What's Philosophy? (2,500 Years in 2.5 Hours)
In this video, I will tell you the story of human philosophy encompassing an incredible 2500 years of philosophical history. By the end of this video, you will know all the basic philosophical ideas, schools and approaches, as well as some of the most influential philosophers from around the world. The video has 4 major parts and each with 2 or 3 sections, just like chapters in books.
In part 1, I will answer the most fundamental question. Why are humans the only species that have invented philosophy? Or where does philosophy really come from? Also how has philosophy evolved in the past 2500 years? And why philosophy has so many branches such as ontology, epistemology, rationalism, empiricism, humanism, utilitarianism, existentialism, postmodernism and more? In part 2, I will look at the origin and differences between eastern philosophy and western philosophy. Why one emphasises spirituality, and changing yourself, while the other emphasises rationality, and changing the world . I will look at the Greek giants of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, as well as the three giants of eastern philosophy, the Buddha, Lao Tzu and Confucius.
In part 3, I will look at the philosophy of life and human civilisation. Is the purpose of human civilisation to promote equality or competition? Is the purpose of human life to seek knowledge or happiness? I will discuss philosophers such as Sun Tsu, Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacque Rousseau, Voltaire, Erasmus, Michel de Montaigne, Francis Bacon, Martin Heidegger, Michel Foucault, and Bertrand Russell. In part 4, I will tackle the question of knowledge and human motivation. How do we know reality?
I will discuss the school of European rationalism versus British empiricism and Kant’s reconciliation of the two. After Kant two distinct schools of philosophy emerged to explain human motivation. One sociological and one psychological. Hegel’s sociological philosophy argued we are motivated by historical forces, while Schopenhauer’s psychological philosophy argued we are motivated by a blind subconscious will. So get yourself a strong cup of coffee and some popcorn and let Fiction Beast take you on a journey of how homo sapiens’ huge brain terrified their tiny heart. As a result, they invented all sorts of beasts from gods to demons to fairies in an attempt to comfort themselves and explain the world. But also invented philosophy to answer 3 deep existential
questions. Why am I here? Where have I come from? And Where am I going? To answer your first question, you’re here because you’re curious about philosophy. So let’s begin. Why philosophy? What’s philosophy? How did we come about it? Why do we need it? And what’s happened to philosophy today? And what’s the future of philosophy? Today I will answer all these questions as I discuss the rise and fall of human philosophy. We humans utilize three massive weapons to navigate the world around us. And they’re
all built-in inside us. As a result, we humans are the most sophisticated animal that has ever lived on earth, which is incredible. Next time someone complains about the world being unfair, remind them of these amazing tools that every human has, while other animals don’t have all of them. What are they? Like all animals, the first and the most important tool is instinct, which most of the time subconsciously shapes our behaviours. We have three basic instincts: food, sex and company. Our first
and most important instinct is survival. We spent a minimum of 8 hours or 1/3 of our day working to earn bread. Imagine, if we didn’t have this instinct, how would you motivate yourself to work? Or worse still how would you motivate others to work? Our survival instinct goes beyond food, we instinctively avoid danger or anything that threatens our life. Do you know what happened to creatures who didn’t have survival instinct? They needed a self-help book to motivate themselves. After working 8 hours, in the evenings, we spend hours prowling our city centre bars and restaurants in search of a mate or courting a mate. This is the instinct to procreate.
Of course nowadays we chase a mate for recreational purposes. The sexual urge is so strongly wired in us, especially men, that we do it despite the fact that most of us have no plan to have children. The giant panda is going instinct because they have become too lethargic to have sex, so the Chinese government spends lots of money to make more pandas. Imagine our ancestors didn’t want to procreate. We wouldn’t be here. Our third basic instinct is seeking the company of other humans. While men have stronger sexual urge, women have a stronger urge for company. Without this instinct, we would all end up alone and perhaps
would never have a civilisation. Basically our instincts tell us what to do most of the time, so we don’t have to really think about it or twist our brain to motivate ourselves to do those things. We instinctively seek food, a partner, and the company of others, which allow our conscious brain to save energy on something else. The second weapon in how we navigate life is our emotions, which fluctuates day-to-day and allows us to understand ourselves and those around us. Our emotions give us hints about our environment. Depending on the time and place we feel angry, sad, frightened, content, happy and ecstatic. If instincts are like a climate that remains stable long-term,
our emotions are like whether that regulates our daily life. Our instinctive urges push us to do things to achieve what we want, but our environment says yes or no. For example in seeking a partner, we want someone but that person wants someone else. Or worse still
our survival is threatened, our emotions allows us to cope. So emotions allow us to grow, change and adapt to a new place or person somewhat quickly. Our emotions are incredibly powerful in motivating us to do things right away. Negative or positive emotions help us
grow and move on and seek a better environment. In fact, one of the reasons humans conquered the world is because we are not happy where we are for a long time. Apart from seeking food and safety, we are also motivated by boredom. So our emotions give our conscious mind more free time to do other things. Instead our emotions do the job for us in motivating us to move, grow and change.
Our third, and perhaps the most sophisticated weapon we have is reason, which is the basis of science and technology which allow civilisations to flourish. This makes us different from other animals, our ability to make rational decisions based on informed knowledge and calculated risk. Instinct and emotions are hardwired in us from birth but rationality is mostly learned through direct experiences of our own, as well as knowledge passed on from our parents and ancestors either orally or in writing. In fact, our rationality is so powerful that it can regulate our instincts and emotions. For example, our ability to delay gratification allows us to forgo our present pleasure for future and long-term pleasure. Of course, not all humans are born equal when it comes to delayed gratification.
