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Why Minor Figures Can Be Majorly Interesting
Peter Adamson looks at the value of looking at the overlooked.
How much would you say you know about Miskawayh? Nāgārjuna? How about Lucrezia Marinella, or Henry Odera Oruka?
Probably not much. In fact, you may not even have heard of them. These thinkers very rarely feature in the teaching of philosophy, and their writings might well be absent even in a well-stocked university library in Europe or North America, to say nothing of the average bookshop. They do not belong to that select group of philosophers whose names are familiar to almost everyone – Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes – or even to the list of figures that every professional philosopher knows. They are, from the points of view both of the philosophy profession and of the wider public, minor figures.
I’ve given a lot of thought to the importance of such figures, because I produce a series of podcasts devoted to covering the history of philosophy ‘without any gaps’, and also because in my own research I often find myself working on them. I’ve published a couple of articles about Miskawayh, for instance. He was a historian and formidably well-read philosopher who lived in the eleventh century in Persia. His status as a minor thinker is in truth well-earned. Unlike his near contemporary Avicenna, he was not one of the most brilliant and disruptive thinkers in human history. On the contrary, most of his work is in fact fairly derivative. So why would anyone, even a specialist in the philosophy of the Islamic world such as myself, spend their time reading and writing about him?
Although Miskawayh was creative in his synthesis of his sources – especially in a treatise that ambitiously fuses Greek and Islamic ethics – the answer is in part that he’s interesting precisely because he was not stunningly innovative. He therefore gives us an insight into a mainstream style of philosophy of his time and place – combining Muslim piety, Aristotelianism, and Neoplatonism – which the more innovative Avicenna was reacting against. If you want to see where Greek-inspired Islamic philosophy was headed before Avicenna intervened, you can do no better than to read Miskawayh. And this is a common phenomenon: we need to understand the minor figures to understand the major figures and the nature of their impact.
But that’s not the only reason to be interested in such figures, or to bring them to the attention of a wider audience. There is also the fact that apparently minor figures are sometimes, in fact, major ones. Avicenna himself is an example. Most Western philosophy students wouldn’t encounter him during their studies either, but he was the most important philosopher of the Islamic world by a huge margin, and he had far-reaching influence in other cultures too, especially medieval Christendom.
Equivalent things can be said of the second name I mentioned above, Nāgārjuna. His ingenious critique of the assumption that there are independently-existing things became the foundation of a whole branch of Buddhist thought, the so-called Madhyamaka or ‘Middle Way’. His stature in Asian philosophy is not unlike that of, say, Kant’s in European philosophy. Nāgārjuna really should be a household name, at least in any house that holds people with an interest in philosophy.
My last two names, Marinella and Oruka, illustrate a further reason for paying attention to so-called ‘minor figures’: thinkers outside of mainstream philosophy often actively critique that mainstream. In her On the Nobility and Excellence of Women, written at the end of the sixteenth century, Marinella attacked the misogyny of European culture, reserving special scorn for that most major of philosophical figures, Aristotle. Calling him a ‘fearful, tyrannical man’ for his dismissal of women’s rational capacities, she went against nearly the whole tradition of European philosophical anthropology by arguing in favor of the intellectual and moral equality, if not superiority, of women: “Speculation” she wrote, “is as much of service to women as it is to men. But man does not permit woman to apply herself to such studies, fearing, with reason, that she will surpass him in them.”
Much more recently – at the end of the twentieth century – Oruka likewise challenged prevailing assumptions about who is capable of producing valuable philosophy. He defended the notion that philosophy can exist in a purely oral setting; but he resisted the approach of other specialists in African philosophy who saw whole cultures (such as the Akan, Bantu, or Yoruba) as the bearers, and, in some sense, the authors, of philosophical systems. For Oruka, philosophy is done by individuals. So, to investigate the way that individual members of traditional African societies contributed to philosophy, he developed a project he called ‘Sage Philosophy’. This involved interviewing outstandingly wise members of such societies. These sages might not have written anything, but they can still represent the philosophical ideas of their people, or – even more exciting to Oruka – push against those ideas by setting forth innovative positions. Oruka’s project suggests that philosophy is not what we often assume it to be – a tradition of argumentative writing – but more like a lived wisdom that engages critically with the social setting in which it is produced.
Of course this is just a handful of examples. But I hope they suffice to convince you that it can be worthwhile to make less-well-known philosophers better-known: they can help provide context to understand the philosophical giants we already care about; they can turn out to be giants worth caring about in their own right; and they can change our ideas about what philosophy itself is.
© Prof. Peter Adamson 2020
Peter Adamson is the author of A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, Vols 1-5, available from OUP. They’re based on his popular History of Philosophy podcast.