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.