- A Story Waiting to Pierce You: Mongolia, Tibet and the Destiny of the Western World
Is Presocratic Philosophy a distinctively or exclusively Greek invention or are its roots intercultural? Are the origins of Western thought distinctively Western or are they already Eastern in a way that undermines the East-West distinction itself?
It has been customary, with some significant exceptions, to regard Presocratic philosophy as a largely Western phenomenon, one that charts the emergence of rationality or logos from the amorphous substratum of myth, religious practices, prayer, and magic that is understood to have characterized not only Western prehistory but the presumed general malaise of irrationality prior to the recognition of a "West" in the first place.
Of course, the emergence of rationality has not been seen as a complete break with earlier mythological thinking either in the nineteenth century, with figures such as Hegel, or in the early twentieth century, when Kranz in his 1934 edition of Diels' Fragmente der Vorsokratiker transferred the section on Early Cosmological Poetry from the Appendix to its present position before the treatment of Thales. In addition, the neat division between fragments and testimonies emphasized by Diels-Kranz, that is, between the supposed ipsissima verba of the Presocratics themselves and the testimonies of later authors such as Aristotle, Theophrastus, or Hippolytus of Rome, has understandably been questioned by many scholars (since most original Presocratic writings are lost, we "are left with a rag-bag"1). The precise quality of what it is that makes these thinkers "philosophical"—be it the use of logic, reason, argument, science, observation, or even experiment—continues to be problematic if for no other reason than that the philosophical presuppositions of much later thinkers such as Hegel, Nietzsche, the Neo-Kantians, and ourselves may well have tended to falsify the history of Greek philosophy rather more drastically than any less nocuous distortions introduced by earlier thinkers such as Aristotle or Theophrastus. But even with the problems of falsification and distortion put to one side, our understanding of the Presocratics is necessarily filtered through the philosophers, doxographers, and interpreters who have preserved or obscured their thought—together with our own presuppositions about what these early figures were doing. For Eduard Zeller in the nineteenth century, Milesian thought was "a complete fusion of philosophy and science." Guthrie's monumental history of Greek Philosophy marks such thought as "the beginning of rational thought in Europe" and maps the move from myth and religion to rational explanation in terms of an "intellectual craving for knowledge."2
Characteristic of the Presocratics, then, is the rise of science along with the emergence of a Western paradigm so curiously redolent of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Joseph Owens, in his History of Ancient Western Philosophy, acknowledges the prehistoric stimulation of contacts "with other peoples," but adds that "whatever indirect influence Egyptian, Iranian, or even Indian currents of thought may have exercised, no one has yet been able to trace the origins of Greek philosophy proper to any source other than the Greeks themselves.3 For J. V. Luce, thirty-three years [End Page 281] later in 1992, the situation is even less nuanced: "Foreign influences were minimal. Greek philosophy has a good claim to be regarded as the most original and influential achievement of the Greek genius."4
Yet such views have not been able to hold the entire field. Walter Burkert for instance, in many works and in a chapter of the 2008 Oxford Handbook of Presocratic Philosophy, has argued that the influence of the East on the origins of Greek philosophy is important and that the evolution of Greek thought needs to be firmly placed "in the rich perspective of its intercultural background."5
But perhaps the most radical opponent of an East-West dichotomy—or of the view that sees a Western philosophy emerging confidently from the mists of irrationality and forging its inevitable progress into the light of reason—has been Peter Kingsley, starting with his Ancient Philosophy, Mystery and...