Is there an “oriental philosophy”?


It’s common vanity to assume that your own culture is the best. Isn’t it remarkable that, in the colossal catalog of traditions and peoples down through time, yours is the one with the “right” or the “best” way? People often see philosophy through this same kind of narrow lens.

People taught in the European philosophical tradition have always been snobbish enough to label the thought of Indian, Chinese, Islamic or indigenous peoples as “philosophy”. Philosophy courses and introductory books will primarily feature European and American thinkers. Occasionally there will be a reference to Confucius or Avicenna, perhaps, but their dissonant inclusion only serves to prove the overwhelming point. (It is telling that both of these names are Latinized versions.)

So where does all this come from?

Rational people doing rational things

There is nothing new in calling the ideological heritage of another culture “primitive” or “simplistic”. For millennia, non-Chinese ideas have been considered barbaric in China. For centuries in India it was thought that all philosophy was contained in six great systems, known as darshana. But, since ancient Greece, and via the European university system, philosophy has been identified almost exclusively as the rational Where analytic search for answers, and preferably true ones. And so definition fanatics might say, “Only what can be attributed to Plato is correct philosophy.”

This means that philosophy must be characterized by argumentation and logic – from premises to conclusions. For example:

All men are mortal

Socrates is a man

So Socrates is mortal

That sort of thing. It is assumed to have started with the Greeks, where logos (rational logic) was the best (if not the only) form of debate. After that, philosophy in the 17th century found a new idol in René Descartes, who proved the entire universe (as well as God) simply by think very hard. Finally, it was perfected by people like Gottfried Leibniz and Ludwig Wittgenstein, who wrote down his philosophy in mathematical lists.

Philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre and Soren Kierkegaard have always sat somewhat awkwardly in this story. In some modern institutions, this type of “continental philosophy”, with its readable prose and emotionally engaging content, is still considered an embarrassing cousin. But because these philosophers also studied and knew “proper” philosophy, they are loosely tolerated under the narrow description of philosophy as rational. It helps that they are all white and European too.

Faith or philosophy?

Even if we accept this rational-analytical definition of philosophy (which is extremely debatable), it still raises an important question regarding “non-Western” thought. It is because whoever insists on non-Western traditions not using rational arguments only says that they know very little about these traditions. The Chinese Mohists, Dignaga Buddhists, Vyakarana Hindus, Al-Farabi and Ibn Sina Islamics are all a small sample of logical and rational examples of “logos”. In fact, in a number of cases, the great philosophical ideas find expression better and earlier in other traditions than in many of their European counterparts.

The problem, historically, is that many of these ideas and thinkers are also steeped in certain religious beliefs. Philosophers who are also monks, imams, and shamans are denied the title of philosopher because a demarcation is often deemed impossible — “the East” has faith, and that is not philosophy!

Yet this too is dishonest. Almost all European philosophers (until recent centuries) were almost always religious. This is explicitly the case in names like Holy Thomas Aquinas and Bishop Berkeley – both of which figure prominently in the great philosophical canon. But also, religion and God play an important role for other renowned philosophers.

God serves to guarantee the authenticity of our ideas, according to Descartesand we must believe in God if we are to be motivated to act morally, according to Kant. The now popular Epictetus was deeply religious, and the idea of ​​a providentially ordered universe is central to traditional Stoicism. For most of the biggest names in philosophy, their religion or faith has played an important and central role in their “philosophy”. For what reasons, other than tradition and prejudice, do we deny Hindu, Buddhist or Islamic beliefs a role in philosophy?

The problem of personal identity

The problem is that if philosophy is described more broadly as “asking questions about the universe”, or something similar, then there’s no obvious way to tell the difference between theology, philosophy, or even the science. In fact, the more philosophy is defined in broader terms of curiosity and the “love of wisdom,” the less it becomes its own discipline. Philosophy, left without borders or criteria, dissolves into the status of a sub-department.

The fact is that most Western philosophers and writers, including this author, are mostly uneducated in philosophical traditions outside the standard pattern from Greek to Europe to America. But, ignorance of a thing does not mean that it does not exist. As with so much historical prejudice or ignorance, the problem is self-propagating. If it is easier to read, learn and speak about “traditional” Western philosophers, then it becomes easier to write, teach and create programs about them.

But the internet makes this excuse much harder to use legitimately. the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has, for a long time, been a staple of philosophers and students of philosophy. It is now much more diverse and inclusive in its entries. This open google docs list also provides a wide variety of suggestions. However we define philosophy, the fact is that non-Western thought is so vast, so ancient, and so comprehensive that it will be impossible to deny it a place at the philosophical table.

Jonny Thomson teaches philosophy at Oxford. He runs a popular Instagram account called Mini Philosophy (@philosophyminis). His first book is Mini Philosophy: A Little Book of Big Ideas.


Comments are closed.