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More universal philosophy

ESSAY / Time to learn what the world's many translating female philosophers thought? Or what about the omitted African philosophy? Four books provide a broader understanding of the history of thought.


Surprisingly, 2020 has become extraordinary: the year began with a small virus turning the world upside down. Flights were canceled. Even Norwegians abruptly stopped shaking hands due to covid-19. Then both the United States and Norway became aware of another disease in our midst: the racist pandemic. The police murder of George Floyd in Minnesota gave birth to, on an experimental basis, a settlement with racism in Norway as well. Soccer players went down on their knees in support of Black Lives Matter. And then the year ended with Donald J. Trump losing the US presidential election. From 2021, the White House in Washington (DC) will no longer be ruled by a bully who practices dog whistling rhetoric against neo-fascist groups.

The history of philosophy

But the white identity politics of the Trump ideology was not invented by him. Trump is only a symptom of a colonial mindset that has characterized us for the last couple of centuries.

Just look at the philosophy: Today, everything non-European (in recent decades called "non-Western") has been removed from the curriculum lists of Scandinavian and European philosophical institutes. This would astonish the Greek rhetorician Isocrates (436-338), Plato's peers, who concluded that it was the Egyptians who "introduced to the soul instruction in philosophy." Plato himself points out in Phaedrus that it was the Egyptians who developed the scripture, while Aristotle in Policy argues that it is Phoenician Carthage (in present-day Tunisia) that developed the first, longest-lasting and most stable democracy.

The Amos philosophy is a more universal and less religious variant of the Cartesian one

Such an outward-looking worldview came to characterize Europe for a couple of millennia. I Dantes The Divine Comedy the Persian thinker Ibn Sina (Avicenna) is in the same limbo area as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. In Raphael's famous fresco from 1511, «Knowledge of the causes» (Knowledge of causes, now known incorrectly as the "School of Athens"), in which a woman symbolizes philosophy, the Muslim-Arab philosopher Ibn Rushd (Averroes) is painted as the only thinker of recent times. IN Leviathan (1651) Thomas Hobbes points out: "The Gymnosophists of India, the Magicians of India, and the Priests of Khaldea [present-day Iraq, editor's note] and Egypt are to be regarded as the oldest philosophers." Only long afterwards did the knowledge come to Greece, and they then learned astronomy and geometry from the Chaldeans and Egyptians (according to Hobbes).

But this worldview was to be graced in the wake of the Europeans' new, transatlantic slave trade and with the military conquest of America, Africa, Australia and so much of Asia. From the middle of the 1700th century, Hume, Kant and Hegel invented a completely new understanding of the history of thought and philosophy, as Dallas professor Peter KJ Park shows in his award-winning book Africa, Asia, and the History of Philosophy: Racism in the Formation of the Philosophical Canon, 1780-1830 (SUNY, 2013). Man was divided according to skin color. And only "white", implicitly white men, could think and philosophize. All others, and especially colored and non-Christians, were defined from the history of philosophy – as this colonialist narrative was defined at the beginning of the 1800th century. For two centuries one has been characterized by this selective understanding of philosophy, where the Kantian and Hegelian worldview seems to merge into a higher unity.

But in recent years, something has started to happen. Especially after the Rhodes Must fall campaign, which began at the University of Cape Town in March 2015. Yale and Vassar College professor Bryan W. van Norden, who is an expert on Chinese philosophy, has published Taking Back Philosophy. A Multicultural Manifesto (Columbia University Press, 2017). In February, he was in Oslo and told about the work of producing a more professional and science-based presentation of the history of philosophy, with a global perspective.

Anton Wilhelm I love

An example of an important voice that has been written out of the history of philosophy is Anton Wilhelm Amo (born about 1703, died after 1753). As a small child, he was taken from the Akan people in Guinea, present-day Ghana, and raised by a wealthy German prince. Leibniz was among those he met in his childhood. And in 1729, Amo held the dissertation "On African Rights in Europe" ("De jure Maurorum in Europa") at the University of Halle. He argued here that Europeans had the right to enslave Africans, and he used so-called Roman law in his argument. In 1734, Amo published two dissertations in Latin at the University of Wittenberg, in which he occasionally deals with Descartes' treatment of the relationship between body and soul. He was honored by Rector Johannes Kraus for being part of the long line of great African thinkers. Amo then taught at the German universities, including in Jena, before in 1747 he chose to take a ship back to Axim in present-day Ghana, where he lived near his father and sister.

For almost three centuries, Amos' philosophy has been hidden from the public eye. When I wrote an essay for Aeon in 2017 about Amo and the rationality philosopher Zera Yacob (1599–1692) from Ethiopia, I had to get hold of an edition published in the GDR in 1968, of which there are only a few dozen editions in the world libraries.

