Volkswagen Fellowship Symposia

Approaching a Critique of Mesopotamian Reason

When Immanuel Kant wrote his Critique of Pure Reason, he negotiated between two competing perspectives on the world, empiricism and rationalism. As a consequence, he understood critique in a dual way that renders the of in the book’s title as both a genitive obiectivus (critique addressing reason) and a genitive subiectivus (critique through reason). First, it means that the scholar carefully discerns and assesses philosophical ideas that are produced by reason. Second, it embraces the critical potential that underlies reason.

The symposium aims to reconstruct complex ancient Near Eastern thought that is in many ways equivalent to Greek φιλοσοφία (philosophia). This approach faces a challenge similar to Kant’s since it aims to harmonize two foci on the ancient sources. The emic perspective aspires to understand the material from a culturally internal view; the etic perspective applies modern categories to describe and evaluate the past. The latter corresponds to Kant’s critique through (modern scientific) reason; the former tries to explore the critical potential of ancient reason in addressing (social) wrongs or misbehavior of people in charge, such as kings and gods (e.g., in the story of the flood).

The workshop collects data from various spaces, times, and textual genres in order to investigate the distinctive aspects of high-level ancient Mesopotamian thinking. Special attention will be given to underlying assumptions and prevailing paradigms. Although the results will still be preliminary to a large extent, such an in-depth investigation of ancient cognitive practices will facilitate our understanding of ancient sources within and beyond Mesopotamian culture.

Please RSVP to Gösta Gabriel,

Friday April 21


3:30 pm | Room 133, Barker Center

Session 1: Critique

3:45 pm | Room 133, Barker Center

The Critical Potential of Order and Disorder: The Flood and Other Cases
Gösta Gabriel
Harvard University, Universität Göttingen

4:30 pm | Room 133, Barker Center

The Reluctant en of Inana or the Persona of Gilgamesh from the Perspective of Babylonian Political Philosophy
Piotr Steinkeller
Harvard University

Coffee Break

5:15 pm

Keynote Lecture

6:00 pm | Room 105, William James Hall

Theses on Babylonian Philosophy
Marc Van De Mieroop
Columbia University

Saturday, April 22

Session 2: Reasoning I - Part I

9:30 am | Room 133, Barker Center

The Reconciliation of Angry Gods: A Revision of the Šuillas
Tzvi Abusch
Brandeis University

Coffee Break

10:15 am

Session 2: Reasoning I - Part II

10:45 am | Room 133, Barker Center

Arguing One’s Case in Akkadian Disputation Poems
Enrique Jiménez
Universidad Complutense de Madrid

11:30 am | Room 133, Barker Center

Reasoning and Representing: Babylonian Astronomical Models
Francesca Rochberg
University of California, Berkeley

Lunch Break

12:15 pm

Session 3: Reasoning II

1:15 pm | Room 133, Barker Center

After Babel–Bibel Babble: Language, Translation, and Commentary in Cuneiform Scribal Practice
Jay Crisostomo
University of Michigan

2:00 pm | Room 133, Barker Center

The Perils of Omnisignificance: Language and Reason in Mesopotamian Hermeneutics
Eckart Frahm
Yale University

Final Discussion and Closing Remarks

2:45 pm | Room 133, Barker Center

This symposium is made possible by the generous support of the Volkswagen Foundation.

Seating is limited.

  • Click here to download a program for this event.