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How the philosophy began

Author S Radhakrishnan
A Persian poet has compared the Universe to an old manuscript of which the first and the last pages have been lost. It is no longer possible to say how the book began, nor do we know how it is likely to end.

Ever since man attained consciousness, he has been trying to discover these lost pages. Philosophy is the name of this quest and its results. A philosopher writes volumes to describe the philosophy and its nature, but the poet can do so in a single couplet.

The purpose of this quest is to find out the meaning of life and existence. As soon as man attained self-consciousness and began to think, two questions arose in his mind, namely, what is the meaning of his life; and what is the nature of the universe he sees all around. We do not know how long he groped in diverse directions, but a stage came when he adopted a definite course and started to advance along the path of reason and thought. This was the beginning of systematic speculation. The day the human intellect reached that stage marked the birth of philosophy and from that day the history of philosophy begins.

Till the eighteenth century, the pattern which European histories of philosophy followed was similar to that adopted by Arab historians and philosophers of the Middle Ages. They did not seek to study the progress of philosophy from a philosophical standpoint, but, on the contrary, compiled for the benefit of those who were interested in a record of philosophers and their Schools. In truth, their accounts were not histories of philosophy, but histories of philosophers.

It was in the beginning of the nineteenth century that histories of philosophy, as we know them today, were first written, and ever since the pattern then adopted has generally been followed. Anyone who wants to write on this subject today invariably adopts (maybe with minor modifications) the method of discussion followed in such books.

Whose is the older philosophical tradition : Greece, Egypt or Babylon

It is known to us that Egypt and Iraq had developed a high degree of civilization long before Greece. We also know that early was deeply influenced by the ancient wisdom of Egypt. Plato in his writings refers to Egyptian maxims in a way which suggests that their authority as sources of knowledge was unquestioned. Aristotle went further and said that the Egyptian priests were the first philosophers of the world. But we do not know the details of the relationship between Egypt and Greece. Not only are we ignorant of them, but we have little hope of ever recovering them. Similarly, we have no definite knowledge as to what was the nature and scope of the philosophical speculations that developed in the civilizations of Babylon and Nineveh. Nor do we know whether these speculations were in any way responsible for the birth of Greek philosophy.

There are, however, certain other regions of ancient history of which we have fuller knowledge today. This enables us to draw a more accurate outline of the growth of philosophy. The increase in our knowledge of ancient Indian history has opened to us a new source of information about ancient philosophical  developments. It has thus become possible to trace the rise of philosophy to a period earlier than the Greeks and determine the nature and scope of its development at that stage. We have, however, failed till now to pay adequate attention to these developments and still cling to the limited vision of the history of philosophy which has prevailed since the nineteenth century.

How originated

European philosophy originated in the philosophical enquiries of Greece. Its progress was retarded after the spread of Christianity, and there was a stage when philosophy disappeared from the European scene. After a lapse of some centuries, the Arabs began the study of Greek philosophy in the eighth century A. D. Later through their agency its study was revived in Europe. These studies in course of time led to that movement of enlightenment which is generally described as the European Renaissance. During this period, Europe secured direct access to the original Greek texts which till now she had known only through the works of Arab translators and commentators. After the Renaissance began the movement of thought to which we can trace the rise of modem philosophy.

How the history of philosophy in Europe can be divided

The history of philosophy in Europe is thus often divided into four periods : (I) Ancient; (2) Mediaeval; {3) Renaissance and (4) Modern.

When in the nineteenth century European scholars attempted to draw a general outline of the history of philosophy, it was this division into periods which came before them. The impact of Christianity on the European mind was also a factor responsible for such division. European scholars tend to interpret the whole course of human development from the standpoint of the emergence of Christianity. Thus, they divide human history into two broad periods, pre-Christian and post-Christian, and subdivide the latter into pre- and post-Reformation. Historians of philosophy, like Erdmann, have sought to designate periods in the development of philosophy on the same basis. Thus, according to Erdmann, the periods of philosophy are (I) The pre-Christian Greek, (2) the postChristian Mediaeval and (3) the post-Reformation Modern period. It is evident that this was not an account of the general history of philosophy but only of the history of Western philosophy. Since, however, Indian and Chinese philosophy had not yet fully come to light, this limited picture took the place of a general history and, in course of time came to be accepted as such. All the histories of philosophy written during the nineteenth century repeated the same story.

This limited view of the history of philosophy has become so ingrained in our minds that we have not been able to cast it out in spite of the new knowledge revealed by later research. Whenever we think of a history of philosophy, it is this limited picture that comes before us. We cannot otherwise explain the manner in which a scholar like Thilly, writing in the second decade of this century, dismisses the contribution of the Orient and starts his account of the development of systematic philosophy with the Greeks. Such an account of philosophy is incomplete, not only in respect of its beginning, but also in respect of several later periods. Our view of the progress of philosophy has been so influenced by this Western conception of three or four periods that we are unable to see it in any other perspective.

Why comparative studies in philosophy is a must

Historically, it is generally recognized that long before the Christian era began, Buddhist metaphysical thought had crystallized into definite Schools of philosophy. If we are to study the progress of philosophy in these ages, it is as necessary to attend to these developments in India as to those in Greece. A comparative study of the nature and scope of the philosophical discourses in India and Greece during these centuries would thus have been of great interest. The standard histories of philosophy are, however, so used to consider only European philosophy that they miss all these developments and overlook the contribution of the Orient. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, our knowledge is no longer confined within the four walls of Greece and much of the wealth of Indian and Chinese philosopher has been revealed to us. This knowledge is, however, even now limited to a circle of specialists and has not found the place it deserves in the general history of philosophy.
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