Some want their cake right away. Some can wait a bit longer. But rationality is an incredible tool for us to look long-term, not just here and now. Today we live in a modern world, or in the age of rationality. All our modern technological conveniences are the result of rational science.
To sum up, humans are hardwired with three incredible tools: instincts, emotions and reason. But where does philosophy fit in this? The word philosophy in Greek means the love of wisdom. So the first true human science was philosophy. In fact philosophers were the first rational thinkers who replaced the wise old men or women. They were career thinkers, meaning they were known for their thoughts
and wisdoms. So philosophy at its core is a structured rational thinking. In other words, its foundation is rationality. Why? We humans developed a more sophisticated brain, perhaps the discovery of fire allowed us to cook our food, so we could digest our food much quicker as a result we had more time to think. When you’re busy, you have no time to think. In fact, I do my thinking
while in the toilet, because I don’t take my smartphone with me. But this brain, good in many ways, also came with a disadvantage. It allowed us to develop acute consciousness and self-awareness. The more we understood our environment and our own existence, the more we started to brood and ask some difficult questions. One reason, today we control our brain by keeping ourselves busy or hooked on something, like work or entertainment or our smart phone. With this thinking brain, came the most devastating awareness of all. Death. Other animals might know death when it comes to them, so they instinctively avoid
dangers. But we human beasts know death from an early age. As rational animals, we learn from the past to anticipate the future. In other words, we anticipate death. Despite trying not to think about it, we have this fear in the back of our mind. So this brain of ours became powerful enough to ask important questions. Why are we here? What is reality and how we know it. Early humans couldn’t explain the world, life,
the things around them, especially the sun, the light, seasons, thunder, fire etc. But the most important question was why death. This is the main theme of the oldest surviving human story, The Epic of Gilgamesh, written 3-4,000 years ago, in which the hero is seeking immortality but unfortunately he fails. So to console himself, he builds a city so people could remember him. Other humans invented gods and religions as security blankets. In
fact the fear of death is so strong in humans that nearly every religion has extended life to after-life so death couldn’t scare us anymore. You could say that human life is so short that we have to have an after-life. However, today most people don’t believe in after-life. Politically or practically, early human societies were ruled by the strongest among them or a group of strong men. Then through the passage of time, generations later, myths, legends
and stories about these strong people were created. As time passed, these legends and myths gave these early strong people titanic god-like roles. As Italo Calvino once said, folk tales are told and retold so many times that they become like pebbles, smooth, shiny and perfect. Of course the earliest gods were usually non-human phenomena such as the sun,
thunder, light, dark, earth and so forth but over time they took a semi-human form. Later these ideas became more sophisticated in the form of religion that told sophisticated stories about the origin of life and also explained death through after-life, resurrection or reincarnation. But philosophers tried to explain without relying on gods and the supernatural. So they used reason to ask two important questions, which became the two main pillars of philosophy. One, what is really out there, and two, how we know it. So ontology asks what’s reality
and what things exist or don’t exist, and epistemology asks how we know the world. So philosophy became a rational tool for humans to understand the world, the meaning of life and how to navigate the world correctly. So early philosophers studied all sciences, from stars to frogs and everything in between. But if you boiled it down, the three main subjects for philosophers were the physical world, the origin of life and the human mind. In other words, what is the world and how does it work? What’s life and how works? And what’s the human mind and how does it work? So remember that these three main topics also play philosophy’s own downfall. As time passed, philosophy became too big and too sophisticated so it gave birth to other disciplines. In 15th and 16th century Europe, the first baby was born. For example,
Galileo, Copernicus, and Newton were the pioneers of physics, so physicists took over the job of studying the world, the universe, stars, planets and matter as a whole. A big load was off the philosophers’ shoulders now, so they focused more on metaphysics, i.e. the meaning of life and the property of the human mind. Then in the 18th and 19th century, however, another baby was born. Biology took over the
job of studying life. Philosophers no longer needed to dissect frogs or understand the human body. An important biologist was Charles Darwin, whose theory of evolution by natural selection revolutionised everything we knew about life and its origin. So philosophers were left to only focus on the human mind. But unfortunately they would snatch that away from philosophers too. In the late 19th century
and early 20th century, philosophy gave birth to its last baby. We call it psychology that took over the job of studying the human mind. Two big names are Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung who both placed importance on the subconscious and unconscious mind as greater motivation in human behaviour. So philosophers didn’t have to diagnose the human mind anymore. Phew, for centuries philosophers were doing the jobs of four people, a physicist, a biologist, a psychologist and a philosopher. Now they could enjoy a bit more free time and just sit in their comfy chairs and be philosophers. After all, everyone has to retire at some point.
