Mr Brooh Asmare (Mekelle University): “The Authenticity of the Hatata from the Perspective of the Cultural History of Ethiopia” (In Search of Zera Yacob Conference)
Since the publication of Conti Rossini’s notes on Tekle Haymanot, an Ethiopian Catholic priest and Rossini’s testimony that made the Hatatas are of Giusto d’Urbino, in 1916, the controversy of authorship over the Hatatas remained hot debate among the Ethiopian as well as the Western scholars. These scholars present their argument from different perspectives, such as Testimony (Rossini 1916, 1920), Calendar (Getachew Haile 2014), Philology (Alemayehu Moges 1969) and Colonial Thesis (Daniel Kibret 2018 and Fasil Merawi 2020). The findings of their research, however, went to diametrically opposite directions. While the perspectives of Testimony and Colonial Thesis favor Giusto d’Urbino as the authentic author of the Hatatas, the argument from Calendar and Philology went to favor Zara Yaqob. These perspectives, however, missed to consider the importance of the cultural history of Ethiopia in providing hints for the ongoing debate on the problem of authorship of the Hatatas. This approach has a crucial importance to understand whether the central issue of the Hatatas has a cultural foundation in Ethiopia or not. The paper finds out that the central issue upon which both Zara Yaqob and Wolde Heywot repeatedly and fiercely criticized and were obsessively concerned is Monasticism (Asceticism), the center of religious, social, cultural and developmental problems of the Ethiopian society, according to them. The paper will show how this central issue of the Hatatas is articulated as existential predicament from the cultural history of the country. Moreover, identifying this central issue of the Hatatas will help us trace the genealogy of the problem. The result of this cultural genealogy makes the Hatatas the product of the dialectical relationship between the inquisitive mind of Zara Yaqob and the established ascetic culture of the country, which, in turn, addresses the problem of authorship.
Dr Teshome Abera (Addis Ababa Science and Technology University): “Zara Yacob’s Hatata: Its Historical and Social Reality” (In Search of Zera Yacob Conference)
The seventeenth century philosophical work of Zara Yacob, the Hatata, is the result of both internal and external issues that led to controversies. Zara Yacob as a philosopher exercised the use of logic over the immediate environment and developed an all rounded philosophy arising from his own life and the life of the society he was living in. The contribution of Sumner in introducing the works of Zara Yacob is immense. His huge publications are permanent evidence of his contribution to Ethiopian philosophy. It is he who for the first time translated the works of Zara Yacob into English. Zara Yacob’s Hatata reveals that there are certainly distinctive traditions of philosophical reflections in Ethiopia. There has been doubt about the existence of philosophy in Africa when there is vital evidence that Africa had its own philosophy even in ancient times – the works of Zara Yacob disproved the doubt. Ethiopia as a country is embosomed in Africa, and is a cradle of mankind – in a similar vein there is evidence that suggests that Africa is also the cradle of philosophy and human civilization. There was, and still is, a strong debate regarding the authorship of Hatata; the author of Hatata is no doubt Zara Yacob. His philosophy is original to Ethiopia, the ancient country in the African continent and the ancient country which is the cradle of human beings. The philosophy of Zara Yacob is rational in the sense that all his analysis regarding the existence of God, truth and his ethics which include vital principles such as the Golden rule, mercy, work, and some of the forbidden practices by man such as killing, stealing, lying, and adultery are all analysed by the philosopher in his work Hatata.
Henry Straughan (University of Oxford) & Michael O’Connor (University of Oxford): “Grace and Reason in the Hatata Zera Yacob” (In Search of Zera Yacob Conference)
In this talk, Henry Straughan and Michael O’Connor seek to illuminate the philosophical method of the Ḥatäta Zär’a Ya‛ǝqob. In particular, they trace the interaction between reason and grace, and the role of discursive argumentation versus immediate intuition. They draw out Yacob’s method by explicating and examining his discussion of the epistemic significance of disagreement and his distrust of testimony; his argument for the existence of God; his theodical response to the problem of evil; and his practical ethics. In doing so, they suggest that Yacob’s central method of argument is abductive, resting on something like a principle of sufficient reason. They also suggest that for him reason cannot operate without grace–that reason is, in a sense, a movement of grace. They further outline how Yacob’s application of the principle of sufficient reason provides him with ethical guidance. They conclude by considering the connection of the Treatise’s form to its content, and suggest that the biographical material is not merely of historical interest but rather is of central importance. The text’s fragmentary, allusive compression means that we must be careful with our conclusions, but they track Yacob’s trains of thought and movements of style as best we can, re-tracing the jagged path between grace and reason in his footsteps.
