Deprovincializing Philosophy

By Carlos FraenkelJuly 29, 2017

Deprovincializing Philosophy

Philosophy in the Islamic World by Peter Adamson

HISTORIANS OF PHILOSOPHY by and large seem content to make small additions or revisions in their field. By contrast, Peter Adamson’s Philosophy in the Islamic World marks a revolution: it redraws the map of the history of philosophy in a fundamental way. As far as revolutions go, this one comes along without fanfare. The volume is the third of Adamson’s monumental project, A History of Philosophy without any gaps (following volumes on classical philosophy and philosophy in the Hellenistic and Roman worlds). The title suggests that Adamson’s ambition is completeness — closing the gaps left by previous historians of philosophy. To be sure, in an era of increasingly specialized handbooks and companions, this single-authored series is in itself a testament to intellectual daring. But the volume under consideration does much more than fill gaps; it compels us to reconceptualize the history of philosophy as a whole and the nature of philosophy in the Islamic world in particular.

Before Adamson, the most recent comparable endeavor was Anthony Kenny’s A New History of Western Philosophy (2004–2007). In many ways a fine account, Kenny’s treatment of philosophy in the Islamic world is hardly more than a polite nod over a few pages (noting, regretfully, that he can’t read Arabic). The only topics he discusses in some depth are those that became important in the Latin tradition — for example, the seminal metaphysical distinction between necessary and contingent existence worked out by Avicenna. Such a cavalier attitude is typical for the genre.

There are of course plenty of specialist histories of philosophy in the Islamic world; no other area in the history of philosophy has seen as much progress over the past two decades. In part, this is due to geopolitics. As the West came to look at the Islamic world through the lens of the “clash” of civilizations thesis, seemingly corroborated by terrorist attacks and wars, scholars sharpened their pencils to contest that perception. Far from clashing with the West, many of them argued, Islamic civilization used to be even more enlightened and sophisticated than Europe’s as demonstrated especially in the works of its great medieval philosophers, scientists, and poets. While surveys of this philosophical tradition have become much more reliable and nuanced, they share one fundamental flaw: they are not integrated into the history of philosophy at large. They are either self-standing or billed as “world philosophy” together with Indian, Buddhist, and Chinese thought.

It makes very little sense, however, to isolate the history of philosophy in the Islamic world or simply to add it to the shelf of the Eastern intellectual traditions. Yet turning it into a chapter of the history of Western philosophy doesn’t seem right either. So where does it fit? A key lesson from Adamson’s overall project is that the conventional notion of “Western” philosophy (where “Western” essentially means “European”) is useless — a relic of colonial intellectual cartography. To begin with, it arbitrarily disrupts the historical narrative. After antiquity, the second great period in the history of philosophy unfolded in the Islamic world: from Baghdad to Córdoba — that’s where the action was. Besides, “Western” doesn’t pick out a specific region: geographically speaking, about a third of Adamson’s volume is devoted to European philosophy — that of Andalusia or Muslim Spain.

To see the systematic biases that gave rise to this concept of “Western” philosophy we need to go back to the 19th century: to Hegel’s Lectures on the History of Philosophy, for example, or to Ernest Renan’s study of Averroes and Averroism. Adamson himself doesn’t situate his project within this larger historiographical context, which is, however, crucial to appreciate the importance of his contribution. So, let me briefly sketch this context here. For Hegel, the history of philosophy is the history of the progressive self-consciousness of Geist. It has two important periods: ancient philosophy and modern Christian philosophy, culminating in German idealism. Medieval Christian philosophers at least helped to prepare the ground for the second period, so they deserve some attention. Hegel doesn’t ignore the flourishing of the sciences in the Islamic world, and even notes that for a while they were “much more developed” than in Europe. But in his story of progress, the “Arabs” have no place of their own. Because they didn’t “advance the principle of philosophy,” they need only be registered in an “external and historic way.” They merit a footnote for helping to “preserve and pass on philosophy” from the Greeks to the Christians — for example, through Averroes’s commentaries on Aristotle. My edition of Hegel’s Lectures comes to about 1,800 pages; of these, one page is devoted to the Aristotelian tradition in the Islamic world from al-Kindī to Averroes.

Paradoxically, the most serious European study of Islamic philosophy in the 19th century was Ernest Renan’s 1852 dissertation Averroès et l’Averroïsme. Thirty years later, Renan gave an infamous lecture at the Sorbonne on “Islam and Science.” A scholar of Semitic cultures, Renan defended the racist view that Semitic peoples are unfit for philosophy. He also argued that Islam is fanatic by nature, and “has the most profound contempt for education, science, and everything that makes up the European mind.” At the same time, he acknowledges that from the eighth to the 13th century the Muslim world’s intellectual culture was superior to that of Christendom, and that philosophers like Averroes raised “philosophical thought to heights that, since Antiquity, no one had seen it reach.”

