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.


8 thoughts on “Did the Babylonians have Philosophy? Part 3

  1. Laurence Clark Crossen says:

    According to Frede in The Oxford Handbook of Presocratic Philosophy, Aristotle’s idea of philosophy beginning with the Presocratics understood philosophy mainly as metaphysics. This defines philosophy in a very restrictive way. The Presocratics had many ideas about elementary natural philosophy that very likely were already understood, such as Xenophanes’ observation that rainbows were really clouds. Anyone could observe the processes of evaporation and of the refraction of light in raindrops and understand this. That the morning and evening Venus were the same planet was known long before by the Babylonians. If we do not define natural philosophy as beginning with a particular grade of proficiency in the study of nature then we would not have a sudden beginning. So a Greek miracle seems a result of using such a definition, even if other natural philosophers had not already achieved some of the same understandings prior to them. Obviously, the study of nature had been practiced all along.


  2. Laurence Clark Crossen says:

    “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.”

    It would not be cultural relativism or involve pseudoscience if these fields were defined as to include the most elementary levels. For example, if they inferred from the suns strong influence on the earth that the planet Jupiter caused lightning and increased rain when at its brightest every 12 years this would be a case of an early mistake in natural philosophy. It would not be pseudoscience. It should be included in the history of natural philosophy. One cannot just cleanse the history of science in retrospect of all pseudoscience. Modern historians of science inform us that we cannot retroactively apply our modern definitions of science to ancient science. Should the errors be excluded from the history of philosophy as not rigorous?


  3. Laurence Clark Crossen says:

    “Just because one pursues knowledge, one is not necessarily a philosopher.”
    You have criticized too broad a definition of philosophy. What definition do you think should be applied? This comment of yours seems to cut philosophy off from its beginnings. Love of knowledge is not sufficient without a minimum degree of proficiency?


  4. Laurence Clark Crossen says:

    McClellan says in his Science and Technology in World History 3rd edition (p.2) that the history of science involves a “definitional problem.” Because “science has never been a single thing” we can use the definition, “activities that touch on the investigation of the natural world.” Shouldn’t you also adopt a definition of philosophy that is similarly amenable to the study of its earliest history? Isn’t your definition too narrow?


  5. Laurence Clark Crossen says:

    ““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.”

    You seem to be still involved in a belief in pre-logical, pre-rational mentalities or the primitive or mythopoeic mind. At least you have not given the criticisms of this “great divide” any ground. It is not as if its critics are necessarily cultural relativisists. G. E. R. Lloyd rejects the use of mentalities in his Demystifying Mentalities. How could people possibly not have found natural explanations for many phenomena in their lives and still survive? If one thinks the mother bear attacked you because God was punishing you for your sins and failed to understand you were too close to her cubs, then how could you survive? The Egyptians had medicine before the Presocratics including knowledge of drugs. Their ideas about medicine were not limited to the magical but included natural and medicinal cures as well just as Homer related about them. When they had mathematics, astronomy and
    medicine, isn’t it likely they had philosophy? They must have at least had some informal logic and a sense of wonder. I also think that the Presocratics ideas have been often not too bright. It seems quite likely that other people had excelled them in the past. The spherical shape of the earth could have been easily recognized. After all, it has been known to all (educated) Westerners at least since Pythagoras. It happens to be a well established and accepted fact that prehistoric and early humans were skilled at minor skull surgery or trepanation. In the nineteenth century it took a
    number of decades before Western science could succeed at this because of infection. Somehow the prehistoric surgeons were avoiding infecting their patients. To judge from this, early people must have had some remarkable successes in philosophy.

    By the way, I asked Mr. Mieroop what he thought of your review and he said he had a sort of policy not to reply to book reviews. I am afraid that I come away from his book with little more than you have, but it stimulated thought. I liked the point he made that scientific language is actually based on customary metaphors. Since our language is thoroughly metaphorical, we may fail to recognize this. Then we are obligated to understand their metaphors as possibly objective terms of a natural
    philosophy. Just as our science is often involved in a historiography of a long term progressive trend, theirs was involved in one of long term decline. This is shown by what Mieroop says about their belief that they could find solutions to most questions by puzzling them out of the very foundations of their language. This seems like a Prisca sapientia.

    David J. Hess, in his book, Science & Technology in a Multicultural World, gives his analysis of the concept of the modern scientific revolution. I think it has some bearing on the story of philosophy originating in ancient Greece.He says that, “as with many myths, the story has an etiological
    quality… it tells us how something came to be…” My point is that the only way you can have philosophy begin in Greece is by defining it as starting with a certain level of proficiency, cutting it off from its roots. You wont even give such a definition because that would probably result in some
    philosophy being found before the Greeks.


  6. Laurence Clark Crossen says:

    Isn’t the story of philosophy arising in ancient Greece really a heuristic and not something we should take literally?


  7. Laurence Clark Crossen says:

    “…there is an ideological quality to a way of writing history around a great watershed, before which is prescience and after which is science…” -Hess


  8. Laurence Clark Crossen says:

    Actually, Robin Waterfield, in his Before Eureka: The Presocratics and their Science, conceptualizes their science as having first been philosophy before separating into their own disciplines (p. 3). From this we can reason back from any science found prior to the Presocratics and infer philosophy from which it arose yet earlier. In this way we will follow your suggested program. Therefore, since we have astronomy and mathematics among the Mesopotamian’s prior to the Presocratics, we must also have philosophy. Please see: Writing Science before the Greeks by Wayne Horowitz.


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