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  • Writer's pictureJonathan Egid

Philosophy in... Cuneiform

“Script is primary to the Babylonian search for truth, speech secondary

How should we think about a form of philosophising characterised not by a particular kind of language, but by a particular kind of writing? In this interview Professor Van De Mieroop discusses his research on Babylonian systems of thought, and his argument that the ideas we find in cuneiform texts constitute a particular approach to epistemology based on the enumeration of examples rather than the codification of principles. We discuss the linguistic background to these unconventional modes styles of thinking, the relation between sign, meaning and reality in cuneiform texts and the misunderstanding of this thought as 'mythopoeic', as well as the remarkable three thousand year long multilingual tradition.

I - Cuneiform and the languages of Babylonian philosophy

Readers may be familiar with cuneiform writing, with some of the literature encoded in it, and with some of the languages, such as Sumerian and Akkadian in which that literature is expressed. But you in fact argue that the philosophical importance of this vast body of literature is to be found not in one particular language, but rather in a particular system of writing. I wonder whether you could begin by explaining why we need to focus on a form of writing rather than a particular language, and then tell us a little about the languages that these texts originally express.

The key to understanding Babylonian epistemology lies in the writing system the culture employed. It is a matter of script, not of language. Cuneiform script is not alphabetic but uses a much larger set of signs, and an essential characteristic of them is that they have multiple readings and meanings. While in the Latin alphabet which I write here the individual sign, a letter, represents a sound (the exact pronunciation depends on the context, but a /b/, for example, will always indicate a labial) and has no meaning by itself, in the cuneiform script each individual sign has multiple readings and meanings. Most signs can be read both as syllables, that is a single vowel or a combination of consonants and vowels, as well as entire words. For example, the single sign

can indicate the syllables kur and šad, as well as the word for mountain in whatever language is written. At the same time, you can write the syllable kur with an entirely different sign

Scholarly practice today is to assign each of these signs a numerical value; the two just mentioned are kur (meaning kur1) and kur4. This may sound very confusing, and it is to students who start learning cuneiform, but they soon find out that the context helps one determine the correct reading. Just as the exact pronunciation of the alphabetic letter /b/ depends on what surrounds it, in the majority of texts written in cuneiform the exact reading of a sign is quite clear from those that come before and after it.

The principle of the polyvalence of signs was very important to Babylonian intellectuals who wanted to understand the deeper meaning of individual words –especially names–, sentences, and entire texts. They took each individual sign and read it with its multiple values. The most famous example of this appears in a text we call the Babylonian Creation Epic, which ends with a very elaborate interpretation of the fifty names of the creator god Marduk. He is syncretized with a list of minor deities the parsing of whose names make it possible to connect the god to all aspects of his creation using this system of interpretation. For example, Marduk’s thirty-sixth name is


which the epic elaborates as:

The king who thwarted the maneuvers of Tiamat

uprooted her weapons

whose support was firm in front and rear

In order to interpret the name dLUGAL.AB2.DU10.BUR3 as expounded in the subsequent three verses the author established multiple equivalences for each of the five signs used to write it. They relied on the basic characteristics of cuneiform writing I just explained, and used them to the fullest extent possible. These are the equivalences:

  • LUGAL = šarru, a common translation from Sumerian into Akkadian of the word “king”

  • BUR3 is equated to BIR2, (which is easy because of the secondary character of vowels). Sumerian BIR2 can be translated in Akkadian as sapāḫu, “to scatter, thwart”

  • DU10 is equated to its homophone DU3, which means “to build.” An Akkadian noun derived from that verb is epšētu, that is, “action, maneuvers”

  • AB2 is equated to its homophone AB, which is taken as the abbreviation of the Sumerian word A.AB.BA, whose Akkadian translation is tâmtu, “sea.” By extension it indicates the goddess of the sea, Tiamat

  • BUR3 is taken to be the same as its component BU, which has the Akkadian equivalent nasāḫu, “to uproot”

  • DU10 is equated again to DU3, a cuneiform sign that can also be read KAK, the first syllable of the Akkadian word kakku, “weapon”

  • LU2, the first part of LUGAL, is equated to the Akkadian relative pronoun, ša, “whose”

  • DINGIR the determinative sign at the start of the entire name used to indicate that a divine name is following (rendered d in the transliteration above), is equated with Akkadian ša rēši, “in front”

  • The concluding two elements of the name DU10.BUR3 render the Sumerian word DUBUR, which means “foundation, support,” and the sign DU10 is to be equated with DU, which means “to be firm” when read GIN.

