The Origins of Philosophy

Imagine physics departments didn’t pursue the inquiry, “When did the universe begin?” Or history departments didn’t ask “When were the first written records?” Or biology departments didn’t wonder, “When did life begin?” That would be odd.

This oddity is the norm in many philosophy departments in America, including and especially the most prestigious departments.

If you want to study “when did philosophy begin?”, you would be hard pressed to find a philosophy professor who specializes in that topic. What you would get instead – and what undergrads get in intro courses – are off hand, uncritical assertions that philosophy began with the pre-Socratics in Ancient Greece.

You would not get an inquiry into that question. Or even an affirmation of the openness of that question.

Imagine medical researches who act in their classes as if they know the cure for cancer. Or if literary theorists claim they have found the one right interpretation of Hamlet’s anxiety. That is what it’s like to be in philosophy classes.

The discipline which questions whether chairs exists, if we are dreaming, how many hairs make for baldness, which one of a dozen interpretations of Kant’s transcendental deduction is correct – that discipline has no sustained inquiry into its own origins.

Of course philosophy departments offer courses on Ancient Greek philosophy. So many courses on the pre-Socratics, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Over and over again. But do those courses raise the question of when philosophy began or simply assume the answer as obvious and settled?

Questions which are treated as settled before they are raised for inquiry – that is institutionalized ignorance.

What if courses are added in Ancient Chinese or Indian philosophy? Does that solve the problem? No more than simply teaching Ancient Greek philosophy. For the assumption that instead of in one place in Southern Europe, philosophy also began in a few other places in Asia doesn’t open the question for inquiry. It keeps it shut down, but now with a veneer of openness and cosmopolitanism. In introductory Indian philosophy books, it is as unquestioned an assumption that philosophy began with the Vedas as it is in European philosophy books that it began with the pre-Socratics.

Combining different unquestioned assumptions of the origins of philosophy – which are in effect different cultures’ chauvinisms – doesn’t make for a global understanding of philosophy. It makes for global institutionalized ignorance.

The way out of the ignorance isn’t to combine answers without reflection. It is to first raise for open inquiry the question and to problematize the question. It is to acknowledge that we don’t know. The mind which accepts ignorance will find the path to an answer in the future. The mind which denies ignorance remains the same in the past, present and future – and confuses that continuity with having already found universal truth.

Obviously the reason the Greek origin story goes unquestioned in Western departments in eurocentrism. Now, eurocentrism isn’t all bad. Every culture will tell more, and prioritize, it’s own history more than that of other cultures. But that is no reason to rest content with unquestioned assumptions or to choose only the facts one wants.

Did philosophy begin in Greece, or India, or China, or Egypt, or Mesopotania, or Australia? Or did it begin not in any one place, but along  porous trade routes which united Europe with India, or Europe with the Middle East or with Egypt? The only way to know is to learn and better understand the intellectual histories around the world in the ancient world – and to put those histories through the fire of philosophical reflection. Any answer accepted before such inquiry is not justified. It is embraced for the sake of institutional continuity rather than out of a search for truth – choosing ignorance and a bond with past philosophy departments over inquiry and a bond with future departments.

This is the tacit shared assumption of the conservatives and the progressives in academic philosophy.

The conservatives affirm it as an already known, unimpeachable truth that philosophy began with the pre-Socratics. The justification for this is given in terms of other supposedly known, unimpeachable truths of the primitive nature of religious thinking, the unphilosophical nature of Greek mythology and the even less reflective nature of the mythologies of ancient non-Europeans. For the conservatives this vision of the ancient world is mere common sense – what we all know and which history demonstrates as conclusive, full stop, period. On this view, the origins of philosophy, it turns out, is not a philosophical question after all. It is a simply historical question, and appreciation of the history shows how sophisticated one is philosophically. If one wonders, “But weren’t Homer or Moses philosophers?”, the conservative responds, “No, no! That isn’t philosophy at all! Don’t you see?” So to appreciate the history in the right way already presupposes the philosophical insight of knowing what philosophy is and what it isn’t – and wasn’t, even in ancient times.

