Beginnings of Philosophy

The origin or beginning of something plays a significant role in its ongoing explication: extreme sensitivity to initial conditions. As Aristotle observes (Ethics 1098b), “arche [origin] seems to be more than half of the whole.” There’s a story that philosophers tell themselves about the beginning of philosophy, a very common story, a story that seems to have past its expiration date. The story is about philosophy as such and the philosophical activity of every individual. The origin of philosophy is thus twofold: the very first beginning for philosophy as such, and the beginning of philosophy that is reiterated each time someone first begins to philosophize. The very first beginning of philosophy has a specific time and place, which is typically said to be ancient Athens around the time of Socrates and Plato. This means that all philosophy traces itself back to what happened in Athens two and a half millennia ago, reopening and extending the original questions posed by those philosophers. The beginning of philosophy that happens anew for each philosopher is associated with a state of consciousness, which is typically said to be wonder. This means that all philosophers, historically and currently, begin their philosophical activity with a state of wonder, whether that means the reverence of marvel and astonishment and/or the technical confusion of that which is perplexing and puzzling.

Philosophers have been repeating this story about the beginning of philosophy since Plato began spreading it in his representations of Socrates as inhabiting the twofold beginning of philosophy: in a city (Athens) and in a state of mind (wonder). Plato’s dialogues present Socrates as the original philosopher, the original lover of wisdom. All of the predecessors and contemporaries of Socrates are presented as if they thought they possessed wisdom, and only Socrates knows that he does not possess wisdom. He does not know, and so must wonder and thus begin philosophizing. Plato, in his Theaetetus (155d), has Socrates himself define the beginning of philosophy as wonder (thaumazein). That definition is then repeated throughout the history of philosophy, from Aristotle (Metaphysics 982b) to Whitehead: “Philosophy begins in wonder. And, at the end, when philosophic thought has done its best, the wonder remains” (Modes of Thought, 168). Wonder has become the stuff of platitudes and bromides.

If Socrates is the original practitioner of a love of wisdom, a love that wonders instead of pretending to attain knowledge, then it can readily be agreed that ancient Athens is be the place in which philosophy began. Socrates is unabashedly Athenian. Even when put on trial, he chose to be put to death by the Athenian government rather than live in exile. However, if Socrates is not the first philosopher, or not the only first philosopher, then why are his city and state of mind definitive for philosophy as such? If so-called “pre-Socratic” philosophers are actually philosophers and not just proto-philosophical predecessors to Socrates, than the beginning of philosophy looks a lot more Ionian than Athenian, with notable representatives like Thales, Heraclitus, Anaximander, and Anaxagoras. Not only is this more historically accurate, but it also opens up new possibilities for thinking the relationship between philosophy and the polis. An Ionian reading of the beginning of philosophy disturbs the typical association between philosophy and Athenian democracy. Ionian thought was oriented toward isonomia, not democracy. Isonomia means something likely “equality” or “equal rights,” where equality is about freedom and non-rule, hence the lack of any suffixes referring to power and rule (–cracy, e.g., democracy; -archy, e.g., oligarchy). In Isonomia and the Origins of Philosophy, Kojin Karatani reinterprets the beginnings of philosophy in light of this shift from an Athenian democratic orientation to an Ionian isonomic orientation.

An Ionian origin is still dubious. It is simply too Eurocentric. Martin Bernal’s “Black Athena” hypothesis controversially posited the African roots of philosophy a few decades ago. That account was still not complex enough. If philosophy is about knowledge, wisdom, and the wondrous, loving struggle to pursue them, then philosophy was likely not discovered in one place but was independently invented in a variety of contexts. For example, in Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto, Bryan Van Norden takes a global perspective and finds philosophical thought originating throughout major civilizations, making places in China, India, and Africa just as fundamental as Greece. The beginning of philosophy is not simply located. It does not have one historical location that should be held over and above the rest as definitive or exemplary. One could say that philosophy began in many places around the world wherever people began to wonder in pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. But no. The wonder part of the story about philosophy’s beginning is just as dubious as the Athens part. Just like Athens isn’t the primary or exemplary beginning of philosophy, wonder need not be considered the primary or exemplary state of mind with which philosophy has its beginning.

If not wonder, what? Struggle, effort, competition. One can observe the tendency toward optimization in early philosophers, articulating the best (optimus) of truth, beauty, goodness, divinity… Philosophy begins in boast, hyperboles of encompassing comprehension. Philosophy begins in a comprehension competition. This isn’t to say that wonder isn’t involved. It surely is, occasionally and in different ways, but it is not definitive for the beginning of philosophy. Peter Sloterdijk makes this point throughout his works. Philosophy begins not with wonder, but with exercise in epistemic and existential acrobatics; “philosophy developed more from the gestures of showing off knowledge, and from the competitive exaggeration of the striving to substantiate assertions, than from amazement” (Foams 876n16). He demonstrates this point in the beginning of Globes (Spheres II), where he discusses early philosophical speculation on the world as an orderly sphere of being, a perfect orb. It was speculation in a competitive market, so the more perfect you render your orb, that is, the more comprehensive your expression, the better. How much of the most can you boast? How much of the best can you express? “Philosophy becomes exact boasting, as well as the feat of speaking of overwhelming things with a dry soul” (Globes, 31). Deleuze and Guattari make this point in What is Philosophy? They describe philosophy as a “rivalry,” as “a generalized athleticism” (4). Philosophy’s beginning is in a workout, not in wonder. The emphasis that philosophers put on wonder is itself something to wonder about. It has less to do with the beginning of philosophy as such than with the limits of metaphysics (cf. MJ Rubenstein, Strange Wonder).

So the story is changing. Philosophy doesn’t have its origin in Athens, or at least not exclusively so. It has beginnings in every civilization. It doesn’t begin with wonder, but with a friendly epistemic and existential competition, a love of effort and struggle; philosophia begins with philoponia: mathein pathein.


3 responses to “Beginnings of Philosophy

  • Keith Wayne Brown

    Not to be that guy but… I believe you have left out Jaspers whose own understanding of philosophizing as arising from the loving struggle also led his thinkering to posit the need for “World Philosophy” versus regionalized philosophy. This also stands as the ground for the insights about the Axial Age. [I agree with Karen Armstrong and David Graeber that this “epoch” must be expanded.]

    • Sam Mickey

      Yes to all of that! Jaspers really is a crucial figure here, especially those concepts: loving struggle (liebender Kampf), world philosophy (Weltphilosophie), the Axial Age (die Achsenzeit). [I’m including the German to atone for my lazy omission.] Sloterdijk gives Jaspers credit for those points (and for his well-rounded Encompassing), and he’d agree about the need for an expanded definition of the Axial epoch.

      • Keith Wayne Brown

        :) I spent yesterday doing my best to help my young friends grok das Umgreifende and Existenz. I think they will be all the more appreciative of your clear writing skills in Co-Existentialism when they look back on that chapter from Jaspers. _/|\_

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