What History Says About The Origin Of Philosophy?


According to Oxford Dictionary, history is “the study of past events.” It is important that the citizens of a country have knowledge of the important past events that have taken place in the country. In the same vein every student of philosophy is expected not only to have knowledge of the history of philosophy but a first class knowledge of it, if he or she desires to become an outstanding philosopher. As a division of studies, the History of Philosophy tries to investigate the past of men in their rational venture. According to William Turner the History of Philosophy is “the exposition of philosophical opinions and of systems and schools of philosophy.” The History of Philosophy does not only deal with the positions, systems and schools of philosophy, but also gives considerations to the lives of philosophers, the common link of the systems and schools of thought, moreover, it also makes an effort to trace the route of philosophical progression and retrogression.

The general conception, even among professional philosophers, is that Greece is the cradle of philosophy. Therefore, almost all the available histories of philosophy, and philosophers themselves, agree that the so-called Pre-Socratics were the first or earliest philosophers, at least, in the Western world. Unlike the early thinkers of India and China, the Pre-Socratics did not think exegetically out of ancient scriptures or poems, but they spoke “as disrespectfully of the greatest poets they did to each other.” The most excellent reason for this popular conception is that first known philosophers in history lived among the Greeks. According to some authors in history of philosophy, the pre- Socratics were Greeks. Indeed, no one has ever succeeded in writing a complete history of philosophy; for philosophy like the works of arts, are intensely personal things. Our aim is to attempt a justification on why Greece may not necessarily be the cradle of philosophy.

Now, in dealing with ancient philosophy, we are wholly confined to written records, which are usually fragmentary and are often second handed unreliable and doubtful information. Apart from lack of first hand information, the greatest obstacle we have to surmount is the mass of scholastic explanations and dogmas, which favour the Greek origin of philosophy found in the available histories of philosophy. To clear that away is perhaps the greatest service that can be rendered to philosophy. However, all we intend to do is to point out the way, and warn others off tracks that have already been confirmed to lead nowhere.

The aim of this paper therefore is to trace the origin of philosophy. To achieve this aim, we shall proceed first by defining the term philosophy. Then, we shall give a consideration to the origin of civilization and science. After that, we shall highlight the positions of some philosophers who maintained that philosophy began with the Greeks and those who are of the view that that philosophy originated outside Greece.  From there, we shall proceed to evaluate our work and finally draw up a conclusion.


The word philosophy is generally believed to be of Greek origin (?), precisely a combination of the two Greek words that goes thus, ‘philo’ meaning love and ‘sophia’ meaning wisdom. Since it is almost generally accepted that the word philosophy is etymologically of Greek origin, then, it is easy for beginners in the study of philosophy to conclude that philosophy has its origin in Greece and it began with the Greeks. In the study of philosophy, the beginners of this study even before knowing what philosophy is all about, are already acquainted with the names of Greek philosophers like Thales, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. While some people maintained that Greece is the cradle of philosophy, others do not.

In the first place philosophy is not mythology. According to Pythagoras (0), whose scientific studies had an enormous influence on the development of philosophy, the word philosophy means the love of wisdom. To philosophize then is to pursue wisdom through a consistent effort of reflection, which in itself entails definite ethical requirements; for indeed no man can philosophize and indulge in such ways of life as are incompatible with philosophical thinking. By the word “philosophy”, we mean a critical science of being in general. This does not only involve the initial knowledge of existent, common to all men and beginning from infancy, but a mature and organic knowledge with a method surpassing those of the other sciences (Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry and Biology) in intensity and comprehension. Philosophy is not only limited to the quantity of beings as in mathematics, or to mass and movements of beings as in physics, or to life and nature as in Biological sciences; but a constant effort to acquire wisdom.

Let us try to look at some of the numerous attempts made to define Philosophy. Hence, we shall be looking at Philosophy in the loose sense and philosophy in the strict sense.


Here, philosophy can be said to be an individual’s belief or approach to the issues of life, hence, various people have their various life philosophies depending on the way individuals view things. This definition is very much in line with the etymological conception of the term.

