BMCR 2021.03.49

The origins of philosophy in ancient Greece and India: a historical comparison

, The origins of philosophy in ancient Greece and India: a historical comparison. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020. Pp. xv, 369. ISBN 9781108499552 $39.99.

The present book develops the thesis Seaford advanced in his grand and deeply engaging Money and the Early Greek Mind: Homer, Philosophy, Tragedy (2004, NDPR review). That earlier work described the consequences of monetization on mentality – not just how Greeks of the archaic and early Classical period could think but what they would think. It had a highly complex socio-economic argument, concerned especially about the dynamics of ritual sacrifice. To put it simplistically, money’s fungibility and universal solvency allowed and even encouraged the Greeks to conceive of a single stable substance underlying the contingent and plural empirical world, a conception advanced in (monistic) Presocratic philosophy. The book contended that coinage and an expanding money economy better explain the origins of this extraordinary philosophical position than alternative hypotheses, chief among them the rise in Greek poleis of isonomia and isêgoria. This is because Seaford finds those political circumstances more broadly distributed in the ancient Mediterranean than cities giving rise to this philosophical position, whereas he finds coinage, and the philosophical position, to be localized to Ionia in the 6th century.

Now Seaford seeks to provide macro comparative evidence for his claim: coinage arose in both Ionia and one other place, India, around the same time; and in both places a monistic philosophy arose, including a notion of a unified mind or consciousness. Accordingly, Seaford seeks to describe, for both cases, the generally parallel causal connections between monetization, ritual and sacrificial practice, and the conceptualization in those two places of cosmos, being, and self (especially atman and psuchê). (Seaford claims that literacy and monumental stone architecture, origins of Greek philosophy hypothesized by others, came about in India later than that country’s relevant philosophical developments, p. 14; since they are non-explanatory there, they are probably not explanatory in the Greek case.)

A majority of the book elaborates the anthropology and literature of Indian religion; somewhat fewer pages, but still very many, address Greek religion and presocratic philosophy understood in that religious context. The prosodic register is of a relentlessly cumulative argument about early Indian texts and, more programmatically, claims attributed to presocratic Greek texts, with stretching tubes of explanation and analysis. The argument aims to explain both (i) the regularization of property exchange through money and (iia) the interiorization, into an “individual inner space” opened up by such monetization, of the “cosmic rite of passage” typical of Indian and Greek ritual/mystic practice along with (iib) the projection of that seemingly-discovered-but-actually-posited unified inner space onto the structure of the universe.

The question-type animating this study is: “How do we explain the advent of this metaphysics?” (p. 128, here in the context of karma). It historicizes theory in a profound, dogged, systematic, and intriguingly plausible way. This is intellectual history at its most expansive and imaginative. It is also very hard to assess.

