The 7 Main Schools of Philosophy and Their Beliefs

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What are the most popular schools of philosophy? Which philosophy do you want to live by?

With so many ideologies that have developed throughout history, it’s hard to keep up with who believes what. To make things easier, we’ve made a comprehensive list of the top seven schools of philosophy and what their beliefs are.

To get a better understanding of these seven schools of philosophy, keep reading.

1. Absurdism

In his definitive philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus argues that human existence is fundamentally absurd since the human drive for purpose and meaning is at odds with the reality that death is inevitable and humanity is cosmically insignificant. Despite this absurdity and the anguish that many people feel when confronted with it, Camus believes that life is still worth living and that going through life with full knowledge of the absurd is the only way to live honestly. This makes up the school of philosophy known as Absurdism.

Absurdists believe the universe and death are unknowable. Theories of existence—such as the belief that God provides life and an afterlife, that there’s a cosmic purpose to human existence which we may realize through our actions, or that death is the end of consciousness and life has no inherent meaning—are just theories, unprovable within the limits of human experience. 

According to Camus, there are three possible responses to being confronted with the absurd. The first is to deny it by seeking philosophical or religious justifications for living that promise either an afterlife or a sense of purpose; Camus considers this philosophical rejection to be self-delusion. The second response is to commit suicide, escaping the suffering of an absurd existence by rejecting life itself. The third response, which is the only one Camus supports, is to commit to living an absurd life. This means continuing to live even with the pain of knowing that life is finite and possibly meaningless. Camus describes this as both living without hope and living in a state of permanent rebellion. 

2. Nihilism

Nihilism is the belief that life is meaningless. The nihilism people suffer from is a personal, private one that each individual suffers alone. After all, there can be little camaraderie in the idea that everything’s meaningless.

People generally get existentially frustrated in three different ways, according to Viktor E. Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning:

  • They’re frustrated with existence in and of itself, specifically human existence. 
  • Frustration with everything it takes to exist as a human from moment to moment, i.e. “Why do I have to do all this?”
  • They’re frustrated with the meaning of existence. 
    • Asking why humans exist at all and for what purpose, i.e. “Why are we here at all?”
  • They’re frustrated with the meaning of their personal existence. 
    • Someone struggling to find the purpose and meaning of their own life, “i.e. what am I here for?”

Once you fall into one of those frustrations, you can start to feel empty, distant, and aimless, and it gets harder to pull yourself out of this emotional place. Frankl refers to this place as an existential vacuum.

3. Confucianism

Confucius is one of the most famous philosophers in history. The Analects is a collection of Confucius’s teachings compiled into twenty chapters by his most devoted students, and it’s one of the foundational books of Confucianism, a popular school of philosophy.

In keeping with traditional Zhou values, Confucius places great value on respecting others, especially your parents. He says that respect for your parents is the foundation of being a good person: If you learn proper respect for your parents as a child, you’ll continue to respect and obey your superiors, meaning that you’ll become a good worker and won’t cause any trouble.

Confucius generally encourages students to think and learn for themselves, but he offers more direct advice about morality. He says that a single word can guide everything you do: the Chinese word shu, which means don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want to be done to you. 

Confucius adds that causing no harm isn’t enough to be a truly good person. Rather, a good person is someone respectful, honest, hardworking, and kind. In other words, to be a good person, you must do your best to make the world a better place

4. Stoicism

Stoicism is a philosophy that emphasizes logic and quiet contemplation. It teaches that the best way to live well is to understand the laws of nature and how you, personally, fit into the universe. By accepting things as they are, recognizing your own relative unimportance and powerlessness in the grand scheme of things, and fulfilling your life’s purpose to the best of your abilities, you can live a happy and virtuous life

Epictetus is considered one of history’s most influential Stoic philosophers, alongside the likes of Marcus Aurelius (Meditations) and Seneca. The Discourses of Epictetus is the definitive collection of Epictetus’s teachings. 

According to Stoic philosophy, your purpose is to live a happy and virtuous life by acting under Nature—which, in this context, means both your own human nature and the nature of the universe. You’re expected to achieve this lifestyle through the constant and disciplined use of reason. In other words, you should think rationally about every situation you encounter and always choose the best response possible. 

In fact, Stoicism teaches that your reason is the only important thing in your life. This is because your reasoning interprets everything that you experience, and it also determines what you do in response to those experiences. In other words, the quality of your reasoning determines the quality of your life.

