Philosophy East and West: Pt.1 -Introduction

Introduction – The Four Noble Truths of Philosophy.

A lot is said about the differences between Eastern and Western philosophy. A great many people are of the opinion that if we gave equal time to Eastern thought in our education, it would revolutionize our science and/or culture. Of course, such a statement is hard to confirm or deny without waiting for time to pass, but I find that most people who make this claim have no special expertise in any sort of philosophy at all. There is a commonly expressed idealistic preconception of Eastern thought that sees it as being the next level up from Western ideas, such that it seems like foolishness to us Westerners, much like the way that philosophy or science seems like foolishness to the layman. In many cases, this is true, for example Descartes’ famous cogito is quite vulnerable to many Eastern criticisms. However, Descartes is not the last word from the West. Although Buddhism may have been the best challenge to Descartes in his time, there are now better approaches, although Buddhism is still worth a place in the conversation even today.

My approach is heavily influenced by both Eastern and Western thought, and I am not completely sure that I would have reached my current views without heavy exposure to Eastern theory and practice. However, I do think that Eastern thought is for sure not so very far ahead of Western. I do not want to bother with claiming one or the other is better in any unqualified sense, or that one of the two is optional for further progress on our most important questions.

I think that what they share is more fundamental than how they differ. In my view they all share the following four features:

  1. That there are “Many Things“, that we find in this world.
    1. Objects
    2. People
    3. Organisms
    4. Facts
    5. Data
    6. Occurrences
  2. The Many Things are Problematic in some way.
    1. They do not quite make sense.
    2. They are hard to predict.
    3. They suffer or cause suffering.
  3. There is a “One Special Thing
    1. behind,
    2. under or
    3. above all the Many Things.
    4. This One Thing is somehow intrinsically related to all the Many Things, much like God or Natural Law.
  4. The One Special Thing from step three might be the Solution to the Problem of step two.

As I was writing, the above, I noticed how similar the four points were to the Buddha’s “Four Noble Truths”. However, the steps could be filled out with values from numerous schools of thought from all over the world. In the following, we will look at the starting points of the three major sources of philosophy that the world has had in the past.

The Plan of the Treatise.

We shall start with the tradition of China and proceed to Greece and India and see how each of them compare. We shall choose for our examples three ckassic books and under each we list the four headings that we gave above: Many Things, The Problem, The One Special Thing, and the resulting Solution to the Problem:

  1.  The Tao Teh Ching. of China.
    1. The Ten Thousand Things; Heaven and Earth
    2. Life out of Balance/Ignorance of the Way
    3. The Way (Tao)
    4. True Power (Teh)
  2. The Bhagavad Gita of India.
    1. The nature of Maya.
      1. Complete Illusions
      2. Relative Delusion
    2. The Root of Ignorance – Confusion about your self.
    3. The Immortal Atman. – Your True Self
    4. The Science of Raja Yoga – Connecting with the True Self
      1. Study – Jnana Yoga
      2. Worship – Bhakti Yoga
      3. Morality – Panca Sila
      4. Yogic observances
      5. Meditation – Dhyana Yoga
      6. Service – Karma Yoga
  3. The Metaphysics by Aristotle.
    1. What are there? – Nature, Good, Forms
    2. What problems are there?
      1. Cosmological Decay
      2. “Frustration” of Nature
      3. Moral Vice
      4. Ignorance
    3. The Arche and the Four Causes.
    4. The Solution:
      1. Skill
      2. Virtue
        1. Moral Virtue
        2. Intellectual Virtue

There could be many other choices for these: in each of these traditions, there is a great variety of schools of thought that radically disagree with each other. I do not want to efface the differences with or between Greece, India and China, but I think that what is shared among all of them is something that is very useful to know no matter which tradition you call home.

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4 thoughts on “Philosophy East and West: Pt.1 -Introduction”

  1. Note: Why I chose China, India and Greece

    I think that people all over the world and in all cultures are philosophical in pretty much the same way. Some people are moreso than others, but this varies within each race and culture, and I think that the potential for philosophy is universal. However, when I speak of “philosophy”, I am talking about an discourse or genre of literature that focuses on the outer limits of problem-solving in the way that is recognized as being the special province of philosophers rather than of prophets, poets, priests, sages, saints, artists, and scientists. While there are many people whose work has blurred the boundaries between these fields and philosophy, these outliers are outliers. They have reasons for blurring these boundaries, and many of their reasons are philosophical, but I will assume that philosophy still maintains its boundaries. As a result, it cannot be said to be a universally present activity in all cultures.

    Our choice for philosophy will have the following constraints:

    Only cultures that have extensive written literature and science will have philosophy
    Only a few of these cultures will have philosophy, which develops a few centuries later than the science. 
    Only a few of these cultures will create their philosophy from scratch, most will inherit their philosophy from the very few that create them separately. (Classical Islam, most of Europe, Africa and the New World.)
    The pre-Columbian civilizations of the Incas and Mesoamerica created their own science as well as wisdom literature which rivalled the Bible, but according to my working definition, they did not start “True” Philosophy until colonial times.  The civilizations of the Fertile Crescent and the Nile Valley also satisfied the first step, but did not create philosophy. However, their science was key to the development of Greek philosophy. Without this key influence, they would not have pulled it off. 

    So our “Original Sources of Philosophy” will be limited to the following:

    1) Greece, starting with Thales.

    2) India, starting with the Upanishads.

    3) China, starting with Confucius and Taoism.

    In my view, only these three represent truly original sources of three different and independent traditions of Philosophy. If we were to be any stricter with our definition of philosophy, then it would have to be limited to Greece, and any loooser would blur philosophy with religion, science or other fields which are usefully distinguished from philosophy proper for purposes of work like mine.

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  2. A reader in another forum asked me what my working definition of “science” is.

    According to this definition, “science” is anything more advanced that the Megalithic astronomy (such as what was behind Stonehenge and the prediction of the Metonic cycle) and less advanced than Classical Greek science.

    So on my view, Megalithic or other peoples all over the world, encoded their knowledge in the form of monuments that were used to track, measure and thus predict astronomical events. In many cases, the people in charge of such knowledge also had a hand in feats of engineering, management, accounting, et cetera. But in order to get “science” as I am using it here, they would need to write this knowledge down and share it with other similar people over a large area, creating an “proto-academia” such as we find in Mesoamerica, the Andes, the Fertile Crescent, Egypt, China, and India from the dawn of history.

    There are many other equally valid senses of “science” that are useful in other contexts. It is also correct to claim that the Greeks invented science, or Galileo, or Classical Islam or perhaps the Megalithic-esque cultures around the world.

    My definition of “science” in this work is only to refer to the level of discourse that precedes “philosophy” by a few centuries, which is in turn defined somewhat arbitrarily as the unique form of discourse and genre of literature created by the three cultures of India, China and the Greeks.

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