Tuesday 3 September 2002

The Mirror and I (2002)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXX No. 2 Autumn 2002


By Francisco Umpiérrez Sánchez 

Artists prefer palpable objects to conceptual ones.

The reason for this stems from the fact that the former may be seen, heard and touched, whilst the latter may only be thought about. But artists do not show an interest in palpable objects in the same way that practical people far removed from transcendental considerations do, but rather seek in them the beauty of their form and their profound human meaning. In this sense, they have more in common with philosophers, who capture the profound nature of the world through concepts, than with the practical man who is content with the outer and superficial aspect of things. The six thoughts that I shall today present to the reader for their consideration are aimed especially at artists, to show them how something as simple and universal as the relationship between oneself and the mirror hides marvellously dialectical conceptual secrets.

First thought. When one positions oneself in front of a mirror, an act that we perform every morning, one sees oneself reflected in the same. But if one sees oneself in the mirror, it is because one is in the mirror. Therefore, I am not one, as I first believed at the start of this thought, but two: on the one hand, I am me in myself, outside of the mirror, and on the other, I am me in another, in the mirror, outside of myself. This is the first conceptual secret that I discover in this experience: that I do not only exist in myself, but also exist outside of myself.

Second thought. When I exist outside of myself, I do not only exist in the mirror, but also in the retina of the people that see me, in the photographs of relations that remember me and in the consciousness of friends in whose dreams I appear. Therefore, I in myself am one, but outside of myself, I am many. This is the second conceptual secret that I discover in this experience: that I multiply myself, that one becomes many.

Third thought. If tomorrow, by a simple stroke of fate, I were to die, I in myself would no longer exist, but outside of myself I would remain in existence: in photographs, in the dreams of the living, and in wax or marble if, with the passing of time, society should wish to erect a statue of me. Therefore, I in myself am transitory, but outside of myself I become eternal. This is the third conceptual secret that I discover in this experience: that that which is fleeting becomes eternal. 

Fourth thought. I, in myself, am not as I am outside of myself: in myself I am body and I am appearance, but outside of myself, in the mirror, I am solely appearance. The first and second thoughts gave me the immense joy of recognising that I existed and multiplied myself outside of myself, but now I am surprised to find out that when this occurs, when I exist outside of myself, I experience the loss of my much craved body. This is the fourth conceptual secret that I discover in this experience: that we lose the body when we come to exist outside of ourselves.

Fifth thought. The man in the mirror, who until now had remained silent, takes his turn to speak: it is natural and understandable that you are concerned about the fate of your body, given that you are finite and fear death, but for me such a worry does not exist. I know that I need a body in which to exist, but it is immaterial to me which body this is: it may be your body of flesh and bone, the glass in the mirror or a piece of marble. 

Therefore, I am always one and the same, whilst my bodies are many and various. 
This is the fifth conceptual secret that I discover in this experience: if in the second thought my body was one and my appearance was multiple, in this fifth thought the situation is reversed: my appearance is one and the body is multiple. 

Sixth thought. In this last thought, the man in the mirror takes the initiative once more: 'You believe that your body is the true substance and subject of this process and that your appearance is nothing more than one of your features or attributes, in the same way as your weight or your speech. But you are mistaken: the true substance and subject of this process is me, your appearance, whilst your body is nothing more than one of your features or attributes in the same way as the glass in the mirror or the piece of wax or marble'. This is the sixth and last conceptual secret that I discover in this experience: that the subject becomes an attribute and the attribute the subject. 

Address for correspondence:

Francisco Umpiérrez Sánchez
(Director of Cekam)
Las Palmas

email: <fumsa@msn.com> 

Monday 2 September 2002

Hegel and Islam (2002)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXX No. 2 Autumn 2002

An Arabic manuscript from the 13th century depicting Socrates (Soqrāt) in discussion with his pupils


By Muhammed Khair 

 Hegel, and the Marxist materialist elaboration of the young Hegelian tradition, has been central to Twentieth Century history. This has been in spite of the hostility from the Anglo-Saxon analytical tradition, and innate insular conservatism, which has found continental-style speculative philosophy and social radicalism anathema. A bifurcation that continued with the existentialism of Heidegger... It seems this traditions finds the language of Hegel and Heidegger turgid and overblown.

