Tag Archives: academia

Babylonian Philosophy? Part 3

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A More Promising Approach

Mieroop’s work fails to define epistemology narrowly enough, and cultural relativism is to blame. Another problem is that, unless a philosophical treatise turns up in cuneiform, any evidence of Babylonian philosophy is indirect. But Mieroop’s quest for Mesopotamian philosophy is not hopeless. With superior method, we might yet uncover something of the Babylonians’ intellectual life. I propose three methods: (1) Using better-documented philosophical traditions as control variables, (2) comparing Babylonian religious and literary texts with the fragments of the Presocratics, and (3) analyzing the thematic development of Babylonian literature, insofar as it can be traced.

The first is the least ambitious method. It would use better-documented, philosophical traditions to evaluate claims about Babylonian intellectual history. The better-documented tradition would act as a control variable. Too bad Mieroop did not think of it, because this method destroys a core assumption of his thesis–that any complicated thinking presupposes epistemology. So then, is there civilization with complicated thinking, even systematic philosophy, but devoid of epistemology?

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Babylonian Philosophy? Part 2

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Cultural Relativism

Mieroop suffers from cultural relativism, like much of academia. Cultural relativism (or just “relativism”) stems from the assumption that we cannot value any of the achievements of Western culture’s over the achievements of another culture. To do so would mean we have acted out of pro-Western bias. But what if the Western culture did achieve something of objectively higher value? Would acknowledging western culture’s qualitative superiority in that particular matter mean we are biased?

To the preceding questions, a relativist would answer that no such valuation is possible, that we cannot value cultural achievements objectively. And he would be right, at least regarding certain realms of cultural achievement, such as literature.  It is nearly impossible to compare one literary tradition to another. The scholar of literature faces all sorts of impediments: differences of tastes, language, historical and cultural references. Literary taste depends on culture and education, it is subjective.

But relativism is unhelpful in objective matters. It causes scholars to abjure making qualitative distinctions between the achievements of one culture and another, even in realms like mathematics and science that can be compared objectively. No one would assert that the ancient Egyptians attained a higher level of mathematics than the medieval Muslims. That is not to denigrate the Egyptians, of course their Muslim successors attained greater heights because “they stood on the shoulders of giants.” But claiming that the Egyptians invented trigonometry would be ridiculous. Like mathematics, epistemology belongs to the objective realm. Certain methods of discerning truth are better than others–they can be more or less systematic, and lead to more accurate results. So while it is difficult to weigh the relative merits of, say, Greek and Chinese literature (a subjective assessment), it is not difficult to judge the Greek philosophical achievement as superior to the Somali.

Continue reading Babylonian Philosophy? Part 2

Babylonian Philosophy? Part 1

A Review of Philosophy before the Greeks: The Pursuit of Truth in Ancient Babylonia by Columbia Professor Marc van de Mieroop. (Note: This review originally ran in November 2015 at The Ritter Review, a blog set up by Greg Ritter before the founding of AI. We have reason to believe that the author has read it and reached trigger-factor 5. This is what happens when you exclude all the smart people from academia. heh).

by Gregory Ritter

Introduction

Like many in academia, Columbia professor Marc van de Mieroop brings up a fascinating question, then manages to bungle his answer. In Philosophy before the Greeks: The Pursuit of Truth in Ancient Babylonia he asks whether the ancient Babylonians developed epistemology. Epistemology, or “theory of knowledge,” is the study of knowledge, or as Plato defined it, true, justified belief. It has been regarded as central to all philosophy since ancient Greece. Because they developed epistemology, the Greek philosophers have held a unique place in intellectual history—indeed, for centuries, Western scholars have considered the Greek contribution to be fundamental. If the Babylonians got to epistemology before the Greeks, intellectual history will have to be entirely rewritten. Mieroop argues that they did, that the Babylonians had a developed theory of knowledge. But no one has discovered evidence of such, despite the hundreds of thousands of cuneiform tablets discovered since the mid-nineteenth century. So Mieroop’s thesis is quite ambitious. He offers several arguments in its support. The attempt is noble, but the conclusions are outrageous. This failure can only be attributed to an unimaginative method and an inexplicable ignorance of basic philosophical concepts. In these shortcomings, his work is an example of academia’s over-specialization and relativist groupthink.

Mieroop’s thesis has three major defects. First, he does not understand what epistemology is. Second, he overstates his case by failing to make a qualitative distinction between the rigorous Greek search for truth and Mesopotamian pre-philosophic learning. Third, he claims to disagree with earlier scholars’ assessments, but manages to reach to the same conclusions, albeit dressed up in cultural-relativist garb. This last defect, his cultural relativism, is the cause of the first two. Relativism prevents him from recognizing that the Greeks’ philosophical achievements were of higher quality. He magnifies the Babylonian intellectual achievement by a herculean effort at blurring categories, leading to his argument’s internal contradictions. Continue reading Babylonian Philosophy? Part 1