Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Some borrowed remarks...

Leo Strauss (Born 1899)
(Image from Harper's Magazine)

My online buddy Bill Vallicella, who blogs copiously with great vigor and rigor over at his blog Maverick Philosopher, has posted a very interesting quote from the classicist and political philosopher Leo Strauss:

For the Jew and the Moslem, religion is primarily not, as it is for the Christian, a faith formulated in dogmas, but a law, a code of divine origin. Accordingly, the religious science, the sacra doctrina, is not dogmatic theology, theologia revelata, but the science of the law, halaka or fiqh. The science of the law, thus understood has much less in common with philosophy than has dogmatic theology. Hence the status of philosophy is, as a matter of principle, much more precarious in the Islamic-Jewish world than it is in the Christian world. No one could become a competent Christian theologian without having studied at least a substantial part of philosophy; philosophy was an integral part of the officially authorized and even required training. On the other hand, one could become an absolutely competent halakist or faqih without having the slightest knowledge of philosophy. This fundamental difference doubtless explains the possibility of the later complete collapse of philosophical studies in the Islamic world, a collapse which has no parallel in the West in spite of Luther.
Bill takes this quote from pages 221-222 of Strauss's essay "How to Begin to Study Medieval Philosophy," The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism, edited by Thomas L. Pangle (University of Chicago Press, 1989). For those who like this sort of thing, the same quote (minus its last two sentences) can be found as one of the two prefatory quotes to James V. Schall's article "On the Point of Medieval Political Philosophy," published in the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly, 23 (Winter, 2000), 7-14.

I don't know much about this, but I recall from my history-of-science studies reading about the collapse of Islamic philosophy in the High Middle Ages as the Muslim religious establishment rejected such rationalist thinkers as the philosopher Averroes (Ibn Rushd). Based on that and my impression from a wider reading of books, articles, and other sources, I posted a response to the quote from Strauss:
This is an interesting point, but I have a question -- or a series of them.

I can see that the study of law might crowd out philosophy, but why would philosophy collapse in the Islamic world? Why wouldn't it survive as at least a fringe activity? I have the impression that something else is going on in the Islamic world, and that the problem is not just benign neglect -- nor even malign neglect -- but an active hostility to philosophy.

If Pope Benedict is right, then the Islamic conception of God as pure, arbitrary will (a purely voluntarist conception of God) implicitly posits irrationality at the very essence of things -- which might mean that no essence exists. But anyway, if God is irrational, and yet the all-powerful ground(lessness) of existence, then what place is there for philosophy?

I'm not sure if I've expressed this rigorously, but perhaps you get my point.
Interestingly, a Muslim philosopher, Derrick Abdul-Hakim, posted his response by quoting a sentence from my comment, agreeing with it, and describing his own experience:
"I have the impression that something else is going on in the Islamic world, and that the problem is not just benign neglect -- nor even malign neglect -- but an active hostility to philosophy."

I agree. If one were so inclined, one could claim that in the Islamic world philosophy is tantamount to non-belief. I can recall several instances being dubbed a 'heretic' for merely studying philosophy; in fact, one individual had the audacity to instruct me to do psychology instead of philosophy. The enigma is that philosophical theology in the Islamic world fell to the clutches of dogmatic theologians who, having gained the upper hand politically, banished philosophy from the domain of theology. Unfortunately, there is no contemporary Averroes to save the day.

I refer you to Bill's blog for the rest of Abdul-Hakim's interesting personal experiences as a Muslim philosopher.


At 11:40 AM, Anonymous The Pope said...

Thanks for advancing my argument. I've been busy.

Re: "If Pope Benedict is right"...
Maybe someday you'll leave off the "if".

At 12:59 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

My pleasure, Mr. Pope, and I hope that you continue to write those rhyming couplets:

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan,
The proper study of mankind is Man.

Eh? What? Oh -- THAT Pope!

Never mind.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:41 PM, Blogger jj mollo said...

If not, perhaps, for Augustine, we would have ended up the same way.

At 3:57 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

If we'd followed Tertullian and his putative 'Credo quia absurdum' (if he really said that), then we'd certainly have ended up the same way. Or if we'd stuck with Scholastic Nominalism.

But Augustine wasn't the only rational theologian ... though he was one of the most influential.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:53 AM, Anonymous Erdal said...

It's blamed on Ghazali, usually (this has become some sort of a trend recently, I observe), but I think there's more to it, and he doesn't deserve the bad press he's getting: His job, as he saw it, was breaking the arbitrary, fashion- and power-driven appliction of the law and political power, and strenghtening the formalistic, procedureal aspect of it. In his frenzied period, things were moving very fast. The influence of philosopy (a novel mixture of old concepts of persian, antique greek, indian and jewish/christian concepts) on law-making and politics was great, erratic, and threatening to get out of hand. He successfully moved to put on the brakes. He wanted to tame things, not break them. Yes, he attacked philosophy as such, but he did so as a philosopher. I cannot see that he intended, even less expected to kill philosophy for good. Yet, in a way, he was to be the last one to leave a mark, and the door closed behind him. Why?
Certainly not because he was so utterly brilliant, persuasive or politically powerful, never to be surpassed. (he was none of these things).
I think the reason that philosophy atrophied in the islamic world is, that it is, at it's core, totally alien to the Muslim creed. Arabia was not a high culture, after all, but a poor tribal society. This freak period, prior to Ghazali, and ending with him (more or less) simply was one of only three times in Muslim history (the other being Al-Andalus and the early Ottoman empire) when the circumstances for philosopy (and science too, btw.), were conductive toward that end. None of the people whose names survive today from that famous epoch of scientific, architectural and philoshophic glory were Arabs. Most were converts, or one or two generations down the line from one. Most ended up exiled. The sudden common ground among different, established, developed non-muslim/arab strands of thought, providesd by the arab/muslim invasions and the new wealth created by conquest was good for a final flash of brilliance when these old civilisatorial remnants suddenly fused in a new environment, but it was nothig sustainablé, because the cultures that fed into this final creative flash vanished with the circumstances that helped to create it.

At 4:12 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Erdal, that's very interesting, and it fits a hunch that I've had about the so-called "Golden Age of Islamic Culture," namely, that it wasn't Islamic culture but, rather, a mix of Islamic and other cultures in the recently conquered regions.

Conversely, I've wondered if the Mongol Conquest that destroyed much of Central Asia and part of the Middle East played a role in Islam's intellectual decline. The Mongol attack seems to have weakened the Islamic world but to have spared Europe. If the Mongols had swept across Europe, perhaps we wouldn't be discussing this issue at all because the West's Renaissance, Scientific Revolution, and Enlightenment might have never have happened.

But I don't want to get too deeply into counterfactual history...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:35 AM, Anonymous Erdal said...

Strange thing about the Mongol conquest... I think it actually gave the Islamic world a new lease of life, because it diverted the focus of expansion from the Punt/China/Hindustan/Central Asia front (where the Arabs had so far largely failed, and probably would have eventually been defeated and bled out in in a far worse manner than through being briefly but heftily conquered) toward the Northern Africa/Byzantinum area, where there was more to be gained anyways, both intellectually and physically, because the logistics were far easier. The Mongols also caused the displacement of the Turkic tribes into Anatolia, which would turn out to be very useful for the Islamic cause in the long run. Bizarrely, the Mongols (some parts of them at least) voluntarily converted to Islam after thrashing Mesopotamia, which wasn't only a stroke of luck (they went on to make Hindustan Islamic, and succeeded in Punt, where the Arabs had peviously failed), but is also without a historical parallel I can think of (but I know next to nothing about far-eastern history, for example).

At 10:18 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Erdal, that's interesting about how the Mongols and Turkic tribes contributed to an Islamic revival.

By the way, where is the "Punt"? I've never heard of this (outside of American football).

There's obviously a lot that I don't know about this.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:17 AM, Anonymous Erdal said...

Oh! "Punt" is actually supposed to mean "Sind". Foreign language brain area short-circuit syndrome. In my defense: Punt is also a kingdom (African), but you probably knew that...

At 3:23 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

As Sir Charles Napier might again say: "Peccavi."

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:53 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Just curious why you left out the Reformation in your list of historical epochs in the West. A great deal of philosophy grew out of the Reformation's emphasis on individual conscience.

At 3:35 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, good point about the Reformation. Why did I leave it out? Sheer carelessness, probably. I certainly acknowledge its significance -- because of Luther.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:23 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the response, Jeffery. I know how these things go, typing madly and forgetting a point.

Greg blog, by the way.

At 3:28 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Anonymous. I'm glad that you like my posts ... at least when I'm not too madly typing to express myself clearly and completely.

Jeffery Hodges

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