Ancient Philosophy

Kipton Jensen, Philosophy
Morehouse College


Short Course Description: At its most extreme, one could quip – as Whitehead quipped – that "the history of Western philosophy consists of a series of footnotes to Plato." But when it comes to exploring the pre-Socratic philosophers, the conventional canon of ancient philosophy is reduced almost exclusively to the Milesians, with vague allusions to Plato's interest in Pythagoras and Thales, who studied in Egypt. But ancient philosophy did not, as we shall see, spring forth full-grown from the head of Plato. In this course we will examine ancient philosophy in Africa, India, China, Persia, Judea, and Greece. The ancient Mediterranean was bustling with cosmopolitan influences, or periods of intellectual and spiritual exchange, times that pre-date the Persian influence prior to the Peloponnesian Wars, prior to Socrates and his philosophical or religious contemporaries during the Axial Age: e.g., Confucius and Laozi in China, the Buddha in India, the proliferation of the Vedas, Mahavira the Jainist, the exile and return of the Jews from the Babylonian captivity, in the time of Cyrus, and Zarathustra in Persia. But prior to all this, much earlier than ancient philosophical thought in Greece, Black Athena or otherwise, we have a long and venerable tradition of philosophical thought in ancient Africa. Although students in this course will be exposed to the traditional western canon of ancient philosophy, we will give special attention and pride of place to the history of ancient philosophy in Africa, especially Kemet and Kush.

Course Size:

Course Format:
Small-group seminar

Institution Type:
Private four-year institution, primarily undergraduate

Course Context:

This is an upper-level course in philosophy. It is a required course for philosophy majors, but it also draws students from our Africana Studies Program at Morehouse. In past years, this course has included guest lecturers of sundry sort of expertise.

Course Content:

This course includes seminal writings from diverse geographical locations in the ancient world: Africa, Persia, India, China, Judea, and Greece. Students are asked to extend the traditional timeline and expand the conventional map of ancient philosophical thought.

Course Goals:

These are the stated learning outcomes for philosophy majors:
1. Philosophy majors will demonstrate competence in critical and analytical thinking.
2. Philosophy majors will demonstrate proficiency in constructing and evaluating argumentative essays.
3. Philosophy majors will be able to competently explain the global significance of philosophical ideas.*
4. Philosophy majors will be able to identify key non-Western as well as Western philosophical schools of thought.*
5. Philosophy majors will demonstrate knowledge of major themes, problems and issues in the history of philosophical thought.
6. Philosophy majors will be able to demonstrate familiarity with the theoretical problems of contemporary ethics, theory of knowledge, and metaphysics.

Course Features:

Students are divided into 6 groups, representing 6 geographical areas (Africa, India, Persia, China, Judea, and Greece), and tasked with the goal of becoming relative-experts for that region: they present to the rest of the class as the course progresses, but they are also asked to represent that region in a capstone event, a global summit on ancient philosophy.

Course Philosophy:

This course was revised to meet a QEP goal of teaching philosophy from a global perspective. It was designed to capture the following learning outcomes for philosophy majors:

3. Philosophy majors will be able to competently explain the global significance of philosophical ideas.*
4. Philosophy majors will be able to identify key non-Western as well as Western philosophical schools of thought.*

* This semester, in this course, learning objectives 3 & 4, above, will be significantly enhanced and deepened. Students will be asked to think about and formulate an answer to the question concerning, the importance of ancient African thought for establishing – quoting Angela Davis's "Lectures on Liberation" – "a continuum from the past to the present" but also for discovering "the genesis of problems that continue to exist today, to discover how our ancestors deal with them" ([1969] 2010: 66).


There are various assessments during this course. Students maintain a weekly journal and they participate in a discussion board. There final paper, last time, looked like this: "For your final paper in this class, I'd like to ask you to write a comparative analysis paper on one of the main philosophical issues in the ancient world (e.g., the ideal state in Greek and Chinese philosophy, or metaphysics in Greek and Kemetic thought, notions of beauty in ancient Jewish thought and Kemet or Kush). 1500-2000 words (i.e. 5-7 pp.)."


PHI 310 syllabus 2016(1)-2 (Acrobat (PDF) 184kB May1 17)

Teaching Materials:

References and Notes:

A Very Short Introduction to Ancient Philosophy, Julia Annas (Oxford).
We will read Asanti and Obenga on the Egyptian philosophers, certainly, but we will also read Cheikh Anta Diop' seminal The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality (1989) and Charles Finch's The African background to medical science: essays on African history, science & civilizations (Karnak House, 1990).