The Islamic State’s Endgame


The Islamic State has reached its natural frontiers. Since its capture of Ramadi and Palmyra earlier this year, its expansion has stalled. In the north, its advance is blocked by the Kurds, who tenaciously hold on to their mountain redoubts. To the southeast, the Islamic State (IS) faces the Baghdad government. While totally ineffective on the offensive, Baghdad’s predominantly Shiite forces can defend their homelands around Baghdad and southward. For the IS to take Baghdad, it would have to incur huge costs, only to win control of a large hostile population. In the west, the IS advance has ground to a halt against the Syrian Arab Army of Bashar al-Assad. In recent weeks, the SAA has, with Russian support, found the will to stage a cautious counterattack.

There is a strong relationship between the military situation and the demographic realities: The IS wins where there are Sunni Arabs (as pointed out by Russia-watcher Anatoly Karlin). Its attack stalls when it encounters concentrations of anyone who is not Sunni and not Arab, for example, in western Syria, with its millions of Alawites, Shiites and Christians. Here the IS has made little headway against the SAA, which is all that stands between the local population and almost certain enslavement or annihilation. An even more extreme example is the city of Deir Al-Zur in eastern Syria, which has a large Armenian minority. There, over 200 km from friendly lines, SAA forces have held out for months. Contrast this situation with that of Ramadi, which the IS overran in a matter of hours, facing little resistance. The difference? Ramadi, like many other victims of the IS blitzkrieg, is overwhelmingly Sunni Arab.

So the IS advance had stalled, but why had it not been destroyed? Notionally everyone is against it–the US, Russia, Iran, the Damascus and Baghdad governments, the Kurds, Turkey, Jordan, Israel and the Gulf Arabs. But realistically, none of these players is committed to the immediate destruction of the IS. There are, broadly speaking, two major ‘coalitions,’ based on aligned interests. On one side is Russia, Iran and Damascus (and Hezbollah). On the other is the US (and Europe), Israel, the Kurds and the gulf Arabs, preeminently Saudi Arabia. Outside these ‘coalitions’ stand Baghdad and Turkey. Baghdad manages to be a vassal of both Iran and the US, and Turkey plays for its own team.

Of course, this two-sided breakdown is a gross simplification, each ‘coalition’ is a mess of competing interests. But each is founded on an important convergence. The Russia ‘coalition’ (Russia, Iran, Damascus) are united in their desire to boost Iranian influence and maintain the existence of the Damascus government. They therefore oppose IS expansion into western Syria and southern Iraq. The US ‘coalition’ (USA, Israel, Kurds and gulf Arabs) opposes IS expansion in Iraq, but will tolerate, even encourage, IS attacks into western Syria. It would prefer to see the IS weaken Damascus’ position, because as Assad’s power weakens, so does Iranian and Russian influence. Some reports suggest that the US has gone so far as to give IS material support (accidentally no doubt). On the other hand, the US coalition is wary of allowing the IS too free a hand. All players recognize that should the IS fall, their geopolitical opponents might gain an advantage from the ensuing power-vacuum. Everyone agrees that the IS is evil, but no one wants to destroy it.

In recent weeks, things seem to have changed. With Russian support, the SAA has started to regain ground, at first against assorted rebel groups, now against the IS itself. The Paris attacks have brought in France, who presumably would not be allowed to act without approval from Washington. Has the US coalition decided that it is time to wrap up the IS? Or is this just another head-fake?

Perhaps the US will continue its ineffectual bombing campaign, while continuing to funnel arms and supplies to IS. Maybe the US will pull the plug, and go all in against the IS. Whatever the case, one thing can be certain. The IS will not allow any outside power to decide its fate. And, while all the powers are jostling for advantage against one another, the IS has an ace in the hole.