How does Renan resolve what seems like a glaring contradiction? For one thing, he argues, these philosophers weren’t Semites: they were “Persians, Transoxianans, and Spaniards,” who had neither “Arab blood” nor an “Arab mind.” For another, they weren’t genuine Muslims either: Islam only wasn’t able to stifle them, just as the Catholic Church wasn’t “strong enough to stop Galileo.” Renan portrays Averroes as a lone rationalist persecuted by Muslim fanatics — a paradigmatic example of the alleged clash between reason and Islam. After Averroes “the theological reaction” goes on the offensive until “Islam has killed science and philosophy in its midst.” Just then “Western Europe resolutely enters the great path of the scientific search for truth, an immense arc whose amplitude still cannot be measured.”

Of course, more recent historians of philosophy don’t appeal to Hegel’s dubious notions of progress and Christianity or to Renan’s racist and anti-Islamic views. But the boundaries that were drawn as the discipline was constituting itself in the 18th and 19th centuries remained in place even where the prejudices that defined them had ostensibly been rejected. These, then, were the kinds of boundaries Adamson had to contend with. Following his lead, we should discard the parochial concept of “Western” philosophy in favor of a global perspective that zooms in on local contexts. From there we can downsize European centers of philosophy to chapters in a cosmopolitan story. Leaving aside the Eastern intellectual traditions, the settings of this story from antiquity to the middle ages would include Asia Minor, Athens, Rome, Constantinople, North Africa, Baghdad, Muslim Spain, and Latin Europe.

Isn’t there another reason, however, for being wary of integrating philosophy in the Islamic world into the larger history of philosophy as Adamson does? A prominent scholar of Islamic law once denounced me as an “Orientalist” because I said that scholars of medieval Islamic thought should also be familiar with Greek philosophy. He was worried that I wanted to make Muslim thinkers into epigones of the Greeks. True, some scholars study philosophy in the Islamic world mainly because they’re interested in the transmission of Greek philosophy to Europe.

Adamson’s aim, however, is to present this philosophical tradition on its own terms. So, he consistently highlights its originality. He also avoids a more serious pitfall: the skewed picture of the intellectual landscape to which too narrow a focus on the falsafa tradition from al-Kindī to Averroes gave rise. Falsafa means philosophy in Arabic, and members of the falsafa tradition proudly saw themselves as the heirs of Plato and Aristotle. But falsafa was only one of many competing intellectual currents in the Islamic world.

Consider the Deliverance from Error, the intellectual autobiography of al-Ghazālī (d. 1111). After a skeptical crisis, al-Ghazālī attempts to restore his faith by examining the four main intellectual schools of Islam in his time: theologians (mutakallimūn), philosophers (falāsifa), Sufis, and Ismāʾīlis. Adamson tries to capture the multilayered interaction between these different schools: how they competed with each other, criticized each other, borrowed from each other, and so on. Here, too, he goes against the prevailing trend of studying each school in isolation to offer a more faithful picture of the intellectual dynamic in the Islamic world.

Adamson deliberately wrote a book on “philosophy in the Islamic world,” not on “Islamic philosophy.” This points to a further important innovation of his account: he doesn’t divide up the material artificially according to religious affiliation — Muslim, Jewish, and Christian. The intellectual space I’ve outlined above, following al-Ghazālī, is one that Jews and Christians shared. While Christians mainly contributed to kalām and falsafa, Jews were eager to take up the full gamut of emerging new intellectual discourses. Thus, we find Jewish mutakallimūn like Saadia Gaon, Jewish falāsifa like Abraham ibn Daud and Maimonides, Jewish Sufis like Baḥya ibn Paqūda and Abraham ben Maimonides, and Jewish appropriations of Shīʿite concepts — for example in Judah Halevi. Indeed, thinkers in the Islamic world often felt more affinity to members of rival religions who shared their intellectual commitments than to co-religionists who did not.

The falāsifa, for example, preferred each other’s intellectual company to that of the mutakallimūn in their own religious tradition. Thus, the 10th-century Christian philosopher Yaḥyā ibn ʿAdī was a student of the Muslim philosopher al-Fārābī and corresponded on philosophical problems with the Jewish scholar Ibn Abī Saʿīd al-Mawṣilī. Adamson devotes ample space to the important role Christians played in translating Greek philosophy and science into Arabic, as well as to the 10th-century Aristotelian school in Baghdad, which was dominated by Christian philosophers like Yaḥyā ibn ʿAdī. Almost a fourth of his book takes us through the rich history of Jewish philosophy — from Jewish mutakallimūn in the ninth and 10th centuries to the contested legacy of falsafa among Jewish thinkers in Christian Europe up to the Renaissance.