But retirement is a tough period in anyone’s life. Without things to do, you either face an existential crisis, or you become lazy and rot away. So today philosophers have become a bit lazy on the whole. But also they are a bit out of touch because physics, biology
and psychology have become too specialised so philosophers don’t have the time to rigorously study all three disciplines. Also they don’t want to get their hands dirty dissecting frogs or spend hours staring at a telescope to study the stars or spend time with mentally ill patients. So the big question is: what is the purpose of philosophy today? Should it unify physics, biology, and psychology once again? Or should it find a new path for itself. Nietzsche, the first to fully diagnose the problem of western philosophy, took philosophy back to the cave through his Zarathustra who instead of prophesying for a single god and the divine, tells us about a new type of human, ubermensch who instead of following social values, create new ones through their artistic and philosophical works, like the early humans who went to the cave to gain wisdom. Nietzsche criticised philosophy for being too rational, not passionate enough. Philosophy is an old man who has produced many amazing kids and now feels lost for purpose. Why? It’s very simple. It lacks passion. Philosophy started as a rational tool, but
it was also its downfall. As we saw, sciences like physics, biology took over the rational side of philosophy and psychology took over the irrational side of philosophy to put it very crudely. What’s left? Not much. Is philosophy completely doomed? Well, not quite. I have an answer. Earlier I mentioned the three big human weapons: instincts, emotions and reason. Biology and Psychology are taking care of the instinct and the unconscious. Literature takes care of human emotions through storytelling. And science takes care of reason. So is philosophy
without a chair now? Not quite. My solution is human intuition. There you go. A new philosophy should be based on human intuition. What’s intuition? In a nutshell, instincts are mostly unconscious, reason is mostly conscious and emotions are somewhere in the middle. Where does intuition fit in? It’s somewhere between instinct, the hard rock foundation and reason, the hard rock roof over your head. So intuition is fluid between two solid surfaces and also right next to emotions, which is more volatile and even more fluid. Intuition is a layer deeper than rationality and a level
above instinct. So the new philosophy should be based on intuition because it has direct access to instinct but also reason. So in a way it fits right between the unconscious psychology and conscious rational sciences like physics and biology. Scientists don’t utilise intuition, so it’s a perfect tool for philosophy to understand and explain the world. Why intuition? An intuition-based philosophy can equip us with a better weapon to cope with suffering. Rationality through sciences provides us with security, physical utility and comfort through medicine and technology, like a traditional father would. Science builds
your house, produces food and clothes. Emotions provide you with love and care like a traditional mother would, which is literature and stories. Intuition provides you the ability to have insights, original ideas, inventiveness, and the ability to connect dots so you have a goal or mission in life or relevance in society. Intuition is fast, snappy and in-the-moment insight or genius that allows societies move forwards. In fact most inventions and discoveries can be attributed to intuition, not rational thinking. Reason is slow, instinct is too rigid and emotions clouds your judgment in the moment, but intuition is hit and miss.
When it hits, it sparks a new light. So, is there a philosopher who bases his philosophy on intuition? I’m glad you asked. Yes, there is. Henri Bergson, a French philosopher, argued that intuition can vitalise life and gives
us a new spark. As Nietzsche argued, reason-based philosophy has become too stale. For Bergson, intuition is the closest thing to a direct experience of something. For example, if you want to know a city, you can read all the maps and photographs of all the buildings, but it cannot be as good as if you walk the streets of that city. For example, you can
never fully convey the taste of an apple to someone who has never eaten an apple. That intuitive experience is the closest we humans get to experiencing the taste of an apple. So intuition takes us back to our nature, while reason is moving us away from nature.
Of course, Bergson is famous for his philosophy of time, creativity and humour. He thought intuition and life go together. We know reason tries to tame our natural instincts and emotions. Rightly so, but it can also go too far in taming us into a docile animal with no vitality. Bergson’s philosophy is called vitalism because he wanted to liberate us from the chain of reason. So philosophy started as a rational tool to understand the world, life and the human mind. Then it gave away those roles to physicists, biologists and psychologists. Now it’s almost
become redundant so we need a new intuitive philosophy. But to really understand philosophy, and where it stands today, we need to know the history of philosophy, its various schools, approaches, eastern and western, humanists and animalists, rationalists and empiricists, social philosophy vs individual philosophy. So in the following episodes, I will go through human philosophy to give you an overview of the entire 2,500 years of human philosophy.
Next, I will explain some of the common philosophical terms like what is the difference between ontology vs epistemology, physics vs metaphysics, rationalism vs empiricism, humanism vs utilitarianism, existentialism vs postmodernism, and more. Stay tuned. Philosophy in 17 Words Previously I discussed that philosophy at its core deals with two fundamental questions. What is and how we know it. Those two questions in turn, lead to other questions, like how we should live our lives. So in this segment I will look at some important philosophical terms, questions and various branches of philosophy. For example, what are the differences between
ontology and epistemology, or between reason and logic, or between humanism and utilitarianism, or between existentialism and postmodernism. What is metaphysics? What is the difference between rationalism and empiricism? And what’s phenomenology? And most importantly why we grapple with the biggest question today between egalitarianism and elitism. Ontology vs Epistemology: Early philosophy was based on two main questions. What is reality which became ontology and how we know it which is epistemology. So ontology asks what is
and what is not, and epistemology asks how we know the thing that exists or doesn’t exist. For example, according to ontological philosophy, humans are either animals or not animals. If not animals, therefore humans are sacred and fundamentally valuable. It’s accepted as a foundation based on your belief, so murdering a human being is one of the most serious crimes. So thou shalt not kill is based on the ontological notion that human life is sacred. So ontological philosophy gave birth to sciences in order to understand the world, nature and human biology. Aristotle is usually considered the father of modern
sciences. Epistemology, on the other hand, is about how we gather knowledge. A good example is how we know what we know. Immanuel Kant said we can never know reality as it is, but we only know things on a limited level. Why? Because everything has to funnel through the human mind, which is structured in a way that categorizes things in a certain way. In other
words we humans put a structure onto the world based on how the human mind works, and the world in itself is unknowable to us because we cannot get out our human mind. We can never know the thing in itself. Michel Foucault went a step further saying that knowledge is power, meaning those in possession of science and technology have immense power over others. He said there is no impartial or power-free science. Knowledge is a tool in the hands of the powerful. I will discuss this more later. So to sum up, ontology is the philosophy
of existence, while epistemology is the philosophy of knowledge of that existence. Metaphysics vs physics: Physics was part of philosophical studies until a few centuries ago before it became a separate discipline. Physics mainly studies matter, from the smallest particles to the biggest stars. Metaphysics, however, is the study of what is beyond the physical world, like ideas, forms, and soul, which is closer to religious ideas of god and and spirits. A scientist might say human consciousness is rooted in matter and would
not exist without brain cells. A metaphysician, on the other hand, might say, consciousness is independent of matter, either comes from a higher power or the universe itself is conscious. So physics is the study of physical matter while metaphysic is the study non-physical entities.
Reason vs Logic: Logic has its origins in mathematics. For example 2+2=4 is logical because it follows a very rigid rule that gives you one answer. But logic is also used as the language of philosophy in order to communicate philosophical ideas. So logic is like a foundation on which philosophical debates take place. Without logic, it is very hard to talk to others because in order for a discussion to take place, there has to be some ground, basic rules on which all philosophers agree. So logic is a method of communication for philosophical arguments. A good example is Ludwig Wittgenstein who wanted to make
communication as precise as possible. Also Bertrand Russell applied mathematics to philosophy. Reason and logic often go hand-in-hand. Since logic is very rigid, like a computer or a game of chess, some argue it limits humans’ ability to express things that go beyond logic, like human emotions and passion. So reason or rationality is somewhat more subjective and less scientifically rigorous like logic. So reason is often used to persuade people
while logic is outcome independent. In other words if someone uses logic, the outcome might not benefit the argument while reason is a bit more selective, so people use reason to support their argument. We often use rationalisation as a negative form of reason used to persuade people. Logic is more mathematical while reason is more linguistic. Rationalism vs empiricism: Rationalism is a school of philosophy that believes we understand the world based on our prior ability to reason. It places human beings as a special creature with the ability to know the world, so it has its root in religions that places human beings as an exception to the animal kingdom. In other words, we are pre-assembled with
reason as a tool. A good example of a rationalist is Rene Descartes who famously said I think, therefore I am. In other words, the ability to rationally think was enough to know our existence. Leibniz was another famous rationalist. Empiricism, on the other hand, believes that
we know the world through experience. Our thoughts come as a result of experience. We know the property of fire because we experience the heat. Babies have no fear of fire inside them from birth. We experience the pain, therefore we associate fire with pain. Empiricism is more British while rationalism is more continental European, mainly French and German. Famous empiricists were John Lock and David Hume. Empiricism is also close to pragmatism, mostly
associated with northern European cold climates, which make you become more practical. Immanuel Kant combined rationalism with empiricism in his philosophy, saying that experience is not enough to know the world. Our own mental structure imposes categories to the world. In other word, we are not passive, just receiving knowledge through experiences, but we actively give the world a structure. He said we cannot know the world as it is, but our knowledge of the world is limited to the limit of the human mental structure. Kant’s philosophy also gave rise to phenomenology that studies an object relative to our own experience, not the object in of itself. Kant made a distinction between phenomena, which is how we experience
the world and noumena, which is the world in itself, which we can never know. I will discuss this later. So for rationalists, we know the world because we know while for empiricists, we know the world because we experience things. Political philosophy vs Ethics: Ethics is a branch of philosophy that deals with morality, justice and the legal system. Ethics is more practical and pragmatic while political philosophy deals with how societies decide what is right and what is wrong and how to live peacefully in a society and how we punish those who break rules. As a society evolves, so does its morality,
so ethics change. Something that might be morally acceptable a few centuries ago, is not acceptable today. It also depends on the culture. Some actions are morally right in one culture, but not in another. Political philosophy is the study of ethics and how
it changes. Egalitarianism vs elitism: One of the most fundamental questions philosophy has grappled over centuries is the idea of equality vs quality. Egalitarian philosophy has its roots in religions such as Christianity that all humans have equal dignity and are equally sacred. But egalitarianism as a philosophy became prominent in Europe during the Enlightenment period of the 18th and 19th centuries. Karl Marx is perhaps the most famous egalitarian
philosopher who believed in a communist society where all the resources were shared equally among people. Elitism on the other hand believes that we should run society based on meritocracy, meaning not everyone gets a trophy. Some people deserve certain rights and privileges because they earned those things. Elitism has its roots in nature, because the animal kingdom runs on hierarchy which is part of the evolutionary process. The most famous elitist philosopher
was Fredrick Nietzsche who incidentally lived around the same time as Marx. For Nietzsche, great artists and philosophers are not the same as ordinary people, therefore should not be treated so. Today, the biggest debate in the west is these two schools of thought, equality for all or privileges for those who earned them. So egalitarian philosophy believes in equality for all while elitist philosophy believes in merits. Humanism vs utilitarianism: Humanism was born in Europe during the Enlightenment in the 18th century, which replaced god with humans. Instead of the divine being in charge of this
planet, we rational humans assumed the ownership of this planet. Humanists believe in an egalitarian world where all humans are equal, which is rooted in religions, a belief that humans are created equal. But in reality that is not true. Not all humans are equal. Some are more equal than others, as George Orwell famously said in Animal Farm. So in philosophy the
big question is this: which humans should determine our social, political and moral values? Here comes utilitarianism, a branch of humanism that believes in moral values that benefit the greatest number of people. Not all humans, but the largest majority of humans. The word utility focuses on how something benefits someone. Pre-enlightenment world was dominated by kings and aristocrats while the majority worked to benefit the minority.