Prof. John Marenbon (University of Cambridge): “Does it Matter Who Wrote it? Zera Yacob, Forgery and Pseudonymity in the History of Philosophy” (In Search of Zera Yacob Conference)
Philosophers often talk as if it does not make much difference who wrote a piece of philosophy, when, and where, but only whether the arguments it contains are sound. Historians of philosophy should always treat that attitude with suspicion. Philosophical texts about which questions of pseudonymity arise (are they really by the person who claims to have written them?) help to show why, because how they are to be understood is bound up essentially with the question about their authorship and, if they are in fact pseudonymous, what is the purpose behind the apparent deception? The case of the texts attributed to Zera Yacob is a striking example of where the date and identity of the author matter centrally, whether the texts we have are in fact original, heavily adapted or forged. My talk will try to provide some context. I shall begin by looking at philosophical texts that have been, deliberately or otherwise, attributed to authors who did not write them, such as pseudo-Aristotelian texts, the pseudo-Dionysian corpus, Augustinus Hibernicus, Aethicus Ister, the Epistola Trajani (in John of Salisbury’s Policraticus), the Liber XXIV Philosophorum, and Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus. I shall then focus on one particular comparative example: the famous correspondence of the twelfth-century philosopher, Peter Abelard, and his wife-turned-nun, Heloise (and another set of letters that, more recently, has been claimed as an earlier exchange between the two when they were lovers). Like the Ḥatatā, there has been and remains much debate about the authenticity of these texts, and the parallels and divergences between the two discussions throw light on both.
Prof. Justin E. H. Smith (University of Paris 7 – Denis Diderot): “Assessing the Evidence for Zera Yacob’s Authenticity from the Point of View of the History of Philosophy” (In Search of Zera Yacob Conference)
There are several ways by which to approach the question of the authenticity of Zera Yacub’s work. One is philological, by careful attention to the linguistic hints in the manuscripts that the work is not by a native writer of Ge’ez, or that otherwise suggest a later invention or conscious fabrication. Another is so to speak psychobiographical, by close attention to the character of Giusto d’Urbino, particularly as revealed in his correspondence from Ethiopia with the Parisian manuscript collector Antoine d’Abbadie. In a series of articles, Anaïs Wion has compellingly adopted both of these approaches. Less developed in her work is the approach informed by the history of philosophy, to wit: are there Latinate philosophical concepts in Zera Yacub’s work, the circulation of which in 17th-century Ethiopia we might have reason to doubt? If there are, three possibilities present themselves. One is that, in spite of our surprise in finding them there, networks of circulation, likely headed up by Portuguese Jesuits, can be discovered that account for their presence. A second possibility is that the appearance of these terms is in part a consequence of lexical choices made by the first translators of the work and adopted in later scholarship. A comparative study of the two most significant translations of the Hatata, B. A. Turaev’s Russian translation of 1904 and Enno Littmann’s Latin translation of the same year, shows that both authors interpolate terminology that almost certainly comes from their own philosophical educations based on distinctly 19th-century curricula (e.g., Turaev’s use of свет разума [“light of reason”] for a Ge’ez term that could be rendered otherwise with far less distinctly Cartesian resonance). A third possibility is that we can account for the presence of these concepts neither as signs of the inclusion of Ethiopia within the broader early modern connected history of Latinate philosophical ideas, nor as artifacts of the translational and scholarly traditions in which Zera Yacub was taken up, but rather as evidence that the work was in fact produced in the 19th century by a learned and deceptive Italian.
Dr Anke Graness (University of Hildesheim), “Of Forgeries and Misinterpretations” (In Search of Zera Yacob Conference)
This paper discusses the authenticity debate on the Ḥatäta of Zera Yacob and Walda Heywat from the perspective of a historian of philosophy. From this perspective, the case of the Ḥatäta and the discourses that developed around the manuscripts raise a number of interesting questions and problems. The most important point is undoubtedly that we are witnessing here a process of canonization. To a large extent, philosophical work relies on inherited philosophical-historical narratives, which are deepened and legitimized by each individual work within the framework of these narratives. The broad European discourse on ancient Greek philosophy is a striking illustration of such canon forming processes. Based on oral traditions and third-party sources (often written down centuries later), as well as a few fragmentary snippets, a comprehensive philosophical discourse has developed that would endure even if it could one day be demonstrated that neither Thales nor Socrates were historical persons.
The paper argues that the debates about the Ḥatäta provide a vivid example of a process of forming a narrative of the history of philosophy in Africa. On a meta-level and in a comparative manner – particularly with regard of origin, transmission, and the various translations of one of the founding texts of European history of philosophy, Diogenes Laërtius’ Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, the paper discusses the question of what it means when the authenticity of a foundational text is suddenly called into question. Moreover, the paper addresses the particular explosiveness of such debates in the context of reconstructing philosophical traditions in formerly colonized and still marginalized regions of the world. Furthermore, ethical questions of scientific practices are raised in view of the asymmetries in the academy today and the task of decolonizing the history of philosophy.
