Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Analytical School of Mulla Sadra

Comparative philosophy can be quite a task, a challenge for the reader who is likely to be more familiar with one of the elements of comparison rather than the other, and a challenge for the author to communicate what is philosophically commensurate between the traditions. Christian Kanzian and Muhammad Legenhausen’s collection addressing the nature of substance in the European and Iranian philosophical traditions is a step towards a serious analytic engagement with comparative philosophy, discursive, analytical and exegetical.

The significance of this volume lies not in the challenging, exciting and innovative nature of its contents but in the very act of dialogue between ‘Islamic and Western philosophy’ proposed. As an output of the 29th International Ludwig Wittgenstein Symposium in Kirchberg, Austria, and as a result of a collaboration between the University of Innsbruck and the Imam Khomeini Education and Research Institute in Qum, the volume attempts to articulate positions and approaches to philosophical problems that may facilitate a real dialogue between traditions of philosophy that have common roots but rather different historical trajectories over the past few hundred years. The editors have deliberately chosen a topic that historically has been of interest both in Islamic philosophical circles and in the European tradition, namely the central feature of Aristotelian categoriology on the nature of substances and accidents (or rather attributes in more contemporary language). As an endeavour, one can see this as one of the attempts by Iranian intellectuals to seek cultural and intellectual exchange, a process that has been ongoing for a decade at least, especially signalled by former President Mohammed Khatami's call for a 'dialogue between civilizations' which reached fruition in a number of philosophical conferences not least the massive World Congress on Mulla Sadra in Tehran in May 1999 at which around 700 academics from Europe and North America participated along with their Iranian counterparts (although one ought to point out that it is not a result of Khatami’s process). Mulla Sadra, the seventeenth century thinker well known to students of Islamic intellectual history, along with the more recent Qum-based philosopher ʿAllāmeh Muḥammad Ḥusayn Ṭabāṭabāʾī (d. 1981), are precisely the thinkers with whom the editors think the European traditions should be better acquainted. As a proper dialogue, some of the European contributors tackle the thought of Islamic philosophers and some of the Iranians examine elements of Aristotle and Aquinas.

However, because of the task that the editors have set, most of the contributions are rather exegetical. There is little here that either breaks new ground in analysis of aspects of the Aristotelian traditions or its Christian and Muslim modifications and expositions in later history. In its approach to Islamic philosophy, it also betrays, on the whole, an old fashioned approach to the subject demonstrated, for example, in the special issue of The Philosophical Forum in 1972, the American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly in 1999 and Topoi in 2002, namely a concern with topics and philosophical issues that were broadly of interest in the mediaeval European tradition and which, apart from some Catholic departments, remain beyond the concern of most departments of philosophy. Furthermore, the volume really represents a dialogue between analytical Thomism and the analyticizing school of Mullā Ṣadrā that has achieved an ascendency in Iran and is exemplified by the Imam Khomeini Education and Research Institute. There is particularly no attempt to consider other Islamic philosophical traditions, or even to recognise that there is a strong plurality within the world of Islam in terms of philosophical concerns and tastes. The volume also seems oblivious of the developments in the European tradition at least since the nineteenth century, in particular with the impact of Frege and the subsequent development of the Anglo-American analytical and post-analytical traditions and the parallel trajectories on the continent. A further criticism is that the concern with substance means that a number of the contributions are taken up with the question of whether God is a substance. Theologians and philosophers of religion will probably find much of interest in these chapters in particular. It would have been useful if the editors had indicated clearly what they understood by the term philosophy and the nature of the philosophical traditions that are exemplified and examined in the book.

The volume comprises fifteen chapters. Hans Burkhardt considers the structural features of substance in the thought of Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz as reflections upon Aristotle’s theory of categories and the ‘ontological square’, and as attempts to further the analysis beyond the scholastic discussion of categories before Descartes. Mohammad Fanaei Eshkivari explains one of the central features of the metaphysics of Mullā Ṣadrā, the theory of motion in substance that violates the basic Aristotelian vision of substance. As such, the theory is an explicit rejection of Aristotelian and Avicennan category theory and potentially of great interest to those in process metaphysics because it signals a shift from substance to process as the primary ontological unit. Unfortunately, Eshkivari does not indicate this. Narjes Soumeahsaraei’s piece is rather different from the others as it is more straightforward and informative. It sketches the interest in the issue of substance and accident among graduate students in Qum. As such, it reveals the extent of the dominance of the school of Mullā Ṣadrā and the lack of interest in dissident approaches to philosophy such as the school of epistemological separation between the sciences known as ‘maktab-e tafkīk’. Boris Hennig engages with the critique of Aristotelianism posited by Ghazālī (d. 1111) and argues that he proposes a distinction between two types of substance that is akin to Descartes' extended and thinking (immaterial) substances. There is already an existing literature on Islamic philosophers prefiguring a number of basic Cartesian positions and one could place this chapter in that category. Mohsen Javadi compares Aristotle’s definition of substance with al-Fārābī, the first major philosopher of the Islamic tradition who was called the second teacher (Aristotle being the first). At issue in this chapter are the main task of metaphysics (a universal science concerned with particulars) and the mediaeval problem of universals.

Tomasz Kakol’s piece on Aquinas’ proof for the uniqueness of God is a classic example of the analytical Thomistic tradition in its endeavour to formalise (using the tools of symbolic logic) Thomistic arguments through careful textual analysis. Hans Kraml discusses one of the few dissidents from the Aristotelian (or Aristotelianising) tradition in the volume, namely William of Ockham. Kraml sees parallels between Ockham’s critique of essentialism and advocacy of the univocity of being and Mullā Ṣadrā’s espousal of the ontological priority of being and the mystical notion of waḥdat al-wujūd. This is quite a safe conjecture (despite his feeling that wujūd in Arabic renders existence and not being, a rather odd insistence which betrays a lack of familiarity with philosophical discussions on the nature of wujūd). At least one recent Iranian philosopher, Mahdi Haeri Yazdi (d. 1999), an analytical thinker of the school of Mullā Ṣadrā with a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Toronto, argued in his work that waḥdat al-wujūd and even Mullā Ṣadrā’s particular definition of wujud should be described as the univocity of being. One of the editors, Muhammad Legenhausen, examines Avicenna’s arguments against the proposition that God is a substance. This is one of the strongest pieces in the volume. It argues that unlike Aristotle's insistence upon ousia as the primary reference of being qua being, Avicenna demonstrates a greater taste for the abstract. Legenhausen also engages with aspects of the debate on Avicenna’s ‘essentialism’ and, informed by the later Iranian tradition, argues that Avicenna proposes that essences (or whatnesses as he prefers) are somehow unreal and only mentally posited. Mental existence is one of the more creative aspects of metaphysics in Islamic traditions and would be a worthy topic for a future volume of ‘dialogue’.

Michael Loux, the only contributor who is based in the United States, analyses Aristotle’s constituent ontology and its relationship to hylomorphism. Shahram Pazouki provides a short and useful exegesis of the development of the concept of substance from Aristotle to Avicenna (and overlaps with aspects of Legenhausen’s and Javadi’s contributions). Pedro Schmechtig’s discussion of substance, causality and freedom is the only piece that is not exegetical. It represents a revision of agent causation theory. Ali Abidi Shahrudi’s chapter takes up the theory of motion in substance from the philosophy of Mullā Ṣadrā and compares it to the Sufi notion of perpetual creation. Like Eshkivari, he does not deal adequately with the basic objection to the theory: how is identity preserved through substantial change? Mohammad Ali Shomali continues the engagement with mysticism by examining the notion of psychic substance in Mullā Ṣadrā. The inclusion of these two chapters is important because the philosophy of mysticism and mystical epistemology and psychology remain central concerns among philosophers in Iran even if they may be rather neglected in European and American traditions. Erwin Tegtmeier shifts back to Avicenna on substances and accidents; but the real subject of the chapter is individuation. The final chapter by Daniel von Wachter argues that theism is compatible with ‘stuff ontology’, that one can hold that God is a substance without defending substance ontology. This, however, is not a serious shift to a process theology. While the affirmation that God is a substance was critical to Trinitarian theology, it is a position explicitly rejected by the Islamic philosophical traditions which remained suspicious of attempts at reifying and substantialising the transcendent.

Overall, I find the volume to be a bit disappointing. It does not adequately signal new trends in philosophy in Iran and it does not systematically demonstrate the revision and rejection of Aristotelian and Avicennan ousiology in the later Iranian tradition with its concomitant shift from substance to process metaphysics. The subversion of category theory and the very notion of ousia is perhaps one of the great achievements of the later Iranian tradition. It is also worth noting that the act of dialogue is certainly to be commended -- but the volume should also nod, for example, towards parallels in the engagement of Islamic philosophy and phenomenology which is emerging with at least one academic series published by Kluwer among others. The choice of the notion of substance as the focus of the volume is thus also a missed opportunity. Nevertheless, if the volume encourages more engagement with Islamic philosophy and excites some interest, then that will be an excellent outcome that may enrich our understanding of philosophy, its histories and traditions. In an age of multiple philosophies, it would be a positive step for more philosophy departments to embrace and engage with Islamic philosophy and its traditions which are far more cognate and familiar than other eastern philosophies. There are greater possibilities for this with the growing academic literature on Islamic philosophy and the appearance of fluent and quite excellent translations of key texts (a number of which are cited in this volume). Finally, we are witnessing the emergence of a generation of philosophers in the Islamic tradition such as Legenhausen, who are well placed to facilitate this embrace and to act as astute interlocutors capable of engaging with the mainstream traditions of philosophy in European and Anglo-American academia.

Addendum: Muhammad Legenhausen responded to some of my points in a private e-mail:

1) He disputes the point that the collection is outdated and exegetical and insists that the analytic tradition is returning to the question of substance. Of course, whether they are reviving in interest in the Aristotelian and mediaeval conceptions of substance is a different matter.

2) He is not convinced by the neglect of a process metaphysical (and theological) need to address features of Mulla Sadra's thought as he thinks the similarities with Whitehead are superficial.

3) He also disputes my point that most of the papers are primarily exegetical.