Transcript: 11. Teodros Kiros on Ethiopian Philosophy

Teodros Kiros discusses his work in political philosophy and the history of Ethiopian philosophical thought.

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

Peter Adamson: Your work has spanned a variety of genres because you've written essays about political philosophy, books about political philosophy, you've worked on the history of philosophy, and you're also a novelist. And so I wanted to ask you basically to just start by telling us how Ethiopian philosophy has informed this broad spectrum of work that you've done.

Teodros Kiros: Well, that is a very general question, but let me try to break it to pieces. It is true that my work, my philosophical work, which really includes 10 published books and two books on the way, one of the two books on the way called Self-Definition of Philosophical Discourse, is strictly speaking not a work of Ethiopian philosophy. It is a work that tries to engage philosophy proper by rethinking how does that these binaries, these orientations, sex, gender, and race came into being. Not by beginning with European literature as most of the authorities such as Foucault himself and Judith Butler and a few others do, but I engage the construction of race, gender, and sex by beginning with ancient Egypt and through Egypt to India, China, and so on. So a major portion of this work is an attempt to globalize the natural philosophy itself. Because as you know, Professor Adams' philosophy still continues to be local. It is not sufficiently global as the philosopher from Vienna, Anke Kranas, contended in a recent piece that she wrote called Is Global Justice Really Global? Then the second unfinished project called The Passionate Man, that work too, which is a sequel to Cambridge Days, one of my primary novels, is strictly speaking not an exercise in using Ethiopian data, but simply thinking and philosophically examining what human beings do as I watch them, as I keenly observe them in buses, trains on my way from here to Berkeley. For me, every human event, literally every human event is potentially philosophic. So I use my limited abilities as a writer and I develop characters and I bring in my philosophical interests in the form of dialogues and I make my characters speak philosophy. 
Now the other works on the other hand, beginning with my first work on Antonio Gramsci, the founder of the Italian Communist Party, which I wrote when I was I think about 28 or 29, followed by Moral Philosophy and Development two or three years later. Then Self-Construction and the Formation of Human Values, which led to a collection of essays that I wrote for the Ethiopian Reporter, Ethiopia's leading newspaper, as a columnist for about five years. All my columns were collected and they produced two volumes of philosophical work. One of them is called Philosophical Essays and the other one is called Ethiopian Discourse. So the first eight books I think are informed by my Ethiopianity, an identity or an attribute, of course that I did not choose, as an exercise in self-definition. I just woke up one day and I discovered that I'm an Ethiopian and that the world identifies me as such.

Peter Adamson: One of the themes you've talked about, especially in the political part of your work that you've just given us an overview of, is a theme of development. And this is a word that we see in phrases like 'underdeveloped countries,' which is often obviously applied to African nations. Development is usually seen as a pragmatic or economic issue, not a philosophical issue, but you've actually treated it as a philosophical or even an ethical issue. Can you explain that and say something about why is your approach to that Ethiopic, as you put it?

Teodros Kiros: Okay. That is a very interesting question. What I did, I think you're referring to the claims that I make in moral philosophy and development, in which I distinguish between development as a material concept and development as a non-material concept. When we look at development strictly as a material concept, what we're essentially doing is we say something like: individuals and the places in which they live who have managed to develop appropriate technologies, appropriate techniques of farming, appropriate techniques where service industries are available, of managing them with the conception of the technical and technological development that the West has already galvanized, which has become a kind of global standard. And then we judge the activities and the histories of these people by judging them against the attributes of technique and technology. That captures for me the essence of what the West has been contending development is. I contend that development is much richer than that. The way individuals and the societies in which they live raise their children, the way that they deal and interact with their neighbors and friends, most particularly the way they interact and deal with human beings who are not related to them by blood, but manage to somehow develop the possession and the appropriate practice of generosity, of kindness, of care, of empathy and of compassion when they deal with human beings are also facets of what it means to be developed, profoundly speaking. But this idea of development in the non-material sense has been neglected and marginalized by proponents of the idea of development in the West. Very few philosophers, even now, I contend, do not take certain villages, certain village practices, certain norms, certain passions and interests that individuals have in small knit communities that reflect the way they deal with these human beings to be measures of what it means to be a human being, which we must respect and applaud. But rarely do we do so.

