I once met Woody Allen in Paris. I was a teenager then. He was producing some sketch with a few team-mates at a lonely spot. I could not resist the temptation to go over and shake his hand. Well you don’t meet the likes of him everyday, do you? More than a little annoyed, he pretended to be pleased with the acquaintance, and asked me where I was from. I said Malta. And he said, “Ah, Malta!”, then threw down a really small spittle on the pavement at his foot, pointed at it, and said, “Malta!”
I did not take this to be an insult. I don’t think it was intended to be so. I took it to be just weird Woody Allen humour (which I really never understand very much anyway). At least he knew we existed – something I learned never to assume of anyone – and he also knew something about us: that we were an almost imperceptible island.
Malta is indeed a very tiny place: just about the size of Birmingham, with a population slightly more than that of Manchester. What can one ever expect to emerge from such a drop in the ocean? Not anything worth calling philosophy, for sure. Small dog, tall weeds, one might say. But here’s the surprise: Malta definitely does have a philosophical tradition, and one that goes back at least four centuries.
All in all, one might consider this to be quite remarkable. The thing is, Malta’s civilisation surprisingly belies the minute size of its physical terrain. In all probability, one reason is that, from time immemorial, for good or for bad, lying at the crossroads between Europe and Africa, these islands have always been involved in the vibrant happenings of a very lively and dynamic part of the world. But this alone almost certainly cannot explain Malta’s peculiarity. An additional reason is possibly that, quite fascinatingly, from the latter half of the 14th century onwards the Maltese ruling class began to acquire a somewhat beguiling sense of self-rule and pride. Malta was then part of the expanding Kingdom of Aragon, and that sense of relative autonomy was further enhanced when, in the first half of the 16th century, Malta became the home of the Knights Hospitallers for the next three hundred years. During this time the island enjoyed the status of a sovereign state in its own right, and that gave some Maltese an ineradicably commanding feel of belonging and identity; so much so that, right up to Independence in 1964, it could not be obliterated by the subsequent one hundred and fifty years of British colonial rule.
It should perhaps not be surprising, then, that, as far as can be ascertained, Malta’s philosophical tradition begins its solid accrual from the stimulating time of the Aragonese towards the beginning of the 16th century. This does not mean, if truth be told, that our philosophical interest should not go farther still. Malta appears to have been first inhabited some seven thousand years ago. Its sophisticated prehistoric temples are unique in the whole world. The earliest temple dates from around 4100 BC, so these hallowed edifices precede the Great Pyramid at Giza by more than a thousand years, and Stonehenge by more than two thousand.
However significant such an ancient and noteworthy past might be, it would be a mistake to believe that Malta had ever been the centre of Mediterranean culture. In actual fact, it continuously lay on the fringes of sways with endlessly shifting pivots, and this remains so to this day when Malta is part of the European Union. Being of Semitic origin, now with strong elements of Italian and other Mediterranean stock, the Maltese – sometimes with their philosophy and their philosophers – have indeed always been within the picture; even if in the background of some inconspicuous corner, nonetheless part of it.
During the last ten years or so what we have been trying to do is to aptly recognise and duly honour this modest share without succumbing to conceit or pomp. The necessity arose for two main reasons. One, because the Maltese themselves, mostly due to a dearth of required research, did not acknowledge, much less appreciate, any local philosophical tradition; and, secondly, because any activity that was being carried out in the philosophical field – whether it was teaching, writing or simply discussing – was done as if we ourselves had, at most, a present without a past. Plato, Kant, Freire, Wittgenstein, Habermas and the whole pantheon of European and American philosophers were thrown about chapter and verse; but not one single local name ever surfaced.
So what I did was start to dig deep into the dusty archives. In due course names and manuscripts and personalities began to emerge, enough to make one’s head spin. Next, I published; first, in 1995, a small book to whet the appetite; then, six years later, in 2001, a two-volume encyclopaedia of philosophy in Malta. Both were written in Maltese, and both attracted considerable interest. However the second one was more comprehensive and perceptive. It was a sort of source book that provided biblio-biographical information about all the known Maltese philosophers; a minute description of all known philosophical writings composed by Maltese philosophers (most of them still in hitherto unpublished manuscript form, generally written in Latin, Sicilian or English); and all the philosophical schools or societies that had existed in Malta throughout the centuries. Unfortunately, so far no such publication exists for English-speakers.
These publications started the ball rolling. Subsequently, courses were read at the University of Malta and at other institutions of higher education, a first public conference on “Maltese” philosophy was organised, articles were written, monographs published, first-grade dissertations undertaken, and so forth. All along one main idea has always been consistent: to instil in young and upcoming Maltese philosophers a sense of local connection, pride and gratitude: their work is part of a continuum.
Since the 16th century, philosophy has contributed to the academic and, sometimes, the intellectual and cultural life of the Maltese intelligentsia. In most cases it functioned as a tool of the establishment – including the Catholic Church – to conserve and perpetuate orthodox and official doctrines. In other cases it offered alternative and imaginative routes of thinking. Despite its relatively long philosophical tradition, however, Malta has no particular philosophy associated with its name. Though sometimes innovative and creative, the large majority of Maltese philosophers have always worked with imported ideas and, but for very rare cases (like in the case of Emanuel Dimech), have seldom broken new ground in the philosophical field. Although the philosophy of many of them did not affect social or political life, some interacted in a lively way with current affairs, and sometimes even stimulated societal change. Throughout the ages, Maltese philosophers did not adhere to just one philosophical tradition. The majority belong to the Aristotelico-Thomistic school. Every now and then, however, other trends appear along the way, especially during the last quarter of the 20th century, such as humanism, empiricism, pragmatism, existentialism, linguistic analysis and some others. Apart from unique, rather than rare, exceptions, theism has been a constant trait throughout the whole Maltese philosophical tradition.
During the last thirty years or so philosophy in Malta has taken an unprecedented twist. Peter Serracino Inglott gave it an extraordinary new breath of life by widening its horizon, diversifying its interests and firmly propelling it into social and political action. He removed philosophy from under the wing of the Catholic establishment, and most heartily engaged it with contemporary cultural and political issues and concerns.
This style was taken up by others. Kenneth Wain, for instance, a philosopher specialising in ethics, political philosophy, the philosophy of education, and international relations, is very active politically, and, like Serracino Inglott, takes a willing part in many a heated public debate.
The story of philosophy should be more than just a narration of tired expressions, worn-out names and stock storylines. It is sometimes evident that people who write philosophy histories read from the same page. For so long the provinces have been dismissed and ignored. Out there, there may be something that is worth catching the eye. Perhaps even in Malta.
Mark Montebello is visiting lecturer at the University of Malta