Eastern Philosophy: Key Concepts & Beliefs

Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature and is completing a Ph.D. He has taught college English for 6 years.

Eastern philosophical traditions, which sprang from the Middle East, India, and China, among other places, have become increasingly influential in the west, challenging many of the assumptions Western Philosophy.

A New Perspective

Until relatively recently, the study of philosophy, the discipline dedicated to questioning the fundamental assumptions of reality and knowledge, has been limited in American and European universities to the tradition of Western Philosophy. This tradition starts with the ancient Greek philosophers such as Socrates and Plato and continues through major figures like Descartes, Hegel, Nietzsche, etc.

However, as our world becomes more globalized and connected, the primacy of this Western tradition has been questioned and philosophies from other cultures and traditions have begun to be studied in the West.

In Western universities, these traditions often get lumped together as Eastern philosophy, but this is a catch-all term for a group of different philosophical traditions that often have little in common with each other. They are just grouped together by virtue of not being Western. These include Islamic, Indian, and Chinese philosophy.

Islamic Philosophy

Islamic philosophy refers to the philosophical traditions practiced in the primarily Islamic countries of the Middle East and North Africa. Not all Islamic philosophy is derived from Islam, however. In fact, the role of religion in society and philosophical inquiry is one of the questions often tackled, while Islamic philosophy also often deals with issues not related to religion at all.

Islamic philosophy is the Eastern tradition most closely connected to Western philosophy due to a shared Greek philosophical heritage. Muslim conquests put them into contact with cultures influenced by Greek philosophy and the Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle were translated into Arabic. Much of Islamic philosophy is in the school of Neoplatonism, which follows Plato in arguing that this material world is a pale reflection of a perfect ideal world. Important Neoplatonic Islamic philosophers include Al-Kindi. Al-Farabi, meanwhile, followed Aristotle in arguing that the universe is eternal, which would seem to contradict Muslim belief that Allah created the universe out of nothing.

Islamic philosophy also has a long tradition of mystical philosophy. These schools of thought, which include Sufism, the most well-known Islamic mystical philosophy, developed new ways of approaching philosophical questions that incorporated mystical elements. Generally speaking, mystical philosophy advocates for going beyond the intellect, the normal realm of philosophy, and incorporating sensual, emotional, and supernatural.

Indian Philosophy

Indian philosophy is a general term for the philosophical schools of thought that developed on the Indian subcontinent. Due to the subcontinent's ethnic, religious, and linguistic diversity, it is no surprise that the term incorporates a wide range of philosophical perspectives. The three most notable are Hindu philosophy, Buddhist philosophy, and Jain philosophy, each associated with a major religion of the subcontinent.

Hindu philosophy is divided into two broad groups: orthodox and heterodox. Orthodox Hindu philosophy take the Vedas, the oldest and most important sacred texts of Hinduism, as their starting point and do not question their authority. Though orthodox schools vary, they are all founded on the idea that the point of philosophy is to analyze and interpret the sacred texts, a philosophical approach known as Scholasticism.

The heterodox schools of Hindu philosophy do not accept the Vedas as authoritative. Many of these schools are materialist in nature, meaning they do not accept questions relating to the spirit or supernatural as valid. Others are more explicitly atheistic, either ignoring or outright denying the existence of the Hindu gods.

Buddhist philosophy, following the Buddhist religion, does not concern itself with supernatural questions such as the existence of the gods. Instead, it focuses on the ethical implications of the Buddha's Four Noble Truths and Noble Eightfold Path. It is also focused on epistemology, or philosophical questions of knowledge.

The basic principle of Jain philosophy is known as anekantavada, or the idea that people perceive reality differently. Under this philosophy, there is no one perfect or ideal truth, instead truth is defined by the individual.

Chinese Philosophy

Chinese philosophy is another broad term that encompasses many different schools of thought that have developed in China. Chinese philosophy is among the oldest philosophical traditions in the world, dating back thousands of years.

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