So when it comes to Islam as seen by Hegel, Anglo-Saxons have a blind spot. Standard works on Hegel, like that of the Canadian Hegelian Charles Taylor (Fellow of All Souls, Oxford), ignored Hegel's observations on Islam in his Philosophy of History, based on a series of lectures in 1822 and published posthumously by his son. (And compare this with his most famous work on the Phenomenology of the Spirit published in 1807!) But Hegel has an interesting and illuminating short chapter on Islam, somewhat incongruously located in the final section on the German world and not, as one might expect, in the earlier section on the Oriental world. This in itself begs the question as to Islam's place in world history.

For a recent work which hints at the true locus of Islam one must turn to the Bosnian academic Muslim - and its first president - an intellectual who can be compared to Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic. Aliya Ali Izetbegovic it is, who entitled his work Islam between East and West and located Islam in the spatial and temporal congruence between the sacred and the secular, a phenomenon that appears as it does in the 7th century of the Christian Era, seen now in the full light of history.

Scholars in the past have found Islam to be a product of late Classicism, like Christianity arising out of the Levant and heavily indebted to neo-Platonism, and only gradually Orientalised as its centre of gravity moved from Syria (in the 7th century CE) to Mesopotamia (Iraq), and as its rulers changed from Arabs (who had heavily invested in the translation project of the Greek philosophic corpus into Arabic) to neophyte newcomers from Turkish Central Asia (see the Tunisian writer Hichem Djait's Hegelian Study of Europe and Islam, University of California of Press translation, 1985).

Paradoxically, the first great philosopher in Arabic was a Central Asian Turk, Al Farabi (d.950). But, the Turkish newcomers to the Muslim Near East, initially military mercenaries, clung to religious orthodoxy and an orientalised Islamic civilisation. Before this, under the earlier Abbasids, Arab Islam, confident under the height of Arab classicism (Al Mamun and Harun-al-Rashid) experimented with religious rationalism (Mutazila) as its official ideology, but the somewhat heavy-handed approach in seeking to impose it on religious scholars and jurists brought on a conservative reaction which sought to free God's saving power from the shackles of causality (Asharites and the Hanbalite School of Law). Thus from metaphysics the stress moved to a sort of conservative and Pharisaic legalism.

For Hegel, the trajectory of history as an expression of World Spirit moved from the Oriental where only the ruler was free, via classicism where some were free, to the Germanic world of Western Europe where the movement was towards universal freedom through participation in the State. The old feudal structures of the Holy Roman Empire had been, in Hegel's time, broken up by the onset of the French revolution and which carried over into all Europe by Napoleon.

For the young Hegel, Napoleon was the personification of 'History on Horseback'. Hegel, a Swabian (Wurtenberger) from South West Germany across the Rhine from France, was born the same year as Beethoven (who had originally composed his epochal Eroica symphony dedicated to Napoleon) and Hölderlin, Germany's greatest lyric poet. Just as for Francis Fukuyama, Japanese-American mandarin, a neo-Hegelian, the Anglo-Saxon liberal consumerist society was the end of history, so for Hegel it was the anticipation of the Germanic state which ideally was the culmination of history. This may have been a paean to the past, since Hegel recalls the classical adage that the owl of Minerva takes wing at dusk. Philosophical reflexive wisdom arrives at the end of a process, a life, a culture, or a civilisation, though it may also anticipate a new dawn.

But what did Hegel have to say about Islam? In his section on the German World in chapter II (quaintly entitled Mahometanism) Hegel compares the historic trajectory of the west and Islam:
'While the West began to shelter itself in the political edifice of chance entanglement and particularity [Hegel had been thinking of his own middle-European feudal legacy of the Holy Roman Empire before it was blown away by the Napoleonic whirlwind] the very opposite direction necessarily made its appearance in the world, to produce the balance of the totality of spiritual manifestation. 
This took place in the Revolution of the East, which destroyed all particularity and dependence, and perfectly cleared up and purified the soul and disposition; making the abstract One (God) the absolute object of attention and devotion, and to the same extent pure subjective consciousness - the Knowledge of this One alone the only aim of reality: making the Unconditioned (das Verhaltnisslose) the condition (Verhaltniss) of existence.'
In stating this Hegel was recognising Islamic monotheism as the purest and most universalist type which the Christian Trinity compromised and the Judaic Yahweh had particularised as a tribal God.

Hegel compares this revolution in the Islamic East to the oriental principal even further east where in Buddhism the Highest Being is only negative (Nirvana) that with it the positive imparts an abandonment to nature (a nature more profuse in South East Asia than in the empty deserts of the Middle East where the monotheistic Absolute was conceived), an enslavement of Spirit to the world of realities. 'Only among the Jews have we observed the principal of Pure Unity elevated to thought - in the adoration paid to the One, as an object of thought', but Jehovah was only the God of one people - the God of Abraham, of Isaac and Jacobin. An exclusive covenant (a covenant that is incidentally at the root of the present Arab-Jewish conflict over Palestine).

But this speciality of relation was done away with in Mahometanism. In this spiritual universality, in this unlimited and indefinite purity and simplicity of conception, human personality has no other aim than the realisation of this universality and simplicity. Allah has not the affirmative, limited aim of the Judaic God. The worship of the One is the final aim of Mahometanism, and objectivity has this worship for the sole occupation of its activity - with the design to subjugate secular existence to the One. This One has the quality of Spirit but is deprived of its concrete predicate.
Islam is not monastic immersion to the Absolute. Subjectivity here is living and unlimited - to promote the pure adoration of the One.

The object of Moslem worship is pure intellectual; no image, no representation of Allah is tolerated. Mahomet is a prophet but still a man. The leading features of Islam involve this - that in actual existence nothing can become fixed, but everything is destined to expand itself in activity and life in the boundless amplitude of the world, so that the worship of the One remains the only bond by which the whole is capable of uniting. In this expansion, this active energy, all limits, all national and caste distinctions vanish; no particular race, political claim of birth or possession is regarded - only man as a believer. To adore the One, to believe in Him, to fast - to remove the sense of speciality and consequent separation from the Infinite arising from corporeal limitation - to give alms - that is to get rid of particular possessions, this is the essence of Islam; but the highest merit is to die for the Faith.

Their object is to establish an abstract worship - their enthusiasm was Fanaticism, enthusiasm for something abstract. A desolating destructive relation to the concrete, but most of Islam was at the same time capable of the greatest elevation - an elevation free from petty interest, united with all the instance that appertain to magnanimity and valour.

While Europeans are involved in a multitude of relations - in Islam the individual has one passion and that alone, superlatively cruel, cunning, bold or generous. Where sentiment of love exists there is an equal abandon to the most fervid. This reckless fervour shows itself in the glowing warmth of Arab and Saracen poetry. Never has enthusiasm performed greater deeds. An abstract, all comprehending enthusiasm, finding its limits nowhere, is that of the Muslim East. The learned men of the Empire assembled at the Caliphís court, which not merely shone with the outward pomp but was resplendent with the glory of poetry and all the sciences.

In the struggle with the Saracens, European valour had idealised itself to a fair and noble chivalry. Science and Knowledge, especially that of philosophy, came from the Arabs to the West. A noble poetry and free imagination was kindled among the Germans by the East, directed Goethe's attention to the Orient and occasioned 'Divan' which in warmth and felicity of fancy cannot be surpassed.

But what of the Islamic world contemporary to Hegel?

And yet the East itself, when by degrees enthusiasm had vanished, sank into the grossest vice at present driven back into its Asiatic and African quarters tolerated only in one corner of Europe through the jealousy of Christian Powers, Islam has long vanished from the stage of history at large and has retreated into oriental ease and repose.

What of the present - the 21st Century? What lessons can be drawn from the past?

The warrior, patrimonial ethic which so shocked Hegel's German compatriots and their Victorian Protestant sensibilities, such as the sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) and the theologian Rudolph Otto (in Das Heilige) is now over as Muslim societies are transformed by the growth of population and influx of the new petit bourgeoisie into the cities. Their outlook is definitely and generically more puritanical than their warrior and dynastic predecessors. That is why, as I indicated in my introduction to this article, Islam is going through a Pharisaic, legalistic, scripture-centred age. The radicalism comes from a sense of humiliation, frustration and impotence; what Nietzche describes in a similar situation of the Jews amongst the Gentiles as ressentiment.

Everywhere the Muslims look (Palestine, Kashmir, Central Asia) they find their territorial integrity, their true identity, their resources (oil, petrodollars) subordinate and infinitely alienable to Western and neo-imperialists interests.

What with that, and the perception at the closing stages of the Gulf War, and the massacre of 200 000 Iraqi conscripts and civilians, the downing of an airline full of Iranian pilgrims by an American warship in the Gulf during the Iran-Iraq war (when the West's sentiments were pro-Iraqi) with no hint of apology let alone compensation, and the blood-letting of Muslims in the Lebanon and Palestine in what is perceived as Zionist imperialism working hand in glove with the US, Muslim lives are seen as being sold cheap compared to that of Westerners. In these new circumstances, and after the collapse of Marxism, we Muslims can justifiably regard ourselves as the new helot class globally subjected to everyone else's imperialism. Israeli, American, British, Chinese, Russian, Indian - all more organised and stronger than Muslims.

Is this, perhaps, a fulfilment of Simon Huntington's prognostication of confrontation between civilisations? The only solution from the Muslim point of view, to meet the requirements of the age, is not the petit bourgeois demand - a Muslim legalistic (sharia) state with the old-fashioned draconian punishments which contemporary sensibilities will not countenance, but an Islamic bloc from Morocco in the Atlantic to Indonesia in the East; including a permanent seat in the Security Council to prevent the U.N. from being manipulated by the only great power interest, and transform it into a truly global body. This would be an Islamic world capable of holding its ground in global realpolitik. A resentful and impotent Islamic world is rightly regarded by the West as dangerous, but an Islamic bloc, truly independent, would be an equal partner in the world's destiny.

Address for correspondence:

email: muhammedkhair707@hotmail.com.

Averroes Reason (2002)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXX No. 2 Autumn 2002


By Jones Irwin 

Since the terror attacks of 9/ 11, there has been a renewed interest in the nature of Islamic doctrine and thought. Many commentators have pointed to the fact that Fundamentalism is only one aspect of Muslim thought, albeit at this moment in time, a powerful and influential strand.

However, despite such qualifications, little attention has been paid to the historical basis of this claim, i.e. the presence of a rationalist tradition in Islam. In this piece, I will look at what I will suggest is a paradigmatic example of such Islamic reason: the philosophy of Averroes. I will also highlight the significance of Averroes (and wider Islamic thought) for the development of rationalism within the Christian tradition, a factor which has been a major influence on the development of the West as such. By implication, this Islamic contribution to the formation of Western culture also calls into question any hard and fast distinction between the so-called 'progressive' West and 'backward' East.

Any analysis of Medieval Philosophy must take account of the extraordinary relationship which existed between philosophy and theology during this entire period. Although standard interpretations present Christianity as the dominant theological influence in this context, a fairer analysis must point to the constant inter-relationship and co-dependence which existed between the respective theological traditions of Islam, Judaism and Christianity.

Moreover, this strong influence did not lead to philosophy becoming the 'handmaiden' of theology, as many critics claim. On the contrary, in many instances the philosophical tendencies of medieval thinkers led them to interpret their own theological beliefs in specific ways. Thus in Early Christianity, for example, the influence of Plato's philosophical criticisms of art can be seen at work in Augustine's view of the imagination as profane. Additionally, one can wonder as to whether Augustine's view of original sin would have been so negative if he had not imbibed the Platonic conception of the Fall of the soul.

The fusion of Hellenic and Biblical elements made Christian philosophy, particularly in its Augustinian guise, a subtle and influential metaphysic, both in the medieval period and well beyond (for example, both Calvin and Luther were to cite Augustine as a major precursor). However, it is an undeniable fact that the most profound development of Christian philosophy took place under an external influence, that of medieval Islamic thought.

Whereas Early Christianity was primarily Platonic in orientation (under the influence of both Plato's works and those of his neo-Platonic disciple, Plotinus), later medieval thinking began to look to Plato's successor, Aristotle, for philosophical guidance. Centres of Greek learning in Mesopotamia, Syria and Egypt were responsible for the survival of Aristotle's works in the West during this time. Most texts were translated from the original Greek into an intermediate Syriac version and then into Arabic. Later, when many of the original Greek texts were lost, it was these Arabic versions which provided the foundation for the re-translation back into late medieval Latin.

When one considers the immense influence of Aristotelianism on later medieval Christianity and Judaism, and indeed succeeding Western history, it is instructive to remember this historical debt to the East.

But the real intellectual contribution of medieval Islam to Western culture is less in terms of translation and more in terms of independent philosophical analysis.

There are three great Islamic philosophers before Averroes; Alfarabi (870-930), Avicenna (980-1037) and Algazali (1058-1111). I argue that Alfarabi is the least important of these, primarily significant because he is a pioneer in the invocation of Aristotle as a philosophical authority (thus paving the way for the Golden Age of Muslim Aristotelianism). He is said to have believed in the unity of the thought of Plato and Aristotle and his work shows a confluence of their theories, for example, in his claim that God is simultaneously identical with the 'neo-Platonic One' and with Aristotle's 'Self-Thinking Thought'.

With Avicenna however, we find the development of an Islamic philosophy more independent of theological constraints as well as an Aristotelianism less apologetic to supposed Platonic doctrine. Thus, Avicenna rejects the conception of a divine creation of the world in time (God is contemporaneous with the world) and follows Aristotle in considering the primary aim of philosophy to be the study of being qua being.

Algazali represents a critical backlash against the Aristotelianism of Avicenna, within the Islamic tradition. In his celebrated text The Incoherence of the Philosophers, he attacks the inconsistency of the philosophical positions of Alfarabi and Avicenna with orthodox Koranic interpretation. What makes this work philosophically significant is that it does not rule out the possibility of philosophy de jure, but rather points to the misuse of philosophy by both of his predecessors. In particular, he was concerned with the philosophical theories of the eternity of the world and the denial of bodily resurrection, theories which he regarded not simply as theologically 'heterodox' but as the result of a misapplication of Aristotelian logical methods. It was in this critical context that Averroes' philosophy began to take shape.

Averroes is generally regarded as the greatest of the Islamic philosophers of the Medieval period and indeed one of the greatest Medieval philosophers. Nicknamed 'The Commentator' (because of his incisive commentaries on Aristotle), Averroes' thought has two main strands.

On the one side, he seeks to rid Islamic Aristotelianism of what he reads as a neo-Platonic bias which conflates the very different philosophies of Plato and Aristotle. Here, he is critical of both Alfarabi and Avicenna. On the other side, he is also intent on undermining Algazali's criticisms of Aristotelianism. In his ironically titled (but nonetheless intently serious) response to Algazali, The Incoherence of the Incoherence, Averroes seeks to philosophically defend a consistent Aristotelianism, freed from Neo-platonic residue and theological prejudice. In so doing, he creates a complicated relation between his philosophy and his religious tradition.

In defending a consistent Aristotelianism, Averroes is critical of philosophical compromises made in the name of theological orthodoxy. He grounds this conviction in a three-tiered conception of truth, which privileges what he terms 'demonstrative truth' (i.e. philosophical truth) over what he terms 'dialectical' and 'rhetorical' truth (both of these being under the province of theology). Algazali, for Averroes, confuses the two categories of religious truth with that of philosophical truth, seeking to subordinate the category of reason to the category of revelation. But this is simply to repeat the dogmas of Islamic theology, with little philosophical relevance.

