformed or abolished. John Stuart Mill raised Ben-tham's philosophy to greater moral heights, and developed it further.

Utilitarianism greatly influenced its times. It had a liberating effect, helping men to appraise traditional ways, and judge laws and customs on their merits.

Idealism was important in the 1800s. British idealists based many of their arguments on the views of Kant and of another German philosopher, G. W. F. Hegel. The idealist Thomas Green (1836-1882) believed that man was not a product of nature but was a free spiritual consciousness, the being in which God, the eternal consciousness, reproduced himself.

Green based his idealism on the belief that the universe was made of one element only, thought. Francis Bradley (1846-1924) continued Green's way of thinking. But most British philosophers resisted the idea that the universe was made of only one element. They preferred to believe that there were at least two elements, matter and mind, or things and thought.

Evolutionary philosophy developed because philosophers were concerned about the problems raised by Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. They wondered whether animal species had evolved through natural selection by accident or by design. Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) taught that the law of the universe was that everything grew more and more complicated and individual in nature as time passed.


Since 1900, many philosophers have turned towards realism, the effort to describe what is experienced without preconceived theories or extreme scepticism. Realism is a new kind of empiricism. Its leaders have been George Moore and Bertrand Russell. Russell worked on mathematics and logic with Alfred North Whitehead and went on directly to the analysis of language.

One of Russell's pupils, Ludwig Wittgenstein, developed in his own way his tutor's studies in language and logic. He taught at first that language had one purpose, to state facts. He claimed that language pictured the reality that it described. Theoretically, he argued, it ought to be possible to create a language that exactly described the world. The idea that such a language can be created, and that what one says can be verified by going and looking, is the basis of A. J. Ayer's philosophy of logical positivism. Wittgenstein later came to the conclusion that it was impossible to use language exactly and for one purpose only. He decided that language was continually used in a variety of ways, each way with its own rules.


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    • philosophos profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago

      Thanks for the positive feedback there John. And you too Bibowen!

    • John Sarkis profile image

      John Sarkis 

      9 years ago from Winter Haven, FL

      I really love this hub. You've put it "where the rubber meets the road" as they say. Each paragraph, though short, expresses that particular philosopher's point of view well.


    • Bibowen profile image

      William R Bowen Jr 

      11 years ago from New Bern, NC

      Nicely stated. You have a good grasp of the concepts you mention.


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