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History of human thought spans across the history of humanity. It covers the history of philosophy, history of science and history of political thought, among others. The discipline studying it is called intellectual history.[1]

Merlin Donald has claimed that human thought has progressed through three historic stages: the episodic, the mimetic, and the mythic stages, before reaching the current stage of theoretic thinking or culture.[2] According to him the final transition occurred with the invention of science in Ancient Greece.[3]

Prehistoric human thought

Lascaux cave paintings from France
Lascaux cave paintings from France

Prehistory cover human intellectual history before the invention of writing. The first identified cultures are from the Upper Paleolithic era, evidenced by regional patterns in artefacts such as cave art, Venus figurines, and stone tools[4] The Aterian culture was engaged in symbolically constituted material culture, creating what are amongst the earliest African examples of personal ornamentation.[5]

Origins of religion

The Natufian culture of ancient Middle East produced zoomorphic art.[6] The Khiamian culture which followed moved into depicting human beings, which was called by Jacques Cauvin a "revolution in symbols", becoming increasingly realistic.[7] According to him, this led to the development of religion, with the Woman and the Bull as the first sacred figures.[6] He claims that this led to a revolution in human thinking, with humans for the first time moving from animal or spirit worship to the worship of a supreme being, with humans clearly in hierarchical relation to it.[8] Another early form of religion has been identified by Marija Gimbutas as the worship of the Great Goddess, the Bird or Snake Goddess, the Vegetation Goddess, and the Male God in Old Europe.[9]

An important innovation in religious thought was the invention of the sky god.[10] The Aryans had a common god of the sky called Dyeus, and the Indian Dyaus, the Greek Zeus, and the Roman Jupiter were all further developments, with the Latin word for God being Deus.[10] Any masculine sky god is often also king of the gods, taking the position of patriarch within a pantheon. Such king gods are collectively categorized as "sky father" deities, with a polarity between sky and earth often being expressed by pairing a "sky father" god with an "earth mother" goddess (pairings of a sky mother with an earth father are less frequent). A main sky goddess is often the queen of the gods. In antiquity, several sky goddesses in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Near East were called Queen of Heaven.

Ancient thought

Further information: Ancient history and Cradle of civilization

Axial age

The Axial Age was a period between 750 and 350 BCE during which major intellectual development happened around the world. This included the development of Chinese philosophy by Confucius, Mozi, and others; the Upanishads and Gautama Buddha in Indian philosophy; Zoroaster in Ancient Persia; the Jewish prophets Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Deutero-Isaiah in Palestine; Ancient Greek philosophy and literature, all independently of each other.[11]

Ancient Chinese thought

The Hundred Schools of Thought were philosophers and schools of thought that flourished in Ancient China from the 6th century to 221 BCE,[12] an era of great cultural and intellectual expansion in China. Even though this period – known in its earlier part as the Spring and Autumn period and the Warring States period – in its latter part was fraught with chaos and bloody battles, it is also known as the Golden Age of Chinese philosophy because a broad range of thoughts and ideas were developed and discussed freely. The thoughts and ideas discussed and refined during this period have profoundly influenced lifestyles and social consciousness up to the present day in East Asian countries. The intellectual society of this era was characterized by itinerant scholars, who were often employed by various state rulers as advisers on the methods of government, war, and diplomacy. This period ended with the rise of the Qin Dynasty and the subsequent purge of dissent. The Book of Han lists ten major schools, they are:

Other groups included:

Ancient Greek thought


The earliest Greek philosophers were called the pre-Socratics, as they were primarily concerned with cosmology, ontology, and mathematics. They were distinguished from "non-philosophers" insofar as they rejected mythological explanations in favor of reasoned discourse.[16] They included various schools of thought:

Classic period

The classic period included:

Hellenistic schools of thought

The Hellenistic schools of thought included:

Indian philosophy

Orthodox schools

Many Hindu intellectual traditions were classified during the medieval period of Brahmanic-Sanskritic scholasticism into a standard list of six orthodox (Astika) schools (darshanas), the "Six Philosophies" (ṣaḍ-darśana), all of which accept the testimony of the Vedas.[40][41][42]

These are often coupled into three groups for both historical and conceptual reasons: Nyaya-Vaishesika, Samkhya-Yoga, and Mimamsa-Vedanta. The Vedanta school is further divided into six sub-schools: Advaita (monism/nondualism), also includes the concept of Ajativada, Visishtadvaita (monism of the qualified whole), Dvaita (dualism), Dvaitadvaita (dualism-nondualism), Suddhadvaita, and Achintya Bheda Abheda schools.

