The Philosophy Group presents a public lecture by Prof. Soumyabrata Choudhury:
“Isonomia, Democracy and the Birth of a ‘citizen-caste’: Reading Kojin Karatani’s Story of Ancient Philosophy.”
In Kojin Karatani’s book Isonomia and the Origins of Philosophy (published in Japanese in 2012), we are told an out-of-the-way story of how it was not in democratic Athens of 5th century B.C. that for the first time a philosophy concerned with ethical and political individuality arose. According to Karatani, the so-called pre-Socratic philosophy, commonly considered to be a kind of pre-philosophical philosophy, was a full-fledged ethical and political thinking of its times. This pre-Athenian philosophy which spread in the region called Ionia in 6-5th century B.C. among the Mediterranean islands was both a ‘natural philosophy’ as well as a presentation of the self-relation of the one philosophising on the totality of things called nature. So figures like Thales, Anaximander, Heraclitus upto at least Pythagoras were eminently political philosophers insofar as thinking about nature was also an act of thinking outside the reflexes and habits of mere clan, tribe and community. Interestingly, in contrast, 5th century Athens particularly during the democratic rule of Pericles, while boasting of the birth of philosophical rationality with Plato (carrying on to the next century when Aristotle becomes the dominant reference point), actually saw the institution of philosophy limited to the homogenous and autochthonous group of Athenian men who by those presumed virtues share the status of being citizens. Thus, with Athenian democracy we also see the birth of a kind of citizen-caste insofar as “caste” here means the encoding of the very capacity for philosophy among the citizens from which were excluded women, slaves and foreigners. Indeed we see in these specific historical circumstances the birth of a philosophical caste which is articulated with both social solvency and political power. Constituting social being as a caste with political being as autochthony, Athens identified the stakes of philosophy with the stakes of, what Barbara Cassin would call, a kind of ontological nationality or nationalism.
In Ionia, according to Karatani, something else prevails which he calls isonomia. Isonomia is not, like in democracy, the rule of a majority (which is not necessarily a contradiction with tyranny) but a robustly lived reality with no-rule and arising in a milieu which is nomadic. But equality in the condition of isonomia – where no distinction is made between the governor and the governed – is so real and ‘normal’ that it does not beg the support of either a political or discursive constitution. Philosophy too in the first place is not limited by the norms of the constitution and the regularities of discourse. It is not even in the sense of science which includes the natural and the human sciences, a knowledge. However, this does not make philosophy an ineffable or mystical affair. Ionian thought is one of the first experiments with unlimited or universal language. The two indexes for this universal anti-discursive language are to be found in poetry or better, music and mathematics. But the specificity of Karatani’s narration is to call Ionian thought philosophy. And unlike the philosopher born of the Athenian citizen-caste, in Ionia, the philosopher is anyone.
— Soumyabrata Choudhury
at Alliance Française Delhi
KK Birla Lane, Lodhi Estate, New Delhi
5.30 pm, 31st January, 2018.
The Philosophy Group is a forum dedicated to the exploration of the core questions of philosophy, drawing upon the range and depth of different philosophers, schools and timelines. It is an attempt to institute a practice of ‘doing philosophy’, working at the intersection of critical thought and action, aimed at establishing a certain philosophical praxis. To this end, we shall engage with works by recognized philosophers, and also seek to create newer concepts and lines of flight, in order to counter the stasis of uncritical didacticisms. The group’s efforts are directed towards ethical scholarship, invested in a non-hierarchical ‘minor’ language, to sharpen philosophy’s tools against the dogmatic slumber brought upon by present and future amnesias. It is, therefore, a nomadic group committed to participative and shared exchange and examination of philosophical concepts and ideas. The Philosophy Group invites scholars with a sustained interest in the longue durée of philosophy.