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


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