Philosophical Geography

When is philosophy “Western” philosophy? When is philosophy “Eastern or “non-Western?” When are time and location important in the practice of philosophy today?

These are not easy questions to address, let alone answer. Over the past eighty years or more there has been some tension between European and American philosophers who seem to treat the historical and cultural context of philosophy with complete indifference, and those who think historical context is indispensable. The first group has no patience at all with the question in our title: it does not matter to them whether a philosophical theory or argument originated in Korea or Kenya, except in the pragmatic sense in which one needs to translate the philosophical work to make it accessible. So, this group is indifferent about any distinction between Western and Eastern philosophy. The second camp is convinced that indifference to history involves an arrogant preference for our own period of philosophy and tends to leave us with false or simplistic pictures of the past. Like many debates, there are good reasons for thinking the “answer” lies in a middle ground. But before seeking a balanced compromise, let’s take stock of the extremes, and then think about the contrast between Western and Eastern philosophy.

Probably the greatest, most dramatic case of philosophers seeking to treat the past of philosophy with indifference (or worse) were those philosophers who promoted and continue to promote the practice of philosophy within the limits of the sciences, especially the natural sciences. So, Hans Reichenbach in the Rise of Scientific Philosophy divides philosophy into “old philosophy” with its speculative, non-scientific base, and the “new philosophy” that is in partnership with contemporary science. Reichenbach offers this description of what new philosophers should do: “Those who work in the new philosophy do not look back; their work would not profit from historical considerations.” Reichenbach even goes so far as to recommend that we only study past philosophy with scientific tools and this study be only carried out by highly critical thinkers who can recognize all the misleading and false teachings of the past:

“I do not wish to belittle the history of philosophy; but one should always remember that it is history and not philosophy. Like all historical research, it should be done with scientific methods and psychological and sociological explanations. But the history of philosophy must not be presented as a collection of truths. There is more error than truth in traditional philosophy; therefore, only the critically minded can be competent historians.”

(As an aside, if the above text was not intended by Reichenbach to “belittle the history of philosophy,” one wonders how he might have re-written the text if he truly wished to treat the history of philosophy with derision!) Back to describing the general, anti-historical philosophers: from the standpoint of scientifically oriented philosophers like Reichenbach, there is an equal probability that past philosophy is riddled with errors, irrespective of whatever continent or context it was carried out. Other philosophers, who are not keen on the details of history, use historical texts for doing contemporary philosophy. In this school of thought, if you are citing Plato or Mill, the important point is not to understand these figures in their context (how was Plato’s work shaped by the failure of Imperial Athens in the Peloponnesian war? What were Plato’s ties with the tyrants who ruled in Athens after the war?), but to see what they offer us today in our own thinking about truth, reality, justice, the sacred, and so on.

On the other side of this debate are philosophers who think that the meaning and value of philosophy must be seen in historical and cultural contexts, otherwise one is simply failing to actually study any of the great, past figures. So, philosophers in this camp would see someone like Jonathan Bennett, who has done extensive philosophical work in conjunction with comments about historically significant figures such as John Locke, as addressing Locke-as-constructed-along-the-lines-of-what-is-philosophically-convenient-for-Bennett, rather than addressing John Locke himself.

Today, those philosophers who identify themselves as Continental philosophers (those influenced by Brentanno, Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre and their succesors) tend to give greater weight to history and cultural context than those who identify themselves as analytic philosophers (such as Moore, Russell, and Frege).

The task of this essay is to make four points (plus a fifth, not to be revealed at first):

1)  First, philosophical reasons are presented as to why a scientifically oriented outlook such as “new philosophy” should not lead us to belittle or treat the history of philosophy as optional. So, Reichenbach and philosophers like him have not given us good reason to ignore historical differences between the west and east.

2)  Second, the history of almost every people and region on earth requires some attention to the philosophies (or worldviews) that are in play. Thus, there is reason for noting when some philosophy had an impact in the west or east.

