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Lesson Explainer: Origins of Philosophy Philosophy

In this explainer, we will learn how to describe the origins of philosophy in ancient Greece.

People have been discussing philosophical questions since the birth of civilization.

We have records of ideas about philosophical matters, such as how the world came to be and what good and bad are, that go back to before 3000 BC in ancient Egypt, Babylonia, and Assyria and later in Persia.

In the first civilizations, philosophical and religious answers to these timeless questions were not separated.

Figure 1: Thot, the god of wisdom in ancient Egypt.

Philosophy as we know it today developed in ancient Greece, starting in the 6th century BC. Meanwhile, other philosophical traditions sprung up in China and India.

Philosophers sought answers to the big questions of life and the world. What distinguishes philosophical answers to these questions is the condition that the answers are based in reason. That is, the strength of a philosophical explanation comes down to the strength of the reasons that could be found to support it.

Example 1: Distinguishing Features of Philosophy

Which key feature distinguishes philosophy from other efforts to understand the world?

  1. Attention to detail
  2. Experimental methods
  3. Interpreting scripture
  4. Rationality
  5. Creation myths

Answer

Philosophy’s key distinguishing feature is its rationality. Philosophy involves finding reasons to support beliefs and believing what is supported by reasons.

Philosophy often involves attention to detail, but it is not a key feature of philosophy.

Experimental methods are a key feature of science. Although philosophy and science often work together, they are distinct ways of understanding the world, and philosophy does not usually employ experimental methods.

The interpretation of scripture is a key feature of theology and religious studies. Philosophy of religion has overlap with these disciplines; however, they are distinct, and interpreting scripture is not a general feature of philosophy.

Creation myths have been used by many people to explain the features of the world; however, they are rarely used by philosophers in their efforts to explain the world.

The correct answer is D.

At its origin, ancient Greek philosophy was primarily theoretical. The earliest philosophers looked for rational explanations of the natural world.

For example, they tried to answer the question of what the fundamental makeup of the world is.

The first of these philosophers was Thales, who argued that everything was ultimately made of water. Thales made himself rich by dominating the olive oil market. He predicted a very good harvest for olives and bought up all the olive presses.

He did not make himself rich for the sake of being rich—he did it to demonstrate the practical benefit of philosophy and the study of the natural world.

Example 2: The First Philosopher

Who was the first philosopher?

  1. Pythagoras
  2. Plato
  3. Socrates
  4. Aristotle
  5. Thales

Answer

All of the philosophers listed are early philosophers who were active between the sixth and fourth century BC.

Thales was the first philosopher. We know when he lived because he predicted a solar eclipse that can be dated by astronomers. The eclipse occurred on May 28 of the year 585 BC.

The correct answer is E.

Ancient Greek philosophy reached its peak during the lives of Socrates, his student Plato, and Plato’s student, Aristotle. This time is known as the classical period.

It was a time in which there was extraordinary development in sculpture and drama as well as philosophy. It is considered the origin of Western philosophy and Islamic philosophy.

Shows five of the most important philosophers in ancient Greece; 1 Socrates, 2 Plato, 3 Pythagoras, 4 Aristotle, and 5 Zeno
Figure 2: Shows five of the most important philosophers in ancient Greece; 1 Socrates, 2 Plato, 3 Pythagoras, 4 Aristotle, and 5 Zeno

Example 3: The Origin of Western Philosophy

Where did Western philosophy originate from?

  1. Elizabethan England
  2. Ancient Greece
  3. Ancient Egypt
  4. Revolutionary France
  5. Cold War Russia

Answer

People everywhere and throughout time have tried to explain the world and answer the question of how to live.

Philosophy is a specific approach to these problems that attempts to address them through reason and argument to support its claims.

This specific approach originated in ancient Greece. Therefore, the correct answer is B.

The topics discussed by the philosophers of the classical period include almost all of the fundamental questions still investigated by the sciences, such as how the universe originated, what the universe is made of, and how life began.

They also asked some theoretical questions that scientists do not ask, such as, what is the purpose of the universe? This is a question that has a place in natural philosophy but not in science, which is only concerned with causes and does not discuss the purpose of things.

Night sky
Figure 3: The night sky, including the Milky Way galaxy. People have been trying to understand and explain the universe since the beginning of recorded history.

Example 4: Ancient Greek Philosophy and Modern Science

Which of the following is a question that was investigated by ancient Greek philosophers but is no longer investigated by modern scientists?

  1. What is the purpose of the universe?
  2. What is the universe made of?
  3. How did the universe originate?
  4. How did life begin?
  5. Is death avoidable?

Answer

Most of the fundamental questions that ancient Greek philosophers asked about the universe are still investigated by modern scientists.

Conversely, most of the fundamental questions that are investigated by modern scientists were already posed by ancient Greek philosophers.

These questions include, what is the universe made of, how did the universe originate, how did life begin, and is death avoidable?

One question that ancient Greek philosophers asked about the universe that is not investigated by modern scientists is, what is the purpose of the universe?

Modern scientists do not ask questions about the purposes of things. Modern science investigates the causes of things but is not equipped to investigate their purposes.

Furthermore, many scientists do not believe that it makes sense to attribute purpose to things or to the universe in general.

The correct answer is A.

In addition to discussing these theoretical questions of natural philosophy, philosophers of the classical period also discussed practical questions affecting the lives of individuals and the development of society.

These questions included, what is the meaning and purpose of life, what is society and how can it be improved, and what makes a person good or bad? All of these are questions that philosophers continue to concern themselves with today.

Example 5: The Interests of Ancient Greek Philosophers

Which of the following was among the areas investigated by the ancient Greek philosophers?

  1. The explanation of natural processes
  2. The purpose of life
  3. The meaning of life
  4. The improvement of society
  5. All of the answers are correct.

Answer

Many of the areas of investigation with which we are still concerned today were already investigated millennia ago by ancient Greek philosophers.

These include the explanation of natural processes, which is now investigated by the natural sciences; the purpose and the meaning of life, both of which are still discussed by philosophers today; and the improvement of society, which is now investigated by philosophers and sociologists.

Since all of the areas of investigation listed here were investigated by ancient Greek philosophers, the correct answer is E.

Let’s summarize some of the key points we have covered in this explainer.

Key Points

  • People have been discussing philosophical questions since the birth of civilization.
  • There is philosophical writing that goes back to before 3000 BC in ancient Egypt, Babylonia, and Assyria and later in Persia.
  • Philosophy as we know it today developed in ancient Greece in the 6th century BC.
  • Thales was the first philosopher.
  • Ancient Greek philosophy reached its peak in the classical period because of philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.
  • Philosophers of the classical period discussed almost all of the fundamental questions still investigated by the sciences, such as how the universe originated, what the universe is made of, and how life began.
  • Philosophers of the classical period also discussed practical questions affecting the lives of individuals and the development of society.

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