Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Western Philosophy, First Installment

Philosophy begins with Plato, a Greek from Athens. He founded a school, regarded as the precursor of the modern university. Situated in Athens, it was called the Academy. In it he taught philosophy and other subjects as well. Politics comes especially to mind. He was especially keen on the study of mathematics, which he saw as importantly linked to philosophy. Plato flourished in substantially the 400s and early 300s b.c.e. This was the time when, shortly after the time of Pericles (the military general and statesman, famous for leading Athens to ascendency through victory in the Persian wars), Athens was occupied in the Peloponnesian wars, in which it met with defeat, having been overwhelmed by Sparta. Culturally/intellectually speaking, Athens was heir to the great literary tradition represented most notably by the works of Homer, the Odyssey and the Iliad. There wasn’t any philosophy in those works; but they did vividly portray the moral outlook (centered on honor and heroism) of the Greek culture. Apart from Homer, there is also the literary work of Hesiod, and of others, to bear in mind. However, here we shall blithely pass over all of these. We’ll conclude this paragraph by mentioning that Greek city-states, Athens in particular, were run politically as democracies in the direct sense – meaning that issues were decided by popular vote, taken in the Assemblies (with various strictures as to who was qualified to belong to the franchise). Now, as promised, to the next paragraph.

We began by noting that Plato inaugurates philosophy. But this is, of course, an inaccuracy. Plato was immediately preceded by his rightfully famous philosophy-teacher, Socrates. And as I shall point out in a moment (actually, in another post, G-d willing), Socrates in turn was preceded by yet others. Why, then, claim that Plato was the original Western philosopher? The answer is that there is something to be said for basing a narrative like the one I am developing on the notion that, to qualify as a historically significant philosopher, a figure has got to be known substantially through his writings. Socrates did not write; and though some of Socrates’ precursors did write, they are not substantially known through their writings, as their writings have been lost to us. Plato, on the other hand, famously wrote dialogues, which – judging by the consensus of opinion – stand at the foundation of all subsequent philosophical theorizing. So the choice of Plato is amply justified.

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