On the so called axis age, the Euro-Asian cultures are said to have incorporated, as I understand it, to a larger extent than before ideas on thinking about thinking, i.e. philosophy. To me, the development of philosophy within the Greek societies seems to be deeper than in the other river cultures. I am thinking about single philosophers such as Aristotle, but also about the multitude of philosophical schools.

One issue is that we (Europeans) perhaps know more about the Babylonian culture which is more closely related to the Greek than the Indian. I wonder therefore if it just follows from ethnocentricity that we (Europeans) simply know more about Europe’s history than about that of ancient China and India.


3 Answers 3


I think you mean 'axial age'.

It could be argued the the Greeks after Socrates dumbed down philosophy. They dropped the notion of Unity that preoccupied earlier thinkers and it has never returned to to the philosophy of the Academy. Heidegger blames the early Greeks for this loss.

Thus we see a much greater profundity even in the Indian Vedas than in Greek scholasticism. As for the 'river people', Lao Tsu is often thought to have been part of the shamanistic tradition of the river-people of his neck-of-of the woods, and most of these Greeks seem shallow by comparison.

The later early Greeks systematised and tidied up much of philosophy, turning it into an extended academic discipline but it is debatable whether their effect was entirely benign. Had it been benign their legacy would have flowered into a comprehension of philosophy. Instead it generated little but footnotes.

I feel Heidegger nails it. Without the notion of Unity Greek philosophy and its continuation in the modern Academy was doomed to remain shallow and confused. So I would question your idea that later Greek philosophy is deeper than that of earlier forms and might even want to argue that usually it is shallower.

You must be right to say that in our culture we know more about the Greeks than the Chinese and Indians. These latter philosophical cultures never lost the idea of Unity so seem 'mystical' to us, while the Greeks seem safe and present no threat to whatever philosophical view we happen to find most attractive. The price is only that we are stuck forever with an incomprehensible philosophy and have no way to make progress.

  • Of course to some extent this is all speculation. No one of us is standing somewhere where broad generalizations about this or that culture are meaningful. The major difference between Eastern and Western thought is that the East seems to all hold to 'life is an illusion' theme, there is something beyond the 'veil' that is more real.The Western tradition tends to deal with human experience as entailing some form of reality. So, take your pick. Both traditions express wonderfully inciteful thoughts on the experience of life and there is deep wisdom evident in both traditions.
    – user37981
    May 4, 2020 at 15:15
  • @CharlesMSaunders - I'm not sure you right to say this. It all seems fairly factual to me and capable of verification, I might also differ in not assigning much wisdom to a philosophy that is not fundamental. All philosophies see human experience as involving some form of reality but I'd agree about the basic distinction between approaches.
    – user20253
    May 5, 2020 at 11:43
  • @hide_in_plain_sight - Confucians will vary since for them metaphysics is not a core curriculum topic, but a Zoroastrians will be on board with life as an illusion of sorts. It is because of these variations and differences that I avoid the term 'Eastern' to describe a philosophical approach. The crucial division is between dualism and non-dualism. . . . .
    – user20253
    May 5, 2020 at 11:44
  • @PeterJ I am done taking part in conversations with you. I will delete my comment. May 5, 2020 at 15:21
  • @hide_in_plain_sight - Okay. Are you going to leave me to speculate as to to the reason?
    – user20253
    May 5, 2020 at 15:23

It seems clear that the Greeks were reframing ideas that often came from farther East. You can see the ideas that feed Brahmanism in Parmenides, those that feed Vedanta in Pyrrho. And the copies pale in both strength and nuance compared to the forms they took on their native soil. But Socrates had such a range of competitors because Greece had just fought folks who had previously conquered much of India. And they came back with both gold and ideas -- not particularly well-integrated ones. A lot of what Plato explicitly attributes to Egypt in the Timaeus never came near it, and instead came out of Iran.

But is it ethnocentric to trace the roots of Western philosophy to the point those ideas competed with each other in the West? Was it the ideas, or the clash that mattered? And is it ethnocentric to study the culture whose actual literary tradition you have received? Because it is the misshapen forms that came through Greece that ended up dominant in Iran once they had a more Western form of monotheism, compatible with Aristotle, rather than the forms they could have gotten from their ancestors or their near neighbors. And it is those forms that we re-ingested and based our cultural legacy upon.

So, why do the Greeks really have to have done better, in order for us to choose them to focus on them?

Sure, the arguments of the Vedic scholars or many Buddhists are deeper than those that Christianity, in its intellectual militancy, allowed for. But it is arguments that arose within Christian monotheism (inflected by a very similar Muslim form) that led to modern technology. So, is it ethnocentric for modern, technological cultures to stick with the route from Plato through Aquinas to Newton? Or is it just efficient?

Why has the West recently decided to consider it blameworthy just to have had a culture, and to know the contents of that culture?

  • What you say is true enough, but the self-immolation your questions imply is quite misplaced. To question the primacy of one's own cultural heritage, as we are doing here, is not to derogate it. I am proud that my own nation invented modern Parliamentary democracy, I am less proud that it also invented the concentration camp. But the death of so many South Africans in the Second Boer War does not detract from the political franchising of the masses. So too the limitations of Greek philosophy do not detract from my esteem for Socrates, Plato and Archimedes. May 6, 2020 at 19:05
  • (Sorry to put your comment out of context. I considered what I wrote too whiny.) May 6, 2020 at 21:15

Certainly, from Renaissance times until the mid twentieth century Western philosophy developed in an atmosphere of Classical hero-worship as its forefathers. As with the arts and science, this originated in the Renaissance/Enlightenment humanist reaction to the developing absurdities of Christian dogma and entrenched tradition, a reaction typified by a belief in the Classical period as a "golden age" to which one aspired to return (itself ironically inspired by the Church's return to Rome and the rediscovery of buried antiquities). But it had the effect of cementing a chauvinist view in which other cultures were treated as primitive and ignored.

The problem of primacy is compounded by the vast scale of historic destruction; the Greek Alexandrian Library and Plato's Academy, the Buddhist university and library of Nalanda, the Confucian purge of Taoist literature, the effective extinguishing of Zoroastrianism, to name but a few. So much that we can never know of has been wholly lost, what survives today is but a fragment of the total reality.

In the West, much Greek work was lost during the Dark Ages; much left to moulder, unique and priceless survivors scraped clean and overwritten. The bulk of it was only recovered with the reconquest of Spain, where the Moors had had more respect for booklearning. But the West soon forgot its debt to those Islamic stewards in its determination to set itself up, first as a Christian culture and later as a self-bootstrapping European one. As Eastern ideas filtered through they were treated either as primitive or as derivative of Greek originals; had not Alexander the Great conquered Central Asia and even northern India? They were more appreciated by artists than philosophers.

In the first part of the twentieth century the strictly atheistic and materialistic positivist ethos took hold in the West, inspired by both formal logic and the rise of Communism, and continued the chauvinistic stance.

But since the failure of that agenda and the rise of quantum weirdness from the 1960s, the Western tradition has slowly been widening its horizons and rediscovering what has lain alongside it in plain view, constantly reintroduced by traders for those who had eyes to see, for thousands of years. Lao Tzu, the Buddha, Brahminism and so on are now understood as antecedents to certain Greek schools, not their pale shadows. (Meanwhile, archaeology is revealing that Alexander's legacy did push art the other way, bringing Greek artistic influence, even artisans, to the East).

Ultimately, who in the past were the deeper thinkers? Too much has been destroyed for the truth to be known. The Western habit of drawing conclusions solely from surviving direct evidence has misled us, just as pure observational behaviourism cannot reveal the nature of thought. Every civilization had, and still has, its deep thinkers, just some had disciples and some did not, some never wrote it down and others have been lost. Greek dominance is a myth, born of a desire to escape chauvinistic dogma but sadly becoming one of its own.

  • Impressive and carefully measured responses. These two answers above are what it seems to me, SEP should be all about. A broad acceptance of the merit of all philosophical systems and an inclusive approach to attempting to study and interpret them. Thanks to Guy and Hide...
    – user37981
    May 6, 2020 at 13:41

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