5. Taoism

Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu is one of the foundational texts of Taoism, a school of philosophy, written between the 4th and 6th centuries. Older than any deity, the Tao is the natural order of the universe. It’s the guiding energy that lives within us and connects us to everything around us. Also known as the “Great Mother,” it paradoxically creates nothing while offering infinite energy to all beings, nurturing and caring for them.

As an omnipresent entity, the Tao is eternal and infinite. It was never born or created, and, therefore, it can never die or be destroyed. The Tao has no biases, being unconditionally available to all beings who want to live according to its teachings.

Because it’s beyond the comprehension of human beings, the workings of the Tao can’t be described or understood, only experienced. The more that you try to understand the workings of the Tao, the less you’ll be able to engage with it. 

A master of Taoist practices only concerns themselves with the Tao. By focusing solely on the objective truths of the universe, they avoid falling victim to their own prejudices. Conversely, the average person often engages with more shallow levels of faith, using shows of faith to bolster their own biased view of the world. 

A master is powerful because they don’t seek power. By not searching for more power, they can use the strength that the universe has given them effectively. Conversely, the average person is never powerful because they’re always seeking power, blinding them to the strength the universe has already given them. 

A master never leaves anything incomplete because they never do anything without the universe’s prompting. In being selective with their actions in this way, they never take on more than they can accomplish. Conversely, the average person frequently leaves things incomplete because they take on more than they can accomplish.

6. Buddhism

In The Art of Happiness, the Dalai Lama and psychiatrist Howard C. Cutler outline the Dalai Lama and Buddhism’s beliefs on how to achieve greater happiness in life—by training yourself to be happier. Often thought of as a religion, some regard Buddhism as a philosophy, as it’s non-theistic. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of Tibet and a Bodhisattva—someone who’s achieved enlightenment and lives to help others do the same. 

The Dalai Lama believes that your purpose as a human is to seek happiness. He defines happiness as not merely an emotional state, but a mental and intellectual one. It’s about being content with your life on all levels. 

Cutler adds that some Westerners see striving for personal happiness as a selfish act. But the Dalai Lama argues the opposite is the case: Unhappy people are more self-absorbed than happy people, who are compassionate, helpful, and generous. Therefore, seeking happiness brings more good into the world

While the Dalai Lama believes that we’re naturally inclined to be happy, he doesn’t believe that humans naturally know how to be happy. However, he says, you can realize happiness through training. There are four types of happiness training that Buddhism encourages:

  1. Cultivating a Happiness Mindset
  2. Building Strong Interpersonal Relationships
  3. Working to Eliminate Suffering
  4. Weaving Spirituality Into Daily Life

7. Marxism

Marxism is a school of philosophy based on Karl Marx’s critiques of capitalism and his argument that a communist system would be a better solution than a capitalist one. Although focused primarily on Communism, The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Frederick Engels lays the groundwork for Marxist beliefs about social and economic classes.

According to Marx, all of human history is based on class struggles between oppressors and the oppressed. For example, serfs struggled against lords. Each conflict ended in either a change to the social system or ruin for both classes involved in the struggle. By the time the manifesto was written, however, the multi-class system had narrowed into two main classes—the Proletariat and the Bourgeoisie. 

The Bourgeoisie employ laborers and own private property and businesses such as factories. This class can only maintain its existence by constantly improving production and growing the market, which they do by taking advantage of laborers, finding new markets, and more thoroughly exploiting old markets. None of this is sustainable, and the social conditions the Bourgeoisie have created will lead to their downfall.

The Proletariat is made up of people who sell their labor for wages. These wages are minimal and aren’t equal to the value of the work laborers produce. For example, if laborers build tables for a bourgeois company, the company will sell the tables for far more than what it paid for the materials and labor. The majority of people are members of the Proletariat.

The Communists and Marxists support the Proletariat and want to forcibly overthrow the Bourgeoisie. The defining feature of Communism is the desire to abolish bourgeois private property. Bourgeois private property wasn’t made or earned by a bourgeois individual—it was made by many laborers working together. Therefore, the property should be common.

Wrapping Up

These schools of philosophy are just a handful of what’s been written about and studied. However, these ideas are still influential today, with new philosophers and students asking deep questions to get answers on life, death, and knowledge.

Which of these schools of philosophy appealed to you the most? Let us know in the comments below!

The 7 Main Schools of Philosophy and Their Beliefs

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Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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