Tuesday, 30 November 2021

What Problem of Consciousness? (2021)

From The Philosopher, Volume CVIII No. 2 Autumn 2020
 
Nagarjuna (detail), Eastern Tibet, 19th century
Karma Gardri School, Collection Rubin Museum of Art

      What ‘Problem of Consciousness’?

By Peter Jones



The philosophical problem of consciousness may be expressed in various ways but let us not quibble. Where it appears ‘hard’ it is the ancient ontological problem of reducing mind and matter. Once we know how to do this then we have solved it. That the ‘hard’ part of the problem is not scientific but metaphysical is a fact the philosopher of mind David Chalmers has helped to clarify by advocating an approach to consciousness he calls naturalistic dualism. The defining feature of this approach is that it consigns the problem to metaphysics and walks away from it. 

Refusing to face up to the problem of consciousness on the grounds that it is metaphysical makes some sense in the physical sciences for it is an honest recognition of the limits of their method, but clearly it would be a perverse approach for anyone who wants to understand consciousness. Rather than being naturalistic Chalmers’ approach depends on the assumption that consciousness must remain forever a metaphysical mystery.

Attempting to explain the science of consciousness before explaining the prior metaphysics is the root of most of the trouble. We are almost certain to end up trying to rationally and ‘scientifically’ explain a misconception of the relationship between awareness, consciousness, mind and matter and thus to become enmired in intractable problems in the form of contradictions, paradoxes, and barriers to knowledge. In order to avoid this danger a rational science of consciousness must begin and end with the results of metaphysical analysis. The stagnation and general hopelessness of modern consciousness studies may be entirely explained by its refusal to concede this point.

So what are the results of metaphysics? While the subject is complicated in various ways its logical results are straightforward and easily stated. The most general and indubitable result of metaphysical analysis is that all positive metaphysical positions are logically indefensible. Interpreting and explaining this logical fact is the hard problem of metaphysics and it may be the only one. When we are able to explain it we will be able, in principle at least, to explain all metaphysical problems including consciousness.

Hence the issue here is mostly a matter of commonsense. If we know that all positive metaphysical theories do not work then we have largely dealt with metaphysics. A ‘positive’ metaphysical theory is extreme, partial, dualistic and selective. It states that reality is in some respect this as opposed to that or has this property or attribute as opposed to that. Metaphysical questions ask us to decide between two positive this/that theories about the nature of reality neither of which survive analysis, and as a consequence all such questions are undecidable. The mind-matter dichotomy in its various guises is a typical example. It does not make sense that either is fundamental, so a third option is implied.

It is a minimum condition for a useful and philosophically-sound fundamental theory that it explains this result of analysis. If a metaphysical theory cannot explain why positive theories fail in logic then it is either non-reductive or paradoxical, which is to say it is either incomplete or inconsistent. This dramatically limits the possibilities for a plausible theory of consciousness. At present this limitation is rarely acknowledged by scientists who speculate about the nature of reality and the consequence is a plethora of metaphysically flawed theories that are called scientific, do not work and explain nothing.

Theories for which either mind or matter are assumed to be fundamental must be rejected by the Ideal Reasoner. They are logically indefensible positive metaphysical theories that will never make sense to anyone. Positive theories give rise to the myriad of contradictions and paradoxes that plague Western philosophy. Examples would be the original miracle required for materialism, the so-called ‘hard’ problem of consciousness and the many logical problems that render commonplace monotheism implausible. This is the price of ignoring metaphysics, for we are abandoning logic and reason for the sake of guesswork and ideology.

The British idealist philosopher .F. H. Bradley, best known for his metaphysical essay published as Appearance and Reality, neatly summarises the results of metaphysics with the statement, ‘Metaphysics does not endorse a positive result’. Kant likewise concludes, as S. Körner puts it in his introduction to Kant’s philosophy, ‘all selective conclusions about the world-as-a-whole are undecidable’. By ‘selective conclusions’ here he means positive or partial theories for which the truth is this or that. Such theories come in counterposed pairs for which both of their members are logically absurd such that we cannot decide between them. The second-century Buddhist philosopher-monk Nagarjuna logically proves the same result in his Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way. This conclusion of logical analysis is the unmovable philosophical rock on which a rational science of consciousness must be built. If it is not grounded in sound metaphysical analysis then it will be doomed to descend into confusion and go round and around in circles forever. It will be unable to see that there is no ‘hard’ problem of consciousness but just a well-known philosophical fact that has been overlooked. If we choose to endorse metaphysical ideas that are demonstrably absurd and find our theories of consciousness run into problems then they are personal, not philosophical or scientific.