With its roots in Machiavelli’s philosophy of end justifies the means, utilitarianism turned this on its head, instead of the minority, it focused on the majority. All actions should be judged by their results that bring the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Utilitarianism was big in England and the most famous one was Jeremy Bentham and later Stuart Mill. Today’s democracy is a little like utilitarian majority rule, at least on paper. Humanism also gave birth to other isms, such as socialism that divides
the world based on class, feminism that divides the world based on gender and nationalism that divides the world based on nationality or ethnicity or language. So humanism puts humans in charge of the planet and utilitarianism says the majority of humans. Postmodernism vs Existentialism: Existentialism popularised after the philosophy of Nietzsche argues that everything starts with our existence, not god or some divine essence. There is no divine spark, but we just develop a sense of self during our life, nothing is given to us prior to our birth. A famous existentialist philosopher was Jean-Paul Sartre who said that since we have no essence, we are responsible to make something of ourselves. He famously said that we are condemned to be free. While existentialism is concerned with the individual, Postmodernism popularised in France is more concerned with communities or cultural groups. Just like existentialism it is also rooted
in the philosophy of Nietzsche, specifically in his criticism of a single truth within the western philosophical tradition. While existentialism focuses on the condition of human existence, postmodernism focuses on the idea of truth and social values. Western philosophy believed in the single truth, like the idea of a single god. So postmodernism questioned European modernity as a project to unify the whole world around European values of individualism, freedom and materialism. According to postmodernists all cultures are as valid as European culture, therefore the world doesn’t have to become like Europe to be considered civilised. Postmodernism is a reaction to modernity which includes the Enlightenment humanism on the one hand, but colonialism on the other. Postmodernists
put emphasis on power relations, how the weak are forcefully pushed to one side. A famous postmodernist, Michel Foucault, analysed how the modern state develops effective tools to control people, through the prison system, surveillance, mass education and more. He argued that even sexuality is a power-dynamics, men oppressing women, which had a huge influence on third-wave feminism that some argue has become anti-men and anti-masculinity. Foucault even said all knowledge is tied to power, so there is no independent science, therefore science and technology are tools for the powerful to control the weak. So to sum up, the core philosophy includes ontology of existence, epistemology of knowledge and everything else is a branch of these two. Physics and metaphysics are part of ontology.
Physics deals with matter while metaphysics deals with non-material phenomena such as ideas and consciousness. Reason, logic, rationalism and empiricism are part of epistemology. Reason is the tool to persuade others, therefore more subjective, while logic is mathematical and impartial. Rationalism says knowledge comes from within while empiricism says knowledge only comes from experience or outside. So outside ontology and epistemology is the philosophy of how to live. Political philosophy studies morality of good and bad, equality or meritocracy, majority mass or minority elite. This is also tied to the meaning of life. Existentialism puts emphasis on the individual while postmodernism puts emphasis on the group identity.
Next, I will look at the differences between eastern and western philosophies, why one focuses on physical science, while the other on mental well-being. Which we should prioritise, building rockets to conquer space or do yoga for a more peaceful mind on earth. East vs West [Merchants vs Farmers] [Change World vs Change self] In the 1930s, there was an interesting conversation between the greatest Indian poet, philosopher Tagore and the greatest German scientist, Einstein. The conversation centred on the idea of reality, truth and beauty. Einstein believed in an objective reality outside the
human, while Tagore insisted on the subjective interpretation of reality. To boil it down, Einstein believed in the old theory of physics, solid matter existing with or without humans while Tagore was alluding to the mysterious theory of quantum physics that our perception or observation of matter is never really objective. The conversation illustrated the difference in eastern and western ways of thinking about reality. One more pragmatic while the other more spiritual. Now let’s look at a typical hero in the east and west. A western hero wants to change the world to make it better for himself and those around him while an eastern hero wants to change himself. Western superheroes fight evil to restore justice, peace, and correct the incorrect while Asian heroes either accept their fate or retreat to the forest for some contemplation. Jesus, perhaps the greatest western hero,
confronted injustice and paid for it with his own life, a sacrifice you can see in Harry Potter as well. The Buddha, the founder of Buddhism however, went to the forest to change himself. Laozi, the founder of Taoism, retreated to the mountains. In other words western philosophy is about change while eastern philosophy is more accepting your fate. A great example of this in literature can be seen in the novels of the Japanese British Nobel Prize-winning author, Kazuo Ishiguro. His characters obey their fate and rarely question their somewhat unfair circumstances. However, a typical hero in the west would rebel against their circumstance to change the world. Accepting one’s fate or putting up with an unfavourable environment
is seen as a sign of weakness in the west, while those same traits are seen as signs of strength in the east. By the east, my focus is mainly old India, China and Japan. So a western hero wants to change the world, while an eastern hero wants to change himself to adapt. In today’s world, east and west have come together a lot, because western mode of production i.e. capitalism has taken over the world. But if you look closer and a bit deeper, you see a clear philosophical distinction. And if you go back in time, the distinction appears more clear. Why has eastern philosophy’s main focus been on mental well-being, happiness and spirituality, and community while western philosophy’s main focus has been physical well-being, rational science, technology, materialism and individualism. Of course this
