Friday, December 26, 2014

Is the study of ancient philosophy like science fiction?


Despite the fact that the American Philosophical Association adopted a "Statement on the Global Character of Philosophy" in 1992, most American philosophers today still use “ancient philosophy” to designate the tradition that began in Greece around 500 BCE and continued with Plato and Aristotle.  In the last few decades, philosophers have come to include Greek philosophers after Aristotle and even a few Romans, but that’s about it.  You won’t find much included in “ancient philosophy” from places with elaborate textual traditions in ancient times like China and India and even less from other places.  I find this curious and wrong on many levels, but that’s a matter for another post.

The question

Since I’m a huge science fiction nerd and a philosopher, why is my academic specialization in figures and movements from the distant past?  The three major figures in my dissertation (Vasubandhu, Nāgārjuna, and Jayarāśi) all lived well over 1,000 years ago.  Many of my favorite Western philosophers are similarly ancient.  (I am fascinated by external world skepticism, which gets a big boost from science fiction stories like The Matrix and Total Recall, but let’s keep things ancient). Given my interest in science fiction, wouldn’t it make more sense if I specialized in the latest cognitive science-laden philosophy of mind with an emphasis on artificial intelligence or a field like robot ethics or philosophy of technology? 

My answer

Learning about ancient philosophy is like science fiction! 
After all, what is learning about long dead philosophers from ancient cultures, but an attempt for me – a 21st century American of European ancestry – to understand and dwell within another world?  Nāgārjuna lived on the same planet as we do, but in many other ways an Indian Buddhist monk 1,800 years ago lived in a world far more different from ours than any protagonist of near-future science fiction.  One of the fun things about both philosophy and science fiction is putting yourself in contact with a world different than your own – a safe and legal way of expanding your mind!

Examples: Kumārila and Parmenides

Kumārila, a member of the ancient Brahmanical (what we’d now call “Hindu”) school of Mīmāṃsā, argues that the Vedas are eternal holy texts (see this excellent Stanford Encyclopedia entry on Kumārila by Dan Arnold).  Deference to scripture is a normal thing for orthodox religious philosophers.  But hold on to your seats!  Kumārila is also an atheist (he argues that the world has no creator), and he thinks the Vedas have no author!  In fact, it is because they have no author that the texts can be free from error, since mistakes come from authors.  Also, Vedic statements beyond any possible perception can’t ever be proven wrong (this view is embedded in a staunchly-defended realist epistemology).

Consider also the case of Parmenides, an ancient Greek philosopher who seems to argue that all plurality and change are illusory; there is only Being – single, unified, eternal, and changeless.  Many people are more familiar with his student, Zeno, and his famous paradoxes.

One could, as I suspect many smug contemporary philosophers would, simply dismiss Kumārila and Parmenides as wooly-headed, premodern, prescientific morons.  But if you actually read their texts, you find attempts at rationally adequate arguments in favor of these views (i.e., philosophy).  These were human beings not all that different than any of us today – they ate, breathed, lived, loved, worked, died, etc.  Yet they argued for points of view that many modern, Western people living after the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution find quite literally incredible.

If coming into contact with worlds and ways of thought that skirt the boundaries of the incredible within a framework of attempted rationality isn’t something like science fiction, I’m not sure what is.


  1. I would have to agree. A lot of philosophy like epistemology and metaphysics can be made into science fiction and often movies or stories might use some of that as an underlying theme. I know a little about Hindu texts and I think some of it could be made into science fiction. Its also a fun way of thinking about these philosophies as well.

    1. Thanks, Austin! Maybe we'll talk about this in the Indian philosophy class during the semester.