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The Geography of Philosophy

by Joel Marks

The typical philosophy curriculum in my country completely ignores non-Western traditions of thought. Apparently the latter are viewed as primarily religious in nature and so not properly philosophical, when in fact the very distinction has little significance in those other traditions. Or perhaps they are simply not considered at all; after all, if the teachers themselves were never exposed to such material in graduate school, they are not likely to incorporate it into the syllabi they devise for their students.

I am fortunate to have had a graduate advisor, Joel Kupperman, who was very much ‘into’ Asian philosophy, and so I came to know a thing or two about it. Ever since, I have made it my business to acquaint my charges, who are mainly at the introductory level, with a true introduction to philosophy – by not ignoring two thirds of the world’s great traditions! For just as “The safest general characterisation of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato” (Alfred North Whitehead in Process and Reality) and so traces back to ancient Greece, there are two other towering traditions that trace back to ancient India and China.

This is the geography of philosophy, if you will. I do not doubt that there have also been native traditions worthy of note in Africa, the Americas, and Australia, but the scope of my own competence is ‘only’ the Eurasian continent (and there too it is perforce spotty, given the enormous extant literatures). It is also a tragic fact of history that those other traditions were suppressed and perhaps decimated by colonialism.

In an attempt to restore some balance to the very conception of philosophy, therefore, I will summarize Western philosophy in twenty-five words or less (as it were), and then provide a longer, but still whirlwind tour of Asian thought. I will also present a number of nonphilosophical factoids to keep the narrative moving along pleasantly. The reader is advised, however, to take everything I say with a grain of salt: This is the World According to Marks. My main intent is to motivate you to explore the philosophy (and history) on your own; it turns out to be quite accessible. Finally I will end on a meet note, in an effort to have the ‘twain’ of East and West meet.

East and West have always ‘met,’ of course: They are on the same continent, are they not? The very terms are relative. I ask my students (in America): Which direction would you travel to reach the Orient? The correct answer is to stretch out your arms to the sides and point in opposite directions. So why did Asia get pinned with ‘East’ and Europe ‘West’? (Let us ignore that most of Europe resides in the Eastern Hemisphere!) I presume it had to do with the prevailing trade routes: To get from Europe to Asia, Marco Polo had to go east, and to return home, west. This is also why Asia is the Orient, as oriri is a Latin word meaning ‘to rise’ (old Sol, etc.). (My students are surprised to learn that most of them are Occidentals [from occidere, ‘to set’].)

The same was true of travel by sea: Vasco da Gama went south around the Cape of Good Hope, but was heading eastward to India. Of course Columbus had another idea: Why not go west to reach the East? He was wrong: Oh yes, the Earth is round – never any doubt about that – but it is ever so much larger (or Eurasia ever so much smaller?) than he suspected. To his dying day, Columbus insisted that he had reached India. That is why American cowboys and cavalry were fighting Indians all those years. (We Americans refer to citizens of India as ‘India Indians.’) Columbus had accidentally ‘discovered’ the Occident.

Now for the history of Western philosophy: Ancient, Middle, Modern. Let me amplify! The Ancient period lasted roughly a millennium, from around 500 B.C. to 500 A.D.; Greece and the Mediterranean were the venue. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle constituted its most impressive dynasty, perhaps in all of philosophy, but those who came before and after were hardly mere ‘preSocratics’ and Platonic ‘footnotes’! Parmenides, from the pre period, is a particular favorite of mine.

The next millennium is often skipped entirely in introductory philosophy courses, as, again, indecently consorting with religion. Indeed, it used to be called for this reason the ‘Dark Ages.’ Probably that was just a lot of (so-called) Renaissance propaganda, trying to stake out its own novelty and superiority to what had transpired just previously. In fact you will find every kind of philosophy during this period, and outstanding thinkers, such as Augustine and Aquinas. Nowadays the era is designated the ‘Middle Ages’ – a more honorific, if not exactly brilliant appellation – based on its having existed between now and before!

Finally, we come to the Modern period. It may seem odd to call something five hundred years old ‘modern,’ but everything is relative; and there is something to be said for the idea that our way of looking at things today is largely due to preconceptions first conceived by folks such as Hobbes, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau and Kant (not to mention Hegel, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, etc. ad infinitum). Some people think we have now stepped into a new epoch: the Postmodern. I myself think it’s too soon to tell whether the most recent period of philosophy will have lasted only half the millennium of each of the two preceding.

Running parallel to this Western philosophical tradition has been the Western, or Abrahamic (Moses, Jesus and Mohammed) religious tradition. What’s the difference? In keeping with my thumbnail sketch, I will simplistically pronounce that philosophy and religion deal with the same questions – Where did everything come from? What is the nature of reality? How shall one live? – but approach them differently: Each religion provides an answer that must be believed, on pain of being deemed irreligious, while each philosophy provides an answer that must be questioned, on pain of being deemed unphilosophical.

So much for the preliminaries. The discussion of Asian philosophies will be taken up in earnest in a future column.


Joel Marks is Professor and Chair of Philosophy at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut.


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