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

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