The Saudi Option

The Islamic State has the grandest of ambitions, but only the meagrest of capabilities. Its leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, claims the position of Caliph and Amir al-Mu’mineen (commander of the faithful). He has received the nominal fealty of Islamist groups around the world. But his actual authority is limited to the upper Mesopotamia and stretches of Syrian desert. His state has limited economic resources, and it controls no cities of importance, save Mosul. His armed forces have reached their limits of advance, given demographic and political conditions. The global and regional powers, though divided, might well wreck IS in a matter of weeks. The IS doesn’t have a chance, even with soldiers fired up by its dank-ass fight song and balls-out helmet-cam footage. So what should their next move be?

Saudi Arabia. The IS needs to conquer Arabia, or at least Mecca and Medina. Admittedly an attempt on the Holy Cities would be the height of ambition, and could well end in disaster for the IS. But when has the threat of disaster ever deterred them? It would be difficult, but not impossible. The IS recruits from around the Islamic World, including Muslim enclaves in European cities, and no doubt has plenty of supporters and sympathizers in Saudi Arabia. It could also play on the internal weaknesses of the Kingdom, especially by stoking the ambitions of some distant relation with more self-esteem than career potential. Nothing fuels regime change quite like a butthurt second cousin. But before discussing the nitty-gritty of the “Saudi Option,” we need to examine why the IS should, and probably is, considering it. There are two factors: the Caliphate and the Holy Cities.

First of all, the Caliphate holds great symbolic value, even though it has been largely powerless, especially in recent centuries. The last Abbasid Caliphs were mere puppets. The Ottomans assumed the title in the 16th century, but the Sultan’s power lay in his earthly might, his armies, his police–his claim on the Caliphate was almost an afterthought. Still the claim was an important one, one that he regarded as crucial to his prestige. On several occasions, the Ottoman Sultan used his position as caliph to influence believers outside the Empire, for example to convince the Muslims of India to support British rule.

A crucial responsibility of the Caliph is to protect the Holy Cities. While he need not control them directly, he is at least notionally responsible for them as “Custodian of the Two Holy Cities,” a title first held by Saladin. The Holy cities are critical to the prestige of any Caliph. In 1803, when the forces of the First Saudi State seized Mecca and Medina, the Ottoman Sultan-Caliph ordered an army into Hejaz to retake them. The cities secure, the army marched into the interior to raze the Saudi capital in retaliation for the affront. Even that was not enough to wash away the blot. The offense was so grave, the Sultan had the captured Saudi patriarch, Abdullah bin Saud, brought to Constantinople in a cage and beheaded. (see Trofimov. The Siege of Mecca. Doubleday, 2007.)

The Holy Cities are also crucial in their own right. Stripping the Saudis of Mecca and Medina would delegitimize the Saudi claim to be “Custodian of the Two Holy Cities,” and make the IS, as the suzerain of Mecca and Medina, almost untouchable. Thus Al-Baghdadi would virtually inure himself to Western overthrow. No western country would dare harm a figure of such prestige, for to do so would incur the fury of all Muslims, or at least Sunnis. Control of the Holy Cities would, for all intents, put the IS beyond the reach of western military power. For while Muslims can fight other Muslims for control of the Holy Cities, no western army has entered the Hejaz since–well–Augustus, who ordered the Prefect of Egypt to conduct an expedition into the region. It was a disaster.

As has been noted, the Saudi Option is a radical proposal. But it could be done, and indeed a similar plot was carried out in Mecca in 1979, when hundreds of gunmen stormed the Al-Haram Mosque, which houses the Ka’aba. Only after a long fight did the Saudis regain control. The incident was a terrible blow to their prestige, so the Saudis are surely on their guard for similar attempts. But the situation is drastically different today, because the Islamist movement is stronger than ever. The IS can count on the support of sympathizers all over the world. And while the Saudi regime has an impressive security apparatus, it is not invincible. The IS could achieve its ends by different means, whether by fomenting a revolution, supporting a coup d’etat, or, like in 1979, storming a religious shrine and taking hostages.

One could argue that IS will not attack Arabia, because the Saudis supported and probably continue to support the IS financially. But al-Baghdadi surely knows that Saudi faith is Punic. The royal family will turn on the IS as soon as it is in their interest (and I don’t mean some bullshit, half-assed airstrikes). Because the Saudis are part of the US ‘coalition,’ they will abandon the IS as soon as it becomes advantageous–likely when the US and Israel have leveraged the IS to extract maximum concessions from Russia and Iran. Once the US pulls the plug, the IS will find resupply and reinforcement increasingly difficult, and will struggle more and more to hold off its enemies. Moreover, toppling the Saudis would bring material benefits. If the Saudis were ousted altogether, the IS would be in a position to secure the Arabian oilfields. Why bother with the Saudis’ petty handouts, when you could just take it all?

The Saudi Option would be a coup de main of the first order. It would break the stalemate in Syria by rocketing the IS into the ranks of regional, even world powers. If were executed successfully, the US would be forced to deal with it as a legitimate power.

Did the Babylonians have Philosophy? Part 3

Back to Part 2

A More Promising Approach

Mieroop’s work fails to define epistemology narrowly enough, and cultural relativism is to blame. Another problem is that, unless a philosophical treatise turns up in cuneiform, any evidence of Babylonian philosophy is indirect. But Mieroop’s quest for Mesopotamian philosophy is not hopeless. With superior method, we might yet uncover something of the Babylonians’ intellectual life. I propose three methods: (1) Using better-documented philosophical traditions as control variables, (2) comparing Babylonian religious and literary texts with the fragments of the Presocratics, and (3) analyzing the thematic development of Babylonian literature, insofar as it can be traced.

The first is the least ambitious method. It would use better-documented, philosophical traditions to evaluate claims about Babylonian intellectual history. The better-documented tradition would act as a control variable. Too bad Mieroop did not think of it, because this method destroys a core assumption of his thesis–that any complicated thinking presupposes epistemology. So then, is there civilization with complicated thinking, even systematic philosophy, but devoid of epistemology?

Let’s apply this method to the ancient Chinese. They had a grand tradition of complicated divination and sacrificial rites. In this respect they resemble the Babylonians. The Chinese even had notable political and ethical philosophical systems. But crucially, they had no logic or epistemology. The intellectual historian Fung Yu-lan acknowledged China’s poverty in the field of epistemology in his book A History of Chinese Philosophy, “There have been few men, aside from those of the School of Names, who have been interested in examining the process and methods of thinking; and this school, unfortunately, had but a fleeting existence. Hence logic, like epistemology, has failed to be developed in China” (Fung, 3). Civilizations can exhibit all sorts of complicated thinking, and never think seriously about the nature of knowledge itself.

The second method is a bit more ambitious, in that it could allow us to make hypotheses about what Babylonian philosophizing might have looked like. It is based on what little we know of Greek philosophy’s first building blocks–the Presocratic fragments. These are snippets of the Greeks’ first attempts at philosophy. It is likely that another civilization would follow a similar path of intellectual development on the way to mature philosophy. Thus its thinkers might have expressed ideas similar to the Presocratics’ ideas. We could mine the corpus of Babylonian literary and religious texts in search of proto-philosophical statements, and compare the Babylonian statements with the Presocratic fragments. It would be exciting indeed to discover any such similarities. They would suggest, but by no means prove, that the Babylonians had some building blocks of philosophy.

The third method would rely on tracing the development of Mesopotamian literature, looking for changes in theme. Mesopotamian literature underwent centuries of development, and fortunately, we have examples of compositions, such as Gilgamesh, that were reworked again and again.  From these changes, perhaps we could argue about what sorts of thought underlay them. How would we classify its themes philosophically? What sorts of doctrines might have underlay the epic? Here at last Mieroop gives us something to work with: “In the [first versions of Gilgamesh], the heroism of the king was a major theme. The [later] versions dealt with such issues as friendship, death, and power, [and the latest versions focused] on the wisdom Gilgamesh gained on his travels.” (27)  But then, as usual, he drops the ball. “Each moment in the tradition has equal validity.” Aw damnit! “Equal validity” again. Here too, I see a way forward, if only we dispense with cultural relativism.

The development of Mesopotamian literature can only be traced. Any conclusions would be tentative, only verifiable if more evidence is found. But take the Gilgamesh epic’s example. The theme shifts from heroism to friendship/death/power to wisdom. We can observe that these changes in emphasis have analogues in Greek literature. Heroism reminds us of early epic, like Homer. Emphasis on friendship, death and power sounds a lot like the themes of the Athenian tragedians. From these observations we might draw historical analogies in the spirit of Spengler, or do literary analysis à la Northrop Frye. Granted, this sort of work would be of limited value, for it could by no means prove the existence of philosophical inquiry, let alone epistemology. And yes, I realize that Spengler and Frye are out of fashion. But cultural relativism gets us nowhere.

It’s time academia stopped worrying about being trendy and started worrying about being right. The main problems are cultural relativism, as discussed above, and over-specialization. In the past, you could count on the fact that every scholar had a generalist background. He knew Greek and Latin, had read extensively in history, literature and philosophy. He was also generally knowledgeable about science and math, and was an expert in his field. Now the halls of Columbia are infested with narrow-minded assyriologists (among others), with no sense of perspective. Half a century ago, this was not the case. The assyriologist A. Leo Oppenheim knew the limits of his field, because he was well grounded in general knowledge. He would never have claimed that the Babylonians out-philosophized the Greeks, in Oppenheim’s opinion, even a literary history would be too much, given the available information. “The literary history of Mesopotamia cannot be more than outlined, and it is open to serious doubt… whether enough material is available to embark on the venture” (Oppenheim, 255). But he was a mid-twentieth century scholar. No doubt a product of his time, disposed to scholarly caution. Older scholars’ sense of perspective was not, as Mieroop asserts, the result of bias. It was the result of knowing.


As an Iraqi government official declared in 2003, “I triple guarantee you, there are no American soldiers in Baghdad.” A false statement to be sure. But was he not trying to elucidate a higher truth–that Iraq was invincible? If Mieroop wants to write a sequel, he could use this as evidence of a millennia-long consistency in Mesopotamian epistemology. heh. All jokes aside, refuting Mieroop’s arguments has been trivial. Philosophy before the Greeks proves nothing more than the depths to which academia has sunk. Is it really that much to expect that a Doctor at Columbia should have an undergraduate’s facility with philosophy, especially Theory of Knowledge? It is going to take a lot more than Mieroop’s flimsy relativism to undo history’s assessment of the Greek achievement.

But I sympathize with him. Professor Mieroop has devoted his life to the ancient Near East. That is a worthy object of study. It is inexplicable why academia allots it so little attention. Mesopotamia produced one of the great cultures of history. They were pioneers in mathematics, science, agriculture, government, poetry and much else. They produced Gilgamesh, widely acknowledged as a literary classic. But in studying their culture, we must resign ourselves to a sense of tragedy, because we can only get so close to them. We can learn their languages, read their documents, their poetry. We can reconstruct their religious and social life, we can even imagine how they must have thought. But so far, we have no evidence of systematic inquiry. Perhaps the archaeologist’s spade will unearth it. But in the absence of such a discovery, we cannot know.

Back to Part 2


Note: Numbers in citations in text refer to Mieroop, unless otherwise stated.

Fung, Yu, and Derk Bodde. A History of Chinese Philosophy. Second ed. Vol. One. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973.

Mieroop, Marc van de. Philosophy before the Greeks: The Pursuit of Truth in Ancient Babylonia. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015.

Oppenheim, A. Leo. Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization. Revised by Erica Reiner. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964.

Did the Babylonians have Philosophy? Part 2

Back to Part 1, On to Part 3

Cultural Relativism

Mieroop suffers from cultural relativism, like much of academia. Cultural relativism (or just “relativism”) stems from the assumption that we cannot value any of the achievements of Western culture’s over the achievements of another culture. To do so would mean we have acted out of pro-Western bias. But what if the Western culture did achieve something of objectively higher value? Would acknowledging western culture’s qualitative superiority in that particular matter mean we are biased?

To the preceding questions, a relativist would answer that no such valuation is possible, that we cannot value cultural achievements objectively. And he would be right, at least regarding certain realms of cultural achievement, such as literature.  It is nearly impossible to compare one literary tradition to another. The scholar of literature faces all sorts of impediments: differences of tastes, language, historical and cultural references. Literary taste depends on culture and education, it is subjective.

But relativism is unhelpful in objective matters. It causes scholars to abjure making qualitative distinctions between the achievements of one culture and another, even in realms like mathematics and science that can be compared objectively. No one would assert that the ancient Egyptians attained a higher level of mathematics than the medieval Muslims. That is not to denigrate the Egyptians, of course their Muslim successors attained greater heights because “they stood on the shoulders of giants.” But claiming that the Egyptians invented trigonometry would be ridiculous. Like mathematics, epistemology belongs to the objective realm. Certain methods of discerning truth are better than others–they can be more or less systematic, and lead to more accurate results. So while it is difficult to weigh the relative merits of, say, Greek and Chinese literature (a subjective assessment), it is not difficult to judge the Greek philosophical achievement as superior to the Somali.

Relativism is the source of all that is wrong with Mieroop’s book. As discussed in the preceding section, Mieroop’s argument has two major defects. He misunderstands the nature of epistemology, and to fails to make qualitative distinctions on the relative value of cultures’ intellectual achievements, particularly those of Greece over Babylon. I suspect that these defects stem from his relativist outlook, which makes him hesitant to value one culture over another, even in clearly objective fields. His relativism is so pervasive, he cannot see that we can compare achievements in epistemology objectively, and that, as far as we can tell, the Babylonian achievement is, in this field, meagre.

The relativist outlook leads to two other defects in Mieroop’s argument. These defects are not fatal to his argument, unlike the his misunderstanding of epistemology and failure to make qualitative distinctions. But despite their superficial nature, these defects are still annoying. They obscure his otherwise clear thinking. The first defect is his use of the phraseology so popular among relativists. The second, more damning defect, is his denigration of the work of earlier scholars with charges of bias. Oddly enough, he often agrees with his predecessors, but casts his conclusion as if it were the contrary.

The first defect, his overuse of relativist phraseology, stands in contrast to Mieroop’s generally good writing style. He writes with the general reader in mind. The discussion is academic, but relatively easy to follow. He does a good job of explaining the basics, such as cuneiform writing and Mesopotamian history. He also summarizes recent developments in Assyriology (ie, the study of ancient Mesopotamia). The chapters on law codes are readable. If only he had titled this book A Literary History of Babylon, it would have been a good introduction to Assyriology for the general reader.

But despite a generally clear style, Mieroop often lapses into the boilerplate phraseology of the relativists. Most annoying is his overuse of the phrase “equally valid.” Whenever he uses the phrase, we can be sure that it applies to things that, in fact, have nothing to do with actual validity. In logic, “validity” is the quality of an argument whereby the conclusion must be true if the premises are true. Mieroop regularly uses “valid” to describe things that contain no objective logical cohesion whatsoever.

So Mieroop uses “equally valid” to describe the most ridiculous pseudo-sciences. “The logic of similitude, direct and through intermediaries, allowed for an endless production of new omens…Scholars of divinatory texts wrote on clay tablets whose numbers were essentially unlimited. There was no restriction on the number of omens that could be formulated, and they were all equally valid.” (189) No omen is valid. Divination is always invalid because it relies on no causal connection between phenomena and outcome, between premise and conclusion. Maybe the word “valid” has a broader–more inclusive–meaning in Mieroop’s mind, like the meaningless meaning he assigns to the word “epistemology.” Same with his use of the word “logic” in the previous quote. Logic does not allow “for an endless production of new omens.” Logic allows for possible outcomes, not endless production of impossible outcomes.

But perhaps this is going too hard on divination. If anything, omen-reading is more valid, epistemologically, than cultural relativism. Think of epistemological rigor as a pyramid. The apex is logic, the middle section is magic and religion and omens. Omens rely on a preposterous method, but at least they are falsifiable. The predicted famine fails to materialize? The sacred chickens must have screwed up. But for the cultural relativist, no method can be invalid, no conclusion can be wrong. All is valid. Relativism is the bottom of the pyramid–it has no method, and cannot be falsified. Relativism, that dominant belief of humanistic academia, has a lower standard of truth than, to give a random example, Gypsy chiromancers. But Mieroop doesn’t even hold divination to this low standard of epistemological truth. After all he cannot, because divination has a more rigorous epistemology than relativism.

Relativism brings about a second defect in Mieroop’s argument: his habit of charging earlier scholars with cultural bias. Past scholars are open to this charge, because of relativism’s core assumption– that we cannot value one culture’s achievements over another. This assumption conflicts with the conclusion of past scholars, who gave the Greeks credit for developing philosophy, not the Babylonians. These scholars therefore made a qualitative assessment, we might paraphrase as, “The Greeks reached a higher intellectual acme than Babylonians (given the available evidence).” Such a conclusion is intolerable to the relativist in Mieroop. For a scholar to value Western achievements over non-Western presupposes prejudice.  Thus the scholars of earlier decades were racist, sexist, biased in some way. Prejudice is assumed. It could not be that the Greeks did achieve something that non-Westerners did not.

Yet his charges of cultural bias are superficial, because he usually agrees with the earlier scholars’ basic point. But before we see that he agrees, we have to wade through some snotty remarks about earlier scholarship’s presumed bias. Referring to a 1949 work, he calls it “admirable in many respects and naturally a product of its time, the mid-twentieth century” (5). As if there were something wrong with that. I guess we are supposed to associate the book with typical mid-20th century things, like Nazis and stuff. “The collection of essays…discusses at length mythopoeic thought, speculation that ‘was not restricted by a scientific (that is, a disciplined) search for truth’” (5). That is to say, the older scholars saw a difference between Greek philosophy and earlier thinking. Racists! In the same regard, he also brings up Hegel’s paraphrase of Aristotle, “It is not worthwhile to treat seriously of those whose philosophy takes a mythical form” (5). Mieroop’s point is that both Hegel and those mid-20th century-ers all underestimated the Babylonians.

Still, he goes on to agree with their basic point. “And indeed [the Babylonians] did not present a systematic analysis… that uses the principles we today see as essential for scientific explanation. Nor did they analyze other topics with the methods Greeks started to develop… and which we see as foundational for western rationality” (5). In other words, on the question of pre-Greek philosophy, all those mid-20th century scholars were right. Even Hegel was right. The Babylonians did not have philosophy, a rigorous search for truth. If we broaden philosophy to cover such spurious disciplines as astrology, mystical hermeneutics and numerology, then “philosophy” becomes meaningless. We can no longer use it to distinguish a rigorous search for truth from an arbitrary one. Mieroop has not said anything really new about the history of philosophy. He has only moved the goalposts.

Ironically, Mieroop’s theory of knowledge prevents him from ever refuting anything I’ve said. Is my opinion not equally valid? The relativists might contend that I am too steeped in Greek-type Western thinking to understand Babylonian logic. Here too they are wrong, having conflated subjective disciplines that depend on culture with objective ones that depend on reality. Science, Math, logic, and yes, epistemology fall into the latter category, they are objective. “A” does not equal “non-A” in all cultures, at all times. Would Mieroop claim that the Babylonians could have had a culturally relative form of mathematics? The objective nature of epistemology and logic is indisputable.

On to Part 3

Did the Babylonians have Philosophy? Part 1

A Review of Philosophy before the Greeks: The Pursuit of Truth in Ancient Babylonia by Columbia Professor Marc van de Mieroop.

In three parts Part 2Part 3

by Gregory Ritter


Like many in academia, Columbia professor Marc van de Mieroop brings up a fascinating question, then manages to bungle his answer. In Philosophy before the Greeks: The Pursuit of Truth in Ancient Babylonia he asks whether the ancient Babylonians developed epistemology. Epistemology, or “theory of knowledge,” is the study of knowledge, or as Plato defined it, true, justified belief. It has been regarded as central to all philosophy since ancient Greece. Because they developed epistemology, the Greek philosophers have held a unique place in intellectual history—indeed, for centuries, Western scholars have considered the Greek contribution to be fundamental. If the Babylonians got to epistemology before the Greeks, intellectual history will have to be entirely rewritten. Mieroop argues that they did, that the Babylonians had a developed theory of knowledge. But no one has discovered evidence of such, despite the hundreds of thousands of cuneiform tablets discovered since the mid-nineteenth century. So Mieroop’s thesis is quite ambitious. He offers several arguments in its support. The attempt is noble, but the conclusions are outrageous. This failure can only be attributed to an unimaginative method and an inexplicable ignorance of basic philosophical concepts. In these shortcomings, his work is an example of academia’s over-specialization and relativist groupthink.

Mieroop’s thesis has three major defects. First, he does not understand what epistemology is. Second, he overstates his case by failing to make a qualitative distinction between the rigorous Greek search for truth and Mesopotamian pre-philosophic learning. Third, he claims to disagree with earlier scholars’ assessments, but manages to reach to the same conclusions, albeit dressed up in cultural-relativist garb. This last defect, his cultural relativism, is the cause of the first two. Relativism prevents him from recognizing that the Greeks’ philosophical achievements were of higher quality. He magnifies the Babylonian intellectual achievement by a herculean effort at blurring categories, leading to his argument’s internal contradictions.

His weak thesis is a major disappointment. All the more so coming from a scholar so well regarded in his field as Mieroop, rightfully so given his previous works on the ancient Near East. And in Philosophy before the Greeks, he has chosen a topic that provokes immense interest. What was the intellectual life of pre-philosophic people? Is it possible that the Babylonians did have rigorous philosophical tradition, grounded in epistemology, evidence of which will one day come to light? Answers to these questions are not entirely beyond the grasp of scholars, but cultural relativism gets us nowhere. So I will suggest some better ways to investigate Babylonian intellectual history. I will also suggest some ways for academia to impose quality-control. No doubt the scholars would prefer to avoid embarrassments such as this book.

Epistemological Overreach

Did philosophy precede Socrates? We know of men engaged in philosophical inquiry before Socrates, but we do not know to what extent. The evidence is scanty. What sources do exist, scholars have milked dry–analyzing and reanalyzing the Presocratic philosophers, and scouring Egyptian and Mesopotamian (including Babylonian) literature, searching for any evidence of the philosophical.  But this material has not satisfied our curiosity. Plato’s and Aristotle’s systems are of such astounding sophistication, it is reasonable to assume that they did not spring fully-formed from the minds of lone geniuses. Plato and Aristotle must have had predecessors.

From the scanty evidence have tried to reconstruct the philosophies of the Presocratic thinkers, especially Thales, Heraclitus, Parmenides and Pythagoras. From what we have gleaned, these thinkers provided many of the building blocks for later, mature Greek philosophy, notably Parmenides’ groundbreaking use of argument. But then the question becomes, what did the Presocratics base their philosophizing on? What inspired them? There is a temptation to look farther back, to Egypt and Mesopotamia. These civilizations are rightly remembered for their tremendous technical achievements, their longevity, and their abundant writings. They might have pioneered in philosophy too. But we have no evidence, As far as we can tell, they never asked “How do we know?” They never developed epistemology.

Mieroop thinks otherwise. According to him, the Babylonians had epistemology. He supports this contention by pointing to the intricacy of cuneiform writing. If Mieroop had refrained from dragging in epistemology, this book would be a mediocre introduction to Babylonian education and literature. But Mieroop finds epistemology everywhere– in the Babylonians’ esoteric interpretation of the written word, as well as their compilation of word-lists, omen texts and law codes. This is a fantastic overreach. It broadens epistemology to such an extent that it includes any search for truth, no matter how arbitrary the attempt. (This is not the place to wade into the recent discussions of ‘folk epistemology.’ See Heintz and Taraborelli. Suffice it to say, Mieroop does not mention it. Nor does he mention the Gettier problem.)

His main contention is that Babylonian hermeneutics (text-interpretation) is intrinsically philosophical. In defense of this point, he cites the poem Babylonian Creation Myth. This poem has at its end a long list of gods’ names and epithets, the exact significance of which has puzzled scholars. Mieroop explains that the gods’ names are meant to be interpreted in different ways, because any cuneiform sign has several possible meanings. There was an apparent, surface-meaning and an esoteric meaning. He argues that the this exercise in esoteric interpretation presupposes a theory of knowledge:

The [writing] system was intricate, and in order to understand even a single name or a word the reader had to know the rules of interpretation in full. But access to knowledge existed….They had a method of finding truth, and if they had any doubt about their own existence it was removed by the knowledge that they could read to understand. “I read, therefore I am” could be seen as the first principle of Babylonian epistemology (10).

Did they consider that what they read might not be true? Did they consider that lies can appear in writing as well as speech? Unless the Babylonians asked “How do we know?” they were not engaging in epistemology. Mieroop provides no evidence that they questioned their received knowledge’s validity. His standard of epistemology includes not only reasoning, but attempted reasoning. By Mieroop’s standard, there is epistemology behind every pseudo-science. Astrology is intricate. To understand as single constellation’s effect on someone’s love life, the astrologer has to “know the rules of interpretation in full.” But he cannot know, because the stars have no such effect. That is to say, there is no actual connection. Just because one pursues knowledge, one is not necessarily a philosopher.

Hermeneutics does not necessarily imply serious thinking about epistemology. But Mieroop insists it does. To prove it, he adopts the odd method of pointing out the Babylonians’ intellectual shortcomings, and then concluding that they are strengths. “In all corpora they used a mixture of fact and fiction; existing words and words made up, observed phenomena and imaginary ones, possible transactions and hypothetical ones. These corpora of scholarly writings had multiple aims and purposes, but the one they shared was a demonstration of how and what humans know. They disclose what Babylonians thought about reality; they reveal a Babylonian epistemology” (31). So the Babylonians managed to make a mess of all possible logical categories. Mixing fact and fiction, making stuff up, and imagining things do not demonstrate what humans know, and they tell us nothing about reality. This is not method, it is the absence of method.

Another Babylonian shortcoming is their conflation of the relationship between words and their referents. The idea is that similarity between words implies a connection between the things to which words refer. Again, Mieroop claims this as a strength. The Babylonians used “hermeneutic techniques to expose the meaning of a name or term…. These were not word games, but analyses that aimed to reveal truth. Babylonian scholars grasped reality through its written form. Their readings were thus exercises in epistemology” (9). Analysis of letters is not philosophy, and it does not lead to truth. Similarities between the written form of two words does not tell us anything about the relationship of those two things. “Chair” sounds like “share,” but their phonological similarity tells us nothing about the relationship between physical chairs and the act of sharing.

Philosophers have known for centuries that relationships in writing do not necessarily correspond to reality. This point has been well established since Socrates, as Mieroop (sort of) acknowledges, “Socrates claims that while syllables have meaning, our knowledge about them does not improve through the analysis of the individual letters, because those are not objects of reason. The Babylonians saw matters otherwise: each component of the written word contained meaning” (20-21). The correct conclusion is not “the Babylonians saw matters otherwise. Ergo: Epistemology!” The correct conclusion is that Socrates was right and the Babylonians were wrong. It is not philosophy to assign meanings to symbols. If we broaden the scope of philosophy to include esoteric symbology, philosophy no longer can denote “systematic pursuit of truth.” Philosophy becomes a synonym for sophistry. By ascribing epistemology to the Babylonians, Mieroop has only cheapened the meaning of epistemology, and told us nothing about their actual intellectual achievements.

On to Part 2