Imagination is a Powerful Tool: Why is Philosophy Afraid of It? – By Amy Kind

Exploding Raphaelesque Head, 1951, Salvador Dali, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, Scotland

Philosophers have a love-hate relationship with the imagination. René Descartes, for one, disparaged it as ‘more of a hindrance than a help’ in answering the most profound questions about the nature of existence. Trying to imagine one’s way towards metaphysical truth, he wrote in Meditations on First Philosophy (1641), is as foolish as falling asleep in the hope of obtaining a clearer picture of the world through dreams.

Yet Descartes also relied heavily on imagination in scientific and mathematical essays such as The World (1633), in which he tried to conjure up the details of the basic building blocks for structures such as humans, animals and machines. According to the philosopher Dennis Sepper at the University of Dallas, Descartes relied upon a kind of ‘biplanar’ imagination, pioneered by Plato, in which one level of reality could embody and display relations that existed on a different level, and vice versa.

The Scottish philosopher David Hume was equally conflicted about the imagination – especially when compared with perception and memory. ‘When we remember any past event, the idea of it flows in upon the mind in a forcible manner,’ he wrote in A Treatise of Human Nature (1738-40). But imagined images and sensations, he continued, are ‘faint and languid, and cannot without difficulty be preserved by the mind steady and uniform for any considerable time’. However, Hume also claimed that humans are most free when they’re engaging in imagination. Perception can show us only the actual, he said, but imagination can go beyond that, to the realm of the maybe, the what-if and if-only. Indeed, ‘nothing we imagine is absolutely impossible,’ Hume said.

What’s behind this apparent tension at the heart of the imagination? Hume put his finger on it when he talked about how our facility for fantasy helps us to move beyond and change our present reality. One need only think of how Leonardo da Vinci’s fantastical flying machines paved the way for the Wright brothers, or how H G Wells’s novel The War of the Worlds (1898) inspired the first liquid-fuelled space rocket, to see the truth of this insight. But imagination is also restricted by the extent of our previous perceptions and experiences, Hume said. ‘Let us chase our imagination to the heavens, or to the utmost limits of the Universe; we never really advance a step beyond ourselves,’ he wrote.

One way to resolve such ambivalence would be to divide the imagination into different kinds. Along these lines, towards the end of the 18th century, Immanuel Kant distinguished two forms of imagination: the productive imagination and reproductive imagination. The productive faculty is what helps to synthesise and transform sensory content into a meaningful whole. So the identification of something with pointy ears and fur, which meows and rubs itself against your legs, is brought together via the productive imagination into the form of a cat. This unifying tendency is implanted in every human mind irrespective of experience. For Kant, our productive imagination is what makes perception possible.

By contrast, the reproductive imagination is largely about recollection. When a story comes on the radio about a long-lost cat who has found its way home, you draw from the many cats you’ve seen before to picture the heartwarming scene; this would be the reproductive imagination at work. Because the reproductive faculty works only with materials previously provided to someone’s senses, it is subject to the kind of limits Hume discussed.

Kant’s bifurcation hints at why philosophers treat the imagination with both despair and delight. Perhaps the kind of imagination we despise is totally different from its more useful cousin. But in accepting this subdivision, we give up on the possibility of seeing the imagination as a unified mental faculty – which is perhaps more how we experience it.

When I think of all the wondrous things we can do with the imagination, I’m inclined towards a different way of unravelling its enigmatic duality. Rather than slicing up the imagination into distinct kinds, we might think about its distinct uses. I like to call these the transcendent and the instructive functions of the imagination. On the one hand, when we pretend, or fantasise, or escape into an engrossing work of literary fiction, imagination can take us beyond the here and now. On the other hand, when we imagine in an attempt to make sense of what other people are thinking, or to problem-solve or to make decisions, our speculations are used to help us understand the here and now. Whereas our transcendent uses of the imagination tend towards whimsy and fancy, its instructive functions point towards the practical and the concrete.

In both these modes, the secret to success seems to lie in the application of a kind of imaginative constraint. But what’s right for one use might not be fitting for the other. Perhaps the reason why philosophers have been conflicted about the imagination is that they haven’t grasped how limitations need to be tailored to circumstances. When we are writing fiction, or playing games of pretend, or making art, arguably we do our best imagining by setting the boundaries widely or removing the shackles entirely. In contrast, when we employ imagination in the context of scientific or technological discovery, or any other real-world problem-solving, we must allow our imaginations to be framed by the situation at hand.

