A BRIEF HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY

I have always been fascinated with the concept of ‘Philosophy’ and how important it has been in the advancements of human civilization. Philosophy is nothing but the evolution of our understanding of the world, our thought process and trying to make sense of our existence and purpose in the world. I also believe India lagged behind the western world purely because we weren’t willing to let go of our established conventions or encourage any sort of free thinking. We reached a point of saturation long back and started believing our code of life doesn’t need a scope for improvement anymore.

Here, I will be writing more about the history of philosophy and its evolution and I will try to make some sense why India lagged behind.

Let’s trace back the history of philosophy and how it has changed over the years:

If we go back to 3000B.C, people of most civilizations believed themselves to be at the clemency of natural forces and therefore prayed to nature-based deities (sun god, the wind god, the thunder god, etc.).Their understanding of the world was very limited and they lived in strong, patriarchal societies where a code of conduct was established and any sort of deviant thought wasn’t encouraged much. Around 2500 BC, Hinduism emerged in India. Around 2000 BC, the Abrahamic religion of Judaism emerged in the Middle East which replaced the concept of belief in pantheistic gods.

But sometime around 500 BC several novel ideas emerged around the globe simultaneously which had a profound impact on human civilizations.

  • Taoism emerged in China along with Confucianism. Taoism rejected the idea of rigid societal norms. Instead, it advocated for a life of freedom, where humans are given emphasis to lead a life with minimum expectations, accept things as they happen and doing things which brings you inner peace. Confucianism, on the other hand, focused on societal norms a human should abide by
  • Hindu scriptures like Upanishads believed the humans and the entire world as one single entity. They also believed in concepts of soul and the soul is eternal and the root cause of suffering is ignorance. Buddha believed the root cause of suffering is an attachment and doing things with expectations leads to pain eventually. He also rejected the authority of the Vedas and Upanishads. Buddha also rejected the idea of seeking out explanations on the existence of God, seeing it as a pointless and foolish journey. Buddhism thus became the first major non-theistic religion in the world. Buddhism did, however, retain belief in concepts like rebirth and enlightenment from Hinduism
  • Most of the Pre-Socratic scholars rejected the idea of supernatural forces and tried to understand the world through logic. Most of them had a very materialistic view of the world though. For example, Thales of Miletus believed that the entire world is made of water.Though his conclusion was wrong, his explanation is one of the first documented examples of applying logic over supernatural explanations. Since, all forms of life need water, water being ubiquitous; he reasoned that the entire world is made of water. Another important attribute of Pre-Socratic scholars is that they tried to make an understanding of the world through observations.
  • Now let us discuss Socrates, who is considered to be the father of western philosophy. Socrates was declared to be the wisest person in a prophecy given by the ‘Oracle of Delphi’. Socrates took this news with great confusion and disbelief, he knew the oracle could not lie, and yet he was way too conscious that he had no particular wisdom or specialized knowledge. In order to test the oracle, or to prove it wrong, Socrates sought out and questioned Athenian men who had a reputation for wisdom. He found that though they thought they were very wise, they did not, in fact, know much of anything at all. Socrates concluded that their genius came not from wisdom but from some sort of instinct or inspiration which was in no way connected to their intellect. Socrates found men who truly did have great wisdom in their craft, but invariably, they seemed to think that their expertise in one field allowed them to speak authoritatively in many other fields, about which they knew nothing. Socrates affirmed that he would rather be as he is,  knowing that he knows nothing or limited understanding of things than to be pompous by a false sense of his own great wisdom. Thus, he concludes, he truly is wiser than other men because he does not think he knows what he does not know. He came to the conclusion that the Oracle was indeed right because he was aware of his own ignorance while the other noblemen weren’t.However, this annoyed the nobles and they sentenced him to death by poison. Plato, of course, was Socrates’ most famous student. Plato wrote a number of famous books on ethics and politics. Plato was extremely suspicious of democracy because he had seen how the rule of the people could result in the killing of wise men like his teacher. He believed that philosophers should rule the country. Aristotle was the student of Plato and he was famous for inventing the foundations of logic (a syllogism, the basic building block of logic, is composed of premises leading to a conclusion)
  • Other schools of thoughts to emerge in Greece at this time were Epicurean and Zeno. The Epicurean school believed that the point of life was to enjoy pleasure and enjoy pain alike. Zeno school of thought believed that you should not be bothered by things outside your control

THE DARK AGES
However, in 0 AD, Christianity was born. Initially ostracized by nobles, it grew in size until Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and made it the state religion of the entire Roman Empire. Secular philosophy was completely wiped out, and for the next thousand years, people although did use the idea of logic by Aristotle; however it was to use logic to try to prove the existence of God and rationalize outrageous ideas.

Islam sprung into existence in the modern Arab world with the birth of Mohammad in 570 AD and it too went into an outdated medieval period, although they were ahead than west in certain aspects like Math and Astronomy.

In India too, this period saw a decline in Buddhism (though it managed to gain acceptance in other parts of the world) and Brahmanism reigned supreme along with its rigid rules regarding rituals and caste, etc. Other secular schools of thoughts in Hinduism like Charvaka and Samkhya which rejected the idea of personal god died out completely.

And as expected, none of the civilizations progressed much until the 15th century, until when the printing press was invented and it brought out a radical revolution.
The Renaissance
The printing press helped in reaching ideas and thoughts to all classes of the growing literate population.These periods marked a transition of ideas from a discussion on God to more impact areas like science, politics, trade, and arts.

This period also coincided with the colonization of other countries by European powers of Spain, Portugal and Great Britain. America was discovered and so was the first direct sea route to India from Europe established by Vasco do Gama.

By this time, several ideas questioning the Church had sprung up in multiple parts of Europe.Copernicus came up with his theory that the Earth revolved around the Sun and not the other way around. Of course, he wasn’t the first one to propose this idea(It had already been proposed by Hindu and Greeks scholars much earlier) but the difference was that Copernicus was in direct disagreement with the Church’s ‘Earth is stationary’ model. Martin Luther went much, much further. He rejected the corruption of the Catholic Church.Luther believed that every person could form his own personal relationship with God and this allowed for more independent thinking. This new idea of Christianity (Protestants) began to gain more followers. Galileo got into conflict with the Church (being a devout Christian himself) as he publicly stated that Earth revolved around the Sun and not the other way around. Galileo was imprisoned for life but he refused to retract his beliefs and it is said he muttered ‘Still it moves’ throughout his jail time.

Descartes was an important figure in inculcating the idea of modern rationalism. His question ‘What I can be certain of?’ had a profound impact on the intellectuals of those times and quite possibly even the present .He concluded that he couldn’t be certain whether he was awake or dreaming and he couldn’t be certain that anything he was seeing or experiencing was real or an illusion. But what he could be certain of was that he questioning what he was experiencing. And if he is doubting, he must be an entity that actually exists that could doubt. His famous phrase “I think, therefore I am” is a statement which captures this idea. Science slowly started gaining credibility at the cost of religion and by 18th century intellectuals like Voltaire were openly calling out the false ideas of church. Industrial revolution happened soon followed by the fall of fascist rule in Europe.

David Hume questioned the idea of Aristotle’s syllogism which had by now prevailed for centuries. He believed that deductive reasoning could only work in theoretical areas like mathematics but in the real world only inductive reasoning would work. He dismissed the idea of absolute certainties as a concept in the real word. That is instead of saying ‘Event B will happen because an Event A happened,’ in the real world we would have to say ‘if Event A happened then probably Event B will happen’. He also questioned the idea of ‘Ethics’ in modern world. Where do our ethics and morals come from? How do we justify their presence in the absence of an entity like God or religious scriptures?

By this time the concept of ‘Utilitarianism’ surfaced which states that ethical actions are those that create the maximum happiness for society. However there were some implications of this belief which were troubling and this was questioned by Stuart Mill. If the majority gets a great deal of happiness from torturing a small number of people – they should do it because this would increase the overall happiness of society. Mill believed and rightly so that there were some fundamental human rights of the individual that could not be violated no matter how large a majority wanted it.