Heterodox schools

Several Śramaṇic movements have existed before the 6th century BCE, and these influenced both the āstika and nāstika traditions of Indian philosophy.[54] The Śramaṇa movement gave rise to diverse range of heterodox beliefs, ranging from accepting or denying the concept of soul, atomism, antinomian ethics, materialism, atheism, agnosticism, fatalism to free will, idealization of extreme asceticism to that of family life, strict ahimsa (non-violence) and vegetarianism to permissibility of violence and meat-eating.[55] Notable philosophies that arose from Śramaṇic movement were Jainism, early Buddhism, Charvaka, Ajñana and Ājīvika.[56]

Similarities between Greek and Indian thought

See also: Proto-Indo-European religion and Ṛta

Several scholars have recognised parallels between the philosophy of Pythagoras and Plato and that of the Upanishads, including their ideas on sources of knowledge, concept of justice and path to salvation, and Plato's allegory of the cave. Platonic psychology with its divisions of reason, spirit and appetite, also bears resemblance to the three gunas in the Indian philosophy of Samkhya.[73][74]

Various mechanisms for such a transmission of knowledge have been conjectured including Pythagoras traveling as far as India; Indian philosophers visiting Athens and meeting Socrates; Plato encountering the ideas when in exile in Syracuse; or, intermediated through Persia.[73][75]

However, other scholars, such as Arthur Berriedale Keith, J. Burnet and A. R. Wadia, believe that the two systems developed independently. They note that there is no historical evidence of the philosophers of the two schools meeting, and point out significant differences in the stage of development, orientation and goals of the two philosophical systems. Wadia writes that Plato's metaphysics were rooted in this life and his primary aim was to develop an ideal state.[74] In contrast, Upanishadic focus was the individual, the self (atman, soul), self-knowledge, and the means of an individual's moksha (freedom, liberation in this life or after-life).[76][77]

Persian philosophy

Post-classical thought


Early Christianity is often divided into three different branches that differ in theology and traditions, which all appeared in the 1st century AD/CE. They include Jewish Christianity, Pauline Christianity and Gnostic Christianity.[85] All modern Christian denominations are said to have descended from the Jewish and Pauline Christianities, with Gnostic Christianity dying, or being hunted, out of existence after the early Christian era and being largely forgotten until discoveries made in the late 19th and early twentieth centuries. There are also other theories on the origin of Christianity.[86]

The following Christian groups appeared between the beginning of the Christian religion and the First Council of Nicaea in 325.

Unlike the previously mentioned groups, the following are all considered to be related to Christian Gnosticism.

Christianity has gone through many schisms (splits):

  • The first significant, lasting split in historic Christianity came from the Church of the East, who left following the Christological controversy over Nestorianism in 431.
  • Following the Council of Chalcedon in 451 over monophysitism, the next large split came with the Syriac and Coptic churches dividing themselves, with the dissenting churches becoming today's Oriental Orthodox. The Armenian Apostolic Church, whose representatives were not able to attend the council did not accept new dogmas and now is also seen as an Oriental Orthodox church.
  • The East–West Schism (also the Great Schism or Schism of 1054) is the break of communion since the 11th century between the Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Churches.[87] The schism was the culmination of theological and political differences which had developed during the preceding centuries between Eastern and Western Christianity.
  • Later medieval splinter movements included:

    European Middle Ages

    Main article: Medieval philosophy

    The spread of Christianity caused major change in European thought.[88] As "Christianity actively rejected scientific inquiry", it meant that thinkers of the time were much more interested in studying revelation than the physical world.[89] Ambrose argued that astronomy could be forsaken, "for wherein does it assist our salvation?".[89] Philosophy and critical thinking were also discounted, since according to Gregory of Nyssa, "The human voice was fashioned for one reason alone – to be the threshold through which the sentiments of the heart, inspired by the Holy Spirit, might be translated into the Word itself".[90]

    Carolingian Renaissance

    Main article: Carolingian Renaissance

    The Carolingian Renaissance was a period of intellectual and cultural revival in the Carolingian Empire occurring from the late eighth century to the ninth century, as the first of three medieval renaissances. It occurred mostly during the reigns of the Carolingian rulers Charlemagne and Louis the Pious. It was supported by the scholars of the Carolingian court, notably Alcuin of York[91] For moral betterment the Carolingian renaissance reached for models drawn from the example of the Christian Roman Empire of the 4th century. During this period there was an increase of literature, writing, the arts, architecture, jurisprudence, liturgical reforms and scriptural studies. Charlemagne's Admonitio generalis (789) and his Epistola de litteris colendis served as manifestos. The effects of this cultural revival, however, were largely limited to a small group of court literati: "it had a spectacular effect on education and culture in Francia, a debatable effect on artistic endeavors, and an immeasurable effect on what mattered most to the Carolingians, the moral regeneration of society," John Contreni observes.[92] Beyond their efforts to write better Latin, to copy and preserve patristic and classical texts and to develop a more legible, classicizing script, the Carolingian minuscule that Renaissance humanists took to be Roman and employed as humanist minuscule, from which has developed early modern Italic script, the secular and ecclesiastical leaders of the Carolingian Renaissance for the first time in centuries applied rational ideas to social issues, providing a common language and writing style that allowed for communication across most of Europe. One of the primary efforts was the creation of a standardized curriculum for use at the recently created schools. Alcuin led this effort and was responsible for the writing of textbooks, creation of word lists, and establishing the trivium and quadrivium as the basis for education.[93] Art historian Kenneth Clark was of the view that by means of the Carolingian Renaissance, Western civilization survived by the skin of its teeth.[94]

    Ottonian Renaissance

    Main article: Ottonian Renaissance

    The Ottonian Renaissance was a limited renaissance of logic, science, economy and art in central and southern Europe that accompanied the reigns of the first three emperors of the Saxon Dynasty, all named Otto: Otto I (936–973), Otto II (973–983), and Otto III (983–1002), and which in large part depended upon their patronage. Pope Sylvester II and Abbo of Fleury were leading figures in this movement. The Ottonian Renaissance began after Otto's marriage to Adelaide (951) united the kingdoms of Italy and Germany and thus brought the West closer to Byzantium. The period is sometimes extended to cover the reign of Henry II as well, and, rarely, the Salian dynasts. The term is generally confined to Imperial court culture conducted in Latin in Germany.[95] It was shorter than the preceding Carolingian Renaissance and to a large extent a continuation of it - this has led historians such as Pierre Riché to prefer evoking it as a 'third Carolingian renaissance', covering the 10th century and running over into the 11th century, with the 'first Carolingian renaissance' occurring during Charlemagne's own reign and the 'second Carolingian renaissance' happening under his successors.[96] The Ottonian Renaissance is recognized especially in the arts and architecture, invigorated by renewed contact with Constantinople, in some revived cathedral schools, such as that of Bruno of Cologne, in the production of illuminated manuscripts from a handful of elite scriptoria, such as Quedlinburg, founded by Otto in 936, and in political ideology. The Imperial court became the center of religious and spiritual life, led by the example of women of the royal family: Matilda the literate mother of Otto I, or his sister Gerberga of Saxony, or his consort Adelaide, or Empress Theophanu.

