The Invisible East

In the 3rd edition of Classics of Philosophy – which is, ironically, one of the texts I’m using in my “Philosophy East and West” course – Louis Pojman and Lewis Vaughn write:

The first philosophers were Greeks of the sixth century B.C. living on the Ionian coast of the Aegean Sea, in Miletus, Colophon, Samos, and Ephesus. Other people in other cultures had wondered about these questions, but usually religious authority or myth had imposed an answer. … The Great Civilizations of Egypt, China, Assyria, Babylon, Israel, and Persia … had produced art and artifacts and government of advanced sorts, but nowhere, with the possible exception of India, was anything like philosophy or science developed. Ancient India was the closest civilization to produce philosophy, but it was always connected with religion, with the question of salvation or the escape from suffering. Ancient Chinese thought, led by Confucius (551-475 B.C.), had a deep ethical dimension. But no epistemology or formulated logic. (pp. 3-4)

Is this true?

The two earliest Upanishads – the Brihadaranyaka-upanishad and the Chhandogya-upanishad – are generally dated to the 7th century BCE or earlier. They contain clear examples of philosophical argumentation. So why don’t their authors – or the thinkers whose views they purport to record (e.g., Yajñavalka and Uddalaka) – count as Indian philosophers antecedent to the Greeks?

Apparently because their views were “connected with religion” and “the question of salvation.” Yet Classics of Philosophy contains writings by Augustine, Anselm, Maimonides, Aquinas, Pascal, and Kierkegaard – for all of whom philosophy was closely bound up with religious questions. If this connection doesn’t invalidate their claim to be philosophers, why does it invalidate the like claim of their Indian predecessors?

In any case, it is not even true that all early Indian philosophical thought is connected with religion. The Charvaka or Lokayata school, which was atheistic, materialistic, and hedonistic, is generally dated to the late 7th century BCE as well – thus again antedating the Greeks.

As for why the early Chinese thinkers are ruled out as philosophers, we’re told it’s because, although they had a “deep ethical dimension,” they had “no epistemology or formulated logic.” So epistemology and logic are philosophy but ethics is not?

And anyway it’s not true that early Chinese thought had no epistemology or formulated logic. Even if we leave aside the exploration of logical paradoxes by such thinkers as Zhuangzi, Hui Shi, and Gongsun Long, we have a pretty clear example of epistemology and formulated logic in the Mohist Canons.

Of course the Mohist Canons date to around the 3rd century BCE, so if Pojman and Vaughn are making only a claim of chronological priority, they’re entitled to dismiss them. But the tone of the passage certainly offers no hint that these Chinese and Indian traditions got more philosophical later. And the fact that no Indian or Chinese sources appear in an anthology titled Classics of Philosophy (rather than, say, Classics of Western Philosophy) suggests that they don’t regard even later Chinese and Indian thought as containing anything worthy of the status of philosophic classic. The sophisticated logical and epistemological debates among the Navya-Nyaya, Purva-Mimamsa, Vyakarana, and Sautrantika-Yogachara schools, for instance, count for nothing, apparently.

It was bad enough when Antony Flew ignorantly declared in 1971 that Eastern Philosophy contains no arguments, but this is the 21st century, for petesake.

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7 Responses to The Invisible East

  1. Irfan Khawaja January 16, 2018 at 4:54 pm #

    Pojman and Vaughn claim that ancient Israel produced no philosophy, but one contemporary author has argued, at length, that the Hebrew Bible is a philosophical text:

    It wouldn’t help P-V to claim that their anthology collected the works of “Western” philosophy, because “Western” only makes sense in contrast to “Eastern,” and it’s not clear what “West” and “East” refer to in the first place. If Augustine is a Western philosopher, you’d think that Islamic philosophers like Averroes would be “Western” as well. Both operated in the same philosophical tradition, both were committed to Abrahamic religions, and both lived, geographically, well to the West of such paradigmatically “Eastern” cities as Jerusalem and Constantinople. And yet. Maimonides is there, but no Islamic philosophers.

  2. Kevin Carson January 16, 2018 at 5:41 pm #

    I think it’s pretty clear “Western” should include everything tracing its roots back to Sumer and Egypt, and its subsequent development in the Mediterranean world. The Christian and Islamic parts of the Mediterranean world both had cultures based on the fusion of Greek philosophy and the Abrahamic religions at a time when the tribes of northern Europe were clearly still non-Western.

    • Roderick January 23, 2018 at 7:30 pm #

      Though Islamic philosophy also shows signs of influence from Indian philosophy — though admittedly not to the extent of Greek philosophy. The atomism of the Kalam theorists is like 85.3% Greek influence and 14.7% Indian influence.

    • Irfan Khawaja January 23, 2018 at 11:50 pm #

      The problem with your proposal, Kevin, is that it’s relatively sensible. So I put its chances of widespread acceptance at about 0.03%.

  3. Miguel Madeira January 19, 2018 at 9:08 am #

    This remembers me of an article that I read today saying the prime minister of New Zealand will be the first female prime minister of an Western country to give birth when in power.

  4. Andrew April 30, 2018 at 1:12 am #

    The Pre-Socratics focus on nature and the physical world. While Socrates and Plato began to focus on the human, yet they were influenced by the Pre-Socratics, namely Pythagoras and Hericlitus. The notion of an “ethics” in the practical sense of the term, began with Aristotle.

    So one may say that Confucius too was a philosopher in that sense. An epistemology or a formulated logic is not required to make a line of thought a philosophy. Philosophy started with Socrates and it was always a question on Ergon and Logos. Confucian ethics satisfies the universal idiom of philosophy.

    Yet, if one were to look at philosophy as a dialogue between thinkers that began in Ancient Greece, then it is for a fact that Confucius would come at a later period of time when his ethics would be compared to the philosophical west.

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