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World Philosophy Day 2020

November 19, 2020
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Philosophy - toga and beard not required

Celebrating diversity in the global traditions of philosophy.

Ask the public if they can name a philosopher and chances are they will indeed come up with a name. And whether ancient or modern, living or dead, it will be a man from Greece, France or similar at the top the list. However, there’s a lot more to the subject than the thoughts of (dead) white European men.

On World Philosophy Day, the Department of Philosophy at Simon Fraser University would like to celebrate diversity. Please read below as we highlight some of the many global traditions and thinkers that come together to make WORLD philosophy.

Mozi (墨子) and the Caretaker Argument

The ancient Chinese philosopher Mozi (墨子) lived during the middle of 5th Century BCE. Not much is known about him, though the Records of the Grand Historian (史記), completed around 94 BCE, reports that he was an official in the state of Song around the time that Confucius (孔子) lived. He may also have been an artisan from the state of Lu, Confucius’s own home state.

Mozi was the first philosopher in history known to argue for a consequentialist theory of ethics. The Mozi, written by his followers, contains the ten main doctrines of Mohism, including a defense of “impartiality” over the Confucian doctrine that one should be more partial to those in one’s own family. Instead, Mozi advocated for a state version of consequentialism according to which the benevolent person should promote what is beneficial for all and eliminate what is harmful for all.

As far as we know, the Mohists were the first to introduce explicit argumentation into their philosophy in ancient China, including the use of thought experiments. In the so-called “Caretaker Argument”, Mozi asks: If you had to entrust your family to someone else’s care, who would you prefer, the partial caretaker or the impartial caretaker?

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Śāntideva and the ethics of achieving the ideal

Śāntideva, an 8th-century CE Buddhist philosopher from India explored the ideal of the bodhisattva – a selfless ethical and spiritual ideal – and its connection to a metaphysical view called emptiness. His most famous text, The Way of the Bodhisattva, gives instructions for how one goes about internalizing these views and putting them into practice.

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Ibn-Sīnā and the floating man

Ibn-Sīnā (often Latinized to Avicenna), a 10th century Persian polymath (b. Afshan, contemporary Iran in 970; d. 1037), is considered the most influential philosopher in the pre-modern era. His influence on world intellectual history is considered second to Aristotle’s; Ibn-Sīnā’ is often referred to as “The Preeminent Master” (al-shaykh al-raʾīs).

Ibn-Sīnā made significant contributions to philosophy, medicine, theology, physics, logic, mathematics, poetry and other fields. His medical magnum opus, the Canon (al-Qanun fi’l-Tibb) was a major reference for European Medical schools until the early modern period.

One of his projects investigates the nature of the self/soul. According to Aristotle, the soul is closely related to the body. Specifically, the soul is the form of the body, and hence can only be accessed by contemplating the body. Ibn-Sīnā was not convinced, so he designed the floating man thought experiment.

Imagine a person who was just created by God in the air such that he is completely deprived of any sensual perception of his own body. The question now is: Will this person be aware of anything? Yes, Ibn-Sīnā’s says, he will be aware of his own existence. Why? Because this self-awareness is a precondition for any other form of cognition. We are always self-aware even if we are not, paradoxically, aware of it! Ibn-Sīnā’s basic point is that since the floating man is aware of himself despite not being aware of his body, soul is distinct from the body and therefore Aristotle was wrong.

Image credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Avicenna-miniatur.jpg By Unknown author -  Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4925110

Further Reading: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Ibn Sina (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ibn-sina/#PhilAims)

Maimonides and the Guide for the Perplexed

Maimonides or Moses ben Maimon (Rambam in Hebrew), a 12th century Jewish philosopher (1138–1204) of the Medieval period, was born in Cordoba, Spain. At the time, Spain was under Moorish rule, and Islamic philosophers like Averroes (also from Cordoba) clearly influenced Maimonides. Change in rulers led his family to flee Spain for North Africa, first to Morocco and later to Egypt (Cairo), where Maimonides settled. Maimonides’ first work, the Mishneh Torah, codified Jewish law, a singular achievement that continues to have an impact. His later work includes extensive medical writings.

