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The history of civilization in the West (i.e. Europe) goes back many thousands of years. Since well before 1000 BC there have been people living in what is now Turkey, Greece, and even Italy, in such cities as Miletus and Troy. For much of their history, people living in the West were content with their traditional mythology and legend as explanations of the world around them. In the 7th century BC, Homer came around and developed perhaps the greatest collection of myth and legend in Western literature. However, it was just that: myth, quite unsubstantiated and irrational, though incredibly important nevertheless.

But then something seemed to change. In the late 7th century BC there came a man named Thales, and he was not satisfied with the traditions of old. Instead, he developed his own theories on what the world is made of, declaring among other things that "water is the first principle" from which all things come, and that there is a single entity "God" which "shaped and created all things from water."

And he wasn't the only one determined to come up with a more reasoned and physical explanation of things. Soon there came Anaximenes, Parmenides, Pythagoras, Anaxagoras, all of whom had their own decidedly un-mythological theories of the world. And with that the discipline of Ancient Philosophy was born, and soon there were tens, hundreds, thousands of people who at least tried to work things out on their own.

Why, though? When people had been living with myth for many centuries, why did they start to look for their own answers, independent of tradition or legend? Admittedly some of their theories were still quite absurd, but at least they generally didn't involve various gods and goddesses giving birth to the Earth and its creatures. The new theories were much more physical and separate from the gods, and they tried to break down what the world is made of, how it came to be, and how things should work in a much less divine sort of way (though God or the Mind or some other entity often played a role in cosmogony, the field that is still quite a mystery to us today).

So, what led to the birth of philosophical thought as opposed to mythological tradition in the Ancient West?

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There's definitely a lot of theories about this and I'm curious to see what research may turn up. Some of the most convincing explanations (to me anyway) will sometimes point out that a lot of the most important early "Western" philosophers had travelled to the near East – Joseph Weissman Dec 21 '12 at 17:39
Probably the most obvious, if least satisfying, explanation involves the agricultural revolution. I don't think it was so much that the myths and traditions were satisfying, but that they were necessary to stave off one's curiosity when there was no "free" time. It's also a mistake to assume that myths were, by nature, incurious. It might be that myths were mnemonic devices to aid in learning the systems that kept communities alive. – SAHornickel Dec 21 '12 at 17:53
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So, what led to the birth of philosophical thought as opposed to mythological tradition in the Ancient West?

This is not really a philosophy question, but a question of history.

A good, provocative book on the subject is Thomas McEvilley's The Shape of Ancient Thought, which looks at the historical connections between the philosophical traditions of the ancient Greek and Indian worlds, and the background they grew out of.

But I suppose that most histories of philosophy will attempt to answer this question in one form or another.

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A very fair answer (especially given whole books have tried to answer to this...) – Joseph Weissman Dec 22 '12 at 16:18

In the contemporary modern world science is seen as a distinct discipline from philosophy; in the ancient world there wasn't such a clear distinction.

There was natural philosophy - in fact it seemed that the presocratics were interested in various rational cosmologies (a kind of prescience, they lacked the technology to make definitive experiments - atomism for example wasn't definitely proven until the early 20C with brownian motion, even though that was one of the atomists key example, see Lucretious de Rerum Natura)

Many of them lived & worked in what is now modern Turkey. Further they wrote in a cryptic, poetic form - not far removed from versified mythology (this makes sense for societies emerging out of an oral tradition - poetic utterance would be seen as the privileged & inspired artform) . One could argue that Nietszche reinvented this form for modern western philosophy - in its continental guise; not for nothing does he see himself a modern Zarathrustha thrusting aside the superstitions of a decadent Christian society. Plato indulged in mysticism, as did Pythagoras; and no doubt many others. It seems incredible considering the high level of civilisation that ancient Mesopotamia & Egypt achieved that there could not have been some degree of influence by them on greek thought. The key question is what form that influence takes.

Professor Klaus Karttunen, a specialist in the relations between the Indian subcontinent and the western world in classical antiquity writes in a review of McEvilleys book The Shape of Ancient Thought:

"The idea of Greek philosophy arising out of nowhere, without any antecedents or outside impulses just on the force of a supposed mental superiority of Greeks belongs, I hope, to a distant past, at least in scholarship. A considerable debt owed to Egypt and Mesopotamia, even to Thrace and Scythia was acknowledged by the Greeks themselves and in addition, research has succeeded in pointing out other, important but forgotten, ties to ancient Anatolian and Near Eastern cultures. Even an Iranian impact was apparently felt".

(But contra McEvilley he writes "India is just too far away".)

To summarise: in the ancient world, poetry/myth/philosophy/science/theology & religon were closely implicated in each other (they formed a kind of topos where the world was reimagined), and not seen as the dramatically distinct disciplines as they are today; and in that context it is possible to establish that there were outside influences operating on that topos coming from other civilisations close by.

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Building on your some of your observations, I think that a pivotal factor leading to the birth of pre-Socratic natural philosophy was the dual influence of both Egyptian and Babylonian astrologies in tandem. Perhaps the Greeks were the first to really notice that Egyptian astronomy made correct predictions without Babylonian ritual and mythology, and vice versa, and so realize that the mythological components aren't all that important in obtaining reliable astronomical knowledge. From there, it's not a great leap to wonder if the same is true of other disciplines. – David H Sep 27 '14 at 21:07
@DavidH: Possibly and an interesting speculation; the Pre-socratics are a very mixed bunch; I'm not sure that any single one can clearly be said to have eliminated all myths from their cosmological speculations; and I think one ought to be careful not to project back from our contemporary age our own world-view so as to let them speak in their own name; rationality can mean very different things - after all consider how Hesiod rationalised the genealogy of the Greek gods. – Mozibur Ullah Sep 27 '14 at 21:45
Frege in one this paper wrote "The discovery that the rising sun is not new every morning, but always the same, was one of the most fertile astronomical discoveries"; this for example might be Ra travelling on two solar boats, one through the sky and the other through the underworld; this implicitly (and thus speculatively) gives the sun a single identity and that the earth rather than extending endlessly all around us in a 'flat earth' cosmology makes it plausible that it is finite – Mozibur Ullah Sep 27 '14 at 22:08
ie does the sun 'smash' into the earth when it sets? Its this sort of thing that makes one realise the continuity of myth & cosmology across the wider ancient world; Personally I find the ancient world fascinating because they freely mixed what is now kept far apart. – Mozibur Ullah Sep 27 '14 at 22:15

Along a simpler vein than pure historians, we can note that Philosphy was best codified among the first long-lived experiment in pure (non-Republican) Democracy. If you feel the survival of your culture relies less on the reputation of your royal family, or your ability to raise effective warriors, than on what people say and do in public, and others' opinions of that, then the attention you pay to language and interactions of opinion and fact are going to become important almost to the point of obsession.

I think this perspective gives us an empathy for the peculiar language-obsessed form of Greek Philosophy and for their combining it with other language-like endeavors like music and mathematics. (Like, humorously to me, why Plato's creation myth includes mathematical measurements for a giant xylophone.) The pressure this puts on the products of philosophy, especially ethics and politics, helps us understand the degree to which they accelerated its development, and pushed specific forms to the fore.

Our notion that this kind of discovery kind of 'started' then may also have more to do with Athens recording it more liberally, than with its actual occurrence.

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