For Barbaric Philosophy



by Justin E. H. Smith

The professional conception of ‘philosopher’ in the early-21st-century United States bears an interesting comparison to the figure of the ‘philosophe’ in 18th-century France. As is well-known, the philosophes, like most current members in good standing of the APA, were often seen from the outside as not really being philosophers in the fullest sense. Horace Walpole said of the philosophes in 1779 that they were “solemn, arrogant, dictatorial coxcombs,” and even in the Encyclopédie, composed by members in good standing of the philosophe community, the authors have trouble taking the label all too seriously. “There is nothing,” the entry on ‘Philosophe’ begins, “that costs less to acquire today than the name of philosophe. An obscure and retiring life, some outward signs of wisdom, with a bit of reading, suffice to attach this name to people who ennoble themselves with it without merit.”

The authors attempt however to win back the label for a more meritorious sort of person, the one who “even in his passions, only acts after reflection,” the one who is guided by “a spirit of observation and justice,” and so on. Interestingly, there are separate entries in the Encyclopédie for ‘Philosophical’, as an adjective, a personal trait which is characterized by the ability “to judge sanely concerning all things”; and for ‘Philosophy’ itself, in which it is acknowledged that the term is vague and admits of many meanings, but not in itself pejorative. The agentive form of the noun bears most of the negative load, while the standard form and the adjective appear fairly neutral. Curiously, also, in the entry on ‘Philosophe’, there is a distinct sub-entry dealing with the usage of this label for practitioners of alchemy and chemistry: “The Alchemists did not miss an opportunity to decorate themselves with this great name.” This usage is mocked as outdated, yet unlike today it remains familiar enough to demand mention: its familiarity stems, not least, from the numerous products of chemical operations that in the late 18th century still bore the name of philosophy: ‘the oil of the philosophers’, ‘philosophical pulverization’, ‘philosophical calcination’, and so on.

In ancient Greece, we learn in the entry on ‘Philosophy’, the men who set themselves up as masters of wisdom would gain audiences not because they were able to instruct them “in solid knowledge that is useful for our well-being,” but in order to feed their minds “with curious questions.” Since the name of ‘sage’ was too much for such people, the article continues, “Pythagoras … substituted for this luxurious name the modest title of ‘philosopher’… but the sound reasons for this change did not stifle the pride of the Philosophes.” The authors catalogue the various ancient divisions of philosophy into various subdomains, as for example the Stoic conception of philosophy as having a moral, a natural, and a rational part, or the Scholastic philosophers dividing it into logic, metaphysics, physics, and morals. But none of these divisions counts as a definition, since they all leave unsettled the question of what exactly is being divided.

The authors indicate their preference for Christian Wolff’s definition of philosophy, which they summarize as “the science of possibles insofar as they are able to be [Philosophia est scientia possibilium, quatenus esse possunt]” (see the 1729 Logica, par. 29), thus invoking an earlier instance of a definition Bertrand Russell would offer some centuries later. For precisely this reason, though, philosophy remains a very incomplete science, and will always remain so, “for who could take account of all the possibles?”

Much of the Encyclopédie entry on ‘Philosophy’ is borrowed from Johann Jakob Brucker’s multivolume work, published between 1742 and 1744, the Historia critica philosophiae. This work is noteworthy for its description of the study of the history of philosophy as an integral part of philosophy itself. The history of philosophy, Brucker explains, is

the history of human understanding, clearly shewing the extent of its capacity, the causes of its perversion, and the means by which it may be recalled from its unprofitable wanderings, and successfully employed in subserviency to the happiness of mankind. Whilst it trances the origins and growth of useful knowledge, it also discovers the manner in which errors have arisen and been propagated, and exposes the injury which they have done to science, literature, and religion. It exhibits great and exalted minds as forsaking the path of truth, and adopting opinions at once most absurd and most pernicious: a representation, which cannot fail to shew the folly of placing an implicit confidence in the judgment of celebrated men, or of admitting any system as true, before it has undergone an accurate examination (The History of Philosophy, from the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the Present Century, tr. William Enfield, 1791, 7-8).

Nor is there any concern, for Brucker, that this sort of anti-hagiographical scrutiny will “produce a contempt of truly wise and learned men,” since “an acquaintance with the mistakes and failures of men, who have unsuccessfully employed great ingenuity and industry in the pursuit of truth, suggests a useful lesson of modesty and diffidence in our own enquiries” (8).

Significantly, Brucker’s work, the first comprehensive modern survey of the history of philosophy, does not suppose at the outset that philosophy is the exclusive property of members of a particular tradition. Rather, philosophy is something that can belong to any culture at all, and each culture needs to be investigated separately in order to determine whether it has philosophy or does not.

In fact, for Brucker the proper method of writing the history of philosophy is the one that begins with a sort of historical-ethnographical survey of all known peoples based on all available information, and to extract from the cultural beliefs of, e.g., the Abyssinians or the Celts, evidence of philosophical reflection. In the end Brucker’s judgment as to which cultures exercise such reflection hews fairly closely to the prejudices of his era. Thus looking at the classical Greek sources on the legendarily brutal Scythians, Brucker concludes that “whatever be thought of the manners” of these people, “to give them the appellation of philosophers would be to call a block of marble a statue” (102).

Of the Celts, by contrast, Brucker concludes that “though their wisdom was of a very different character from that of the Greeks and Romans, they were not so destitute of knowledge as not to have their schools of instruction and their philosophers” (85). Remarkably, Brucker denounces the Greek and Roman historians who wrote on the Celts as unreliable, giving us only “idle tales and extravagant fables” (85), while also conceding that he has no other point of access to the cultural beliefs of the Celts than through this external perspective. Brucker identifies the Druids as the philosophical class among the Celts, comparable to the Magi among the Persians, and follows Julius Caesar in supposing that their primary social function was to “preside in religious concerns, direct the public and private sacrifices, and interpret the will of the gods” (85-86).

Brucker maintains that the dogmas of the Druids “were clothed in an allegorical dress” and that they were taught in strict secrecy (86). But the allegorical and esoteric elements do not disqualify the cultural practice of the Druids from the status of philosophy. Their secret teachings are carefully sculpted, Brucker seems to think, and thus unlike the un-chiseled block to which Scythian cultural beliefs might be compared. And this is already enough, for Brucker, to warrant talk of Celtic philosophy.

Less argument has to be given for the ‘Eastern’ traditions of ‘Barbarian’ philosophy –Chaldean, Phoenician, Persian, Egyptian–, which of course had all along enjoyed a respected place in the Greek, Latin, and Christian traditions as sources of wisdom. But is wisdom the same thing as philosophy? Brucker acknowledges that “it has long been a subject of dispute, whether philosophy first appeared among the Barbarians, or among the Greeks” (15). He concedes that the Greeks were singular in having “learned an artificial method of philosophising,” but also insists that their “philosophical vanity” made them “unwilling to allow that philosophy had any existence in other countries, except where it had been borrowed from them” (15).

But Brucker believes, reasonably, that the controversy could be easily settled if we simply settled on a clear and appropriate definition of philosophy, and for him the only such is a definition that acknowledges the importance of the progress made through the development of ‘artificial methods’, but that still does not withhold the label of ‘philosophy’ from the activity of ‘simple reflection’ that remains unformalized, and even in some cases unwritten. “In this question,” Brucker complains, “as it frequently happens in controversy, from a want of distinct ideas and an accurate use of terms, many things foreign to the argument were advanced” (16). He continues:

 If the meaning of the term Philosophy had been correctly settled; if the infant state of knowledge had been distinguished from its more advanced age; and especially, if due attention had been paid to the essential difference between communicating doctrines by mere authority, and investigating the principles, relations, and causes of things by diligent study, the whole dispute would soon have been found to be nothing more than a logomachy. For no one would assert, that the barbaric nations were wholly inattentive to wisdom, or strangers to every kind of knowledge, human or divine. On the other side, it cannot be questioned, that they became possessed of knowledge rather by simple reflection than by scientific investigation, and that they transmitted it to posterity rather by tradition than by demonstration. Whereas the Greeks, as soon as they began to be civilized, discovered a general propensity to inquiry, and made use of scientific rules and methods of reasoning. Hence it is easy to perceive, that though the improvement of philosophy is to be ascribed to the Greeks, its origin is to be sought for among the barbaric nations (16-17).

There is of course plenty of room for disagreement with Brucker’s stark characterization of the novelty of the Greek approach to philosophical inquiry. And yet it is remarkable that in many respects his definition of ‘philosophy’ as including both methodical inquiry and ‘simple reflection’ is rather more capacious than most implicit definitions that have dominated the practice of academic philosophy for roughly the past century. Brucker holds open the possibility of a common ground between ethnography and philosophy, or between the study of the variety of human cultures and their belief systems, on the one hand, and the study of the cultural practice of Philosophia as descended from the Greeks on the other. This is a possibility that appears to have been entirely foreclosed by the 20th century, to the extent that today any modest suggestion that we might learn something as philosophers by studying, say, ancient Celtic conceptions of nature (or even ancient Scythian ones), has been relegated to the absolute fringes, to the utterly untouchable New Age sections of the bookstores, and as far away from academic philosophy as possible.

Recent developments in the politics of American academic philosophy suggest that many are growing tired of arrogant dictatorial coxcombs deciding for us what counts as philosophy, and what does not. In the current heady moment, in which the scope of the discipline is up for grabs, Brucker’s relatively capacious understanding of the practice might deserve some reconsideration.

Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website