On al-Ghazālī and the cultural specificity of philosophy

[Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.]

A little while ago, responding to Garfield and Van Norden’s call for diversity in philosophy, I argued that we should fight for the inclusion of non-Western thought in philosophy programs on the grounds of its intrinsic worth as philosophy, not merely on the grounds on geographic diversity. Now Fordham’s Nicholas Tampio has made an argument far more diametrically opposed to Garfield and Van Norden’s: philosophy departments should continue in their current habit of not teaching non-Western thought at all. Or at least, they should make no special effort to bring it in. (“Let philosophy departments evolve organically…”) Why not? Because, Tampio says, many of the leading non-Western thinkers we might consider philosophers – such as Confucius – really aren’t.

In my experience, many who take such a position do so from a standpoint of ignorance at best and apathy at worst: they don’t know non-Western philosophy and they don’t care to learn it. Sometimes they will argue for such a position; more often they simply rely on the departmental inertia that allows them to get away with such ignorance and apathy. It is the great virtue of Tampio’s piece that it is no such thing; Tampio writes out of a long engagement with medieval Islamic thought and one of its leading figures. And while it seems pretty obvious to me that medieval Islamic thought should be considered part of Western intellectual tradition, the fact remains that it usually isn’t. Not only does Tampio know at least this one (supposedly) non-Western tradition, he is basing his argument on that tradition and the self-understanding of its own thinkers.

al-ghazaliTampio calls our attention to something very important which is often neglected in debates about philosophy: in medieval Muslim thought, one finds perhaps the most explicit and articulate rejection of philosophy in the intellectual history of the world. What is noteworthy about the thinkers involved here – of whom Abū Hāmid Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Ghazālī is the foremost – is that they directly reject something for which they use the term “philosophy”, transliterated directly into Arabic as falsafa. Al-Ghazālī has most of the hallmarks by which we would now identify a philosopher; he uses rigorous logical argument to make claims about the nature of reality and the good life for human beings. So al-Ghazālī has an entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and to my mind he deserves it.

But – and this does matter – he wouldn’t want it. Al-Ghazālī knew well of something he called philosophy, and he used his sharp skills of logical argumentation to reject it, entitling one of his major works The Incoherence of the Philosophers. Philosophy didn’t take this claim lying down; the self-proclaimed philosopher ibn Rushd (Averroës) issued a direct rebuttal entitled The Incoherence of the Incoherence. But it didn’t convince Ghazālī.

Now we are already encountering one major problem with Tampio’s argument here: his article makes no mention of ibn Rushd and says little about his colleagues, the self-proclaimed philosophers (falasifa, singular faylasuf). If we want to be true to al-Ghazālī’s self-understanding and accept that he was not a philosopher, then we must in all fairness extend the same courtesy to ibn Rushd and accept that he was. Al-Ghazālī’s criticism of philosophy gets a long discussion in the article, but if you read the section quickly you might even miss the fact that there were self-proclaimed Muslim philosophers. Even though Tampio clearly knows the falasifa and refers to some of them, his article, when it speaks of “courses in African, Indian, Islamic, Jewish, Latin American and Native American ‘philosophy’”, insists on putting the latter term in scare quotes. When a key reason given to exclude non-Western philosophers is that a Muslim like al-Ghazālī was against philosophy as he understood it, it seems at least a little disingenuous to give no real discussion to the Muslims who did see themselves as philosophers.

But even if we take account of the self-understanding of the falasifa, the problem that Tampio raises still remains. While ibn Rushd clearly considered himself a philosopher, al-Ghazālī just as clearly didn’t. So should we now then be excluding al-Ghazālī from study in philosophy departments (or from encyclopedias of philosophy)? And – this is the bigger question – what about thinkers like Confucius (or Śāntideva), who never in their lives heard of the Greek word philosophia or its translations into any other language? And who therefore never expressed an opinion on ibn Rushd’s and al-Ghazālī’s questions of how to classify themselves?