The progressive responds to this eurocentric vision with cries of racism. That in fact any affirmation that philosophy began in this culture as opposed to that culture, or in this hemisphere as opposed to that, is to impose imperialistic assumptions of the superiority of one culture over an another. To discard imperialistic thinking requires seeing every culture in the ancient world as being philosophical in their own way – for every culture tells stories and attempts to understand the big picture issues of the origins of the world, or right and wrong, of the nature of human beings and so on. On the progressive view, as well then, it turns out the origins of philosophy is not a philosophical question at all. It is a simply a question of respect, of “philosophical” being a honorific which it is racist to apply to some ancient cultures and not others. The relevant response isn’t to discover when or where in fact philosophy began. It is to overcome the chauvinistic impulse to apportion philosophical respect unevenly, and so to affirm every ancient culture as philosophical.

Neither the conservative nor the progressive visions of the origins of philosophy imply an open ended inquiry into the past or into the nature of philosophy. For both the nature and origins of philosophy are already settled – and the real task is to maintain or change the current academic structures appropriately. This means for the conservative fighting back the relativism and politicization of philosophy of the progressives. And it means for the progressives overcoming the racism and imperialism of the status quo of past decades.

In this fight between the conservatives and progressives there is therefore a blurring together of (1) historical inquiries of the past, (2) metaphilosophical reflections on the nature of philosophy and its relation to religion and mythology, (3) the racist elements in the formation of modern philosophy departments, (4) who should get what jobs now, and (5) what should be taught in intro philosophy courses and how.

If philosophical thinking shows anything, it is that clarity cannot arise from blurring together issues. The very assumption that issues as diverse and varied as (1) – (5) can neatly fall into two and only two camps, which then requires inquirers to choose sides, is absurd. As absurd as assuming that tax reform, health care, racial justice, religious tolerance, gay rights, immigration, global warming and a host of other urgent, vastly different issues can only be solved together by choosing one or the other political party.

Whether we call it philosophy or wisdom or just clear thinking, what is needed is the patience and the subtlety to disentangle issues, and pursue the separate threads of inquiry where they lead.

Real progress from a eurocentric vision of the origins of philosophy isn’t achieved by conflating the issue of origins with modern racial tensions. Rather, it is achieved by recognizing the question of the origins of philosophy as an independent, open ended inquiry, which is not defined by either chauvinistic or egalitarian concerns as such. Of course any inquiry into the origins of philosophy will have to respect the special relation of Europeans to European philosophy, and also respect the need to overcome the racist and chauvinistic assumptions of past times. But both of these aims are hindered by conflating them with an inquiry into the origins of philosophy. The more we can treat the origins inquiry as a question in it’s own right, which can stand on its own due to its own complexity and interest, the more we will be able to think about its implications for a culture’s special understanding of itself or for anti-racism.

Once we think of the question of the origins of philosophy as an independent inquiry, something magical happens: people can pursue it irrespective of their race, gender, religion, sexual orientation and so forth. The question becomes not only intellectually important and urgent, but also a unifying question that people can pursue together no matter their other differences.

The key to developing an academic philosophy which embraces diversity and unity is to foster these kinds of new, unifying questions – questions which are sufficiently unorthodox that many of the old moves, pro and con, seem irrelevant, and which through it’s very newness and freshness provides new avenues for people across different viewpoints to work together.

Plato, Confucius, Shankara, Du Bois, Anscombe — none of these great thinkers of the past truly faced up to the question of the origins of philosophy from a global perspective. This was not a personal failing on their part. We just didn’t know enough about the diversity of ways philosophy was pursued around the world (though many ancient and medieval philosophers were aware of, and engaged with, other philosophical traditions). Indeed, for the great philosophers of the pre-modern past, their sense of “the world” didn’t even encapsulate the entire globe. And for modern philosophers who did think of the world as the globe, the sense of the globe was mixed with chauvinistic cultural assumptions about the self-importance of their own culture.

We in the 21st century are at the beginning of a possibility which would have been unimaginable to both the ancients and the moderns: understanding the origins of philosophy while keeping in view peoples from across the entire globe. To the ancients the globe would have been unfathomable. To the moderns even a starting assumption of equal respect for all the peoples of the globe would have been unimaginable.

Where was gun power invented? Who invented writing? Where was the number zero first used? These are questions of our shared human heritage. That writing might have been invented in Egypt or in Mesopotamia is no claim against Europeans or Asians. Or that gun power was invented in China is no knock against Indians or Latin Americans. That the number zero might have originated in India is no claim against Australians or Americans. Different parts of the human species, in different parts of the world contributed different things to our shared life.

