It seems that philosophy began from two locations, Asia and Europe, but were there any philosophers from the Middle East, America (South and North) and Africa? I mean, Asia and Europe weren't friends, yet they were able to philosophize; what happened with other areas of world?


Were there any philosophers from Africa, America or the Middle East before Socrates?

  • America: not known. Native american societies were mainly non-written: thus, no historical records available. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Aug 30 '18 at 12:40
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    Regarding Africa, almost nothing is known of Ancient Egyptian philosophy. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Aug 30 '18 at 12:40
  • Why @MauroALLEGRANZA, was their work burned? if philosophers in ancient Egypt existed, why didn't they write anything? – captindfru Aug 30 '18 at 12:43
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    The fact that you mentioned all of this @MauroALLEGRANZA, it opens up so many questions... Thank you. – captindfru Aug 30 '18 at 12:55
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    Given circumstantial archeological and anthropological evidence, it is almost assured that all ancient people asked philosophical questions and thought about philosophical issues (and common sense tells us that it would be extremely weird if they didn't). However, primary historical sources from thousands of years ago are very hard to come by, there is disparity across cultures in relation to what technology was available to them in order to preserve their writing, and obviously conquerors have a proclivity to try and eradicate the culture of the people they conquer. So, its a hard problem. – Not_Here Aug 30 '18 at 13:08

Ancient China and Ancient Greece, in particular, are notable in that they had similar traditions of elaborated, influential, systematic writings that are clearly identifiable as philosophical that appeared roughly around the same time. What philosophy that went on to develop in Europe traces directly back to the Greeks, through the Romans, and what philosophy that went on to develop in Asia traces largely back to China.

With this said, neither philosophical tradition developed in a void. Both countries had traditions of oral philosophy, folk wisdom, and religious ideology that predated their written philosophies. "Philosophy" in these forms has arguably existed in all societies all across the world. Great religious traditions and elaborated mythologies predating Socrates existed in India and Egypt, and undoubtedly influenced both Greece and China. (This includes the titanic, globally influential philosophical/religious tradition known as Buddhism, as founded by the pre-Socratic, non-European philosopher Gautama Buddha.) The philosophical traditions of Judaism are likewise ancient, and although they weren't widely known at the time of the Ancient Greeks, they began to influence the Romans after Israel was absorbed into the Roman Empire. (It's further worth noting that the Greco-Roman philosophical tradition was, at one point, almost entirely lost in Europe, and was restored only because it had been kept alive in the Middle East.)

Many people, myself among them, further believe that the traditional societies, AND the great civilizations of Africa, Australia and the Americas both had, and continue to have, stores of valuable wisdom that deserve the name of philosophy. These have been systematically undervalued for any number of reasons, including being largely maintained as part of oral culture, and otherwise not fitting the Eurocentric model of philosophy (or the mythology of European exceptionalism). A large part of why we perceive philosophy as beginning with Socrates is because that's the way people have chosen to tell the story. After all, Plato's own Timaeus refers to Egypt as a key source of Greek wisdom.


Presocratics in Greece

Socrates is a false marker for the start of philosophy even in Greece. To begin, if he wrote anything, nothing has come down to us and it is possible (as tradition has it) that he wrote nothing. What little we know of Socrates' ideas and arguments has to be gleaned from Xenophon's Memorabilia of Socrates and the Platonic dialogues. Even if the early Platonic dialogues preserve elements of Socrates' thought, we don't know where Socrates ends and Plato begins.

More than that, there is a whole line of presocratic philosophers of considerable sophistication : Thales, Anaximander, Heraclitus, Pythagoras Parmenides, Zeno, Democritus : and if they left only 'fragments', some of the fragments are pretty hefty. Large parts of the poem of Parmenides remain. (Edward Hussey, The Presocratics, 2013.)

Ancient Egypt

What reasonably counts as ancient Egyptian philosophy is by no means beyond historical reach as the following extract from Charles C. Verharen makes clear. He refers initially to :