is a broad generalisation, as there are so many philosophers on either side who are exceptions to the rule, but generally speaking the main distinction is spiritualism vs materialism and community vs individualism. So in this video I will look at some of the answers but also give more detail about the differences between eastern and western philosophy. Does the climate, terrain and the soil have anything to do with it? Are merchants more concerned with materialism and farmers more with spirituality? Geography terrain Western philosophy as we know has its roots in ancient Greece and later on in Rome. The Greeks and the Romans were influenced by other
civilisations such the Egyptians and the Babylonians. But there are very little or no written records of an organised philosophy prior to the Greeks. Eastern philosophy has its roots in the Indian civilisation and the Chinese civilisation. If you look at their geographies, Greece is made of some islands, between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. So large bodies of water sandwiching the land areas. So if you want to move around, all you need is a boat and you could hop from island to island. This
allows a much smoother way to move things around. There is less friction on water than land. The Ancient Greeks heavily relied on imported food due to its soil not being very fertile. As a result, the Greeks relied on trades which brought goods from Egypt, Mesopotamia, Central Europe and more. But with this commodity trade, also came ideas and knowledge, so the region was a hub of cultural, scientific, and technological exchange. This promoted
a more rational discourse which allowed the Greeks to develop a more sophisticated science. For example Euclid’s Elements is the oldest science book, which I’m sure was influenced by the Egyptians, Babylonians and Phoenicians. Pythagoras developed his mathematics. Aristotle studied all kinds of things, including animals. In fact the first Greek philosopher Thales was an olive merchant himself who based his philosophy on water being the most important thing in the world. He famously predicted that good weather i.e. lots of rain produced lots of olive so he got very rich. So the Greeks relied on trade, which allowed the
exchanges of ideas and practical sciences. Indian and Chinese civilisations, however, are more centred around rivers and mountains. In other words, quite different from ancient Greece. India and China were blessed by its many rivers that brought amazing soil from the Himalayas so their agricultural economy could sustain a huge population in big cities, making China and India mostly self-sufficient. Trade with other peoples was a plus, but not essential. China’s Yellow and Yangstee Rivers,
and Ancient India’s Indus and Ganges Rivers all start in the snowy mountains of the Himalayas and traverse for thousands of kilometers which bring the fertile soil. It’s no surprise that both India and China relied on a crop that is incredibly water thirsty. Rice. It’s also no surprise that Sadhguru, the greatest Indian Guru in the world today has a simple message: Save the soil. Because soil and farming run really deep in eastern philosophy. So Greece’s geographical terrain allowed trade to flourish between various peoples and cultures. While ancient China and India relied on their rivers to bring good soil
to them. The Greeks had to seek food from somewhere else, while the Chinese and Indians waited for their rivers to bring food to them. As a result, from a survival point of view, for the Greeks, merchants were the most important class of people, while in the east the farmers were the most important class of people. Since merchants are mobile while farmers are stationary,
because you cannot carry around your land, this allowed the Greeks to be more open-minded to new ideas, new technology and new sciences. Merchants are also less attached to their ways, therefore easily follow the market or commodity. Today you sell rice, tomorrow potato. Farmers, however, have a harder time to adapt, and change quickly. So western philosophy geared more towards pragmatic sciences while eastern philosophy geared more towards spiritualism. If merchants don’t like something, they change, but if farmers don’t get enough water, they wait for the following season or accept their fate. It’s harder to leave
your land and migrate. So western philosophy is more change-oriented while eastern philosophy is more fatalistic. In other words, you change yourself. Climate to progress Climate also plays a role. India and China
tend to be warmer throughout the year, so it makes sense to be in the here and now, which Buddhism teaches. Also seasons play a predictable pattern every year and people live a more cyclical life. Monsoon comes every year. Rivers flood at a specific time of the year. In a way, it was very similar to the Egyptian way of life around the River Nile.
Of course, when you rely on a river, you also experience great famines, but they come every few years or decades. The Greeks navigated the seas where you’re for the most part in control of where you’re going. Meanwhile eastern civilisations were centred around rivers. On rivers, your course is fixed, the river takes you where the river takes you. As a result, eastern philosophy is more fatalistic. The fate of humans, animals and plants are in the hands of the same rivers. It meant that they saw all living beings as part of
a big family, so they didn’t put humans as being outsiders or special or above everybody else. In Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism, we are not only from nature, we are nature, just like other living beings. The Greeks, however, experienced colder winters so they had to source and accumulate food for colder days. Since they relied on trade, wars always disrupted the trade routes, which meant you had to source your food from somewhere else. Merchants relied on peacetime to continue trade, but they also benefited from wars as certain commodities were more sought-after. It’s the old adage, war fuels the economy as money is moved around faster than peacetime.
Since, things were pretty unpredictable, the Greeks had to think long-term and prepare not just for the cold winter, but for the future, in case of warfare. Future became the most important time, not here and now, but next month, and next year. You couldn’t afford to be in here and now like a zen Buddhist. So this long-term or linear perception of time became the dominant way of looking at the world among the Greeks. A famous example is Aristotle’s teleological philosophy that everything has a purpose, usually a single destination in the future.