Peter Adamson: Do you think that there's even a kind of antithesis or competition between these two conceptions of development? Because what you just said as well, it's one thing to increase your GDP, increase economic output, let's say, and it's another thing to actually have people in your country be happy and have flourishing interpersonal relationships and so on. But I can imagine someone might say, oh, yes, yes, Professor Kiros, you're right, but let's strive for both. I wonder actually, behind what you just said, whether there is an extent to which the strive to maximize something like economic output might actually undermine some of these traditional values that you want to emphasize more.

Teodros Kiros: I think you said it quite well, and that's exactly what I was hoping to say. And I thank you for saying it for me. That's exactly what we do as a matter of fact. And then we blame individuals who, in the process of exercising these moral virtues, that's where generosity, magnificence, kindness, caring for others, expressing empathy, compassion, so forth and so on, in the end are. But if they don't translate in the existence of actual GDPs, actual capital, then individuals who have these virtues are simply shunned. They are contrary to the way they should be treated. In fact, they're treated as failures. These are individuals who do not know how to generate and manipulate capital. And I think if I understand you correctly, we have a sort of disconfigured the relationship between being a good human being and being good to the degree that you produce some capital, which of course some proponents of this vision argue would produce the self-mastering individual. As you know, Frederick Douglass and many others before him have been critiquing this idea of self-mastering, which is divorced from the commitment and responsibility that we have to care for others, even at the expense of producing GDPs, if it translates into making, as he put it, other human beings happy.

Peter Adamson: And if you're doing this work as a political philosopher, how do you see the contribution that the kind of great figures of Western political philosophy can make here? Because in your work, you actually also do dRawls on Marx and Smith. You studied with John Rawls, a famous political philosopher at Harvard. But on the other hand, you're critiquing this kind of standard Western economic theory. Is that just because you're a Marxist? I guess what I'm asking is what's the relationship here between these kind of great so-called Western political figures and the cultural values that you're drawing on from the Ethiopian tradition?

Teodros Kiros: If you recall in Moral Philosophy and Development, there is a chapter there on Adam Smith. What I do with Adam Smith there is I try to bring these two facets of development together. On the one hand, as you know, Adam Smith famously articulated the idea of the invisible hand, which does miracles by itself. And one simply accepts the consequences of these miracles, since in the end we do not know exactly how the market does certain things, particularly when it does them right. But then the same Adam Smith also draws from Scottish moral philosophy and contends that there is a limit to what the market could do for us. Moral virtues such as compassion, sociality, and kindness, in fact, are invisibly limiting conditions on the excesses of the market. When the market cannot do certain things invisibly right, then if these virtues, compassion, kindness, and generosity, are still intact in the self, then what the market does could be controlled by what the market cannot do, namely the existence of these virtues that certain human beings stay away from practicing, thinking that these are the virtues of the poor.

Peter Adamson: So you don't want to reject the relevance or value of these famous Western philosophical works on politics? You want to go into them and maybe find underexploited resources?