In the Western tradition of philosophical thought this conclusion of metaphysical analysis is seen as a problem. Yet how can a fact be a problem? No problems arise if we trust the efficacy of human reason and respect the results of metaphysics as a reliable guide to truth. If we have no fixed theoretical preferences and are free from dogma and ideology then in order to deal with the failure in logic of positive fundamental theories all we need do is conclude they are wrong and that the truth lies elsewhere. In other words, we need do no more than use our commonsense and reject theories that are logically unsound. Why would anyone do otherwise? How could any other approach be called scientific or rational? Difficulties only arise when we ignore the conclusions of two thousand years of Western philosophical thought and choose to endorse logically indefensible theories.

Being unable to prove that a logically absurd theory is true is not a problem so we can move straight on to an examination of what the third term implied by the mind-matter problem might be. Descartes thought it was God. For Chalmers’ ‘naturalistic’ approach, which produces a double-aspect (psycho-physical) theory of information, it would be the information-space. The mystics tell us it is consciousness. They say that what is missing from all purely psycho-physical theories of consciousness is precisely the phenomenon these theories are supposed to explain. As the mystics study consciousness first-hand rather than speculate and as what they say would be entirely in accord with the result of metaphysics there seems no reason to doubt them. If they are right then this would easily explain the befuddlement that currently afflicts academic consciousness studies and Western metaphysics.

The only metaphysical theory left standing by this analytically-sound approach is neutral, for only a neutral theory is logically-defensible. A neutral theory is the rejection of all positive theories and the reduction or transcendence of all the conceptual categories from which they are formed. This solution works for consciousness and all metaphysical problems. It is the philosophical basis and intellectual justification for Middle Way Buddhism, Philosophical Taoism, Sufism, advaita Vedanta, Kabbalism, Christian mysticism, Transcendental and Absolute Idealism or more generally non-dualism and the Perennial Philosophy. This existential doctrine is known as ‘perennial’ because it dates back to the earliest recorded human texts and beyond and remains as popular today as ever. It may be seen as a science for which ‘self-enquiry’ is the method. That a neutral theory is the only theory that survives analysis is a demonstrable result of metaphysics, and that this is widely ignored and largely unknown in the natural sciences and academic philosophy is a truth stranger than fiction.

The Perennial Philosophy, a phrase popularised by Aldous Huxley in his book under this title, is a methodology for the scientific study of consciousness and reality, which are found to be the same phenomenon, and an extensive body of teachings and first-person reports describing what is discovered. Its method may be summarised as ‘Know Thyself’ and its teachings comprise the ‘Wisdom’ literature. It has no orthodoxy or dogma and discourages speculation. It normalises on a neutral metaphysical position and denies all multiplicity for a fundamental descriptive theory that is non-dual. Its description of reality and consciousness predates human literacy and never changes, consistent with the claim that it is true.

The Perennial Philosophy then, is not a speculative theory but a description of what has been discovered by the science of consciousness best known as yoga or ‘union with reality’, an ancient methodology that involves the actual study of consciousness. The more recently invented theoretical project that calls itself ‘scientific consciousness studies’ does not require anyone to study consciousness scientifically, with the ironic consequence that it has less justification for calling itself scientific than mysticism. It is a wonder this approach receives so few complaints from scientists. In the modern discipline what, exactly, is the role of the word ‘scientific’?

Inevitably, then, researchers into consciousness and other metaphysical issues face a difficult but straightforward choice. They must either abandon hope for a coherent fundamental theory or adopt a neutral metaphysical position as endorsed by the Perennial Philosophy. There is no third option and nobody has every proposed one. It is a basic philosophical fact that a global theory must be neutral or logically absurd and this fact is the entire motivation for logical positivism, dialethism, scientism and other such pessimistic ideas. That these ‘isms’ are widely endorsed by philosophers in the West is clear evidence that this metaphysical fact cannot be ignored unless we abandon hope for all metaphysical problems including consciousness.

So why does Western philosophy and science resist this solution? Is it that the price of endorsing it is mysticism? This appears to be the stumbling block. It may seem implausible, but I can assure you there are many recently published books on consciousness that fail to even mention the discoveries of the mystics quite as if the study of consciousness has only just been invented. How can this approach be called scientific or rational? Is it not entirely predictable that intractable problems arise for such a thoughtless and unscholarly approach? Would it not be rather odd if those who study the actual phenomenon know less about consciousness than those who merely speculate?

What most researchers seem to overlook is that every attempt to prove a theory of consciousness that implies a positive metaphysical position is an attempt to refute both the logical results of metaphysics and the truth of the Perennial Philosophy. All such attempts are bound to fail. The ‘Middle Way’ metaphysical position of the Buddha as described, or more accurately proscribed, by the second-century philosopher-monk Nagarjuna in his Fundamental Verses, is the only one endorsed by logic and reason. All other metaphysical positions give rise to fatal contradictions. In this case the rejection of mysticism by the natural sciences is a naive and catastrophic philosophical error. There are no scientific grounds for this rejection and nothing slightly scientific about it.

It is possible only because natural scientists, when they wander off-piste into speculation about consciousness and the true nature of reality, generally ignore the results of analysis. Indeed, many are happy to endorse logically incoherent theories such as philosophical materialism and religious monotheism quite as if rational thought were unnecessary to scientific progress. Yet metaphysics does not reject the Perennial Philosophy and this is the only theory it does not reject. That it rejects all other theories has been proved beyond all possible doubt, for it the reason why Western thinkers believe metaphysics is hopeless and why they find it so. They cannot find a theory that metaphysics endorses because there is only one and they do not study it.

The hard problem of consciousness, therefore, may be redefined as the problem of falsifying Buddhist doctrine. In this case the problem does not exist. The neutral metaphysic that grounds Buddhist doctrine is irrefutable in logic and this is what Nagarjuna shows. We will never be able to prove or justify some other explanation of consciousness. If this is a problem for some researchers then it is not a philosophical or scientific one. The only problem here would be the difficulty of conceding that Buddhist doctrine might be true, and while this might be an ‘easy’ or a ‘hard’ problem for us as individuals it should not be generalised to others.

Metaphysics reveals that the problem of consciousness is an artefact of a logically absurd worldview. It would have a well-known solution and so presents no obstacle to a fundamental theory. The task for philosophy of mind and the science of consciousness would be only that of understanding this solution and examining its scientific consequences. The analysis and testing has been done and the situation is clear. Kant tells us that all selective conclusions about the world-as-a-whole are undecidable. Nagarjuna demonstrates that all such conclusions are logically indefensible and goes on to explain the reason why this is the case. Bradley lays out a similar but less formal argument in Appearance and Reality. George Spencer Brown in his 1967 book Laws of Form, where he presents an arithmetic calculus for Boolean algebra, gives us a mathematically-sound fundamental account of the origin of form that avoids all logically absurd theories for a neutral one. This metaphysical position was endorsed by Erwin Schrödinger and is sufficiently well-known to have become the ‘Pondicherry’ interpretation for quantum mechanics. Yet this solution for metaphysics is largely unknown in scientific consciousness studies and philosophy of mind. What could explain this unless it is perversity, limited scholarship and ideological blinkering?

The logical positivists were well aware that positive metaphysical theories do not work since this was their reason for setting up an anti-metaphysical club in the first place. Those who argue against the usefulness of metaphysics do so for this very reason, that it does not produce a positive result. They miss the fact that there is a perfectly good explanation for this because the reports of the mystics are so little studied in the academic world. A neutral metaphysical position is mysticism and it seems many people would rather face an intractable problem than concede ground to what, presumably, they imagine is an unscientific, irrational or speculative religious theory. Or perhaps the obstacle is just ‘not invented here’ syndrome. It must be admitted that mysticism has been poor at explaining itself in terms that might appeal to a modern scientifically-minded academic audience and so far has not even succeeded in convincing more than a rare few scientists to take it seriously, but this situation would soon change if the academic community started to do so.

Yet the tide may turn, for the longer consciousness remains an unsolved problem in the sciences the more plausible the perennial solution becomes. Perhaps this will eventually lead to a recognition that mysticism is not the enemy of religion, philosophy or science but only of incoherent conjectural religious, philosophical and scientific doctrines. Rather than being an enemy of reason or a threat to science the Perennial Philosophy allows us to make sense of metaphysics, religion and the fundamental basis of the physical world. The problem posed by a neutral metaphysical theory is only that of understanding it.

