Characteristics of Western philosophy

This essay is based on inputs (mostly verbatim) from a book Introduction to Comparative Philosophy by Shri P T Raju who was Professor of Philosophy and Indian Studies at the College of Wooster, Ohio, U.S.

Due to the various changes in western thought to say that these characteristics applied to the complete history of western thought would be incorrect. A brief summary of the general characteristics, trends and changes are given below. It is followed by Notes that talk about historical and philosophical developments. Do not miss reading them.

1. Greek philosophy started as a kind of naturalism as the distinction between mind and matter was not clearly recognized that time, now called Materialism by some philosophers with a scientific basis. But we must note that a naturalism that does not distinguish between mind and matter has an equal possibility of developing into materialism or spiritualism. Indians and the Chinese worshipped elements of nature were worshipped too.

2. The Greek Gods were natural Gods (like the early Indian Gods). The Water of Thales was considered God. Hercaclitus said that reality is change and identified it with fire, which he treated as God. Fire is one of the five elements of nature worshipped by the Vedic people, is a part of most Indian marriages.

3. A naturalistic approach towards religion can be inward and outward. The Apollinian strand of Greek religion was outward looking, found its gods among the natural forces while the Orphic form was inward-looking found its gods in spiritual, mental factors. But the inwardness did not go further due to the use of reason in man, which is why Pythagoras glorified Mathematics. For the Ionians the creative principle of the universe was water, air but for Pythagoras it was reason.

4. In Plato the two thoughts blended and human reason became the judge of what is true, good and beautiful but retained some difference from inwardness. Aristotle made reason more outward and could retain inwardness mainly in God in whom reason became a pale thought. The solution to the problem of creation was mythological by Plato and arbitrary by Aristotle who considered God the first mover.

5. Plotinus interpreted the world as an overflowing of the being of the spirit, the One. But the extreme inwardness of medieval philosophy, when combined with the faith demanded by Christianity, depressed reason, and man lost confidence in himself and his reason. Reaction against this outlook started from the 16th century.

6. As the Greek philosophical approach was made from man and society, the Greeks were able to lay the foundations of systematic social thought.

7. The same reason made the Greeks attach great importance to the achievements of man and made them history-minded. It was real and important to them.

8. So far as the Jewish factor of western thought goes, the first thing that strikes an eastern thinker is the extreme transcendence of the Jewish God. Aristotle’s God, after becoming the first mover, keeps aloof. He is to be approached by man through his own reason, but not in the sense of rationally and conceptually thinking about Him. But the Jewish God is not to be so approached. He is beyond reason and imagination, is a person who gives commandments to be obeyed without question. The similarity between God and man can only be moral. Man is made in the image of God, but man’s reason is not an image of God’s reason, and we do not know anything about God’s reason.

9. The Jewish God does not reason, is Infinite Will. In this respect, the Jewish God is the opposite when compared to the Greek God.

10. As far as Jewish ethics goes, God’s Will is good because it is his Will, and the human will is good because it obeys Gods commands. But what is God’s Will, nature is not determined by man. To judge the goodness of God from the goodness of his commandments is a wrong approach. Here also the Jewish, Greek thoughts are at variance. One thinks that the Jewish idea is that communication with God can only be through will or morality just as Reason allows you to communicate in Greek thought. But unlike the Greeks, who said that the rational part of man’s soul is immortal, the Jews did not state that Will part of a man’s soul is immortal. However, later philosophers held that ethically perfect soul would live eternally in heaven with God. Will is an important to the Jews as Reason is to the Greeks.

11. Love of God and brotherhood of man were established by Jewish thought as the dictates of God and not as study of the nature of man and society as in Greek thought.

12. The Jewish God, as ruler of the Universe, is a creator but not a philosopher. He Wills but does not reason. So Faith and not reason is encouraged by Jewish philosophy. Unquestioned faith in God is an important part of Jewish thought. He reveals himself only to a chosen few.

13. The Jews took no interest in nature but in man to whom nature was subservient (can any human being overcome nature – when we ignore the warnings of nature, disaster strikes us). The Greeks were interested in man as a part of nature. But the Jews were interested in man as a creature of God and nature as an object of enjoyment which God gave man. Although Jews gave little thought to nature, it is suprising that they have given the world some of the greatest scientist and philosophers.

14. To the Jews time and history were eminently real. Their captivity, freedom and discovery of a homeland were so strongly impressed on their collective consciousness that history became the basis of their education and ethics. Today Israel is an island of prosperity in West Asia. Modern farming techniques, software, high technology defense items are only a few things that it is famous for. To them the lessons of their own history constitute philosophy. For the Greeks, History could only have a human destiny but for the Jews it is divine destiny.

