The Origins of Philosophy: The Greeks and Us

At the time of Socrates (472–399 BC) many Greeks were no longer believers in the stories of the gods and goddesses.  Those stories had provided them with guidance for their lives.  They had believed that they could not go against the decrees of the deities and that they should follow the examples of the gods and goddesses which they knew of through the stories they all heard and memorized and repeated.  They accepted ideas such a fate and destiny.  Now they were hearing the stories being challenged and some declared their disbelief.  The playwrights were raising questions on the stages.  Some thought they could choose from among the tales those stories that supported whatever courses of conduct they choose.  They believed that they could show that some god or other approved of the conduct because the god had done something similar.  There were many who believed that morality was individual and relative.

At the time of Socrates Greek culture was undergoing a major revolution.  They were transforming from an oral culture to a literate culture.  They were acquiring paper and so they could write down the stories and the plays and important ideas.  They no longer needed to memorize what they heard and repeat it as exactly as possible in order to transmit ideas.  Plato could write down ideas and examine them.  He could write questions and reasoned arguments for readers to reflect upon.

Today, there are many people who no longer effectively believe in the stories of the one god.  There are many who are convinced that there are no universal moral codes and people need to determine their own morality.  Further, the West is being transformed from a literate culture to an electronic culture.  We are at the beginning of a period in which we are attempting to develop a morality for the new age.

Many no longer accept the idea of universal truth.  We shall be examining how we arrived at this point starting back with the Greeks at the time of Socrates.  What Philosophy became then and offered to people, it is still today and could offer to all of us if we were to pursue the philosophical approach to handling the issues and key questions.  All of the key issues in Philosophy were quite apparent in the works of Plato and Aristotle.  We shall take a rather brief look at the Greeks in order to understand how Philosophy arises within a culture and at the key issues.  We shall also make comparisons to the present time in order to appreciate the relevance of all of this for each of us today.

This text shall make use of a theory about education developed by Alfred North Whitehead.  Learning moves through stages.  They are:

  • Romance
  • Precision
  • Generalization

It starts with curiosity, a story, a problem. There is not much critical thinking at all.  In the second stage there is a great deal of critical thinking focusing on the problem and paying attention to consistency, coherency and the non-contradiction criteria by which thought is to be evaluated.  In the last stage there is a return to the flights of imagination again as the mind applies what is developed in the second stage and then applies it further.

There will be a good deal of story telling in the next chapter.  You may find it very interesting and even a bit entertaining.  In the remaining chapters the thinking will become more focused, intense and demanding.


As people grow and mature and learn they acquire beliefs and entire belief systems.  They do so through receiving and accepting as true stories about how things are in this world and in a realm beyond this one and through the beliefs implicit in ordinary language and its usages.  Thus are acquired assumptions and presuppositions for the thought processes entered into through life.  In the beginning those acquiring such beliefs want to be accepted and even valued by the various groups of which they are or desire to be members, so there is an emphasis on acceptance of the beliefs shared by members of those groups and not on review or criticism of them.  There is little, if any, reflective thought or critical thinking taking place.  Little is needed if the majority of group members are operating with the beliefs without questioning of them.

Once acquired the belief systems function as a basis for the acquisition of additional beliefs.  As another idea is presented it is placed within the context of the previously acquired beliefs and if the new candidate for inclusion is consistent with or coherent with the prior beliefs and ideas it is accepted as also being true.  This is the coherentist theory of truth.  The problem with that approach to truth is that there needs to be some other method for the establishment of the fundamental beliefs or else the entire structure of beliefs while internally coherent might not be supported by any evidence external to the beliefs themselves.

