The origin of philosophy shrouded in mystery
The starting point of philosophy is sometimes said to be wonder and
curiosity. The view that philosophy begins in wonder is generally
attributed to Plato. Evidently, Chinese philosophy and Indian philosophy
did not begin in mere wonder. It is doubtful that any philosophy of life
can really begin in wonder.
The problems of life have a seriousness about them that it is not
always associated with wonder. Confucius was made to reflect by the
chaos and confusion that prevailed in China of the time. Such chaos was
not a cause of wonder but of pain. The Upanisadic thinkers were
certainly not impressed by the defects and imperfections of social and
political life. Yet they were keenly sensitive to the defects and
imperfections of life in general, the conditions of phenomenal
Plato wrote his ‘Republic’ because he was dissatisfied with
conditions of society at the time. The urge for writing The Republic did
not originate in wonder.
Socrates was serious in his inquiries, and so was his disciple Plato.
So, neither with the Upanisadic thinkers nor with Confucius, Socrates
or Plato did philosophy start in wonder.
With Buddha it started with the idea of suffering; the world is full
of suffering, how can man overcome it? So, no philosophy that wanted to
show a way of life could have begun in mere wonder.
It was a desire for some existence higher than the present, whether
in the cosmos, society, or the state and for a perfect life, happier and
less defective than the present, that offered the motive for every
philosophy of life.
Whitehead said thought starts with negation or negative judgement. In
logic the negative may presuppose the affirmative; but in life the first
act of reflection starts with the negative.
If life runs smoothly and unobstructed, there will be no thought and
consequently no philosophy.
When there is obstruction, either thought must arise or life must
become extinct. But life resists extinction and produces thought.
Thought seizes upon the obstruction, avoids it, or discovers a way for
It is man's hope that perfection can be attained and life can be made
smooth, pleasant and happy by improving the condition of the world and
making them conform to the nature of man or by making man conform to
them or by doing both.
Without dissatisfaction with the present, there is no science and no
philosophy, because thought then has no stimulus to commence its work.
What is sometimes said about religion – that it could not have
started without some pessimism – holds true of philosophy also.
In the oft-quoted words of the Pope “The proper study of mankind is
man.” Man has two dimensions, which are also the direction of his
conscious being, a being never static but directed outwards towards the
objects of sensation, perception, emotion, feeling and thought or
inwards and through his very core to something which is variously called
the universal spirit god and so forth.
Men have always believed that the limit of their inward consciousness
is the same for all; God or universal spirit is one, not many. In
between the two limits, men are many and seperate from each other.
This is a very complex situation: and the philosophies of the world,
Indian, Chinese and Western, have attempted to understand it in various
In the child of humanity the consciousness of the inward and the
outward could not have been very clear and definite. Each was taken for
the other in different degrees.
The methods for understanding each and the position of man with
reference to them were first crudely and naively grasped: it was only as
the thought of mankind matured that the methods also developed with the
Sometimes the outward was regarded as primary, and even as the only
reality; at other times primacy was assigned to the inward. In between
there were various degrees of overemphasis of under emphasis on one or
the other, according to the temperament, stimuli and urgency of the
problems offered by the social, political, and natural environment of
Concept of matter
Philosophy based on the concept of matter alone or of life alone or
of spirit alone cannot be adequate. It must be based upon man. So one
could come to the conclusion that philosophy should start with man.
He has to be the central idea. Dissatisfied with approaches from
spirit, the philosopher started with physical nature or matter in order
to have a sure foundation for philosophy.
Unable to explain life, man's ethical nature, and spiritual
experience from the side of matter, some started with life, thinking
that it was a less intangible foundation than spirit. But they were
unable to explain matter and spirit from the side of life. Faith in the
supernatural sometimes got the upper hand.
Then man lost confidence in reason, experience, and action, even so
far as this world was concerned.
Then why not start with man, for whom philosophy is meant as a guide
to life and for whom lie, mind and spirit have meaning and significance?
(In man all have met and been integrated. Philosophy has to clarify the
nature of this integrality and give man a picture of what he is.
Treatises on philosphical beginnings show how man struggled hard in
different parts of the world to understand himself and his environment,
to discover the meaning of his life.