The idea of individual freedom and responsibility influenced Adam Smith who proposed the idea of capitalism. He believed that men acting without any influence by the state, would create mutually beneficial deals that would benefit the entire society overall. Another philosopher Hegel felt that the every movement in history contained a thesis and an anti-thesis that resolved themselves to move to a new level. For example(of course, he didn’t state this), the rise of capitalism also contains the seeds of its own downfall which is ‘income inequalities’. The counter-revolutions to capitalism (Communism) itself had its own antithesis that is ‘economic failure because of poor incentives to work’ and so on.

Another philosopher (Existential) Nietzsche was one of the first outspoken atheistic philosopher from Germany. He famously coined the term ‘God is Dead ‘but felt that people who believed this were not taking this event to its logical conclusion. If God was dead, so was morality, but we still behaved in ways consistent with the old religious dogmas. He called this ‘slave morality ‘and believed humans were blackmailed or shaped into believing a new sort of morality called ‘Forgiveness and sympathy’. He believed these values preached negative emotions of sacrifice and limited creativity rather than living life to the fullest extent possible. This idea of Nietzsche though made with best intentions for a better society formed a core idea of the school of capitalism and was sadly the idea that influenced Nazi Germany in their war against Jews.

Heidegger,  another philosopher noticed that people are most of the times immersed in some sort of unthinking activity(without consciousness) but sometimes they experience events (like a loved one dying, or sufferings of war etc) that force them out of their unthinking existence. If they can re-focus their ideas onto such meaningful and life-changing events, where can they actually value things for what they are and deserve,  then they start leading conscious lives.

Herbert Marcuse’s questioned the assumption that society is well designed. However, he pointed out that it is particularly hard to see the biases in our perceptions because we have been conditioned with societal norms from a young age that they become habits ingrained in us rather than just a tool for a living that can be changed. Therefore he propagated the idea of looking everything in a different way than it is made out to be. That is, in order to make moral or ethical choices, we have to be intelligent and not let any societal norms to be a basis for our choice. This was one of the first attempts at defining ethics in terms of intelligence and not two separate entities.  This is well validated by the fact that even perfectly normal people could do cruel things in the Nazi era because they didn’t question them intelligently and rather let a false sense of nationalism and a sense of Utilitarian view take over their minds.

John Rawls proposed the ‘Theory of Justice’ in an attempt to solve the problem of distribution of goods and welfare in a society. He proposed the thought experiment where people could decide on the laws of the society they were about to be born into from behind a veil of ignorance – they would not know their race, gender, nationality, socio-economic status, physical health, etc. In such a scenario they would not choose any laws that might be grossly unfair to any member of society because they themselves could be born in that category. Though theoretical, it was definitely a noble way of ensuring a fair system.

Wittgenstein a linguist and philosopher said that every statement in language represented something about the real world and if we could not figure out what the sentence was actually pointing at in the real world it was a meaningless statement. So for example ‘The baby cried’ is a legitimate statement, all the words point to something in the real world. However the statement ‘Does our soul goes to heaven after death?’ is nonsense because the words ‘Soul’, ‘heaven’, ‘after death’ has nothing to do with the real world and it was a waste of time to talk about these things. This idea helped in splitting many pseudo world problems from the real world problems, science from pseudoscience etc.

Conclusion

The Renaissance, the questioning of conventions and a better approach to free thinking is what contributed to the rise of Europe and the western world as a superpower. They lead to the dismantling of monarchies, led to individuality and self-expression, a better understanding of ethics and morals etc. Countries like India and Arab world, though advanced in those times chose not to think beyond and got stuck in the cycle of rituals and beliefs in books that were given a sacrosanct status. As a country, India is stuck too much on its praise of its past glory, and an unwillingness to acknowledge that other countries have leaped ahead of us is what keeps us down even now. What we need right now is a strong willingness to adapt and acceptance of realities to take us ahead, else I’m quite afraid we can never reach our full potential.

Sources for this blog :

1.

http://www.philosophybasics.com/

general_quick_history.html

2. Wikipedia

3.

http://www.iep.utm.edu/history/

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