Figuring out where to draw these lines isn’t easy. It can be extraordinarily tricky to know which factors should stay in play, and which should be eliminated. But by looking at how such constraints operate, not only can we see our way towards imaginative greatness – perhaps we can also purge philosophy of its anxiety about the idea. After all, as Hume observed, humans ‘are mightily govern’d by the imagination’.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

~ Amy Kind is professor of philosophy at Claremont McKenna College in California. She is the author of Persons and Personal Identity (2015). (Bio credit: Aeon)

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Happy Birthday, John Locke!

John Locke, lithograph by de Fonroug after H. Garnier, image public domain via the Library of Congress

John Locke, born August 29th, 1632, is probably the single person most responsible for our United States political form of government, or at least its philosophical underpinnings. (Montesquieu can be credited as most responsible for its form, but that’s a story for another time.) The ideas of this Enlightenment, empiricist philosopher and political theorist included arguments in favor of liberal government of and by the people centered on natural rights, including property rights and rights to freedom of thought and belief; an emphasis on reason inspired and restrained by evidence; and the so-called blank slate theory of the human mind, which postulates that experience entirely determines what we think and kind of person we become.

There’s an excellent, very approachable introductory short biography of Jonn Locke written by Patrick J. Connolly for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy which I recommend. And Locke’s ideas are explored often here at Ordinary Philosophy as well.

Learn more about this great and oh-so-influential thinker at:

‘John Locke’  – by William Uzgalis for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

John Locke Part One and Part Two – podcast episodes by Stephen West for Philosophize This

John Locke 1632-1704 – Dr. Rachael Kohn discusses Locke’s life and ideas with Perez Zagorin for The Ark, a program of Australia’s Radio International

The Social Contract – Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss this foundational question of political philosophy, which was the impetus for Locke’s political theory  – ‘By what authority does a government govern?’ for In Our Time. 

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

On the Value of Intellectuals, by Brad Kent

“George Bernard Shaw near St Neots from the Millership collection” from the Birmingham Museums Trust, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

In times of populism, soundbites, and policy-by-Twitter such as we live in today, the first victims to suffer the slings and arrows of the demagogues are intellectuals. These people have been demonised for prioritising the very thing that defines them: the intellect, or finely reasoned and sound argument. As we celebrate the 161st birthday of Bernard Shaw, one of the most gifted, influential, and well-known intellectuals to have lived, we might use the occasion to reassess the value of intellectuals to a healthy society and why those in power see them as such threats.

Born in Dublin on 26 July 1856 to a father who held heterodox religious opinions and a mother who moved in artistic circles, Shaw was perhaps bound to be unconventional. By age 19 he was convinced that his native Ireland was little more than an uncouth backwater–the national revival had yet to see the light of day–so he established himself in London in order to conquer English letters. He then took his sweet time to do it. In the roughly quarter of a century between his arrival in the metropole and when he finally had a modicum of success, Shaw wrote five novels–most of which remained unpublished until his later years–and eked out a living as a journalist, reviewing music, art, books, and theatre. That eminently readable journalism has been collected in many fine editions, and we see in it an earnest individual not only engaged in assessing the qualities of the material before him–much of which was dreadfully insipid–but eager to raise standards and to cultivate the public. He prodded people to want more and gave them the tools to understand what a better art would look and sound like. And he did so in an inimitable voice that fashioned his renowned alter ego: the great showman and controversialist, GBS.

“George Bernard Shaw, circa 1900” from the Library of Congress, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Shaw became more widely known as a playwright in late 1904, when King Edward broke his chair laughing at the Royal Command performance of Shaw’s play John Bull’s Other Island. He was no longer a journalist by trade, now being able to live by his plays, but Shaw continued to write essays, articles, and letters-to-the-editor in leading papers to set the record straight, to denounce abuses of power, and to suggest more humane courses of action. When he published his plays, he wrote polemical prefaces to accompany them that are sometimes longer than the plays themselves. These prefaces, written on an exhausting range of subjects, are equally learned and entertaining. Indeed, it has been said by some wags that the plays are the price that we pay for his prefaces.