Teodros Kiros: Absolutely. In the case of John Rawls, whom I fondly remember, one of the most ethical human beings whom I have had - not only was he handsome, he was gentle, he was patient, he was kind, and of course, very, very sharp-minded. But to my great dismay, I learned after I studied the theory of justice that Rawls actually never sat down and read Marx before he developed the theory of justice. Because like philosophers before him, he did not think Marx was sufficiently philosophical or of philosophical interest to inform his work of justice. And then how is it possible to neglect Marx? And then, a collier work, Aristotelian, when Aristotle himself was the first who developed these knit distinctions between use value and exchange value, which he develops in his metaphysics, to which Marx and Hegel both went back to examine the market. I was stunned when I discovered that Rawls did not even engage, forget Kapital. He could have at least engaged Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, deeply philosophical, the idea of alienation, those five forms of alienation, and the way they could be integrated with the market as it does its invisible work when the market alienates us. Once we are conscious of our alienation, then we try to redeem ourselves from this unnecessary burden by these alienations that we should be aware of, that we are not aware of, so that we can control the market, so that we can control what capital could do. And you're quite right. It's my interest in Marx and my knowledge in Marx, most particularly my familiarity. Well, I should say knowledge. I think I should give more credit to myself for the extraction of surplus value, for example, at the point of production that made it possible for me to even develop the idea of development as a moral concept. You see, Marx is very present in everything that I have done thus far.

Peter Adamson: Okay. So obviously, as a political philosopher who's from Ethiopia, you've drawn on these non-Ethiopian sources very extensively in your work, let's now turn to some of the Ethiopian sources that you've drawn on. And these actually are the same texts that we've been covering in the last few episodes. And maybe we can start with these works that were translated from other languages into the Ethiopian language of Ge'ez. So for example, you have the Book of the Wise Philosophers, which was translated from Arabic and ultimately goes back to Greek sources. You have the Tale of Skandis or Secundus, which again goes back to Greek sources. One of the issues that we kind of confronted and wrestled with when we were working on that episode is that these are works in Ge'ez, an Ethiopian language, and they were influential in Ethiopian culture, but they ultimately derive from sources from outside that culture, usually originally Greek. Do you think there's still a sense in which we can think of these as constituting the beginning of an Ethiopian philosophical tradition?

Teodros Kiros: Indeed, they are. I appreciate the question. This gives me an opportunity to think through abstract claims that I've made in my book on Zera Yacob, the philosopher of the rationality of the human heart, in which I distinguish between what I call a classical Ethiopian philosophy and modern Ethiopian philosophy. And of course, the texts that you mentioned, the Book of the Wise Philosophers, the piece on Skandis belong to what I have called classical Ethiopian philosophy, in which I claim that they are only philosophical, following Sumner in a broad sense, content. The broadness is twofold. One, they are philosophical, but not originally philosophical to the Ethiopian philosophical landscape, because I just contended these are works of appropriation. Sumner made the case, and I think he's quite right. What these texts tell us is that Ethiopians are very inventive borrowers. They take these texts that, for lack of a better term, they Ethiopianized them. But the texts, strictly speaking, did not originate in Ethiopia. They are borrowed from Greece, even the Mediterranean, the area in which you work. When they come to the Ethiopian sphere, they adapt the Ethiopian rhythm, the Ethiopian harmony, the metaphors, the examples, the worries of the individuals reflect their Ethiopianity. So in this sense, yes, they are broadly speaking philosophical, but they are not philosophical in the original sense that they originated in Ethiopia. They are philosophical as exercises in how a tradition appropriates traditions that come from elsewhere by giving it a form of originality, but is not original in that sense, which led me to develop the second category, which I call them, a modern Ethiopian philosophy, to which I bring Zera Yacob.

Peter Adamson: Yeah. So that brings us to Zera Yacob. And as you said, you've written a book about him. He's a 17th century rationalist philosopher from Ethiopia whose work was brought to light in the mid 19th century. And something we talked about in the previous episode on Walda Heywat, who was his student. So the two treatises come to us conjoined in one manuscript, one treatise by Zera Yacob, one by his student Heywat. One of the things we grappled with when we talked about them is whether these works are authentic. So were they really written by Ethiopians from the 17th century? Is it a later forgery? So before we go into the content of these works and how they've affected your own thoughts, do you want to just say something about, I mean, presumably you think they're real.

Teodros Kiros: Sure. I'm very happy to do so. As you know, the debate on the authenticity of the Hatata and of course the Walda Heywat text, which is an attempt at developing social ethics out of it after Zera Yacob did the groundwork, has been questioned. Sumner was the first, foremost Ethiopian philosopher. I knew Sumner very, very well. We were friends when he was alive. We dined and wined together at my home, at his home. Each and every time I went to Ethiopia, Sumner couldn't wait until he welcomed me at the airport. He liked me. There is a joke. When he first met me, he told me right to my face, I envisioned Teodros to be a small man. He saw me as this tall man.

Peter Adamson: Folks, Teodros is not a small man.

Teodros Kiros: Yes, exactly. But that was his vision. That led to a lifetime friendship. I used to go to Canada to visit him - to make a long story short. The claim that he makes is quite convincing to me that the Hatata couldn't possibly have been written by Padre d'Urbino. He contends because when we compare his mastery of Ge'ez with that of the Hatata itself - I made sure myself that I read the Hatata in Ge'ez. Additionally, I made sure when my mother was alive that we enlisted the services of two highly competent Ethiopian priests whom we brought to our home. We gave them about two or three weeks with Ethiopian tage, which is our local honey drink. They would hang out with us. I remember all this very fondly for two weeks struggling with the Hatata. They gave me a translated version of it, which I have in my possession.

Peter Adamson: You don't think there's any way that... d'Urbino is this Catholic priest who discovered them. The question is whether he forged them or whether they were original texts from the 17th century.

Teodros Kiros: It's remarkable that Conte Rossi, I think the 20th century famous Italian scholar, is contending that Father Urbino - who lived 200 years later... The Hatata was published, I believe, in 1667. Urbino was living in Ethiopia in the 19th century. How is it possible for him to recount the battles, the tensions between the Jesuits and the Ethiopians, the two emperors, Susionos I, to convert to Catholicism, and his son Faselidas, who came to power, during which time then Zara Jacob decided to release himself from the bondage to that cave in which he tells you he developed the idea of what it takes to be a philosopher. Now here, Conte Rossi is contending, two hundred years later, Father Urbino could write from his imagination in the absence of the actual data, where the Hatata reflect the data, the metaphors, the rhythm, the language of the Hatatas. It's profoundly Ethiopian. I hope I'm not making a very defensive case for it.

Peter Adamson: I mean, I don't know Ge'ez, so it's hard for me to say, but from the reading I did, I would say that if it's a forgery, it's one of the greatest forgeries in the history of mankind.

Teodros Kiros: Exactly. It is as if only someone as perfect as God, and since we attribute perfection to God, could possibly produce a forgery like that.

Peter Adamson: So your book on Zara Jacob is called Zara Jacob: Rationality of the Human Heart, and you obviously touch on many themes from the Hatata, the treatise by Zara Jacob, but I actually wanted to ask you about the title, because it seems sort of counterintuitive. Usually, I mean, people often talk about the difference between following your heart and thinking with your head, right? And on the one hand, there's a very literal sense in which Zara Jacob thinks that the human heart is the seed of rationality, because he follows Aristotle in placing reason in the heart, which is kind of surprising for a 17th century thinker. But on the other hand, he also situates the emotions, the passions in the heart. He thinks of the heart also as the seed of prayer to God. And I think it's especially coming from Greek philosophy, which is something that I think about a lot. There's often a very strong contrast between rationality on the one hand and emotion and the passions on the other hand. So to me, it's very interesting that he would have put both of these in the same organ, as it were - or not as it were, literally the same organ of the human body. Do you think that that tells us something about Jacob's approach to the whole concept of rationality?

Teodros Kiros: Precisely. I think that's what he thought he was doing. What is not clear to my mind is this, and I'm still thinking through this, and I'm not completely satisfied. Was he using Lebona, which is the term for heart, broadly understood, as a metaphor to capture what you refer to as the emotions, and implicitly distinguishing them from the precision of the brain and what the brain produces? Was he even aware that there is a distinction to be made between what the brain does versus what the heart does? Or was he subordinating what the brain does to a limited degree to what the heart does, so broadly and so comprehensively? In short, is it possible for Zara Jacob to have thought that the heart broadly understood is both a transcendental organ and a physical organ, in the same sense that the brain cannot be? Because we're so accustomed to thinking of the brain to be, strictly speaking, a physical organ. Or the heart - and it couldn't be an accident that the ancient Egyptians, for example, developed the practice of literally sucking out the brain, thinking that it's a dispensable organ, whereas the heart was so precious for them. Why is it that the Egyptians thought so highly of the heart but did not think equally highly of the brain? Might it be because their scientific knowledge was so limited that they did not know what it is that the brain actually did in contrast to the heart that they had studied? This is a position that one could take. I don't take that claim seriously because Egypt was also scientifically, from what we know, highly developed. If they were sufficiently developed to know much about the heart, I assume that they are equally sufficiently developed to have wanted to know something about the brain. And my contention is that they did. And yet they made a choice between privileging the heart and not so privileging the brain. I am wondering if in the mind, in the soul of Zara Jacob to be consistent, the heart was a special organ because he's contending that what we call thinking is not the activity of the brain, although he doesn't say this. It's the activity of the soul. And the soul is the house of the heart. So the heart is both a transcendental organ that does the thinking and also a physical organ. But additionally, it's the seat of thinking. And for him, for lack of a better term, a religious thinker would restrict his gifts. I would say as a spiritual thinker, he's keenly aware that what he calls thinking takes the form of thought impulses, not merely irrational emotional impulses, but thought impulses that seem to percolate in the heart. And then they find their way to what I call the brain, which he does not call the brain, through which they become released in the form of speech acts, in the form of language, so that we can speak about what these thoughts do for us. This is a very long-winded way of making a case for the Zara Jacob, that he may not be thinking of Lebona merely metaphorically, as generations of thinkers have done from him. It's my impression that he actually thought that the heart is a transcendental organ that produces thoughts. And my students at Berkeley recently have been exposing me to literature that seems to be making the kind of case that I'm making now. That brain research is not do it and know it all anymore. There is a tremendous interest in the human heart. It's not simply this organ that we have unjustly separated from the brain and treated it as something that houses thought and emotions that are sort of thoughtless. What you cannot think, you attribute it to the heart. The Zara Jacob is reversing the order. In fact, what we call thinking, even when we think that it is a function of the brain, actually is not. The brain is too small of a physical organ to house the kind of thinking that the Zara Jacob thought we could do through the heart, in the form of, for example, in this case, prayers.

Peter Adamson: It seems like whatever he thinks about the physical role of the heart, when we call him a rationalist, that makes sense because he encourages us to reflect critically on religious tradition and things like that. That's what people mean when they call him a rationalist. But I think it's interesting that you're pointing to the fact that for him reason is a much richer kind of holistic function than just this sort of thin critical tool that you use to maybe weigh up arguments on one side or another of an issue. Because it seems to me that one implication of what you're saying is that if the heart, whether physically or metaphorically, is the kind of center for everything the soul does, then actually what we have is this unified kind of power of self-expression or reflection. And the fact that that would include emotion and prayer as well as reason, that sort of thinner notion of reason, I think that's a really fascinating idea.

Teodros Kiros: I think so. Again, Peter, if I do a sequel to the book on the Zara Jacob, I might want to take a few courses at Harvard from the biology department to know much more than what I do about the heart - so that I could understand both exactly what the heart does and what the heart does not do.

Peter Adamson: You're into philosophy and cardiology.

Teodros Kiros: Yes. Because when I gave this paper at Harvard and made these bold claims about the heart, a few medical doctors challenged me and one of them told me that I needed to take a course or two in biology. I'm going to take him up on it. Maybe he's right. Maybe there is something about the heart that I need to know so that I could restrict my understanding of it, not to both be transcendental and physical, but strictly physical. But I doubt that these courses that I'm going to take at Harvard are going to make me think otherwise.

They might be on a different wavelength.

