The Emergence of Philosophy

By Jonathan Dolhenty, Ph.D.

Sometimes the impression is given by historians of philosophy that philosophical thinking began with the ancient Greeks. Many, if not most, of them consider philosophic thought before the School of Miletus to be “pre-philosophic.” This essay intends to deal with that topic and correct some mistaken impressions regarding the era before the Ionian philosophers came on the scene.


Since man is by nature philosophical, it is inevitable that the earliest records of his thinking should manifest something of that human quest of ultimate causes and that human effort to make a deep unification of knowledge which we call by the name philosophy.

As soon as man begins to think he begins to think things out; he begins to speculate or reason deeply; he begins to philosophize. As soon as he records his thinking, philosophy begins, however imperfectly, to take form. Philosophy emerges the moment the mind comes to grips with reality and begins to draw conclusions and unify findings.

Some writers speak of a period of human history and of human thinking as “pre-philosophic.” With all reverence for great learning, we dare to reject this term as inaccurate.

It is true that the earliest records of man’s thinking offer us no rounded and systematized interpretation of “all things knowable.” But it is equally true that these records show a real approach to the realm of knowables. Such an approach is not pre-philosophical, but simply philosophical.

There is no warrant for cramping the meaning of the word philosophical to exclude all early reasoning on the subjects of God and duty. For theology and ethics (that is, the philosophy of God, and the philosophy of duty) are as truly philosophical as cosmology or metaphysics. Hence we need not apologize for applying the high name of philosophy to the religious and moral conclusions of the ancient oriental peoples who have left us the earliest records of human thinking.

The philosophical efforts of man, from earliest to most recent, are efforts to find the true answers to one or other of certain fundamental questions. These questions may be listed as seven:

1. The Logical Question: the question of correct procedure in reasoning, in thinking things out;

2. The Epistemological Question: the question of the extent and reliability of human knowledge — the question of the possibility and method of achieving truth and certitude;

3. The Cosmological Question: the question of the ultimate constitution of bodies, and of their nature and properties;

4. The Psychological Question: the question of the meaning of life, especially human life, and of the nature and powers of the human life-principle or soul;

5. The Theological Question: the question of the existence, nature, operations, and perfections of God;

6. The Metaphysical Question: the question of the meaning and properties of “being” as such;

7. The Ethical Question: the question of morality in human conduct, of right and wrong, of human duty and human destiny.

These seven questions delineate the field of philosophy. They frame the discussion of “all things knowable.”


The ancient oriental peoples were the Hebrews, the Chaldeans, the Egyptians, the Chinese, the Hindus, the Persians. To the records of these early peoples we turn to discern the emergence of philosophy.

1. The Hebrews, whose name is probably a derivation from Heber who was one of the ancestors of Abraham, had, from their earliest recorded times, a belief in one God (monotheism). They believed in the immortality of the human soul, and in a life to come which involves retribution for the good or evil practiced in this earthly existence. Evidence for these statements is found in the most ancient books of Holy Scripture.

After the 6th century B.C., distinct groups of religious philosophers appeared among the Hebrews:

(a) The Pharisees held the doctrines already mentioned (one God; immortality of the soul; rewards and punishments of a life to come), and they claimed to be the only authorized interpreters of the moral and ceremonial law.

(b) The Sadducees denied the existence of anything spiritual (materialism), and they acknowledged the existence of God but denied His government and providence in the world (deism). They found the true goal of human life in earthly pleasures and enjoyments (hedonism).

(c) The Essenes were a cloistered group who held the necessity of self-denial to loose the soul from its body-prison into the happiness of heaven. They taught that the soul existed before it was joined to the body (preexistence of souls), and that it was imprisoned in the body for some fault.

The Hebrew philosophy deserves its name; it must not be brushed aside as pre-philosophical. It deals, however brokenly, with the theological question, the psychological question, and the ethical question.

An important point to notice is that this early philosophy had the idea of one only God; that is, it held the doctrine of monotheism. Here we see that monotheism is a really primitive doctrine, and not the development of cruder beliefs as some materialists and evolutionists of our day would like us to think.

2. The Chaldeans (that is to say, the Babylonians and the Assyrians) at first held by monotheism; they believed in one supreme God called El. Later they degraded this pure belief into a system of polytheism, that is, a theory of a plurality of gods.

