Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A New Anthology of Arabic-Islamic Philosophy in Translation

The study of philosophy in Islam is not exactly a new academic field. The wider interest in philosophy written in Arabic, of course, dates from the medieval period of translation in Spain, a process that had a critical impact on the development of medieval philosophy and scholasticism in Europe. However, while some key texts were translated into Latin and would therefore be accessible to medievalists with knowledge of that language, very little has been translated into European languages that may be profitably used in university courses. In recent years, this situation has somewhat improved with some key texts such as the Metaphysics of Avicenna’s The Cure and al-Ghazali’s The Incoherence of the Philosophers appearing in good, critical English translations (both incidentally undertaken by the same academic Michael Marmura). This anthology produced by Jon McGinnis and David Reisman is a welcome development because it makes accessible a range of key texts covering the spread of philosophical concern in the ‘classical’ period of philosophy in Islam. As they are both Arabists and medievalists with a philosophical training, they have successfully rendered philosophical Arabic into a sophisticated English idiom accessible to students in Islamic thought, medieval studies and the history of philosophy. One may quibble with specific translations of terms and selections of editions on which these translations are based but there is no denying the value of the whole. While attention is paid to the central areas of metaphysics and psychology, McGinnis’ interest in natural philosophy and Reisman’s in semantics and logic are also well represented.

Before discussing aspects of the structure and translation, one needs to deal with the category of ‘classical Arabic philosophy’. The translators do not want to engage in the polemic over whether one ought to call the philosophical tradition Arabic or Islamic. And they are right to do so, to an extent, because the debate has become sterile. The simple compromise adopted is to consider the language of expression as the determinant and ‘classical’ as a periodisation of the reception, modification, responses and development of the Peripatetic tradition. While they distance themselves from an exclusively religious understanding of philosophy in Islam, they do include important theological passages on the nature of divine existence and unity from the falsafa tradition, notably the famous Avicennan argument for God as the necessary existent. Their introduction locates the study of philosophy in Islamic culture between late antiquity and the medieval period, in particular paying attention to the significance of Aristotle as ‘the philosopher’ in the Islamic tradition and the development of Neoplatonism and its historical impact on the classical period. The introduction culminates with a short discussion of speculative theology and its physics and cosmology. For some time, specialists have been arguing for the philosophical value of this tradition, a position with which McGinnis and Reisman agree so it is perhaps surprising to see selections only from the falsafa tradition.

As the authors say, the main principle of selection was to sample major works of philosophers in the broad range of philosophical subjects and to provide translations of works and passages hitherto neglected. There are a few exceptions to this, especially Suhrawardi, and one suspects that this is due to the dissatisfaction with the existing translation. The selections span from al-Kindi’s initial encounter with Aristotelianism in the ninth to Suhrawardi’s critique of Peripatetic philosophy in the twelfth century. Along the way, prime importance is given to al-Farabi’s logical works and his pivotal Aims of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, a text that Avicenna claims was the key to his understanding of Aristotle, to Avicenna’s psychology and metaphysics, and to Averroes’ defence of Aristotelian metaphysics. Welcome additions to the usual range of Arabic philosophy include selections from the ‘Baghdad Peripatetics’ such as the Christians Yahya ibn ‘Adi and Abu Bishr Matta. Notable absences include the Jewish philosophers who wrote in Arabic such as Abu-l-Barakat al-Baghdadi (whose major work the Book of the Explanation of Philosophy is still neglected), Maimonides, and Ibn Kammuna, slightly later than Suhrawardi but in many ways an original and creative philosopher in a critique of Aristotelianism.

In a growing field of study with the paucity of available primary sources in translation, this anthology is greatly welcome and will no doubt become the standard text used in many medieval philosophy, Islamic philosophy and religious studies courses. The translations are fluent and sophisticated and well-supported with endnotes on the Arabic textual emendations and footnotes referring to the wider ancient and medieval context. A useful bibliography is appended and a quite excellent glossary of terms Arabic-English and vice versa. The only serious rival, Muhammad Ali Khalidi’s Medieval Islamic Philosophical Texts (Cambridge), on the whole reworks texts already available in good translations and is more concerned with rendering complete texts than representing the range of philosophical interest. Used alongside good introductory guides such as the Cambridge Companion to Arabic Philosophy (to which the translators have contributed), this anthology could become the base for an excellent course at advanced undergraduate and graduate levels on philosophy in Islam.


Alexander Key said...

I like the blog! I agree with your positive reception of the McGinnis/Reisman collection.

I have two questions:

Question One: when you say "specialists have been arguing for the philosophical value of this tradition" (i.e. kalām) - are you referring to the work of Wolfson and Frank, or do you have more recent work in mind? If the latter, I would be grateful for any references/recommendations.

Question Two: in another post you mentioned Oliver Leaman's 1980 IJMES article "Does the Interpretation of Islamic Philosophy Rest on a Mistake?". It was in searching for responses to that article that I came across your blog. I haven't found much else. It does seem like a minority position, albeit one I am sympathetic with. It reminds me of a MESA roundtable on philosophy where Charles Butterworth (engagingly!) maintained that almost nothing Islamic counted as philosophy other than Farabi because no-one else lived up to his (and our modern) relentless problematisation of assumptions... I disagreed... Can you think of anyone who responded to Leaman's idea?

Alexander Key said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.