The five signs of the name dLUGAL.AB2.DU10.BUR3 thus make up the sentence, “the king (LUGAL) who thwarted (BUR3) the maneuvers (DU10) of Tiamat (AB2), uprooted (BUR3) her weapons (DU10), whose (LUGAL) support (DU10.BUR3) was firm (DU10) in front (d) and rear.” As you can see this makes the meaning of this name much richer than a simple straightforward reading. In theory one can do this with any word.

While such a type of analysis of the written word appears in some cultures that use alphabetic scripts, such as in the Jewish Kabbalah, it is rare and considered heterodox and with the much smaller number of signs to which it can be applied the possibilities of interpretation are fewer. This type of reasoning is essential for Babylonian philosophy, however, as it gives access to the deeper meaning of any written expression.

(The famous stele of Hammurabi in the Louvre Museum contains a list of some 300 laws, which are formulated as individual cases, but are based on underlying principles that are left unstated.)

We tend to see the written form of a word as purely accidental to its meaning, even, if we follow Socrates, as one step farther away from the truth. He considered speech to be superior to writing. There is a long tradition in western thought that sees writing as something negative–not just in epistemological terms but also because it is a means of control. In the late 20th century Jacques Derrida tried to counter this with his theory of grammatology, a study of the written sign that is not subservient to reality or speech. Grammatology studies how writing creates its own meaning, and although Derrida did not explore his Babylonian references in detail, his methodology is very Babylonian. The substitution of one sign by another may not leave a trace in the oral version of a text, but it can change its meaning which is only clear in the written form. Derrida had to make up a word to show this in alphabetic script – différance – but a Babylonian intellectual could think of a myriad of examples.

So unlike in Greek thought and the subsequent theories of writing based on it, script is primary to the Babylonian search for truth, speech secondary. The principles I just explained were valid irrespective of what spoken language one rendered, and the cuneiform script was used for several languages that belonged to different linguistic groups: Semitic Akkadian, Amorite, Ugaritic, and so on; Indo-European Hittite; and a jumble of linguistically difficult to place ones such as Sumerian, Elamite, Hurrian, and others. Yet Sumerian and Akkadian were the most influential in the development of this hermeneutic practices and any intellectual in ancient Near Eastern antiquity who wanted to apply them had to know these languages. The relationship between these two languages was very special and intriguing.

The beautiful Akkadian term for referring to these two languages, the lišān mitḫurti, or ‘the languages of the meeting each other’, alludes to the fact that these languages were used alongside each other in the same texts for centuries. It is certainly striking that much of the earliest known literature is bilingual, but what is the significance of this bilingualism?

Sumerian and Akkadian were indeed called lišān mitḫurti, (although some scholars translate it not as ‘the languages of the meeting each other’ but ‘opinions that clash’). The Sumerian equivalent of this Akkadian expression was eme ha-mun, which one of the most important 20th century scholars of ancient Near Eastern cultures, Benno Landsberger, reportedly analysed as languages that are like a fish split in two equal halves and salted to be dried (he never published this as far as I know). The image is easy to understand: when the halves are

folded together, they fully overlap, when unfolded, they mirror each other exactly.

We tend to consider them very different languages today, however, since they belong to two distinct linguistic groups. Sumerian, probably the language that was written down in the earliest documents we have dating to the late fourth millennium BC, was a linguistic isolate while, Akkadian, a language that was only written down centuries after the invention of the script but may have been spoken by some of the earliest writers, was a Semitic language like Arabic and Hebrew. The vocabularies of Sumerian and Akkadian were also very different.

Babylonian lists are logical; they pursue connections within the lists that are based on similitudes, not just semantic, but also graphic, aural, and inspired by systematic explorations of patterns.

Nevertheless, the Babylonians themselves did indeed see the two languages as mirroring each other, and very many literary texts and works of higher learning were bilingual throughout the history of Babylonian literate culture. The bilingualism was expressed in such a way that one had to read the two languages simultaneously. It was not that an entire text or a passage was first written out in one language and then in another (as with the Rosetta Stone), but most often each line of text was rendered in two languages, Sumerian on top, Akkadian on the bottom. The reader had to read the two versions simultaneously. Although many modern presentations of this bilingualism suggest that Sumerian was the source language and Akkadian a translation, we know of texts where it is clear that the author was thinking in Akkadian when writing the sentences, and many texts were composed as bilinguals, with the two languages mirroring one another in every line.

(This modern drawing shows three lines of a bilingual hymn, written on a tablet from the 4th or 3rd centuries BC. Each line is written out in Sumerian (lines 14, 16, and 18 on this drawing) and in Akkadian (lines 15, 17, and 19). The reader was supposed to read two versions simultaneously and saw each line as truly bilingual)

The bilingualism was also important in the interpretation of cuneiform signs that I explained before. The two languages contributed to the multiple meanings of each sign. In the example I used above, the syllabic readings kur and šad of the sign written derive from the fact that the sign can also indicate the noun ‘mountain’, and when speaking Sumerian that word is kur, while in Akkadian it is šadû. Bilingualism is thus engrained in every sign.

One of the most striking facts about cuneiform literature is that it is a fairly unbroken tradition of almost three thousand years – such that the last Babylonian scribes were further distant in time from their earliest intellectual ancestors than we are from Plato and Aristotle. Was there much consistency in their ideas and forms of expression over time? If so, what do you attribute this consistency to?

The longevity of Babylonian literate culture written in cuneiform script is one of its amazing characteristics. The script was invented in the late fourth millennium BC and the last document we now know in it can be dated to the year 79 or 80 AD. Although the final centuries, starting in the fourth century BC, show a decrease in the types of texts written - the last manuscript are astronomical, the science for which Babylonians were famed in antiquity - the principles of the multivalence of the cuneiform signs remained the same throughout this long history and scribes of the late period, when the region was politically controlled by Greeks and Parthians, were as adept in playing around with them as earlier ones.

There are many indications that they were very conscious of the fact that they were heirs to a very long tradition; they saw writing as an antediluvian knowledge and considered gods to be the authors of some of the texts they copied out and elaborated. The continuity of the system despite the political and economic ups and downs of Near Eastern / Babylonian antiquity was inherent in the writing system. Anyone who learned to write cuneiform was aware of the multiple possibilities of reading signs. Of course, only those who received a higher education and dealt with texts beyond the practical ones, would know all the intricacies and be able to develop them further.

The history of Babylonia knew ‘Dark Ages’, that is, times from which very few or no textual sources survive and when the scarcity of archaeological remains suggest that cities that had been centres of scribal activity were more or less abandoned. That happened, for example, in the middle of the second millennium BC. We know, however, that works of literature and scholarship that had been created before those breaks were known to later authors. Since the cuneiform tablet is a fragile object, one has to wonder how the knowledge of these compositions survived. Manuscripts did not survive intact for centuries on shelves. I believe that regions that are considered to have been peripheral to Babylonian literate culture, for example Syria and Anatolia, played an important role in this. As I mentioned before, scribes there had adopted the cuneiform script to write local languages. Certainly since the early second millennium BC they also knew Babylonian works of literature and scholarship and understood the hermeneutic principles, which they sometimes elaborated further. What I call Babylonian philosophy here was thus not geographically restricted to the region of southern Iraq, but was the system in use throughout the Near East until the spread of vernacular scripts outside Mesopotamia in the first millennium BC. The cosmopolitanism of Babylonian literate culture in the second millennium, I believe, to a great extent explains its longevity.

II - Forms of Babylonian Philosophy

Your book focuses on three kinds of text: lexicological works, omen lists and legal writings. Could you tell us a little about the texts themselves, and the intellectuals who wrote them? Why are lexical lists for example, important to philosophy?

The list is the fundamental means of exposition in Babylonian thought. Readers will be familiar with the famous Laws of Hammurabi (an image of the stele on which they are carved appears above), a compilation of statements of just legal decisions, mostly expressed through the statement ‘if X was done, then Y will be the consequence’. For example, if someone blinds the eye of someone else, his eye will be blinded; an 'eye-for-an-eye' as we say. The Babylonian expresses no such principles, however, they presented a list of cases – blinding eyes, breaking bones, etc. There is no abstraction.

The same approach appears in all Babylonian scholarly writings and the most extensive corpus of those deals with omens, signs the gods left to indicate what would happen in the future. Those signs were everywhere and huge compendia gathered together statements, such as ‘If a white cat is seen in a man’s house, then hardship will seize the land.’ This is a very straightforward example, but the ancient scholars elaborated on statements like this, modifying each element in the protasis (the ‘if’ part) to consider further options which affected the apodosis (the ‘then’ part).