3)  Third, while there are some differences and tendencies between what may be called Eastern and Western philosophy, these are far from simplistic; indeed, philosophers from both sides of the earth have addressed common problems with arguments that have strong ties of resemblance. In some cases, the development of philosophy in Korea, Japan, China, and India differs from the philosophy that emerges around the Mediterranean basin not so much in terms of differences in kind (there are forms of monism and skepticism in China and India that are comparable to Greed, Italy, France, and Britain), but in terms of differences in emphasis and, at times, differences in dependence upon historical events. (So, the Warring States Period in Chinese history happened at a different time than the Hundred Years’ War in Europe, but both generated some philosophical projects that have interesting similarities.)

4)  Fourth, there is a fitting balance between the goals of studying the history of philosophy and carrying out the practice of philosophy on some given theme (ethics or metaphysics, for example).

5)  The fifth point is announced below.

First, there are serious challenges to anti-historical scientific “new philosophy”

There are still philosophers today who share Reichenbach’s scientific philosophy, but there are many reasons why “scientific philosophy” has not been institutionalized or widely recognized as convincing. First, it seems that “scientific philosophy” (as Reichenbach conceived it) would leave out lots of what seems meaningful such as ethics and, perhaps even more dramatically, it seems to leave off a vast amount of both common sense and also what needs to be assumed if one is going to have science. So, it appears that limiting philosophy to what is describable or explainable in the physical sciences seems either to lead us to absurdity or it takes us well beyond the physical sciences (the way they are thought of by Reichenbach). So, if the world disclosed by the physical sciences does not include human subjectivity, consciousness, purposive activity, and so on, then it seems wildly false and too limiting a measure of what exists. On the other hand, it you adopt a common sense understanding of what is needed to take physical science seriously, then it seems that one’s philosophy is going to have to be far more broad in scope. That is, if you are going to have the physical sciences, presumably you need physical scientists and, again presumably, physical scientists are persons who make observations, reason together, theorize, evaluate evidence, think, speak, develop arguments and counter-arguments, and so on.

Another problem with so-called scientific philosophy is that it seems to require arguments that go beyond science to establish it as reasonable, or it is simply question begging. That is, if one argues that only the physical sciences are reliable, it does not work to establish this as a thesis of physical science. How could the physical sciences ever determine that their methods are the only ones that are credible? It is hard to see how in physics, chemistry or biology one could determine that one can set aside psychology, history, sociology, philosophy, and the like.

Another reason why today’s intellectual climate is not as anti-historical (or not as belittling) as Reichenbach would like, is because the history of philosophy reveals that positions like Reichenbach’s have been advanced in the past. In Ancient Greece, one can find early accounts of materialism, the atomic theory of matter (and even a hint at what might be sub-atomic), natural selection, the idea that the earth is round and circles the sun, and so on. The amazing richness of past philosophy gives us some reason to study it in terms of learning lessons about our current ideas.

Probably the best way to assess the last claim is by example, rather than broad generalizations. So, in response to this first point, a more complete reply will have to take place in other, detailed, historical studies.

Second, the history of almost every people and region on earth requires some attention to the philosophies (or worldviews) that are in play.

It is virtually impossible for any human society to function in coordinated ways without some shared understanding of values, rules, and priorities (however different or inchoate). Governance, agriculture, market exchanges, safety, reproduction and child rearing, religious practices, warfare and more will all need (in some shape or fashion) a shared language or understanding of meaning and communication, however primitive. It would be inconceivable to provide a history of China that did not include attention to Confucian ideas of government. And, commenting further on the role of philosophy, west and east, one needs to give attention to what was valued (what were the worldviews) in Europe in the 1500s that had a role in the transition from a population [in Europe] of about 10% of the land surface of the earth and 16% of the earth’s population such that in 1913 these Europeans came to control three-fifths of the earth’s land and have some dominance over 79% of the world population. The same attention to worldviews and values needs to be taken seriously for the peoples of every region on earth over the same 500-year period (essentially the year 1500 to the present). The story of western European thought, industry, markets, religion and more during that period would be impossible without also taking into account the thought, industry and so on of Islamic Kingdoms and Empires. The Ottoman Empire, in particular, is a crucial subject philosophically for any understanding of late medieval Europe on up to Europe in the 20th century. Insofar as history involves some “what-if” speculation, philosophy (or religion or secular values) must have played some role in why China halted its expansionist activities in the 15th century. In the 1420s China stopped its naval voyages, and curtailed its exploration that might have led China to be the first non-indigenous power to come to the “new world.” Although looking back is not easy to do (we can become habituated into thinking that the Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese, French, and British incursions into the Americas was inevitable), it is possible that the Chinese were the first colonizers who were able to project their power from the western American coastlines to the Atlantic. We may never know with certainty why history did not turn out that way, but there is some reason to think that Chinese philosophy and values have to be partly responsible for why the Americas are not today filled with Chinese-speaking populations.

