Saturday, May 14, 2016

Avicennism, the Problem of the Intellect and Cross-Cultural Philosophy

Recently on the pages of the New York Times, in their philosophy blog The Stone, there was an interesting piece about the parochial nature of many anglo-American analytic philosophy departments. See here for the piece. Jay Garfield, an eminent specialist in Buddhist philosophy in particular, and Bryan van Norden, equally significant in the study of Chinese philosophy, raised the barely hidden secret of the problem of diversity in philosophy as a discipline. What this demonstrates is that those trained in analytic methods are perfectly capable of engaging in other traditions and considering the question of what constitutes a cultural tradition of philosophy. But not always so. Similarly those of us engaged in the study of philosophy in Islamic contexts need to take our field of inquiry out of the ghetto of Islamic studies and oriental studies. 

It is in this context that one of the most exciting works of recent times has been penned by Mohammad Azadpur, professor at San Francisco State University, on a novel way of reading the work of the eminent medieval Islamic thinker Abū ʿAlī Ibn Sīnā (d. 1037): Reason Unbound

Azadpur has written an engaging and quite bold intervention in the ‘Avicenna’ debate. Should one read Avicenna as a mystagogue, a Sufi with a deep commitment to philosophy as a religious way of life in which he privileges mystical intuition over discourse and ratiocination, or is Avicenna merely the foremost empirical rationalist of the Islamic tradition, a Locke before his time? Each of these positions tends to gloss over the specifics of the Avicennan texts and has a complicated relationship with the commentary traditions upon his work, in particular the Shifāʾ and the Ishārāt which remained the primary school texts in the madrasa curriculum of the Islamic East until the colonial period. Aligned to these ‘extreme’ positions is a question of method: how and to what end should be study Avicenna? Are we interested in Avicenna as a pivotal moment in the history of philosophy and hence we ought to adopt the methods of intellectual history or at least medieval philosophy (the Greek into Arabic into Latin approach) or should we engage with him as a philosopher or at least as a thinker, perhaps even a sage? Both the title of the book as well as Azdapur’s very first sentence make his approach quite clear: ‘Reason unbound’ suggests that a ratiocinative approach to thought in Avicenna is impoverished, and his desire to read Avicenna is motivated by the need to understand the modern reception of Avicenna and its importance for a critique of modern Western philosophy’. Therefore what is at stake is the definition of philosophy as such – and the way in which he draws in a qualified sense upon the reading of Pierre Hadot is clear – as well as a critique of Western metaphysics particularly through the prism of Heidegger’s work. While this might to an extent accord with Christian Jambet’s recent and important intervention on the nature of philosophy in Islam (Qu’est-ce que la philosophie islamique, Gallimard, 2011), it is certainly discordant with other recent work on Avicenna such as Interpreting Avicenna edited by Peter Adamson (Cambridge University Press, 2013). Therefore, for philosophers interested in cross-cultural and comparative philosophy, it is quite a thought-provoking contribution, which was debated in Comparative Philosophy volume 3 issue 2 in 2013, with contributions from Sarah Pessin, a specialist on Neoplatonism, Nader el-Bizri, a Heideggerian who works on Avicenna and classical Arabic philosophy and science, and Therese Cory, a specialist on medieval philosophy. Pessin wonders whether the ‘Thomist’ assumptions of much reading of Islamic philosophy is not just being supplanted by another and wonders about the role of taʾwīl (about which Azadpur says little). El-Bizri is broadly receptive and impressed with the desire to reflect upon the spiritual in philosophy. Cory puts him in dialogue with medieval theories of cognition and worries about philosophical elitism.  

Drawing upon Hadot’s paradigm of philosophy as a way of life and a set of spiritual exercises (and one should remember John Cooper’s caveat that Hadot’s universalization of a position from a rather slender textual basis). Azadpur argues that the Islamic Peripatetic project initiated by al-Fārābī and Avicenna continues the late antique (à la Hadot) conception of philosophy with the modification that the cultivation of the soul/self – what Foucault influenced by Hadot called le souci de soi – culminated in a psychological account of the nature of prophecy. In that sense philosophy in Islamic Peripateticism was ‘prophetic’. Central to this prophetic turn was not just an ethical commitment to virtue as knowledge (itself blandly an Aristotelian observation) but also a process of taʾwīl or art of interpretation of the scripture in the direction of philosophical reasoning. Since the philosophical care of the soul culminated in prophecy, it was the latter that bridged not just the divine with the human (since it was through prophets that theologically speaking God spoke to humans and made a certain vision of reality communicable and concrete) but also the rational with the supra-rational or the discursive with the intuitive. This leads to the critique of Western philosophy through Heideggerian phenomenology: the mind is directly (contra Kant’s denial of unmediated experience) linked to the world and the role of philosophy is to clear obstacles that may cloud the mind’s awareness of its context. Whether this necessarily avoids both foundational epistemology (in the way critiqued famously by Richard Rorty in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature) or naïve realism are questions that, perhaps, remain. It does, however, suggest how a reading via Hadot of the sources can accord with a Heideggerian understanding of reality.

