Philosophers Throughout History You’ve Probably Never Heard Of: Part I

Posted on September 15, 2020

by Ian Olasov

There are at least three reasons to read philosophers from other times and places. The first is that they are sometimes right (and sometimes in surprising ways), and we can learn from them when they are. The second is that their perspectives and habits of thought are sometimes very different from our own, and it’s a useful skill, and often a mind-bending experience, to try on those perspectives and habits for ourselves. The third is that philosophy has shaped and continues to shape the larger world. We can only understand that larger world when we understand the philosophical currents it drift on.

There are a lot of great resources out there if you want to get a fuller, more detailed story about the history of philosophy. But here are two philosophers most readers have likely never heard of, a little bit about some of their ideas, and why we might find them interesting today.

Mozi (ca. 430 B.C.E.)

A page from Mozi, the philosophical anthology written and compiled by followers of Mozi.
This image is in the public domain via Wikicommons.

If Westerners have a stereotype of Chinese philosophy, it is of a cryptic, dogmatic, and aphoristic style, and is concerned primarily with how we should conduct ourselves in filial and other hierarchical relationships. Mozi defies this stereotype in every respect.

Mozi defends an ethics based on impartial caring or universal compassion. On his view, partiality – the tendency to care more for yourself and the people who are close to you – is the source of human evil in the world. He argues plausibly that partiality is the cause of violence and theft between states, families, and individuals, and that impartial caring is necessary to protect socially isolated groups like orphans and elderly people without children.

In his discussion of wars of aggression, Mozi argues that the seriousness of a wrong is a function of the seriousness of the loss it causes, and that wars are, therefore, more serious wrongs than everyday theft and violence between individuals. At a time when many people share the sense that there’s a lot of wrong in the world, but have trouble setting clear, stable moral priorities, Mozi is a breath of fresh air.

He also has a knack for vivid analogies: 

Now suppose there is someone who does the following: when they see a little black they say that it is black but when they see a lot of black they say that it is white. We would just have to say that such a person cannot distinguish between black and white. Or suppose that when they taste a little bitterness they say that it is bitter, but when they taste a lot of bitterness they say that it is sweet. We would just have to say that such a person cannot distinguish between bitter and sweet. But now people see a small wrong and know enough to condemn it but see the great wrong of attacking another state and do not know enough to condemn it. Rather they praise this and declare that it is the right thing to do. Can they be said to understand the difference between right and wrong? This is how we know that the gentlemen of the world are confused about the difference between right and wrong.

 A modern, Western reader can’t help but notice the similarity between Mozi’s moral thinking and the utilitarian thought that has flourished in the English-speaking world since the European Enlightenment. But Mozi predated the Enlightenment by a couple of millennia.

Mozi also stands out for his clarity and precision, the strength of his reasoning, and his sympathetic attention to possible objections. His recommendations for how to conduct inquiry in general – in terms of the “three gauges” of historical precedent, observational evidence, and experiment – stand the test of time. (It’s also interesting, and says something about the need to refine the three gauges, that he believed in ghosts.)

It’s one thing to hear something true and insightful from a contemporary. It’s another to hear it from someone located in a distant time and place. There is, of course, a danger in reading the ancients in terms of how well they approximate modern ideas. Still, it’s a beautiful, intimate experience to recognize some truth in an ancient philosopher. The intimacy comes from the unavoidable sense that if we share the truth, despite the differences in our circumstances and upbringings, it has to be, somehow, deeply human.

Anne Conway (1631-1679)

How different would the history of philosophy look if women hadn’t been excluded and ignored for so long? It’s hard to know, but the case of Anne Conway is suggestive.

Anne Conway, Viscountess Conway (1631-1679) and her dog.
This image is in the public domain via Wikicommons.

First, like many of her contemporaries, Conway was a rationalist. She thought that the world unfolded according to a rational divine plan, and that we can learn at least some interesting truths about the world through reasoning alone. But Conway’s rationalism took on a distinctly ecumenical flavor. While she was a Christian, she thought that knowledge of God, and even knowledge of Jesus (as a kind of intermediary between God and creation), was available to non-Christians if they thought clearly enough.

Second, like many of the philosophers of her time, Conway offered a systematic metaphysical picture of the world. According to Conway, there are three “substances” – roughly, three fundamental things in terms of which everything can be described and explained. The three substances are God, Jesus, and the created world. Jesus is an emanation of God, and the created world is an emanation of Jesus. The creatures that make up the created world are constantly transforming, all striving towards greater and greater perfection. They are all capable of consciousness, which they will achieve when they become perfect enough.

It’s hard to describe, even in outline, Conway’s metaphysics in a couple of sentences. But even if we don’t accept Conway’s metaphysics in whole or in part, we can appreciate it as a creative or artistic achievement, if nothing else – an intricate model of the entire world, in which everything has its place.

Lastly, the experience of pain and suffering played an interesting role in Conway’s epistemology – her theory of how people acquire knowledge and understanding. There is a deep and ancient web of beliefs, according to which reason and passion are opposed, reason should dominate passion, reason is characteristically masculine, and passion is characteristically feminine. Conway’s epistemology challenges each of these beliefs. The paradigm case of a redemptive passion is the suffering of Jesus, but she believed that all creatures learn from suffering. In particular, we learn from suffering by becoming more alive and more aware of our kinship with the whole created world, and we also learn by reflecting on the suffering of Jesus and of our fellow creatures.

Perhaps as more women become professional philosophers, and as the accomplishments of women are written back into the history of philosophy, philosophy will follow Conway’s example, becoming a more ecumenical, creative enterprise, more attuned to the full range of our experiences.

Credit: Jen Ortiz

Ian Olasov is an adjunct professor and doctoral candidate at the City University of New York, Graduate Center. His writing has appeared in SlateVoxPublic Seminar, and elsewhere. He won the American Philosophical Association’s Public Philosophy Op-Ed Prize in 2016 and 2018. He runs the Ask a Philosopher booth in locations around New York City and lives in Brooklyn, NY.

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