Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Thoughts on Philosophy

Two years ago I undertook a difficult and challenging path, inspired by the research I had done for my undergraduate thesis. I had wanted to find out more about the underpinnings of politics and International Relations and was particularly intrigued by the philosophical background of Ruhollah Khomeini and Dr Ali Shariati. Revolutionary Islamism, and in particular the Iranian experience of it, seemed to spark a different interpretation and evaluation of Islam than I had previously imagined. The tired dogma of separating religion from the state was something I had never really questioned until I was introduced to Shariati, Khomeini and, later on, Qutb. Today I submitted my final thesis, thus completing the requirements for my Masters in Philosophy and the journey has been a fascinating one.

When I first began philosophy, I was quicky bewildered by the depth, scale and diversity of the people I was asked to read about, yet I also found that it took me almost a year to collect myself and gain any bearings on the subject. This was because the style that my university had opted for was to introduce us to philosophy with what I now believe is a sterile, almost clinical division of the subject into subject areas. The introductory subject of General Philosophy was divided into the horrifyingly named categories of Logic and Metaphysics, Epistemology and Methodology, Ethics and Political Philosophy. I was swimming in an ocean, in complete darkness, and had no idea where to begin. The classes on logic were difficult for me to place in any context and the books we were asked to read on ethics made no sense whatseover, they just started talking about a subject, posed some dilemma's, and proposed solutions that felt like somebody was pinning jelly to the wall. Political Philosophy was focused almost exclusively on the writings of the dreadful John Rawls, Robert Nozick and a dash of Mill. In short, it was absolutely awful.

My first big break began when I started with Greek Philosophy. The writings were in clear language, they had a historical context and background that I was familiar with, and they possessed an amazing depth and many layers of complexity that I had found was missing from the English and American philosophical texts I was being asked to study. Plato's Republic had been a strong favourite of mine since my undergraduate days, but truly grasping the scope of what this work was meant to accomplish astounded me. In my first year, I trundled along clumsily, working my way through Plato's texts and trying to understand. Aristotle was not so much of a favourite of mine in that period, and I favoured the literary flare which is Plato's dialogues, finding them more accessible and less intimidating. This changed with my second year though.

In that year I began Arabic philosophy, and reading Kindi, al Farabi and Avicenna had an enormous impact on the way I would approach the subject. What had been an unmountable horse in the first year now became tamed, contextualised and sized. I found an enormous appreciation of the Aristotelian project. Metaphysics made sense after I read al Kindi's "On First Philosophy" and logic was, for the first time, brought to life by my reading of al Farabi and Avicenna. The Arabs studied philosophy, and wrote down their thoughts, as intelligent men who were trying to understand, and then explain, what the Greeks had been trying to say. They were not always right, but as an introduction to the subject it was invaluable to me. I picked up Plato's texts again, seeing them in a new light. Then when I went to Syria I had the complete works of Aristotle printed out at a local stationery so that I can refer to them easily in my research or to read parts of it when I had spare time. For the first time during my course I could actually see why philosophy was called the mother of all sciences. Surprisingly, reading Kant, Nietzsche or Foucault was no longer as difficult or as bewildering and awe-inspiring as I had first imagined them to be. When I say awe-inspiring, it is the sheer reverence I may have felt in coming across their powerful statements with all their explanatory magic of the modern condition. I read Kant and saw the shadow of Aristotle in his ethics, Nietszche was clearer in his writings and Foucalt was, well, Foucalt - a flash in the pan with a funky name, though he is still kind of a big deal. Truly I could see the truth of the statement that all philosophy after Plato and Aristotle was merely a footnote.

Some will disagree I am sure, and they are welcome to jump onto this subject from wherever they see fit or find it more comfortable. But would you rather drink from the origin of the water fountain where the water is cleaner, even if colder, than from the pool with all the floating matter? Surprisingly some people opt for the latter and in those cases I must concede that even philosophy is no cure for a distorted soul. Regardless, after almost two years on the subject I feel I still know very little if nothing at all, a humbling fact. Yet the subject has made a huge impact on my perspective, arguments and general outlook. I am still not certain of which path to continue on from here, but far from surrendering to a bewildered nihilism, I emerge with a sense of purpose and confidence.


Anonymous said...

"Political Philosophy was focused almost exclusively on the writings of the dreadful John Rawls, Robert Nozick and a dash of Mill. In short, it was absolutely awful."

; )

I agree so much with that.