Can scientific consciousness studies ever make such a concession to mysticism? Only if it decides that respecting logic and reason would not disqualify the discipline from being scientific. What may be said with certainty, as Chalmers surmises, is that if it continues to ignore metaphysics then consciousness studies must give up on explaining consciousness. A coherent fundamental theory will be forever impossible.

It is a matter of commonsense that if consciousness studies is to be a rational pursuit then it must accept the results of metaphysics. If it does this then in principle the problem of consciousness is solved. Would this be a scientific solution? My own view is that it is. but perhaps there are definitional issues that allow for a different view. Who cares? Either it works or it does not. Would it be a naturalistic solution? Again, this is a question of definitions. It would certainly be impossible to show it is not naturalistic, and we would have to know all about this solution and all about Nature before we are qualified to judge. Would it be a rational solution? This is an easy question. Metaphysics refutes all metaphysical positions except one and a rational thinker would be bound to endorse it. 




About the author

Peter Guy Jones’ research interest is the philosophical foundation of the Perennial Philosophy and the relationship of this ancient description of reality with current Western metaphysical thought. 

This essay is a summary of issues discussed at greater length in his forthcoming book on metaphysics and mysticism.

His concern is with the failure of Western thinkers to take mysticism seriously and with  the way in which this ideological narrowing of attention renders philosophy in our universities inconclusive and ineffective. 

Monday, 1 November 2021

Review: The Philosophers’ Library - Books that Shaped the World

From The Philosopher November 2021 CIX No. 2 Autumn 2021

The Philosophers’ Library 

Books that Shaped the World

Here is a ‘pick up and browse’ book that seeks also to be a comprehensive survey of human thought. Not only the thinkers that you might know a bit about already but rather ones ranging from Saggil-kīnam-ubbib to Sappho, as the cover blurb puts it, probably accurately, before explaining that philosophical thought is “intimately tied to projects of empire”. So, if you were looking for a neutral, let us say “encyclopaedic, account you can't say you weren't warned. This is a political polemic. 

Despite that, the appeal of this book is really the pictures and illustrations. These are indeed a unique resource and carefully selected and annotated too. One of my favourites is the one and a half page spread of illustrations from the life of Wälättä P̣eṭros, 1672–1673, Ethiopia. The text often gives insights into the underlying significance of the images, explaining that this Ethiopian pictorial manuscript, now held in the Saxon State and University Library in Dresden, depicts vividly coloured scenes from the life of Wälättä P̣eṭros, performing miracles, such as saving people from illness, animals and attackers. 

The cover itself adapts a striking image, a twentieth-century manuscript facsimile of a twelfth-century version of the Scivias (above), housed in the Benedictine Eibingen Abbey, known as ‘The Choir of Angels’. It consists of a repeating pattern of colourful seraphs and faces circling a sun-like interior.  It is a good choice for the cover as repeated patterns take on a different significance if we link them to philosophical debates and even paradoxes. 

One's like: ‘Is the world eternal? No. Is the world eternal? Yes.’ The authors explain that “Both positive and negative answers express a partial truth about the world, as indicated by the use of the Sanskrit word syāt, meaning ‘conditionally’ or ‘maybe’. Whether or not the proposition is true depends on the nyāya – the ‘standpoint’ of the questioner. In some sense the world is not eternal, because it is constantly changing and thus has no permanent existence. Yet at the same time there is something about it that persists – so it is not unreal and in some sense is eternal.”

Other images, though are more like conventional illustrations, there to catch the eye but without great intellectual significance. Title pages, of which there are many here, are compared to ‘the teasers’  of modern cinema.

This then, is a book that is really a collection of images with supporting annotations. Otherwise, as for the main text, this is an overtly political work, attempting to rewrite the history of  ideas to give women equal prominence to men. Now I'm sympathetic to the project of reclaiming lost and suppressed voices, but having looked at the history of philosophy, and indeed science, there is simply no equivalence between the contributions of men and women. The reasons, of course, include different social contexts, the difficulties and obstacles facing women throughout history, and so on. But if you write a history of philosophy that gives equal space to women as to men you will end up with a misleading one. “Are the modes by which we conduct histories systemically compromised?” the authors, Adam Ferner and Chris Meyns, ask later in the book, before answering “Without wishing to sink too deeply into self-critique, we suspect the answer is probably yes.”