the precepts of Ma' at. These prescriptions bear a remarkable resemblance to the commandments of the religions of the Book - give drink to the thirsty, food to the hungry, and the like - yet they may be 2,000 years older than the first books of the Bible (Assman, 1998). To sin against Ma' at is to bring chaos into life - before its time. Chaos is not intrinsically evil because the universe begins in a chaotic state that is revered as the protean creator of the universe, Nun. Disorder is evil only when a well-ordered state of affairs is reduced to chaos in advance of its natural cycle. In a holistic ontology, good and evil are intrinsic to all existence, not separate forms of existence. The Egyptian cosmology finds good in the midst of evil and vice versa: Seth is not only the murderer of Osiris but a force against the disintegration of the cosmos into chaos. Seth fights the forces of chaos nightly to restore the sun at dawn. The classical icon of Egyptian cosmology is the ouroboros, the figure of a snake consuming itself by eating its tail. The snake is the dread god Apophis, the embodiment of chaos. The whole universe must return to chaos in the end, but it will be reborn out of that chaos. For the ancient Egyptians, evil does not have an independent existence, like Satan in the religions of the Book. Evil is simply chaos at a time when Ma'at should rule rather than Apophis. Even Apophis is not irredeemably evil because it is natural for the cosmos to return to chaos, in its infinite cycle between Nun and Ma'at. The ancient Egyptians recognize that good and evil are inseparable. One can never triumph over the other for all eternity (Hornung, 1971/1982). (Charles C. Verharen, 'Philosophy Against Empire: An Ancient Egyptian Renaissance', Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 36, No. 6 (Jul., 2006), pp. 958-973 : 963.)

Here are clear elements of both ethics and cosmology. It is always possible to question what is philosophy and what is mythology. The linkage between ethics and cosmology, the internal relation between good and evil, the view of evil as privative rather than positive (the absence of order rather than anything existing in its own right) all suggest to me at least nascent philosophical thought. There are philosophical problems in the account Verharen outlines but they need not be probed now.

I have not dwelt on **ancient, presocratic Indian philosophy since it has been dealt with in the preceding answer. I have also not mentioned Chinese philosophy since the question did not ask about this.



E. Hussey, The Presocratics (Bristol Classical Paperbacks), ISBN 10: 1853994855 / ISBN 13: 9781853994852 Published by Bristol Classical Press, 2013.

Charles C. Verharen, 'Philosophy Against Empire: An Ancient Egyptian Renaissance', Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 36, No. 6 (Jul., 2006), pp. 958-973.

J. Assman, (1998). Moses the Egyptian: The memory of Egypt in western monotheism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

E. Hornung, E. (1982). The valley of the kings: Horizon of eternity (D. Warburton, Trans.) New York: Timken. (Original work published 1971.)


First, Define Philosophy

I would argue, contra some of the answers above, that what we call philosophy is, perhaps arbitrarily, a specific historical tradition usually traced to Thales and the Pythagoreans, who probably originated the word. It requires, at a minimum, writing and geometry or some elements of axiomized math.

It isn't simply that we cannot access some earlier or worldwide "oral philosophy," it is that philosophy as we understand it could not really function in an oral culture, where an enormous amount of brain power must be devoted to remembering things via songs, rhymes, stories, sayings. There is no "Homeric Philosophy," except in some metaphorical sense.

While obviously philosophy shares much in common with religion, myth, poetry, law, technics, drama, star gazing, and general inquiry, I wouldn't say this is really sufficient. It requires a sustained, recursive reflection on topics, some record of arguments to revisit, some powers of abstraction, and some rules of valid argumentation. And it requires debate that is not simply about collective actions. It requires some sort of Agora or "marketplace of ideas," not devoted to political rhetoric or command.

There is no reason to suppose such a recorded lineage of dialectic would simply arise in any human culture. Mythical explanations appear universal, but this makes philosophy all the more anomalous. To really get going, philosophy must actively overturn myth, anthropomorphic explanations, and the authority of tradition, as Protagoras and others did, often at risk to their lives.

Now, one could quibble with any of the attributes I've tossed out here, and I'm sure one could demonstrate the existence of philosophical traditions in some other cultures. But there is a danger to stretching the definition simply for the sake of multiculturalism. That danger is apparent to anyone who has been to really bad "philosophy" discussions where every statement begins "Well, you may think that, but I think..."

  • Does that mean you don't think it's meaningful to talk about Indian philosophy since it doesn't derive from Thales and the Pythagoreans? Even though a lot of it was rationalistic and not based on presupposing the truth of any religious traditions/revelations? – Hypnosifl Aug 9 '20 at 21:52
  • Not at all, I just don't know much about it. I didn't mean to suggest that all philosophy derives from those sources, and I have read that Indian sources and mathematics probably influenced the pre-Socratics. There are lots of gray areas and "family resemblances" but I think the Greek tradition is somewhat unique and has a recorded lineage from phonetic alphabet and logos to logic. I mainly want to avoid calling any and all human speculations "philosophy" in the same sense. – Nelson Alexander Aug 9 '20 at 22:10

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