It reminds me of some really boring moments... Even if they probably don't have in the French syllabus a place as important as in the British one.
Now, I love Plato's dialogues but i used to blindly reject so-called idealism - hate and despise all what Nietzsche hated and despised when i started philosophy. pfffff...
Nietzsche should be allowed ONLY to people less than 8 year-old and to those over 80. In between, he's most of the time adored but completely misunderstood. I'm not saying at all I am among those who understand - I'm neither less than 8 year-old, nor over 80: that's why ; )

Plato's dialogues are some kind of maze in which you can find yourself standing in a different place, each time you read them (especially Phaedon).

Have you studied Simone Weil?
I think she's the greatest among modern philosophers. It's a pity she died young and was unable to further her interest in non-European philosophies. I read her writings along with the Qur'an and it's really challenging to understand her from an islamic perspective. It's like being at the closest point of truth in her thought.

Best wishes for the continuation of your studies and readings!

Maysaloon said...

Wow! Thank you for the tips and for the insight. It is funny but I was just thinking yesterday that some of the stuff I was reading from Nietzsche really shouldn't be read by anybody who hasn't read Plato or Aristotle first. It was just a thought but it is interesting to see somebody else also thinks so! Thanks for the links on Simone Weil, I'll have a look.

jimmy said...

great to know you're drunk on philosophy, and that you've found your home. maybe now you should start searching for the fireplace.

which of aristotle's and plato's books would recommend for starters on the subject?

you don't mention seneca, epictetus and the other greek giants. how would you rate those in terms of how their philosophy feeds into the overall picture? aren't they also as much of a source of inspiration to modern western philosophies (spinoza, etc) as aristotle and plato?

mabrouk w 3a2bel el phd thesis.

Maysaloon said...

Thank you Jimmy, though I do not think I will be doing a phd anytime soon. Maybe in a few years...

As for my recommendations for beginners, and I count myself one of them. I think the Gorgias, the Republic (book V in particular), oh and the Phaedo. For Aristotle, De Anima is a good one to chew on, and the Nicomachean Ethics, his Politics is a good read, but I for obvious reasons it is far less beautiful to read than Plato's stuff.

The guys you recommended, I have not read yet, but Seneca in particular I need to read when I get a chance.

I will draw from this well slowly - I have all the time in the world :-)

Thank you for stopping by and for the kind words.

MJ said...

Mabrok on completing your masters thesis! although I have not even read any books on philosophy your post makes me want to know more.

By the way are you in syria?

Montag said...

All philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato and Aristotle...because our world is a series of footnotes.

The love of God makes one an original, an author, not an annotator.
Short of that, all is footnotes.

R.Sole said...

No mention of Hume? I would imagine he would challenge your views far more than the other philosophers you mentioned. Philosophers challenge conventional wisdom and Hume has a lot of challenging questions for anyone religious.

I agree with you about the dryness of how it's taught at universities, I also found the classification of modern western academic "philosophy" to be tedious as hell. I think the difference is that in the ancient Greek/Roman times, philosophy was a living discipline with a purpose - to answer the question how are we to live, what should we do with our lives. Nowadays the purpose of philosophy seems mainly to be to demonstrate that you know about "philosophy", the sole pragmatic application of which is to have the letters BA or MA appended to your name and CV. Accumulation of rote knowledge has supplanted philosophical innovation and investigation. Theory for theory's sake has supplanted usefulness.

There's also the major problem of western modernism's obsession with logical inference and intellectualism. One good thing about the Greeks and Romans was that they used empirical investigation rather than exclusively relying on abstract intellectual reasoning. When you read Rawls or Nozick, you realise you are reading someone who has never run for political office in their life, or tried to govern so much as a small hamlet - yet they are sounding forth on political philosophy. This is like writing a medical textbook on brain surgery when you haven't ever performed so much as an incision. A remorseless logician can reach some interesting conclusions but there's the problem of flawed axioms which can render the whole edifice worthless - consider speculation on astronomy circa 1000 AD. Working backwards from empirically verifiable truths and trying to derive axioms from them has shown to be more reliable - it's certainly closer to the scientific method. It appears no coincidence then, that philosophy when it followed the latter method seemed to work better than when it became the former.

Given the barren nature of the field in academia, I think it's far better to follow your own path and make your own investigations, perhaps finding a few kindred spirits interested in a similar questioning approach. The best way to learn about life and reality is to engage with it, not just think about it. Action and thought combined work better than one or t'other alone.

Maysaloon said...

Dear Sole,
Thank you for taking the time to write the many comments you have left on this blog. This comment is probably the only one I'd agree with you outright and yes, I did not mention Hume simply because of time constraints and that during my course it was not possible to go through many thinkers and their works in any kind of meaningful depth. Thank you for stopping by.