Asian Scholasticism

After a lengthy prehistory of cross-cultural ferment, philosophy — as something that went beyond traditional wisdom and poetic insight to encompass significant rational development — emerged first in Greece. In the pre-Classical period, Greece’s strong involvement in long-distance trade already promoted the emergence of more cosmopolitan attitudes, leading to the kind of social environment in which philosophy could emerge. The period that is called Hellenistic for the Eastern Mediterranean world brought even more interaction between cultures as a result of Alexander’s empire. There was broad cross-pollination between East and West, so that in many instances it is difficult to say who influenced whom.

From Roman times, Greece was traditionally considered part of the East, in contrast to the Latin West. Greek philosophy in its last period came to be largely centered in Egypt and Syria. This fed directly into the amazing fluorescence of learning in Arabic during the 10th to 12th centuries CE.

But even before the Islamic golden age, various sorts of broadly scholastic philosophy flourished further East in southern, central, and eastern Asia, within Buddhist, Confucian, Hindu, and even Taoist traditions. Although Arabic-language philosophy began to be eclipsed by the 13th century CE due to an ascendency of religious conservatism, intellectual culture in Asia was essentially continuous until the early modern period.

Initially much weaker in the Roman and European West, philosophy and general intellectual culture declined further after the fall of the Roman empire. In comparative terms, Europe only ceased to be a cultural backwater with the advent of the high middle ages.