In contrast, the work of Alfarabi and Avicenna lays claim to philosophical relevance and seeks to distance itself from the mere repetition of theological orthodoxy. Nonetheless, according to Averroes, the philosophical systems of Alfarabi and Avicenna both fall into the category of theological rather than philosophical truth. This is perhaps more clearly the case with Alfarabi, whose work shows a certain caution in its attempt to be consistent with Islamic orthodoxy (notably in Alfarabi's defence of the doctrine of creation of the world in time). However, Avicenna had already begun to distance himself from these theological residues and, for example, is explicit in his avowal of the Aristotelian theory of the eternity of the world.

Despite this apparent philosophical progression, Averroes remains critical of what he sees as implicit deferral to orthodoxy on crucial philosophical points. Thus, he censures Avicenna's theory that 'essence precedes existence'. Rather, for Averroes, existence precedes essence. He is also critical of Avicenna's proofs of the existence of God from the relation of necessity to contingency, as this argument imports too much metaphysical baggage for Averroes' liking. Rather, any proofs of God's existence must avoid metaphysics de jure and rely on physical causation alone.

In both these cases, it is arguable that Avicenna is in fact closer to the literal meaning of Aristotle's original texts than Averroes and that Averroes is already moving beyond mere commentary on Aristotle, to something approaching an independent philosophical system. Whatever the truth of this hypothesis, it is undeniable that Averroes has certainly succeeded in releasing Islamic philosophy from the fetters of Islamic theological dogma. In this context, it is perhaps not surprising to find that Averroes did not find too many disciples within Islam itself. His real influence was to lie beyond the boundaries of his own culture.

With hindsight, it is clear that Averroes was too radical a figure to be compatible with any of the religious orthodoxies of the medieval period. His work, which privileges philosophical reason (what he terms 'demonstrative truth') over theological revelation ('dialectical' and 'rhetorical' truth), looks forward to the modern paradigm of an independent rational enquiry. Nonetheless, the influence of his work was powerfully felt in the later medieval period, albeit rather negatively. An understanding of this negative reaction is crucial to an understanding not simply of the development of later medieval thought (in particular, that of Christianity), but to an understanding of the formation of the modern Western identity.

The crucial figure in understanding Averroes in the context of later medieval thought is Siger of Brabant (1240-1284). Siger is referred to as a 'Christian Averroist', a phrase which perfectly captures the assimilation of Islamic thought into later Christianity. The Christian Averroists represented the most radical assimilation of Muslim Aristotelianism, adhering to Averroes' supremacy of reason over revelation and the theory of the eternity of the world. Such heterodox views brought Siger and the Averroists into conflict with the Established Church and many of their propositions were rejected in the Condemnation of 1277.

What is doubly significant is that several of the theories of the more orthodox (and historically influential) Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) were also condemned in 1277. The condemned Thomist propositions were exclusively those which Thomas himself had assimilated from Islamic thought, in particular the view that individuation depended on matter rather than form.

Apart from the explicitly condemned propositions however, it is clear that the 1277 Condemnation is an admission of the extraordinary 'contamination' of pure Christian dogma by Christian philosophy (under the influence of Islamic thought). Without Islamic Aristotelianism there would certainly be no Christian Aristotelianism, and although the Condemnation is an attempt to reinforce the Augustinianism of earlier Christianity, it is the Aristotelianism of Thomas Aquinas which eventually won the day.

The influence of Averroes (and also of Avicenna) on the development of Later Medieval Christian thought is therefore unequivocal. But this intellectual debt to Islam is very rarely mentioned in our times. When one considers the further development of the modern West, based on a paradigm of rational enquiry, it is Averroes who seems to best anticipate this model within the medieval epoch. On both these counts, it seems clear that Averroes truly was a philosophical visionary, anticipating and also influencing progressive developments far beyond his own milieu.

Address for correspondence: