Saturday, 21 May 2016

A Saussurian Approach to Babylonian Epistemology

'Philosophy Before the Greeks: The Pursuit of Truth in Ancient Babylonia' - Marc Van De Mieroop. Princeton University Press, October 2015. 

Marc Van De Mieroop’s book is an exploration of how the Babylonians understood and processed their reality in the 1st and 2nd millennia BCE, long before the Greeks developed the apparatus of logical thought which we now associate with philosophy in the 5th century BCE.  Van De Mieroop chooses to call the Babylonian understanding of reality, which he describes in detail, ‘philosophy’. However what he is describing is, as he describes it, so far removed from what is understood in the west as philosophy, that it may be perplexing for the reader looking for the wider context of the development of the discipline in antiquity. It does not take Greek philosophy as its starting point, which might have seemed to be the obvious starting point. Instead, it proceeds with a phenomenological analysis of a variety of scribal processes, found in legal, omen and literary texts. The subtitle of the book is ‘The Pursuit of Truth in Ancient Babylonia’, so it will seem to someone picking up the book that we must be in cultural and intellectual territory familiar to us. We are not.

The book is divided into five parts and nine chapters. The first part is called ‘An Essay in Babylonian Epistemology’ and has one chapter, ‘At the Time of Creation’. This draws on the Enuma Elish (when on high), which is the liturgy of the Babylonian New Year Festival. Using this document, Van De Mieroop establishes his starting point, and the approach to the subject which he is going to take. Which is to argue that for the Babylonian scholar the text (and the process by which texts were created) was primary.

Part II, ‘The Order of Things’ (Les Mots et les Choses) has two chapters – the first gives a short history of the importance of the word lists in Babylonia; the second (chapter 3) is called ‘Constructing Reality’.

Part III ‘The Writing of the Gods’ has two chapters: ‘Omen Lists in Babylonian Culture’, and the second: ‘The Structure of Knowledge of the Universe’. This part of the book explores the idea that the Babylonians treated omens not just as divinations of the mind of the gods, but as encounters with a species of divine writing, which scribes and diviners could read and understand. This is a valuable part of the book, which ties together both the processes involved in scribal understanding of omens, and their understanding of the significance of the texts they produced in response to the omens.

Part IV is titled ‘The Word of the Law’, and the first of its two chapters look at the ancient law codes from the perspective of his argument. This chapter does illustrate clearly that the same kind of processes found underlying the construction of the literary and omen texts, also lie beneath the construction of the legal texts. The seventh chapter is ‘The Philosopher King’. It might be imagined that this chapter might contain some kind of comparison with Plato’s notion of the importance of knowledge to the Philosopher King, and how that knowledge might be acquired. Plato’s concept of the Philosopher King is mentioned briefly, but only to dismiss the idea that Plato was in the same cultural territory as the Babylonians, since Plato deprecated writing.

Part V, ‘A Babylonian Epistemology’ also has two chapters. The first gives an account of his understanding of Babylonian epistemology over historical time, from the middle of the 2nd millennium BCE onwards, until the cuneiform script ceased to be used or understood in the early years of the common era. The final chapter is titled: ‘The Conceptual Autonomy of Babylonian Epistemology’ and sums up Van De Mieroop’s argument that, for the Babylonians the text, and more importantly, the cuneiform script, was primary, and that processes by which the texts were created, whether literary, legal, ominous, or lexical lists, did not derive their importance from reference to things outside the texts and the script. The Babylonian construction of reality existed within the texts, and was generated by the process of writing.

Van De Mieroop therefore is not seeking to establish the philosophical nature of Babylonian thought by means of a comparison of Babylon literary, legal and divination texts and their contents, with similar documents from Greece, where these exist. In fact he does not engage in significant comparison with the intellectual output of Greece at all. ‘Philosophy before the Greeks’ is therefore a title which means, in the context of this study, something quite different to what it seems to mean. 

It is also the case that he does not attempt to define what philosophy is directly within the Babylonian context, but instead explores the concept through numerous examples, revealing a number of structuralist procedures employed by the scribes, and allows the logic and the consistency of scribal activity to emerge from these examples. We learn a lot about these processes, including instances where the processes contradict both human experience, and physical possibility. His conclusion from these is that they show that whatever meaning the resulting texts had was considered to reside in the texts, and so physical reality and possibility was not seen by Babylonian scholars as a legitimate constraint on the construction of these texts. 


"Philosophy before the Greeks is a sophisticated, erudite, strikingly original, well-argued, and richly documented study that will stand alone in ancient Mesopotamian studies." - Benjamin Foster, Yale University. That is a barbed accolade.

The first chapter of the book is available from Princeton University Press, at:

[See also my first short post about this book, in December 2015, at:]

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