Thales of Miletus and Aristotle deserve to be remembered as the first true philosophers outside the East. The former because of his emphasis on experimentation coupled with the use of theory for practical purposes; the latter for laying the foundations of experience-based learning in which theory plays a practical role. Histories of philosophy, particularly those of the West, will emphasize the importance of Socrates and Plato. However, I would argue that the two of them actually belong to a very different category — that of Sophists.
The Sophists were a label applied to a group of paid teachers who focused on rhetoric and were associated with moral skepticism and taught the children of rich statesmen. By emphasizing abstraction to such a degree that mirrored the flowery rhetoric Socrates criticized among the Sophists, Socrates and his student Plato (to an even greater degree) were much closer to that group of people they created as a category than to those bottom-up thinkers and tinkerers who, rightly, placed themselves modestly before the infinite amount of knowledge outside their domain of understanding.
But wasn’t Socrates praised for his assertation that he knew nothing?! Historians of philosophy emphasize this, and the oracle of Delphi which pronounced Socrates the wisest of all men because he knew the limits of his own knowledge. We, however, have no writings of Socrates (he was illiterate and even distrusted the written word). Therefore, we have to rely more on the accounts of others — particularly Plato, but also Xenophon, and Aristophanes — for records of what Socrates was like and what he believed. We can assume that there was an historical Socrates — I think it quite likely, though there are certainly those in academia who have taken a more skeptical approach. It is my contention, however, that Plato created or expanded upon the distinction between Socrates and the Sophists to accentuate his importance as a thinker and emphasize the differences in the modes of thought developed by Socrates and Plato from those of the other major intellectual figures of the day.
Sophistry describes those who are ‘wise’ whereas philosophy literally translates as ‘love of wisdom.’ Wisdom carries with it the notion of seasoned judgement, the ability to weigh and assess, the ability to connect the dots, having one foot in the active life and one in the contemplative, as well as an awareness of the limits of one’s own knowledge. If one reads only Plato, one gets the feeling that the Sophists were a bunch careerists devoid of morality while Socrates and Plato were the beacons of wisdom shining the light of reason amidst a sea ignorance.
Socrates was indeed put to death by the Athenians, but the reasons why are almost certainly not as Plato laid them out in his various dialogues. One can assume that the death of Socrates was a great injustice committed by an unjust government but this does not mean that Socrates was as innocent as Plato suggests. In any event, the point of this inquiry into the nature of the forging of philosophy as a concept is to emphasize the importance of using abstraction for practical purposes and predicating it on real world experience rather than emphasizing theory as the ultimate indicator of reality. Plato’s idealism, while romantic at times and deeply appealing to intellectual currents for ages, is the foundation for ivory tower thinking, not real world problem solving. It also has far less to do with wisdom and far more to do with those who think they are wiser than everyone else.
Philosophy as a concept owes much, if not nearly everything, to Aristotle (c.384-c.322 BCE) — student of Plato and teacher to Alexander the Great. He wrote an enormous amount, about a large number of subjects and based his ideas — from biology to politics — on observation. His theories, while imperfect and often later amended or rejected, had utility and were not ends in themselves but shaped by experience.
One can and should re-write the history of Western philosophy to emphasize bottom-up thinkers and tinkerers as the true lovers of wisdom — people like Thales, Aristotle, Cicero, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Leonardo da Vinci, and Francis Bacon. He who retreats into the musings of his mind entirely leaves the world of experience and enters into a realm of pure abstraction, one — if not tied to reality — becomes increasingly irrelevant. Moreover, the top-down theoreticians betray their claim of ‘love of wisdom’ for the worst caricature elements that are associated with the term ‘sophist.’ One can see the increasingly delusional and unhelpful tendencies of so-called philosophers— from Plato to the postmodernists — in their lack of regard for those who actually build things, those who actually improve things, and those who are willing to get their hands dirty. It is not solely the industry of the mind which has forged the countless innovations in history or fueled the endless potential of humanity, but the industry of the hands (with the occasional aid of theory when necessary).
“To spend too much time in studies is sloth; to use them too much for ornament, is affectation; to make judgment wholly by their rules, is the humor of a scholar. They perfect nature, and are perfected by experience: for natural abilities are like natural plants, that need pruning, by study; and studies themselves do give forth directions too much at large, except they be bounded in by experience” -Francis Bacon, ‘Of Studies’ (1625)
I would also hold that philosophy has three real beginnings. The first is in the East with the great Sages of Antiquity. The second is in the co-creation of philosophy by Thales and Aristotle (despite living a couple centuries apart). The third is in the forge of modernity — from the dissenters of the Enlightenment (most notably Rousseau) to the greatest philosopher who ever lived (Nietzsche — the greatest articulator of human antifragility ever) — systematic thinking was forever shattered.
Latter-day sophists have had to occupy themselves with the baubles of postmodernism in academia and toying with Marxism. Nietzsche — for all intense and purposes — stands as the philosopher of modernity, the philosophy of the individual, and the philosopher of antifragility. Grand narratives, aside from perhaps those related to the power of the heroic individual as grounded in psychological analysis coupled with philosophy, have been brushed aside for bottom-up thinking, tinkering, and observation.
The ways of thinking articulated by Plato and Socrates have died a thousand deaths or more whereas the bottom-up approach, with its foundations in the ways of Thales and Aristotle, remains solid — even stronger than before.
“The words they breathe from their mouths are as wise as the winds they fart from their asses.” -Leonardo da Vinci, critique of the learned scholars of his day