Teodros Kiros: On a different wavelength, I think. I think you've captured what I'm trying to say on the behalf of the human heart and the metaphor for wholeness is one of it. It's also in the case of Zara Jacob, that's also where he thinks God is, in the heart.

Peter Adamson: So speaking of a sequel to Zara Jacob, let's briefly say something about Walda Heywat before we end. He did write a sequel to the Hatata of Zara Jacob and you said a few minutes ago, I think you said that it's a work on social ethics, which extends what Yaakov is doing. And so do you see him as really just applying Jacob's ideas in a different context or do you think that there's some degree of disagreement between the two of them?

Teodros Kiros: My impression is that there is a disagreement between the two. Because Zara Jacob is jettisoning tradition completely. Remember he says, 'when I left and decided to live in that cave,' he said, 'this was the best decision that I had made. Because when I left outside of the cave, human weaknesses,' which took place in the form of unnecessarily unreasonable wars in Ethiopia, among Ethiopians themselves, between the Ethiopians and Jesuits, including the Ethiopian priest who betrayed him, who gave him to the Jesuits, gave him an understanding of human beings that he says as essentially 'liars, sluggish,' he says, 'lazy and deeply disappointing. Whereas what I learned,' he tells you, 'in that cave for two years with the transcendent as my companion is a knowledge that I could not have gained if I had remained outside.' He had made, I think, an original claim for us philosophers that we need to stay away and think in solitude alone in order to create something useful, because there is something that the companionship of human beings does to us. Among other things, we become easily vulnerable to their prejudices, their provinciality, their narrow-mindedness, and they don't give us an opportunity to exercise what we could do and think through the transcendental gift, namely the endowment of intelligence, he says. His only prayer always was, "God, make me more intelligent than I am now so that I can understand your greatness," because I'm so imperfect, I'm so limited that I cannot possibly take it on to understand your ontological structure, who you are, the one who is there, but not in the form of the way in which the tables and chairs and other external objects are. You are there. I want to understand the nature and structure of this there, but I need to be given an intelligence with which to do this and do it right. And for this, I need to jettison human beings, the traditions and the customs that they have established.

Peter Adamson: Whereas Heywat is more apt to say, we shall follow tradition.

Teodros Kiros: Of course. In fact, he draws from the appropriated versions of the classical Ethiopian tradition. Skandes, The Book of the Wise Philosophers, he's filled with them, with this appropriated, not critically thought through metaphors and examples that corrode the Book of the Wise Philosophers, as Skandes and other Ethiopian classic texts, because they are embedded in tradition and custom and in unthought through rituals. There are Jacob is breaking through all this and saying, 'no, I'm going to use this God given intelligence that I have, and use it to think for myself' and hopefully the outcome of my thoughts might be - he's very humble - of benefit to others. There is no proselytizing in Zara Jacob. I hope I'm not developing a geography. I have to be very careful.

Peter Adamson: So you see him as a much more radical thinker than Heywat.

Teodros Kiros: That is, in fact, what led me to make these radical distinctions between classical Ethiopian philosophy and modern Ethiopian philosophy. Modern Ethiopian philosophy is modern in the deeper sense. Why is it modern? It is modern because for the first time an Ethiopian thinker is committing suicide, as it were, against rituals, customs and traditions and going after Ethiopians, the Jesuits, and continuously contending 'no, I'm going to use my own God given intelligence to figure things out.'

Peter Adamson: Okay. That's actually really interesting because it suggests that Heywat was kind of returning back to the classical Ethiopian tradition. That Jacob had rejected to some extent.

Teodros Kiros: I think so. The authorities, you and Chike, have done the work.

Peter Adamson: You and Chike might be.

Teodros Kiros: So that's what I think, Professor Adamson, but I don't want to dogmatize this. I don't like dogmatizing arguments. Do not confuse the passion for the arguments with dogmatizing them.

Peter Adamson: Right. Zara Jacob wouldn't like that.

Teodros Kiros: No, not at all. No, not at all. 


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