I found this long book – 346 pages of text divided into five parts, 17 chapters, and 65 sections – distinctively challenging to work through, despite its numerous recapitulations and cross-references. (The book’s first sentence says that it is for non-specialists as well as for Indologists and Hellenists.) Some of this difficulty can be ascribed to the enormous scale of the project – the several-hundred-year process, in two major world civilizations, by which both salient social institutions and practical and theoretical orientations toward oneself and the transcendent underwent fundamental changes – and the attendant homogeneity of its descriptive register. But some difficulty can also be ascribed to the book’s position vis-à-vis PHILOSOPHY, which is the jumbo word on its cover. The book is not all that much about philosophy as the discipline might sometimes be understood. “Philosophy,” the enterprise to be explained, seems for Seaford to be limited to the view that something non-plural underlies the world’s and one’s own evident pluralities. Perhaps one might find this the kernel or culmination of philosophy, but there is no argument that it is (and compare M. M. Sassi, The Beginnings of Philosophy in Greece [2018]). Seaford gives little if no attention to other aspects of (even this narrow view of) philosophy whose origin might seem equally decisive: the practice of exchanging reasons in support of this view and of debating and developing versions or oppositions to it; the intra-guild competition among cartographers, hydrologic and mineral engineers, architects, calendar-setters, and oracle-mongers, for example, that may have occasioned propounding such a view; the putatively logical, epistemological, or empirical grounding of the view that (for instance), given the nature of linguistic reference, one cannot speak truthfully of what is not, and therefore one cannot speak truthfully of plurality, and therefore one must acknowledge the singleness or necessity of absolute reality. Besides not being as rich an account of the “origins of philosophy” as one would hope for, this constrained operationalization of the concept of philosophy diminishes the argument’s evident effectiveness against alternative interpretations of the origins of philosophy, since it would seem – though this is not focalized – that they often deal with other features of the intellectual enterprise. Relatedly, this view puts a lot of pressure on the exact form of the putative monism of our early-classical-era philosophers, and yet, given the radical diversity of interpretations of the monism attributable to Parmenides and his contemporaries (see John Palmer, Parmenides and Presocratic Philosophy [2009]; Patricia Curd, The Legacy of Parmenides [1998] with BMCR 1999.06.21 review and 2005.06.05 review), it is a little bewildering that we get few specifications of that form. One begins to worry whether all the explanatory apparatus really gets at the actual views—the actual metaphysics—that need explaining. Perhaps the general account Seaford offers, concerning the individualization and economics of sacrifice, gets us to the right doctrinal ballpark, which includes a “monistic” explanation of (our statements about) variegated nature and a substantively unified soul that could be the subject of reincarnation. But how could we tell whether it is the right account for the actual doctrines?

There is one other source of my difficulty. I frequently hoped to rely on the Index as an alternative entry-point to understanding this extraordinarily large project, as a store of glosses on key concepts and persons. But the Index is only four pages long, and only two entries have subheadings (“monism” and “reincarnation”). Most entries are just long lists of page references: “cosmisation (cosmic projection)” with forty; “interiorisation (introjection)” with thirty-five; “Plato” with twenty-nine; “sacrifice” with thirty-one. Accordingly, what follows is a very selective expansion of the book’s index, on the Greek side of things, with the hope that for at least a few readers this eases entry into what is an extremely interesting book, representing a trans-national historicizing account of a major intellectual development.

China: 14, 320–21. Mainly not discussed, for unspecified reasons, except to say, over these two paragraphs, that it had monetization and monism (in the qi) at the relevant period.

coinage: see monetization.

Collins, Randall: Not referenced, despite his Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change (1998) giving a major alternative account of the parallel growth of philosophy in India and Greece (and China). The difference is that Randall seeks explanation of disciplinary formation and intra-disciplinary debate, not of a specific doctrine.

cosmisation (cosmic projection): 67–69. The process by which arose the doctrine of reincarnation, projecting “monetized circulation,” or the doctrine of a Xenophantic god, projecting money’s impersonal and unbounded nature – in general, a local power becoming a social or universal power. This expansion requires a “shedding [of] human agency” (at least as usually understood). Its reciprocal process is interiorisation.

Heraclitus: 223–25, 261–65, 274–79. See further Parmenides.

influence, cross-cultural: 9–14, 30. (Not in index.) Early parallels between Indian and Greek philosophy did not result from a sharing of ideas, though ideas of coinage may have gone from Greece to India.

interiorisation (introjection): 95–97, 219–34. The power of sacrifice and mystery-cult, once individualized, and ownership, once impersonalized, may be internalized, creating a new notion of a unified and sovereign agent or self.