It is clear, however, that the exploration of options is purely textual, not rooted in the observation of the physical world. In this example the colour of the cat is changed with a sequence white, black, red, speckled, and yellow. While this may have made some sense for cats, it is unlikely that was true for all the animals considered likewise in the omens: sheep, goats, cows, dogs, pigs, ants, and scorpions. The colour pattern was repeated elsewhere with stones, trees, and dates. In astronomical omens, which constitute a vast body of cases, the application of patterns led to such unrealistic propositions as solar eclipses at midnight. In all omen compendia, there was a profusion of textually generated cases, fully logical in the context of the list but not otherwise. If one can imagine solar eclipses at sunrise, midday, and at sunset, why not at midnight?

(All great libraries from ancient Mesopotamia and beyond contain a collection of lexical

lists, which show linguistic scholarship in action. The example here, shown with a

modern drawing of part of the tablet, comes from the Hittite capital Hattusas in modern

Turkey and gives information on Sumerian terms (how to write them properly and how

to do so phonetically), as well as translation into the Akkadian and Hittite languages.

(From The legacy of Mesopotamia, by Stephanie Dalley, New York: Oxford University Press,

1998, p. 17))

The lexical list has to be seen in the same way. In essence it was a list of cuneiform signs that were considered in all their varieties: the sign indicated one or more Sumerian words, each with a different pronunciation and meaning, and sometimes had a name. The list provided the different pronunciations and then the Akkadian translations for each one. Scholars from outside Mesopotamia could add further translations to the Akkadian ones. All this information was provided side-by-side, yet each entry should be read as a clause with a protasis and an apodosis. For example, ‘If the Sumerian word sign TAK4.TAK4, is read tak-tak – it is called “double tak” and means in Akkadian ezēbu, “to abandon,” and in Hittite arḫa dalumar, “forsaking”’.

Just as in the case of omens, the elements of the apodosis can be changed providing the different readings of the sign. Moreover, because of the agglutinative character of the Sumerian language all sorts of elements could be added to single words. We find thus, for example, the colour variations white, black, red, speckled, and yellow attached to the terms for animals, stones, and so on.

The lexical lists provide the basis for the multiple readings of signs in other texts; they give alternative values for signs that justify new explanations of the written text. The various interpretations of the names of Marduk that I mentioned before depended on these multiplicities. The lexical lists therefore form the key to the entire hermeneutic system. Since lexical lists appear alongside administrative texts as the earliest cuneiform writings, it seems that the ability to interpret signs in various ways was inherent in the system from its inception. The possibilities were expanded later on -again with inclusion of non-Babylonian options- to form a massive corpus in the first millennium BC.

Reasoning through a list-format also enabled Babylonian scholars to establish multiple sets of connections, not limited to semantic similarity. In the example of cats I mentioned before, the list grouped colour varieties of the same animal. In a way this resembles the classification of animals we use today, even if it could include what we consider to be absurd cases. Other groupings were possible, however, in the Babylonian lists. Since the written form of entries was important, groups were created because they started with the same initial sign, or ended with the same sign. Dogs, for example, appeared with groups of wild animals because the initial sign to write the word, ur, was also used to write out terms for lions (ur-maḫ) and wolfs (ur-ba-ra). Graphic similarities of the beginning signs could determine the sequence: those starting with u2

were followed by those with sa

then with e2

and finally with giš

Words could be grouped because their initial syllables sounded alike, and we find sequences where, for example, words starting with šu were followed by others starting with ša3, then with še and then with ši.

All sorts of relationships could inspire sequences in the various lists Babylonians composed. These have sparked dismay among modern scholars, who object to the lack of adherence to modern scientific standards. How can one group dogs among wild animals? Critics have expressed their disapproval in harsh terms. They have derided the lists’ logic as ‘additive and aggregative rather than subordinative and analytic’, and indicative of a ‘lukewarm mind’. They have accused Babylonian science of lacking ‘the ability to formulate general principles or abstract categories … It could only proceed horizontally by cumulating examples’. Even further, they have considered the ancients as stuck in an ‘automatism’ that generated meaningless ‘pseudo-science’.

