Tuesday, 24 November 2015

The Sweet Song of Swans

[This is an extract from the chapter 'The Sweet Song of Swans' in The Sacred History of Being, published November 2, 2015].

....Bernal writes about one of the founders of the University of Gottingen, Kristophe August Heumann.  He says that: “As a pioneer of the new professionalism Heumann established a scholarly journal, Acta Philosophorum, in the first issue of which, in 1715, he argued that although the Egyptians were cultivated in many studies they were not ‘philosophical’. This claim – which his contemporaries Montesquieu and Bruckner… did not dare to make – was both striking and daring in the light of the strong ancient association between philosophia and Egypt." Bernal mentions that 'three of the earliest four references to philosophia are associated with Egypt'.  Isokrates specifically associated philosophy with Egypt (Bousiris, 28).

Bernal points out that modern scholars have difficulty in accepting this ancient association, and mentions one author, who, writing in 1961, consistently translated 'philosophia' as the civilisation of Egypt'  (Black Athena p 216) . The word 'sophia' can be derived from the Egyptian sb3, which means 'teaching', 'learning'. In volume 1 he promised a fuller discussion of the derivation, but his project expanded, and proper discussion of sb3 and sp3 is now in volume 3, published in 2006.

The concept of wisdom (sbt) is clearly connected with stars and gates (sb3) indicated by the use of determinatives. These extra notions are connected in both Aristotle and Plato. The soul is the source of divine knowledge and wisdom in Plato; and in Aristotle souls abide in stars and stars are gateways to the sublunary world.

Bernal writes that: “Heumann’s categorical distinction between Egyptian ‘arts and studies’ and the Greek ‘philosophy’ is rather difficult to comprehend, as his definition of the latter was ‘the research and study of useful truths based on reason.’ Nevertheless its very imprecision made, and makes, the claim that the Greeks were the first ‘philosophers’ almost impossible to refute."

It is in fact not so difficult to understand, when Heumann's view is considered in its cultural context. At the time this distinction was made, Newton's mechanical philosophy and mathematics were in the ascendant. A reaction had long since set in across Europe against magic, alchemy, astrology, and other pseudo-sciences of the time. Leibniz, Newton's rival in mathematics, had, toward the end of the seventeenth century begun to distance himself from both people he knew in these fields, and from the kind of language they used to describe and understand ideas and phenomena. He became modern.  [i]  Egypt, being undoubtedly a place of magic and other unreasonable practices, experienced collateral damage. It could no longer be seen by proponents of reason as a place of philosophy, since philosophy was to be understood as the exercise of human reason, and not something which could co-exist with magic, prophecy, divination, etc. Irrespective of the fact that magic and the other unreasonable practices co-existed with philosophy in Greece.

Bernal however is awestruck by Heumann's 'daring in impugning the massive ancient and modern tradition which saw Egypt and the Orient as the seat of wisdom and philosophy'. In Black Athena p216, he writes that:

there is little doubt that Heumann’s views on this were linked to his German nationalism and his Europocentrism. He advocated, and tried to practise, writing philosophy in German when this was almost unheard of; he was also a climatic determinist even before Montesquieu. According to Heumann, philosophy arose in Greece because it could not flourish in climates that were too hot or too cold; only the inhabitants of temperate countries…. "could create true philosophy."  [ii]

Actually, this climatic determinism is Greek, and it appears in the pages of Herodotus. It is in fact an important part of the frame of Herodotus’ world view. Heumann’s is therefore borrowing a Greek argument to support the view that only the Greeks could practise philosophy. The essence of the argument is that extremes of geography are associated with cultural and physical advantages and disadvantages for peoples and cultures. Geographical determinism of this sort can be used to explain almost anything, including that philosophy was invented by the Greeks because of where they were in the world.

Bernal argues that: "Heumann’s views on the Greek origin of philosophy…. Were more than fifty years ahead of his time…  and that  his work on the history of philosophy was eclipsed by Bruckner’s massive works in which…. the author took a compromise position but did not deny the Egyptians the title of ‘philosophers’."

Nevertheless, Heumann’s influence persisted at Gottingen and it is not surprising that Dietrich Tiedemann, the first of a new wave of historians of philosophy of the 1780s had studied at that university.  [iii]  For this ethnic and ‘scientific’ school, as for all subsequent writers on the subject, it became axiomatic that ‘true’ philosophy had begun in Greece.  [iv]

[End of Extract]

[i] This phenomenon is discussed in Leibniz, Mysticism and Religion, ed. by Allison P. Coudert, et al, Kluwer, 1998.
[ii]  Acta Philosophorum, vol. I, p637, 1715 (quoted in L. Braun, 1973, p113).
[iii] Tiedemann P.  Griechenlands erste Philosophe oder Leben und System des Orpheus, Pherekydes, Thales, und Pythagoras, 1780. Leipzig
[iv] Black Ath. P216-217 ch v., “Hostility to Egypt in the 18th century

No comments:

Post a Comment