Original Sin to change the world Western philosophy also through an exchange with the middle-eastern religions like Judaism, Christianity and later Islam, came to understand that humans were separate from the animal kingdom. We are kicked out of the Garden of Eden, punished for our mistakes. As a result, you try to compensate for your past mistakes. You want to correct the incorrect. What do you do? You fight for causes. If you look at literature, heroes are often people who have sinned or made a terrible mistake. To
redeem themselves, they fight injustice. One way to fight for justice is to make other people’s lives better. Often materially. You study the world, you invent new technology to make life easier for others. Eastern philosophers were not looking for material comfort, but more for mental and spiritual comfort. Buddha and Laozi left the city in their spiritual quest and went to the mountains and forests. Solitude allows you to seek answers inside you, not on the
outside. Even today most buddhist temples in India, Japan and China are located in the mountains and forests, away from the crowd, so people can get away from other people. The core doctrine of Buddhism is that material comfort doesn’t make you happy in the long run. The Greeks, however, gathered in the city to debate and dialogue like Socrates who would walk around on the streets of Athens asking people questions, while others established schools like Plato’s Academy or Aristotle’s Lyceum. Western philosophy relied on dialogue and exchange like merchants do to flourish, learn and improve. The west built universities,
churches, and schools in the middle of town and villages so everyone could come, not like some remote temple that nobody could go to. In eastern philosophy, you don’t force your will on nature to control or change it, but try to flow with nature. Since both Indian and Chinese civilisations were centred around rivers, often river flow is seen as nature’s way, in which you don’t resist or remove obstacles in your way but move around those obstacles. In other words, you change yourself, not the outside world. A good example is, in India traffic moves around an obstacle, be it a cow or an accident. While in the west, a small accident on the road brings everything
to a halt. So eastern philosophy tells you to be more fluid and flexible like yoga and less rigid. But western philosophy relies on manipulating nature through science and technology to make life easier for humans. As a result, we live in a very comfortable period in history. Millions
of people couldn’t survive to adulthood, but today child morality is at its lowest in history. People live longer, healthier. But this also has negative consequences for other species on earth as the more comfortable we are, the harder it becomes for some other species in some areas. conquer: world vs self Asians are on average physically smaller than Europeans, perhaps due to genetic mutation or sexual selection or possibly due to eating less protein as farmers rely on rice which is a staple diet in most of Asia. How to cope with poor diet? Martial arts in China and yoga in India were used to strengthen and discipline the body. Eastern philosophy is centred on the body as a vehicle to get to
a higher place and this also means eastern philosophy is more about avoiding conflict rather than confronting others. Taoism, Buddhism and Hinduism promote non-violence. Vegetarianism, although trendy in the west today, has been practiced in the east for thousands of years. Jainism is an Indian religion that promotes a strict vegetarian diet and Gandhi, a pacifist himself, admired Jainism for that. Unlike Asians, The Greeks ate a lot of bread, which is four times more protein-rich than rice. Since the Greek states were constantly fighting against one another, as well as the Persians, they developed the olympic games which was to train soldiers for wars. It’s
no surprise that it was the Greeks who made it all the way to India through Alexander the Great. While we have no records of invading armies from India and China going to Persia or the Middle East. It was the nomadic Mongols who made it to Europe, not the more sophisticated civilisations like the Chinese and Indians. In fact the Chinese built walls to shield
themselves from the Mongols. And India was ravaged by a series of invasions by the Greeks, the Persians, the Muslims, the Mongols and even the British. Why? Eastern philosophy is less centred on conquering the world, but conquering yourself. For example, Buddhism is centered on the inner conflict of fighting or resisting your desires. If you focus on your inner conflict, you’re less likely to engage in external physical conflicts such as tribal, or ideological. In Hindu yogi teaching, your soul is the real
you, while your physical body is acquired through food you put in your mouth. Not just that, you also acquire your ego or the sense of self through impressions and experiences with others. So your soul is permanent and your body and ego are temporary, fleeting and acquired. Now Einstein vs Tagore conversation on the nature of reality makes sense. Einstein sees an external world while Tagore sees everything internal. In other words, yogi philosophy is based on the pursuit of becoming one with the universe. Quantum physics has a similar theory that as soon as you observe something, you change it. In other words, we are not
separate from the world or universe, we are with the universe. The world is not outside us, but we are the universe, it is inside us. So Yoga is one way to tap into or get closer to your universal soul by taming your body and ego and desires. The idea is to let
your soul control you, not your body control your soul. Eastern philosophy is based on negation of the self, while western philosophy is firmly rooted in the idea of individual self. As a result of this, the east tends to be more communitarian where the individual is less important than the community or the universe while the west tends to be more individualistic. Buddhism’s core philosophy is to remove
the self to ease suffering. Wanting or desiring is seen as negative because you’re feeding the ego. The Greeks were more of a merchant's mentality to grow more profit and become wealthier and wealthier. Merchants are more focused on material success and less concerned with the spiritual side of life. As a result, it was the Greeks who developed a more rational and scientific
method to understand the material world. This scientific method allowed objectivity which meant that a Greek scholar could disagree with their mentors. Even thinkers like Plato openly disagreed with their teacher Socrates, and Aristotle questioned Plato. In the east, however, openly questioning your teacher was and still is a form of disrespect. Instead of finding flaws in those older than you, you’re supposed to respect them. This is
especially important in Confucianism. Sensei is someone you do not challenge. Good vs Evil Western philosophy makes a distinction between good and evil as almost separate entities and separate individuals or even groups. Often in warfare, the enemy is seen as evil to motivate your soldiers to die in defence of good. This
is true on both sides. So once you assign goodness with one way of seeing the world, the opposite of that is naturally bad or even evil. This battle of good against evil allows progress. Those victorious can claim goodness. In the east, however, both good and bad are seen as more psychological and less ideological so good and bad are one or two sides of the same coin. The Ying and yang in Taoism means every person has dark and light, good and evil built in them. Good and evil coexist, so no matter how much a society progresses, it doesn’t change the core ying-yang existence. We as humans are neither good nor bad, but
a bit of both. Our job is to understand this so we keep a good balance between the two forces. I think the most fundamental difference between eastern and western philosophy is the idea of linear progress in the west versus a cyclical notion in the east, especially in Indian philosophy. The Greeks believed in progress. Socrates developed his questioning method of getting to the objective truth. Plato introduced the idea of perfection. And Aristotle came up
with telos for purpose. So getting to Socratic truth, Platonic perfection and Aristotelian telos or purpose gave birth a western progressive philosophy and science. So instead of focusing too much on the spiritual side of life, the west focused on making the physical life easier by deploying a scientific method to understand the world and invent technologies that made life easier. As a result, today most people live a comfortable life thanks to western civilization. People live longer thanks to western medicine and technology. When survival is no longer an issue, people seek meaning and purpose. So eastern philosophy plays a major role in bringing inner peace for millions of people in the east as well as in the west who seek meaning beyond material comfort.
So to sum up, climate, terrain and food impacted how the east and west prioritized philosophical understanding of the world. The Greeks relied on merchants and trade so the priority went to practical sciences and rationality. While in the east farming allowed big cities to flourish and people lived longer. As a result, philosophers were seeking happiness not physical comfort. Life expectancy also grew in the east which allowed more reflection in old age. When young, people seek success but in old age, people search for meaning. Next, I will discuss the Greek trio of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, by looking at their similarities and differences.
