This is the first installment of a new series I’m starting called “Philosopher Fridays“. The purpose of this series is not to give a comprehensive overview of any particular thinker, but rather to explain what I find compelling in the work of each, particularly as it informs my view of narrative, language, images, storytelling, and reason. I tend to find myself preoccupied with questions about metaphysics, myth, science, nature, math, and magic, so there will probably be a healthy dose of those elements in this series as well. Though none of this post is drawn from previously course work, I have written lightly on Averroes as a graduate student and thus likely owe some of my understanding of the text to my professor, with whom I also worked as a teaching assistant for an undergraduate medieval survey.
AVERROES: Known to the Latin world as Averroes, Abu al-Walid Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Rushd was a Muslim philosopher and theologian who lived in Spain from 1126—1198 AD. For a thorough overview, his entry in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) is the place to go. For my purposes here, it’ll suffice to say that Averroes was part of a tradition of Islamic theology that flourished during the Arabic Golden Age of science. Greek teachings that became foundational to Christian Scholasticism were kept safe through the commentaries and transcriptions and writings Islamic thinkers, who engaged in spirited debate about the validity of philosophy in the face of religion. Theirs was the question of the relationship between faith and reason, whether the two were compatible or mutually exclusive. In his Decisive Treatise, Averroes not only argues that philosophy and theology can be used in tandem, but goes so far as to say that religion demands the use of reason. The Quran actually commands that we engage in intellectual reflection on all matters.
This is all extremely fascinating, but what keeps me coming back to Averroes is his treatment of the meaning of scripture and its relation to the human intellect. What keeps me coming back is what he says about the power of words – what they can and cannot do.
In the Decisive Treatise, Averroes explains that there are three ways that we can come to understand Truth: through demonstrative reason, through the acceptance of scripture just as it is, and through the interpretation of scripture.
Demonstrative Reason is the tool of the philosophers. Without the aid of scripture, truly brilliant philosophers like Aristotle are able to look directly into the created word and deduce from it certain unassailable truths. Truth is in written into the very fabric of reality, and if we are clever enough, we can find it through abstract reasoning and logic and come to understand reality with a high level of precision.
While it sounds ideal, the reality is that this is a nearly impossible feat for mere mortals to achieve. The precision that demonstration can grant us is a double edged sword – it gives clarity if you get it right, but if you’re at all incorrect, the entire model can be wrong (as scientists later found out with Aristotle). In his Philosophical Investigations, 20th Century German philosopher Wittgenstein gives us an excellent metaphor for this. Imagine that the Truth (real, capital T truth) is a rectangle. In order to provide demonstrative knowledge of this Truth, a philosopher has to figure out its exact dimensions and line their description up perfectly with reality. It can’t be off at all, or else it’ll miss the mark. There’s no “almost” involved in trying to line up two rectangles with precision. You’re either right, or you’re wrong.
The Rhetorical Way is for the common masses, and is essentially the opposite of Philosophical Demonstration. According to Averroes, most people lack the mental facility to figure things out for themselves, and so must rely solely on Scripture, which is infallibly true. If you accept the truth of Quranic scripture, you will have the truth in your mind and your soul, without needing any critical faculties to sort it out. Take it as it is presented, and you will have Truth.
However, it’s Truth in a broad sense – it lacks the precision and quantifiability of Demonstrable truths. Continuing with Wittgenstein’s rectangle metaphor, it would be like trying to line up a fuzzy edged rectangle with the original – it’ll overlap the precise reality of things easily, but it won’t give you a clear view. It contains the truth in a way that most people can handle.
In between these two paths is the way of the Theologian – the Dialectical Way. This is essentially a combination of the previous two ways to Truth in that it applies the critical mental skills of demonstration to Scripture in order to abstract from the apparent text a hidden meaning and interpretation that can be reapplied in various circumstances. Essentially, the theologian is looking for the moral of the story, interpreting scripture for a more precise way of thinking of about reality.
This too, is flawed. It’s incredibly easy, Averroes warns, to overestimate your ability to interpret things, and so it’s incredibly easy to draw the wrong conclusion from the text, and not realize it. The danger here is that people can pull themselves away from the truth of scripture, and form different factions of Islam that would fight over their differences.
What I love about this is that no matter which path you take, you could potentially access the same Truth – just in different ways, to different degrees of accuracy and precision. I love to think about my main goals in writing. In my philosophical work I often attempt to convey the same idea as in my fiction writing, but I’m not sure if I’ll ever achieve any level of congruence between the two. I’m much too chicken to truly commit to specific ideas in my philosophical work, and so I’m hoping that I have a shot at communicating my message in a fuzzy, less precise way, through stories.
There’s a lot more to chew on in Averroes’ corpus, but this is the idea that keeps me coming back – I want to know how truths can be contained in stories, and conveyed by them. I want to understand the relationship between the contemplative realm of logical demonstration and the imaginative realm of rhetoric. And I want to find the connection between the two – the dialectical connection.
His work is difficult to read, but it’s worthwhile. I also enjoy his commentary on Plato’s Republic – while Averroes is noted for his Aristotelianism, there’s so much to be gained by comparing him with Plato on the power and importance of images and stories (particularly Book III of the Republic). But more on that in a future edition of Philosopher Fridays.
Check back next week for the next installment, where I will discuss Hannah Arendt.