The etymology of the term philosophy belongs to its conception in the loose sense. Most philosophers are of the opinion that the word philosophy is of Greek origin, that is, from the two Greek words that go thus: ‘philo’ which means love, and ‘sophia’ which means wisdom. From this we can infer that philosophy is the love of wisdom. According to its classical definition, “wisdom is the knowledge of the first principles and the first causes. It includes the knowledge of many other things as well. But in so far as one is using his wisdom, a philosopher knows all the rest, or at least, knowledge of things related to the first principles and the first causes. Thus every time one succeeds in substituting some principles and causes of knowledge for knowledge itself, one is already on his way to finding wisdom, at least in part. The earliest known philosophers are philosophers in this sense. Philosophy as love of wisdom is a reflective activity that searches for answers to the basic questions that arise in men’s hearts as they ponder on human experience or reality in general. Philosophy, therefore, as Aristotle conceived it, begins from wonder, for wonder is the feeling of the philosophers.  When, for instance, man looks at himself or the world in which he lives, he is filled with wonder and many questions arise in his mind. When he ponders on these questions in an attempt to find rational answers to them, he is said to be philosophizing.   To this extent, we can infer that philosophizing begins with and is inherent in our daily activities or experiences such as eating or drinking; birth or growth; and death or decay to mention but a few. An experience like drinking is sufficient enough to make us philosophize. For instance, one may ask the following questions in the course of drinking, what should I drink? What quantity of drink should I take? Irrational beings are incapable of asking such questions. Perhaps, such questions are asked because what we drink and the quantity of drink we take can affect the pleasure we derive from drinking. For instance, if one drinks to the point of getting intoxicated, the purpose of drinking (happiness) will be defeated. Philosophizing as seen in the case of drinking above is not only limited to drinking, it is also true of other realities.

From the above illustration we can infer that all human beings are philosophers in the loosed sense of the word and as a matter of fact, there is no age without philosophy even prior to the development of Greek thought, since philosophy began from wonder and man has always wondered about the things around him and human experience.


In the strict sense, philosophy does not have a generally accepted definition. There are as many definitions of the term as there are many philosophers. A novice who may ask the question, “What is philosophy?” for the first time would be struck with astonishment to discover that the definition of philosophy is not even agreed upon by those who are specialist in the discipline. For instance, if one is to pick ten different philosophers from ten different schools of philosophy and ask them what philosophy is, one is likely to have a record of ten different answers. The following definitions are the conceptions of what philosophy is by different philosophers:

Jacques Maritain conceives of philosophy as a wisdom which is characterized with knowing, this knowledge must be known with assurance. Still according to him, one must give reasons why one maintains that something is this and not otherwise. However, these reasons must command the assent of the intellect.

Meanwhile, Aristotle regards philosophy as the awareness of the truth Epicurus’ view about the term philosophy is that it is an occupation which guarantees happiness through the means of conversation and exchange of views.

Although philosophy does not have a universally accepted definition, it must however be “critical, rigorous, open to criticism and as a truth it must be tentative and acceptable only on the basis of clear evidential support.”Thus, for a philosopher to be critical means that his position must have a rational basis. A philosopher being rigorous means that his position must have being carefully and well thought out. No matter how wonderful a philosophical thought is, such a thought must only be held tentatively and only on the basis of clear evidential proof, that is, it must be held only for as long as there are no contrary evidences negating the position. This particular criterion shows that a philosopher’s position is always open to criticism. All the criteria listed above must necessarily be met before anything can pass as philosophical in the technical sense of the word.


A philosopher then is not necessarily someone who has been able to solve the entire problems and questions in the universe but one who is able to critically reflect on them with the aim of finding solutions to them. Thus a philosopher can do nothing else than to philosophize. In addition, he must be logically consistent, endowed with rational, critical, rigorous and analytical skills. And he must use argumentations and clarifications to offer insightful solutions to some fundamental question for the betterment of the society and a better understanding of the world.

Many people are fond of saying, from time to time, that they too are philosophers. Obviously we know that everyone is not a philosopher.  Homer and Hesiod, the earliest mythopoets are not even regarded as philosophers because their works are based on stories about the gods and their relation with humans. I hope I will not startle you, or sound impertinent, scandalous, and ridiculous or rebellious, if I say that even some professors of philosophy are not philosophers; for teaching philosophy and philosophizing is far from being the same thing.  Today, philosophy is not possible without a reflex critique of knowledge,that is, a critique whose function is to show that certain experiences and knowledge may not always be tenable. We shall employ these characteristics in our discussion.

