If philosophy is the search for a general ethical regulative, then it is only logical to assume that we will find the origins of early philosophy in the flow of ancient religious thought. Indeed, for a period of three thousand years and more, philosophy not only ran parallel to religion, but was so intermeshed with theology that we can safely say that up to the seventeenth century of our era there was no philosophy without theology; even in the last three hundred years philosophy has never ceased drawing from the rich treasures of religious thought.
Philosophy, the love of wisdom or the search for ethical principles, thus has persisted close to religious meditation since time immemorial. On the other hand, history shows one can stand at the pinnacle of scientific knowledge and have as much feeling for ethics as the primitive savage cutting up his enemy’s leg for lunch.
It has been a tradition, however, in the Western world to credit the beginnings of philosophy to Thales of Miletus and his fellow holozoists, who attempted in a naive and often clumsy manner to explain the composition of matter. These primitive essays in physics and chemistry should not rightly be called philosophy. They are to be classified as scientific, and they have their place in the history of science.
From antiquity to our time, science has traveled a path independent of philosophy. The great scientists from Euclidean days to the atomic physicists were, by and large, not philosophers, although a few of them dabbled in it as laymen would. And, similarly, the great philosophers, from Socrates to Bergson, were not scientists, although they too wrote an occasional paper in some field of science, as might any educated layman.
Philosophy is the study of ethical principles, and as such it has found and will find devotees among all groups of civilized men, among all nations and castes and professions. While in our days philosophy has been confined to the classroom and may be in danger (as some feel) of being reduced to a self-perpetuating clique of college teachers and students, in the past philosophy lived within the whole body of society.
To place the beginnings of a particular movement or science at a given date is extremely difficult because we are inclined to confuse the historical data that happens to be available to us with the whole of history. That is, if the earliest piece of writing we have found is seven thousand years old, we are inclined to say the alphabet began seven thousand years ago.
In addition to this difficulty, there is that of traditional concepts and prejudices. We are accustomed to pinpointing cultural movements somewhere in the Western world, although all facts cry out against such bias.
Although we have not a page of philosophical writings worth print and paper from the European scene prior to the sixth century B.C., we persist in placing the beginnings of philosophy in Greece; yet there is a large body of philosophical literature available in Asia that predates the Socratic era by many hundreds of years. There was a whole world of philosophy in India, China, and Israel when Europe was still in its savage state.
The late Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty was the Founder and President of The Center for Applied Philosophy and the Radical Academy, and is Honorary Philosophy Editor at Self-Educated American. Self-Educated American has adopted these projects beginning with a republishing and preserving of all of Dr. Dolhenty’s work.