15. Because of the overwhelming insistence of faith, Jewish thought could not produce a rational social philosophy like the Greeks. Due to the over emphasis on faith, the Jews and Indians are alike, for different reasons though. What mattered to the Jews was to follow God’s commandments while the Indians did not care what happened to man on mother earth but what would enable him to achieve self-realization.

16. The Jewish God was a Tribal god accepted on faith, not a God of nature. The Jews were His chosen people which meant that others were in some way inferior. This feeling of exclusiveness seems to have rubbed on to Christianity and Islam, both of which proclaim that theirs is the only way to salvation. Therefore, every man needs to be saved for which he has to get converted. Although the two universalized religion, a kind of exclusiveness remained. Later, the Jews universalized their God, yet they remained Yahweh’s chosen tribe, into which after proselytization was abandoned, no one was admitted.

The attitudes of all the three prevented a rational philosophy of the Spirit. It must not be thought that there was no philosophy of the Spirit but that was the gift of the Greeks to Islam, and through Islam to Christianity.

17. But when human reason freed itself from the servitude to faith after the Renaissance, it was then unable to develop a rational, naturalistic philosophy of the Spirit, because Spirit remained an object of faith or religion. Hence philosophies of religion, which human reason began to build up, could think of God only as a concept, rationally outward but not inward to man. Those who looked inward were called Mystics. It would be wrong to say that the West did not produce any mystics but the fact that he was called a mystic was itself an insinuation.

18. Buoyed by the Renaissance, Reason was unable to find freedom within the inwardness, so turned completely outward towards matter that it could control, divide, combine in as many ways as it was capable. Slowly, it tended to ignore the mind and then deny its reality. It ceased to recognize inwardness without which the life of a man becomes shallow.

Further, it forfeited its claim to being the container of the Good and the Beautiful and began to interpret man’s life and mind as a conglomeration of atoms. Still later, it gave up its claim to being the custodian of the True, coming to the conclusion that it can say nothing about what reality is. It turned man into a purely subjective being and made him totally alien to his environment. This lead to man ignoring the basic spiritual reality within him that unifies of all of mankind. Looking at life from a materialistic perspective, the West felt the need to find a tool to unify its people, so was enunciated the concept of Equality. In India, we believe that there is an eternal consciousness in man that is common to every individual, rich or poor. Man’s physical existence is a result of his Karmas and Samskaras. Since every human being has a soul, equality is an essential part of Indian philosophy.

19. A feature of Western philosophy is its boldness and readiness to give up tradition, if found faulty. It promotes a spirit of inquiry without considering anything sacred. No philosopher thinks it necessary to wait for the results of other approaches, but starts with what he thinks to be hard facts and fundamental principles. This boldness saves the various aspects of man’s being from being overlooked, though sometimes man’s inwardness is denied. But on the whole, human and humanistic disciples and physical sciences have progressed very well. A biologist does not wait until it is shown how life evolves out of matter but just moves on with a set of assumptions. But all this is a characteristic of modern Western thought, not ancient – medieval thinking.

20. The main aim of contemporary Western philosophy is to liberate the outward from the inwardness of man, to treat the outward as having its own life, nature, growth and to discover methods for understanding them and to apply the same methods to inward also. But, is it possible to separate the Outward from the Inward, treat them as separate objects. In an Indian context, it like saying that the body and soul are two separate objects that can exist, live independent of each other. Man’s inwardness is to be as real as his outwardness, and has to be studied as carefully.

Notes are interesting pieces of information on the subject.