Jeremiah, Edward: 54n22–23, 304–11. Provides a forerunner of Seaford’s theory in his The Emergence of Reflexivity in Greek Language and Thought (2012, BMCR 2013.02.48 review), in tracing the dynamics whereby a concept of a unified self comes about, focusing by contrast on social contexts of language use, especially the growing use of reflexive pronouns. Yet, according to Seaford, Jeremiah cannot fully explain the interiorization – other-relations, especially of property, standing in for self-relations – necessary to explain that concept of a unified self, because he gets stuck with a plural, ta heautou; Seaford removes the obstacle by seeing “that plurality as pervaded and controlled by a single, abstract entity…. money.”

monetisation: 17–37. (Not in index.) The crucial explanatory social condition in this book. Reciprocally related to personal real property, urbanization, financialization of relationships, among other phenomena. The experience of money, in its possession and circulation, in the abstractness and impersonality of its value, etc., incites monistic thoughts. Does not require coinage, though allows and often eventuates in it.

monism: 62–66, 143–45, 235–40. The central dogma to be explained in both early Indian and presocratic Greek philosophy; found in “material” (all being is a single material entity), “personal” (all being is a single person), “mental” (all being is the organ or content of consciousness), and “abstract” (all being is something graspable only by the mind) forms, among other qualifications. These monisms are largely absent from the Rigveda and Homer, found not until texts leading up to (and including) the Upanishads and Heraclitus’ fragments.

Parmenides: 15, 225–30, 271–89, 328–31. Said to claim that “all that exists is one [and] abstract,” a conclusion that is not “a result of mere deduction… but … implicit as a preconception from the beginning… no more the result of mere reasoning than karmic retribution is.” These preconceptions, which include the unity of the mind and the possibility/actuality of incorporeal reality, are to be explained by Parmenides’ understanding of individualized mystic initiation and the unlimited impersonal value that gives significance to coinage. He is repeatedly contrasted with Heraclitus, who is said to be inspired more by the circulation of money than its possession and by the communality of mystic initiation than its private experience.

Philosophy: 7, 15. (Not in index.) Despite a broad definition initially, about philosophy as systematic explanation of our world without appeal to the supernatural, the concern is with three doctrines in particular: abstract substance monism, self-knowledge of an incorporeal inner self, and ethically inflected reincarnation. “Rational argumentation” is not criterial given its absence from both the early Upanishads and “much of what survives of presocratic philosophy” and given that “philosophical conclusions never derive merely from rational argumentation.”

Plato: 230–34, 294–304. The focus is on the nature and explanation of Plato’s interiorized mystic initiation; view of the career and capacities of the psuchê; and the place of desire for money in his psychology.

reductionism: 63, 143. (Not in index.) Contrasted with monism, as an extreme subset of it.

Snell, Bruno: 54–57. Agreed with on the view that “Homeric inner space has no unity” even if characters act and make decisions responsibly; more precisely, the concept of one’s consciousness or realm of reason “is modeled not on a single relationship such as ownership of property” but on the various social and bodily relationships. Also agreed with that something changes by later in the classical period: “the Platonic psuchê… is constituted by self-collected awareness, of the unity with oneself that requires the inner self to be a comprehensive (even if partitioned) entity.” Finally, agreed that the author’s goal is to explain this transition. See also Jeramiah, Edward.

Socrates: 216. Mentioned only once, simply as someone who, like Buddha and at the same time, ethicized philosophy and brought in discussion of money, in this contrasting with the presocratics and the Upanishads, who discussed neither ethics nor money, though were deeply influenced by the latter. (Seaford’s concern is not primarily with ethical philosophy, or method.) Not appealed to for explanation of the “remarkable Platonic developments in the concept of the psuchê” (299).

Thales: 236, 300. Mentioned only as the earliest Greek material monist and as having a view of psuchê as a source of motion. In one of the few substantive engagements with historians of ancient Greek philosophy, Seaford rejects, in a paragraph-long footnote (236n1), Daniel Graham’s argument (in Explaining the Cosmos: The Ionian Tradition of Scientific Philosophy, 2006, BMCR 2007.07.64 review) that, because that view is incoherent, Thales could not have been a material monist, on the grounds that view-consistency cannot be used as a criterion for reconstructing a view. Yet a reader begins to wonder whether, if this book aims to explain the advent of material monism, arguments for the espousals of philosophers actually being espousals of material monism ought to be given pride of place. For if Thales (or others) believed something other than material monism, might what they believed be accounted for in another way?