Saturday, 15 June 2013

Why Study Ancient Philosophy?

Ramkrishna Bhattacharya

"Why do you study ancient philosophy?"

I have faced this question so often that it is high time to give a reply in print.

The question may be answered rather tartly, following a famous mountaineer: 'Because it's there.'1 Such an answer, however, will not satisfy everybody.Yet the answer is perfectly valid. ’The first philosophers’ (as George Thomson called the Presocratics) succeeded in making the final break with mythology; by turning themselves into physiologoi, observers of nature ‘as it is without alien addition’ (Engels 198) they laid the basis of the scientific method. Benjamin Farrington noted that they were more than mere observers of nature: ‘The novelty of their modes of thought is only negatively explained by the rejection of mystical or supernatural intervention. It is its positive content that is decisive.’ (41)

The comment is equally true of the ancient Indian materialists. They too rejected any preternatural creator and asserted that consciousness arises out of matter, not the other way round.

J. D. Bernal further points out why the Presocratics are of importance even now:
‘Greek thought, for historical reasons, underlies that of later ages, and particularly the theories of modern science, social as well as natural. We cannot think rationally except along the lines the first philosophers laid down for us; most often we think in the very words they first invented.’ (22)
Bernal explains why ancient Greek philosophy is particularly important for the Marxists:
To a Marxist these are by no means just far away and long ago events to be studied for their intrinsic interest alone. They are part of the struggle of today and tomorrow. Marx himself wrote his doctoral thesis on the atomic philosophy of Democritus and Epicurus; Engels, notably in The Origin of the Family, discusses the social origins of the Greeks. Just because reaction is still able to use ideological weapons forged in defence of privilege in Ancient Greece, there is all the more reason to examine how and why this was done and to show the contrasting ideology which is arising in the making of a classless society. (22)
JD Bernal
Defenders of the existing forms of class society indeed often refer back to the glorious past of India and highlight only a part of it. They tacitly deny the existence of classes in ancient civilizations and speak of the idealist systems of philosophy as the greatest achievement of human speculation. Greece produced Plato, India produced Sankaracarya: they are projected as infallible guides for all times. Many people fall prey to such propaganda. Generations of scholars too have joined in reasserting this claim. If a challenge is to be thrown to them, one must learn what the other side of the shield was like, and explain why the other side had not been brought to light.

For example, was idealism the only form of philosophy cultivated in India through the ages? Was there no dissident voice at any point of time? It is not enough to conjecture that there must have been anti-idealists and anti-fideists in India. Concrete evidence would have to be produced to establish any counter claim. One can always assert that any view about the world is bound to produce its opposite: as early materialism was followed by idealism, latter-day idealism begot materialism anew. Such an assertion, however logical and convincing it may sound, needs empirical evidence to support it. All the evidence may not be available on the surface; they have to be unearthed.

This kind of attempt has its drawbacks too. It may lead to another sort of glorification of the past. Farrington cautioned long ago:
There is great danger, in discussing these old thinkers, that one may read into them the meaning of a later age. It must always be remembered that they were ignorant of all the accumulated knowledge of modern science and all the refinement of ideas that centuries of philosophical discussion had produced. In the world of thought, as in the world of nature, everything flows.2 The very words with which we translate the sayings of Heraclitus are charged with meanings unknown to him. It takes an effort of historical research and of historical imagination to put oneself back into the frame of mind of this great thinker when he supposed himself to have solved the riddle of the universe by saying that there was a tension in things, ‘like the bow and the lyre’. (41)
What is true of Heraclitus is also true of Kanada, the founder of Vaiseshika atomism, and even of the Carvakas who were the last school of materialists in India. Hence a balanced view regarding the ancients, giving praise where it is due and keeping in mind the shortcomings that inevitably accompanied their achievements, is to be studiously maintained. The same approach would apply to the moderns as well. Notwithstanding the inroads they have made and are making, posterity will also judge them in the same way, acknowledging their credits but, at the same time, noting what they missed.