On a general matter: this first point should also be an occasion to note the difficulties in carrying out a sound history with an aim to studying the philosophy or worldviews that were instrumental in stabilizing or challenging the status-quo: how much of the American or French Revolution or Russian revolutions should be explained in terms of the philosophical ideas and arguments? Also, how should different regions and time-periods in world history be settled on? These questions are not easily answered, and indeed they cannot be answered in a general inquiry without undertaking the painstaking, detailed work necessary to organize all the records and non-literary sources we have or are able to make inferences about. Perhaps it may suffice to note that we should endeavor to avoid generalizations when this leads to ignoring or conflating important distinctions like the distinction between a Shiite vs. a Sunni Muslim. The division between “East” and “West” seems far from obvious, for it appears to leave the pre-Columbian Americas without a place, as it also seems to ignore pre-Christian and pre-Islamic Africa.

Third, while there are significant, highly important differences between what may be called Eastern and Western philosophy, these differences are far from simplistic, and philosophers from all corners of the planet have addressed common problems with arguments that are strikingly similar.

We begin with the overly simplistic (if not outright wrong): one of the most outrageous and misleading, yet popular distinctions between so-called Eastern and Western philosophy is that the West is individualistic, materialistic (in the “popular” sense of consumerism and market exchanges), imperialistic, and laced with dualities or polarities of false or illusory oppositions such as male and female, reason and desire, justice and mercy, soul and body, etc. To sum up the West in a single term, it is dualistic (“dualistic” is probably the most abused term in English; it sometimes means: philosophies involved in immoral, sexist, superstitious, clearly false and damaging concepts of human persons in which there is a pernicious distinction between the soul or mind on the one hand and the grotesque body on the other). By way of contrast, Eastern philosophy is viewed as relational, non-individualistic, spiritual, democratic, non-imperialistic, holistic (seeing mind and body, male and female, reason and desire, as compatible). And so on.

This portrait is false, but in the spirit of charity, it may be allowed that the above crude portrait has some highly misleading yet superficial truth. To offer an example: yes, if by the “West” we mean European and post-Columbian America and those cultures and persons impacted by them, then there has been more stress on individual rights – as found, for example, in the 1689 Bill of Rights –a bill that secured “the freedom of speech and debates in Parliament” and their protection from censure—than one finds during that period of time (the surrounding one hundred years) in China, India, Japan, or Korea. But the “East” has included philosophers who have embraced natural law (see, for example, Dang Zhangshu) and very vigorous ethical and social-political positions that give individual liberty an extraordinary wide scope. The East shares some of the Western background in terms of pre-linguistic, oral philosophy, and an inheritance of stories of ostensibly supernatural (or at least not-mundane) gods and goddesses not completely different from the world of Homer and Hesiod; you can find philosophers in the East who (as in the West) have held that human beings are naturally oriented to the good (Mencius) or we are naturally drawn to less good, selfish ends (Xunit); there are cases of what some would call “dualism” (a term that should probably be banished from the language) in the sense that some Eastern philosophers distinguished matter and spirit (as one finds with Ishvarakrishna in which matter is prakriti and spirit is purusha); there are skeptical arguments that predate Descartes’ famous challenge when it comes to thinking about radical alternatives—how do you know that you are actually experiencing and interacting with the world as it is or simply dreaming or you are under the influence of an all-powerful, deceitful spirit? Some contemporary philosophers think that radical skepticism is an exclusively Western produce: this is demonstrably false. See the work of Nagarjuna.