Maimonides’ most famous philosophical work is The Guide for the Perplexed (1190). Styled as a letter to a student, it addresses the tensions between the knowledge gained from philosophy (from reason) and the theological knowledge derived through the figurative language of biblical texts (from revelation). 

In that work, he prioritizes the role of the intellect in discovering the reasons why things are as they are, whether that be causal relationships, the authority of the law, or the proper course of action. His intellectualism is paired with a commitment to free will, as that which enables us to pursue understanding, to apply that understanding to action, and to be held accountable both by ourselves and others for what we do.

Maimonides does maintain that our reason has limits, and in particular we cannot fully comprehend God intellectually. In the face of these limits, we rely on the imaginative and figurative language of religion.

The work was considered controversial as it seemed to undermine the authority of biblical texts.

Image credits: By Ambroz - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53017244 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mosh%C3%A9_ben_Maim%C3%B3n.jpg

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Gabrielle Suchon on leading a life without commitments

Gabrielle Suchon (1632-1703) was born in Semur (Burgundy, France). Not much is known about her life; she entered a convent, left and then supported herself as a teacher.

Suchon published two works: the Traité de la morale et de la politique divisé en trois parties, savoir, la liberté, la science, et l’autorité [Treatise on Ethics and Politics, divided into three parts: Freedom, Knowledge, and Authority] in 1693, under the pseudonym G.S. Aristophile, and Du célibat volontaire, ou La vie sans engagement [On the Celibate Life Freely Chosen, or Life Without Commitments] in 1700 under her own name.

In each of these works, she attacks the oppressive conditions of convents, especially for those without vocation, and inveighs against the institution of marriage and the harm marriage brings to women. Suchon develops an account of human flourishing that expressly attends to the ways in which the social and political inequality of women compromises their ability to realize their natures as human beings, who are defined by having a free will.

In her first work, she argues that women are constrained rather than at liberty, kept ignorant rather than acquire knowledge, and are subjugated rather than hold authority.

In her second work, she provides an account of what she terms a Neutralist, one who leads a life “without commitments,” such as in marriage or religious vocation. Neutralist women (as well as others) can both live morally and determine for themselves how to live and develop relationships with others.

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Dionísia Gonçalves Pinto on women’s rights and men’s injustice

Brazilian poetess, writer and educator, Dionísia Gonçalvez Pinto (1810-1885) was born in Papari, a small town in Northeastern Brazil. The town later changed its name to Nísia Floresta, Dionísia’s pen name, in remembrance of Brazil’s first feminist.

Nísia Floresta was probably the first Brazilian woman with her own column in a local newspaper. Here she wrote about the unfair life of Brazilian women. At the age of 22, she published her first book, Direitos das Mulheres e Injustiça dos Homens (Women’s rights and men’s injustice), as a translation of Woman not Inferior to Man by Mary Wortley Montagu. In this, Nísia was one of the first Brazilian women to talk publicly about women rights. A few years later, she founded her own schools for teaching History, Mathematics, and even Latin to women, which at the time were considered scandalous.

In 1849, inspired by Chateaubriand, Nísia published her first poem, A lágrima de um Caeté (The tears of a Caete), which explored the degradation of Brazilian first natives through exploitation by white men. The poem mentions rapes, land appropriation, and cultural destruction. Her book also mentions the horror of one of many civil wars in a Brazil before the Republic.

Nísia gained the attention and respect of Brazilian liberals because she explored not only the suffering of all, not just women, during the Revolução Praieira.

Nísia eventually published 15 books, which were translated into English, Italian, and French. She travelled extensively in Europe, analyzing politics and commenting on women’s issues. Her collection of essays, Opúsculo Humanitário (Humanitarian Short Opus), defends women’s emancipation. In it, she posits that society’s progress can only be evaluated by how important women are within it.

Image credit: By Unknown author - http://www.agendabh.com.br/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/nisia-floresta.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=90965170

Further Readings: Gender, Race and Patriostim in the Works of Nisia Floresta” by Charlotte Hammond Matthews  https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7722/j.ctt3fgnb1

Contributions by faculty, undergrad and MA grad students in the department: Jenn Wang, Nic Bommarito, Sherif Salem, Lisa Shapiro, and Matheus Mazzochi