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Is there such a thing as “Eastern philosophy”?

Non-Western thought is vast and ancient, so why don’t some consider it philosophy?
eastern philosophy
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Key Takeaways
  • Philosophy has traditionally been defined as a rational and analytic discipline, its roots going back to Ancient Greece.
  • Historically, many non-European traditions have been excluded from being considered “proper” philosophy. This reveals an ignorance of those traditions.
  • Religion and philosophy have forever overlapped, regardless of their origins. Asking, “What defines philosophy?” is an existential question for philosophy departments worldwide. 

It is a common conceit to assume your own culture is the best. Is it not remarkable that, in the catalogue of traditions and peoples across all of time, yours would be the one with the “right” or “best” way? People often view philosophy through this same kind of narrow lens.

Those taught in the European philosophical tradition have historically been quite snobbish about labelling Indian, Chinese, Islamic, or Indigenous peoples’ thought as “philosophy.” Philosophy courses and introductory books will predominately feature European and American thinkers. Occasionally there will be a reference to Confucius or Avicenna, perhaps, but their dissonant inclusion serves only to prove the overwhelming point. (Tellingly, both of these names are Latinized versions.)

So, where does this all come from?

Rational people doing rational things

There is nothing new about calling another culture’s ideological heritage “primitive” or “simplistic.” For millennia, non-Chinese ideas were considered barbarian within China. For centuries in India, it was thought all philosophy was contained in six great systems, known as darshana. But, from Ancient Greece, and via the European university system, philosophy came to be identified almost exclusively as the rational or analytic pursuit of answers, and preferably true ones. And so, definitional fanatics might say, “only that which can be traced to Plato is proper philosophy.”

This means that philosophy must be characterized by argument and logic — premises to conclusions. For example:

All men are mortal

Socrates is a man

Therefore Socrates is mortal

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

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

Faith or Eastern philosophy?

Even if we accept this rational-analytic definition of philosophy (which is hugely debatable), it still begs an important question regarding “non-Western” thought. This is because anyone who insists non-western traditions do not use rational arguments are only saying they know very little of those traditions. Chinese Mohists, Buddhist Dignaga, Hindu Vyakarana, and the Islamic Al-Farabi and Ibn Sina are all a small sampling of logical and rational exemplars of “logos.” In fact, in quite a few cases, major philosophical ideas are expressed better and earlier in other traditions than in many of their European counterparts.

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

Yet this, too, is disingenuous. Almost all European philosophers (up until only the past few centuries), were almost always religious. This is explicitly so in names like Saint Thomas Aquinas and Bishop Berkeley — both of whom feature heavily in the great philosophical canon. But also, religion and God play important roles for other big-name philosophers.

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

The problem of self-identity

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

The fact is that most Western philosophers and writers, this author included, are mostly uneducated in philosophical traditions outside the standard Greek to Europe to America model. But, ignorance of a thing isn’t to say it doesn’t exist. As with so much historical prejudice or ignorance, the problem is a self-propagating one. If it’s easier to read, learn, and talk about “traditional” western philosophers, it becomes easier to then write, teach, and create syllabuses about them.

But the internet is making that excuse much harder to legitimately fall back on. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has, for a long time, been a staple of philosophers and philosophy students. It is now much more diverse and inclusive in its entries. This open Google Docs list provides a great variety of suggestions, as well. 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 seat at the philosophical table.

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


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