But they don”t imagine their own history to be so compromised. Rather the key issue for them is that “Throughout history men have been accorded privileges and social status denied to others. This is as true within philosophical literature as anywhere. Think, for instance, of the ‘big names’ regularly listed for ancient Greek philosophy: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle. Standard lists do not always show that women were performing this kind of intellectual labour as well.” 

This leads Ferner and Meyns (the latter of whom we should not assume is a man, and in the ‘author notes’ prefers to not identify as either gender), for example, to place Sappho, primarily a poetess, alongside, if not slightly above, Plato and Aristotle, who may have been male, but also produced works of extraordinary breadth and depth. Sappho is thought to have written thousands of lines of poetry, but only 650 or so actually survive.  Sappho’s poems are thus counted as far more important than the texts of either of the traditional grand figures of philosophy. 

It may or may not be significant, but The Philosophers’ Library starts off, rather alarmingly, with a discussion of book burning. The Chinese started this evil practice, but then they were they invented the book. The Romans burnt Alexandria, Muḥammad Bakhtiyār Khaljī, a Turko-Afghan military general, set fire to the sacred books of India, and “The streets of Florence were coated with ash after the spontaneous ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’ in 1497”. We're told too that in 1562, Bishop Diego de Landa Calderón ordered the burning of Maya books in the city of Maní, in Yucatán, Mexico, reflecting the sweep and care of the authors in providing the narrative to the illustration.

I can't really comment on the accuracy of the history, but I couldn't help but feel that the philosophical commentary was frequently misleading, often because of this political aim of upturning the standard narrative. The authors write, for example that Descartes’ cogito, “is the retelling of an argument found in Ibn Sīnā (and reformulated in earlier works), which allows the former to distance himself from the Aristotelian scholasticism of dominant contemporaries.”

The comparison seems rather ill-judged: Descartes’ emphasis is on what we can know, about the line between believing and knowing, whereas Avicenna’s is on ‘what’ we know. In terms of the history of ideas, Descartes is drawing on Augustine and the Jesuits, who he studied with, not on Avicenna and the Islamic tradition. Avicenna’s point is really about how the soul relates to the body.

Following this misstep, the commentary on Descartes' work by Elisabeth von der Pfalz is much admired, despite it being rather standard – to do with the problem of how pure mind could affect pure material, without the usually very socially conscious authors noting that Elisabeth was a Bohemian princess - and Descartes above all a great social climber.

More unusual and more interesting is to point out, as the authors also do, that there are several ancient thinkers in the East who seem to have had very similar insights to Descartes cogito, so often treated as the Frenchman’s solitary insight, obtained from mediating in a warm oven room (for that was how Descartes presented it). 

Vasubandhu

One I had never come across before is mentioned here: 

“Vasubandhu and Asaṅga (fl. fourth to fifth century), active in the kingdom of Gandhāra in the Peshawar region of today’s northwest Pakistan. This system also raises fascinating questions. Even if there is no independent reality, Vasubandhu asks, must not our apprehending consciousness be real – and, therefore, not ‘empty’? This question formed one of the central pillars of the Yogācāra school, which dominated Buddhism for centuries thereafter. ”

The wider point here is valid, and about more than mere books. It is about ideas - and how they are disseminated and suppressed. The authors rightly point out that “the suppression of literature also occurs in the creation of literary canons, curricula, syllabi and lists of Great Works “.

Part of the solution here is to avoid conventional assumptions such as the sudden ‘flowering’ of learning in Ancient Greece. One of several downsides, though, with this radicalism is that the book often lacks a thread, appearing rather as disjointed artefacts and random events.

There is another cost to what, in principle, is a commendable effort to approach history with an open mind and avoid the cultural baggage of the Western tradition, is that the use of supposedly more authentic names is for a general reader baffling. Confucius becomes Kongzi and the philosopher invariably referred to in the Western tradition as Avicenna, for example is referred to by his Persian name of Ibn Sīnā. Meanwhile,  despite this overt aim of being outside the Western tradition, the authors offer observations on other cultures that are in their own way rather parochial. The Chinese division of yin and yang, for example, is criticised for being somehow sexist, without appreciating that each human is a mix of yin and yang. It is quite wrong to write:

“It is no surprise, for example, that a patriarchal society would associate masculinity with strength and femininity with weakness. “

Culture war leads Ferner and Meyns to write rather dismissively, that Leibniz’s theodicy “reiterates notions found as far back as the Babylonian Kōhelet”, but nowhere is it mentioned that the ‘Babylonian Kōhelet’ text is that known in the Christian tradition as Ecclesiastes. If it was just names, well, a reader could keep looking up – translating – the terms as they read. But the interpretation of the great texts is also highly subjective. 