Dr Fasil Merawi (Addis Ababa University): “Examining the Hatetas as a Foundation of Ethiopian Philosophy” (In Search of Zera Yacob Conference)
In this talk Fasil Merawi argues that Ethiopian philosophy is grounded in an illusory foundation that takes the Hatatas as a foundation of philosophical criticism. It is an intellectual exercise that is born from a Eurocentric discourse that is involved in the search for an Other that can think like the European man. The picture of Ethiopian philosophy as being founded on the Hatatas is part of a larger effort to introduce an Ethiopian philosophical tradition that is made up of written philosophy, adapted philosophical wisdom, and societal wisdom and proverbs. Such an understanding of Ethiopian philosophy has not only failed to establish the authorship and philosophical worth of the Hatatas, but it also does not explain the epistemic context within which such an exercise originated in the first place. In this paper, it will be argued that Ethiopian philosophy is still in the making and that the idea of an Ethiopian philosophy that is founded on the Hatatas exhibits three basic limitations. First of all, it has emerged in a Eurocentric discourse and its real purpose is to identify a form of subjectivity that participates in the European form of individual rationality. Secondly, the proponents of the Hatatas did not prove the philosophical nature of the texts and instead equated philosophy in the broadest sense with a strict philosophical culture that is founded on metaphysical, epistemic, and axiological considerations. Thirdly, the defenders of the Hatatas have failed to prove that the texts are authored by Ethiopians and not by Giusto D’urbino. As a result of this, most commentators on the Hatatas have accepted the validity of the Hatatas without properly explaining the striking similarities that are found between the personalities of Zera Yacob and Giusto D’urbino. The paper thus argues that Ethiopian philosophy is still searching for its identity and that it is not grounded in the Hatatas.
Dr Anaïs Wion (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique): “The Place of the Hatata in African Philosophy since the 1960s” (In Search of Zera Yacob Conference)
As initially planned in the series of articles I dedicated to the Hatata (HZY and HWH) in 2013, I would like to examine the roles that these texts have played in the birth of the philosophical discipline, as an academic milieu and an intellectual trend, in Africa and then in the diasporas and black communities worldwide. From the early enthusiasm largely supported by Claude Sumner, who co-founded the philosophy department at AAU, to the current debates, how had those texts been received by African and Western scholars? What does this tell us about the possible tensions between the need to legitimise an ‘African thought’ and the Western quasi-hegemony on philosophical legitimacy until the second half of the 20th c.? Are the dimensions of the hatata(s) in Ethiopia (and to whom in Ethiopia?) and elsewhere in Africa similar? Could a comparison with the situation of Asian philosophical traditions, rooted in a textual tradition, be useful for understanding the crystallisation that took place around the Hatata? Isn’t this call for writing to legitimise African cultures (as was the case with the Charter of the Mandé) a response to a Western model from which it would then be necessary to break away in order to really move towards a decolonisation of minds, or at the very least, which should be recognised as such in order to better understand the effects of intellectual globalisation and the possible mechanisms of domination? All these questions give the directions towards which I would like to orient my analysis in anticipation of the May 2022 conference.
Prof. Neelam Srivastava (Newcastle University): “Italian Colonialism and Orientalism in Ethiopia”(In Search of Zera Yacob Conference)
This talk examines some aspects of Italy’s colonial relationship with Ethiopia in the 20th century, and how it can be brought to bear to the debate around the authorship of the Ḥatäta Zär’a Ya‛ǝqob, with especial reference to Carlo Conti Rossini, the Italian Ethiopianist who wrote an influential refutation of its attribution to the seventeenth-century Ethiopian thinker Zera Yacoub. The history of the text’s reception by Conti Rossini, a prominent 20th century Orientalist and Ethiopianist, can be traced back to the origins of the Italian colonial enterprise in the Horn of Africa and its discursive justifications for conquest that rested on the appropriation of knowledge about Ethiopia and surrounding region. Conti Rossini’s argument that the text was a forgery by Giusto D’Urbino, the 19th century Italian Capuchin monk who purportedly “discovered” the text, is underpinned by a European civilizational worldview which he projected onto his understanding of Ethiopian literature and philosophy. Conti Rossini can be defined as a “scholar-functionary”, having worked as a civil servant in the new Italian colony of Eritrea from 1899 to 1903. His understanding of Ethiopian society and culture become more ideologically racist after the advent of fascism and the invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. His refutation of the authenticity of the Hatata is prior to this period, however, and drew on his immense knowledge of Ethiopia and its languages. But it is an orientalist interpretation of societal and cultural evolution that posits a “stagist” view of history onto the Ethiopian past. He thus considered it to be improbable for the Hatata to be a work of Ethiopian philosophy because it did not fit his teleological, Eurocentric view of intellectual progress. This position by itself does not disprove his argument about the text’s authorship, of course, but it does suggest that his interpretation is profoundly influenced by the intellectual paradigms he uncritically applies to his reading.
