The Early History of Philosophy: The First Thinkers

Obviously, the mother of science also has a story. And this goes back to very ancient times. Seeking to understand the world and being, as well as to interpret them: these mental activities so occupied the first thinkers, like the wise men of the East and the presocratics. We cannot follow the early history of Philosophy without going back to old thinkers … In this article, we will try to find out how they thought they were and the world…

I – In Reviewing the Early History of Philosophy, We Cannot Pass up the Wise Men of the EastIn Reviewing the Early History of Philosophy, We Cannot Pass up the Wise Men of the East

In the history of philosophy, the wise men of the East have a great place. Passing through Confucius, Lao-Tseu, to Buddha. These sages of the East have greatly influenced philosophical thought …

1 – Confucius (c. 551-479)

Chinese scholar and philosopher. Its philosophy is moral and political. Its major concern is to bring order to the state by training men who live in accordance with virtue. His work is at the origin of Confucianism.

The Master said, “A young man in the house should love and respect his parents. Outside the house, he should respect those who are older or of a higher rank than him. He must be attentive and sincere in his words; to love everyone, but to bond more closely with men of humanity. These duties fulfilled, if he had time and strength left, let him employ them in the study of letters and the liberal arts. ” (Confucius, Interviews, I, 6)

2 – Lao-Tseu (6th-5th century AD)

Contemporary Chinese philosopher of Confucius. He is at the origin of Taoism. He is the alleged author of the Tao te king, the “book of the way (tao) and of virtue”. This book, made up of short aphorisms, is very mysterious and lends itself to many interpretations.

The concept of “tao” itself is extremely complex and mysterious. It designates the substance of nature, conceived as a kind of ocean, of primitive and multifaceted flow, or even a void filled with potentialities and efficiency: “It is there where there is nothing that resides the efficiency of a wheel, vase or door. »(Tao te king, I, 11) In this sense we could bring the tao closer to nothingness in the sense of Heidegger and Sartre.

“ The Tao is empty; if used, it seems inexhaustible.

Ô how deep it is! He seems the patriarch of all beings.

It dulls its subtlety, it frees itself from all bonds, it tempers its splendor, it assimilates to dust.

Ô how pure he is! It seems to go on forever.

I don’t know whose son he is; he seems to have preceded the master of heaven. ”

(Tao te king, I, 4).

To put it in two words: Taoism is to recognize the union of opposites, and therefore to advocate “non-action” and to refuse technique.

“ In the world, when all men knew how to appreciate (moral) beauty, then ugliness (of vice) appeared. When all men knew how to appreciate good, then evil appeared. This is why being and non-being are born from each other. The difficult and the easy occur mutually. […] Hence it is that the holy man makes his occupation of non-action. ” (Tao te king, I, 1)

3 – Tchouang-Tseu (4th century BC)

Another Taoist philosopher, Tchouang-Tseu is famous for his many anecdotes, often comical, from which it is often difficult to extract the philosophical meaning. Beyond the famous example of the butterfly (is it Tchouang-tse who dreams that he is a butterfly or a butterfly who dreams that he is Tchouang-tse?), Here are some texts attributed to Tchouang-tse:

Tchouang-Tseu and Houei-Tseu were walking on a bridge over the Hao river.

TCHOUANG-TSEU: See how the fish roam at their ease! This is the joy of fish.

HOUEI-TSEU: How do you know what the joy of fish is? You are not a fish.

TCHOUANG-TSEU: How do you know that I don’t know what the joy of fish is? You are not me.

HOUEI-TSEU: If being not you, I cannot know what you are thinking, not being a fish you cannot know what the joy of fish is.

TCHOUANG-TSEU: You asked me how I knew what the joy of fish is. So you admitted that I knew it since you asked me how. How do I know? I know this because I am here on the Hao River Bridge.

The king of Chu had sent two emissaries to Chuang-tzu.

They had found him fishing by the P’ou River. “Our king,” they said to him, “wishes to entrust you with the charge of his kingdom. Without pulling back his line or turning his head, Chuang-tse replied, “I heard that in the Chu there is a sacred turtle that died three thousand years ago. Your king retains his shell, protected by a piece of cloth and wickerwork, in the temple of his ancestors. Tell me if this turtle would have preferred to live to drag its tail through the mud?

“She would have preferred to live dragging her tail through the mud,” replied the two officers.

“Go away!” Replied Tchouang-tse. I also prefer to live and drag my cock in the mud! ”

4 – Buddha (6th century BC)

Buddha means awakened, but this term generally refers to the founder of Buddhism, Siddhârta Gautama. Born in North East India, he belonged to the Kshatriya caste, the warrior-aristocrats. He spent all his youth in the rich family palace. One day, while walking outside the palace grounds, he discovers the suffering of his people which had been hidden from him until then. He then gives up his luxurious life and becomes an ascetic. After six years of a very austere life, he accepts a bowl of rice from a peasant woman, putting an end to his mortifications: he discovers the middle way, between laxity and excessive austerity.

After 49 days of meditation, he attained enlightenment and began to teach his wisdom.

This is based on four fundamental truths:

– (1) life is suffering (happiness is impossible);

– (2) this suffering arises from desire (thirst for existence which passes through the pleasure of the senses);

– (3) to suppress suffering one must suppress this thirst, detach from it, free oneself from it;

– (4) the way forward (eightfold path) is the dissolution of the self in nirvana (pure faith, pure will, pure language, pure action, pure means of existence, pure application, pure memory, pure meditation).

Buddhism, therefore, advocates detachment, the renunciation of desire. But suicide is nonetheless doomed. Committing suicide is not liberation, as it would lead to reincarnation. To free yourself from the cycle of reincarnations, you must instead live your life by practicing wisdom and detachment.

II – The Early History of Philosophy-The Presocratics

Greek philosophers prior to Socrates (470-399) are called “pre-Socratic”. Here are some of the best known.

1 – Thales of Miletus (around 600 BC)

He is considered the founder of philosophy.

For him, there is a unique principle: water.

He measured the pyramid of Khufu by his shadow: he waited for the hour when the shadow is as long as things; he just need to measure the shadow of the pyramid to know its height.

It is said that he fell into a well while he was busy gazing at the stars, which may suggest that this philosopher had his head in the clouds and was hardly practical, as many scholars. But another anecdote shows us on the contrary that he was quite capable of applying his philosophy in practical life. To prove to a friend that he could, if he wished, enrich himself with his philosophy, he made a fortune in a year by speculating thanks to his meteorological knowledge (having foreseen a year abundant in olives, he praised all the presses in the region and could then charge them a high price).

2 – Heraclitus of Ephesus (544-484 BC)

Heraclitus is the philosopher of change and initiated a current of thought, first called the Ionian school, which continues to us. Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche relate to it. We only have 125 fragments of his hand left, very short and often obscure (he was nicknamed Heraclitus the Obscure, or the Dark). We can retain some essential ideas:

* Everything changes, nothing is stable. Everything is fluctuating, even chaotic.

“You can’t go down the same river twice. “(§ 91)

“The sun is new every day. “(§ 6)

“Le Temps is a child playing backgammon: royalty of a child! “(§ 52)

* Conflicts are engines. It is the antagonisms that move the story forward.

“What is contrary is useful and it is from what is in a struggle that the most beautiful harmony is born; everything is done by discord. “(§ 8)

“War (conflict) is the father of all things and the king of all things.” (§ 53)

“You have to know that war is common, justice is discord, that everything is done and destroyed by discord. “(§ 80)

* Each thing proceeds from its opposite:

“If there was no injustice, we would ignore even in the name of justice. “(§ 23)” It is an illness that makes health pleasant; evil that breeds good; it is a hunger that makes satiety desired, and fatigue rests. “(§ 111)

“Immortals are mortals and mortals immortal; the life of some is the death of others, the death of some, the life of others. “(§ 62)” For souls, to die is to change into the water; for water, to die is to become earth; but from the earth comes the water, and from the water comes the soul. “(§ 36)

“The fire saw the death of the earth and the air saw the death of the fire; water lives the death of air, and earth the death of water. “(§ 76)

“Good and bad are one. “(§ 58)

“For God, everything is beautiful and good and just; men hold some things to be righteous and others to be unjust. “(§ 102)

* So the action has a pointless character.

“It wouldn’t be better for men if what they want to happen. “(§ 110)

* However, there is a certain order, the logos, that is, a cosmic law governing change.

“Wisdom consists of one thing, to know the thought that governs everything and everywhere. “(§ 41)

“Thought is common to all. “(§ 113)

* But this order is generally invisible.

“The invisible harmony is better than the visible one. “(§ 54)

“Nature likes to hide. “(§ 123)

* The universe was not created, it has always existed, and fire is its fundamental nature.

“This world, the same for all beings, none of the gods nor of men created it; but it always has been, it is and it will be an ever-living fire, kindling in measure and extinguishing in measure. ” (§ 30)

“Lightning rules the universe. “(§ 64)

We see that Heraclitus is close to Taoism in many ways, even if he calls “fire” what Lao-tzu calls “tao”. Heraclitus was renowned for his melancholy, and in this respect, he is opposed to Democritus: Heraclitus weeps, Democritus laughs.

3 – Parmenides of Elea (540-470 BC)

The philosophy of Heraclitus shows the tension between time and thought. If the river is never the same, the word “river” has no meaning! Thought and language (the logos) suggest to us, unlike our senses, that there are immutable and eternal entities.

Heraclitus took the side of the senses and of change. Parmenides, for his part, is the anti-Heraclitus: he takes the side of language, of thought, of the concept. Pushing this path to the end thanks to purely logical reasoning, he comes to affirm that the real world is not what we perceive by the senses, but what we know by reason, and that it is by therefore immutable and eternal.

” Come on, I will tell you and you will hear what are the only avenues of research open to intelligence; one, that being is and that non-being is not, the path of certainty, which accompanies truth; the other, that being is not and that non-being is necessary, a road where, I tell you, you must in no way allow yourself to be seduced. You cannot have knowledge of what is not, you cannot grasp it or express it; because thought and being are the same things. […]

We must think and say that what is; for there is being: there is no non-being; this is what I order you to proclaim. […]

There is no longer one way for discourse, it is for being to be; thereby are numerous proofs that he is ungendered and imperishable, universal, unique, motionless, and endless. He has not been and will not be; it is now whole, one, continuous. For what origin will you look for him? Where and in what way would he have grown up? What is not? I do not allow you to say or to think it; for it is inexpressible and unintelligible that what it is not. What necessity would have obliged him sooner or later to be born starting from nothing? It has to be either completely or not. And the force of reason will not let you, from what is, give birth to something else. Thus neither genesis nor destruction is permitted him by Justice; it will not loosen the bonds in which it holds it. […]

But, since it is perfect under an extreme limit! It looks like the mass of a rounded sphere on all sides, also distant from its center at all points. Neither more nor less can be here or there; for there is no non-being which prevents being from reaching equality; nor is there any being who gives him, more or less being here or there, since he is everything, without exception. So, equal on all sides, it is nevertheless within limits. “(Parmenides, Poem, II to XVIII).

Note: Let’s open a parenthesis. We can understand this obscure formula as a way of expressing the Heraclitean ideas of becoming: indeed becoming signifies the non-being of being (the annihilation of what is now, of the present) and the being of no -being (the coming into existence of what is not yet, of the future).

Let us continue with the philosophy of Parmenides.

This philosophy, which announces Platonism, must necessarily reject the testimony of the senses, which pushes it in an idealist or subjectivist way: and indeed Parmenides reduces things to the idea we have of them: “To think and to be, c ‘ is the same thing. ”

Founder of the Eleatic school, Parmenides is also the grandfather of a whole philosophical tradition, rather idealistic, which goes from Plato to Heidegger via Spinoza and Kant.

4 – Empedocles of Agrigento (490-435 BC)

According to Empedocles, the world is made up of four elements: water, earth, air, fire. Two great forces, Love and Hate, explain all the phenomena of the world. Thus the universe oscillates between order (cosmos) and chaos, and the world of men between war and peace. According to legend, Empedocles committed suicide by throwing himself into the crater of Etna.

5 – Zeno of Elea (485-430 BC)

Zeno of Elea is known for certain paradoxes he discovered. In particular, he “demonstrated” the impossibility of movement by the following reasoning.

Consider an arrow shot at a target. The arrow, to reach the target, must travel the distance between the archer and the target. But to travel that distance, she must first travel half of it. And to go through that first half, she has to go through half of it first! This reasoning can be repeated over and over again, because any length, no matter how small, can be halved. The arrow must therefore travel an infinite number of distances to reach the target. As it moves at a finite speed, it will therefore never be able to reach it in a finite time.

The solution of this bizarre paradox is quite easy: it is that if the number of distances to be covered is infinite, the length of these distances tends towards zero: we have an infinity of infinitely small distances, therefore the result of the product (the infinity x zero) is finite. This can be proved mathematically: for n ranging from 1 to infinity, the sum of the terms Un = 1 / 2nest finite (it is equal to 1), although the number of added terms is infinite.

6 – Democritus of Abdera (470-380 BC)

Democritus is a materialist philosopher: according to him, nature is composed of two principles: atoms (what is full, being) and emptiness (nothingness, non-being). The atom, by definition (found in the a-Tomos etymology), is that which cannot be divided, that is, the ultimate elements of the world. They have all kinds of shapes (smooth, rough, hooked, curved, round) and they cannot be changed due to their hardness.

Atoms swirl around the universe, and they are the origin of all compounds (sun to the soul) and all elements (water, air, earth, fire). Generation is a reunion of atoms, and destruction is separation. These agglomerations and dissolutions, and the eternal movement of atoms in the infinite void, explain the becoming.

Emptiness is the non-being in which atoms move.

There is a void not only in the world (between atoms) but also outside of it. So, being and non-being are both real.

The worlds, bathed in emptiness, are endless in number, of different sizes, and arranged in different ways in space. Some of these universes are exactly the same. They are begotten and perishable, and can actually collide. The worlds are thus ruled by blind forces: there is no providence.

Through the senses, we cannot perceive anything of all this: that is to say that appearances, which vary from one animal to another and from one person to another if they are all “true” in the where they exist, do not allow us to discover the true reality, the deep nature of things. “In reality, we don’t know anything, because the truth is at the bottom of the well. ”

So it was not so much by experience that Democritus worked out his system as by mind, by reflection, in the same way as Parmenides. It is even said that Democritus was so distrustful of the senses that he purposely went blind so as not to be deceived by his sight in order to think more correctly.

The atomistic physics of Democritus leads to a hedonistic ethic: men no longer have to fear the judgment of the gods, neither of nature nor of death. Ethics is therefore to achieve a serene existence by getting rid of fears (especially of death) that prevent the peace of the soul. Utility and joy are the ends of morality.

7 – Another List of Pre-Socratic Philosophers…

The philosophers usually grouped under the label “pre-Socratic” are in fact victims of injustice, since they are reduced to an opposition with Socrates, in other words, a minor role, a role of predecessors that the master would have exceeded. Unfair because this group of philosophers has produced a number of new and lasting ideas and theories, both scientific, philosophical, and even cosmological, which have traveled to us. So here is a list of these philosophers (some of them have been taken up but in summary):

– Thales of Miletus (624-560 BC).

Astronomer, mathematician and philosopher, Thales notably distinguished himself by predicting a solar eclipse, based on the astronomy of the Babylonians. He is also the founder of the Ionian school and succeeded in creating laws of geometry. On the ontological level, Thales bases matter on water. He indeed believed that the Earth floated on the water.

– Anaximander (610-545 BC).

Greek astronomer and philosopher, a disciple of Thales. His major contribution is based on the idea of infinity that he introduced into his cosmological theory.

– Anaximenes (570-500 BC).

Pupil of Anaximander. According to him, the rainbow is a natural phenomenon, rather than the work of a god. The basic principle of the universe is air.

– Pythagoras of Samos (569-500 BC).

Mathematician and philosopher. Pythagoras believed that the Earth was a sphere rotating around the sun. According to him, the natural order can be expressed in number, in other words mathematizable, which is the foundation of physics. It is, however, only known for its theorem, which was invented by the Babylonians.

– Heraclitus (Ephesus, 535-475 BC).

Without a doubt the greatest philosopher of the pre-Socratic period. He considers fire to be the main form of the real world. Its formula, “Panta rei”, testifies to an ontology of change, revealing a conception of a chaotic world.

– Parmenides of Elea (520-450 BC).

The principal representative of the Eleatic school. Like Pythagoras, he believed the Earth to be spherical. Against Heraclitus, Parmenides is the philosopher of Being, of identity, since he believes that change is illusory and nothing can be destroyed.

– Alcméon (Croton, 450 BC).

Pythagoras. Doctor and physicist. He discovered the nervous network and the role of the brain, considered to be the main human organ.

– Zeno of Elea (495-435 BC).

Greek philosopher and mathematician. Known for its paradoxes.

– Empedocles (492-440 BC).

Philosopher of nature. Empedocles introduced the idea of elements. Empedocles asserts that fire, air, earth, and water are the elemental substances of the world.

– Hippocrates of Cos (460-377 BC).

Considered the father of medicine. He and his followers believed that diseases have a rational explanation and, as a corollary, that the causes of disease can be treated.

– Gorgias (490-380 BC).

Nihilistic Greek philosopher, for whom nothing exists. Famous enemy of Socrates.

– Protagoras (Abdera, 480-420 BC).

Famous sophist and relativist philosopher, for whom reality depends on the viewer.

– Prodicos.

Member of the School of Sophists. Socrates and Euripides were among his pupils.

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