Monday, 29 March 2010

Al-Farabi

Abu Nasr Al-Farabi (ca.870-950 CE) was born in Central Asia, apparently at Farab, though two separate locations are mentioned in the contradictory (and frequently legendary) sources. Some scholars have opined that he was probably of Turkish origin, though a critical contention is that his parents were of Persian descent. As a young man, he migrated west to Baghdad, then a primary centre of learning which attracted numerous bibliophiles and scholars. Europe was at that time a primitive backwater by comparison.

In Baghdad, Farabi acquired a wide knowledge of Greek philosophical texts, though he apparently did not know Greek. His teachers included the Christian logicians Yuhanna ibn Haylan (d. 910) and (reputedly) Abu Bishr Matta (d. 940), the latter being one of the celebrated translators of Greek philosophical texts (and more specifically Aristotelian) into Arabic. Farabi became an editor of Arabic translations from Greek; his expertise in logic and the sciences strongly reflects Aristotelian themes, though he also acknowledges Plato as a forerunner. He spent his last years at the Hamdanid court of Aleppo, prior to his death at Damascus. He eventually became known in Islam as the “second teacher” (al-muallim al-thani) after Aristotle.

Farabi is reported (by Ibn al-Qifti) to have adopted the ascetic robe of Sufis. This detail has provoked some disagreements; the reason for wearing such robes discernibly varied. The preference of Farabi might be explained by a celibate lifestyle (he is reported to have died a bachelor), though it is clear enough that Farabi was not a typical renunciate; his conceptual approach differed radically from pietist attitudes generally expressed by Sufis. Farabi basically exhibited an independence, his role denoting that “philosophy represented free thinking, or, better, the freedom to think” (Ian R. Netton, Al-Farabi and his School, London: Routledge, 1992, p. 7).

In this capacity, some say that he attempted a philosophical reconciliation of Aristotle with Islam, something of considerable relevance at that era. However, there are strong indications that Farabi considered philosophy to be superior to religion. The crux of the matter is that he contributed his own "neo-Aristotelian" philosophical system.

His corpus extends to over a hundred attributed works, though only a proportion of these have survived. Many of his extant works are devoted to logic and the philosophy of language. The confrontation between Greek and Arabic raised problems for philosophical solution in language. Many centuries before J. L. Austin (entry no. 5) and Wittgenstein (entry no. 8), Farabi made his own analysis of language, though in very different circumstances.

His logical works include both independent treatises and commentaries on Aristotle. Farabi was also much concerned with political philosophy, for which he is best known. His writings on metaphysics are a complex area, with some earlier interpretations being outdated, and attended by the issue of misattributed works.

Despite his Aristotelian abilities, Farabi adopted the Neoplatonist theme of emanation. Unlike others of that period, however, he is thought to have recognised that the Neoplatonist teaching, found in the influential Theology of Aristotle (a version of the Enneads of Plotinus), was not in fact Aristotelian. His standpoint has been considered ambiguous in this respect.

While his logical works are basically Aristotelian, his political philosophy has been described as Platonist in orientation. Farabi’s major work in this area is Mabade ara ahl al-Madinah al-Fadilah (Principles of the Opinions of the People of The Virtuous City). He was here concerned with the ideal political state and aberrations from the ideal, and to some extent is reminiscent of discussions in Plato’s Republic. Farabi’s version of the afterlife differed from the orthodox religious conception, instead relating to the stage of “acquired intellect” achievable by citizens of the “virtuous city.” See further M. Galston, Politics and Excellence: The Political Philosophy of Alfarabi (Princeton University Press, 1990).

“Alfarabi is notorious for the caution with which he writes” (J. Parens, An Islamic Philosophy of Virtuous Religions: Introducing Alfarabi, State University of New York Press, 2006, p. 5). That caution has been viewed in terms of a defensive measure against dogmatic attitudes which opposed rationalism. See also my web article On Islamic Philosophy (2008), section 1, about the falasifa.