The same is true for philosophy. We as a species are now in a position finally to approach the origins of philosophy from such a global perspective. This is not a race for which culture or continent gets the prize for “getting to philosophy first”. The very abstractness and complexity of philosophy suggests that “it” is not any one thing, unique and indivisible, but is rather a complex set of diverse practices. Some of it will have originated here, some there. Some of it will have progressed in this way here, and in that way there.

Instead of reducing the origins of philosophy to already stock categories of how we divide ourselves, a true open minded inquiry into the subject can provide new facts, visions and categories for understanding our shared, mutual dependence as humans.

This is the potential of philosophy departments. And of ourselves as humans more generally.

4 thoughts on “The Origins of Philosophy”

  1. Brilliant essay, Bharath! But maybe even the attempt to say philosophy began here or there is a revelation of prejudice as to the origins of philosophy. Although the revealed ignorance as to where philosophy actually began is in some ways a revelation of the bankruptcy of modern philosophy; philosophy as it is done today may not actually know where it originated. Because of Western or Eastern proclivities, there is always some shift or bias toward the Western or Eastern origins of philosophy, and thus some favoritism or partisanship involved as to what is the “core” tradition from which other traditions evolved.. The pretensions of modern academic philosophy to be the most advanced way of doing philosophy are revealed to be just that–mere pretensions. What seems to me in some ways more interesting is that philosophy, as it is done today, is not much “better” or more advanced than it was as it was done 2500 years ago. The incisiveness of the questions raised by Quine or Rawls in the 20th century are certainly not much greater than that of the questions raised by Plato or Laozi many centuries ago.


    1. Alex, Thanks! You are raising a couple of different points.

      First, the idea that philosophy didn’t have an origin might mean either that (1) it didn’t have any one origin, but developed independently in different places (say, in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, the Americas and so on); or (2) philosophy doesn’t have an origin at all distinct from the origin of thinking and cultural practices more generally within human or humanoid life. I find both possibilities interesting.

      Inevitably this is one way that the question of origins of philosophy soon dovetails into the question of the nature of philosophy, and its relation to thought, myth, culture, art and so on. A fascinating feature of human cultural development is that it seems that the earliest humans with language (say, 50,000 years ago) already might have had abstract categories in some fashion of gods, culture, an after-life, etc. So it’s possible that humans didn’t develop by first having simplistic concepts just of ‘water’, ‘tree’, ‘lion’ etc. and then down the line later came to more abstract concepts. Rather, the animism of early human thought suggests that ‘water’, ‘tree’, ‘lion’ were themselves understood in terms of the intentional categories through which humans understood their own actions and the world more generally. If this is so, then somehow big picture philosophical ideas are sewn into the very beginnings of human thought. A fascinating possibility.

      Second, there is the issue of whether Plato and Laozi are as interesting, if not more, than Quine and Rawls. I quite agree. At least in one dimension – that of wisdom – I don’t see that 2,500 years has propelled human kind further than where we where at time of Plato, or for that matter, from the time of the Gilgamesh epic almost 4,000 years ago. This might be because wisdom is not a new kind knowledge (like theory of relativity or human rights, etc.) but more a way of looking at life and an lived, constant awareness of ones finitude in the cosmos.

      One way that Quine or Foucault or Amartya Sen are new modes of philosophy that the Buddha, let alone Gilgamesh, didn’t have is that we now have more modes of philosophy than they did back then. Or at least, more people doing more modes of philosophy, which enables greater conceptual clarification. Godel’s logic is philosophical in a way that the Bhagavad-Gita isn’t. But that neither means that Godel has made the Gita obsolete, nor that the Gita is real philosophy and Godel is “just” math. Since the dawn of large civilizations with Eqypt and Mesopatamia, China, India, etc., there have always been competing and overlapping senses of wisdom, philosophy, religion, etc. What matters so much isn’t which one is the good one, as much as whether one does it sufficiently creatively and inspiringly that it moves people to be better and to expand their consciousness. And part of the creativity and inspiration is in how one navigates the battles between wisdom, philosophy, religion, science, history, etc. The greats such as the Buddha, Socrates, Christ and so on presented holistic visions which emphasized one or the other, but had implications of how one viewed them all.


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