You might think of Karma and reincarnation as distinctively “Eastern,” but Pythagoras and Plato may be attributed with belief in reincarnation that is determined (as with Karma) by merit. You may think that, after the advent of Christianity, the West is exclusively concerned with the existence or non-existence of God as a Creator and person-like as opposed to the monism (all is one) of the East. But the West has philosophers who embrace forms of monism (Spinoza), and while the East has its monists (Shankara), it has its theists or theistic-like counterparts (Ramanuja). In many areas, including logic, philosophy of mind, aesthetics, epistemology, metaphysics, political theory, you can find some parallels: for example, Machiavelli might be favorably compared with Han Feizi or Kautilya.

If you do a close study of the main currents of Eastern philosophy, you will cover much of the ground of philosophy in the West, and vice-versa, but of course the history of culture and philosophy East and West has many significant, particular features that do not admit of translation or parallels. The history of philosophy and religion on the Korean peninsular is, for example, unique in world history. The Japanese drawing on (or importing of) Chinese philosophy and culture also seems unparalleled (it is not sufficiently similar to the Roman appropriation of Greek philosophy and culture for the comparison to be interesting).

Nevertheless, please beware of facile, simplistic summaries on the web about “the difference between Eastern and Western philosophy.” A random search came up with this depiction [I put in quotes but I have also paraphrased] of East and West: “The West involves the rational, scientific, and logical. Western philosophy is principally focused on discovering what is true. Eastern philosophy is more concerned with balance, the intuitive, and the interior or spiritual.” But if that is so, how does one account for the extraordinarily developed work on logic in India or the scientific advances in China altogether pre-dating the West (the invention of gun powder, the compass, paper, etc.), the great debates between different schools of Buddhism, as well as the rational, fine-tuned, highly analytic arguments one finds in Buddhist and Hindu philosophers as they debate what is true and reasonable? As for intuition, one finds all kinds of appeals to what is self-evident or appears true to us through different faculties, and there is even a major movement in the West in ethics and the theory of knowledge known as intuitionism.

Fourth, there is a fitting balance between the goals of studying the history of philosophy and carrying out the practice of philosophy on some given theme (ethics or metaphysics, for example) without making historical context foundational.

The way this point is phrased, it may be difficult to challenge; who wants to be out of balance? But one way to make this thesis more interesting would be to offer some examples. Often, it seems, that the appeal to history becomes significant in a philosophical dialogue when it appears that a philosopher has not taken sufficient account of some past argument or position. So, imagine you are working today in philosophy of mind and you are developing an argument about personal identify over time. Imagine that you have developed a substantial argument that is articulated in light of publications in philosophy over the past twenty years. As you submit your work for review, imagine your professor or the reviewers of your paper for a journal introduce the following objections:

This work is flawed, because the key thesis has been shown to be false in light of Wittgenstein’s private language argument.


This paper is an utter failure because it fails even to mention Kant’s case for a transcendental ego based on the possibility of undetected subject


While the paper has some merit in addressing Parfit’s no-self theory of persons, it fails to take seriously Hume’s work in the Treatise.

How should one respond? Might these objections have merit? They might, but note that none of the references have won consensus among philosophers today. The private language argument is highly controversial and many philosophers today find it so flawed that it is not worthy of continued dialogue.

In sum, it seems that the importance of referencing and engaging historical or past arguments will be context-dependent. If you are writing for thinkers who are thoroughly Humean, it will be both natural and expected that you address Hume or Humean arguments. If the journal, department, or philosophical association you are address is based largely on the conviction that Kant was correct in the Critique of Pure Reason that no one can observe his or her self, then it is pivotal that a philosopher not ignore this background.

So, what might be a fifth point? Despite all the above observations and qualifications about when geography, especially the distinction between West and East, may or may not be important, what follows is a very general characterization of what might count as “Western philosophy.”

Western philosophy is the history of reflection on the structure of reality and the methods of investigating reality (observation, perception, reason, memory), values (including ethics, the right and the good, the wrong and evil or what is bad, beauty and ugliness, values to be found in the arts), the scope and limits of knowledge (including the distinction between knowledge and true belief), the self (or soul or mind), the divine or the sacred, theories of governance (including philosophical reflection on culture, society, law, duties), the meaning of life, the possibility of an afterlife, and similar topics, as historically originating with Socrates and earlier philosophers in the eastern Mediterranean (commonly called Pre-Socratics like Pythagoras and Parmenides who flourished in what is today Egypt, Italy, Greece, Turkey) and stemming through antiquity (as represented by Philo and Plotinus), medieval philosophical traditions (Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Scotus, Ockham), the Renaissance (such as Marsileo de Facino), early modern philosophy (Cambridge Platonists, Descartes, Hobbes, Leibniz, Locke…) to modern philosophy (Hume, Kant, Hegel) and late modern philosophy (Kierkegaard, Mill, Nietzsche) and current philosophy, roughly from the mid-twentieth century to the present, mostly in Europe (Russell, Moore, Heidegeer, Wittgenstein, Rawls) and the Americas (James, Dewey, Quine).

Over the last one hundred years, the above portrait has expanded to include important Islamic philosophy (or philosophy in the context of Islam). Muslim thinkers such as Avicenna, Averroes (otherwise referred to as Ibn Rushd), Al-Ghazali, Jewish thinkers such as Miamonides. Islamic and Jewish philosophy was (and is being) brought into the greater Western canon in contributing to reflection on God, revelation (Hebrew Bible, Christian Bible, the Qur’an), the relationship of faith and reason, the ethical significance of divine commands, specifically religious virtues (worship, love) in comparison with non-religious values (the Aristotelian virtue tradition). This expansion of the narrative of Western philosophy has filled out a picture of how Christian philosophy (or philosophy inspired by Christianity or philosophy as practiced by Christians) compares with (and is interwoven with) Jewish and Islamic thought. This changing portrait of Western philosophy may be seen by comparing Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy with the later series in the history of philosophy by Frederick Copleston.

Western philosophy has also expanded to give more attention to thinkers who were not at first given full recognition as philosophers such as Pascal, Marx, Freud.

Looking at more recent developments, over the last 60 years “Western philosophy” has expanded even further. This expansion includes increased attention to female philosophers, not just in the last 60 years (Iris Murdoch, Suzanne Langer, Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, and so on), but also to include women from the very earliest philosophy in the West (as one finds in the multi-volume work The History of Women Philosophers).

Western philosophy has also come to addresses with increased emphasis the psychological, social, political, ethnic, and the economic, as well as matters of sexuality, reproduction, and family (as one finds in race theory, gender studies, black studies, and so on). Obviously these topics have a long history with vestiges in Ancient philosophy in the west, but they have come to the forefront for many today as increasingly important to address in the academy and in popular culture (in which philosophers sometimes participate as “public intellectuals”).

But what about this “encounter” between Western and Eastern philosophy? We have noted above a range of cases in which Western and Eastern philosophers have taken up similar positions. To add only one more: Mohism is a Chinese philosophical outlook that very much reflects a philosophy of universal love that has something in common with what Christians identify as universal love and utilitarians stress in terms of treating all persons with equal care and respect. But what of the actual encounter between persons born in Europe and those in the East? If the East includes the Mid-East and Near-East then there has been a great deal of exchanges in culture from antiquity onward. Perhaps the most dramatic has been the influence of Zoroastrianism on Manichaeism. If we move further east (east of Baghdad, say), the fourth century BCE conquests of Alexander the Great opened up opportunities for contact between Europe and India, creating some occasions when we have records of some “Westerners” becoming Buddhists. The ancient and medieval worlds experienced a great deal of interchange, including one of the most extraordinary cross-cultural migrations in the history of ideas when the works of Aristotle and Greek drama and more seem to have vacated Europe only to return after centuries of being kept safe and providing ample intellectual stimulation for Arab, Persian, and Turkish (or Ottoman) philosophers.

In the early modern and modern era of western philosophy, noted individual philosophers paid particular attention to philosophy that they began to encounter from India and China. See, for example, work on the East by Leibniz, Kant, Schopenhauer, Hegel, William James, and Thoreau (to select some random examples). But the truth is far more extensive in terms of influence. The text Oriental Enlightenment by J.J. Clarke is a great place to begin to get this broader point of view.