As belief systems expand they can reach a point where beliefs and ideas have been accepted too hastily and when a culture or individual reach a point where reflective thought can be afforded inconsistencies and perhaps even outright contradictions may appear upon reflection.  Upon the first realization of problems, the belief systems will not be abandoned altogether and will not even be thrown into serious doubt.  Rather there will be attempts to preserve the belief system through the introduction of qualifiers and alternate interpretations designed to account for what are to be termed “apparent” discrepancies.  This process will continue until the introduction of the qualifiers and alternative interpretations reaches a point where they generate the need for even further such qualifiers and the process then becomes so burdensome that the fundamental beliefs and ideas may then come under the most careful scrutiny and there is an acceptance of a need for an alternate set of beliefs that are more internally coherent and satisfying to demands of reason and the desire for external grounding.

This occurred in the time of Socrates when the many stories about the gods and goddesses were seen through the eyes of critical reasoning to be inconsistent and incoherent.  For Socrates a basis for the grounding of morality and the social order was needed other than that provided by the stories of the Greek deities.  In addition to sharing this realization with Socrates, Plato saw that the ideas and theories of the pre-Socratics were inconsistent and there was needed an alternate view of what made anything real and how one could know anything.

Now for Socrates, Plato and Aristotle the idea of the Greek deities came to make little sense in the light of reason and so the idea of a more abstract entity emerges with them as more satisfying as an explanation of origins and order.   Their ideas satisfy the dictates of reason for which they abandoned the blind adherence to the stories of their ancestors.  These are developments that mark the origins of philosophical thought in the West.

With other western religious belief systems there were also prompts to the development of a critical thought tradition. The early Hebrew deity is one that has apparent weaknesses and is not at all perfect in every way.  It is jealous and vindictive and unjust. For the Christians the idea of the Hebrew deity was not going to be acceptable to those who had come under the influence of the Greek manner of thought.    The Christians take the idea of the all perfect being , the source of all that is true , good and beautiful, from the Greeks and layer it over the idea of the single deity of the Hebrews.  The ideas about the qualities of the early Hebrew god when combined ideas about the Greek ideal deity have made for many problems.  The Western traditions treat the scriptures as being in some sense divinely inspired or authored and thus, for many in those traditions who are conservative and literalists, they carry the ideas of the early Hebrew deity along with them leading to complications as there arises the need to explain how an all good deity and an all merciful deity can be so cruel and vindictive as in some of the stories in the early books or chapters of the scriptures.   The Problem of Evil arises as an attempt to give an account that makes sense as to how an all perfect being could exist at the same time that there exists moral evil.  Troubles with a simple belief prompt critical reflection and the desire to use reason to support the belief system.  Consideration of the troublesome issues led to Augustine and Aquinas moving beyond the traditions of faith and into philosophical thought and a reliance on reason to interpret and defend key  beliefs in the Christian tradition.

In recent times people acquire beliefs and ideas that are originating from several different belief systems and periods: the classical, modern and post modern.  Unfortunately, most start out by an unconscious acceptance that has tem holding beliefs without question despite the many inconsistencies and incoherent features of the resultant collection.  They accept the ideas as true as they originate from authorities and as they are shared in by peers.   They accept out of a desire to be accepted and to please.   The general post modern culture promotes uncritical thought patterns and so there are no prompts for reflective or critical thought.

Among the contradictory beliefs are the ideas that are held simultaneously of relativism and absolutism, empiricism and idealism, freedom and determinism, materialism and a non-physical mind.  Among the many odd combinations of beliefs are:

  • A single deity must exist and everyone is entitled to believe in whatever they wish concerning the deity and it will be true.
  • Reality consists of physical and spiritual entities and reality is whatever any group agrees that it is.
  • There are moral wrong or evil acts and whatever people think is morally correct is morally correct for them.
  • There are evil acts and there is no one way to declare anything to be evil.
  • We must make moral judgments for our safety and survival and that no one should make moral judgments about other people and their behaviors.
  • There are true and false claims and truth is not objective.
  • There is knowledge and there is no absolute or objective or certain knowledge.
  • Science is to be valued and trusted and folklore, mythology and spiritualism are equally acceptable sources of knowledge.
  • Human behavior is the result of causal factors and of what is fated or destined for each human and humans are totally free to decide for themselves what they will do.

Philosophy emerges within a culture when the belief systems no longer answer all the important questions and there are realized to be problems with the accepted set of beliefs.  One of the many problems with the post-modern belief set is that there are no contradictions or difficulties with belief sets that need to be addressed because contradictions and inconsistencies are acceptable as there are no objective criteria for thought to satisfy and so there is no need for the formal school system to be developing critical thinking concerning them.  Instead there is an exaggerated and harmful accenting of the value of tolerance of all beliefs and beliefs systems.   Opinions are not to be distinguished from proven claims, there being no objective knowledge, and every claim is merely opinion.  The inherited beliefs and beliefs systems are not examined within the formal educational system as it is infused throughout with post modern relativism.  Many of the teachers are themselves possessed of the incoherent belief systems.

So, many students arrive in colleges with poor habits of mind and beset with beliefs that are incoherent and contradictory.  Further, they are possessed of beliefs that make the development of their critical thinking skills very difficult.  Some believe that all claims are opinions and that there is no reason for them to examine ideas and beliefs that they hold as they are entitled to hold whatever beliefs they choose to hold and they choose to remain within their social sets and to do so they believe that they need to continue to hold the belief systems that are popular with those groupings and in some cases define those groups.

Mental habits and belief systems are not easily disturbed or called into serious question when they perform useful functions for the believer and do so in a powerful manner.

If a belief system offers hope and consolation in the face of death of a loved one or anticipated death of one’s own self then there is a very strong impulse to retain those beliefs for fear of the intellectual chaos that is feared would result by the rejection of the familiar belief system.  Further, there is the fear that in accepting another belief system one is disloyal to those groups to which one belongs that hold that belief set in common. Perhaps most influential in the decision to retain the beliefs that comfort one is the desire to have a soul that survives the death of the physical body and to have an eternal life in unimaginable pleasure which are thought to be lost if the belief system is rejected for another in which such desires are not guaranteed to be fulfilled.

The ability to have control over one’s beliefs may also be so valued that many would exercise the choice to maintain the old comforting beliefs as a display of that ability thus maintaining the illusion of control rather than to view the choice of examination and possible revision or rejection of the belief system as another experience offering evidence of the ability to control some aspect of one’s life.  It is far simpler and economical to conserve beliefs than to consider revisions thereof. Accepting and continuing beliefs that one is presented with is far less taxing in effort than the careful and critical examination of belief systems and the evaluation and decision making involved in the development and maintenance of a belief systems that is coherent and supported by evidence.

People want to hold whatever beliefs that they choose to hold and give no account for them other than to assert their right to hold whatever beliefs they choose and to insist that they must be tolerated in doing so by all others.

One of the accepted beliefs is that of tolerance as a value of the highest social importance.  Tolerance is a value expounded upon in a post modern culture as supportive of the relativism that is an essential component of the post modern epistemology, metaphysics and ethics.  Tolerance is not to be questioned as a value as it is promoted as a cornerstone to a desirable social arrangement.

Yet tolerance itself is a disvalue as post modernists would have promoted it.  Tolerance is not respect.  To be tolerant is to put up with something.  It does not include accepting it or considering it as valuable or worthy.  Tolerance of people and beliefs is promoted but it is misguided and harmful whenever to be tolerant of behaviors and ideas would hurt individuals and groups in physical and emotional ways.

Those who advocate tolerance cannot possibly be sincere in doing so.  This is so because they do not advocate being tolerant of:

  • Rapists
  • Murderers
  • Child molesters
  • Racists
  • Misogynists
  • Intolerant Groups and Individuals

They cannot be tolerant of such people and expect their promotion of tolerance to be accepted by others.