In many ways continuing his fine work as the Fabian Society’s main pamphleteer in the 1890s, his prefaces suggest remedies for the great injustices of his time. And, what’s more, the vast majority of his prescriptions are as topical and provocative today. For example, if you’re American, should you opt for Trumpcare or Obamacare? Read The Doctor’s Dilemma and its preface and you’ll have a compelling case for neither, but rather a comprehensive and fully accessible public healthcare system, the sort now common in Canada and most European countries. That’s right, people were feeling the Bern–we might say the original Bern–well before Mr. Sanders was born.

Some of Shaw’s opinions came at a great cost. When he published Common Sense About the War, which was critical of both German and British jingoism at the outset of the Great War, he ran too much against the grain of the hyper-patriotic press and government propaganda, thereby becoming a pariah to many. But his star gradually returned into the ascendant as the body count mounted and a war-weary population came to share his point of view. The run-away international success of Saint Joan brought him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925 and, as Shaw said, gave him the air of sanctity in his later years.

“George Bernard Shaw with Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, May 1949”, from Nehru Memorial Museum & Library. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

However, Shaw always maintained that he was immoral to the bone. He was immoral in the sense that, as a committed socialist in a liberal capitalist society, he didn’t support contemporary mores. Instead, he sought to change the way that society was structured and to do so he proposed absolutely immoral policies. A good number of these beyond universal healthcare have seen the light of day, such as education that prioritises the child’s development and sense of self-worth, the dismantling of the injustices of colonial rule, and voting rights for women. But those in power continue the old tug-of-war, and the intellectuals of today must be as vigilant, courageous, and energetic as Shaw in the defence of liberal humanist and social democratic values. Witness the return of unaffordable tertiary education in the UK, made possible by both Labour and Conservative policies.  We might recall that Shaw co-founded one of these institutions–the renowned London School of Economics–because he believed in their public good.

Whenever Shaw toured the globe in his later decades–he died in 1950 at age 94–he was met by leading politicians, celebrities, and intellectuals who wanted to bask in his wit, wisdom, and benevolence (Jawaharlal Nehru, Charlie Chaplin, and Albert Einstein are a few such people). Time magazine named him amongst the ten most famous people in the world–alongside Hitler and the Pope. Everywhere he went, the press hounded him for a quote. Yet despite the massive fees he could have charged, he never accepted money for his opinions, just as he had declined speaking fees in his poorer days when he travelled Britain to give up to six three-hour lectures a week to praise the benefits of social democracy. He would not be bought–or suffer the appearance of being bought.

On his birthday, then, we would do well to think of Shaw and maybe even read some of his plays, prefaces, or journalism. We might also cherish the service and immorality of intellectuals. And we should always question the motives of those who denigrate their value.

This piece was originally published in OUPBlog: Oxford University Press’s Academic Insights for the Thinking World

A Walk to Calton Hill, Edinburgh, Scotland

Green fields and an old stone wall after a summer rain, Edinburgh, Scotland

Journal: Calton Hill, Edinburgh, early Saturday evening, August 12th

Right now, I’m tucked into a little sort of alcove formed by a guardrail behind me and an old cast iron fence in front of me, sitting on one of the concrete guardrail supports, resting my back on the end of the wide rail, with my feet up on the stone wall from which the cast iron posts rise. The slope of the hill behind Arthur’s Seat and the abbey ruins on the Holyrood Palace grounds are in my view. I’m eating an early dinner (or late tea) of sharp cheddar, an apple, a tangerine, and gingerbread which I brought with me, and a lightly salted, crusted pillowy pretzel and tiny bottle of wine which I picked up on my way here.

A view from my walk on Alnwickhill Rd north to Edinburgh’s city center with Arthur’s Seat in the background

Arthur’s Seat looms larger and the castle enters the view in the distance to the left, walking north along Liberton… perhaps Brae, perhaps Road, the one becomes the latter as you head north

I slept off much of my jet lag yesterday, last night well into the morning, with a break of wakefulness to sit down for a celebratory carvery dinner – with Yorkshire pudding, oh joy! – and beer, then grocery shopping. Much of this morning and early afternoon was spent on letters, working on my history of ideas travel articles for Ordinary Philosophy, going through photos of my journey of the last few weeks for that series, and a very, very long hot bath. It was raining pretty steadily all that time and it’s Saturday during the annual, world famous Fringe Festival, so it was not a good day to go hiking or taking care of business or commence job-hunting. Not that I minded at all. My room is cheery and cozy and I passed the first part of the day very pleasantly and unhurriedly.

