Generally philosophical traditions seem to be associated with literate cultures. But a philosopher is someone who has a philosophical problem and so not necessarily tied to literacy.

Obviously literacy allows discussion over time & space, expands ways of thinking and allows a documentary record.

Is there any indication, that for say the pre-socratics, philosophy is primarily an oral activity, carried out in dialogue, rather than one carried out in writing.

I'm more interested in cultures outside the ambit of todays literate cultures.

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    the art of rhetoric as deeply connected to public speaking indicates that oral activity should be an important aspect of pre-socratic philosophy.
    – Tames
    Jun 23, 2012 at 20:44
  • It strikes me as perhaps interesting in this connection that Socrates is known to us only by oral discourses imputed to him by others
    – Joseph Weissman
    Jun 24, 2012 at 15:38
  • and Platos works are in the form of dialogues. Jun 24, 2012 at 22:22
  • I suspect that oral traditions were prevalent all over the world, even when people had the option of writing. Hinduism certainly has that history.
    – prash
    Apr 29, 2013 at 13:36
  • @prash: perhaps the viva of a pHd is a holdover from when Oral disputation was the norm - rather than jousting by papers. May 4, 2013 at 16:22

4 Answers 4


John Mbiti's seminal work "African Religions and Philosophy" is focused largely around oral philosophical traditions in Africa, although it has been criticized both for being insufficiently philosophical, and for perceived misrepresentations of the traditions it surveys.

As far as other traditions --Socrates' philosophy was entirely oral during his own lifetime, as it was written down only by his students, (chiefly Plato). It seems clear that oral philosophy was very much current during and before that time in Greece. It's also fairly well-accepted that the Tao Te Ching first circulated in an oral form before being compiled into the form we know today. It seems likely there were other oral philosophical traditions in ancient China.

  • Platos dialogues represents the notion of philosophy as done through speech; thanks for the ref - I'll look up Mbitis book. Feb 26, 2016 at 22:33

Is there any indication, that for say the pre-socratics, philosophy is primarily an oral activity, carried out in dialogue, rather than one carried out in writing.

How would we know? It's nearly impossible to know about discussions which left no written records.

If the difference between oral and literate cultures interests you, the best starting point is Walter Ong's Orality and Literacy.

  • Good point, I wasn't holding out much hope for the presocratics. Perhaps Anthropologists, after all they do spend time embedded within other cultures. People who have just moved from oral to literate culture. Looking at folk-tales & religon with literary tools. Could one argue that Freud was excavating a greek myth for his oedipus complex? Jun 23, 2012 at 13:15
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    Well, it was a written-down Greek myth (by Sophocles, in this case). Yes, anthropologists and folklorists collect oral traditions, and there are some still-existing traditions being passed down orally. But it's very difficult to comment on that which has not been recorded in some form or other. Jun 23, 2012 at 13:25
  • Point taken. As an aside, Levi-Strauss in a footnote to some book which I cannot remember the name of, throws a broadside against over-literate culture, although his paradigmatic example of one such is Islamic Civilisation. Jun 23, 2012 at 16:03

Robert Hudson at the U of S taught a course on aboriginal philosophy, I already graduated before it was ready, but I bet he answered this question there. Problem I see is that there tends to be less division of labour in purely oral societies, so a philosopher will be recognized for all of the more tangible things he produces. Consider Poundmaker, and try to imagine he had nothing to say about "political philosophy", or "natural theology". Sadly he didn't write books about it. Most important, in terms of actually answering your question, is that this is a testable hypothesis, as there are similarly respected people in similarly oral cultures existing today (I'm told). I'm not going into the Yanomami's jungle myself, but I would love to buy lunch for some of their old folks and ask them some of the familiar old philosophy questions.


Religion always contains an element of philosophy, and stems from oral traditions originally. Religion, philosophy, and everything else adapted to language thousands of years ago so oral philosophy is scarce if not outright non-existent yet things in written religions and philosophies might have come from an oral background originally. Buddhism is a good example.

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