The Origins of Philosophy in the East and the West

The study of philosophy encapsulates three fundamental problems:

  1. The problem of knowledge
  2. The problem of conduct
  3. The problem of government

Ancient settlements in the East and the West began this enquiry through mythology. In the East, the pioneering texts were the Vedas and the Upanishads. In the West, the Iliad and the Odyssey. The difference between the two defines the difference between the East and the West.

The Vedas and Upanishads define early Eastern mythology. When I speak of the Upanishads, I am also inherently speaking of the Vedas. The word “Upanishad” means to “sit next to the master”. The Upanishads are the essential teachings of the Vedas as documented by various masters.

In these teachings, we get the answer to the question Where do we come from. The answer is that we (Atman) are a tiny manifestation of a universal consciousness (Brahman). Our ultimate aim is to achieve a union between Atman and Brahman. This union requires knowledge. Therefore, knowledge is posed as the highest ideal. To achieve enlightenment is to know through experience that the micro consciousness and the macro consciousness are one and the same.

The Homeric epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, define early Western mythology. There is some congruency between the East and the West, as the Homeric texts show that the key actors are also driven by something inside themselves. However, this is where most of the similarities end. In Homer’s texts, there are immortal Gods and mortal humans. This is a key difference. According to the Homeric texts, we are simply mortal creatures on this earth and the Gods try to leave us alone for the most part. The problems that we encounter on this earth are ours to solve.

The differences between Eastern and Western philosophy emerge from these early mythologies. In the East, the quest is one of subjective discovery. To know is to turn inward, to be introspective, and to meditate. In the West, the quest is one of objective discovery. To know is to understand the world around us, including other human beings. Both are in search of perfection. The East aiming to attain knowledge of the self. The West aiming to attain knowledge of the world.