Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Colonialism in philosophy

Whilst in Eurasia, I was surprised by the attitudes of friends and family who learned of my interest in philosophy. One person's jaw literally dropped when they heard what my Masters degree was in, "You've gone all the way to London to study philosophy?". Others worried about my soul and warned me of the dangers of losing myself in its treacherous waters. In many ways I'm not surprised, the attitudes of many people towards the subject mirrored similar attitudes people in the West had, but not to Philosophy with a capital P but with Arabic philosophy in specific. It is perhaps typical that the mentally colonised would belittle their own capabilities, imbue the philosophy of the occupier with awe and fear and internalise the colonisers attitudes towards the subject.

For a long time I puzzled as to why books on the history of philosophy were so dismissive towards the entire body of Arabic philosophy. According to one scholar, Dimitri Gutas, attitudes towards it are essentially based on orientalism, whereby the dominant view held in much of the West was that Arabs and Muslims were simply incapable of clear philosophical thought, being somehow 'naturally' inclined towards religious fanaticism and despotism. No attempt by any orientalists was made to even consider the vast body of texts which were still untranslated because of this attitude. What little there was to be read simply got reinterpreted in a way which reinforced this attitude, either consciously or unconsciously. The older these studies became, the more authority they seemed to hold in the minds of those who followed. Gutas argued that there were four attitudes which were rooted in this orientalist approach to Arabic philosophy and were largely responsible for the decline in interest in it or mis-interpretation of it.

The first attitude views Arabic philosophy as nothing but a mystical and exotic mish-mash of ideas and beliefs. This attitude has perhaps the weakest of orientalist foundations and quickly dissipates as we find that its proponents were usually either not bothered with investigating further or were themselves working with extremely limited sources, unaware of the wealth of this area.

A second attitude, one which I first noticed in Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy but which carried on from earlier attempts, portrays Arabic philosophy as, at best, some caretaker or intermediary of Greek philosophy. Once Europeans were sufficiently prepared they then carried the torch forward, being much better suited and disposed to make use of such texts than the backwards Muslim peoples. This attitude continues on from the first and is hardly surprising as a conclusion.

The third attitude views Arabic philosophy as nothing more than an endless struggle between philosophy and religion. Each trying to outdo the other and prove its own truth. It ignores the profound impact that philosophy had on Islam itself and belittles the huge efforts of those within the tradition who pursued genuine philosophical enquiries. This attitude in particular was a Western concern. The majority of philosophers at the time believed in some form of religion and the nature of debate was usually centred on either epistemology or how logical propositions really were. In the first, the discussions were on how prophets were able to make the statements they did with no philosophical backgrounds. The second area of discussion was usually with regards to the logic of their propositions and of what nature these were. Were they demonstrative, dialectical, sophistical or something else. The fact that Western scholars miss this point may be to their misunderstanding of the nature of many texts made by Arabic philosophers. They forget that Ibn Rushd and al-Ghazali were primarily lawmakers and as such, texts they made which might appear to be concerned with the religion vs. philosophy debate were in fact legal texts to do with the legality of philosophical pursuits under Islamic law, and not under Arabic philosophy. The confusion increases when legal debates and legal styles are considered to be representative of all Arabic philosophy texts

Finally, we are told constantly that Arabic philosophy ends with Ibn Rushd and that the torch from there passes on to the West. This gives the impression that no philosophy was carried out, or is carried out, in Arabic or Islamic lands today. One scholar, Henry Corbin, mentions this fallacy numerous times and yet had been largely ignored. He cites numerous philosophers that I had never heard of who would have, and continue to be, amazed by the pre-eminence given to the al-Ghazali/Averroes debates. In fact they would have been mostly unaware of the attention given by the West to this matter. No attention is paid to any original work which continued to be produced after Ibn Rushd.

Between these four positions, according to Gutas, we are given the lense with which to view Arabic philosophy. This prevents us from seeing it as only philosophy and I think that those who have helped in shaping this could only be called colonialists of the mind. That some Arabs would internalise these positions and take them as their own only shows what mental occupation is capable of doing to somebody but recognising it as such is the first step in a truly free continuation of Arabic thought in all its multitude and diversity beyond the confines of Western colonialism.

1 comment:

Montag said...

Truly written.
Colonialism sought to intrude into countries where there was something of value to exploit.
However, they have not yet allowed themselves to make use of Arabic philosophy. To keep interest low, they portrayed Arabic philosophy as you have described in your post.

We are now at the very beginning of the time when Arabic philosophy will influence Western philosophy.

Since the countries wherein Arabic philosophy resides are no longer under the control of colonialism, the West finds the ideas of Arabic philosophy not quite "pukka" enough for their consumption, and the process is marked by conflict.

It will continue to be of interest.