Eyasu Berento (Kotebe Metropolitan University): “Zera Yacob and Walda Heywat – 17th C Ethiopia Freethinkers: Exceptionality and Situated-ness of the ‘Hateta’ in the Ethiopian Intellectual Tradition” (In Search of Zera Yacob Conference)
This paper will assess the nature of the Ethiopian written intellectual tradition (mainly history of ideas), and its relation to the controversy on the authenticity of the texts, and their philosophical significance for Ethiopian and/or African philosophy studies in particular and history of ideas in human civilization in general. An examination of external sources related to religious, historical documents and the literature from scholarly research, and in-depth content analysis of the original Hatatas (the Ge’ez, Amharic and English versions) reveal both the exceptionality and situated-ness of the Hatatas in the Ethiopian intellectual tradition from which they originated. Informed by the careful analysis of scholars like Claude Sumner, I argue that the Hatatas are authentic and attributable to the Ethiopian Authors of the 17th century by examining new findings from the documents on Ethiopian history of the time, a rather untouched issue so far. While the social and historical context, the cultural bases and educational background of their authors bear the signature of Ethiopian philosophy, as outcomes of freethinker individual’s rational reflection, they entertain elements of exceptionality. Regardless of the exceptionality and some possibility of European elements in the texts, one cannot deprive them of the Ethiopian soil in which they are grounded. But by no means are the Hatatas the sole examples of philosophical treatises, nor do they showcase a peak in the history of ideas in Ethiopia; nevertheless they can be examples that give us a flashlight in search of philosophical wisdom. Apart from their contemporary contribution to ethics, epistemology, metaphysics and social-political philosophy they are pathways to the studies of the hidden voices of the non-Western world.
Mauricio Lapchik Minski (Ben Gurion University of the Negev): “The Mäqśäftä hassätat or Against the Libel of the Ethiopians – A 17th Century Catholic Response [and Request] to the Christological Position of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church” (In Search of Zera Yacob Conference)
The Jesuit missionaries’ encounter with Ethiopian Christians at the outset of the 17th century was an unparalleled period of cultural and religious interchange. During this period, European Jesuit missionaries attempted to ‘clean out’ the ‘flawed’ elements in order to proselytize the Catholic faith among the Ethiopian Orthodox believers. Their main goal was to convert those local religious expressions into a uniform faith that subscribes to European Catholicism. With this aim in mind, an extensive set of European Catholic literature was translated into Ge’ez during that period. While some of these works were originally written in the context of the Catholic Reformation, others were authored by Jesuits who lived and worked in Ethiopia. These writings had a common goal: to convince the Ethiopian Orthodox population to accept Catholicism and recognize it as the righteous faith.
However, and with the sole exception of the Antonio Fernandes’ Mäqśäftä hassätat, all these works were deliberately burned and destroyed after 1632. This lucky exception will be an essential source for the development of this paper. The survival of the Mäqśäftä hassätat provides us with a unique opportunity to look into a testimony of the language and nature of the theological dispute between the Latin Catholic and the Ethiopian Orthodox sides during the 17th century. The Mäqśäftä hassätat covers some of the theological and sacramental practices that were at the center of the Catholic Ethiopian debate during the 17th century.
Therefore, and with the aim of getting a better understanding of the interaction between these two Christian traditions and the textual milieu of the 17th century, the proposed paper will aim to describe the nature of this treatise and its main characteristics in an effort to shed light on this proselytizer’s attempts to debunk contemporaneous Ethiopian Christian rituals, sources, and beliefs. Moreover, a better knowledge of this fluctuating but thriving period in Ethiopian history shall help us to understand the environment in which the Ḥatäta Zär’a Ya‛ǝqob might have – or might have not – been written.
Binyam Mekonnen (Addis Ababa University): “Critique and Emancipation in the Religious Sphere: the Däqiqä Ǝsṭifanos as a Foundation of Ethiopian Critical Theory” (In Search of Zera Yacob Conference)
The Däqiqä Ǝsṭifanos is one of the medieval Ethiopian texts which predates the Hatatas of Zär’a Ya‛ǝqob and his disciple, containing profound ideas regarding the relationship between the public and private spheres, the critical role of religion as a redemptive form of discourse and a utopian imagination that radically interrogates existing human relations. The text shows the remarkable effort of individuals that revolted against the dogmatic emphasis in the religious thoughts and practices of fifteenth century Ethiopia, and thus, it can be read as a revolutionary document which problematized the way Orthodox Christianity has been perceived in Ethiopia. The paper argues that the study of Ethiopian philosophy needs to be grounded in these precursors of modernity and that there is a need to extend the foundations of Ethiopian philosophy beyond the Zär’a Ya‛ǝqob’s Ḥatäta. Though the Däqiqä Ǝsṭifanos are historically associated with the medieval geist of valuing religion as an ideological weapon of defining life with metaphysical abstractions, there is a concerted social critique which is disclosed in a revolutionary and systematic manner. There is a secret philosophical attitude among Abba Ǝsṭifanos and his followers where we can find both historical and ahistorical potentials for refuting the irrationally imposed by authorities of the medieval and modern societies. This paper seeks to explore the historical significance of the Däqiqä Ǝsṭifanos’ movement, the philosophical relevance of the text in redefining both Ethiopian and African critical traditions and searching for its relation with the liberation discourses of religion in the contemporary world.