But in the summer of 2020, something surprising happened. Then Oxford University Press itself published Anton Wilhelm Amo's Philosophical Dissertations on Mind and Body (2020), edited by Humboldt Professor Stephen Menn and Paris Professor Justin EH Smith. Here, Amos' two Wittenberg dissertations are published in both Latin and English translations. For the first time in 284 years, Amos' philosophy has now been made available to the world.

And as Menn og Smith brings out, it is an original and important thinker who writes here. Yes, like many of his contemporaries, he took the Cartesian body-soul dualism almost for granted. But in the dissertation «On the Impassivity of the Human Mind» (Of the apathy of the human mind) he develops a new philosophy about how the body and the mind work together. Amo ignores Descartes' somewhat artificial construction with the cone gland. Nor does he choose to follow the three main post-Cartesian directions: not real interaction, not Malebranche's religious occultism, and not Leibniz 'model of "pre-established harmony."

Instead, Amo advocates a new theory: The mind acts on the body, but not the other way around. The senses do not belong to the human mind, but to the body. Understanding (cognition) and action occurs when the mind responds to movements in the body and gives them direction through a mental thought process.

As Men and Smith point out, Amo is more Cartesian than Descartes himself. He argues for a clearer separation between body and mind. Amo also shows how "Descartes claims the opposite of his own view" in letter 99 to the thinker Elisabeth of Herford (Bohemia). The reason is that Descartes "places the nature of the soul" alone in the space of thought, "though thought is an action of the mind, not an emotion."

This is a clear rationalist philosophy that Amo pursues. A strong argument for the independence of mind and thought. The Amos philosophy is a more universal and less religious variant of the Cartesian dualism.

Amo is engaged. At times I get caught up in thinking that there is a deeper driving force in his theory, even though Men and Smith have not seen or commented on this. As Amo points out in Chapter 1: “Intelligence and mind are different from chance (by accident), not per se. "

And: "Every spirit is intelligent" (vc omnis spiritus intelligit).

Is there an indirect argument for the rights of Africans and other minorities in Europe? Amo presents a universal human philosophy, in sharp contrast to the racist and anti-human statements that David Hume made less than two decades later, in 1752, which Kant took up again in the 1770s.

Perhaps it is only now, in 2020, that the time is ripe for us to truly understand Amos' philosophy. It's like something's fermenting. In October 2018, I gave a lecture at the first international Amo conference, in Halle. The conference was organized by the young philosopher Dwight K. Lewis jr., Who was hired by the University of Central Florida this fall. Lewis is currently working on his own book about Amo's life and philosophy. This summer's Amo release shows that the colonialist and orientalist presentation of the history of philosophy needs to be decolonized.

Female philosophers

At the other end of the traditional publishing scale than where Oxford University Press is located, we have the publishing house Unbound, which in 2011 became the world's first publicly funded (crowdfunding-based) publishing house. A couple of years ago, the philosophy student left Rebecca Buxton (Oxford) and Lisa Whiting (then on Durham) out on Twitter and said they wanted a book about the world's many translating female philosophers. An intersectional release, and not a Eurocentric one, in the spirit of African-American lawyer Kimberle Crenshaw.

Now the result is available: The elaborate The Philosopher Queens. The lives and legacies of philosophy's ungsung women (2020). The anthology deals with 20 key female thinkers from the last 2400 years, written by a diverse selection of women.

The greatest academic star Buxton and Whiting have brought with them is African-American Anita L. Allen (b. 1953), professor of law and philosophy at Pennsylvania. Her 2007 monograph on privacy, society and law has become a standard work in a field that is becoming increasingly relevant now with surveillance and new, pervasive technology. In 2018, Allen became head of the United States' largest division within the American Philosophical Association (APA), Eastern Division, and in The Philosopher Queens she writes passionately about her role model, professor  Angela Davies  (b. 1942).

Allen describes precisely the disturbing persecution that Davies was subjected to by US authorities in the 1970s, which can also be seen in the light of Davies' invitation in January 2019 from receiving the Shuttleworth Human Rights Award at a gala at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. The reason for the cancellation turned out to be her fight for Palestinian rights. The otherwise loud fundamentalists of freedom of expression in Norway did not mention the gag of Davies in one word.

The Philosopher Queens begins with a text about  diotima, which has the most important enlightening role in the development of Socrates' philosophy in Plato The drinking party. Unfortunately, the text has not included a reference to Oxford Associate Professor Armand D'Angour's more in-depth study Socrates in Love: The Making of a Philosopher (Bloomsbury, 2019). D'Angour argues here that Diotima is not a fictional person, as has been taken for granted in the last century. Rather, he shows that Plato's Diotima appears to be the female philosopher Aspasia (b. C. 470) from Miletus in West Asia, in present-day Turkey – a peer with Socrates. After all, it is Diotima who, in Plato's text, teaches Socrates about the "philosophy of love": the beauty that points upwards, "towards beauty as a whole."

