Monday, March 12, 2018

Forgotten philosophers

A few weeks ago, I wrote about a forgotten opera by an almost forgotten German composer: the opera “Siroe, Re di Persia” by Johann Adolph Hasse. Hadn’t this opera been rediscovered by the Greek conductor George Petrou, this beautiful piece of art would still have been hidden in the archives. How many beautiful operas and other pieces of music are still “waiting” to be brought back to the public? Really, one wouldn’t believe it today, but also much music by Johann Sebastian Bach was once more or less forgotten and his son Carl Philippe Emanuel was better known than the father. Also the now famous composer Antonio Vivaldi was once passed into oblivion.
Being known if not famous and then becoming forgotten is a common phenomenon. Each age has its own celebrities and one cannot look always to the past and honour the past celebrities as well. During the ages the number of celebrities would become so big that there is only one way to avoid to become overloaded with them: Forget them. When everybody will be known who is worth to be known, no one will be. In the end there can be only a few at the top, or everybody would fall down. So many outstanding composers fell into oblivion, and this happened to many philosophers as well.
The American philosopher Roy Sorensen tells in one of the mini-essays in his A Cabinet of Philosophical Curiosities that on a stroll through a graveyard in Edinburgh, Scotland, he passed the grave of Adam Ferguson, once – two hundred years ago – a professor of moral philosophy in the University of Edinburg, as the epitaph told him. He had never heard of him, so for him Ferguson was a forgotten philosopher. Actually Ferguson is not completely forgotten, for a building of the University of Edinburgh bears his name. Nevertheless, I think that for most of us Ferguson belongs to the category of forgotten philosophers, even though he has a page in the Wikipedia. Should he really have been forgotten, he wouldn’t even had such a page, but who reads it? However, a really forgotten philosopher will only be found in the paper archives of the libraries of universities, courts and monasteries. And when I think of Hasse’s beautiful opera, I wonder how many philosophical writings of value are hidden there. Probably a lot. Some may be known be specialized specialists but belong to the forgotten category for most of us; others are really forgotten. Much research in the records is to be done! Some forgotten philosophers may be still known by name, but apart from a few catchwords, nobody knows anymore what they have written about. Alexander of Abonoteichus, Wilhelm Homberg, Martin Knutzen, Adam Wodeham: Do you know them? And these are philosophers that can yet be found on the Internet! Thanks to the web, the chance to be forgotten these days is smaller than ever before, in the sense that once you are mentioned on the Internet or once you have published there, all this is public and not hidden in inaccessible archives. Nevertheless if nobody reads it, you are still forgotten.
Sorensen tried to find a solution for the problem that he would be forgotten. Maybe he could be remembered as the forgotten philosopher, he thought. I hope he will not, or rather that he will not be remembered as the forgotten philosopher, for I had reserved this title for myself. But if he will be remembered as a forgotten philosopher, it is okay. But perhaps there is a better way for me to prevent that I’ll sink into oblivion: I can be remembered as the forgotten philosophical blogger. In view of what I just said about the Internet, my chances are then better than his – or so I hope –. But Sorensen and I wouldn’t have been philosophers, if we shouldn’t have to conclude that our tries will end in a contradiction in terms, for, as he says, “Anyone who is forgotten is not remembered. I cannot be both remembered and not remembered.” But who cares, if everybody knows that it is me who has been forgotten?

Roy Sorensen, “Fame as the Forgotten Philosopher: Meditations on the Headstone of Adam Ferguson”, in A Cabinet of Philosophical Curiosities. A Collection of Puzzles, Oddities, Riddles and Dilemmas. London: Profile Books, 2017; pp. 244-250.

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