British philosophy characteristically exhibits common sense, a dislike of complication, a preference for the concrete over the abstract, and a certain honest methodology interlaced with poetic elements.
During the medieval period, numerous British philosophers left a significant mark. Saint Anselm of Canterbury (1033 – 1109), an Archbishop, was notable for his ontological argument for the existence of God and the satisfaction theory of atonement, seeking to rationally systematize Christian tenets of faith.
William of Sherwood (1200 – 1272) was an influential scholastic philosopher, logician, and teacher, who made substantial contributions to the development of scholastic logic through his systematic exploration of supposition theory in his two books, Introductiones in Logicam (Introduction to Logic), and Syncategoremata.
Roger Bacon (1214–1294), also known as Doctor Mirabilis, was a philosopher and Franciscan friar who strongly emphasized empirical methods. He is sometimes acknowledged as one of the earliest European proponents of the modern scientific method, influenced by the works of Plato, Aristotle, Avicenna, and Averroes.
John Duns Scotus (1265 – 1308) was another eminent philosopher and theologian of the High Middle Ages, famously known for the "univocity of being," the formal distinction, and the idea of haecceity, which are key concepts in metaphysics.
William of Ockham (1288 – 1348), an English Franciscan friar and scholastic philosopher, is best known for his principle of parsimony, also known as Occam's razor, which advocates for simplicity and minimal assumptions in logical reasoning.
During the early modern period, Francis Bacon (1561–1626) emerged as a polymath, who served as a statesman, scientist, lawyer, jurist, and author, besides being a philosopher. Bacon, often hailed as the father of empiricism, popularized deductive methodologies for scientific inquiry, known as the Baconian method, which significantly influenced the development of the scientific method. His dedicated scientific investigations, which ultimately led to his death, marked a turning point in the theoretical framework for science.
During the early modern period, Thomas Hobbes' work, Leviathan, laid the groundwork for Western political philosophy from a social contract perspective. He also contributed to a broad range of other fields and was instrumental in developing philosophical materialism. Francis Bacon, often referred to as the father of empiricism, championed a rigorous, methodological approach to scientific inquiry that forms much of the modern scientific method.
The period of British empiricism was dominated by the works of John Locke, George Berkeley, and David Hume. Locke's work focused on the role of experience in shaping our ideas and knowledge, arguing against innate ideas. He also proposed an early theory of personal identity based on psychological continuity rather than bodily or soul continuity. Berkeley, meanwhile, argued for a form of idealism, claiming that the external world is composed solely of ideas and that existence relies on being perceived. Hume's work touched on many areas, including the problem of induction, causation, personal identity, and morality. He argued for a version of empiricism that questioned the certainty of our knowledge about the world.
Additionally, Adam Smith, often regarded as the father of modern economics, made significant contributions to moral philosophy. The 19th century saw the emergence of utilitarianism, a moral philosophy that aims to maximize happiness or pleasure, championed by Jeremy Bentham. This tradition holds that an act is morally right if and only if it maximizes happiness or pleasure.
John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) was a significant contributor to social theory, political theory, and political economy. He defended the freedom of the individual against unlimited state control and advanced Jeremy Bentham's tradition of utilitarianism, arguing for its principles in his work "Utilitarianism".
Henry Sidgwick (1838–1900) also delved into utilitarian ethics, becoming a key figure in the classical utilitarian tradition. He was one of the founders of the Society for Psychical Research and promoted the higher education of women. His book "The Methods of Ethics" is highly regarded, even described by contemporary utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer as "the best book on ethics ever written."
The movement of British idealism, an area of absolute idealism, was influential from the mid-19th century to the early 20th century, with representatives like T. H. Green, F. H. Bradley, and Bernard Bosanquet. Two British philosophers, G. E. Moore and Bertrand Russell, were raised in this tradition, and later reacted against it, pioneering analytic philosophy.
In the 20th century, analytic philosophy became prominent, built on traditional British empiricism and incorporating the developments in logic pioneered by Gottlob Frege. G. E. Moore (1873–1958) was one of the founders of the analytic tradition, alongside Bertrand Russell. Moore's essays, such as "The Refutation of Idealism," "A Defence of Common Sense," and "A Proof of the External World," were renowned for their clear and patient approach to philosophical problems.
Bertrand Russell (1872–1970) was a leading figure in the "revolt against idealism" and was widely regarded as one of the premier logicians of the 20th century. He co-authored "Principia Mathematica" with Alfred North Whitehead, an attempt to derive all mathematical truths from a set of axioms using symbolic logic. Russell was also a prominent anti-war activist and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1950.
A. J. Ayer was a significant British analytic philosopher known for his promotion of logical positivism, particularly in his books "Language, Truth and Logic" and "The Problem of Knowledge".
Ordinary language philosophy, also known as "Oxford philosophy", arose as a philosophical school that sees traditional philosophical problems as rooted in misunderstandings that philosophers develop by forgetting what words mean in their everyday use. Key figures included J. L. Austin, Gilbert Ryle, H. L. A. Hart, and P.F. Strawson.
In contemporary times, philosophers like Antony Flew, C. S. Lewis, and John Hick have made significant contributions to the philosophy of religion. Moral and political philosophers such as R. M. Hare, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Roger Scruton have also been influential. Other notable philosophers in the British analytic tradition include David Wiggins, Derek Parfit, and P. F. Strawson, who focused on fields such as metaphysics, philosophy of mind, logic, and philosophy of language.