With these preliminary notes we have represented the earliest Greek philosophic thoughts, which is the ultimate product of the ancient Ionian civilization. But we must not fail to remember that Ionia was the meeting place of the west and east, so that the question may be asked whether or not Greek philosophy was due to the oriental influences, whether for instance, it is borrowed from the Babylonians or Egyptians. This view has been maintained, but we cannot abandon it as suggested by Frederick Copleston and his colleagues. Secondly, we have tried to explain what we mean by philosophy and philosophers in order to avoid equivocations.

Surely, numerous questions must have been generated by what we have been discussing: Are Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes philosophers in the real sense of the word? And if they are not, what is the use of saying that philosophy was born in Greece. Even if they are philosopher in the sense we now use the term “philosopher”, are they the first to philosophize in the entire universe? Are these earliest known Greek philosophers truly indigenous Greeks or foreigners?

Since philosophy is associated with civilization, was Greece the first city in world to be civilized? Failure to get affirmative answers to our question will go a long way to prove that the popular conception that philosophy originated from the Greece is mendacious. Finally, since, as we have pointed out that all the first generation of the Greek philosophers from Thales (who measured the pyramid) to Pythagoras, from Anaxagoras to Plato travelled to Egypt to enlarge their knowledge13in mathematics, geometry, surgery and deontology, in what ways then could what is labelled “Greek Philosophy” be originally Greek? In other words, was it not because of oriental influences? In order to arrive at a lucid and reasonable answers that would be able to address this misnomer, we must dig deep into the pages of history, world chronologies and history of civilization while at the same time trying to reflect on our question.


Dario Composta’s in his History of Ancient Philosophy (1988), says, “the three Ionians were doubtless philosophers,” given the fact that Aristotle, who though was not a reliable historian of the Pre- Socratics Philosophy,called Thales an “initiator of Philosophy” in the following text from his metaphysics.

The majority of those who philosophized before thought that the principles of all things were only material…Nevertheless, these philosophers do not agree about the number and species of these principles (archer). Thales, initiator (archegos) of this type of philosophy, states that the principle is water.

This school of philosophy must have originated from Thales. It was active for about fifty years, around 7-5 century B.C., in Miletus and it was not devoid of religious influences. This religiosity does not imply a strict adherence to myth in Homeric or Orphic sense, but a rational and critical interpretation of myth which arises from a historical analysis of reality. This analysis transfigures theogony into cosmogony through either a scientific or philosophical explanations.Their philosophy grew during the prosperous time of Miletus history.

Even though that, some contemporary philosophers and historians consider the “Milesians” as the earliest “thinkers who hold that matter (hyle) is living (zoe), or that the universe (pan) is animate (psyche)”, and that Aristotle Sargis called them “physiologoi” or scholars of nature, that is, physical scientists, with nature of being understood here in the global sense as the sum of beings; our belief that they are philosophers rest on the fact that they have prevalence interest in scientific research and that their desire for the divine reveal a philosophical intent.The credibility of Aristotle’s testimony is supported by other arguments. First and foremost, Thales was listed first as one of the seven sages by the “father of history” Herodotus, when he referred to Solon as a “lover of wisdom”. Another fact that confirms is that if it is true that Thales possessed Phoenician blood of his mother’s side, according to Diogenes Laertius in his lives of philosophers. And if he was inclined to seafaring adventures and empirical researches, it means that his response does not come from theogonies as in the case of Hesiod, but from the research of a primordial element which rests at the foundation of every being.However, the phrase ‘initiator of this type of philosophy’, in  Aristotle’s reference to Thales as philosopher, at least, indicates that some other forms of philosophic thoughts may have existed before that of these earliest “known” Milesian philosophers. It is true and undeniable that the “Greeks left an imperishable legacy of literature and art to European world”due to the sudden rise of civilization in Greece, and of course philosophic speculations which gave birth to philosophy.

Our question now is, even if  these ‘known’ Greeks are philosophers, as has been justified by some scholars, are they really the first to philosophize in the entire universe? And if they are not, why should we regard Greece as the cradle of philosophy? Let us critically examine this question.


Having looked at philosophy and its various senses, let us try to critically distinguish it from science civilization. “Civilization is a social order promoting cultural creation.”

