What Was Philosophy?

Mosaic of the Academy of Plato, Pompeii, circa first century BCE
Heritage Images/Getty Images
Mosaic of the Academy of Plato, Pompeii, circa first century BCE

Philosophy was either born once, or born three times, or didn’t need to be born at all. The least plausible of these options is also the most widely believed: that all philosophy worthy of the name can be traced ultimately to a unique origin among the ancient Greeks. To see things in this way is to think like an Aristotelian. Aristotle’s unparalleled influence as a philosopher in his own right is matched by his influence as a historian of philosophy. It was he who surveyed earlier Greek thinkers and identified some of them—beginning with Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximines, all from the city of Miletus on the Mediterranean coast in modern-day Turkey—as meriting the title of “philosophers.” We call these figures and those who came after them, up to the time of Plato, the “pre-Socratics.” But Aristotle saw himself as the culmination of Greek philosophy, with Plato merely the last and most important of the pre-Aristotelians.

The discipline still called by the Greek word “philosophy” continues to bear the stamp of Aristotle’s intellectual project. Even most of its subdisciplines—logic, ethics, metaphysics, philosophy of mind, political philosophy, epistemology—were first given dedicated treatment in his treatises. But as Maria Michela Sassi observes toward the beginning of her rich investigation of the origins of philosophical thought in Greek culture, the absence of the word “philosophy” does not imply the absence of philosophy. The pre-Socratics did not use the term to describe their own productions; for that we must wait until Plato.

Which brings us to two other births of philosophy, in ancient India and China. These cultures too lacked the name “philosophy,” yet produced what we now recognize as extensive philosophical literatures. Aristotelian logic and epistemology meet their match in the Indian Nyāya school, and his ethical teachings have often been compared to those of the Confucians. If you prefer your philosophy delivered in a more elegant and dramatic form, such as we find in Plato’s dialogues, then you need only turn to the philosophical exchanges presented in the Upanishads or the Bhagavad Gita.

Sassi refrains from theorizing about why philosophy arose independently in three cultures around the same time. This is sensible, and not only because any theory is bound to be highly speculative. It is also because there are good reasons to doubt that Greece, India, and China were the only societies that practiced philosophy, indeed to doubt that philosophy needed to be born or “invented” in the first place. Why not assume that philosophy is just a universal aspect of human culture? To explore this hypothesis, we need some idea of what it means for thoughts to be “philosophical.” This is a notoriously difficult question to answer, though most people probably feel that philosophy…


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