The Cambridge Companion to Arabic Philosophy

I must have bought The Cambridge companion to Islamic Philosophy while visiting the CUP book-shot in the tail of 2007: all I know for sure is that I was reading it, early in 2008, when I and some friends visited the Middle East. It has been an eye-opening book to read, for all that I have yet (in Spring 2011) to finish reading it.

European philosophy tends to trace its roots back to the Hellenic culture – principally Socrates, Aristotle, Plato and Archimedes. That is not inaccurate: but the tracing tends to skip over the interval between the late-Hellenic culture, over which the Roman empires (Western and, more relevantly, Eastern) ruled, and the late-Mediæval and Renaissance philosophers on whose work European traditions pretend the origins of Science were built. This book covers the interval that conventional history ignores.

(This paragraph is my opinion: the book discussed does not speak on the topic.) Europe's proto-feudal era was characterized by war-lords who gained power with the aid of warriors – whose priorities purported to revolve around honour but, in practice, revolved around their share of the loot, their liberty to rape during victory and the bards' willingness to sing their praises (which, in turn, depended on the bards' gladness in receiving gold) – until enough power was consolidated in the hands of few enough such lords that these could see their best interests were parallel to those of the actual creators (not the warrior-appropriators) of wealth: the farmers, crafters and artisans. Rulers who understood that the source of their wealth was those who actually did work, that created valuable goods, began to see that the thugs who extracted this wealth from its creators were both an impediment to the creators' enthusiasm for doing the work that would create wealth and an expensive way of collecting a slice of that wealth. Wise lords saw that they could end up with a larger slice of the wealth created if they employed fewer thugs to collect it and imposed rules on those thugs that would assure the actual creators of wealth a larger share of the wealth they created. One problem remained: they'd gained their power by having more thugs than the lord from whom they took power; now they needed to be rid of their surplus thugs. Circumstances provided an excuse: Jerusalem fell to adherents of Islam and some in The Church called for aid to bring it under the control of Christian powers. Rulers eager to rid themselves of thugs could, with the public appearance of piety, send their surplus thugs (especially the ones less able to understand how to adapt to tax-collection on a basis of from each according to his ability) away to a far off land and a losable war (the relevant Islamic culture was, frankly, civilized and technologically sophisticated – where Europe was not – and far enough away that losing really didn't matter). The dumber rulers could be persuaded by their kin (such as Prince John of England) to go with the thugs and share their fate. Europe benefited greatly, in the short term – although, sadly, the whole cynical mess of Crusades managed to pollute Islam with the concept of holy war (intifada), with consequences the wise in both cultures can only lament. Many decent folk, on both sides, got caught up in the resulting holy wars and, thankfully, some of them talked to each other and shared ideas. Europeans were the main beneficiaries of this: and took sophisticated culture back with them to their barbaric homes. One side-effect of this was to introduce Europe to the culture of the ancients – in parallel with the Christian conquest of Spain (also considered, by its participants, a crusade), which was also home to some of the richest Islamic cultural traditions. In the aftermath, christian Europe re-established cultural contact with valuable Hellenic sources – but did so via Islamic cultures with which christian Europe was, at the time, at war: so chose not to credit for its contributions.

The cultural baggage of the ancient Greeks was kept alive by the Eastern Roman Empire long after Rome itself fell; while Europe descended into barbarism and feudalism, Constantinople (and Ireland) kept the flame of civilization alive. When Islam swept through the Middle East, it actually preserved, learned from and expanded upon the sophisticated philosophy of the ancients, that it acquired from the last remnants of The Eastern Empire. It developed its own interpretations of (particularly, but not exclusively) the Socratic/Aristotelean/Platonic philosophy. In particular, it developed ways of accommodating Hellenistic philosophy (with its inherent polytheism) to a monotheistic theology: these were, later, to serve as the foundation on which Christian theologian/philosophers were able to build an academic system that would ultimately present a theologically-acceptable form of late-Hellenistic philosophy. This (at the expense of pretending to ignore the Islamic intermediaries via whom Europe had received it) made it possible for European culture to set aside Christianity's essentially anti-intellectual grundnorms for long enough to allow what we now know as science to get the tips of its digits into the rock-face of reality.

This book tells the story of what happened, in the Islamic world, that transmuted the Hellenistic raw material into the subtle matter that Europe transformed into its sophisticated post-Renaissance theology, alchemy and – eventually – the foundations of natural philosophy (which we now call science).

My favourite chapter is 14: Natural Philosophy. Among other crucial topics, it deals with the clash between continualism and atomism. The former sees the continuity of the world about us, especially evident in motion; the latter addresses the discreteness of matter, which is particularly hard to comprehend if space (and hence, presumably, matter) is the same everywhere. Each deals with the challenge of the phenomenon of motion in a world (which each accepts as properly described by an idea) of particular positions and moments (when a thing is there). The conflict between atomism and continualism has existed for roughly as long as mathematics and philosophy (and, thus, for longer than the distinction between the two – let alone the late-comer, physics); and is essentially at the heart of the philosophical complications of quantum-mechanics (where the old contrast is transformed into wave-particle and position-momentum dualities). The Arab philosophers of a millennium before my birth were as astute, interesting and illuminating as (but also as wrong as) anyone from the intervening history, that I have read (including the Copenhagen School and their contemporaries).

Classical (i.e. post-Gauss) mathematics resolved the conflict between atomist points and a continuum in an impressively effective manner (that, none the less, relegates continuity to a derivative property whose very articulation depends on mathematical tools – principally reductio – which we are now obliged to treat with some suspicion). The modern theories of quantum mechanics have given a new twist to this story: the fusion of wave and particle – of position and (dual) momentum – necessarily requires a conception of the continuum in which a function and its Fourier transform are granted equal status.

See also


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