Shops and cafes line Clerk Street

More shops and cafes on bustling Newington Road. The showy peacockian array of vintage clothing in the shop window catches my eye. I have a long background working with vintage clothing and these are very nice specimens

The crowds thicken considerably as I draw near to central Edinburgh

But as soon as I left the bath, it felt like it was time to go out. I was suddenly eager to see the lovely city I first fell in love with about three and a half years ago. It’s about an hour and a half walk from where I’m staying and I need the exercise, so I decide to go on foot. I love walking, and it’s a great way to get a detailed sense of the lay of the land between the city center and where I’m staying at the southern end of town near the city bypass. It’s sprinkling on and off a little, but I don’t mind. I’ll likely get tired of the damp and cold over time, but the last few weeks traveling through the United States have been mostly oppressively hot. It felt good today to put on a light wool sweater and not to be flushed and soaked in sweat after only a few moments of activity.

On the Royal Mile, the crowds meld into a dense throng attending Fringe Festival. During this famous, international event, the city population grows by about a third, even though many of the locals leave for vacation during this time to escape the hubbub and overcrowding

The route north to Calton Hill is pretty straightforward. After about a mile you clearly see Calton Hill and the Castle most of the way, so it’s very easy to orient yourself. I passed by petite and tidy suburban row houses, old and even ancient standalone ones, stone walls ditto, and even in one place, to my surprise, small crop fields [on subsequent thought, I think it’s a golf course, it just looks different than many American ones]. These gave way to taller, fancier buildings, new apartments, large handsome older row homes, parks, rows of shops with flats over them, then fancier homes, then tall handsome guest houses, and then, suddenly, I was in the city proper. It’s usual for Edinburgh’s old city to be very busy in tourist season but today, it’s absolutely packed, thronged with festival goers interspersed with those locals who have not fled the city, gritting their teeth as they try to reach their destinations through the hordes.

A view of Edinburgh’s New Town from the North Bridge. Sir Walter Scott’s darkly romantic neo-gothic monument rises prominently from the center of that stretch of Prince Street

A view of Calton Hill from the North Bridge

David Hume’s mausoleum and a monument to Scottish American soldiers featuring Abraham Lincoln at Old Calton Burial Ground at the foot of Calton Hill. I think it’s a beautiful thing that a great emancipator of the human person has a monument next to that of a great emancipator of human thought

I reached Calton Hill and turned into the cemetery gates to my right and paid my respects at the tomb of my man, the great Enlightenment philosopher David Hume. It was through him I met this lovely city, and he who inspired me to apply to the University of Edinburgh which he attended as a young prodigy of twelve years old.

His monument is beautiful, a neoclassical structure with clean lines, embellished just enough with a frieze of flowers and a carved urn. Other family members are buried here with him. The monument was built to reflect Hume’s wishes about the kind of monument he’d prefer if one was to be built for him; it was designed by his architect friend about a year after his death. He didn’t want anything too fancy. It’s near the base of the hill, just down the street from where the scenic walkway named for Hume circles the crown of the hill and its monuments. He successfully lobbied the town council for this path to be built so that the local people could take their exercise in a wholesome and beautiful environment readily accessible from the crowded, dirty, often dark and dank city. In this as in so many other ways, he’s totally my type of guy.

The doorway to David Hume’s mausoleum, Calton Hill, Edinburgh

I look forward so much to learning more about his life, thought, and legacy in my upcoming year here in Edinburgh. If, indeed, it’s only a year. Who knows, I may get even more hooked on this place and find myself here longer…

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

My view of a slope of Arthur’s Seat and the abbey ruins from my little picnic alcove tucked between the guardrail and the iron fence, Calton Hill

Happy Birthday, W.V.O. Quine!