They held that man exists for the worship and service of divinity; to fulfill his destiny he must practice virtue, he must be a lover of peace, and must be just in his dealings with his fellows.

Again we find monotheism, that pure and elevated doctrine, as a really primitive form of belief, indeed of reasoned knowledge. Evolutionists would like to have it that crude and polytheistic beliefs were gradually refined into monotheism, but history has not a single instance of such a refinement.

Monotheism precedes polytheism, and, among peoples not protected from the lapse, monotheism degenerates into polytheism. Notice that the Chaldeans dealt with the theological question and the ethical question.

3. The Ancient Egyptians were, at first, monotheists; they lapsed into polytheism at an early period of their history, and deified the elements and parts of the universe. About the 7th century B.C. there was a mighty religious revival among the Egyptians, and the very animals of sacrifice came to be worshipped. But animal worship (zoolatry) was unknown to the most ancient Egyptians.

The Egyptians believed in the immortality of the soul, and, about the 7th century B.C., they came to believe in the transmigration of souls (metempsychosis). They taught the necessity of virtuous living as the means to happiness in a life to come.

Here we find the elements of a philosophy which dealt with the theological question, the psychological question, and the ethical question.

4. The Ancient Chinese believed in one God called Shang-ti, a personal deity, distinct from the world, and all powerful. This pure belief quickly degenerated, especially after the 12th century B.C., when ancestor worship came strongly into vogue. Worship of the sun, moon, and stars (sabaeism) also appeared.

After the 6th century B.C., the Chinese were much influenced in thought and conduct by their philosophers, especially Kun-fu-tse (Confucius) and Lao-tse. Confucius preached faithful observance of ancestral customs; he discouraged the natural tendency of men to pry into causes and reasons; his was a philosophy to kill philosophy.

Lao-tse taught the existence of a Supreme Being called Tao (hence his doctrine is called Taoism) who produced the world. Tao is ever serene, untroubled; man must model himself on Tao; man must cultivate serenity of mind, caring nothing for riches or honors, or even for learning or for laws; man must follow quietly and unexcitedly his own natural bent.

The ancient Chinese dealt with the theological question, and, in a measure, with the psychological question; their great philosophers were concerned chiefly with the ethical question.

5. The Ancient Hindus had sacred books called Veda, that is, science. These show traces of an original monotheism, but only traces, however plain. Polytheism came into being among the Hindus at an early period.

The Hindu philosophy is very vague, but it contains unmistakable evidence of some belief in human immortality, in man’s duty to worship divinity and to avoid sin.

Between the 8th and 5th century B.C. certain books (called Brahmanas and Upanishads) were written to explain the Vedas. These hint at a supreme and personal God called Prajapati, but this notion is quickly submerged in a welter of polytheistic doctrine.

The theory developed in the Brahmanas is that the world and all things in it are maya or illusion. There is only one reality called Brahma. Man must rid himself of the deceiving idea that he exists as an individual; he must strive to merge himself consciously in Brahma with whom all things are really one (pantheism).

Aligned with this doctrine of Brahma is Buddhism which holds the world unreal and illusory and teaches man to seek changelessness and peace in a state of Nirvana in which all desire is dead, all emotion extinguished.

The Hindu philosophy deals slightly with the theological question, largely with the ethical question. Notice that it is pessimistic in character; it holds that man’s lot is one of deception and pain, and teaches him that his sole ethical effort is to be rid of pain.

6. The Ancient Persians were monotheists at the first, but about the 8th century B.C. there appeared a mighty teacher called Zarates or Zarathustra (whom the Greeks called Zoroaster) who taught the existence of two warring gods (religious dualism); one of these was the Supreme God, the other the Supreme Evil.

The good deity was called Ahura-Mazda (the Greeks named him Ormuzd or Ormazd); to him we attribute all good things, fire, light, stars and planets, summer, fertility, the human race.

The evil deity was called Angra-Mainyu (the Greeks made the name Ahriman); to him are to be attributed all evil things, darkness, cold, bad spirits, disease, death, poisonous plants, ferocious animals, storms, and all destructive forces.

