You are a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa and your background is in ancient philosophy, Greek and Latin. Did these ancient languages bring you to philosophy or was it the other way around?
Like many of us, I think, the embryo of philosophy was nourished by language. I began studying Latin at fifteen because my stepfather was hired by Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers to adapt Waldo Sweet’s Artes Latinae to a digital format. I was a guinea pig for the project but warmed to Latin because it clarified my thinking and threw my conceptual framework into greater relief. Wittgenstein might say that my concepts became more pronounced. By the time I started studying Greek at twenty-seven, I had already spent years pursuing philosophy. My background with Latin made plain to me that, if I were to make any great advancement with Greek thinkers, grounding myself in their language would be a critical venture.
What is the focus of your thesis?
I intend to explore how the analogical dialectic that forms the foundation of Aristotelian identity transitions into A.N. Whitehead’s ‘actual occasion’. The ‘actual occasion’ is most generally the analogical relation of space and time that unites them as a continuum and serves as the basis for a form of identity constituting thought and extension that I call ‘constels’.
Philosophy in the Western canon begins in Ancient Greece, and yet we know that Indian thought influenced Greek philosophy early on. Pythagoras is said to have travelled to India. How deep were these intellectual currents?
The intellectual currents flowing between the two are far deeper and more complex than any one instance can show. It is quite true that India influenced Greek philosophy on several levels. At the most general level, it seems that there was an infusion of Indian thought into Presocratic Greece and then a dialectical contribution from Greece to India around the second century A.D. There are obvious similarities between the Iliad and the Mahābhārata and the Odyssey and the Rāmāyaṇa. The development of the One and Many along with Macrocosm and Microcosm seem to be down to an influence on Pythagoras. Along with this, the level of detail concerning metempsychosis between the Upanishads and Heraclitus provide powerful evidence of Indian influence.
While there is endless debate concerning the precision of date and detail, scholars generally estimate the development of Indian philosophy as being between 1500 and 500 B.C. The Greeks made rapid strides with many similar concepts between 700 to 500 B.C. Such a quick development in Greece, compounded most of all by the demonstration that Heraclitus borrowed from some Upanishads (and the general Persian connection in Ionian politics and therefore its educated class) suggests that Greek philosophy was given some impetus by influences from India through the mediation of the Persian empire and its political assemblage.
What other interesting connections have you found between ancient Indian and Greek thought?
A sensible view is that some ideas occur independently while others are influenced. Similarity in detail often suggests a broader foundation of similarity, maybe even to the degree by which we may discover a common root. After all, independent ideation seems as likely to occur on an individual scale as on a societal one, or even the entirety of the species. For instance, one may study a text and draw conclusions that have already been contemplated elsewhere. Indeed, our internal power of reason might be likely to generate identical ideas because the external world provides us with similar ‘texts’ as it were.
The diffusion from India to Heraclitus is indicated when we see similar details or advancements in short periods that have taken much longer elsewhere. Heraclitus’ system of five transformations (elemental) and two exhalations (the Greek equivalent of Indian samsara and moksha in which the soul either returns to another body or is released from the cosmic cycle) are not preceded by similar characterisations before him in the Presocratic traditions, yet the exact same series of transmutations occur throughout Upanishadic literature (Brihadaranyaka, Yajnavalkya, Chandogya, and the Kausltaki Upanishads).
For instance, Heraclitus’ ‘dark exhalation’ recycles the soul back into a reincarnated body by a certain order of transition through the elements, Soul:Water:Earth:Water:Soul. This is called the ‘path of the fathers’, which eventually proceeds through smoke to a re-entrance of the cosmic wheel of rebirth, while another, the path of the gods, follows a different order and goes through fire to a release from the cosmic wheel to the realm of gods. But these are very particular and exact similarities. This suggests that there ought to be a continuity of tradition that can explain the combinations of a complex system as it has gone through discrete stages of development. This example, then, shows how an influential Greek Presocratic derived his doctrine from India.
On the other hand, India only had a “proto-dialectic” before the Alexandrian diffusion. Much of the same process occurred there. Such a proto-dialectic is indicated in the structure of the Loka yakitas doctrines and the Lokayata schools, Sañjaya, and the Jain doctrine known as the syādvāda. Likewise, Nāgārjuna systematised Siddhartha’s use of skeptical denials after the Alexandrian diffusion. While India did not have a fully generated dialectical method until Nāgājuna or later, dialectics itself was a mode of thought derived from ideas that diffused from India to Greece during the Presocratic age. The notion of cyclical time, One and Many, Macro and Micro, and the tripartite doctrine of reincarnation. This is because, explicit or not, dialectical modes of thought must have been latent in construing the idea of substrate from the One and the Many, as Plato used dialectic to complete Parmenides’ riddles. Pythagoras unites the One and Many through the harmony of numeric ratio. This necessarily leads to the inference of uniting various types of motion, drawing the necessary link between the finite (straight line) microcosmic human and the eternal macrocosmic god (curved or circular).
Dialectical circulation is also the process of diffusion between major and hitherto considered isolated cultures. That means that the circulation of ideas between traditions is part of the structure and shape of each individual tradition so that the common structure of ideation is circular in part and whole. In other words, the dialectical progression of ideas that guides and culminates in any given tradition, say, Greek or Indian philosophy, can also be found within the wider realm of ideational development between societies, like microcosms to their universal macrocosm.
The Precession of Equinoxes might exhibit the root of such a dialectic. It is the foundation of myth, yet no one is able to triangulate the location of its origin. It is likely the foundation of the syncretic nature of myths, religions, and philosophical systems of thought. Most likely it centres on the 2nd millennium B.C. in or around Mesopotamia. Still, its dialectical nature can be seen in the attempt to reconcile the geometry of space and astronomy with the arithmetic of music. Where the former provides objective empirical organisation to the world, the latter introduces the narrative exposition of subjective experience, both of which combine to generate mythic stories in order to create an objective ethical system.
Indeed, the combination of the sexagesimal (circular) and decimal (straight) systems created numerological foundations for the Platonic Solids in the Republic and the genealogies of Genesis. Plato’s five solids, for instance, can be derived from certain numbers that are contained in the Phaedrus and Republic myths. The simplest solids as formed by the triangles under the ratio of the root of two and the root of three, which are combined in the golden ratio Φ (1.68) as a fifth the dodecahedron, which is quite literally Time and the Space of the Fixed Stars, or the motion of the Same (Φ is the symbol of both philosophy and the Golden Ratio, symbolising the combination of the curved, or circle, and the straight.). Geometrically, each of the four solids represents a soul and its analogous state that, when organised symmetrically, form Kallipolis, the ideal city.
The point is that, while this progression took over a millennium to reach its full import in Plato, its mythic, astrological character shows clear signs of dialectical progression. Both regions, though bracketed from each other, were able to draw together by realising the same cosmic principles that express themselves in humanity’s power structures.
If you have one, who is your favourite ancient Greek thinker and which idea of theirs do you think has burning relevance to debates in contemporary philosophy—or quite simply to modern life?
That is a difficult question because I can’t decide between Plato and Aristotle. The full answer to this question, at least for me, can be found in Whitehead’s Science in the Modern World. There he draws out several themes of relevance here in the form of debunking the fallacies of misplaced concreteness and simple location. Fundamentally, these fallacies are responsible for the ‘vacuous actuality’ that is at the core of scientific nihilism. These are not only philosophically incoherent but are even morally divisive. Our inability to resolve quantum mechanics and Einsteinian relativity lie in our inability to let go of Cartesian fallacies.
Are you seeing growing interest in ancient Indian philosophy? What are some opportunities and limitations for classical Indian thought to be studied and taught in universities in the West today?