    Renaissance of the 12th century

    Main article: Renaissance of the 12th century

    The Renaissance of the 12th century was a period of many changes at the outset of the High Middle Ages. It included social, political and economic transformations, and an intellectual revitalization of Western Europe with strong philosophical and scientific roots. For some historians these changes paved the way to later achievements such as the literary and artistic movement of the Italian Renaissance in the 15th century and the scientific developments of the 17th century.

    The increased contact with the Islamic world in Spain and Sicily, the Crusades, the Reconquista, as well as increased contact with Byzantium, allowed Europeans to seek and translate the works of Hellenic and Islamic philosophers and scientists, especially the works of Aristotle. The development of medieval universities allowed them to aid materially in the translation and propagation of these texts and started a new infrastructure which was needed for scientific communities. In fact, the European university put many of these texts at the centre of its curriculum.[97] The translation of texts from other cultures, especially ancient Greek works, was an important aspect of both this Twelfth-Century Renaissance and the latter Renaissance (of the 15th century), the relevant difference being that Latin scholars of this earlier period focused almost entirely on translating and studying Greek and Arabic works of natural science, philosophy and mathematics, while the latter Renaissance focus was on literary and historical texts.

    A new method of learning called scholasticism developed in the late 12th century from the rediscovery of the works of Aristotle; the works of medieval Jewish and Islamic thinkers influenced by him, notably Maimonides, Avicenna (see Avicennism) and Averroes (see Averroism); and the Christian philosophers influenced by them, most notably Albertus Magnus, Bonaventure and Abélard. Those who practiced the scholastic method believed in empiricism and supporting Roman Catholic doctrines through secular study, reason, and logic. Other notable scholastics ("schoolmen") included Roscelin and Peter Lombard. One of the main questions during this time was the problem of the universals. Prominent non-scholastics of the time included Anselm of Canterbury, Peter Damian, Bernard of Clairvaux, and the Victorines. The most famous of the scholastic practitioners was Thomas Aquinas (later declared a Doctor of the Church), who led the move away from Platonism and Augustinianism and towards Aristotelianism.[98]

    During the High Middle Ages in Europe, there was increased innovation in means of production, leading to economic growth. These innovations included the windmill, manufacturing of paper, the spinning wheel, the magnetic compass, eyeglasses, the astrolabe, and Hindu-Arabic numerals.

    Islamic contributions to Medieval Europe

    Main article: Islamic world contributions to Medieval Europe

    During the high medieval period, the Islamic world was at its cultural peak, supplying information and ideas to Europe, via Al-Andalus, Sicily and the Crusader kingdoms in the Levant. These included Latin translations of the Greek Classics and of Arabic texts in astronomy, mathematics, science, and medicine. Translation of Arabic philosophical texts into Latin "led to the transformation of almost all philosophical disciplines in the medieval Latin world", with a particularly strong influence of Muslim philosophers being felt in natural philosophy, psychology and metaphysics.[99] Other contributions included technological and scientific innovations via the Silk Road, including Chinese inventions such as paper and gunpowder. The Islamic world also influenced other aspects of medieval European culture, partly by original innovations made during the Islamic Golden Age, including various fields such as the arts, agriculture, alchemy, music, pottery, etc.

    Islamic thought

    Main article: Islam

    The religion of Islam founded by Muhammad in 7th century Arabia incorporated ideas from Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Christianity, specifically monotheism, Last Judgment, Heaven and Hell.[100] However, it is closer to Judaism than Christianity, since it believes in the Unity of God, and God is seen as powerful rather than loving.[101] The doctrine of Islam is based on five pillars: Shahada, faith; Salat, prayer; Zakat, alms-giving; Sawm, fasting; and Hajj, pilgrimage.[101] Its beliefs are collected in the Quran, composed in its final form by 933.[102]

    Starting from soon after its foundation, Islam has broken into several strands, including:

    Islamic Golden Age

    Main article: Islamic Golden Age

    The Islamic Golden Age was a period of cultural, economic, and scientific flourishing in the history of Islam, traditionally dated from the 8th century to the 14th century.[121][122][123] This period is traditionally understood to have begun during the reign of the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid (786 to 809) with the inauguration of the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, the world's largest city by then, where Islamic scholars and polymaths from various parts of the world with different cultural backgrounds were mandated to gather and translate all of the world's classical knowledge into Arabic and Persian.[124][125] Several historic inventions and significant contributions in numerous fields were made throughout the Islamic Middle Ages that revolutionized human history. The period is traditionally said to have ended with the collapse of the Abbasid caliphate due to Mongol invasions and the Siege of Baghdad in 1258.[126]

    Judeo-Islamic philosophies

    Main article: Judeo-Islamic philosophies (800–1400)

    Timurid Renaissance

    Main article: Timurid Renaissance

    The Timurid Renaissance was a historical period in Asian and Islamic history spanning the late 14th, the 15th, and the early 16th centuries. Following the gradual downturn of the Islamic Golden Age, the Timurid Empire, based in Central Asia ruled by the Timurid dynasty, witnessed the revival of the arts and sciences. The movement spread across the Muslim world and left profound impacts on late medieval Asia.[127] The Timurid Renaissance was marked simultaneously with the Renaissance movement in Europe.[128][129] It was described as equal in glory to the Italian Quattrocento.[130] The Timurid Renaissance reached its peak in the 15th century, after the end of the period of Mongol invasions and conquests.


    Main article: Renaissance

    The Renaissance was a period in European history marking the transition from the Middle Ages to Modernity and covering the 15th and 16th centuries. It occurred after the Crisis of the Late Middle Ages and was associated with great social change. In addition to the standard periodization, proponents of a long Renaissance put its beginning in the 14th century and its end in the 17th century. The traditional view focuses more on the early modern aspects of the Renaissance and argues that it was a break from the past, but many historians today focus more on its medieval aspects and argue that it was an extension of the Middle Ages.[131][132]

    The intellectual basis of the Renaissance was its version of humanism, derived from the concept of Roman Humanitas and the rediscovery of classical Greek philosophy, such as that of Protagoras, who said that "Man is the measure of all things." This new thinking became manifest in art, architecture, politics, science and literature. Early examples were the development of perspective in oil painting and the recycled knowledge of how to make concrete. Although the invention of metal movable type sped the dissemination of ideas from the later 15th century, the changes of the Renaissance were not uniformly experienced across Europe: the first traces appear in Italy as early as the late 13th century, in particular with the writings of Dante and the paintings of Giotto.

    As a cultural movement, the Renaissance encompassed innovative flowering of Latin and vernacular literatures, beginning with the 14th-century resurgence of learning based on classical sources, which contemporaries credited to Petrarch; the development of linear perspective and other techniques of rendering a more natural reality in painting; and gradual but widespread educational reform. In politics, the Renaissance contributed to the development of the customs and conventions of diplomacy, and in science to an increased reliance on observation and inductive reasoning. Although the Renaissance saw revolutions in many intellectual pursuits, as well as social and political upheaval, it is perhaps best known for its artistic developments and the contributions of such polymaths as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, who inspired the term "Renaissance man".[133][134]

    Modern period

    Scientific Revolution

    Main article: Scientific Revolution

    The Scientific Revolution was a series of events that marked the emergence of modern science during the early modern period, when developments in mathematics, physics, astronomy, biology (including human anatomy) and chemistry transformed the views of society about nature.[135][136][137][138][139][140] The Scientific Revolution took place in Europe towards the end of the Renaissance period and continued through the late 18th century, influencing the intellectual social movement known as the Enlightenment. While its dates are debated, the publication in 1543 of Nicolaus Copernicus' De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) is often cited as marking the beginning of the Scientific Revolution.


