Thursday, April 3, 2014

519: Aristotle and the Arab philosophers

At a given moment in history, when a society is not primarily occupied with hunting, gathering and farming to survive, it gets time to think beyond that.

We have seen it in Chinese culture, Indian culture and in Greece. And eventually we see it happen in Arabic culture too a 1000 years later than in Greece.

It was the advent of the Abbasid Caliphate (750–1258) that signaled the beginnings of an interest in philosophy on the part of the ruling elite. 

This was manifested itself in a translation movement which in the first place translated Syriac texts of philosophy into Arabic, but which later turned to the Aristotelian texts themselves and the commentaries written on them in late antiquity.

Syriac is a dialect of Middle Aramaic that was once spoken across much of the Fertile Crescent and Eastern Arabia. I already mentioned it in the previous lecture in relation to the origins of the Quran.

Having first appeared as a script in the 1st century AD after being spoken as an unwritten language for five centuries, Classical Syriac became a major literary language throughout the Middle East from the 4th to the 8th centuries.

The situation is thus: The function of the Prophet is to reveal the religious law (shari‘a) while the Imam unveils gradually to his disciples the inner meaning (batin) of the revelation through the ta’wil, which is going back to the original meaning of the Quran.

But there is more than just the explanation of meaning of words and statements. Man can’t be stopped to think past beliefs, question beliefs.

And this confronts us with the more fundamental questions like: Is this statement true? And if true, is it necessarily true or just accidentally? How do you validate the truth of a statement?

In fact, such questions belong to the greatest discoveries of our mind, because they ask for the way the mind operates in understanding life, the world.

You could say that after the standard religious answer in the form of a theological text, in this case the Quran, philosophers take the questioning one step further. They begin to reason.

We all reason. We try to figure out what is so, reasoning on the basis of what we already know. We try to persuade others that something is so by giving them reasons. 

Keep in mind that this is common practice for us today, but in 790 CE this was innovative knowledge, new ways of looking at things, a formalized way of reasoning: logic.

Logic is the study of what counts as a good reason for what. and why. You have to understand this claim in a certain way, though. 'Here are two bits of reasoning - logicians call them inferences:

1. Rome is the capital of Italy, and this plane lands in Rome; so the plane lands in Italy.
2. Moscow is the capital of the USA; so you can't go to Moscow without going to the USA.

In each case, the claims before the 'so' - logicians call them premisses - are giving reasons; the claims after the ·so' - logicians call them conclusions- are what the reasons are supposed to be reasons for. 

The first piece of reasoning is fine; but the second is pretty hopeless, and wouldn't persuade anyone with an elementary knowledge of geography: the premiss, that Moscow is the capital of the USA, is simply false. 

Notice, though, that if the premiss had been true- if, say, the USA had bought the whole of Russia (not just Alaska) and had moved the White House to Moscow to be nearer the centres of power in Europe - the conclusion would indeed have been true. 

It would have followed from the premisses; and that is what logic is concerned with. It is not concerned with whether the premisses of an inference are true or false.

What philosophers became aware of was the fact, that there is a proposition which is in a way prior to every other truth: it is prior because it is a proposition which anyone who knows anything must accept and because it is impossible actually to disbelieve it. 

Which proposition that is and which the Arab philosophers learnt from Aristotle, I’ll reveal in the next lecture unless of course you already know or can guess…^_^

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