Philosophy has been around since ancient times, and its evolution has echoed the evolution of societies and civilizations throughout history. The history of philosophy can be broken down into distinct periods, from pre-Socratic philosophers in the 5th century BCE to postmodernism in the early 21st century.

This article will explore the evolution of philosophy from the first recorded thinkers in the 5th century BCE to the contemporary thinkers of postmodernism. We will examine the major figures and core principles of each era and discuss how the changes in philosophy reflect the social, political, and religious values of the times. We will also discuss how each period laid the foundation for the progress of philosophic thought leading up to the postmodern age.

Pre-Socratic Philosophy

The first philosopher of recorded history was an ancient Greek thinker by the name of Thales of Miletus. He hailed from present-day Turkey and is believed to have lived between 624 and 546 BCE. Thales is credited with having founded the Milesian School of Thought, which developed the first philosophical concepts known to Western Culture.

The other pre-Socratic philosophers, such as Anaximander, Anaximenes, Heraclitus, Parmenides, and Zeno of Elea all contributed to the Miletus school while introducing their own distinct ideas. These pre-Socratic philosophers used a combination of observation and abstraction to create theories of nature, morality, and the relationship between cause and effect. Their writings dealt mainly with materialism, mathematics, and physics. As such, they can be seen as having laid the groundwork for modern science.

Classical Period

The Classical Period of philosophy has been the one that has had the most influence on the development of philosophic thought since its beginnings in ancient Greece. It lasted approximately from 500 BCE to 600 CE and was marked by the works of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle—an intellectual trinity that set the foundations for Western philosophy.

Socrates (469–399 BCE) was a highly influential philosopher from Athens who is credited with having developed the Socratic method of inquiry—a means of questioning and reasoned argument employed to arrive at a logical conclusion. His teachings and techniques have been used throughout history and embody the spirit of Socratic thought: wisdom through questioning.

Plato (427–347 BCE), Socrates’ student, is widely regarded as one of the greatest philosophical minds of all time. He wrote a great many dialogue texts about the nature of knowledge, the human soul, and the structure of the state. Plato’s most famous pupil, Aristotle (384–322 BCE), defined his teacher’s ideal of rationalism and furthered the development of logic and scientific thought while introducing the notion of analysis into philosophical discourse.

The Classical period of philosophy thus serves as the foundation of Western thought, providing the basis of ethical principles and moral values which are still relevant today.

Medieval Philosophy

The Medieval period of philosophy is typically seen as beginning in the 5th century and extending through to the beginning of the Renaissance. This era was marked by developments in Christian thought, and many of its philosophers aimed to reconcile their faith with ancient Greek philosophy, particularly the works of Aristotle.

The most important figures of this period include Augustine of Hippo (354–430 CE), who wrote widely influential works on theology and philosophy. He explained his doctrines of original sin, grace, and predestination, which all served as foundations for Christian orthodoxy. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274 CE) took the works of Augustine and Aristotle and fused them together in his works Summa Theologica and Summa Contra Gentiles. His aim was to provide rational proof for the existence of God and for many of the Christian doctrines.

The medieval period also brought about some of the most influential minds in philosophy. These include Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109 CE), who developed the ontological argument for the existence of God, and Roger Bacon (1220–1292 CE). Bacon was a Franciscan friar who championed the idea of empiricism, and is often credited as being one of the first philosophers to apply science to philosophy.

Renaissance and Early Modern Philosophy

The Renaissance period of philosophy is essentially an extension of the Medieval period. The main difference is that during the Renaissance, there was a renewed emphasis on the importance of reason and scientific observation as opposed to faith and superstition.

The cornerstone of this era was René Descartes (1596–1650), the French philosopher who is perhaps most famous for his statement, “I think, therefore I am.” Descartes’ works argued for a rational foundation for knowledge in contrast to the superstitious beliefs of medieval times. He is also known for his revolutionary application of mathematics to philosophy, which would form the basis of his works Analytic Geometry and Discourse on Method.

His contemporary, Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), advocated for the notion of a social contract as the basis of civil society, while John Locke (1632–1704) challenged Descartes’ view on empiricism and instead argued for the importance of experience in the formation of knowledge.

Meanwhile, Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677) championed a concept of God as a substance with infinite attributes, while Gottfried Leibniz (1646–1716) argued for the importance of the monad—a unifying concept that serves to explain the diversity of the universe.

18th and 19th Century Philosophy

This period marks the height of the Enlightenment and the birth of romanticism. The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement that sought to overthrow superstition and dogma in favor of reason and rationality.

The most influential figures of the Enlightenment period were Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), Voltaire (1694–1778), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778). Kant developed a critical approach to reason which argued for the notion that what is “true” must arise out of experience. Voltaire, meanwhile, argued for the importance of free will, rejecting the concept of predestination, while Rousseau argued for the importance of human nature and its natural state of freedom.

The early 19th century brought about the birth of romanticism. This was an aesthetic and intellectual movement which sought to express the beauty of nature and the human spirit. Notable figures of this era include Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855), who argued for the importance of “the leap of faith” in religious matters; Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860), who proposed the concept of the “will to power”; and Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–1872), who famously argued that the notion of God is simply a product of man’s mind.

20th Century Philosophy

The 20th century saw the emergence of new philosophies, as well as a greater emphasis on science and social reform. This period saw the emergence of positivism and pragmatism, which argues that the truth of a statement must be judged based on its practical applications in the real world.

The most influential figures of the 20th century include Martin Heidegger (1889–1976), who developed the field of phenomenology; Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951), an Austrian philosopher who argued for the limits of language; and Karl Popper (1902–1994), who developed the concept of falsifiability.


Postmodernism is a philosophical movement that began in the late 20th century with the aim of examining the concept of progress and questioning the belief in a unified and universal truth.

Notable figures within the postmodern thought include Jean-Francois Lyotard (1924–1998), who argued for “the end of grand narratives”; Jacques Derrida (1930–2004), who questioned the foundations of binary oppositions; and Michel Foucault (1926–1984), who examined the power structures of knowledge and discourse.

The history of philosophy has continually evolved over time and demonstrated the shifts in human thought and social values. From pre-Socratic thinkers in the 5th century BCE to the contemporary figures of postmodernism, each period of philosophical thought has served to expand our understanding of the world around us and provide valuable tools for tackling life’s most difficult questions.