At this point, of course, we cannot avoid asking that interminable question: what is philosophy? On this point Tampio issues two sentences, one immediately following the other, which are in sharp tension with one another if not outright contradiction: “Philosophy originates in Plato’s Republic. It is a restless pursuit for truth through contentious dialogue.” Are we so sure that “a restless pursuit for truth through contentious dialogue” “originates in Plato’s Republic”? Leave aside the obvious criticism that this is a mischaracterization of the Western tradition (for both the term “philosophy” and the pursuits it designates go back to the Presocratic philosophers). More importantly, one finds exactly this pursuit of truth in the contentious dialogues within the Bṛhadāranyaka and Chāndogya Upaniṣads – which our best estimates (like Patrick Olivelle’s) date to around 700 BCE, probably before even Thales. If philosophy is the restless pursuit for truth through contentious dialogue, then it originates well before Plato’s Republic – and is likely to originate outside Greece. If it originates with Plato’s Republic or its predecessors, then it is something more limited, a single culturally specific Greek-originated tradition of inquiry; in this case, if it is still “a” restless pursuit for truth, it is only one of many such. But it cannot be both of these. So which is it?

Al-Ghazālī would have agreed with Tampio that “philosophy originates in Plato’s Republic”, or at least with Plato’s predecessors – taking the position that philosophy is something culturally specific to the ancient Greeks and those who have learned from them. That position is suggested by the very nature of the Arabic word falsafa, which transliterates the word used by the Greeks instead of coming up with an indigenous Arabic compound word translating “the love of wisdom”. Or, for that matter, rendering it with some other compound concept deemed to be equivalent – as is done in modern Marathi with tattvajñāna or Japanese with tetsugaku.

The question, though, is whether we now should follow al-Ghazālī’s lead ourselves. And I do not see why we should – especially if, unlike al-Ghazālī, we see philosophy as something worthy of study and learning rather than of mere refutation and rejection. It is true that we study Western philosophy in part to understand the history of the Western world and Western culture (which, nowadays, is also indelibly a part of every other culture). But that’s not the only reason we study it, and not even the primary one. For the Greeks there was no difference between saying “philosophy” and saying “the love of wisdom”, and they expressed their love through rational arguments that would bring them closer to that wisdom. The Greek explorer Megasthenes, for his part, had no hesitation in describing the brahmins and śramaṇas he encountered in India as “philosophers”. When we now come face to face with a Candrakīrti or a Mencius who also make rational arguments aimed at wisdom, why on earth would we deny them that title?

4 Replies to “On al-Ghazālī and the cultural specificity of philosophy”

  1. Thanks, Amod, for this post. You bring up a great point: once we eliminate culturally-specific definitions of “philosophy”, there are some intellectual activities to be found in many non-Western cultures that should fit ANY definition of “philosophy.” I like your suggestions of “rational arguments aimed at wisdom” or using “rational argument to make claims about the nature of reality and the good life for human beings.” Non-Western traditions may not look exactly the same, but nobody has a problem saying, for example, that different cultures have marriage even if they use different words for it and have differing ideas about what it is.

    Perhaps another way to make this point is to identify a few possible examples and ask, “Is this philosophy? If not, why not and what would you call it?” I suppose some people might want to call classical Indian debates about pramāṇas “thought” or “religious discourse” or whatever, but I see no reason, once we’ve given up culturally-specific definitions, to say that Aristotle or Augustine are doing philosophy when they talk about knowledge, but Dharmakīrti or Kumārila aren’t.

    Now it seems to me the question to focus on is: Is there any good reason for culturally-specific definitions of philosophy? And perhaps deeper and most importantly: What’s at stake and why does it matter what we call “philosophy”?

    • I think that’s why al-Ghazālī matters so much to a discussion on this topic: for him, something really is at stake in establishing a culturally specific definition of philosophy and rejecting it. But of course our stakes are not his.

  2. Pingback: What counts as philosophy? | elisa freschi

  3. Pingback: What counts as philosophy? On the normative disguised as descriptiveThe Indian Philosophy Blog | The Indian Philosophy Blog

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *