Origin of Philosophy

Philo of Man




The Origin of Philosophy: A Brief Sketch


In this post, I will discuss very briefly the origin of philosophy, particularly Western philosophy. For some reason, I will not include here the discussion on the origin and development of Eastern or Asian philosophy. This will be discussed in my other post.

According to Socrates, as Plato reports, “Wonder is the only beginning of philosophy.” Later, Aristotle, in response to his predecessors, especially the Ionian philosophers, said that “It is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize.” (See John Llewelyn, “On the saying that philosophy begins in thaumazein,” Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context and Enquiry, Issu3 4 (2001), pp. 48-57. https://www.jstor.org/stable/20711438?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents.

This is precisely the context and basis of the now famous claim that philosophy begins in wonder.

But what kind of wonder is this? For sure, wonder includes the feeling of surprise coupled with admiration, that is, when one is being curious or being in awe. But this is not enough. Wonder as the beginning of philosophy is precisely “philosophic wonder,” that is, the feeling of being perplexed. For example, the ancient Greek philosophers were perplexed about the origin and nature of the world. As Aristotle writes:

For men were first led to study philosophy, as indeed they are today, by wonder. Now, he who is perplexed and wonders believes himself to be ignorant…they took to philosophy to escape ignorance…(Aristotle, Metaphysics 982b, tr. A.E. Taylor).

In this sense, philosophic wonder seeks clarity by trying to understand the perplexities or vagueness or confusion that shrouded the inquiring mind. In other words, philosophic wonder seeks answers to or at least make sense of the mysterious world. Thus, when one begins to make sense of the questions regarding, for example, the origin of the world, or the meaning and purpose of life, one begins to philosophize. Thus, in philosophic wonder, one is not merely amazed by the mysteriousness of the world or of life, but seeks to understand this mystery. In a word: one thinks!

Given the above brief discussion on the origin of philosophy on the conceptual level, it is therefore reasonable to suppose that Western philosophy originated in Miletus, because Thales, the acclaimed first philosopher in the Western world, was from Miletus. Miletus during the time of Thales was the richest and the most powerful of all the Ionian cities, and was the first center of scholarship in ancient Greece. Ionia was a Greek city-state on the coast of Asia Minor, now Turkey.

Ionia (taken from free Wikimedia Common)

It is worth noting that with the decline of Ionia, which began with its conquest by the Persians in 546 BCE, the intellectual life of Greece moved to Croton in southern Italy in 530 BCE. Croton was a splendid and powerful city-state of Greece to where Pythagoras emigrated from Samos and founded the Pythagorean Brotherhood [See Arthur Hilang Armstrong, An Introduction to Ancient Philosophy (London: Little Adams Quality Paperbacks, 1989), p. 5].

However, if philosophy begins in wonder, how do we exactly know that Thales was the first philosopher, that he was the first one to wonder, that is, the first one to attempt to make sense of the mysteriousness of the world? In fact, we cannot deny the occurrence of other pre-philosophical rumblings in Egyptian and Babylonian cultures, as well as in India and China. For sure, there were great thinkers that existed in each of these cultures, and there are evidence that some of the earliest Greek philosophers had come in contact with at least some of the products of Egyptian and Babylonia thought. And, of course, we cannot absolutely determine the first person who wondered or philosophized. But it is commonly believed that Thales was the first philosopher because he was the first, at least in recorded history, to put his philosophy into writing. In fact, we find in Thales, and many philosophers after him, some reasoned arguments for the origin and development of the world. Indeed, this is a unique feature of ancient Greek philosophy that distinguishes it from the pre-philosophical rumblings of other cultures.

To reiterate, Western philosophy begins in wonder, and that the origin of philosophy in terms of place is said to be in Miletus, Ionia.

In the succeeding posts, I will discuss the development of Western philosophy from the pre-Socratic to the modern period.


Below is the front cover of our book in philosophy of the human person, a core subject in senior high schools in the Philippines. Chapter 1 in this book discusses the origin of philosophy. If you are interested to purchase the book, you may contact the publisher at subversopublishing@gmail.com. For more on the basic information of this book, please visit this link: http://philonotes.com/index.php/2017/11/24/textbook-iphp-k-12/




Professor of Philosophy
Silliman University

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