(Detail taken from an Assyrian relief sculpture showing a scribe with clay tablet in his

left hand and a stylus to impress cuneiform signs into the clay in his right hand.)

These views are inspired by the belief that modern classificatory systems, with their taxonomies, hierarchies, and genealogies are superior. But modern classificatory systems can also be criticized, and, actually, in daily practice they are regularly superseded by other ones. The genealogical tree with its hierarchy of classificatory units is neither the only nor the superior form of scientific representation. In its place the psychoanalyst duo Giles Deleuze and Félix Guattari have put forward the ‘rhizome’ – a presentation of knowledge that resembles the roots of a plant, growing horizontally and able to expand without limits. It has no core, no dialectics, no hierarchy, but each point is connected to all others and is equally important. It is a semiotic chain agglomerating very diverse acts. A perhaps intuitive resistance to such an alternative model should fade when we consider how it structures knowledge on the internet, the scholarly resource on which we now so much depend. The outcomes of google searches and the like tend to surprise as they fail to show clear taxonomies or hierarchies to us. The algorithms of search engines make connections in multiple directions on the basis of similarities that do not adhere to modern scientific classifications.

The lists of results seem endless, but internet users accept them as somehow logical and certainly useful. Similarly Babylonian lists are logical; they pursue connections within the lists that are based on similitudes, not just semantic, but also graphic, aural, and inspired by systematic explorations of patterns.

You argue that the purpose of Babylonian writing was not to represent speech, but to create a reality, or a system of meaning independent of speech. How did this independent system of meaning work? How did Babylonian writers understand the relation of their writings to spoken language, and the relation of both to reality, however they might have conceived it?

It is important to keep in mind that Babylonian writing was used for a wide variety of purposes, from the very practical to the highly esoteric. When people wrote letters –and we have a large corpus of those from almost all periods when cuneiform script was used– they wanted to communicate a message that was probably most often read aloud to the recipient (although there is debate about the rate of literacy in the ancient Near East, most people were non-literate). Other texts were probably never or very rarely read out aloud, however, and the written word was what communicated the message. It was thus very important for writers to choose their signs carefully. But even in practical writings the graphic form of the message could add meaning, because of a fundamental characteristic of the cuneiform signs. It did not merely render sound; it also conveyed meaning visually. Take the word for “waterskin,” for example, pronounced ummud in Sumerian. It was possible to write it out with a small number of syllabic signs, but scribes used the long sequence KUŠ.A.EDIN.LAL

The sequence literally reads: leather object to carry water in the steppe, but that is of course only clear to a reader, not to someone who hears the word ummud. Scribes of texts of higher learning played around with this to add meaning or emphasis. For example, cleansing rituals required water from wells; thus, some texts describing the rituals wrote the command “you clean him,” Akkadian tullalšu with the sign tul2, because that was the Sumerian word for “well.” In Babylonia the written text was superior to the spoken word.

III - The Legacy of Babylonian Thought

Early in the chapter Essay on Babylonian Epistemology you mention Henri Frankfort’s 1949 book ‘Before Philosophy’, which also provides an examination of the thought of ancient Mesopotamians. Why do you think it was a mistake for Frankfort to classify this kind of thought as ‘Before philosophy’? What is at stake in classifying these Babylonian texts as philosophical?

Few books introducing materials from the ancient Near East and Egypt have had as much success in gaining public attention as Before Philosophy, published under the editorship of the couple Henri and Henrietta Antonia (Groenewegen) Frankfort. The two other contributors, John A. Wilson and Thorkild Jacobsen, were equally famous and respected scholars from the University of Chicago, and all four authors had the unusual ability to communicate with a broad, crossover, audience. Indeed, the book was a British re-edition of The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man published in the USA by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago three years earlier, and the British version made two changes: it used a catchier title and it excluded the chapter by William A. Irwin on ‘The Hebrews’ –perhaps because the Biblical text did not fit the Frankforts’ ideas on mythopoeic thought, a central argument in their calling Babylonian and Egyptian systems pre-philosophical.

The book had an enormous impact on scholars outside the field of ancient Near Eastern studies, who used it to illustrate a pre-scientific and pre-logical engagement with the universe, and despite quite critical specialist reviews of various aspects of Before Philosophy – its selection of cultures, its ahistorical nature, and especially the concept of mythopoeic thought – the core idea that ancient Near Eastern thought was pre-philosophical became somewhat of a truism.

