11. Teodros Kiros on Ethiopian Philosophy

Posted on 16 September 2018

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

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Further Reading

• T. Kiros, Toward the construction of a theory of political action; Antonio Gramsci: consciousness, participation and hegemony (Lanham: 1985).

• T. Kiros, Moral philosophy and development: the human condition in Africa (Athens, OH: 1992).

• T. Kiros, Self-construction and the formation of human values: truth, language, and desire (Westport: 1998).

• T. Kiros, Explorations in African political thought: identity, community, ethics (New York: 2001).

• T. Kiros, Zara Yacob: Rationality of the Human Heart (Lawrenceville: 2005).

Comments

A faithful, ye… 16 September 2018

I am a Professor of Economics at a university with a lot of spires and good wine cellars. I have been a faithful listener of the podcast since the very first episode, and I have always enjoyed it tremendously, opening my eyes to many philosophical traditions I was unaware of.

Today’s episode was the first that ever touched my field, economics. When talking about economics and development, Teodros Kiros never soared above the level of undergraduate platitudes. His comments were superficial and without any insight of notice.

This worries me: if, for the only time where I can judge an interview on a professional level, the interviewers are obviously below par, should I trust interviewers when they talk about issues I do not know?

Well, bear in mind he's trying to present his views for a broad audience and not in a way calculated to impress an economics specialist; plus we only spent a few minutes on that aspect of his work. If you read his books and found them wanting that would be different (he's a Marxist so I wouldn't be surprised if you had that reaction, if you are anything like a traditional economist) but I wouldn't judge any of my guests too harshly on the basis of these podcast interviews.

Having said that - and being not an economist myself - I found what he said very interesting. In particular, listening back to it I realized there is a parallel between Kiros' views on development and his analysis of Zera Yacob's Treatise: if you recall, a central point in his work on ZY is the idea that the seat of reason is also the seat of the emotions. It seems to me that there is a connection between that and the rejection of a purely rationalistic or quantificational approach to economic development. Not sure whether he would agree with me on this but it is at least food for thought... like, even how you could consider ZY (on this reading at least) to be an immanent critique of the more purely rationalist theories that emerged in the Enlightenment, anticipating precisely the sort of shortcomings Kiros complains about from his Marxist-inspired point of view.

In any case I'm glad you have enjoyed the podcast series more generally; I did by the way do an episode on medieval economic theories, back at episode 286, so it's not quite true this is the first time we ventured into your territory!

A faithful, ye… 16 September 2018

In reply to by Peter Adamson

  1. I often talk to general-interest audiences and I have penned nearly one hundred op-eds for major newspapers. I believe I understand the difference between being accessible (your podcast and books are wonderful examples of accessibility) and outering platitudes.
  2. I have taught for several years a graduate workshop on philosophy and economics. Last academic year, for instance, we explored how one could use the arguments in Derek Parfit’s “Reasons and Persons” and “On What Matters” to judge alternative economic policies and how Parfit’s answer would compare with John Rawls and Amartya Sen’s. Thus, I am certainly open to revisiting the foundations of economics and its implications for issues such as the trade-offs between output growth and other human goods in ways that reach beyond formal quantitative models. When one reads Parfit, Rawls, and Sen (and many others), the level of the discourse, even when aimed at non-specialists, is different from today’s episode. Amartya Sen, as I have seen doing so in person on numerous occasions, is particularly impressive in presenting subtle arguments in easy-to-follow formats.
  3. Yes, indeed, episode 286 dealt (rather nicely, if I might add) with Buridan, Oresme, and Gregory of Rimaini, but I would argue that the episode was about history of economic thought (HET), not economics stricto sensu (as today’s episode, when discussing the trade-offs between communities and economic growth). HET and economics are closely-related fields, but they involved slightly different approaches: I can find what Oresme said about money interesting even if it is not very relevant for today’s economics (in the same way that a mathematician might find Medieval ideas about pre-calculus interesting without being too relevant for her research on functional analysis). However, I will not push the argument too far, as it is relatively collateral to the main thrust of the conversation.
  4. Although I did not want to bring it up in the first comment, the discussion about the role of the human heart in thinking and feeling (and the nagging suspicion that Kiros was not metaphorical in his conjectures) was puzzling. If even one of my favorite podcasts engages in such elucubrations, I fear for the future of universities.

I don’t know if we should be so harsh on Teodros Kirios in this presentation, which was a mixed bag to be sure, by condemning some of his points as “undergraduate platitudes”. For one, where do undergraduates get the principles that ground their non-lay understanding of subjects, whether philosophy, economics or history, if not from experts in universities and podcasts? Secondly, there were many good points made about Smith, the (imo wrong) surplus theory of value, and philosophy’s inderstanding of economics. What stood out for me was the implication that we should not look upon countries such as Ethiopia, emblematic since the 1970s as a poor country, as “underdeveloped”. For, as this series has shown, Ethiopia has had an ancient, continuous and venerable civilisation for millennia. Secondly, the focus on a restrictive development is highly important if we look at the political context of Ethiopia in the 1960s and 70s, when a focus on economic development by Selassie in lieu of political reform precipitated the disasterous events of the next few decades. I recommend reading Ryanair’s Kapùscynskì’s The Emperor on this subject, written from contemporary Polish perspective, which was in a similar situation in some ways.

teodros kiros 1 October 2018

In reply to by Freddie Coombes

Thanks for this sharp response, which was exactly my point. Development is not merely an ecoonomic idea. When unccovered by the tools of moral economy, we discover that development is profoundly moral. The practices of the rural poor will shame many suburbanites and others by the force of the kindness, integrity and compassion of the poor. When the poor are judged non- calculatively, we learn that that they are  not morally/spiritually poor, but splendidly rich,  and that they know that the self has a dignity which must not be exploited at the point of production.  If these are platitudes, I am so glad to own them and share them with the world.

Secondly, the brilliant Peter has nailed the point that calulative economists need to humble themselves and learn from the rationality of Zara Yacob, for whom the idea of development is not merely a strategic distrubution of goods but a sharing with others guided by moral intelligence embodied in the social sentiments as Adam Smith put it, namely generosity and empathy, add to that the virtues of Maat, the Egyptian ideas embedded in Truth, Righteaousness, Justice and compassion.  Our specialist needs to do some new learning, which I humbly propose. 

Hello,

Late to this party but I reckon I have something to add. 

While I'm not an economics professor and my University didn't have buildings on the plan of a Benedictine monastery, I do have some knowledge of the field of development, particularly the politics of development. My reaction to Prof. Kiros' ideas was that this is a moral/normative response to the same question that my own field attempts to empirically explain: that is, how is the idea 'development' pursued by population groups? The broad consensus among academics is that (a) the reception radically impacts the outcome and (b) it has a lot to do with cultural expression. Meanwhile, the major institutions of development continue to spout 'undergraduate platitudes' on respecting local conditions while actually pursuing policies based on crude universalism. 

The normative nature of Prof. Kiros' response threw me, too, and I have many questions yet to ask of it, but I don't see that as a bad thing. After an awkward period of talking past each other, I think there have been some greatly constructive conversations between social scientists and economists on precisely this question of the social construction of development.* The next step is surely to make some space in that conversation for moral philosophers. (Though not too much, if this podcast has taught me anything it's that philosophy doesn't leave any gaps!) 

*Ingrid Kvangraven's work is a great example.
 

Xaratustrah 4 October 2018

Very nice episode this one! One of the interview episodes, where I would have loved not only to listen, but also to watch! Have you ever considered providing the video versions of the interviews in addition to their pure sound version?

Sadly video is a big, big pain, as I have learned from doing a few video projects over the years. Massive amounts of equipment, impossible to edit without leaving obvious cuts, worries about lighting and what's in the background... it's endless. By comparison audio is so easy.

In this case though Kiros has actually done some video work anyway, so if you go on YouTube and search for his name you'll find him.

teodros kiros 23 September 2019

In reply to by Peter Adamson

I cordially invite you to attend to my television work.  I am the producer and host of an internationally acclaimed television program, African Ascent, which I have been hosting for 15 years with a huge following.  It is available as Peter suggested via youtube, as well as authored 13 books, which you can view in amazon.com.  There are two novels, and the rest are philosophical books. 

Ghazi bin Muhammad 26 October 2018

Hello Peter,

You taught my daughter T. at Kings. I have been enjoying your podcasts faithfully (keep it up; its one of the best things on the whole sordid net!). I love your puns, share an interest in giraffes (albeit not quite to the same degree), I like almond croissants, but dont watch tv or movies anymore so cannot go back and check out Buster Keaton. And of course I myself am a Professor of Philosophy. Without wanting to mean, and whilst appreciating your efforts at inclusiveness: I find this one a bit too long.

But btw, I did like the one with your brother, which I thought could further developed. Also in a previous one, the Macaida (sp?) story of the Queen of Axium / Sheba was lifted straight from the Qur'an Surah 27---do see it;

Please dont post any details from this email.

Thanks

Ghazi 

Isaac 10 May 2019

It is such a priviledge to be able to listen to such a remarkable man who has achieved so much. I might not have done much with my life, but I'm genuinely proud to be one of the tiny fraction of humanity to have been awed by the gravitas of Dr. Kiros' eloquence and simultaneously soothed by his inimitable manner of speaking.

Ryan W 26 August 2019

I found the discussion of the "heart" in Zara Yacob very interesting. It seems to show a side of Yacob that's rooted in his Christian/Biblical tradition, even as he rejects the authority of that tradition. Particularly in the Hebrew scriptures, and usually in the New Testament as well, the heart is always spoken of as the seat of all conscious life, both intellectual and emotional. (The famous quote from the Psalms, "The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God," is one of many examples). To the extent that any distinction is made between these two aspects, it's shown by placing emotions in the liver/intestines rather than by placing thought in the brain (One example is found in the Book of Lamentations, "Mine eyes do fail with tears, my bowels are troubled, my liver is poured upon the earth, for the destruction of the daughter of my people.") Even here though, the distinction between heart and liver seems to be less a matter of making a distinction between the seat of different faculties, and more a matter of how extremely strong negative emotions can cause feelings of physical sickness (kind of like the English expression "stomach-churning"). Certainly, all the calmer emotions are spoken of, as intellectual thought is as well, in connection with the heart.

