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What are the origins and boundaries of philosophy?

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The first question, that of origins, remains unresolved. Alongside those who, with Aristotle, made Thales the first philosopher in the sixth century, there were already historians in Greece who traced back beyond Hellenism, to the barbarians, the origins of the philosophy ; Diogenes Laertius, in the preface to his Lives of the Philosophers, speaks to us of the fabulous antiquity of philosophy among the Persians and the Egyptians. Thus, from antiquity, the two theses clashed: was philosophy an invention of the Greeks or a heritage they received from the “Barbarians”?

It seems that the orientalists, as they reveal to us the pre-Hellenic civilizations, such as the Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations with which the cities of Ionia, the cradle of Greek philosophy, were in contact, give reason to the second of these theses. It is impossible not to feel the kinship of thought between the known thesis of the first Greek philosopher, Thales, that all things are made of water, and the beginning of the Poem of Creation, written many centuries earlier in Mesopotamia: “When the sky above was unnamed, and the earth below had no name, of the primordial Apsu, their father, and of the tumultuous Tiamat, their mother to all, the waters merged into one.” (Louis Delaporte, Mesopotamia) Such texts suffice at least to show us that Thales was not the inventor of an original cosmogony; the cosmogonic images, which he perhaps clarified, had existed for long centuries. We feel that the philosophy of the first physiologists of Ionia could be a new form of an extremely old theme.

The recent research on the history of mathematics has led to a similar conclusion. As early as 1910, G. Milhaud wrote: “The material accumulated in mathematics by the Orientals and the Egyptians was decidedly more important and richer than was still generally suspected ten years ago.”.

Finally, the work of anthropologists on lower societies introduces new data which further complicates the problem of the origin of philosophy. We find, in fact, in Greek philosophy, intellectual traits which have their analogy only in a primitive mentality. The notions used by the first philosophers, those of destiny, justice, soul, god, are not notions that they created or elaborated themselves, they are popular ideas, collective representations that they have found. It is, it seems, these notions which serve them as schemas or categories for conceiving external nature. The idea that the Ionian physiologists have of the order of nature, as of a regular grouping of beings or forces on which sovereign destiny imposes their limit, is due to the transport of the social order into the external world; philosophy is perhaps, at its origin, only a kind of vast social metaphor. Facts as strange as the numerical symbolism of the Pythagoreans who admit that “everything is number” would be explained by this form of thought which a German philosopher called the “morpho-logico-structural thought” of the primitives and which he opposed to the functional thinking  based on the principle of causality; as the North American Zuni people correspond to the division of their race into seven parts, the division into seven of the village, of the regions of the world, of the elements, of time, so the Pythagoreans or even Plato in the Timaeus continually invent correspondences numbers of the same order. The resemblance affirmed in the Timaeus between the intervals of the planets and the musical scale seems to us completely arbitrary and the logic escapes us.

If this is so, the first philosophical systems of the Greeks would not be primitive at all; they would only be the elaborated form of a much older thought. It is undoubtedly in this mentality that we should seek the true origin of philosophical thought or at least of one of its aspects. A. Comte was not wrong in seeing in what he called fetishism the root of the philosophical representation of the universe; Now that, through folklore and studies on uncivilized peoples, we have a more precise and more positive knowledge of the state of mind of the primitives, we have a better idea of ​​all that remains of it in the evolved metaphysics of Greeks.

Thus the first “philosophers” of Greece did not really have to invent; they worked on representations of complexity and richness but also of the confusion of which we can hardly get an idea. They had less to invent than to disentangle and choose, or rather the invention was in this discernment itself. We would no doubt understand them better if we knew what they rejected than if we knew what they kept. Moreover, we sometimes see repressed representations reappearing; and the underlying primitive thought makes a continual effort, which sometimes succeeds, to break down the dikes in which it is contained.

If, despite these remarks, we have our story begin with Thales, it is therefore not that we are ignoring the long prehistory in which philosophical thought was elaborated; it is only for this practical reason that the epigraphic documents of the Mesopotamian civilizations are few and of difficult access, and it is then because the documents on the savage peoples cannot provide us with indications of what was primitive Greece.


The question of the boundaries of the history of philosophy, related to that of origins, cannot be resolved with precision either. It is undeniable that there has been, at certain times, in the countries of the Far East and especially in India, a real flowering of philosophical systems. But it is a question of knowing if the Greco-Roman world, then Christian on the one hand, the extreme Eastern world on the other, had an intellectual development completely independent of each other: in this case , it would be permissible to disregard the philosophy of the Far East in an exposition of Western philosophy. The situation is far from being so clear: for antiquity first of all, the easy commercial relations that there were from Alexander until the Arab invasions between the Greco-Roman world and the Far East made intellectual relationships possible. We have precise testimonies of it; the Greeks, travelers or philosophers, wrote a lot about India at that time; the remains of this literature, particularly from the 2nd and 3rd centuries of our era, testify at least to a keen curiosity for Indian thought. On the other hand, in the High Middle Ages, a philosophy developed in Muslim countries of which Greek, Aristotelian or Neoplatonic thought certainly formed the essential, but which, however, does not seem to have been without undergoing, on various occasions , the influence of the Indian neighborhood. Now, we will see what place this Arab philosophy had in Christianity, from the thirteenth century to the sixteenth. It is therefore a very important question to know what are the degrees and the limits of this influence, direct or indirect. But it is also a very difficult question: the influence of Greece on the Far East, which is proven today in matters of art, was undoubtedly very strong in the intellectual field, and much stronger than the inverse influence of India on Hellenism. Given the uncertainty of the dates of Indian literature, the similarities between Greek and Indian thought cannot testify which of the two comes from the influence. It seems that it was only under Greek influence that the Hindus gave to the presentation of their ideas the systematic and orderly character that our intellectual habits, inherited from the Greeks, make us consider as linked to the very notion of philosophy.

Source: Émile Bréhier, Histoire de la philosophie – Tome premier: L’Antiquité et le Moyen âge, Librairie Félix Alcan, Paris, 1928. Tanslation and adaptation by Nicolae Sfetcu © 2022 Multimedia Publishing

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