That truism is what I object to. First of all, it belongs to a 19th century teleological account of world history that presents the progress of civilisation as culminating in the modern West. Scepticism about this idea is widespread these days. Secondly, it privileges Western philosophy rooted in ancient Greek practices as the only true philosophy – something this website tries to counter. So while I admire the book the Frankforts edited for its success in informing wide audiences about ancient Near Eastern cultures, I fear the work has reinforced preconceptions with which I disagree.

The argument of Before Philosophy was in a sense circular. The authors looked at myths in order to find out how people from the ancient Near East and Egypt perceived their environment, and then determined that it was ‘mythopoeic’, a concept they took from the German philosopher Ernst Alfred Cassirer. 'Mythopoeic' thought suggests a way of understanding elements of the world in an affective rather than a disengaged, scientific way. According to the theory, ancient Near Eastern people interacted with the elements of the phenomenal world as if they were fellow humans or human-like beings. They addressed them as ‘Thou’ rather than ‘It’. For example, a storm was not a natural phenomenon but the storm god showing his powers. The cosmos was not made up of objects that followed laws one could discover through scientific analysis, but was a system directed by human-like gods who could be persuaded to change the order of things. Planets and other celestial bodies were gods who moved around the sky because the god Marduk had determined their courses, and these could be altered when asked to do so. According to the Frankforts only with the Greeks did the I-Thou relationship between humans and their environment become an I-It one. While the Frankforts did not regard Babylonian thought as inferior to Greek thought, they did see Greek thought as a kind of progress.

I do not deny that texts such as myths and wisdom literature in general also reflect ideas about the universe and other matters that philosophy as we know it addresses. Yet, the subject of my book and of my comments here is the area that we call logic, a systematic investigation of truth and how we can know it. If we want to discuss ethics in Babylonian thought, myths, hymns, prayers and the like can give us insights (although these are very hard to extract), and the area of physics is very well documented in scholarly writings. Those show knowledge of the body (of humans and animals), of the celestial sphere, and other aspects of nature, but in order to understand their formulation we have to be aware of the logic we see in the lists that are the basis of my investigation of epistemology.

I must admit that some reactions to my book, including from scholars in ancient Near Eastern studies, have been very negative, because I use the word philosophy to speak of Babylonian thought. What I find remarkable is that the criticism often starts with the assertion that philosophy is a Greek invention full stop - as if that statement by itself invalidates my argument. Luckily, historians of philosophy whose work these critics do not acknowledge and most likely do not read, have in the last twenty years or so broadened their horizons and philosophy departments throughout the world are taking the concept of world philosophy seriously. It is interesting how defensive the reactions to this trend is, as if the idea that outside the Greek tradition systematic thought could take place somehow diminishes the accomplishments of the thinkers and scholars of Classical Greece. I have great admiration for what happened in Greece in the Classical period, but also for what the Babylonians accomplished and believe they fall in the same general category of intellectual exploration.

It is sometimes said that even if earlier peoples had systematic conceptions of the world, it was only with Greece that logical thinking was made explicit and served as the basis for philosophical argumentation and system-building. But your work offers some interesting alternatives for accounting for logical inference in Babylonian works in terms of the resemblance and similitude of written signs – would you be able to explain how this works?

It is indeed the case that Babylonian writings do not include explicit statements on how logical thinking was supposed to materialise, nor do they state principles. Yet, the system of reasoning was employed consistently across thousands of examples. In the three genres of writing that I analyse in my book –lexicography, laws, and omen literature– cases are compiled on the basis of a logic that they resemble each other, they are variations on the same theme. This is usually called casuistic reasoning – case by case – a term I am not happy with insofar as it suggests sophistry.

In any case, there were underlying principles that had their logic. They were different from what became the dominant practice in Greece (although recently several scholars have pointed out parallels in pre-Socratic philosophy), and are thus confusing to many of us. If I can draw a parallel with another system of knowledge: we know that the Babylonians were aware of such principles as the Pythagorean theorem, c^2 = a^2 + b^2. They never formulated the principle, but applied it as is clearly demonstrated on the cuneiform tablet below, held in the Rare Books and Manuscript collection of Columbia University.

It provides a list of numbers in the Babylonian sexagesimal system that give three measures for right triangles with a decreasing angle. It gives fifteen examples of such measurement each one with a smaller angle than the previous one. The exact mathematical processes involved here are debated and there is strong disagreement about how the information on it relates to mathematical procedures we use today, but whatever the interpretation the tablet shows the expression of advanced mathematical knowledge in list form. The contents of the tablet shows that the Babylonians knew the Pythagorean theorem that in a right-angled triangle, c^2 = a^2 + b^2. As with Babylonian logic, they did not formulate this as a principle, but applied it by listing three measures for right triangles with a decreasing angle.

Numerous other documents demonstrate that the Babylonians applied such mathematical rules in practice, so although they did not formulate those rules, no one would say that the Babylonians had no mathematics. Likewise there are many texts that show us that they had rules of interpretation, of seeking truth in a written statement, that they applied consistently. They were based on establishing connections: if something could be equated something else, the latter gave insight in the former’s meaning. The connections were not just semantic but also aural and visual, and they could be indirect. As I pointed out above, the cuneiform sign DU10 in a name of the god Marduk could be equated with its homophone sign DU3, and that sign had an alternative reading KAK, which was the first syllable of the Akkadian word kakku. Thus, in this reasoning DU10 was a weapon. In one lexical list the sun is equated with a donkey through the use of two intermediate steps: “sun” in Sumerian UTU sounds like UDU, which indicates “sheep”, and “sheep” in Akkadian immeru sounds like imēru, “donkey”. Thus, it is fully logical to translate UTU as ‘donkey’.[1] This may all sound like a free-for-all, but it was not. Each step can be explained logically according to principles, that are, however, never spelled out.

You suggest that scholars writing in alphabetical scripts could not establish the relevant semantic, aural and visual connections between sign, word and reality that formed the basis of cuneiform intellectual life. What, if any, do you think are forms of philosophical thought peculiar to cuneiform forms of writing?

It should be clear by now that the Babylonian system of interpreting the written word is an outcome of the cuneiform writing system, and the multivalence of its signs. That is absent in alphabetic script which aims to reproduce speech. The Greeks did have the science of etymology, which they saw as an analysis of words in order to understand them better (rather than tracing the historical roots of a word as we do today). Yet, in the Platonic dialogue, Cratylus, Socrates poked fun at it. As he was wont to do, he first showed his skills in the practice before he deconstructed it. As an example he analysed the name of the god Apollo, demonstrating how it could be connected to four activities: music, prophecy, medicine, and archery. Some of it is based on the sound of the syllables that make up his name: ‘And because Apollo is always by his archery controller of darts [aei bolōn] he is ever darting [aeiballōn’].[2] That type of breakdown did not require reading the name as it was written down, however, and could be based on its pronunciation alone. Thus while Socrates may have done something similar to what the author of the Babylonian Creation Myth did with the names of Marduk, the way in which he did so was necessarily very different from the Babylonian way because he did not know cuneiform.

The Babylonian search for truth was thus systematic and remarkably consistent and long-lived. Its essence was connected to the writing system, and the multivalence of its signs. As long that the cuneiform script was in use, the epistemology rooted in it could function. Once the script disappeared, the philosophical inquiry based on it was no longer possible. It functioned for a period longer than what separates us from Plato today (and according to the British philosopher A.N. Whitehead the European philosophical tradition is just a series of footnotes to Plato), so it merits consideration in any history of philosophy.

Many thanks for your time Professor Van De Mieroop

Marc Van De Mieroop has taught the ancient histories of the Near East and Egypt for many decades at Columbia University (where he is Professor of History), Yale University, and the University of Oxford. Over the years he published many books and articles on various aspects of these histories –economic, political, social, and intellectual– and on historical methodology. In 2015 he published Philosophy Before the Greeks: The Pursuit of Truth in Ancient Babylonia (Princeton University Press), which has been translated into Chinese and Turkish. His research has received support from the Belgian-American Educational Foundation, National Endowment of the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, American Council of Learned Societies and Oxford University Press Fell Fund. He holds the copyright to the text of this interview.


  1. C. Jay Crisostomo, Translation as Scholarship: Language, Writing, and Bilingual Education in Ancient Babylonia (Boston / Berlin: De Gruyter, 2019), 158.

  2. Ineke Sluiter, “Ancient Etymology: A Tool for Thinking.” In Brill's Companion to Ancient Greek Scholarship, edited by F. Montanari, S. Matthaios, and A. Rengakos (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 896-922.

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