    Main article: Rationalism

    A systematic school of philosophy in its own right for the first time in history – exerted an immense and profound influence on modern Western thought in general,[141][142] with the birth of two influential rationalistic philosophical systems of Descartes[143][144] (who spent most of his adult life and wrote all his major work in the United Provinces of the Netherlands)[145][146] and Spinoza[147][148]–namely Cartesianism[149][150][151] and Spinozism.[152] It was the 17th-century arch-rationalists[153][154][155] like Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz who have given the "Age of Reason" its name and place in history.[156]

    Dualism is closely associated with the thought of René Descartes (1641), which holds that the mind is a nonphysical—and therefore, non-spatial—substance. Descartes clearly identified the mind with consciousness and self-awareness and distinguished this from the brain as the seat of intelligence.[157] Hence, he was the first to formulate the mind–body problem in the form in which it exists today.[158] Dualism is contrasted with various kinds of monism. Spinozism (also spelled Spinozaism) is the monist philosophical system of Baruch Spinoza which defines "God" as a singular self-subsistent Substance, with both matter and thought being attributes of such.

    Cult of Reason

    Main article: Cult of Reason

    The Cult of Reason was France's first established state-sponsored atheistic religion, intended as a replacement for Catholicism during the French Revolution. After holding sway for barely a year, in 1794 it was officially replaced by the rival Cult of the Supreme Being, promoted by Robespierre.[159][160][161][162] Both cults were officially banned in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte with his Law on Cults of 18 Germinal, Year X.[163]

    Age of Enlightenment

    Main article: Age of Enlightenment

    The Age of Enlightenment (also known as the Age of Reason or simply the Enlightenment)[164] was an intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe during the 17th to 19th centuries.[165]

    The Enlightenment emerged from a European intellectual and scholarly movement known as Renaissance humanism and was also preceded by the Scientific Revolution and the work of Francis Bacon, among others. Some date the beginning of the Enlightenment to René Descartes' 1637 philosophy of Cogito, ergo sum ("I think, therefore I Am"), while others cite the publication of Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica (1687) as the culmination of the Scientific Revolution and the beginning of the Enlightenment. French historians traditionally date its beginning to the death of Louis XIV of France in 1715 until the 1789 outbreak of the French Revolution. Most end it with the beginning of the 19th century. A variety of 19th-century movements, including liberalism and neoclassicism, trace their intellectual heritage to the Enlightenment.[166]

    The Enlightenment included a range of ideas centered on the sovereignty of reason and the evidence of the senses as the primary sources of knowledge and advanced ideals such as liberty, progress, toleration, fraternity, constitutional government and separation of church and state.[167][168] In France, the central doctrines of the Enlightenment philosophers were individual liberty and religious tolerance, in opposition to an absolute monarchy and the fixed dogmas of the Church. The Enlightenment was marked by an emphasis on the scientific method and reductionism, along with increased questioning of religious orthodoxy—an attitude captured by Immanuel Kant's essay Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment, where the phrase Sapere aude (Dare to know) can be found.[169]

    Modernity in the Middle East

    Islam and modernity encompass the relation and compatibility between the phenomenon of modernity, its related concepts and ideas, and the religion of Islam. In order to understand the relation between Islam and modernity, one point should be made in the beginning. Similarly, modernity is a complex and multidimensional phenomenon rather than a unified and coherent phenomenon. It has historically had different schools of thoughts moving in many directions.

    Intellectual movements in Iran involve the Iranian experience of modernism, through which Iranian modernity and its associated art, science, literature, poetry, and political structures have been evolving since the 19th century. Religious intellectualism in Iran develops gradually and subtly. It reached its apogee during the Persian Constitutional Revolution (1906–11). The process involved numerous philosophers, sociologists, political scientists and cultural theorists. However the associated art, cinema and poetry remained to be developed.

    Modern African thought

    With the rise of Afrocentrism, the push away from Eurocentrism has led to the focus on the contributions of African people and their model of world civilization and history. Afrocentrism aims to shift the focus from a perceived European-centered history to an African-centered history. More broadly, Afrocentrism is concerned with distinguishing the influence of European and Oriental peoples from African achievements.

    Pan-Africanism is a worldwide movement that aims to encourage and strengthen bonds of solidarity between all indigenous and diaspora ethnic groups of African descent. Based on a common goal dating back to the Atlantic slave trade, the movement extends beyond continental Africans with a substantial support base among the African diaspora in the Americas and Europe.[170][171]


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