The fundamental task of philosophy is to study the nature of human existence, and humans’ relationship with existence. Since the times of Socrates, who is often thought of as the first real philosopher, humanity has struggled to decipher the nature of the universe. Is the universe ruled by inviolate natural laws and therefore knowable? Or do we exist in the midst of an incomprehensible chaos? Myriad branches of science can give us knowledge about some specific aspects of nature, but it is philosophy that tells us about the scope of this knowledge. The process through which philosophy has developed over the ages in different parts of the world is extremely complex.
It would have been beyond the scope of this book to chart the growth of philosophy in the entire world at one go. As a first step, I have devoted myself to merely putting the spotlight on philosophers of European origin. While this may seem like cultural imperialism to some, in reality philosophy is universal. If we take into account the historical origins of philosophical thought, we can hardly overlook the possibility of European philosophers having benefited from a large repertoire of knowledge, which developed for the first time in Asia, Africa or Latin America. However, even after restricting myself to the narrow confines of Europe, I was faced with the problem of plenty.
In Europe there have been many persons of wisdom whose influence continues to be felt till this day. The list of philosophers included in this book is, to an extent, subjective: if another person were to undertake the same project, the list may have been different. My aim was to dwell on European philosophers whose ideas might have contributed in some way to the evolution of modern liberal society. I have, on the whole, kept away from religious philosophers and focused mostly on those thinkers whose ideas were of social, cultural and political significance. The book begins with Socrates, whose life
was aimed at defining the scope of philosophy, and it ends with the near-contemporary thinker, Sartre.
This book gives only a brief overview of the life and work of these great philosophers. And my attempt has been to present complex ideas and thoughts in a simple language. The aim is to provide the readers with an idea of what these intellectual giants stood for. My hope is that the book will encourage at least some of the readers to take up philosophical works as a leisure-time reading activity.