It may not be out of place here to remember how Frederick Engels assessed the value of ancient philosophers. After dealing with the new strides made in the fields of geology, physics, chemistry and biology, Engels concluded:
Thus we have once again returned to the mode of outlook of the great founders of Greek philosophy, the view that the whole of nature, from the smallest element to the greatest, from grains of sand to suns, from Protista to man, has its existence in eternal coming into being and passing away, in ceaseless flux, in unresting motion and change. (30-31)
More significantly Engels added a proviso:
Only with the essential difference that what in the case of the Greeks was a brilliant intuition, is in our case the result of strictly scientific research in accordance with experience, and hence also it emerges in a much more definite and clear form. (31. Italics mine.)
Frederick Engels
Does it mean that the nineteenth-century scientists had solved the whole mystery of nature and left nothing for their successors to explore? Engels was modest enough to admit that ‘empirical proof of this cyclical course’ is  still not free from gaps,’ but said in defence that ‘these are insignificant in comparison with what has already been firmly established, and with each year they become more and more filled up.’ (31)

Writing in the 1870s Engels further argued that the most important branches of science ‘have a scientific existence of barely a century, and the comparative method in physiology, one of barely fifty years, and that the basic form of almost all organic development, the cell, is a discovery not yet forty years old’ (31).


Let us go back to the question that was raised at the beginning of this essay. Engels provides an answer that concerns empirical natural science vis-à-vis philosophy:
Empirical natural science has accumulated such a tremendous mass of positive material for knowledge that the necessity of classifying it in each separate field of investigation systematically and in accordance with its inner inter-connection has become absolutely imperative. It is becoming equally imperative to bring the individual spheres of knowledge into the correct connection with one another. In doing so, however, natural science enters the field of theory and here the methods of empiricism will not work, here only theoretical thinking can be of assistance. (42. Italics mine.)
To those who have an insufficient acquaintance with Marxism, such a statement may appear to be somewhat unexpected. But Engels did emphasize the importance of ‘theory’ without any reservation. What he says next may appear equally startling to some:
But theoretical thinking is an innate quality only as regards natural capacity. This natural capacity must be developed, improved, and for its improvement there is as yet no other means than the study of previous philosophy. (42-43. Italics mine.)
How can ‘previous philosophy’ be of any use in the study of modern science? Engels the dialectician explains the matter lucidly:
In every epoch, and therefore also in ours, theoretical thought is a historical product, which at different times assumes very different forms and, therewith, very different contents. The science of thought is therefore, like every other, a historical science, the science of the historical development of human thought. And this is of importance for the practical application of thought in empirical fields. … Formal logic itself has been the arena of violent controversy from the time of Aristotle to the present day. And dialectics has so far been fairly closely investigated by only two thinkers, Aristotle and Hegel. (43. Italics mine.)
Why is dialectics so important in the present-day world? Engels puts his finger on what has come to be known as the philosophy of science:
But it is precisely dialectics that constitute the most important form of thinking for present-day natural science, for it alone offers the analogue for, and thereby the methods of, explaining the evolutionary processes occurring in nature, inter-connection in general, and transitions from one field of investigation to another. (43)
At this point Engels deplores the lack of acquaintance of modern natural scientists with the history of philosophy. It has caused great harm to the advancement of knowledge. Moreover, what is now claimed to be something new may, historically speaking, not be true: in very many cases old wisdom has reappeared in a new garb. But modern scientists were not aware of it. Engels mentions a specific case:
Since physics and chemistry once more operate almost exclusively with molecules and atoms, the atomic philosophy of ancient Greece has of necessity come to the fore again. But how superficially it is treated even by the best of natural scientists! Thus Kekulé tells us … that Democritus, instead of Leucippus, originated it, and he maintains that Dalton was the first to assume the existence of qualitatively different elementary atoms, and was the first to ascribe to them different weights characteristic of different elements. Yet anyone can read in Diogenes Laertius … that already Epicurus had ascribed to atoms differences not only of magnitude and form, but also of weight, that is, he was already acquainted in his own way with atomic weight and atomic volume. (44. Italics in the original.)
George Thomson writes on the atomic theory of the Greeks in considerable detail (302-14). But he makes an important reservation regarding the ‘atomist cosmology’:
The resemblance of the atomic theory of Demokritos and Epicurus to the atomic theory of modern physics is superficially so striking that we are tempted to regard the work of those philosophers as scientific. This is a mistake. Ancient atomism is not science but ideology. It is, no less than Parmenidean monism and Platonic idealism, an exercise of pure reason ‘reflecting the structure of the society in which it was generated. (312. Italics mine.)
J. D. Bernal, himself a practicing scientist, however, looks at the matter in a different way. He concurs with Thomson’s formulation that ‘the truth of the matter is, not that these ancient Greeks anticipated the results of modern science, but that modern scientists have succeeded in reaffirming certain fundamental but forgotten truths and establishing them securely on the basis of experimental proof’ (Thomson 162). Nevertheless Bernal insists:
But this is only part of the story. Those truths would never have been reaffirmed, never indeed examined but for the form in which their first statement was made, a form clear enough to be grasped, tested, rejected, and improved upon. The Greeks were supreme as model builders. Even if the models came from clan organization they are the linear ancestors of our modern scientific concepts. The atom of today is not a rediscovery, it is the original Democritan atom, hard, massy, impenetrable, that was recovered by Gassendi and passed through Newton to Rutherford. (31. Italics mine.)
This indeed is a strong reassertion of Engels’s emphasis on the importance of theoretical thought, which is no less important than empirical research. Why is it so? The following observation made by Engels is therefore worth pondering:
The fact that our subjective thought and the objective world are subject to the same laws, and hence, too, that in the final analysis they cannot contradict each other in their results, but must coincide, governs absolutely our whole theoretical thought. It is the unconscious and unconditional premise for theoretical thought. (266)
This is why ancient philosophy has much to teach us even today, for much of it was grounded in sound theoretical thought.


1George Mallory (1886-1924) said this in reply to the question, ‘Why did you want to climb Mount Everest?’ Reported in an article published in the New York Times, 18.3.1923.

2 The fragment, ‘Everything flows’ (panta rhei), it is now more or less certain, is not one of Heraclitus’ sayings nor has it survived as a quotation from his works (all lost). Simplicius (c.496-560), a neoplatonist, first refers to it. Plato (Cratylus 401d and 402a), however, uses a different verb: ‘Everything moves’ (panta chorei).

The image of flux even then is Heraclitean and it is tempting to compare it with the Buddhist doctrine of impermanence (kshanabhanga).

The image of ‘the bow and the lyre’ mentioned at the end of the passage quoted above, however, is an authentic Heraclitean saying (Fragment 51 (Diels)). See Barnes, 65-66 and Freeman, 28.

Works Cited

Barnes, Jonathan. The Presocratic Philosophers. London and New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986.
Bernal, J.D. ‘The Birth of Reason,’ Mainstream (USA), 10:6, 1957, 22-31. (A review of the US edition of George Thomson’s The First Philosophers published by International Publishers, New York).
Engels, Frederick. Dialectics of Nature. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1982 (Strictly speaking, not a ‘book’, but the edited version of four folders consisting of unfinished drafts. Published posthumously from the USSR in 1925).
Farrington, Benjamin. Greek Science: Its Meaning for Us. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1966.
Freeman, Kathleen. Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1962.
Thomson, George. The First Philosophers (Studies in Ancient Greek Society, vol. 2). London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1955.

Acknowledgements: Siddhartha Datta and Sunish Kumar Deb

This essay first appeared in Psyche and Society, Volume 11, No.1, May 2013. The original title of the essay was ‘Why Do You Study Ancient Philosophy?


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