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



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