An interesting connection between this Biblical way of thinking and Ethiopian philosophy is the way the Biblical language about the heart was adopted in Alexandrian and wider Eastern Christian monasticism. Here, the focus on the heart serves a unitive function, not only between reason and emotions, but also between soul and body. In this tradition, conscious life has its seat in the heart specifically because the principle of biological life is in the heart. The Byzantine hesychasts placed an emphasis on the heart in prayer that was clearly not just metaphorical, using physical exercises to concentrate the praying mind on the location of the heart. St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain famously discussed this in the 18th century, and presented arguments for why it is appropriate to see the heart, rather than the brain, as the locus of conscious life. He argued that, although the brain "powers" thought in a sense, it doesn't actually contain it. A modern commentator on Nicodemus compared the relation involved to the light in a lightbulb. The power that operates the light comes from the power station, but the light is still in the bulb, not in the station. The goal of "prayer of the heart" is to gather up the entire human person, body, reason, emotions, into a unity whose "stillness" (hesychia) opens it up to God's grace. An earlier writer (and, as a point of interest, an Egyptian writer, making a more direct connection to Ethiopia), St. John Climacus, wrote of "keeping his incorporeal self shut up in the house of the body" during prayer. Of course, on this view, from a metaphysical perspective, the incorporeal self is always contained in the body, and centred on the heart, as the life of the body itself is. But in prayer, the monk works to keep this fact in positive awareness, and to overcome the scattering of the person and its attention that results from sin. The mind can thus, in this literature, be discussed as residing in the heart in a simply factual sense, but also as having residence in the heart as its destination/telos, and needing to return to it.

It strikes me that the idea of the heart in Zara Yacob could be another argument in favour of the authenticity of his work. This language of the heart seems much more natural from an Ethiopian with a heritage (even if he rejected it) of Alexandrian Christianity, than it does from a Western Christian of the 19th century, who would likely speak of the heart in purely metaphorical and emotive terms.

On another topic, I had a question as I was listening to the interview. Prof. Kiros refers to the appropriation and adaptation of sources like the Life of Secundus in Ethiopia. I wasn't quite sure specifically what he was referring to. Is there evidence that the texts themselves have been altered in the Ge'ez versions when compared to the originals? Or is he referring to doxographical reports of people in Ethiopia engaging with and responding to the texts?

Peter Adamson 26 August 2019

In reply to by Ryan W

Thanks for that very interesting response! I think you are probably right that the theory of the heart could be invoked in favor of authenticity.

As for the final question yes, in some cases we have the Greek (or other language) versions of these same works. Actually Secundus is an example. For instance the Ethiopian version eliminates the plot point from other versions, that Secundus actually sleeps with his mother, or rather only has him doing so in the literal sense of sleeping next to her chastely. So general, we can compare Ethiopian versions to the Greek, or other translations based on Greek, and see the changes that have been introduced.

Dr. Kiros' mention of possibly attending biology classes at Harvard made me chuckle, and it also reminded me of research into the role of DNA with regard to matters of the heart. Dr. Robert Levenson and his team at UC Berkeley discovered that people with the short form of an allele on a gene that serves as a serotonin transporter experience emotions - both positive and negative - more deeply than the rest of the population. The short allele seems to serve as an "emotional amplifier" of sorts.

https://medium.com/@UofCalifornia/how-your-genes-may-be-giving-you-the-…

I wonder if some of the mystic philosophers you've covered were affected/afflicted by "Short Allele Syndrome." If God is seated in the heart, as Yacob attests, then perhaps the capacity to feel deeply opens up transcendent channels for communication/communion with the Divine.

To toss in a pop culture reference for fun (and as a nod to how much I enjoy hearing the ones you sprinkle throughout the series), maybe the creators of ET got it right when they gave their lovable little guy a heart light and an unshakeable desire to "phone home."

Recent research on the Heart is now fully supporting my hypotheses that the Heart as the seat of the Mind is infact a thinking organ. 

teodros kiros 8 September 2019

In reply to by Ryan W

You nailed it.  Exactly right. I consider the Heart technically speaking as both a physical, blood pumper, and transcendental, the origin of rational thought impulses blended with emotion, thereby, overcoming the body and soul dichotomy in Descartes and Amo. It is the heart with connects the body and the soul.

teodros kiros 29 May 2020

In reply to by teodros kiros

I am thrilled that research on the heart and consciousness is now engaging philosophers and that I am now working on a new book on the Rationality of the Human heart, an expansion of my well read article in the Art Institute. 

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