Tuesday, October 21, 2008
In an article published almost 30 years ago, Oliver Leaman first drew attention to the potential ‘mistake’ in Straussian approaches to the study of philosophy in Islam. More recently, Dimitri Gutas went on the attack criticising Straussian and other esotericising approaches. Others such as the increasingly Islamophobic Rémi Brague has criticised Strauss’ reading of the ancients, on which the late political philosopher prided himself, as excessively and negatively influenced by his reading of Islamic thinkers such as Abū Naṣr al-Fārābī (d. 950).
Anyway here is not the place to indulge in a detailed critique of Strauss’ and Mahdi’s method. The real question is how best to study Islamic philosophical texts within the rubrics of the history of philosophy, comparative philosophy and the question of the study of philosophical texts in the past that animates the debates between Quentin Skinner (recently moved from Cambridge to Queen Mary's in London), Mark Bevir, John Pocock and others including the late, pre-eminent phenomenologist Henry Corbin (d. 1978). Later on I will post some more details and arguments.
Friday, October 10, 2008
Cautious intellectual historians are perennially concerned with the need to avoid anachronism, to sidestep the fallacy of imposing their categories and modes of analysis upon thinkers in the past who had neither the intellectual framework nor the lexicon to express our contemporary concerns. One of the key areas in philosophy that relates to this context is how we move from our language of souls to selves in discussions of personhood, identity, belonging and individuality. Contemporary accounts focus on narrativity, on the autonomous Promethean self so beloved of Enlightenment liberals, on conventional contexts of communities. The concern for the self is central to who we are, how we are, where we are and why we are.
Richard Sorabji is a philosopher deeply engaged with the history of the discipline. For those familiar with his work, this volume is another excursus into the history of the concept of the self in ancient, mediaeval and modern philosophy, taking in arguments from the Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist traditions as well. In contrast to earlier volumes, he engages more extensively with philosophical traditions beyond the Western canon. But this is not merely a collation of textual commentaries but rather a careful scrutiny of texts and arguments deployed in favour of his position on the nature of the self. For Sorabji, the concept of the self is of critical importance to attitudes to perception, knowledge, moral agency and death. He argues that the self is a fundamental reality that owns the body, its states, experiences and acts, in contrast to the Lockean, Epicurean position defended by Derek Parfit in which the self is defended as a stream of psychological continuity. We need to know who we are and have a notion of our individual selves before we can grasp the world.
After the introduction, the main argument of the book is divided into seven parts, beginning with a formulation of his position defending the existence of an individual self that owns psychological states, moving through discussions of unified personhood over time, examining the ethical implications of personhood, shifting to arguments about knowledge, especially self-knowledge, rejecting psychological duration as a definition of the self found in Parfit among others, and ending with a slightly unsatisfactory discussion (at least one which offers little solace) on the afterlife of the self. In this way, his examination of the self begins and ends with the sense of his own mortality. His concern lies with the metaphysics of the person and not merely with the individual as a bundle of properties united by a psychological unity of consciousness.
Part I entitled ‘Existence of Self and philosophical development of the idea’, comprises chapters 1 and 2. In the first, Sorabji briefly surveys and criticises some analytic arguments against the existence of a self and states that the concept of the self and debates around it stretch back into ancient thought. The self is an embodied subject that owns its body, characteristics, acts and psychological states. The second chapter affirms that the ancients had a concept of self, albeit some Platonists among others insisted that this self could exist in a purely noetic disembodied form, a position that is different to Sorabji’s embodied self. The rational soul/self whose true abode is the noetic realm is therefore not his prime concern. He discusses sixteen different textual instances and notions of self in ancient literature and defends Foucault’s contention that the ancients were as concerned with the ‘souci du soi’ as moderns are, pace Charles Taylor and Pierre Hadot among others.
