Monday, September 28, 2015

Quote of the Week

Until quite recently, Islamic philosophy was regarded as a fringe phenomenon in the broad scope of the history of philosophy, worthy of inclusion only to the extent  that it played a role in the transmission and transformation of the Greek heritage before its final appropriation by the Latin philosophers and theologians from the thirteenth century onwards. While the absence of verifiable contacts between the principal proponents of Islamic and Christian philosophy after Averroes' death in 1198 CE may have legitimated the delegation of the study of the subsequent Islamic tradition to the orientaists, this was often coupled with the more derogatory thesis that there simply was no philosophical activity worthy of the name in the Arabic language after Averroes' allegedly unsuccessful attempt to defend philosophy against Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī's (d. 1111 CE) fatal blow dealt in his critical Tahāfut al-falāsifa.

It has since been conclusively shown that Ghazālī did not put an end to the development of philosophical thought in the Islamic world, either single-handedly or as the spearhead of a wider opposition from orthodox theologians. In fact, the contrary consensus is beginning to emerge according to which he may not even have intended anything of the sort. Instead, Ghazālī has been argued to have knowingly incorporated a great amount of philosophical material, not to mention the philosophical method of rigorous argumentation, into this own though, and to have been followed in this by Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī,another highly venerated Sunnī theologian. Thus, although self-proclaimed philosophers may have grown rare in the subsequent centuries of Islamic thought, philosophical activity prospered in Sunnī thological writing and teaching, quite likely down to our era.

On the other hand, Iran has fostered a thriving philosophical tradition through to the present day. In the light of our increasing knowledge of the development of this field of intellectual activity, it seems a safe estimate to say that post-Avicennian Islamic philosophers were not afraid of making departures comparable in extent to their early modern European peers. This is especially evident in the thought of Suhrawardī and Mullā Ṣadrā whose revisions of received views will be our major concern in the following. Nevertheless, the strictly philosophical value of this tradition is sometimes still obscured  by the fact that some of its most prominent Western scholars have tended to emphasize other, more mystical aspects of the philosophers' thoughts.

Jari Kaukua
Self-Awareness in Islamic Philosophy: Avicenna and Beyond

Jim's comments: The first paragraph is in accord with my own experience. I wrote one of my Master's theses on Islamic philosophy, and planned to do my Ph.D. on it as well -- specifically on the influence of Alexander of Aphrodisias's philosophy of mind on medieval Islamic philosophy of mind, particularly in al-Andalus. That's when I started writing this blog, and that's why I called it Agent Intellect, which is a term that comes from all these texts, commentaries, and commentaries on commentaries. The medievalist at my school was strongly encouraging me in this direction. But then a couple of "old-school" historians of philosophy let it be known (to him, and thus indirectly to me) that they would not accept my Doctoral candidacy if I applied to do it on Islamic philosophy. I've always suspected -- and that's all it is, a suspicion -- that they didn't think Islamic philosophy had anything of value to offer: the Muslims allegedly just held on to the great philosophies of the ancients, making a few developments here and there, but mostly just writing commentaries. I have a 1968 book on my shelves called Scribes and Scholars: A Guide to the Transmission of Greek and Latin Literature. About three pages include Muslim and Arabic contributions to this process, which is just mind-boggling: they should make up 75% of the book.

I think after 9/11 Westerners were desperate to find good things in Islam, and this has resulted in the pendulum swinging to the other end. Now we have people implying that medieval Islam represented all that was good and right in the world until Western civilization came along and wrecked it. I guess this is understandable, but it is, at best, an extreme exaggeration. For example, there was a traveling museum exhibit ten years ago or so that was on Islamic inventions (it started off at 20, then went up to 100 I think). The problem was almost none of the inventions were Islamic. They were inventions from various people groups all over the world who were conquered by Muslims and had their inventions "appropriated". What the museum directors meant to say was inventions that came to Western Europe via Islam, but that wouldn't have portrayed Islam as positively as they wanted (not to mention that the inventions would have got to Europe eventually, even without the Islamic intervention). When people learn that they're being fed half-truths like this, they tend to take other reports of the positive aspects of Islam with a grain of salt. So we need to balance it out by recognizing the real contributions Islam has made to medieval philosophy and science without going overboard by representing medieval Islam as some sort of Golden Age of intellectualism that was just as impressive as the contributions of Western civilization and Christianity.

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