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Archaeoastronomy & Ethnoastronomy News


Number 13 September Equinox 1994

Essay: Archaeoastronomy and Philosophy
by Greg Whitlock, Austin Community College

Tony Aveni (A&E News #6) noted that archaeoastronomy has produced spin-off scholarship in religion, art, and history. The disciplines of philosophy, religious studies, and the humanities generally may be added to that list. In philosophy, it has special bearing on the history of philosophy, cosmology, philosophy of science, multicultural philosophy, and philosophy of religion and culture. Philosophy plays a role in cultural strategies to give meaning to human existence, and while archaeoastronomy does not solve philosophical questions, it sheds light on how cultures attempt to do so. The nature and significance of ancient astronomy have historically been overlooked by philosophers, but this is changing. Many cultures retain their traditional cosmologies, and knowledge of basic comparative ancient astronomy is crucial to the multiculturalist.

Most epistemology since Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) has been perspectivism (the idea that all knowlege is perspectival, not absolute). Archaeoastronomy is one perspectival investigation of a central aspect of human history, and the conditions under which human beings have "become what they are". The value of astronomy, as with all things, is determined from the advantages or disadvantages that it provides for human life . Here, archaeoastronomy helps evaluate the value of celestial observations in ancient times. The question of truth of cosmological interpretations remains a separate issue, for something short of truth still has great value, if it benefits human life. On matters of valuation and truth, archaeoastronomical insights can help philosophers in searching for the deeper meaning. Archaeoastronomy sheds first light on the human origins of early myth and religion, naturalizing humanity in a new way. It provides a fascinating variation on Ludwig Feuerbach's dictum that the truth of religion is anthropology, its theology is false. In archaeoastronomy, we begin to unlock the secrets of interplay between religious imagination and natural observation. In any case, ignorance of archaeoastronomy limits possible insight into the universality of human spirit.

My course at Austin Community College introduces philosophy through four cultures, using archaeoastronomy and Mircea Eliade's theory of Neolithic cosmology to connect them at their ancient roots. I begin the course with a four week study of the Maya Popol Vuh, offering the perfect opportunity to interweave ancient astronomy and philosophy. Other topics include: Confucius's cosmology of Heaven and Earth, the Taoist view of the universe, Plato's cosmology, and the connection between African (Egyptian) and early Greek cosmology. Archaeoastronomy is not necessarily prone to ethnocentrism, as some critics have charged. If properly done, it puts modern Science (and European- Chinese philosophy) in a multicultural context, undermining cultural supremacist notions.

Understanding ancient astronomy greatly enhances study of the world philosophical traditions. Plato said that philosophy begins in observations of the stars (Timaeus 47a-47b). This seems to be the case for many traditions. Plato further stated that religion also begins in such observation (Epinomis 981e,983e), a claim that archaeoastronomy elaborates and verifies around the globe. The history of cosmological ideas from Aristotle, to Copernicus and Galileo, is well-known. Less well known is the earliest history of cosmology, from prehistory (Neolithic cosmology) to Bronze Age religions and Iron Age philosophies: here archaeoastronomy contributes. We can tie together disparate philosophical-cosmological traditions at their ancient roots with archaeoastronomy. And the history of philosophy can reciprocate with more pieces of a complex multi-disciplinary puzzle.

Keith Kintigh (A&E News #5) was correct to suggest cosmology as the link between archaeoastronomy and issues of major significance to other fields. Cosmology is the common ground between philosophy, astronomy and archaeology. Mircea Eliade's theory of Neolithic Cosmology is a powerful theoretical tool, increasingly influential in many disciplines. Eliade convincingly argues that an archaic and universally disseminated set of cosmological ideas existed in the Neolithic Era, which he calls the "symbolism of the Center of the World." Eliade's theory of Neolithic cosmology raises a profound philosophical question, What is the nature of archaic and universal ideas? Philosophers since Plato have speculated on this question, answering it metaphysically. Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell tried to answer in various other ways, but in comparison, archaeoastronomy provides an answer more adequate to the phenomenon. Such ideas are universal and archaic, because observation of the stars is archaic and universal. At minimum, archaeoastronomy provides a crucial perspective on the phenomenon of Neolithic cosmology.

We should ultimately ask, What does archaeoastronomy tell us about culture? The answer is that archaeoastronomy enlightens us about the construction of some of our necessary fictions (myths, religion, philosophy, science). We may assume that its impact will increase, since archaeoastronomy is still an infant (Claire (Ginger) Farrer A&E News #7).

I believe that the long term effect of archaeoastronomy on philosophy and theology will be in an area called Higher Criticism (represented by Ludwig Feuerbach, David Friedrich Strauss, Albert Schweitzer and others). As a result of investigating early Christian cosmology, perhaps a whole new Christology will emerge under the influence of archaeoastronomy. David Fideler, in Jesus Christ, Sun of God: Ancient Cosmology and Early Christian Symbolism has certainly taken the first steps in that direction. In any case, the study of ancient astronomy interests and influences philosophers and will continue to do so.

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