The earliest civilization grew up in the valleys of certain great rivers, the Great Rivers, the Nile, the Euphrates, the Tigris, the Indus and the Yellow river… Europe owes most to those around the Nile and the Tigris and Euphrates… these two civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia were developing at about the same time.

Scholars may disagree on the location of the cradle of the human race, but on the cradle of its civilization there is no disagreement. It lies in the area which, in this study, is called the Near East and is comprised of the Fertile Crescent -with its two horns of Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), Syria, and Palestine-Egypt, Anatolia (Asia Minor, Turkey), and Persia or Iran. The “Near East,” originally a European geographical term loosely used to designate that part of south-western Asia nearest Europe, was borrowed by America, parts of which are nearer the Far East. This was the prevailing usage until the Second World War, when the British Government created a military province extending from Iran to Libya and named it the Middle East, a term until then traditionally applied to India and adjacent territory. A Middle East supply centre was thereupon established in Cairo and later became an Anglo-American project, thus giving sanction to the new terminology.

Meanwhile, Egypt is often described as the gift of the Nile. The Nile with its early inundation of the land along its banks left behind reach alluvial soil. Areas close to the flood pain became attractive as a source of food and water. In time, climatic changes including periods of aridity further served to confine human habitation to the Nile Valley, although this was not always true.


Domestication of plants and animals, metallurgy, pottery, and other material objects are not the only gifts from the Near East. Our seven day week stems from the story of creation as recorded in Genesis and from an early Semitic system of numeration in which the number seven figured. The Babylonians considered seven celestial bodies to be planets. To the first of these they dedicated the first day of the week, hence our Sunday; to the second, the moon, the second day was devoted, whence comes our Monday. The seventh, Saturn, gave us Saturday. From those same Mesopotamians we inherited the hexadecimal system represented today by our division of the hour into sixty minutes, the minutes into sixty seconds and the circle into three hundred and sixty (a multiple of sixty) degrees. The division of the day into twelve hours comes from Egypt. From Egypt also comes the solar calendar introduced by Julius Caesar and reformed by Pope Gregory.

“Perhaps science, like civilization in general began with Agriculture.”If science like civilization in general began with Agriculture as surmised by Will Durant, then we can infer that science has its origin in Egypt since Egypt was described as the gift of the Nile. This illustration shows that Egypt cannot be bypassed when a discussion is held about the origin of science. It is therefore, of great importance for us at this us to this point to talk briefly about Egyptian science.

Egypt, as history testifies, was a place favoured by God. It has attained a level of civilization for at least two thousand years even before Crete, which is the first Greek to exist. During this time, Greece was a colony of Egypt for centuries. At this time also, Egypt already had a university called “The Mystery System” where every kind of disciplines were taught by the Egyptian priests. As at the reign of “The Mystery System,” the different kinds of disciplines like: mathematics, astronomy, medicine, philosophy and so on, that were taught were all fused together under the one umbrella known as sciences. It was only in recent time that philosophy was narrowed down through its separation from the other disciplines with which it was fused.

The scholars of Egypt were mostly priests, enjoying, far from the turmoil of life, the comfort and security of the temples, and it was these priests who, despite all their superstitions, laid the foundation of Egyptian science. According to their own legends the sciences had been invented some 1800 B.C. by Thoth, the Egyptian god of wisdom, during his three-thousand-year-long reign on earth, and the most ancient books in each science were among the two thousand volumes composed by this learned deity…  At this very outset of recorded Egyptian history we find mathematics highly developed; the design and construction of the pyramids involved a precision of measurement impossible without considerable mathematical lore. The dependence of Egyptian life upon the fluctuations of the Nile led to careful records and calculations of the rise and recession of the river; surveyors and scribes were continually remeasuring the land whose boundaries had been obliterated by the inundation, and this measuring of the land was evidently the origin of geometry. Nearly all the ancients agreed in ascribing the invention of this science to the Egyptian.

“Zoser, who ruled about 3000 B.C., was the first pharaoh to become famous as a pyramid builder. At Sakkara, to the south of Memphis, he built the first large pyramid known in history. It is of ‘step’ or ‘terraced’ formation….” As for medicine it was the glory of Egyptian science. It started with the priests and in it was found the proofs of its magical origin.Meanwhile, many people from Greece, Asia Minor and other parts of Africa became students of these priests. Among these students were Thales, Pythagoras, Heraclitus, Plato, Aristotle and other notable philosophers; some among them are those some Western historians classified as the first philosophers.