Prof. Peter Adamson (Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich/King’s College London): “The Place of Ethiopian Philosophy in the History of Philosophy” (In Search of Zera Yacob Conference)
In this talk Peter Adamson will attempt to set a context for the other contributions in the volume, by discussing the whole phenomenon of philosophy in Ethiopia and, more specifically, how it fits into the broader landscape of philosophy in the late ancient, medieval, and early modern periods. In particular, he compares this tradition to philosophical developments in other Christian communities outside Latin Christendom, e.g. philosophy written in Arabic and Syriac. He will conclude by suggesting that contact with Islamic culture could explain certain features of Zera Yacob’s own thought.
Dr Ralph Lee (SOAS): Reflections on Translating the Hatata into English (In Search of Zera Yacob Conference)
In making a new translation into English of the Hatata I have developed some reflections on the work, its authorship, and its context. In particular I will focus on the writers use of the bible in the works, and what this tells us about the author(s).
In Search of Zera Yacob Conference – Introductory Remarks by Jonathan Egid, Justin Holder, and Lea Cantor
Introductory remarks for the In Search of Zera Yacob Conference, contextualising the aims and intentions of the conference, the texts of the Ḥatäta Zär’a Ya‛ǝqob and the Ḥatäta Walda Heywat themselves and their historical context. These texts have fascinated and puzzled alike on account of their philosophical depth, beauty and apparent historical singularity. They have been called the ‘jewel of Ethiopian literature’, and served to demonstrate, in the words of Claude Sumner, that “modern philosophy, in the sense of a personal rationalistic critical investigation, began in Ethiopia with Zera Yacob at the same time as in England and in France”. Contributors to the conference will explore the text’s philosophical arguments and their significance, the historical context of intellectual exchanges in Ethiopia, issues of translation and the forging of philosophical vocabularies, notions of authorship and authenticity in philosophical writing, the legacy of colonialism for Ethiopian studies, and the methodology of a truly global history of philosophy.
Ellie Robson (Birkbeck, University of London)
The history of philosophy is a history of men talking to men, about other men. Our answer to the question ‘What is philosophy for?’ has been shaped by this historical narrative. My talk explores an answer to this question posed by the woman philosopher Mary Midgley. Midgley argued that philosophy is a necessity, not a luxury. She described it as ‘something we are doing all the time, a continuous, necessary background activity which is likely to go badly if we don’t attend to it’ (2018:81). These insights of Midgley’s have been systematically underappreciated and overlooked within the academic discipline of philosophy. My talk questions the connection between Midgley as a philosophical practitioner, and her conception of philosophy as a practise. I will ask whether and to what extent being a minority in philosophy impacted the way Midgley conceived of the practise of philosophy. And further, how our accepted practise of the history of philosophy sustains and perpetuate the neglect of women philosophers (and other minorities). Overall, our standard story of men, talking to men about men, needs disrupting to include the (her)stories of overlooked philosophers. And doing so might change our conception of philosophical practise itself.
Prof. Sharon Stein (University of British Columbia): “The Challenges and Possibilities of Decolonizing Higher Education in VUCA Times”
Discussions about the decolonization of philosophy take place within the wider context of efforts to interrupt inherited hierarchies of knowledge and reimagine higher education as we know it. In this presentation I offer some insights from recent research and pedagogical experiments that engage the challenges and complexities of undertaking decolonizing work in a contemporary educational context characterized by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA). Rather than prescribe a single pathway forward, I invite people to develop the capacities and the stamina to walk toward as-yet-unimaginable futures with more honesty, humility, and hyper-self-reflexivity. In particular, drawing on my work with the Gesturing Towards Decolonial Futures research/arts collective, I will review a series of pedagogical frameworks that we have developed for inviting intellectually and relationally rigorous engagements with social and ecological challenges.
