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The term “philosophy” is derived from a Greek compound: philo meaning “love” or “love of” and sophia usually translated “wisdom,” hence “love of wisdom.” In ancient Greek, however, sophia had a more general meaning implying skill, cleverness, craft, and worldly wisdom (akin to what we would now call “common sense”). According to a tradition coming from one of PLATO’s students, it was PYTHAGORAS (5th cent. BCE) who first identified himself as a philosopher and gave the term the meaning we now ascribe to it. Historians, however usually date the beginnings of philosophy in Greece with Thales of Miletus (6th cent. BCE) because, they say, he was the first to divorce speculation about the nature of the universe from mythology and theology, although that is not certain. In India, the initial impetus to philosophic speculation is found in the UPANISADS, which are identified as vidy€, a term cognate with the English term “wisdom.” In China, the first philosophic speculation is usually attributed to CONFUCIUS. The Chinese term chia is sometimes used to distinguish philosophy from religion (chiao).

Philosophy is often referred to as “the queen of sciences” since all the disciplines we now identify as scientific (whether physical, life, or social) were originally part of philosophical speculation. The early Greeks and Hindus were concerned primarily with cosmological speculation — what is now called METAPHYSICS, a term derived from one of Aristotle’s treatises (untitled and called merely meta ta physica or “after the [book entitled] Physics”). Plato and his teacher Socrates shifted the emphasis to moral and political philosophy, which was also the emphasis of ancient Chinese speculation. The Greek Sophists and Aristotle added rhetoric and logic as part of the proper domain of philosophy, as did the philosophic schools of Mīmāˆā and Nyāya in India. Plato’s dialogue called Meno, as well as many of his later dialogues, raised the question “How do we know what we claim to know?” which gave rise to the discipline of EPISTEMOLOGY (from the Greek epistãmã, knowledge, skill, experience, science), a principal concern of Indian philosophy as well. Among Plato’s dialogues is the Phaedrus which deals with artistic evaluation, what is now called aesthetics. Aristotle added various fields of science, which separated themselves from philosophy in the 16th and 17th centuries. In fact, psychology identified itself as a separate discipline only in the early 20th century. Philosophy retains its interest in all these subjects, however, in its sub-fields of philosophy of rhetoric, philosophy of language, logic, aesthetics, social and political philosophy, philosophy of science, and philosophy of mind.

The Second Object of The Theosophical Society encourages the study of philosophy as well as comparative religion and science. Helena P. BLAVATSKY subtitled The Secret Doctrine “the synthesis of science, religion, and philosophy” and referred in that work to a variety of philosophers, both Western and Asian. In an article she wrote in the first volume of The Theosophist (Nov. 1879), she stated that “only pure philosophy can establish truth upon firm principles; and no philosophy can be complete unless it embraces both physics and metaphysics” (CW II:158). Obviously, then, the approach to an understanding of ourselves and our universe which one finds in philosophic works is an important aspect of theosophical study, although not all philosophers are treated with equal regard by theosophical writers.

While some theosophists are interested in these later philosophic developments it is the fields of metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics which are of the greatest interest to them. This explains, in part, why Chinese philosophy, with its emphasis on social and political concerns, is generally neglected in theosophical writings and why the extensive literature on Indian aesthetic theory is also ignored.

For further discussion, see the entries for Indian PHILOSOPHY; Western PHILOSOPHY, MEDIEVAL Western PHILOSOPHY; Chinese Philosophy; ONTOLOGY.


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