After the introduction, Azadpur presents five chapters or steps of his argument and a conclusion. The introduction itself is a rather straightforward presentation of Hadot and a critique of existing approaches to the study of Islamic peripateticism: first, he raises the well known critique of Straussian esoteric reading in which it is assumed that philosophy in a religious context exists in a hostile environment and hence thinkers needed to be very careful in their formulation; second, what I would call the Greek into Arabic approach or perhaps now the ‘Gutas’ school which considers Avicenna to be a rationalist par excellence, a Muslim by accident; third, he also disagrees with Nasr’s consideration that the Peripatetics divorced theory from practice. In all of this, Azadpur is influenced by a well-known article of Muhsin Mahdi (published in the pages of this journal), interestingly himself a Straussian, on how much of the study of Islamic philosophy is motivated by Orientalist categories of thought and approach. So far, so fairly straightforward: the key issue of contention is rationality and the notion of philosophy. In chapter two he turns of Corbin and Heidegger (via MacDowell and Dreyfus) on phenomenology and the problem of how to access ‘das Ding an sich’. The turn to things in themselves is also a turn to oneself and a more reflective consideration of one’s context and involvement in the world, in being. Authenticity is merely a recognition of this awareness and one avoids naïve realism because that awareness does not commit oneself to the ‘myth of the given’: MacDowell’s form of realism posits not only that we construct the world we inhabit through our conceptions but also that the conceptual scheme in part of the world that we inhabit and in effect makes us. Chapter three starts from this ethical consideration and turns towards the technologies of the self in the thought of al-Fārābī and Avicenna. They began with the ethical understanding and indeed end of philosophy – the acquisition of eternal felicity pertaining to the existence of a soul – and through the account of intellection (and the transcendent role of the active intellect) to the culmination of the psychological account of prophecy. It is therefore the Prophet’s ability and perfection of the soul, which presents an exemplar for the philosopher of what is possible. It also demonstrates how thought is not just ratiocination but also imagination (itself the highest faculty of the intellect) as evident in the practice of the Prophet. Spiritual exercises play a role in the cultivation. The next chapter moves onto the examination of the notion of imagination and poesis (through the prophet) as a critique of Kant. He wants the intellect to discipline the imagination in order to receive the epiphany of the ‘spiritual realm’. Contra Kant, he wants the intellect to be more than a mere producer of knowledge; it must prepare and discipline imagination to receive the forms from the angelic realm/the active intellect. Chapter five gives a case study of how this works in Avicenna’s famous exegesis on the light verse that engages Ghazālī’s famous critique of Peripateticism and his eventual embrace of it. Chapter six brings us back to Heideggerian phenomenology. This involves a rehearsal of the metaphysics of the rational soul in Avicenna and in particular his famous flying human thought experiment. The function of the flying human is to make the subject aware of herself – and self-awareness is central to Heidegger’s involvement in being. This is why one needs Prophets and human exemplars to show us the work; that plays the role of Heidegger’s (in Corbin’s terms) being-towards-beyond-death.

In his conclusion, he returns to the importance of Peripateticism as an antidote to notions in modern philosophy that reduce philosophising to rational naturalism – though that already exists in various modes of the continental tradition. In effect, Azadpur is supporting the argument of the Corbin school that Islamic philosophy and its critique is more at home with the holistic, agonistic, being-centred continental traditions of philosophy as opposed to the hard ‘rationalism’ of the anglo-American analytic tradition (if increasingly in these times, it makes any sense to perpetuate such a clear division). The second conclusion is that Peripateticism’s care of the self and holistic approach to theory and practice is actually continued in later Islamic philosophy: philosophy as the practice of hermeneutic spiritual exercises is central to the tradition from Suhrawardī and beyond. If anything the phenomenology and prophetological approach to spiritual exercises was more explicit in Suhrawardī and Mullā Ṣadrā. While Azadpur presents a new long tradition of Islamic thought, I would tend to break down and emphasise the discontinuities as well not least because the thinkers themselves saw it that way. Suhrawardī explicitly considered himself to be reviving Plato and critiquing the wrong ‘rational’ turn of Avicenna, and his own commentators such as Ibn Kammūna thought they were engaged in a ‘new philosophy’. Similarly Mullā Ṣadrā’s approach while committed to philosophy as a way of life, also considers Avicenna to have failed in that endeavour (in fact there is more continuity with al-Fārābī whose Epistle on the Intellect as well as the pseudo-Fārābian Fuṣūṣ fī-l-ḥikma and al-Jamʿ bayn raʾyay al-ḥakīmayn play an important role in Mullā Ṣadrā’s corpus).  

Ultimately this is the work of someone interested deeply in comparative philosophy or the philosophical enterprise as such – and perhaps the very notion that one cannot do philosophy without a more global approach that takes in different traditions. Therefore one cannot understand Heidegger or Kant without Avicenna and Suhrawardī. The study of philosophy, which for most of us means the Anglo-American (post-)analytic traditions, therefore requires that one engage in the non-Western to refine and calibrate our very sense of the philosophical quest. Henry Corbin would certainly have approved.

No comments: