Begin the Begin, Research Time, 15/12/2017

Last week, I wrote a bit of a free-wheeling post. I’m writing about Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, so being a little free-wheeling and weird is generally acceptable. One thing I wanted to get off my chest was my frustration that Deleuze considered only the Western tradition to be real philosophy.

I mean, if you have a conception of philosophy as catching hold of chaos in thought, it makes sense that such an activity will take many forms besides this curious Hellenic tradition of writing, discourse, and thought.

That's what I take Western philosophy to be – the tradition of conceptual engineering that began with the sages / educators / scientists / mathematicians of Hellenic Greece.

A reproduction of a painting of Ibn Rushd, one of the
greatest philosophers in the history of Spain.
Now, that means what I count as Western philosophy is a bit larger than a lot of what I was taught in school. I don’t really expand the tradition by much.

I consider the medieval Muslim and Jewish thinkers of the Abbasid Empire the direct successors of Hellenic philosophical and mathematical traditions. More than only following the Greeks, Persia, Syria, and the Maghreb contributed major new creative directions in ontology, mathematics, medicine and the nature of divinity.

Also, I read some very interesting writing about Ethiopians’ contribution to the Western tradition of philosophy in the 1600s and 1700s. So I don’t just stick to Europe and America.*

* What an odd coincidence that these are the two regions at the top of the old global colonial hierarchy. Funny, isn’t it?

I’m not writing to catalogue the world’s traditions, though. I’m writing this to make a more straightforward account of my last problem with Deleuze. It was a vicious tension in this last work that I think he could (and should) have reconciled if he’d had a few more years of productive life after What Is Philosophy?.

As it is, he developed an insightful account of why philosophy developed in Hellenic Greece. Which is really an insightful account of why Western philosophy developed in Hellenic Greece.

That region had a curious and peculiar position in the Mediterranean world when philosophy and geometry developed in communities of sages – the Pythagoreans, Plato’s Academy, and the Lyceum.

Greece had a fluid, plural, and largely non-hierarchical cultural environment – they were close enough to the Persian Empire for maritime trade but, for the most part, were beyond the point where they could be easily conquered.

So Hellenic cities were free of subjugation to a monarch, and had a much more dynamic relationship among themselves than the static role of submission to an imperialist authority.

Being a seafaring society also encouraged a culture of friendliness and openness among cities and trading partners. There was a similar culture of friendly rivalry among the leaders of each individual polis – governed by argument and debate among a local parliament of jovial neighbours.

These were the unique conditions of one of the most philosophically vibrant and creative cultures of human history. They were not inevitable – a few inconvenient famines or a better Persian shipbuilding industry could have destroyed Hellenic philosophy when they were largely still mystics in the woods.

Western philosophy is a unique tradition, with many strange and surprising transformations. But it isn’t the only philosophical tradition. It simply happens to be mine.

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