The authors say of Ecclesiastes, or rather “the Kōhelet” that it serves to reinforce inequality and the position of elites, but while marking the start of a controversy between biblical theism and Greek science, the book expresses ideas that are strongly at variance with both. As James Crenshaw, Professor of the Old Testament at Duke University Divinity School a specialist in Old Testament Wisdom literature has put it: 

“The author of Ecclesiastes lacked trust in either God or knowledge. For him nothing proved that God looked on creatures with favour, and the entire enterprise of wisdom had become bankrupt.”

Likewise, Heraclitus of Ephesus (c. 535–475 ) and Parmenides of Elea are gently mocked for being “authors of the not-so-imaginatively titled On Nature and On Nature”, ho ho ho, whereas these titles have nothing at all to do with them but are generic labels applied rather later by others.

Although it is good to see Parmenides’ riddle of nothingness referenced, it is passed over too briefly and the reader is left unaware of the philosophical significance of the idea. Indeed, given the earlier promise to emphasise context, the debate is not presented as part of the deeper, Eastern tradition as it surely should be.

Political correctness leads to some odd criticism. While Plato and Socrates are approved of for praising homosexual love, they are criticised for putting it above “the supposedly base physical, reproductive union that can occur between men and women.” Moreover, the authors go on, Plato, “one of the most prominent literary puppeteers’, completely ignores lesbian loves as portrayed by Sappho”. But then, his texts are “riddled with sexism and misogyny”.

Not here, will you find out that the real message of Plato is that men and women share the same kind of soul and this is why he allows both to train as philosopher-rulers. Not here, will you feel that Plato, if anything, is a voice for women’s rights. Aristotle, by contrast, was appallingly prejudiced, and the authors are right to point this out. But to say he was in some sense following Plato in this is again, rather misleading.

Or jump ahead to the post-World War II history.  The works of women outnumber those of men about three to one. This continual tilting at male philosophers leaves the reader ill-served. 

Alongside the gender battle, is the class-warfare theme. We are told that the Stoics, for example, appeared to be advocating ”misery and self-restraint” yet their views were “incompatible with the high life”. Indeed:

“…their philosophies were useful in actually defending the status quo, with its stark and troubling material inequalities. They presented a way for the elite to rationalise, even celebrate the deprivations of those from lower socio-economic brackets. Self-deprivation thus emerges as both a privilege enjoyed by the wealthy and a reality endured by the poor. As will become increasingly clear, few ideas – even radical ones – are immune to appropriation by the ruling power.”

As the authors themselves say, “Constructing a curriculum – combined with the process of deciding which works are ‘important’ and which are not – can be a profoundly political process. It is also one of the reasons why writing a book about ‘important’ philosophy books can be such a difficult and divisive task”.

“Constructing a curriculum” is indeed a way of seeing many key philosophical texts. Take gems in the ancient literature like the work of Dàoshēng aka Tao Sheng(c. 360–434 ), especially his commentaries on the Lotus Sūtra and the Nirvana Sūtra. In these: 

“Dàoshēng fuses together aspects of Buddhist and Dàoist thought; he acknowledges non-being, for instance, but simultaneously advocates continued engagement with the world. His most distinctive contribution is his discussion of language. For centuries Dàoist thinkers had been concerned about the inadequacy of language in capturing the ineffability of wisdom.” 

One insight mentioned here is that of likening words to fish-traps, to be cast aside once the fish is caught. 

Another philosophical riddle, that of free-will, is enlightened by reference to the Babylonian Kōheleṯ (aka Ecclesiastes) where the Friend suggests that humans simply cannot grasp nuances of the gods’ plans and in doing so, choose faith over reason. The Muʿtazilah scholars (in English referred to sometimes as “Those Who Withdraw, or Stand Apart”), by contrast, argue that the presence of evil shows humans to have free will, allowing them to make bad choices. “Thus, they say, there is no inconsistency. Allāh may possess all those attributes, and yet evil can exist. Here revelation is substantiated through rational deliberation.”

Repeatedly the authors return to their theme about how relative importance is judged, though. 