These two divinities wage ceaseless war. One of the followers of Ahura-Mazda is the great spirit Mithras who will captain the forces of good to the final defeat of Angra-Mainyu. Perhaps, after the evil divinity and his followers have been hurled into the pit of punishment, Mithras will intercede for them, and they will ultimately be admitted to the paradise of delights in which Ahura-Mazda reigns, — Man was created pure by Ahura-Mazda; he ate certain forbidden fruits and, in consequence, lost the love of his creator and was numbered with the hosts of Angra-Mainyu.

Human nature was thus soiled at its source, and each individual feels within himself the war of good and evil. Man must rid himself of the evil and seek his original perfection. Man’s soul is immortal; it will be brought to purification and happiness either by strong efforts for virtue in this life or by suffering hereafter.

The ancient Persians discussed the theological question and the ethical question with incidental discussion of the psychological question. We notice in their strange melange of doctrines some vestiges of the primitive revelation in the somewhat distorted account of man’s creation and original sin.


Most accounts of philosophy begin with the speculation (that is, the deep philosophical studies) of the Greeks, dismissing the ancient orientals as pre-philosophic. We have noticed the unfairness of this practice.

The Greeks had a natural liking for things of the mind. They were inclined to dwell upon what they saw in the world about them and to think out causes and reasons. Among the Greeks, far more than among any other pre-Christian people, philosophy was steadily cultivated. It reached a state of rounded development in the Golden Age of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

The earliest Greek philosophers attacked the cosmological question; they sought the explanation of the bodily world. Other questions of philosophy were only incidental to their studies.

For convenience, we group the philosophers of this period into schools, that is, classifications of philosophers who studied the same matters or held similar views. The schools we are to notice are: the Ionians, the Pythagoreans, the Eleatics, the Atomists, and the Sophists.

1. The Ionians, taking up the cosmological question, asked what is the original matter of which the bodily world is made.

(a) Thales, of the 7th and 6th centuries B.C., taught that the world-stuff is water, for the world is a mixture of solids, liquids, and gases, and water is the only substance which we commonly find in all three forms.

(b) Anaximander, of the 7th and 6th centuries B.C., thought the original world-stuff is a kind of spray or mist which is an infinite and living substance (he called it “the Boundless”). Out of this substance all bodily things emerge, and, under the action of heat which is inherent in it, they merge into it again, and this process goes on continuously (theory of an infinite series of worlds). The earth is a cylinder poised in the center of the universe. All matter is alive (hylozoism); plants and animals come by progressive upward stages from the slime of the heated earth (evolution or transformism).

(c) Anaximenes, of the 6th century B.C., regarded the original world-stuff as a kind of vapor, infinite and alive, which, by thickening and thinning (condensation and rarefaction) causes different things to emerge; these bodies float in the infinite vapor like leaves in an autumn breeze.

(d) Heraclitus, of the 6th century B.C., made the primal world-stuff a kind of fire, infinite, alive, intelligent. This fire is not a mass of matter but a kind of all-pervading reason which operates by its inherent power (dynamism) to produce bodies; the production of bodies goes on by blind necessity (determinism).

(e) Empedocles, of the 5th century B.C., held that the world-stuff is a compound of air, earth, water, fire; these four elements, by their various comminglings, make up the bodily world and all things in it. Two forces play upon the elements, a unifying force called love and a separating and diversifying force called hate. The bodily world is alive (hylozoism), and has the power of sensing.

(f) Anaxagoras, of the 5th century B.C., taught that the world-stuff is a mass of particles of every kind of body found in the universe. This mass was motionless and inert; it was put into a whirling movement by the action of a Divine Mind which is no part of the mass of matter. The whirling motion caused different bodies to “separate out.” The Divine Mind knows all and rules all.

In general, the Ionians taught a cosmogony, or theory of the emergence of the world, rather than a cosmology, or theory of the nature of the world; still, they dealt proximately (and not philosophically) with the constitution of the bodily universe, and hence deserve to be called cosmologists.

Their doctrine is hylozoistic, dynamistic, evolutionistic, deterministic, and sometimes (as in Heraclitus) pantheistic. Of all the philosophers of this school Anaxagoras is by far the most notable, for he alone achieved the idea of an independent Divine Mind as the original mover and ruler of the world.

2. The Pythagoreans (called so from their leader Pythagoras who lived in the 6th century B.C.) were of mathematical mind; they were charmed by the order and harmony of the universe, by its regularity and proportion. They felt that the world is not only expressible in mathematical terms, but that the it is mathematical in nature. They taught that all things are numbers, and number is expressed in harmony.