Part II examines ‘Personal identity over time’ and comprises chapters 3-5 analysing the nature of individuality over time. Chapter 3 examines ancient accounts of persistence, while chapter 4 focuses upon a critique of Parfit’s views, reinforced by his critique of the Epicurean-Lockean conception of the self in chapter 5. This last chapter continues a certain tendency in areas of philosophy to discern continuities between the ancient, mediaeval and early modern philosophers acknowledging Locke’s debt to the Epicureans. Chapter 4 discusses the opposition between a notion of personhood as fission, where the individual splits into many, and fusion where many individuals merge into one, drawing upon Bernard Williams’ principle that survival is non-relative, that is, unconnected with what happens to others.
Part III, ‘Platonism’, comprising chapters 6 and 7, examines two well known alternatives to his views: the Platonic impersonal self, and the self as a subject-less bundle. The latter chapter in particular examines differentiation of individuals by qualities, place and matter, and juxtaposes Aristotle and Aquinas’ defence of personal immortality against Averroes’ rejection. Sorabji does not examine why these alternatives fail or are inadequate accounts.
Part IV on ‘Identity and persona in ethics’, comprises chapters 8-10 and traces the development of the concept of identities and individual personae in ancient philosophy and its implications for practical reasoning, drawing on the views of Stoics such as Cicero and Epictetus, Platonists such as Plutarch, and Aristotle, and examines the relationship between these views and contemporary accounts of the ‘practical self’ in the works of Charles Taylor and others concerned also with narrativity. Central to this section is the discussion of the Aristotelian concept of proairesis, which is fundamental to the account of moral agency of a subject.
Part V on ‘Self-awareness’, comprising chapter 11-14. Sorabji argues that the unity of self-awareness is a function of a single owner and not of a single faculty. He analyses and questions various ancient arguments for the claim that self-awareness is indubitable, focusing on Plotinus, Augustine, and Avicenna (the homo volans argument). It is unclear why these arguments are somewhat inferior to his assertion of the unitary subject that is the embodied self. Taking Avicenna, and other arguments in Islamic philosophy, the self that is the rational soul possesses a faculty that is a unity-in-diversity and also remains a subject that is a unity-in-diversity with respect to its ontological status within the pyramid of being. What is perhaps missing from this account is the argument in Porphyry and later Islamic traditions of self-knowledge and by extrapolation knowledge of others as a unitive process that both retains and dissolves subjectivity.
Part VI entitled ‘Ownerless streams of consciousness rejected’, comprises chapters 15 and 16 and is the core of the critique of Parfit's account of persons in terms of psychological continuity, placed alongside Indian debates on personhood, drawing upon Nyaya’s affirmation of a subject for consciousness in opposition to Buddhist ‘psychological streams’ and the ‘empty self’. Here. Sorabji deploys Vātsyāyana’s concept of ‘I touch what I see’ against Nāgārjuna’s emptiness and abandonment of persons.
The final part ‘Mortality and the loss of self’, comprising chapters 17-19, examines whether or not the fear of personal annihilation is irrational and how we might survive in three modes: resurrection, reincarnation and disembodied survival. The last option he finds particularly problematic because of his rejection of differentiation and individuality in absence of the body, and yet this is the position that many mediaeval philosophers, especially in the Islamic tradition defended rigorously on Aristotelian grounds. The first option is merely unscientific. But what do we make of the fear of non-existence in the future? He argues that the horror of annihilation is irrational (which will be of little consolation), while allowing for the possibility of circular time and backward causation (drawing on Dummett for this point). Philosophy cannot eliminate horror but it could stem it from growing. He puts forward an old argument: since we do not feel horror at a prior non-existence, we should not feel horror at our posterior non-existence. But this assumes that we believe that we had no previous existence prior to our embodied self, a point outright rejected by the Platonic tradition and by philosophers in the Islamic tradition such as Suhrawardī and Mullā Ṣadrā.