“Why, for instance, is Kǒngzǐ so prominent in the Chinese tradition? His ideas are unapologetic re-workings of thoughts that prevailed in earlier centuries. ‘I transmit but do not innovate,’ he claimed. He offers nothing original – and his one great contribution to literature, the Analects, was written by other people. Does this mean that we need not bother about originality? Why is Socrates, who never wrote anything down, positioned as an era-defining thinker, before whom there were simply ‘pre-Socratics’?”

To be sure, in their effort to be inclusive, not to say alternative, many unusual ideas and works are included. Like the Maxims of Ptahhotep (c. 2000 ), for example, which “hails from the Nile Valley”, and was written by a high-ranked official, for his son provides practical, ethical guidelines for proper conduct. What should you do, for instance, if someone behaves aggressively towards you? Show restraint and humility, advises the author. “Foreshadowing today’s self-help manuals, the Maxims recognise the value of self-promotion. ‘If you give heed to these things about which I have spoken to you, all your affairs will be successful.’”

As part of their description of the ancient Vedas, we learn that the “Rgveda is the oldest, containing scripts dating from around 1200  (and a system of belief from much earlier). It is composed of ten books, each in turn composed of around a hundred hymns, consisting of mantras (sacred chants), expressions of metaphysical theses, speculations on cosmology and instructions on ritual sacrifice. All of these overlap and interweave in ways that defy rigid classification.”

We are offered a taste of what these brown parchments full of obscure symbols contain. 

“Consider the famous description of the horse sacrifice found at the start of the Ṛgveda. Priests are given complex instructions about how to treat a horse before, during and after its sacrifice: the steed should be allowed to roam free before being offered as oblation (a gift to the gods); the priests should collaborate closely with the king in its dissection; its bones must be arranged in a special order and the body parts must be named as they are laid out. The horse sacrifice falls firmly within the realm of religious ritual, but also reveals detailed metaphysical and ethical reflection.“

Ferner and Meyns explain that the Ṛgveda draws connections between the parts of the sacrificial horse and parts of the cosmos: the head of the horse is the dawn, its flesh the clouds, its back the sky. The point is, they close, that “Since the horse’s body parts stand in a one-to-one relation to the parts of the cosmos, a ritual sacrifice can effect a re-ordering of the world.”

It is helpful to be offered, in discussion of the writings of ‘Kongzi’ (Confucius), an example of how literal readings of ancient texts can be very misleading. The Chinese frequently refer to ‘heaven’ as the bestower of virtue  yet::

“ ‘Heaven’ in this tradition is different from the concept commonly found in the West. It is not the realm of some omniscient deity (Kǒngzǐ rarely mentions gods), but is closer to the notion of cosmic order or, more generally, the universe – a phenomenon that exists, at its best, in a harmonious and balanced state. The notion of the ‘mandate of heaven’, referred to by both Kǒngzǐ and Mòzǐ, describes the authority conferred on a ruler, but is very different from the European notion of the ‘divine right of kings’.”

I will largely skip the selection of more recent (post 1850) philosophers which is skewed towards Marxism and seems far less careful than the rest of the book. The ancient and classic texts now morph into paperbacks of dubious significance, largely and predictably by women with the odd popularisation by (multi-millionaire!) Alain de Botton sprinkled in. (By the way, rich as he is, Alain still insists that the hardworking and rather struggling staff of his otherwise rather cool café-bookstore-colleges hand over a chunk of their takings to him each month. I wonder if Ferner and Meyns knew that when they gave him the extra publicity!) They range almost randomly from L. Susan Stebbing’s A Modern Introduction to Logic on to Greta Thunberg’s recent not-really-a-philosophical-masterpiece, No One is Too Small to Make a Difference.

The authors close by saying it is “heart-warming” that “the 21st century has seen a number of high-profile cases of sexual harassment and abuse brought against some of the white, male, English-language philosophers” previously championed.

Apart from that, the message offered here by the book, let us not say by the authors, is to place less emphasis on authors. This trade consists of people, it is suggested, who “transmit but do not innovate”. I suppose it is true, but well, you know, there is some skill in transmitting ideas too. Their book makes a start at that fine project, but often loses its way. That said, this is in many ways a unique project and a remarkable effort, and it should certainly earn its place on many library shelves.


The Philosophers’ Library: Books that Shaped the World

By Adam Ferner and Chris Meyns

Ivy Press (Quarto) 

ISBN 978-07112-4309-4