WVO Quine on the Bluenose II in Halifax, Nova Scotia, photo courtesy of Douglas Quine (cropped)

WVO Quine on the Bluenose II in Halifax, Nova Scotia, photo courtesy of Douglas Quine

The emphases in my own education in philosophy were Ethics, Politics, and Law, so I didn’t spend as much time studying Willard Van Orman Quine’s great contributions to philosophy as I would like. However, if my focus was Mathematical Logic, Epistemology, Philosophy of Language, or Philosophy of Science, I would have spent a lot of time with the prodigious output of his remarkable intelligence. But one of his important observations is brought up in introductory philosophy classes generally, an epistemological (having to do with knowledge) quandary: Given that science continuously makes new discoveries, sometimes in the process overturning and replacing earlier theories, how can we ever say that we actually know anything about the world? Science relies on the fact that all theories are subject to revision, expansion, and being proved wrong. Does this mean, then, there’s no such thing as knowledge, since, in theory, anything we claim to know may be disproved by later discoveries?

For Quine, there is no dividing line between science and philosophy; they are interconnected ways of discovering and understanding the world. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it, Quine ‘denies that there is a distinctively philosophical standpoint, which might, for example, allow philosophical reflection to prescribe standards to science as a whole. He holds that all of our attempts at knowledge are subject to those standards of evidence and justification which are most explicitly displayed, and most successfully implemented, in the natural sciences. This applies to philosophy as well as to other branches of knowledge.’ The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy says further, ‘…Quine often appeals to [Otto] Neurath’s metaphor of science as a boat, where changes need to be made piece by piece while we stay afloat, and not when docked at port. He further emphasizes that both the philosopher and scientist are in the same boat (1960, 3; 1981, 72, 178). The Quinean philosopher then begins from within the ongoing system of knowledge provided by science, and proceeds to use science in order to understand science. …his use of the term “science” applies quite broadly referring not simply to the ‘hard’ or natural sciences, but also including psychology, economics, sociology, and even history (Quine 1995, 19; also see Quine 1997). But a more substantive reason centers on his view that all knowledge strives to provide a true understanding of the world and is then responsive to observation as the ultimate test of its claims…’

Oh, and he played the mandolin and piano, and learned a lot of languages just so he could deliver his lectures in the native language of the audience. Whatta guy!

Learn more about the great W.V.O. Quine:

W. V. Quine, Philosopher Who Analyzed Language and Reality, Dies at 92 – by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt for The New York Times, Dec 29, 2000

Willard Van Orman Quine – by Peter Hylton for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Willard Van Orman Quine: Philosophy of Science – by Robert Sinclair for The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Willard Van Orman Quine, 1908-2000: Philosopher and Mathematician – Website by Douglas B. Quine, W.V.O. Quine’s son

Willard Van Orman Quine – by Luke Mastin for The Basics of Philosophy: A huge subject broken down into manageable chunks

Willard Van Orman Quine – In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Is it Moral to Respect the Wishes of the Dead, Above the Living? By Barry Lam

Imagine what a country would be like if every person could secure a vote in elections that happened after their death. If you stated your preferences in your will, you could execute a vote for the conservative, liberal, Asian, or White Separatist candidate, in every election, in perpetuity, and your vote would compete with the votes of the living. Imagine that a legal structure were erected to execute the wishes of the dead, and that the law would side with the dead even when their wishes conflicted with the needs of the living, or with the wellbeing of future generations.

We have overwhelmingly good moral reasons to reject such a society. We believe that with death comes the loss of the right to influence the political institutions of the living. Yet this kind of moral clarity disappears as soon as we move from politics to wealth. There is a huge industry dedicated to executing the wishes of human beings after their death. Through endowments, charitable trusts, dynasty trusts, and inheritance law, trillions of dollars in the US economy and many legal institutions at all levels are tied up in executing the wishes of wealthy people who died long ago. The UK does not fall far behind. As wealth inequality increases, the wealthy today are earmarking large amounts of money from the future economy to carry out their current wishes. The practice is so deeply ingrained in the culture of elite institutions, and such a ubiquitous feature of life, that only in obscure journals in law and philanthropy does anyone express concern about the justice of the practice.