At times, Sorabji is rather uneven in his judgements and he does not address two key questions: what exactly does it mean to ‘own’ psychological states, and why is the concept of the self as ‘me and me again’ (as he points out early on) not a case of what the mediaevals called mental existence? It seems that there is some conflation of metaphysics and psychology involved. Furthermore, while he states at the outset that the existence of the self does not require proof but disproof, one wonders whether this would really satisfy the analytic thinkers whom he criticises. The two alternatives to his account of the self, namely the self as a stream of ownerless consciousness and the self as a disembodied and immortal rational being, are never conclusively refuted. Despite these reservations, this is quite an excellent volume from which one will no doubt learn much, and the juxtaposition of ancient thinkers to mediaevals and moderns, Islamic thinkers along with Buddhists demonstrates an awesome mastery of different philosophical traditions and a deep learning. The argument is clear, coherent and precise and the presence of a few gaps and assumptions left unexplained does not detract from the achievement.
Thursday, June 26, 2008
Comparative philosophy can be quite a task, a challenge for the reader who is likely to be more familiar with one of the elements of comparison rather than the other, and a challenge for the author to communicate what is philosophically commensurate between the traditions. Christian Kanzian and Muhammad Legenhausen’s collection addressing the nature of substance in the European and Iranian philosophical traditions is a step towards a serious analytic engagement with comparative philosophy, discursive, analytical and exegetical.
The significance of this volume lies not in the challenging, exciting and innovative nature of its contents but in the very act of dialogue between ‘Islamic and Western philosophy’ proposed. As an output of the 29th International Ludwig Wittgenstein Symposium in Kirchberg, Austria, and as a result of a collaboration between the University of Innsbruck and the Imam Khomeini Education and Research Institute in Qum, the volume attempts to articulate positions and approaches to philosophical problems that may facilitate a real dialogue between traditions of philosophy that have common roots but rather different historical trajectories over the past few hundred years. The editors have deliberately chosen a topic that historically has been of interest both in Islamic philosophical circles and in the European tradition, namely the central feature of Aristotelian categoriology on the nature of substances and accidents (or rather attributes in more contemporary language). As an endeavour, one can see this as one of the attempts by Iranian intellectuals to seek cultural and intellectual exchange, a process that has been ongoing for a decade at least, especially signalled by former President Mohammed Khatami's call for a 'dialogue between civilizations' which reached fruition in a number of philosophical conferences not least the massive World Congress on Mulla Sadra in Tehran in May 1999 at which around 700 academics from Europe and North America participated along with their Iranian counterparts (although one ought to point out that it is not a result of Khatami’s process). Mulla Sadra, the seventeenth century thinker well known to students of Islamic intellectual history, along with the more recent Qum-based philosopher ʿAllāmeh Muḥammad Ḥusayn Ṭabāṭabāʾī (d. 1981), are precisely the thinkers with whom the editors think the European traditions should be better acquainted. As a proper dialogue, some of the European contributors tackle the thought of Islamic philosophers and some of the Iranians examine elements of Aristotle and Aquinas.
