welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please

Philosophy Then

Divided Opinions

Peter Adamson looks at how we carve up philosophies.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how we (Westerners) divide up philosophy. Usually we do it chronologically, and typically into three periods before the modern era: ancient, medieval, and early modern. This is obviously pretty clumsy, and unequal to boot, given that ancient and medieval between them cover more than two millennia, while ‘early modern’ typically covers only about two centuries (the seventeenth and eighteenth). A more refined periodization might define such eras as the ‘late antique’ and ‘Renaissance’, somehow fit in the nineteenth century, and so on. But one will always be stuck with blurry edges. Petrarch (1304-1374), for example, seems very much a Renaissance figure, yet was a contemporary of the quintessentially medieval thinker John Buridan (1300-1361).

What’s been on my mind though, is not so much the difficulty of drawing chronological boundaries, but the difficulty in another way of dividing things up, along cultural boundaries. Usually in the West it’s only European thought that gets the honor of chronological division, with non-European traditions being labeled with catch-all terms: Chinese, Indian, Islamic… But such divisions are, if anything, even more problematic than the chronological ones. I’ve mentioned before in this column that the stories of Islamic philosophy and European philosophy overlap, thanks to centuries of Muslim civilization in the Iberian peninsula. And this sort of overlapping reappears across history and around the globe. Consider one of the most important traditions of philosophical thought, Buddhism. Buddhism spans numerous cultures, having been born in India, then spreading to China, Japan, and indeed across Asia. More recently it has been taken up in Europe and the Americas. Or consider the way that Latin American philosophy is often treated as a ‘non-Western’ category, even though Latin American thinkers have often belonged to European intellectual traditions. Is the Peruvian socialist Jose Carlos Mariátegui part of the history of Latin American philosophy, or part of the history of Marxism? The answer, clearly, is both. Yet people tend to treat the history of philosophy as if it could be ‘cut at the joints’, along natural dividing lines that follow linguistic, religious, or political boundaries. I think this is a mistake. For example, Maimonides is most often treated as part of ‘Jewish philosophy’, and he is indeed a giant in that tradition, along with Spinoza and Moses Mendelssohn. In cultural terms, though, his context is the Western Islamic world. Close comparisons to his project are to be found in the writing of Muslim thinkers such as Averroes. He was therefore both a Jewish thinker and a thinker of the Islamic world.

When it comes to the more contentious and disputed historiographical categories, this ‘both-and’ approach is more illuminating than an ‘either-or’ approach. Here we come to the reason for my recent preoccupation with this issue. Along with Chike Jeffers I have over the last months been covering Africana philosophy in a series of podcasts. I’ve been struck by the way that listeners have responded to these episodes. No-one has ever written in to dispute the legitimacy of concepts like ‘philosophy in the Islamic world’ or ‘medieval philosophy’, but a number of people have done so to challenge ‘Africana philosophy’. Most often their skepticism grows out of an unstated assumption that the categorisation of philosophy works in an ‘either-or’ way: Muslim theologians from North and West Africa would be part of Islamic, not African, intellectual history; W.E.B. Du Bois would be part of the story of American philosophy, not Africana thought; and so on. Because each figure can be placed into some other historiographical category, my correspondents rejected ‘Africana philosophy’ as an artificial construct cobbled together from spare parts.

But consider another example: Christian philosophy in Ethiopia. This begins in late antiquity (around the fifth century AD) with the translation of philosophical material from Greek into Ge’ez. On the one hand these translations, and later writings inspired by them, can be seen as part of the larger story of Christianity in Eastern realms – most obviously in Constantinople with Byzantine philosophy, but also in places like Syria, Armenia, and Georgia (not that Georgia, the other one). On the other hand, Ethiopian thought clearly belongs to Africa, having strong links to the Egyptian Coptic church and being decisively affected by missionary and colonialist intervention in Africa by European powers like the Portuguese. Thus Zera Yacob in the seventeenth century looked back to earlier Ge’ez literature while also reacting to tensions between Jesuit missionaries from Portugal and the Egyptian church. In short, the Ethiopian philosophical tradition simultaneously belongs to at least two larger stories: that of philosophy within various Christian traditions of the East, and that of African philosophy. A similar point could be made about ancient Egyptian philosophy, which can profitably be placed alongside Babylonian and early Greek intellectual developments, but has also been a key inspiration for later Africana thought.

So as they are increasingly accepted and taught in our schools and universities, we need to bear in mind that non-European traditions of philosophy are just as multifaceted, overlapping, and blurry around the edges as European philosophy. It remains typical to speak of the ‘Indian view of the self’, or the ‘Islamic view of the relation between reason and revelation’, ignoring the bewildering diversity of opinion within these traditions on these very topics, and many others. No one pretends that ‘European philosophy’ is fundamentally empiricist or non-empiricist, because we know that both stances have been taken by major European thinkers. Similarly no one has any problem with thinking of, say, René Descartes as simultaneously a rationalist, a Frenchman, a Catholic, a dualist, a mathematician, and more besides. We readily recognize that he falls into many different compartments within the history of thought and can be treated as a protagonist of many different narratives. Non-European thinkers should be accorded the same courtesy.

© Prof. Peter Adamson 2019

Peter Adamson is the author of A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, Vols 1, 2 & 3, available from OUP. They’re based on his popular History of Philosophy podcast.

This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X