Peter Flegel has an interesting article in Philosophy Now looking at possible connections between ancient Greek philosophy and conceptions explored in the Egyptian New Kingdom period. Ideas like the four elements and the theory of forms seem to have pretty clear antecedents in Egyptian thought.
(There’s also a brief suggestion that Akhenaten, known for a brief experiment with monotheism in the early New Kingdom, may actually have held a proto-scientific worldview, albeit one hobbled by the limited vocabulary of the time. I think we have to be very careful about projecting later worldviews on such early figures, but whether or not it’s true, it does seem possible that Akhenaten monotheism, although quickly reversed after his death, set off shock waves in Egyptian intellectual thought that led to many intellectual breakthroughs, ideas that later made it into Greek philosophy.)
The article focuses on Egypt, but the idea that Greek thought arose miraculously from nothing has always struck me as simply western chauvinism. In general, I think ancient peoples interacted with each other far more than many historians and archaeologists often give them credit for.
We know the Greek alphabet was derived from the Phoenician one. Phoenicians traded widely throughout the ancient world across the Mediterranean, Black Sea, Africa, and many other locales. It seems likely ideas would have propagated throughout their trading networks. The idea that all the Greeks imported from them was the alphabet seems shaky. (Not to mention that Herodotus considered Thales, widely recognized as the first philosopher in the western tradition, to be Phoenician.)
Greek philosophy began in western Turkey, nestled among trading networks and on the boundary of the Persian Empire, an empire that included civilizations that had already existed for thousands of years, and itself bordering Indian cultures to the east. It seems hard to imagine that the early Greek philosophers didn’t have contact with these cultures, or more likely, contact with intermediaries, people bringing in stories and ideas, many of which were already ancient wisdom.
Recognizing this, it seems to me, doesn’t detract from what the Greeks were able to accomplish. The Egyptians didn’t express ideas in the same way that the Greeks would, who seem to have legitimately added a new way of working with concepts. Robert Bellah, in his book on religion, described the earlier form of expression as mytho-speculation, and does credit the Greeks with developing the philosophical argument. But the Greeks do seem to owe many concepts to the cultures that came before them.
Unless of course, I’m missing something?