However, because of the task that the editors have set, most of the contributions are rather exegetical. There is little here that either breaks new ground in analysis of aspects of the Aristotelian traditions or its Christian and Muslim modifications and expositions in later history. In its approach to Islamic philosophy, it also betrays, on the whole, an old fashioned approach to the subject demonstrated, for example, in the special issue of The Philosophical Forum in 1972, the American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly in 1999 and Topoi in 2002, namely a concern with topics and philosophical issues that were broadly of interest in the mediaeval European tradition and which, apart from some Catholic departments, remain beyond the concern of most departments of philosophy. Furthermore, the volume really represents a dialogue between analytical Thomism and the analyticizing
The volume comprises fifteen chapters. Hans Burkhardt considers the structural features of substance in the thought of Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz as reflections upon Aristotle’s theory of categories and the ‘ontological square’, and as attempts to further the analysis beyond the scholastic discussion of categories before Descartes. Mohammad Fanaei Eshkivari explains one of the central features of the metaphysics of Mullā Ṣadrā, the theory of motion in substance that violates the basic Aristotelian vision of substance. As such, the theory is an explicit rejection of Aristotelian and Avicennan category theory and potentially of great interest to those in process metaphysics because it signals a shift from substance to process as the primary ontological unit. Unfortunately, Eshkivari does not indicate this. Narjes Soumeahsaraei’s piece is rather different from the others as it is more straightforward and informative. It sketches the interest in the issue of substance and accident among graduate students in
Tomasz Kakol’s piece on Aquinas’ proof for the uniqueness of God is a classic example of the analytical Thomistic tradition in its endeavour to formalise (using the tools of symbolic logic) Thomistic arguments through careful textual analysis. Hans Kraml discusses one of the few dissidents from the Aristotelian (or Aristotelianising) tradition in the volume, namely William of Ockham. Kraml sees parallels between Ockham’s critique of essentialism and advocacy of the univocity of being and Mullā Ṣadrā’s espousal of the ontological priority of being and the mystical notion of waḥdat al-wujūd. This is quite a safe conjecture (despite his feeling that wujūd in Arabic renders existence and not being, a rather odd insistence which betrays a lack of familiarity with philosophical discussions on the nature of wujūd). At least one recent Iranian philosopher, Mahdi Haeri Yazdi (d. 1999), an analytical thinker of the school of Mullā Ṣadrā with a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Toronto, argued in his work that waḥdat al-wujūd and even Mullā Ṣadrā’s particular definition of wujud should be described as the univocity of being. One of the editors, Muhammad Legenhausen, examines Avicenna’s arguments against the proposition that God is a substance. This is one of the strongest pieces in the volume. It argues that unlike Aristotle's insistence upon ousia as the primary reference of being qua being, Avicenna demonstrates a greater taste for the abstract. Legenhausen also engages with aspects of the debate on Avicenna’s ‘essentialism’ and, informed by the later Iranian tradition, argues that Avicenna proposes that essences (or whatnesses as he prefers) are somehow unreal and only mentally posited. Mental existence is one of the more creative aspects of metaphysics in Islamic traditions and would be a worthy topic for a future volume of ‘dialogue’.
Michael Loux, the only contributor who is based in the
Overall, I find the volume to be a bit disappointing. It does not adequately signal new trends in philosophy in
Addendum: Muhammad Legenhausen responded to some of my points in a private e-mail:
1) He disputes the point that the collection is outdated and exegetical and insists that the analytic tradition is returning to the question of substance. Of course, whether they are reviving in interest in the Aristotelian and mediaeval conceptions of substance is a different matter.
2) He is not convinced by the neglect of a process metaphysical (and theological) need to address features of Mulla Sadra's thought as he thinks the similarities with Whitehead are superficial.
3) He also disputes my point that most of the papers are primarily exegetical.
Friday, May 23, 2008
On this brief trip, I’m consulting a couple of mss of Mullā Shamsā Gīlānī (d. c. 1088H), a student of Mīr Dāmād. MS New Series Arabic 62 is his valuable set of glosses on the later commentary (sharḥ jadīd) upon Naṣīr al-Dīn Ṭūsī’s Tajrīd al-iʿtiqād of ʿAlī al-Qūshjī as well as upon the glosses (taʿlīqāt) of Shams al-Dīn Khafrī (d. c. 1550), the Shirazi philosopher upon the text. It focused on maqṣad III on the proof of the existence of God, one of the most popular sections of the Tajrīd which were glossed. The other is a majmūʿa of Mullā Shamsā’s work on the question of creation (ḥudūth al-ʿālam) – MS New Series Arabic 994. This includes a short and valuable discussion of the nature of divine knowledge, a discussion that was also central to Khafrī’s comments on maqṣad III of the Tajrīd. I really need to return to my proposed book on Time and Creation and hence this is a gesture towards that.
Sunday, February 17, 2008
Those who understand the intellectual history of the world of Islam after Ghazālī (d. 1111) tend to recognise that philosophical inquiry coupled with systematic theology and a mystic’s desire to attain non-propositional and immediate knowledge of the divine remained a central concern of Imāmī learned culture.