Well, as with anything, when one begins to study an area, one tends to find a new world of emergent interest. The West tends to be complacent in studying any other tradition than its own. I have been guilty of that for too long. ANU and UH Manoa are trailblazing a higher form of dialectical philosophical education. Yet, I do think students should be well-grounded in their own tradition. It makes for a truly greater adventure when one begins to look elsewhere. There is so much in both traditions that I feel it may be an error to attempt taking it all in at once. There should be some sort of balance, I think, but I am not the one to know what that is.
You live and work in Hawaii. Synkrētic has a strong focus on the thought and traditions of the wider Indo-Pacific, including the Pacific. Are there connecting points between ancient Greek and Indigenous Pacific thought?
Well, as with my response to the question pertaining to Indian and Greek diffusion, I think that the obvious connection is astronomy and myths. I am no expert in Hawaiian lore, but people such as Bruce Ka’imi Watson are researching and teaching on the subject of Hawaiian philosophy. It is likely that the philosophical tradition of Hawai’i was capsized by the advent of the West. They seemed to be developing something along the lines of epistemology. I look forward to seeing what Ka’imi finds.
You have written a paper in the form of a Platonic dialogue about modern philosophers travelling back in time to Ancient Greece to thrash out philosophical problems.¹ What inspired your fantastic premise?
I was inspired to write the dialogue as an undergraduate who had a fervent belief that the Western tradition had lost its way (much as Whitehead describes it). I was not yet very familiar with American process philosophy or the phenomenologists, otherwise I might have been less severe in criticising modernity for forgetting its roots. That was the point of the time travel aspect, that Western philosophy was dead. Scholars, I thought (and still think true of some circles), had simplified the ancient Greeks in the same manner that Nietzsche and Heidegger criticised academia: they lost sight of analogical dialectic.
Your time travellers Theodore Sider and Derek Parfit, as well as their companions Bernard Williams, John Locke, Plato, and Aristotle, do not come to any agreement on the nature of persistent identity, do they?
No. Theodore Sider and Derek Parfit convey chronological superiority. They think their simplistic notions are greater than ancient ones which serve as the foundations of their own thought.
Plato was not just a great in philosophy but a great storyteller, as were other philosophical writers like Voltaire, Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, and Sartre. What part do you think creativity plays in producing good philosophy?
I think creativity is essential to good philosophy. Indeed, I think understanding the past by uniting it with the present is an act of creative ‘recollection’. Plato was a playwright who reorganised Homer and Greek drama according to the concepts that were recently emerging. I think every philosopher (and every person in general) would benefit greatly from learning music comprehensively. To understand the ‘movement’ of the universe means more than physics. It comes through familiarity with creative themes and harmonies. For Whitehead, philosophy and the human intelligence advances by acts of creative novelty that harmonise the universe such that good prevails and reshapes evil. Nietzsche and many existentialists believe that life is justified only as an aesthetic project.
Aristotle suggests in his Poetics that ethics can only be fully understood when human action and history are conceived of as on a stage (poetry is more philosophical than history). Intellect, when utilised as a harvester of data, is only half realised. When different forms of data are creatively compared, the categories by which we understand the self and ‘the other’ arise. When we understand that the feather of a bird is the scale of a fish, we are able to understand Aristotle’s Category of ‘shod’. They all work like that, which is why Kant’s schematism arises from the ‘analogies of experience’. To develop a metaphor, Aristotle says, is the greatest form of genius.
For this very reason, I think your journal, Synkrētic, is so important. It underscores the importance of not elevating one ideology over another. It understands that thought and philosophy are dialectical. Karl Jaspers thought this was the most important step in reshaping civilisation after World War II. It is the art of living in harmony. I think he is right and that what you are doing is bolstering that effort. Thanks for the interview and good luck!
Aaron Ortner, ‘The art of living in harmony’, in Synkrētic №4 (April 2023): 87-94.