Avicenna, Farabi are major figures in medieval Western philosophy: Jay

Professor Martin Jay  11/13/2011
Professor Martin Jay says “Avicenna and Al Farabi—along with Averroës--are major figures in any account of medieval Western philosophy.”

Philosophers are “acknowledging the crucial role played by Islamic scholars in preserving, transmitting and developing the ideas of Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus and their progeny to later generations,” Jay, a professor of history at the University of California, tells the Mehr News Agency in an exclusive interview.

Jay adds, “Western historians of philosophy have also recognized their achievements as masters of medicine and science.”

Following is the text of the interview:

Q: What is your idea of Iranian philosophers such as Avicenna and Farabi? And what is their position in the history of philosophy?

A: Avicenna and Al Farabi—along with Averroës--are major figures in any account of medieval Western philosophy. Acknowledging the crucial role played by Islamic scholars in preserving, transmitting and developing the ideas of Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus and their progeny to later generations. Western historians of philosophy have also recognized their achievements as masters of medicine and science. For those, like myself, interested in the history of optics, Alkindi and Alhazen are also acknowledged as important contributors to the development of that field.

It was very interesting to see you refer to them as “Iranian philosophers,” as I think it fair to say that most Westerners would simply classify them as Islamic and not impose back on the world in which they lived modern national categories. Al Farabi, after all, spent most of his life in Baghdad, and I gather that there is a dispute in the literature about his ethnic origins. For an outsider like myself, I have no stake in claiming them for any particular nation, nor any special expertise in judging the issue, but I couldn’t help being struck by your claiming them for Iran rather than for the larger Islamic world.

By chance, I recently came across Avicenna and Al Farabi in two very different contexts. In a book on the theological origins of modernity, the American historian of philosophy Michael Gillespie shows how the development of nominalism in the 13th century, which undermined the neo-Aristotelianism of Aquinas and the Scholastics, emerged from theological debates about the omnipotence of divine will. Because the Scholastics were understood to have constrained that will by stressing the rational nature of creation, they were accused of underestimating God’s omnipotence. Nominalists like the English Franciscan William of Occam stressed the absolute will of God, whose miracles could suspend the rational laws he had himself made. Interestingly, some of the animus against the Scholastic position, so Gillespie argues, was due to suspicion that it had been derived from Islamic philosophy. Al Farabi, after all, had argued for the importance of essential forms, and Avicenna had denied free will (or at least, so he was understood). In short, the nominalist revolution, which Gillespie sees as fundamental to modern Western ideas of politics and science, was caused in part by a voluntarist reaction to the role of Islamic thinkers in preserving and developing ancient Greek philosophy.

The second context in which I encountered the figures you mentioned, in particular Al Farabi, involved the thought of the controversial conservative political philosopher, Leo Strauss, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany who spent most of his career in America. He was a fervent opponent of nominalism or historicism in any form, extolling instead the wisdom of the ancient Greeks. Strauss, who has been accused—rightly or wrongly--of inspiring some of the neo-conservative sponsors of the American invasion of Iraq, was in fact a great admirer of Al Farabi’s work on Plato’s Laws. Not only did he like Al Farabi’s preference for Plato over Socrates, by which he meant the precedence of objective truth over subjective judgment, but he also appreciated Al Farabi’s secretive way of presenting Plato’s thought. Strauss believed that the indirect and esoteric presentation of unpopular ideas was a way to avoid persecution, and he thought Al Farabi shared his belief in its value. It is ironic that Strauss, who defended the noble lies Plato had thought were necessary to delude the masses for their own good and whose followers were accused of inventing the threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, was also a great admirer of a celebrated Islamic thinker. You can’t always chose your disciples!

Q: What is the status of ethics in international relations? What is the relation between ethics and peace in international relations? How can we promote and deepen ethics in international relations?

A: The traditional dichotomy between “idealists” and “realists” in foreign policy, the former motivated by ethical concerns, the latter pragmatic ones, is unsatisfactory. It is perhaps more useful to borrow Max Weber’s distinction between two types of ethics, one of “ultimate ends,” the other of “responsibility,” to describe the conflicts that inevitably shape the interactions among sovereign states. The former suggests that sometimes states operate according to absolute principles, which they feel they must follow no matter the consequences. Thus, for example, it may be necessary to support a small country that is unjustly invaded by its neighbor, no matter the costs involved in intervening. Or it may be ethically intolerable to stand aside and merely observe from afar a government’s slaughtering of its own people, while that government hides behind the screen of national sovereignty. Although sovereignty in the sense of a people deciding its own destiny is itself a strong principle, which is violated at our peril, from the perspective of the “ethics of ultimate ends” it can be trumped by a higher humanitarian imperative.

In contrast, an “ethics of responsibility” will focus on the balance sheet of costs and benefits in pursuing any initiative, knowing that there are often unintended consequences in following absolute principles. Thus, it may well question a pacifist foreign policy that refuses to use force under any circumstances, because rather than leading to peace, it may produce the opposite. The obvious example is the appeasement of Hitler by well-intentioned statesmen in Britain and France before World War II. And of course, an intervention in the name of humanitarian values may at times be a cynical cover for darker motives. Here the ethical center of gravity must be placed on healthy consequences rather than good intentions.

The most obvious ethical dilemmas emerge when means and ends conflict. Thus a foreign policy that condones force to bring about peace often defeats itself by employing a cure that is worse than the disease. But one that seeks to be morally consistent and ethically pure risks failing to understand the realities of an imperfect world and thus is impotent to prevent worse disasters from ensuing. There is no formula that I can give to provide any guidance in the delicate balance that must be achieved by statesmen who have the weighty task of exercising their judgment without knowing what the outcome will be.

If there is one area in foreign relations where I think a clear-cut moral imperative always should trump raison d’état, it is in the treatment of individuals who are aliens on the soil of another country. Kant said that the right of hospitality is the most basic human right. If I seek asylum on your shores, you are obliged to give me shelter, at least until I can become independent again. Governments that use individuals as pawns in a larger struggle between states, turning them into victims of processes outside of their control, are acting unethically. The same might be said of such acts of violence as random suicide bombings, which destroy innocent lives in the service of an allegedly superior cause. There is no honor in or justification for the slaughter of innocents, who are sacrificed for some purpose that is more likely than not to be undermined by that very act. A government that ruthlessly uses such tactics—or supports surrogates to do their dirty work—forfeits any claim to the ethical high ground.

Martin Jay is the Sidney Hellman Ehrman Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley. He is a renowned intellectual historian and his research interests have been groundbreaking in connecting history with other academic and intellectual activities, such as the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School, other figures and methods in continental social theory, cultural criticism, and historiography among many others.

Source: MEHR News Agency


 Avicenna Scientific & Cultural Foundation - Avicenna Tomb - Hamadan - Iran

  +98 81 38263250 - +98 81 38275062