The central figure in the mediaeval period who promoted the rational and metaphysical turn, influenced by the outstanding philosopher Avicenna (d. 1037), the prominent Muʿtazili thinker Abū-l-Ḥusayn al-Baṣrī (d. 1085) and the prominent Imāmī philosopher-scientist Naṣīr al-Dīn Ṭūsī (d. 1274), was al-Ḥasan b. Yūsuf Ibn Muṭahhar al-Ḥillī usually known as al-ʿAllāma (1250–1325, q.v. Ḥellī at www.iranica.com). While there is a large literature on him in Arabic and Persian, much of which is rather hagiographical, one useful introduction to his thought and his intellectual contribution is Sabine Schmidtke’s published Oxford D.Phil dissertation. Much of her work was based on manuscript research. However, now that practically all of his texts are available in editions (some more critical and reliable than others), it would be useful for someone to take up a more thorough study of his thought and locate it within the intellectual history of philosophical and theological inquiry in Imāmī Shiʿism. To facilitate this, I want to indicate some of his works in falsafa and kalām that may be worth studying (I set aside for the moment his polemical kalām works such as Minhāj al-karām fī-l-imāma, Nahj al-ḥaqq wa-kashf al-ṣidq and Alfayn even though they do engage in a rational critique of Ashʿarī thought):
1) Manāhij al-yaqīn fī uṣūl al-dīn – early but comprehensive completed in 1281 and bears the influence of Baṣrī; it was published in Qum in 1995 by Muḥammad Riḍā Anṣārī-ye Qummī;
2) Nuẓum al-barāhīn and his commentary on it Maʿārij al-fahm fī sharḥ al-nuẓum which was completed in 1280; this was recently edited in Qum and published in 2006;
3) Anwār al-malakūt fī sharḥ al-yāqūt, completed in 1285 commenting upon a short and relatively unknown work of a Nawbakhtī entitled al-Yāqūt, published by Intishārāt-i Bīdār in Qum in 1984, later his student al-Aʿrajī wrote a critical supercommentary which was published by Mīrās-i maktūb in Tehran in 1996;
4) His most famous work Kashf al-murād fī sharḥ tajrīd al-iʿtiqād, a commentary on the pithy Tajrīd of his teacher Ṭūsī was completed around 1297 and remains a seminary textbook; there are many printings of the book, one of the best is the Qum edition of 1988 with the glosses of the contemporary philosopher Ḥasanzāda Āmulī;
5) Taslīk al-nafs ilā ḥaẓīrat al-quds, a shortish work completed in 1304 which potentially could be used as a school-text; it was edited by Fāṭima Ramaḍānī and published in
6) Nihāyat al-marām fī ʿilm al-kalām, incomplete and what he have was completed in 1320; the mature expression of his theology and published by Subḥānī, edited by Fāḍil ʿIrfān in 1999 in 3 volumes;
7) and al-Bāb al-ḥādī ʿashar, perhaps his last work completed in 1323 and for many years the elementary of the Shiʿi seminary; this text is usually printed with the commentary of al-Miqdād al-Siyūrī and edited by Mehdi Mohaghegh and has been printed in
Philosophy (excluding logic – there is an interesting commentary on the Topics of which there is a unicum in Tehran University Central Library and has been edited by Ahmed al-Rahim as part of his Yale Ph.D.):
1) al-Asrār al-khafiyya fī –l-ʿulūm al-ʿaqliyya, completed in 1280 and his most significant work in this area; published
2) Īḍāḥ al-maqāṣid fī sharḥ ḥikmat al-ʿayn, completed in 1295 on the school-text of Dabīrān Kātibī Qazwīnī (d. 1267); published in
3) Kashf al-khifāʾmin kitāb al-shifāʾ, incomplete commentary on the metaphysics of the famous Avicennan text of which only a section of the commentary on the categories remains (MS Chester Beatty,