Prof. TAN Sor-hoon (Singapore Management University): “Confucian Democracy and the Analects”
There has been a lively debate over the relationship of Confucianism to democracy. Samuel Huntington’s dismissal of Confucian democracy as an oxymoron has been overtaken by a variety of different proposals on whether or not the Confucian political ideal could be democratic. Disagreements among the participants in this debate include issues to do with interpretation of Confucian canonical texts, the most important of which is arguably the Analects. This talk will discuss some of the key passages in the Analects for understanding the political thought of Confucius and its implications for constructing a Confucian democracy today.
Prof. Li Chenyang (Nanyang Technological University of Singapore): “Li as Cultural Grammar: On the Relation between Li and Ren in Confucius’ Analects”
A major controversy in the study of the Analects has been over the relation between the two central concepts of li (rites, rituals of propriety) and ren (humanity, human excellence). Confucius seems to have said inconsistent things about this relation. Some passages appear to suggest that ren is more fundamental than li, while others seem to imply the contrary, and it is therefore not surprising that there have been different interpretations and characterizations. In this presentation, I will present an interpretation that I believe best characterizes the relation between li and ren. Using the analogy of language grammar and mastery of a language, I propose that we should understand li as a cultural grammar and ren as the mastery of a culture. In this account, society cultivates its members through li toward the goal of ren.
Prof. Stephen C. Angle (Wesleyan University): “The Analects and Modern Moral Philosophy”
This talk explores the advantages and disadvantages of viewing the Analects through the lens of contemporary moral theory. It looks in particular at Kantian deontology, which Sinophone scholarship on the text has tended to stress; virtue ethics, which is more prominent in Anglophone secondary literature; and role ethics, which has emerged as a potential alternative to both deontology and virtue ethics. These discussions reveal that Sinophone and Anglophone philosophers are starting to engage one another, which is helping to spur the related (though not identical) process of dialogue between Western and Chinese philosophical traditions. Concern about an unhealthy hegemony of Western categories is by no means a thing of the past, but we are beginning to see glimpses of a future that is pluralistic, open, and global.
Prof. Jessica Frazier (University of Oxford): “You are What you Know: Becoming the Cosmos in Ancient India”
Some of India’s earliest philosophy in the Upanisads relied on an implicit theory of knowledge that saw the mind as a malleable material that ‘becomes’ what it knows. We look at how this theory, when it meets the beginnings of metaphysics, sets the scene for speculative philosophy as a therapy of self-expansion, self-deepening, and self-remaking. Here, rather than a quietist or stoic purpose for philosophy – as Pierre Hadot has suggested – we see philosophy as the mind’s capacity to recreate itself in the likeness of the cosmos.
Ana Laura Funes Maderey (Eastern Connecticut State University): “Joy as Medicine? Yogavāsiṣṭha on the Affective Sources of Disease”
According to the psychosomatic model found in the Yogavāsiṣtha, it is through the cultivation of joy—understood as the blissful tranquility of the mind (ānanda) that results from emotional purification— that we can heal from disease. In this paper I present Vasiṣṭha’s psychosomatic medical theory and analyze it in light of the main philosophical problem that arises: How much control do we have upon our own mental agitations and thus, upon our own healing? I will show that Vāsiṣṭha’s typology of disease offers a useful distinction for a phenomenology of illness that can accommodate the subjective feeling of the experience of disease as something that “affects us” while being, at the same time, an experience that we can transcend, and in this way, “heal”. However, I will question Vasiṣṭha’s use of the famous Vedānta analogy, the snake-and-the-rope, to explain our experience of “incurable diseases” and will reinterpret it from a feminist, intersectional perspective inspired by Johanna Hedva’s manifesto: “Sick Woman Theory”. By applying this perspective, the dialogical and intersubjective aspect of Vasiṣṭha’s therapeutic advice to Rāma becomes much more evident, avoiding individualistic and psychologizing interpretations on the emotional management of our lives.
Prof. Katja Vogt (Columbia University): “No More This Than That”
In the Theaetetus, Plato ascribes a metaphysics to relativism according to which there are no stable objects or properties. In effect, the world dissolves and there is nothing we can refer to in speech. En route to this revisionist picture, Plato toys with expressions that might be suitable to talk about a world in flux: something is no more tall than not tall, no more cold than not cold, etc. The Greek expression used in these formulations, ou mallon, becomes a stock element of Pyrrhonian skepticism. My paper makes a novel proposal by arguing that the Stoics too find a place for this idea. The idea that something can be “no more this than that,” I argue, is philosophically richer than is commonly assumed. It is not just a part of radically revisionist approaches. It is a compelling dimension of the Stoic distinction between impressions and propositions. The Stoic wise person suspends judgment when her impressions are neither true nor false–arguably, this concerns rather many ordinary impressions. For the Stoics, the epistemic norms that call for such suspension of judgment are key to leading a good life.
