York University Professor Gerard Naddaf, a specialist of Plato, the Presocratic philosophers and the origins of philosophy, was invited to share his expertise at ETH Zurich and the University of Zurich in Switzerland on April 19 and 20.
While at ETH Zurich, Naddaf gave a talk on his most recent research on the invention of conscious reflexivity and the emergence of Homo philosophicus as a new subspecies or kind of Homo sapiens. This development is related to the origins of philosophy and empirical science.
Naddaf shared insights on a new, revolutionary kind of critical thinking that emerged in the early sixth century BCE Greece, and began with the Milesians, that suggests we should never be bound to uncritical acceptance of an explanation.
This, he said, explains the plethora of new and competing ontologies about nature or physis that arose with them. The natural philosophers thought they could explain the entire universe in terms of the properties of its basic components, which are, in turn, intellectually and empirically justified. For the first time in human history, he said, there is no place for the supernatural. His talk demonstrated that natural law alone is the guiding force behind past, present and future events, and humans emerged from the same natural causes that were behind the formation of the universe. Moreover, he said, we find in the Greeks the advent of conscious methodologies and rigorous proofs.
“There is no consensus on how this intellectual and scientific revolution, which is arguably the most important in human history, occurred,” said Naddaf.
“My invited talk at ETH Zurich was to show, with some concrete historical examples and analysis from an evolutionary perspective, how a new kind of consciousness emerged in Homo sapiens, so that Homo sapiens became Homo philosophicus – and thereby changed forever the course of human history and culture.”
He argued that what distinguishes Homo philosophicus from previous Homo sapiens is self-conscious reflective activity. Moreover, his talk aimed to show that Homo philosophicus could only have emerged in ancient Greece when it did, and not elsewhere, and thus the world as we know it would be a very different place if this had not happened.
“Since it is now demonstrated that cultural progress can lead to a modification of the human genome, I wanted to propose – although this was not essential to my general thesis – that some individuals may have inherited a new character trait, or have used one that was already present, but was never adapted for that end, that was behind the emergence of reflexivity, which, in turn, led to the advent of philosophy and empirical science,” he said.
During his visit to the University of Zurich, Naddaf’s talk on “The Relevance of Plato Today” was directed at a more general audience, including students, academics and a general public.
Plato, he offered, is arguably the most influential philosopher in history, and also one of the most influential human beings. Every year, millions of copies of Plato’s dialogues are sold, and he suggests Plato’s Republic is the most influential political treatise ever written.
Naddaf began his talk with the influence of Plato in countries where one would perhaps least expect to find him, including Russia, China and Japan.
“To understand the West, one must understand Plato,” he said. “I contextualized the influence of Plato’s Timaeus or creation story, which was the main competitor for Genesis for more than 1,500 years.”
Plato, he said, was the first to employ the method that was to be used for any research that pretends to be scientific: a list of axioms and rules of inference.
“I covered a number of Plato’s thought experiments that are still among the most ingenious, and reminded the audience that Plato was also the first to initiate, in his dialogue The Laws, the rule of law and the compulsory use of legislative preambles to laws. This is the foundation of Western democracies,” said Naddaf.
He also covered Plato’s arguments in The Laws for the institution of compulsory education for all citizens, access to public offices for women, mandatory voting and the institution of scrutineers or model citizens elected by all to whom all office holders would have to appear after fulfilling their term of office.
“Finally, I discussed in context Plato’s famous position in the Republic on shaping the influences that shape culture,” he said. “Plato was unstinting in his view that the influences shaping a culture had to be controlled to properly educate and raise children and, ultimately, create a society that enabled all, without exception, to flourish. I examined in context how he would approach the unbridled consumerism of our own age.”
ETH Zurich and the University of Zurich are Switzerland’s premier universities. They have given the world more than 50 Nobel laureates, the most famous of whom is Einstein.
Naddaf has been invited to give talks on his research and on his areas of expertise on all six continents. He is a professor of philosophy in the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies.