The Eastern, Middle Eastern and Western Golden Ages
This class focuses on modern European philosophy, the thought of European philosophers since 1600 CE up until the present day. Before we given an overview of this period, paying particular attention to the split in the late 1800s between the Analytic and Continental traditions, we will consider the often ignored golden ages of the world that occurred before the European Enlightenment of the 1600s. Before the European golden ages of the Renaissance of the 1400s and Enlightenment of the 1600s, many technological, medical and mathematical advancements were made in two previous golden ages, those of China and Islam.
During the Tang and Song Dynasties of China, between 600 and 1200 CE, many of the basic machines and techniques were developed that would continue to serve as the base of later golden ages in Islamic and Christian lands. The Four Great Inventions, as they are known in Chinese and European scholarship, are paper, printing, the magnetic compass, and gunpowder. In 1620, the famed European scientist Sir Francis Bacon wrote that three of these, gunpowder, the magnetic compass and printing, were the most significant advancements of humankind in all of history, separating ancient and modern times. He was unaware that all three were Chinese, originating in the Tang and Song Dynasties. In this sense, Chinese mechanics and their later evolution separates modern European culture, as well as our shared global culture, from the ancient cultures of Greece, Rome, Egypt and Persia.
Much later in the 1800s, Karl Marx wrote that these same three inventions brought about capitalism and the bourgeoisie, the middle class that is needed to regulate the poor in the interests of the rich. Scholars in Communist China agree with Marx’s theory, while noting that these Great Four were merely the most significant inventions that passed from East to West, not the most sophisticated innovations of the Tang and Song.
Gunpowder was invented by Daoist alchemists, who sometimes blew themselves up in caves as they searched for elixirs of immortality. This is similar to Isaac Newton, who devoted much of his time to alchemy and the transmutation of lead into gold, remembered instead for his theory of gravity. While Islamic and European alchemists sought to transmute lead into gold, the primary purpose of Chinese alchemy was transmutation of the body and mind. While alchemy is now discredited, it was not a useless venture. As with most discarded models and pursuits, much is discovered as a byproduct before problems become significant enough to require a paradigm shift, a term coined by Thomas Kuhn, a philosopher of science we will cover in this course.
Paper took many forms, such as wall paper, toilet paper (which was originally only for the rich), and tea bags. With paper and block printing came paper currency, which we still use today. Block printing, using movable and set type of wood or metal, was used also for textiles and playing cards. Materials such as paper, wood and metal were made fireproof and waterproof with lacquers.
In addition to these inventions, there were many other Chinese mechanical innovations that had a profound significance on life and engineering. Cast iron, developed in China, made its way to medieval European blacksmiths. Many of the basic components of mechanics, such as gear systems, the belt drive, the chain drive, and the spring allowed for the development of countless devices useful in all aspects of life, as they still do today. The spinning wheel, waterwheel, the windmill and the mechanical clock all passed from China into Islamic lands, and from there into Europe forming the basis of mechanical advancements of Leonardo da Vinci and other innovators of the Italian Renaissance. Automata, mechanical people primarily used for entertainment, followed this same route, such as the figures that dance attached to clocks which first entertained sultans before delighting the German public and much later Disneyland tourists in clock towers.
During the Islamic Golden Age, between roughly 700 and 1400 CE, innovations from China and India were incorporated and further developed. Most significant of these was the development of algebra by Islamic mathematicians out of earlier Indian mathematics, which included the Indian-Arabic numerals we still use today as well as the concepts of zero and the resolvable variable. Algebra led to Calculus in Europe, invented by both Newton and Leibniz, one of the European philosophers we will cover next week. We still use Leibniz’s notation in Calculus today because Newton tried to name everything after himself, a plan that did not prove popular. Several of the great philosophers of the Islamic Golden Age were also scientists, doctors, logicians and mathematicians.
Avicenna or Ibn Sina (980-1037) was the foremost doctor of his time. As a boy he learned Indian Arithmetic from an Indian grocer in his neighborhood. His Canon of Medicine was used as a textbook for Europe in translation until the 1700s. His medicine was based on experimentation and clinical trials, fusing Persian, Greek, Indian and other texts together. He is credited with formulating the nature of infectious disease, hypothesizing that microscopic organisms are the cause, randomized control trials, major concepts of psychiatry including hallucinations, insomnia, mania, dementia, and epilepsy. He was the first to correctly show the workings of the eye, arguing that light comes into the eye rather than emanates out of it, otherwise we would be able to see in the dark. He was one of the key authors for understanding Aristotle and scientific investigation, even as he argued against Aristotle.
Avicenna’s floating man thought experiment should be important for a modern European philosophy class because it is strikingly similar to Descartes’ deceiving demon, one of the first major concepts of modern European philosophy. Avicenna, who worked with anesthetics in publicly funded hospitals, asks us to imagine that we are slowly unable to feel our feet, then body, then sight and sensation, then memory and imagination. What is left, the last and most essential thing that is ourselves? Avicenna replies that it is consciousness. With that, we still can be said to exist, aware even if we cannot be self-aware by imagining or conceiving of ourselves as a concept. Descartes, who we will study next week, has us imagine that there is a demon who is deceiving us and creating the world as an illusion, but the one thing the demon can not trick us about is that we are. Descartes concludes with his famous, “I think, therefore I am”, just as Avicenna concluded that we are because we are conscious.
Clearly in China and the Middle East life had become more complex, with increasingly sophisticated technology and with this a relatively greater understanding of the human body and mind. Between 1400 and 1700 CE, as the golden ages of China and Islam drew to a close, Europe surpassed previous cultures in wealth through trade and power through technology. By 1700, more gold and silver were passing West rather than East along the Silk Road for the first time in history.
Unfortunately, as also happened in China, Islam and many other societies as they rise and become dominant, Europeans transitioned from saying that they could be just as civilized as others during the Renaissance of the 1400s to saying that no one was civilized like they were during the Enlightenment of the 1600s and 1700s. The central message became that like the ancient Greeks, modern Europeans are uniquely free and thus free to reason. The balancing of freedom and authority is a complex problem that is not distinctly European, nor is wisdom a distinctly European value. Modern psychology experiments do confirm that when we are successful, we are more likely to consider our own opinions objective and those who disagree to be biased, while those who are not successful are more likely to consider their own opinions biased and
While this was originally referred to as Christendom, and then later “the European race”, including the ancient Greeks and Romans in an ethnic group they would have wanted no part of, it is now referred to as “the West“, particularly after the Holocaust made any mention of “the European race” unpleasant. Unfortunately, this arrogant distinction was not itself reasonable, and certainly not wise.