In the US, the wealthy continue to own and grow wealth after their death, and the state can enforce the spending wishes of the dead in many ways. For instance, you may require, as a condition of inheritance, that your grandchildren marry within a religious faith, or that a school be named after you, forbidding a change in name even if the school would otherwise go bankrupt. Alternatively, an individual may secure current and future wealth in a tax-sheltered trust only for descendants, where the money can both grow and be shielded from creditors in perpetuity. A third legal instrument is the charitable trust, where the dead can earmark current and future wealth to some particular purpose considered ‘charitable’ where such purposes are now broad enough to include anything from the care of abandoned guinea pigs to the preservation of Huey military aircraft. Non-profit institutions such as hospitals, museums and universities can have large amounts of their spending constrained by the wishes of dead donors, such as that there be an endowed professorship for the study of parapsychology, or that a certain wing must be set aside for housing individuals of Confederate ancestry.

These practices are, on reflection, quite puzzling. Ideas about what is good to do in the world ought to change with the changing conditions of the world. Funding cancer research is good only in a world in which there is cancer. Giving distant descendants enormous amounts of wealth is good only if they are not sociopaths. And yet, we allow such power to those who are no longer around to know about the world, and who cannot be harmed or benefited any longer from such spending.

In fact, the idea that the dead could lose their rights to control the future is familiar in our moral lives, and this idea gets reflected elsewhere in the law. The state does not enforce your desire that your spouse not remarry. Even if your spouse promises this to you on your deathbed, it would not be illegal for her to break this promise. Businesses do not feel obligated to carry out the wishes of their now-dead founders, even if those founders had strong preferences about the future of the business. These kinds of posthumous desires carry little weight in our deliberations about what we should do now, and we certainly do not erect legal institutions to enforce these kinds of preferences.

However, when it comes to the wishes of the dead with respect to their personal wealth, we grant them many rights. And when you start adding up the wealth tied to the dead, the amount is staggering, likely in the trillions. The current state of wealth inequality together with the ongoing practice of honouring the wishes of the dead, could result in a future economy that will reflect the preferences of a past aristocracy, rather than the majority of those living. Respecting the wishes of the dead can lead to serious intergenerational economic injustice.

William Shakespeare’s last will and testament

The irony of our current practices is that we the living are to blame for sabotaging our own wellbeing. The dead are not around to complain if we were to change these practices; these are our institutions, and any pain we inflict on ourselves from being worse off but for the preferences of the dead cannot honestly be held against the dead. We do not need perpetual trusts to incentivise spending for charitable purposes. Many philanthropists today such as Bill Gates understand that there is greater charitable impact from spending done within one’s lifetime, which is the foundation of the Giving Pledge.

So why do we continue to give the dead such eternal rights? I believe we honour the wishes of the dead out of a misplaced sense of moral duty, as we would feel if we made a deathbed promise to a loved one. But deathbed promises are not unconditional, eternal, nor must they be satisfied at serious self-interested, financial, or moral, cost to the living. They are, instead, a lot like living promises. If I promise my child some candy but, through no fault of my own, the only available candy must be acquired at serious moral cost to some current candy-owner, it is not morally obligatory to fulfil this promise. A promise itself holds some moral weight, but not overriding moral weight.

Another reason we do this is that we have a self-interested desire that our own interests and values be preserved by future people after our own death, on pain that we disappear from the world without any legacy of influence. This existential fear we overcome by permitting institutions to honour the wishes of the dead in order to guarantee a place for our wishes in the future. But it is time to recognise the vanity and narcissism of the practice, and do what is actually best for the living, which is to have the living determine it for themselves.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

~ Barry Lam is associate professor of philosophy at Vassar College, New York state, and is Humanities-Writ Large fellow at Duke University in North Carolina. He hosts and produces the philosophy podcast Hi-Phi Nation, and lives in Poughkeepsie, NY. (Bio credit: Aeon)

* Note: Barry’s podcast episode on this same topic is excellent, I highly recommend you give it a listen!

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

When Philosophy Needed Muslims, Jews and Christians Alike, by Peter Adamson

From The Three Philosophers, attributed to Giorgione, ca. early 1500’s. It likely portrays a young Italian philosopher, Averroes, and Plato

If you were asked to name the most important philosopher of 10th-century Baghdad, you would presumably not hesitate to say ‘al-Farabi’. He’s one of the few thinkers of the Islamic world known to non-specialists, deservedly so given his ambitious reworking of Platonic and Aristotelian metaphysics and political philosophy. But if you were yourself a resident of 10th-century Baghdad, you might more likely think of Yahya ibn ‘Adi. He is hardly a household name now, but was mentioned by the historian al-Mas‘udi as the only significant teacher of Aristotelian philosophy in his day. But ibn ‘Adi is not just a good example of how fame wanes across the centuries. He is also a fine illustration of the inter-religious nature of philosophy in the Islamic world.

Ibn ‘Adi was a Christian, as were most of the members of the group of philosophers who wrote commentaries on Aristotle at this time in Baghdad. The Muslim al-Farabi, who was apparently ibn ‘Adi’s teacher, was an exception to the rule. Completing the ecumenical picture, ibn ‘Adi was involved in an exchange of letters with a Jewish scholar named Ibn Abi Sa‘id al-Mawsili, who wrote to him with questions about Aristotle’s philosophy that he was hoping to have cleared up. Admittedly, Baghdad was an exceptional place, the capital of empire and thus a melting pot that drew scholars from all over the Islamic world. But philosophy was an interfaith phenomenon in other times and places too. The best example is surely Islamic Spain, celebrated for its culture of convivencia (‘living together’). Two of the greatest medieval thinkers, the Muslim Averroes and the Jew Maimonides, were rough contemporaries who both hailed from al-Andalus. After Toledo fell into the hands of the Christians, the Jew Avendauth collaborated with the Christian Gundisalvi to translate a work by the Muslim thinker Avicenna from Arabic into Latin.

That last example is a revealing one. Philosophy in these times often involved representatives of different faiths because it often presupposed translation. Hardly any philosophers of the Islamic world could read Greek, not even Averroes, the greatest commentator on Aristotle. He and other Muslim enthusiasts for Hellenic wisdom had to rely on translations, which had mostly been executed by Christians in the 8th to 10th centuries. Knowledge of Greek had been maintained by Christian scholars in Byzantine Syria, which explains why Muslim patrons turned to Christians to render works by Aristotle, Ptolemy, Galen and many other ancient thinkers into Arabic. Thus the very existence of Hellenic-inspired philosophy in the Islamic world was a manifestation of inter-religious cooperation.

All of which is not to say that the Islamic world was free of inter-religious dispute. On the contrary, it seems that one reason those Muslim patrons were interested in Aristotle was that his logic would give them the tools to keep up with Christian opponents in theological debate. A vivid example is provided by al-Kindi, the first Muslim thinker to draw on Hellenic sources. He wrote a short refutation of the Trinity in which he used Greek logic to argue that God must be wholly one, not one and three – mentioning that Christian readers should be able to follow the argument, given their familiarity with logical concepts. A nice twist to the story is that we know of this refutation only thanks to the aforementioned ibn ‘Adi, who quoted al-Kindi in order then to rebut his attack on the Christian dogma.

While men such as al-Kindi were appropriating Greek ideas to defend Islam and attack Christianity, others disapproved of the importation of these same ideas into Muslim culture: al-Kindi responded to unnamed critics who deplored the use of pagan philosophy, and the founder of the Christian Baghdad school got into a public dispute with a Muslim grammarian over the usefulness of Aristotle’s logic. The grammarian mocked the pretensions of the Christian Aristotelians, and delighted in pointing out that all this logic had not prevented them from believing that God can somehow be both one and three.

Still, it remains the case that philosophy and the sciences more generally offered a kind of meeting point or neutral ground for intellectuals of different faiths. Muslims, Christians and Jews who shared an interest in Aristotle’s metaphysics or the medical theories of Galen read each others’ commentaries and elaborations on the Hellenic tradition. This is shown even by the disputes that they had with one another: using Greek logic to debate the Trinity implicitly suggested that this was a topic that could be resolved by appeal to reason. And many of the thinkers mentioned above argued that philosophy offered the best resource for the interpretation of sacred texts, whether the Torah, the Christian Bible, or the Quran. So it is no coincidence that in the Muslim al-Kindi, the Christian ibn ‘Adi, and the Jew Maimonides, the One God of Abrahamic tradition bears a striking resemblance to the god of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Their shared enterprise as elite philosophers meant that they had more in common with one another than they did with most of their co-religionists.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Peter Adamson is a professor of philosophy at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. He is the author of several books, including The Arabic Plotinus (2002) and Great Medieval Thinkers: al-Kindi (2007) and Philosophy in the Islamic World (2016), and hosts the History of Philosophy podcast. (Bio credit: Aeon)

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