Post modern pluralists continue to promote tolerance as if it were unqualified for they do not and expect no one else will subject their promotion to critical examination for such an examination would not be popular or “politically correct”. They continue to promote tolerance as if it were unqualified for they do not hold careful and critical thought as being valuable as they believe that such thought challenges relativism.  They also mistakenly believe that critical thinking is somehow intolerant of individuals, groups and behaviors and beliefs they wish to have accepted.  The formal educational system promotes an uncritical tolerance and the belief in such and value of such.


Most folks think very little about Philosophy.  Of those who do many have some erroneous ideas about the discipline and its history.  One of the most troublesome, for Philosophers, of the mistaken ideas is that it is about opinions.  This idea when followed by the ideas that opinions are all humans have with which to think and all opinions are pretty much of equal value, these two ideas run directly opposed to what philosophers are attempting to do.  Philosophers quest after wisdom, which for John Dewey, is the quest to use what we know to gain what we most value.  Philosophers do this by using critical thinking concerning all that humans claim to know and to value.  This quickly becomes a quite involved process, examining the meaning of the word “knowledge” and other ideas such as; reality, truth, certainty, and value, among many other basic terms.  Philosophers take positions on the questions, issues and problems faced by the most critical of thinkers examining the most basic concerns that humans can entertain with thoughtful reflection.

Philosophers use critical thinking and reason and evidence to support the claims that they make and the positions that they hold.  This is quite different than merely making a claim , a statement, which is supported by nothing and thus an expression of the speaker’s opinion.  Philosophers are willing to examine all claims and all positions with their supporting reasoning and evidence.  They examine it looking for any flaws or problems.  They want the most satisfactory, and at times satisfying answers and solutions, to the questions and problems.


With Plato and his mentor Socrates we have a description of what Philosophy is about.   Humans are on a journey.  En route they face obstacles to overcome.  Major questions, problems and issues are like rivers that need to be crossed.  Now along one side of the river there are these rafts.  When you reach the river you may select any raft you want to use to get across the river.  There are many different types.  There are more than enough for everyone.  They differ in color, shape, materials, method of construction and size.  You want to select the best possible raft with which to cross the river.  No raft is perfect.  Each raft has a problem.  Each raft takes on water.  Some take on a lot and some very little.  Some are put together in a very shoddy manner and some are very well constructed.

Some people select the raft to use based on its color.  They like certain colors and have a favorite and that is all they care about.  Others select their rafts based on size and they want the biggest one they can find.  Each who selects has a reason and a method for the selection.  What a reasonable sensible person should want is the best possible raft that will carry its occupants across the river safely.

Philosophy is a method of thinking used to make the best possible selection of the raft which is the answer to the most basic questions that humans have about life, knowledge, truth, goodness, beauty, etc…

Philosophers hope to develop the best possible position and hope that it will do well when tested.  Over the centuries those positions philosophers thought were the best have been revealed to have problems.  New rafts were constructed and tested and found wanting again.  So, Philosophy is the quest for the best possible raft, knowing that it is highly probable that there is  no perfect raft.  As humans advance and progress and gather more experiences and develop more critical analysis and evaluation techniques philosophical positions are examined more closely and tested more thoroughly. Philosophy is a process. It is a method of thinking and as our knowledge grows so too will philosophy take all of it into consideration as the method attempts to produce the BEST POSSIBLE answers to the most important questions.

Some folks look for the “correct ” answer to a question or the “right” solution to a problem.  Philosophers have learned that what they do is look for the best possible answers and solutions.  So we shall look now at how Socrates developed a better method for finding the best answers and then we shall examine several important questions or issues and look at what philosophers have done with them over time.  In all of this the focus should be on the method of thinking that aims to arrive at the best possible, if not perfect, answers, solutions and positions.

But perhaps some prefer the comforts of beliefs even of blind faith to the effort at reaching positions closer to the truth.  For many this choice is a real dilemma presenting a difficult choice.  This sort of choice has been presented to humans in the story of Adam and Eve and again represented in the movie The Matrix.