Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Western intellectual history....all roads did not lead to Rome

As the old saying goes, you may be able to sit sipping espresso on the Via Veneto in Rome and eventually everyone you ever knew will pass by.  All roads may once have led to Rome, but it didn't stay that way.  In terms of knowledge, intellectual pursuits, and science, for many centuries no roads led to Rome.  Instead, those activities occurred elsewhere.

We posted some time ago (here and here) about an Islamic philosopher born in the 14th century in Tunisia, Ibn Khaldun.  He had a lot to say about what we now call social science, as well as about evolution, and he hasn't been forgotten.

Here, for example, is a picture taken just the other day in Ramallah, Palestine, where our daughter, a violinist, and her friend, a cellist and photographer, are teaching at a music conservatory for kids for the year.  We like this photo because it can be read in a way that is both droll and draws attention to the history of scientific thought.

In the early Christian through the Middle Ages, theological dogma replaced the kind of open investigation in areas of thought and science.  That is one reason that long time period is called the Dark Ages.  Classic writings were lost, or lost to the awareness of Europeans.  But the rise of the major Islamic caliphates led to the rescue, study, and translation of those classic texts (some of this in Corcoba, the Spanish Islamic center).  But translation was not all that happened in the height of Islamic culture.

Islamic scholars of all types, including the social and anthropological thinker Ibn Khaldun, wrote works that were later influential when the 'west' awoke, and broke out of Catholic dogmatism in the Renaissance period.

Of course, Khaldun is still highly and rightfully honored, and perhaps more so in Islamic lands than elsewhere (though he certainly is known to Anthropology). As we described in our earlier posts, Khaldun developed one of the first systematic theories of sociocultural evolution, and wrote presciently about the origin of life and biological evolution, too.  Here, unintentionally of course, the sign suggests that Rome is 'that way', far away, while enlightenment represented by Khaldun, is everywhere!


peterfirefly said...

The idea of the Dark Ages is mostly an American notion these days -- and it is about as right as the (American) notion that the railway gauge is ultimately derived from the width of the Roman roads, which in turn was derived from the width of an ass (the animal, not the body part).

Ken Weiss said...

I don't know what you specifically mean, but yes, I regularly see discussions about what was happening during the 'Dark' ages. But I think it is still thought that the rule of Catholocism in Europe was stifling free thought, and some of the Greek and Roman glory was gone, relative to what was going on in the Islamic world.

Of course, daily life went on and nobody at the time would have said their days were 'Dark', I guess.

Or did you have something else in mind?

(as to the width of the Roman roads, I'm no expert!)