1. Western philosophy is generally divided into three periods, Greek, Christian and modern. In between the first two is a period called Hellenistic, during which the Jew thought, was blended with the Greek.
2. Western philosophy is primarily rationalistic and intellectualistic with reason assuming more importance than matter making it scientific and outward looking. The one sided emphasis can be traced back to the original Greek conception, that the essence of man, of his soul, is reason and there is nothing beyond that.
3. It is humanistic and humanism has a tendency to be scientific and rational. But the predominance of science and reason has made humanism a secondary characteristic.
4. The origins of Greek religion can be traced to Egypt, Asia Minor, Greece and its surrounding areas of Europe. Greek philosophy began with Thales (7th century BC). Greek religion developed two strands, Apollnian, outward looking and Orphic inward looking.
5. The earliest philosophers are Thales according to whom water was the origin of the world, Anaximander (6th century BC) who maintained that the origin was the Indefinite and Anaximenes (6th century BC) who maintained that air was the source of the world. Pythagoras maintained that the origin of the universe is Number. Reason, is therefore the source of the world for mathematics is the subject of pure reason apart from sense.
6. The Pythagoreans believed that through mathematics one could release oneself from the cycle of birth. In the terminology of later philosophers it is surrendering of one’s lower self to the higher, the Logos, Universal Reason. Hence the association of math and mysticism. But for Pythagoras, the Chrisitian doctrine of the Word and proofs of the existence of God would not have appeared in the history of its philosophy.
7. According to Heraclitus (5th century BC) sleep is better than life and death. This reminds us of the Mandukya Upanishad which says that the soul becomes prajna in deep sleep, consciousness solid, integrated and is full of bliss.
8. Socrates (born 470 BC) was the first to lay down a basis for universal ethics. By first assuming ignorance, through a series of questions and answers, by considering opposite views he developed universal truths obtained in logic and ethics.
9. Plato (born 427 BC) disciple of Socrates is the first of the greatest philosophical synthesizers of the world, including China and India. His Republic is one of the most widely read books not only by philosophers but also by students of ethics & politics.
10. Aristotle (born 384 BC) was a student of Plato, more realistic and had more faith in sense experience than Plato. God is pure contemplation. Like Plato, he finds three divisions in the Soul, and calls the rational part immortal. The lowest part, the sensuousness is in contact with the world of sense. He toned down the inwardness achieved by Plato and to a certain degree changed it to Outwardness
11. Greece had been conquered by Macedon and Alexander, the pupil of Aristotle ruled over vast areas from Greece to Punjab. Having lost its political supremacy, man lost confidence in the powers of reason to improve himself and society, thus he became more self-centered. A peculiar individualism developed that is alien to Greek philosophy.
12. The loss of hope was countered by the entry of Jewish thought into the West. Unwavering faith in Yahweh, the One God, produced in them a sense of discipline, perceived by them as obedience of God’s commands. Their ethics consisted in unswerving obedience to Gods commands as given through Moses. All catarascopes were attributed to the wrath of God on account of man’s unethical behavior. Unlike the Greeks where philosophy became pessimistic when endeavors failed, to the Jews faith admits no failures.
13. It was in Alexandra that Jewish faith mixed with reflective Greek thought to give birth to a new philosophy of the Neo-Platonists, which later became an integral part of the Christian philosophy.
14. A Jewish philosopher, Philo (25BC to 40 AD) said that what was needed was obedience to God’s commands and then contemplation in which moral action was transcended. God for him is essentially righteous who does mighty acts but these acts are not done in the field of history but in the Soul. Philo was not satisfied with the rationalism of the Greeks and felt it necessary to transcend it. Logos or World Reason is a lower than God for Philo.

But the Greeks did not show the way how inwardly man could reach God, their faith in reason being overwhelming. Only Judaism combined with Greek thought could work the way out. The greatest contribution that Philo made to Jewish thought was tell man that the significance of ethical conduct does not lie in the realm of politics and society but in the inward being of man. He emphasized the necessity of moral action for attaining spiritual inwardness. Ethical action is necessary for inward knowledge.
15. During the Medieval period, there was loneliness and despair, which could be removed only by a sense of companionship with God, the inward Ultimate, from which man could expect help and derive hope. During this period western thought was preoccupied with the Inward.
16. Due to various reasons, medieval thought became a peculiar mixing up of inwardness and outwardness, faith and reason, enlightenment and superstition, dogma and argument. Christian religion consists of three elements, first the philosophical thoughts of Plato, Aristotle, two the morals and history derived from the Jews and third, rites and theories of salvation traceable to various Cults.
17. Of all the medieval philosophers, St Thomas (born 1227) was the greatest. He uses about five proofs for the existence of God. First he is the unmoved mover, second he is the first cause, third he is the ultimate source of all necessity, fourth he is the highest perfection of the various grades of perfection, fifth he is the very purpose of everything, living and nonliving.
18. Around this time certain events shook man’s self-centeredness. Gailelo proved that the sun and not the earth is not the center of the planetary system. Should it not follow that man is not the center of the outward universe? As more and more Greek learning spread to Western Europe, interest in man and confidence in reason also revived. Man wanted to break away from the shackles, which constrained him. Ability to conquer nature with the help of reason increased the confidence in his reason and led to greater interest in the outside world. (About the 16th century). A new age of Individualism came into existence.
19. Modern philosophy began with the restoration of confidence of reason and began with man searching for more experience and greater rationality in the outside world.

Modern Philosophy starts with point 18 above. It is however, very vast and not possible to compile into an easy to understand essay.

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