Prof. Graham Priest (CUNY): “Buddhism, Philosophy, Therapy”
Buddhist philosophy starts life, in the shape of the “Four Noble Truths” (Catvāri Āryasatyāni), with an analysis of the somewhat unhappy human condition, its ground, and what to do about it. Over the next two millennia, as Buddhism spreads through Asia, and especially into China, different schools of Buddhism develop and add to these fundamental insights in different ways. In this talk, I will discuss the Four Noble Truths, and then, to the extent that time permits, some of the later developments.
Derek Van Zoonen (University of Groningen): “Plato’s Therapy of Pleasure”
It is well-known that modern strands of psychotherapy—like Beck’s cognitive-behavioural therapy or Ellis’ rational emotive therapy—have been influenced by the Stoics and their take on the nature of emotions. It is not the world which causes our emotional upheaval, the Stoics and therapists propose, but how we construe the world through our mediating beliefs. What is rarely appreciated, though, is the fact that a precursor of this cognitivist theory of human emotion can already be found in Plato’s Philebus. Here Socrates offers a famous yet puzzling argument (between 36c3 and 41a4) according to which our anticipatory pleasures can be false (pseudês). Most recent literature has focused on the source of these pleasures’ alleged falsity: some scholars maintain that they are false because they do not latch onto the world (e.g. D. Frede), others think they are false because there is something evaluatively or morally wrong with them (e.g. V. Harte). In this paper I want to sidestep this long-standing debate and suggest that we can (and should) excavate a cognitivist model of pleasure from this puzzling stretch of text, as it were running in the background of the argument and making it possible in the first place. On this model, I suggest, any human pathos centrally involves a doxa that a state of affairs obtains and that this state of affairs is, somehow, positively evaluatively charged for the person undergoing the affective experience. Having this cognitivist model in view, we can examine how it sheds light on the framing question of the Philebus—what makes someone’s life go best?—and explore its promising therapeutic potential.”
Prof. Amber D Carpenter (Yale-NUS College): “Ideals and Ethical Formation, or Confessions of a Buddhist Platonist”
Buddhist ethics shares with Plato a rationalist orientation in the weak but crucial sense that a correct view of reality is the final goal, and that seeking and attaining this goal is transformative. This implies a further similarity, namely that the focus of ethical concern is on transformation of view, from which transformation of character (or experience) follows. Choice, deliberation, action, reason happen too far downstream, and too much simply as the result of transformation of view and character, for them to be of much theoretical interest in their own right. Buddhist ethics further shares with Plato a sublime indifference to human beings becoming ‘good things of their kind’. Normativity is not grounded in our nature, nor in a metaphysics of natural kinds. While correctly understanding our human condition may be of vital practical value in appreciating the manifestation of ultimate reality in the everyday, or in motivating our concerted efforts to achieve this understanding, it does not provide a goal to aim at. This is an overlooked reason why ‘virtue ethics’ also fits ill as a classification of Buddhist ethics. It holds us, as does Plato’s ethics, to a much more ambitious ethical ideal than virtue ethics can conceive, and this makes a difference for how seeking that ideal transforms us.
Maria Victoria Salazar (CUNY): “Recalibrating the Demos: Unknowing through Zen Kōans and Platonic Dialogues”
Zen kōans serve a didactic function within the institution of Buddhist schools, with teachers using them to help their pupils reach enlightenment. In this paper, I suggest that Platonic dialogues function similarly to Zen kōans in their inducement of aporia. Thus, reading and understanding the role Zen kōans are intended to play within Buddhist schools illuminates the role of aporia in Western philosophy. Using Plato’s Seventh Letter as a guide for reading Platonic dialogues, I analyze the form of Platonic dialogues generally and highlight how the commentarial traditions engage dialectically with the original texts. Second, I compare and contrast the form and function of Zen kōans and Platonic dialogues, taking the authority of the master and philosopher and their orientation towards truth as the driving force in both. I focus on a kōan written, ostensibly, by Qingyuan Weixin in the 13th century and Plato’s Republic. I then show how, when stripped of content, the engagement with Zen kōans can be understood in terms of the catuskoti. I suggest how this might also be the case for Platonic dialogues.
Prof. Christopher Gill (University of Exeter): “Stoic therapy of emotions and modern cognitive psychotherapy”
It is well-known that Stoic ideas about ethical guidance and the therapy of emotion influenced the formation of modern cognitive therapy. This paper outlines those links and also explores how far the two practices are parallel in their aims and methods with special reference to Epictetus’ ‘Discourses’ and ACT therapy. Bearing in mind the broader theme of the conference, on the intellectual challenge of philosophy (and its significance for practice), I ask how far the distinctive theoretical commitments of Stoic ‘therapy’ render it different in its objectives and procedure from modern cognitive psychotherapy.