The Pythagoreans believed in an all-pervading divinity. They taught that man’s soul (which is a number) is imprisoned in the flesh for some primordial sin; unless it be purified by virtuous living, it will pass, when a man dies, into another body, and into another and another, until purification is attained or the soul is found hopelessly vile. Here we have the first appearance among the Greeks of metempsychosis or the transmigration of souls.

The Pythagoreans are a step higher than the Ionians. The Ionians achieved a physical idea to explain the world; the Pythagoreans a mathematical idea. This idea is very vague, but it is more abstract than that of the Ionians, and hence more suitable to serve as a focussing-point for a philosophy of the world.

Philosophy could not come into its own, however, until man had achieved a metaphysical idea (the idea of being as such); this was first set forth and satisfactorily discussed by Aristotle in the 4th century B.C.

3. The Eleatics (called so from the city of Elea where notable members of this group lived and taught) were impressed by the variety and changeability of the world. They concluded that change is incompatible with substantial reality. Hence they taught that there really is no change; all change is illusion. “All is; nothing becomes.” All bodies are of the same essential nature.

The Eleatics (important among whom were Xenophanes, Parmenides, Zeno of Elea, Melissus of Samos, of the 6th to 4th century B.C.) were monists, that is, they taught that there is only one kind of bodily substance. By implication they were pantheists, for they made the matter of the world self-explaining, hence necessary and eternal, and therefore divine.

4. The Atomists thought of the world-stuff as a great mass of particles like a dust storm. All the particles have the same nature (monism); they differ only in shape, size, and weight. The particles do not cling together; they are held apart by vacuoles or intervals of vacuum. They are eternal, and have been in motion from eternity. Out of their motion come various arrangements of differently shaped atoms which we know as bodies.

Man has knowledge of sense and of thought. The atom-constituted bodies throw off images of themselves, like shells, and these somehow enter man’s senses and produce sense-knowledge. This knowledge is not trustworthy. The knowledge of thought is reliable. Man must find his true good in tranquillity of soul; he is to obtain this by cultivating pure thought and by using all material things with great moderation.

The Atomists were materialists for they acknowledged no reality but the bodily world. They were monists for they taught that matter is “all of a piece.” They were mechanicists (or mechanists) for they explained the variety and multiplicity of the world by mechanical movement of atoms. By implication, they were pantheists, for if matter is all, then matter is self-existing and divine.

In addition to the cosmological question, the Atomists discussed the epistemological question (nature and reliability of man’s knowledge), and the ethical question (man’s purpose in existing, the means he is to use). Notable Atomists were Leucippus, whose times are doubtful, and Democritus who lived in the 5th century B.C.

5. The Sophists (in Greek, sophoi or “the wise ones”) took up the epistemological question. They concluded that no one can know anything with certainty (skepticism).

(a) Protagoras, of the 5th century B.C., said that everything is in a state of becoming; there is no stable being. Man’s knowledge is never absolute; it is relative to the subject, that is, the person who possesses it (relativism and subjectivism), so that what is regarded as true for one person at one time may be false to another person or to the same person at another time. The individual man is thus the measure of truth; “man is the measure of things.”

(b) Gorgias, of the 5th century B.C., declared that nothing exists, and if anything did exist it could not be known with certitude (nihilism and skepticism).

The Sophists were skeptics, and their influence degraded the philosophical effort. They have to their credit, however, that they raised the epistemological question.


We have investigated the earliest records of human thinking to discover the sources of philosophy. We have noticed the doctrines — inaccurately called pre-philosophic — of the ancient Hebrews, Chaldeans, Egyptians, Chinese, Hindus, and Persians.

In the records of all these people we have discovered one constant note — monotheism. Thus we see that the evolutionists are wrong when they try to persuade us that the pure idea of one supreme God is a progressive development and growth out of cruder notions.

Monotheism definitely came first; polytheism and other religious philosophies came later as a lapse and retrogression due to man’s intellectual weakness.

We have noticed various groups or schools of early Greek thinkers among whom philosophy began to take more perfect form. We have discussed the Ionians, the Pythagoreans, the Eleatics, the Atomists, and the Sophists. We have seen that the chief interest of the early Greeks centered on the world about us; their main discussion turned upon the cosmological question.

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.