As we move forward in time, the intellectual myopia of the standard narrative that Adamson strives to replace turns into downright blindness. We have seen Renan’s version of what may be dubbed “the myth of a Golden Age”: the flourishing of philosophy in the Islamic world in the early medieval period, followed by its decline and disappearance after Averroes. Yet no less than a third of Adamson’s volume is devoted to tracking “later developments” up to the present — through the Ottoman Empire, Safavid Persia, and Mughal India, the dominant powers in the Muslim world from the 15th to the 19th centuries. Take the 17th-century philosopher Mullā Ṣadrā, for example, the greatest Muslim thinker in Safavid Persia. As Descartes was trying to rebuild philosophy on the Cogito (after the Copernican revolution left the Aristotelian picture of the world in shambles), Mullā Ṣadrā was drawing together the different strands of the metaphysical debate that emerged in the post-classical period to offer a conclusive answer to the question of how God’s being is related to the being of his creatures. How could 700 years of philosophy simply be overlooked? Later thinkers from the Islamic world, Adamson argues, had “no influence on European philosophy,” so “European historians of philosophy” had not even an instrumental interest in them. Perplexingly, they concluded that these later thinkers didn’t exist.

I’ve heaped much praise on Adamson’s book, though I see it more as a trailblazer than as the end of the road. One could quibble about many details and even point out the occasional gap. One such gap is the place of freethinking in the Islamic world, most notoriously associated with the ninth-century theologian Ibn al-Rāwandī and his contemporary, the philosopher Abū Bakr al-Rāzī. Within the intellectual space Adamson’s book covers, the freethinkers seem to have adopted the most radical stance: they denied the need for prophetic guidance altogether. God, they argued, bestowed reason on all human beings, which suffices to guide them in life. Adamson doesn’t mention Ibn al-Rāwandī and expresses doubts that Rāzī was a freethinker at all. Fair enough, the fragmentary evidence is inconclusive. There was, however, a powerful hostile reaction against these figures. Even if it misrepresented them, it clearly shows how much the possibility of freethinking made medieval thinkers cringe. It certainly shaped their thinking about prophecy, in particular, that of the falāsifa who had to show that their commitment to reason didn’t push them into the freethinkers’ camp.

There are other important questions on which I wish Adamson had spent more time. How, for example, did the champions of falsafa justify the study of Plato and Aristotle? Adamson mentions al-Kindī’s response to religious critics who protested against the use of Greek philosophical texts. We should value the truth wherever we find it, even in pagan sources, al-Kindī argued. Since the falāsifa didn’t doubt the truth of prophetic revelation, however, they still had to explain why studying Greek philosophy — even if its teachings are true — isn’t superfluous. Why, in other words, is it not enough to study the Qur’an or the Bible? This is a crucial question for understanding the engagement with Greek philosophy in the Islamic world.

I’ve stressed that Adamson breaks new ground by shining light on the intertwined nature of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian thought in the Islamic world. Here, too, however, conceptual work remains to be done — in particular, on how medieval thinkers negotiated their intellectual and religious identities. The great 12th-century Jewish philosopher Maimonides, for example, is a proud student of Greek and Muslim philosophers from Aristotle to al-Fārābī. His treatment of the question whether the world is eternal or created makes an original contribution to a debate that extends from Plato and Aristotle to al-Ghazālī and Averroes. Yet his works are presented as commentaries on the Bible and the Jewish legal tradition, and argue forcefully that the Law of Moses is the only true divine law. So, classifying a religious thinker like Maimonides raises tricky questions that Adamson does not sufficiently address. He presents Jewish philosophy in general as a more or less self-contained unit within his larger narrative. This risks to obscure the extent to which Jews, Christians, and Muslims inhabited a shared intellectual world and contributed to debates that cut across religious divisions. But wasn’t that the purpose of bringing them together in the first place?

These reservations pale, however, when compared to the service Adamson has done to the discipline by tearing down a wide range of unhelpful yet tenacious barriers — cultural, geographic, intellectual, religious, and chronological. His account of philosophy in the Islamic world and the larger project of which it is a part establish a new paradigm for telling the story of philosophy.


Carlos Fraenkel is James McGill Professor in the Departments of Philosophy and Jewish Studies at McGill University in Montreal. His most recent book is Teaching Plato in Palestine: Philosophy in a Divided World.

LARB Contributor

Carlos Fraenkel is James McGill Professor in the Departments of Philosophy and Jewish Studies at McGill University in Montreal. He works on the history of philosophy and religious thought, the philosophy of religion, and political philosophy. His two most recent books are Philosophical Religions from Plato to Spinoza: Reason Religion and Autonomy (2012) and Teaching Plato in Palestine: Philosophy in a Divided World (2015). More on his work can be found at


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