Why is ancient Asian philosophy so implicit and allegorical, compared to the ancient Greek philosophy, which seems more explicit and abstract?

If I had to guess, I would say that it's due to language differences; but that's uncertain. Certain languages or innate verbal creativity perhaps can allow one to reach conclusions in extreme generality that are fairly far/divorced from experience.

Have any philosophers contemplated on this problem? What are their explanations for this?

  • 4
    "Certain languages [...] can allow one to reach conclusions in extreme generality that is fairly far/divorced from expirience." That seems like a bit of a reach, to put it extremely mildly. Even substantially weaker versions of Sapir-Whorf are ... debatable. Jan 11, 2021 at 22:46
  • @NoahSchweber Maybe.That was just a blind suggestion. You seem so subtle. Perhaps you can answer my question in a way that is very different and much more interesting from what I am suggesting.
    – GEP
    Jan 11, 2021 at 23:14
  • Maybe the difference is that the greek had some focus on publicly spoken philosophy and teaching (like Sokrates not having written anything), as opposed to producing a written work (and studying scripture). In the latter case, also the customer who paid for whatever was written might expect a certain complexity. A listening audience will quickly lose patience. Other influencing factor might be state censorship of all written work.
    – tkruse
    Jan 12, 2021 at 0:25
  • 1
    Also you might wish to be more precise about which Asian philosophers you consider, there are prominent examples e.g. from India and from China, which may be regarded very different from each other.
    – tkruse
    Jan 12, 2021 at 0:36
  • Why is this tagged metaphysics?
    – Nat
    Jan 12, 2021 at 22:42

2 Answers 2


First, is your assumption based on the ancient Greek or a modern translation? The implication that it is 'explicit' to you has more to do with the translation of words and conceptual contexts involved to a native thinker. Second, the grouping of Asian philosophies together in opposition to Greek is not the grouping done by most scholars. An out of print book Philosophy East/Philosophy West: A Critical Comparison of Indian, Chinese, Islamic, and European Philosophy by Ben-Ami Scharfstein, Ilai Alon, Shlomo Biderman, Dan Daor, and Yoel Hoffmann addresses this. In the first chapter, Cultures, Contexts, and Comparisons by Ben-Ami Scharfstein goes into detail the difficulties involved. He writes:

The differences between languages are hard to conceptualize exactly, and it is harder to still to judge to what extent these differences are reflected in the very nature of thinking. What will be said here about reflection of language in thought will therefore be conjectural. But the subject itself is of pervasive importance, so that, conjectrual or not, an attempt will be made to summarize the differences in emphasis between Chinese and Indo-European philosophies, in so far as the differences may be assumed to result from those between the respective types of language. The differences in question can be divided into four groups: those that may result from the presence of absence of the word be, that is of a single word having both the basic senses that have been discussed; those that may result from the presence or absence of word-inflection, and those that may result from the presence or absence of time, number, and gender.

First the troublesome word be. In the Indo-European languages, the presence of the copula be and its tendency to be confused with the be of existence, lead to the creation of a substance-attribute distinction more easily than in Chinese (and, though to a lesser degree, in the Semitic languages). The absence of the be of existence in Chinese may make a more variegated attitude towards what we call, with global indiscrimination, 'be-ing' or 'existence'. Without particular guidance, a translator from Chinese may be quite rightly hesitate between, 'is equivalent to', 'amounts to', 'consists in', 'will endure', 'is fundamental', and the like. He may well feel a need to resolve the ambiguity of the encompassing European be. Absence of a full equivalent in Chinese makes ontological arguments difficult to put and implausible on their very faces. The importance of ontological arguments in various types of European philosophy makes their absence in Chinese philosophy a fundamental difference, though it must be conceded that some arguments became known in China when imported together with Buddhist polemics. The absence of ontological arguments can be taken to be an advantage. Speaking of a translation of Hegel into Chinese, A.C. Graham remarks sardonically, 'It is curious to watch Chinese translators struggling to reproduce Western fallacies in a language which, whatever its defects, does not permit one to make these particular mistakes.'...The absence of the Indo-European be in Chinese also makes it easier to regard the 'elements'--earth, meta, fire, water, wood--as specific powers rather than kinds of matter. In this relatively non-substantial view of the 'substances'. however, the Chinese were not very different from the pre-Socratic philosophers of Greece or from Indian philosophers.

the author also quotes A.C. Graham:

Indo-European singular and plural help to distinguish noun and verb from each other and from each other and from other parts of speech and to show the verb's dependence on the subject from which it takes number; such word forms illuminate the structure of a sentence and the different and interacting functions of its parts. The Chinese sentence, on the other hand, is a featureless series of unchanging words the interrelations of which defied analysis until recently; Chinese has had a lexicography from an early date, but unlike inflected languages such as Greek, Sanskrit, and Arabic, scarcely any study of grammar...The Chinese sentence can be indefinitely expanded and contracted, rendered as precise or vague as the speaker pleases.


Starting with the Proto-Indo-Europeans several thousand years ago, a culture of domination came into existence and eventually conquered the world. It fathered Greek and eventually Roman culture, but did not conquer most of Asia until the last century. Greek philosophers such as Socrates were a reaction against that culture, but still mainly within it, whereas the Asian philosophers were more independent.

So as to worsen the material we can draw on to answer this stackexchange question, this culture burnt the Celtic cities to the ground and killed their orators, killed their memory.

  • 4
    Citation from someone other than a gender studies professor?
    – RonJohn
    Jan 12, 2021 at 22:49
  • Just as importantly, the first empires were in the land we now call China. That and the patriarchy which spawned female foot binding, female infanticide and the abortion of female fetuses means you're absolutely not answering the question.
    – RonJohn
    Jan 12, 2021 at 22:55
  • wikipedia is confident that the PIE were millenia earlier than the chinese empires, and that foot binding is not older than 1 millenia. where do you get that information? Jan 13, 2021 at 18:25
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    "the Celts were less derived from PIE than the Greeks were". Says who?
    – RonJohn
    Jan 13, 2021 at 21:11
  • 1
    Your evidence is Wikipedia articles that don't say what you say they say, and a self-published Buddhist book I've never heard of. I assert that the "Chinese" and Celts were pretty violent, as attested in en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_China (you don't get all those shifting borders without a lot of fighting) and en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Celts#Society and en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Celts#Warfare_and_weapons.
    – RonJohn
    Jan 13, 2021 at 23:23

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