Socrates vs Plato vs Aristotle [The Rational Path] In 399 BCE, the Greek democracy condemned one of the greatest philosophers to death for spreading bad ideas among the youth. Today, he is considered the father of western philosophy and possibly the father of western civilisation. His tragic death sparked a new human philosophy that was based on rational thinking, not religious dogma. Who was this man? It was of course, Mr Socrates. Well, he lost his life, but rationality triumphed. He paid the price with his own
life. It’s no surprise or exaggeration to tell you that western philosophy originated in Greece, mainly in the city of Athens. Previously I talked about the differences between eastern and western philosophies due to different terrains, food production, cultural exchanges and so on that gave rise to spiritualism in the east while rationalism in the west. Eastern philosophy, centred on farming and rivers, became fatalistic while the Greeks, centred on trade and the seas, became rationalistic. So here, I will talk about three of the most famous forefathers of western rational philosophy: Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.
Pre-Socratic philosophy Before I talk about the big three, let me mention a few who came before. The first known Greek philosopher was Thales of Miletus who said that everything is made of water. Today we know that 60% of the human body and 70% of our brain are made of water, so he was right. He also used reason to predict how the weather affected olive harvest and made a lot of money as a result. People at the
time believed a good or bad harvest was in the hands of god. So Thales understood that it had nothing to do with it, but just good weather. So western philosophy, from the very earliest time, emphasised rationality to understand and manipulate nature to benefit humans and he was a businessman. Another notable philosopher was Pythagoras, famous for his theorem, a2+b2=c2.
He argued that the world is run by mathematical rules which can be understood through numbers. Even musical harmony is ruled by geometrical rules. So Pythagoras based his ideas on mathematical logic, which is a step deeper and more rigid than rationality. Another logical philosopher
was Parmenides (515-445 BCE) who also used logical thinking and reasoning to prove that human experiences give us a false perception of the world and often contradicts with logical thinking. So these early Greek philosophers paved the way for rationality to become the method of thinking. Socrates: If you have to name one person as the founder of Western philosophy, one name stands tall above everyone. It’s of course Mr Socrates, not the football legend from Brazil but an ancient Greek dude who lived between 469 and 399 BCE. He was the true father of western philosophy, because he developed a robust philosophical method to understand the meaning of life and to expose dogmas. Unlike everyone
else, he did not accept things at face value. His questioning or dialectical method of examining everything through a series of questions to get to the bottom of things or finding the truth became the basis of modern scientific method. To understand something, you have to ask questions, like what, where, when, why and how. Once you go through all the questions, the answer you get tends to be the best answer out there. Today science does the same thing. Scientific theories are tested through a series of experiments. Socrates also questioned the purpose of life itself. For him, the purpose of human life
was to be virtuous. How can you be virtuous? Again, you have to examine your life critically. You cannot sit in your comfortable chair and live in ignorance. Uncomfortable truths are better than comforting lies. He famously said, the unexamined life is not wroth living. In other words, ignorance wasn’t bliss but just stupid and unworthy. This had a massive psychological shift in how people saw the world and themselves. You
couldn’t just rely on gods or even the priests, you had the ability to rationally question things to get to the truth for yourself. The Athenian democracy saw him as a threat in awakening the youth, so they forced him to sip hemlock poison which killed him in 399 BCE making him a true martyr of philosophy. Socrates was a street philosopher who walked around the streets of Athens to question people and have a dialogue about life and philosophy. He was like a modern-day provocateur or a whistleblower and authorities don’t like that. Socrates’s philosophical legacy was to make truth the most important aim of philosophy.
Philosophy wasn’t to tell you comforting lies but it was to challenge you into discomfort. In western philosophy, Socrates, narrowed its scope into one single truth, which is the basis of modern science today, searching for the ultimate theory that explains everything. Quote: “There is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance.” This single truth became the cornerstone of western philosophy for almost 2500 years, until the German Nietzsche questioned it, paving the way for postmodernism that believed in multiples truths.
Socrates didn’t leave any written records because he was busy on the streets, challenging strangers about their truths. I wonder if he was around today, how would he challenge people about my truth and your truth? First, people would think he’s crazy and second, he would go mad with everyone having their own truths. Plato After the death of Socrates, the torch was passed to one his students, who also wrote his teachers’ philosophical ideas down. Plato, who lived between 427 and 347 BCE, having witnessed his teacher executed by the democratic mobs was an idealist arguing that we all have a perfect idea of something, but in reality this doesn’t exist. It only exists in our mind as a perfect form of that thing.
There are chairs we see inside a room, but these are just models of a perfect chair that only exists in our mind. In other words, the chairs that humans make are modeled on the perfect chair inside the human mind. We see a mere shadow of what reality is on the outside. His famous thought experiment, “Allegory of the Cave” illustrates that if you face away from the light source and see your own shadow inside a cave, that’s how we perceive reality, not what it is but its shadow through our senses. So for Plato, humans come preassembled with all knowledge. In other words, we don’t learn through experiences or senses but it’s all inside. It only comes out when we experience it. Quote: “What we call learning is only
a process of recollection.” This makes Plato’s philosophy somewhat counter-intuitive. We think what’s on the outside is the real thing and what we have on the inside, in our mind, is a mere representation of that real object. Plato thinks the opposite. What we see on the outside is the shadow of what’s in our mind. We have an innate knowledge of the world from birth and what we learn is just remembering or recalling those things that are already stored inside us. This is very similar to how the rationalists saw knowledg