Elisabeth Huh (University of Oxford): “Unifying The Eating-Disordered Soul: Treating Anorexia Nervosa Through Ancient Greek Ethics and Psychoanalysis.”
A growing number of philosophers are recognizing the value of psychoanalysis in enriching our understanding of rational psychic integration—a central task within the Platonic-Aristotelian ethical tradition. Here, I join their ranks by proposing that ancient Greek ethical concepts and Freudian psychoanalytic insights may be jointly applied to conceptualize the psychiatric illness anorexia nervosa as an ethical disorder, and to suggest a means of treating it as such.
Drawing from the Stoic theory of the emotions, as well as Aristotelian virtue ethics, I identify the anorexic’s characteristic fear of gaining weight and pleasure at losing weight as symptoms of an excessively rigid understanding of virtue and vice—one constitutive of a false conception of eudaemonia. After describing strengths and weaknesses of this particular characterization of the disorder, I argue that Freudian psychodynamic theory enriches this psycho-ethical portrait by illuminating how unconscious wishes mediate communication between the rational and non-rational parts of the soul. These psychodynamic relations yield a disordered understanding of eudaemonia that is maintained, reinforced, and shielded from self-conscious criticism through a kind of ‘ersatz reason’, or a logical structure masquerading as reason.
I conclude by suggesting psychoanalytic talk-therapy may function as a kind of Socratic dialogue that helps anorexics perceive and give voice to their true unconscious fears and basic desires—such as love, success, respect, and self-esteem. In so doing, psychoanalysis may help anorexics achieve a central task Aristotle attributes to ethical life: training the non-rational soul to ‘speak with the same voice’ as the rational soul.
Prof. Graham Parkes (Institute of Philosophy, University of Vienna): “Being-Here: There’s No App for That”
The purpose of many computer products in the area of information and communications technology is to capture the user’s attention, distract it from the actual place where the user is situated, and export it to some virtual space where advertisers practise their persuasion. The enterprise has been enormously successful, though the effects on users aren’t always benign (anxiety, depression, etc). Philosophically, the more insidious effects are on how we think and who we think we are, encouraging calculative thinking and a post-Cartesian self-image of ourselves as disembodied minds only contingently situated in physical places. The implications for education deserve careful consideration.
Adrian Kreutz (University of St Andrews): “The Soteriology of Contradiction”
Contradictions (and, arguably, the acceptance thereof) pervade Buddhist Philosophy. What is the point of those contradictions? In this talk, I shall argue that contradictions are an important soteriological instrument (upāya) for the practitioner. The enigmatic catuṣkoṭi, a statement to the effect that every proposition holds, does not hold, both holds and does not holds, and neither holds nor does not hold, is noteworthy in this context. In Western research, the catuṣkoṭi has been responsible for plenty furore. Recently, Graham Priest (2010, 2018) has put forward an interpretation of the catuṣkoṭi in non-classical logic. With resource to this technical apparatus, we can uncover the family resemblance of the Kōan practice of the Zen tradition with the catuṣkoṭi. The Kōan, as I shall argue, may be considered an abbreviated catuṣkoṭi. It is generally accepted that the Kōan is a soteriological instrument on the journey towards enlightenment (satori). Thus, given their resemblance, I argue by induction that the catuṣkoṭi is more than a purely logical instrument, applied to refute philosophical enemies – it, too, has soteriological importance.
Prof. Livia Kohn (Department of Religion, Boston University): “The Daoist Dimensions of Tai Chi”
Tai Chi is a popular method of self-cultivation and health enhancement that goes back to a 17th-century combination of martial arts and healing exercises (daoyin). The latter are first documented in the 3rd century BCE and today activated, under biomedical auspices, in the practice of qigong. To facilitate the smooth movements of Tai Chi, teachers emphasize certain key ideals, such as overall freedom from tension or relaxation, an upright posture, natural breathing, a sense of centrality, weight separation, mental focus, and an awareness of the body (and nature) as one unity. These concepts relate directly to certain core Daoist values, most importantly, oneness or the holographic nature of the universe, continuous change and constant motion, naturalness (spontaneity), nonaction or pervasive fluidity, as well as authenticity, integrity, simplicity, and sufficiency. This presentation will outline the historical development of Tai Chi and its major characteristics, then describe how its practice embodies key aspects of Daoist philosophy, cosmology, and ethics.
Dr Barbara Jikai Gabrys, (Zen Master in the Hakuin-Inzan line of the Rinzai tradition; University of Oxford): “Zen and Science: The Search for Meaning”
There is an apparent contradiction between Zen way of life and scientific studies of nature. However, on the fundamental level they have in common search for reality: through critical examination of facts, acceptance of impermanence of things and phenomena, and non-reliance on scriptures. Implementing and understanding common ground in both outlooks can lead to finding the meaning of human existence, personal flourishing and happiness.