“We need to understand the ‘minor figures’ to understand the ‘major figures’ adequately. But that’s not the only reason to be interested in minor figures, or to bring them to the attention of a wider audience. There is also the fact that apparently minor figures are sometimes major figures.”
The following guest post* is by Peter Adamson, Professor of Late Ancient and Arabic Philosophy at Ludwig Maximilians Universität. He is the author of Philosophy in the Islamic World and he runs the philosophy podcast History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps. He’s on Twitter as @HistPhilosophy.
The Margins of Philosophy
by Peter Adamson
How much would you say you know about Miskawayh? Nāgārjuna? How about Lucrezia Marinella, or Henry Odera Oruka? Probably not much. In fact, you probably haven’t even heard of them.
These thinkers very rarely feature in the teaching of philosophy, and their writings might well be absent at a well-stocked university library in Europe or North America. They do not belong to that select group of philosophers that just about everyone has heard of—Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes—or even to the list of figures that the average professional philosopher has heard of. They are, in short, “minor figures.”
I have given a lot of thought to the importance of such figures, because I produce a series of publicly accessible podcasts on the history of philosophy “without any gaps,” and also because in my own research I often find myself working on them.
I have published a couple of articles about Miskawayh, for instance. He was a historian and well-read philosopher who lived in the eleventh century, and his status as a minor thinker is in truth well-earned. Unlike his near contemporary Avicenna, Miskawayh was not one of the most brilliant and disruptive thinkers in human history. To the contrary, most of his writing is derivative. So why would anyone, even a specialist in philosophy of the Islamic world, spend their time reading and writing about him?
Though Miskawayh was creative in his synthesis of his sources and wrote a treatise on ethics that was fairly influential, the answer is precisely that he was not stunningly innovative. Miskawayh gives us an insight into a mainstream style of philosophy, combining Islamic piety, Aristotelianism, and Neoplatonism, that the more innovative Avicenna was reacting against. This is a common phenomenon: we need to understand the “minor figures” to understand the “major figures” adequately.
But that’s not the only reason to be interested in minor figures, or to bring them to the attention of a wider audience. There is also the fact that apparently minor figures are sometimes major figures. Avicenna is an example. He was the most important philosopher of the Islamic world by a huge margin, and he had far-reaching influence in other cultures too, especially medieval Christendom.
Much the same can be said of the second name I mentioned above, Nāgārjuna. His ingenious critique of the assumption that there are “independently existing” things in the world became the foundation of a whole branch of Buddhist thought, the so-called “Madhyamaka” or “Middle Way.” Nāgārjuna stature in Asian philosophy is similar to that of Kant’s in European philosophy. Nāgārjuna should really be a household name, at least in any house that holds people with an interest in philosophy.
My last two names, Marinella and Oruka, illustrate a further reason for paying attention to so-called “minor figures”: thinkers outside of mainstream philosophy often actively critique that mainstream.
In her On the Nobility and Excellence of Women, written at the end of the sixteenth century, Marinella attacked the misogyny of European culture, reserving special scorn for that most major of figures, Aristotle. Calling Aristotle a “fearful, tyrannical man” for his dismissal of women’s rational capacities, she went against nearly the whole tradition of European philosophical anthropology by arguing in favor of the intellectual and moral equality, if not superiority, of women.
Much more recently, at the end of the twentieth century, Oruka likewise challenged prevailing assumptions about who is capable of producing valuable philosophy. He defended the notion that philosophy can exist in purely oral cultures, developing a project he called “sage philosophy” that involved interviewing outstandingly wise members of traditional African societies.
These “sages” might not have written anything, but they can still represent the philosophical ideas of their people or—even more exciting to Oruka—push against those ideas by setting forth innovative positions of their own. Oruka’s project suggests that philosophy is not what we assume it to be, a tradition of argumentative writing, but something more like a lived wisdom that engages critically with the social setting in which it is produced.
At the moment, we are a long way from making philosophers like Miskawayh, Nāgārjuna, Marinella, and Oruka truly well-known, but steps are being taken in this direction. Podcasts and popular contributions that cast a wider net are raising awareness within the academy and being recommended to students. And I’ve heard from numerous colleagues that they are integrating Islamic philosophy into their teaching.
Doing this doesn’t need to mean devoting an entire course to the topic. Some associates and I recently wrote a series of blog posts for the American Philosophical Association suggesting how to integrate lesser-known figures from the Islamic world, India, and China into thematic courses on epistemology, ethics, and so on.
Of course, the “minor” figures mentioned above give you only a handful of examples. But I hope they suffice to convince you that it is worthwhile making less-known philosophers better-known. They can help provide context to understand the philosophical giants we already care about; they can turn out to be giants worth caring about in their own right; and they can change our ideas about what philosophy itself is.
[image: Mir ‘Imad al-Hasani, Album Page with Calligraphic Composition]