Monday, December 24, 2007

How to write about Arab-Islamic Philosophy or the Continuing Salience of al-Kindi

Peter Adamson, Reader in Philosophy and a specialist on philosophy in late antiquity and early Islam at King’s College London, has written an exemplary study of a Muslim philosopher. Abū Yūsuf Yaʿqūb b. Isḥāq al-Kindī (d. 870) is famous for being the first Arab-Muslim philosopher. But beyond this role and his perhaps more significant role for the later tradition as a patron and facilitator of an early phase on the translation movement from Greek into Arabic, he is much neglected in the study of Arab-Islamic philosophy. While academic studies of his thought began in 19th century German orientalism, the volume under review is the first systematic study of his thought and acts as a companion volume of translations of his philosophical works produced by Adamson and Peter Pormann (also forthcoming from Oxford University Press). The work represents a philosopher’s engagement with al-Kindī, informed by research and insights of Arabists, more first and foremost an encounter and critical evaluation of ideas.

Adamson begins with an interesting point about the history of philosophy – in competition, being first often seems like an advantage and al-Kindī certainly qualifies as such. But if the history of philosophy is also concerned with focusing upon pivotal, influential and significant figures and ideas that effected paradigm shifts in the modes of human thought, then one needs to make an argument for the need to study al-Kindī. Adamson makes a good case for why a study of al-Kindī is still informative for a number of reasons, for an understanding of the development of philosophy in the Muslim world, and as I would suggest, for theologically-minded Muslim thinking about being in the world. This highly readable account comprises eight chapters: the first two are contextualising on his life, works, influences, sources, the formation of an intellectual inquiry called falsafa and its relationship with systematic theology (ʿilm al-kalām) in the classical period; the remaining five chapters tackles various branches of philosophy such as metaphysics, eternity and the creation of the world (in which al-Kindī significantly follows the Christian philosopher Philoponus on insisting upon the creation of the cosmos in time as consistent both with the Qurʾan and with Plato, and thus prefiguring al-Ghazālī’s argument against Avicenna on eternity), psychology (which in the premodern period means the study of the soul-psuche), ethics, science and the study of the heavens (the De Caelo and meteorology Aristotelian tradition). One may argue that such an account is made manageable by the limited extent of al-Kindī’s works (and by comparison such an exhaustive account of Avicenna would be a tall order), this does not detract from the efficacy of the analysis and the insightful nature of the engagements.

Re-assessing al-Kindī today is of value. While some Arab intellectuals have championed Averroes as a rationalist before his time neglected by Muslim posterity which was corrupted by Persian irrationalism and other-worldliness (the racism inherent in ʿAbid al-Jabiri’s thesis is stark all the more so for the disinclination of most Arab intellectuals to refuse a clear disavowal), I would suggest that al-Kindī is potentially far more interesting. First, al-Kindī represents the first stage of an encounter with a ‘foreign’ field of learning, the initial cultural and intellectual exchange with the late antique tradition of Neoplatonising Aristotelianism and as such may provide some examples of how Muslim thinkers in the past appropriated, modified and embraced ideas and paradigms of thought that emerged from without their own tradition and which were recognised as being un-revealed from above. Adamson calls this early tradition of philosophy later superseded by Avicennism the ‘Kindian tradition’. Al-Kindī’s famous statement in On First Philosophy (oft-quoted in the literature) is particularly salient on the embrace of the rational in pursuit of the truth and hence I shall quote it in its entirety (p. 23, from On First Philosophy II.4):

We must not be ashamed to admire the truth or to acquire it, from wherever it comes. Even if it should come from far-flung nations and foreign peoples, there is for the student of truth nothing more important than the truth, nor is the truth demeaning or diminished by the one who states or conveys it; no one is demeaned by the truth, rather all are ennobled by it.

Allied to this concern is his criticism of those who claim to apply reason to their understanding of theology but in fact do no such thing.

Second, al-Kindī’s metaphysics is marked by two critical doctrines: the denial of the eternity of the cosmos, and the ineffability of God. God is utterly transcendent and his essence unknowable, a position within apophatic theology that he shares with the Platonic tradition and the Muʿtazila (through their denial of the reality of the divine attributes as independent entities). God is a direct and sustaining cause for all that exists and, contrary to most negative theologians in later antiquity, he rejects the instrumentalism (and the theory) of the emanation of the cosmos from a superabundantly good One. The disagreement with the Aristotelian tradition on eternity also demonstrates the critical embrace of foreign ideas: since one is interested in truth and not imitation of fashion, one need not appropriate all that goes under the guise of Aristotelianism (a salient lesson for the likes of Averroes, the commentator par excellence of Aristotle in Islam).

Third, al-Kindī, like the later tradition, made no distinction between science and philosophy, or even between the scriptural and the ‘rational’. Knowledge was a holistic field of inquiry and pursuit of truth. He wrote a number of works in arithmetic, medicine, vision (linking clinical and physical notions of perception with issues in epistemology and psychology), cosmology, and music. The latter is particularly striking: music represents a study in harmony and relationship, of homologies between different orders of things in the cosmos. Our modern, disintegrated, disharmonious selves are in such dire need to reconnect with the notion of homology and harmony in a newly sacralised and ‘enchanted’ cosmos.

Of course, it would be foolish to suggest that Adamson’s aim in writing this excellent book is a desire to discern the significant of al-Kindī for the present in the Muslim world (although I do not think he would disappointed if this led to new interest in the Kindian tradition). Nevertheless, reading is a function of one’s engagement on the horizon of one’s being, formed by one’s intellectual training and informed by one’s context. In the present, it is difficult to read and interpret anything of the rich intellectual heritage of the Muslim world without an uneasy present-minded. I do hope that Adamson’s book will reach a wider audience than specialists in mediaeval and Islamic philosophy precisely for this reason. But one’s hopes in the present are often futile.

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