The book about the "queens of philosophy" also has a review of  Ban Zhao  (45–120). Ban Zhao completed China's foremost classic historical work, the Han Book. And in "Lessons for Women" she discusses the role of women in society. She argues that both girls and boys should receive education from the same age.

I The Philosopher Queens presents Shalini Sinha, who teaches global philosophy at the University of Reading,  Lalla (1320–1392) from Kashmir. Indian Lalla developed an individual and power-critical thinking through poetic texts, which for the past 600 years have been recited by both Sufi Muslims and by the Buddhist-inspired saiva-Hindu followers. She was not alone in being yogi, that is, a female ascetic who devoted her life to thinking and philosophizing. But Lalla's cross-border philosophy, with an emphasis on self-knowledge combined with her yoga approach, makes her extra relevant today, as Sinha argues. Lalla's "philosophy of freedom" represents a "democratization of tradition."

Simone Webb points out  Mary Astell  and her feminist appeal from 1694. It emerges how Astell uses Cartesian philosophy in his struggle for equality. Unlike Descartes, she does not believe that the nature of the mind can be understood by humans – in addition to arguing that not all humans have the same mental preconditions. However, the intellectual differences are not "gendered". The argument seems to me to have parallels to Amos' philosophy in the 1730s.

The Philosophers Queens also highlights the importance of our contemporary philosopher  Azizah Y. al-Hibri  (b. in Lebanon 1943), America's first female Muslim law professor. For decades, al-Hibri has demonstrated the egalitarian and feminist potential of Islam. Her challenges to patriarchal interpretations, as we also see in that religion, are nicely emphasized by Nima Dahir at Stanford University.

I'm a little surprised that no one in the book mentions, for example, the Arab-Muslim philosopher Aishah Al-Bauniyyah (d. 1517) from Damascus, now that one of her masterpieces has come out with The Principles of Sufism (New York University Press, 2016). But in return, we get a great review by the Nigerian philosophy professor  Sophie Bosede is the host  (1935–2018) and her groundbreaking work in documenting the long-standing philosophy of Africa in general and of Yoruba culture in particular. Oluwole's last work was then also Socrates and Orunmila: Two Patrons of Classical Philosophy (2015), where she reads the legendary Socrates up against the ifá culture's approximately contemporary thinker Orunmila. Where Socrates sought truth in "the eternal," Orumnila argued that "truth is the word that can not fall."

The text about Oluwole is written by the forward-thinking writer Minna Salami. She is the founder of the website MsAfropolitan and has backgrounds from Finland, Great Britain and Nigeria. In the spring of 2020, Salami debuted with the book Sensuous Knowledge. A Black Feminist Approach for Everyone (Amistad): an engaging manifesto, designed as an essay, for a new time and a new era – both before, during and after Black Lives Matter.

In the book, Salami tries to be like the national flower in Nigeria, the "yellow trumpet": In the garden of Lagos, she sees how it opens its flower petals every morning to sort of listen to the world. And in the evening it closes the leaves, as if to absorb the knowledge and ponder over it. Salami also seeks a deeper "beauty", inspired by Tony Morrison's words that beauty is not something one "is" or "has", but "does". Read aloud to Diotima and Aishah Al-Bauniyyah, Salami's thinking becomes extra perspective-rich.

pioneering work

Finally, from this year I will also highlight the book Maori Philosophy. Indigenous Thinking from Aotearoa (Bloomsbury Academic), published in September. The book is written by Auckland amanuensis Georgina Tuari Stewart, and she shows here not only how the social anthropologist Marcel Mauss misunderstood the famous "hau" concept, as he conveyed this in Gaven (1925). Mauss focused on the gift as an object in itself, instead of realizing that "hau" rather announces a social relationship between people. Stewart also provides an introduction to key Maori concepts such as "whakapapa", which is fundamental to the Maori traditional worldview. "Whakapapa" refers to a layer-on-layer understanding of both the relationship between people and the relationship between man and nature.

This Maori philosophy becomes particularly interesting if one sees it in the light of the new studies of Nahua philosophy from Mesoamerica (the Nahua are often referred to in Norway as "Aztecs"). We have here records in books of their thinking from both the 1400th century, before Columbus, and right after the colonization through the works of Bernardino de Sahagún and his indigenous sources from the 1530s.

In recent decades, both Miguel León-Portilla (1956), James Maffie (2014) and Alexus McLeod (2018) have done important groundbreaking work in Central American thinking, the latter also read aloud against Chinese philosophy. With Stewart's study, the Maori philosophy can also be part of a larger global holistic understanding of human thinking.

Her book is part of the new Bloomsbury series "Introductions to World Philosophies", edited by Monika Kirloskar-Steinbach and Leah Kalmanson. In January, the two editors' own overview book will be published: A Practical Guide to World Philosophies.

Dag Herbjørnsrud
Dag Herbjørnsrud
Former editor of MODERN TIMES. Now head of the Center for Global and Comparative History of Ideas.

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