Long before the curtain rose on written records, Near Easterners had developed urban life with ordered governments, religions, and social and economic institutions. Still earlier, those who occupied the arch of the Fertile Crescent and nearby territory had discovered metal, realized its potentialities, and worked it into tools and weapons that replaced the more primitive stone implements of the preceding generations. In those crude tools of flint and copper lay a dim vision of the gigantic machines and engines so vital to our modern life. Even earlier, and probably in that same general area, primitive man learned through long and sustained experience, initiated by chance, that certain wild plants could be cultivated and certain wild animals could be domesticated. He then lifted himself from the status of a food gatherer wandering from place to place in quest of sustenance-to that of a food producer, with a dependable reservoir of food which made possible a settled life with its accumulation of wealth, an increase in population and leisure time part of which could be devoted to the cultivation of the higher things of life. Civilization first developed where it did because this was the one region of the globe that provided the climate, vegetation, and fauna necessary for transition from a life of nomadic grazing and hunting to a settled one.

For most people, philosophy began in Miletus in Greece and the Greeks are the first philosophers. To give a justification for their arguments they quickly recite litanies of Greek philosophers such as the ones mentioned above and their exact periods of existence, with this, they are able to defeat the shallow-minded fellows who may attempt to engage them in debate with regard to the cradle of philosophy. The question is: why the Greeks? What was special about the Greeks that led to the origin of philosophy with them? For many years now, the simple answer given to this question is that the Greeks were different; they had some special genius that enabled them to think about things in new and different ways. This answer of course, is unsatisfactory because it was not the entire Greeks that were blessed with this genetic endowment but only some of them like the Milesians and the Athenians, while the Spartans were excluded. Some philosophers and historians have attempted to trace the birthplace of philosophy and to them; especially the Westerners in their writings have demonstrated that the birth place of philosophy is Greece.

Samuel Enoch Stumpf is of the view that “the birth place of philosophy was the seaport town of Miletus located across the Aegean Sea from Athens on the Western shores of either Milesians or Ionians.

Giovanni Reale in his book titled From the Origins to Socrates is of the view that:

“Philosophy,” both in its semantic sense as well as in its conceptual content, is a creation peculiar to the Greeks. In fact, in every other respect practically all the other components of Greek civilization are to be found in other peoples of the East, who achieved a certain level of progress prior to the Greeks. Where as with respect to philosophy, there is no corresponding achievement or even something resembling it to be found…in the matter of philosophy, we find that it is a new phenomenon that has neither any identical counterpart in the Eastern peoples, nor anything which could be compared with the philosophy of the Greeks or which prefigures philosophy in an unequivocal way.

Hegel, a historian and German philosopher, associated philosophy with freedom and the knowledge of oneself. To him, the Greeks were the first people to find freedom; hence philosophy in the proper sense began in Greece.He insisted on this despite the fact that this freedom was limited because slavery at this time still existed in some part of Greece.

Bertrand Russell also traces the birthplace of philosophy to Greece. According to him, “philosophy begins with Thales, who, fortunately, can be dated by the fact that he predicted an eclipse which, according to astronomers, occurred in the year 585 B.C.”

George Henry Lewes (1817-1878), a renowned philosopher, published his The History of Philosophy in 1845. In his book mentioned above, Lewes was of the view that philosophy started in Greece because of the following reason:

It is more probable that Thales, both by birth and education, would be induced to remain there (Miletus), than that he would travel into Egypt and Crete for the prosecution of his studies, as some maintain, although upon no sufficient authority. The only ground for the conjecture is the fact of Thales having acquired mathematical knowledge; and from very early times, as we see in Herodotus, it was the fashion to derive. So little consistency is there however in this narrative of his voyages, that he is said to have astonished the Egyptians by showing them how to measure the heights of the pyramids by their shadows. A nation so easily astonished by one of the simplest mathematical problems could have had little to teach. Perhaps the strongest proof that he never travelled into Egypt- or that if he travelled there, he never learned from the priests- is the absence of all trace, however slight, of any Egyptian doctrine in his philosophy which

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