Again, "Farabi's achievement is that he was the first philosopher who succeeded to internationalise Greek philosophy by creating in a language other than Greek a complex and sophisticated system far surpassing the elementary efforts of both the early medieval Latins and his Syriac predecessors." (D. Gutas, "Farabi iv. Farabi and Greek Philosophy," Encyclopaedia Iranica online.)

Farabi also notably composed the influential Ihsa al-Ulum (Enumeration of the Sciences). In this Arabic work, “Farabi outlined the bases for study in scientific disciplines as then known: the science of language, logic, mathematics, optics, astronomy (and astrology), statics (the science of weights), mechanics, physics, metaphysics, jurisprudence, rhetoric, and music" (Shepherd, Meaning in Anthropos, pp. 171-2).

The Ihsa was translated into Latin during the twelfth century, under the new title of De Scientis. This proved a key text in the early transmission of Aristotelian thought to Christendom, even though Farabi (alias Alpharabius) was translated to a lesser extent than his successors Avicenna and Averroes.

The designation “School of Al-Farabi” has been applied to certain other diverse tenth century thinkers. Yahya ibn Adi (d. 974) was a Christian logician and a pupil of Farabi. There was also Abu Sulayman al-Sijistani (d. 987/8), a distinctive pupil of Yahya who became influential in Baghdad. A more diverging figure was Abu Hayyan al-Tauhidi (d.c. 1023), a commentator who has been described as an eclectic “philosophico-mystic” with a disposition to both Neoplatonist and Sufi thinking. An independent entity was Abu’l Hasan al-Amiri (d. 992), a philosopher with some Sufi tendencies. (See further Netton, Al-Farabi and his School, pp. 8ff.).

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
March 29th 2010

ENTRY no. 17

Copyright © 2010 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.


Saturday, 20 March 2010

Muslims and Europeans

In defiance of various ethnocentric attitudes, in "doing philosophy" I will invoke cross-cultural vistas in the treatment on this blog, as I have already done in my books. This gesture does not merely imply a diachronic assessment of thought via historical circumstances, but a recognition of recurring trends in different linguistic formats and at different angles of mentation. In the next several entries, I propose to mention some basic features in the careers of six philosophers, three of them medieval Muslims, and three of them modern Europeans. More specifically, I am referring to Al-Farabi, Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Ibn Rushd (Averroes), Sir Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, and Baruch Spinoza. 

The first three in this list are primary representatives of falsafa (Islamic philosophy as derived from the Greeks), the fourth was a committed inductionist and empiric, while the two lastmentioned entities were innovative rationalists in the European “gentlemanly amateur” tradition.

The selection is thus fairly wide-ranging. The ethnic features are varied. Farabi was a Turk or Iranian, Averroes a Spanish Arab, Ibn Sina an Iranian, Bacon a British politician, Descartes a French Catholic radical, and Spinoza a freethinking Jew. Taken together, they exhibit a spectrum of philosophical attitudes. Some study is called for, especially in the case of the first three figures. A blog format of description can only indicate a few of the complexities.


Most Western readers are only familiar with the last three entities. It is worth repeating here that Bacon, Descartes, and Spinoza pioneered two dispositions that were basically foreign to most of their academic contemporaries. Many of those contemporaries were Aristotelians of a formal category deriving from the days of the Christian Schoolmen. They had not got effective answers in their worldview, as scientists like Galileo and Kepler discovered. Modern Western philosophy was born in the “citizen” sectors. The academics were then very substantially uncomprehending, though retrospectively they have been far more generous.


The Islamic phase dimensions of philosophy have customarily been relegated in the Western tradition. Even Bryan Magee, the “populariser of philosophy” and advocate of the progressive Yale syllabus (entry no. 6 above) failed to incorporate reference to the falasifa (Muslim philosophers) in his The Story of Philosophy (London: Dorling Kindersley, 1998), a compact coverage favouring 2,500 years of Western philosophy, and basically moving from the Greeks to the moderns. The gaps are rather substantial. 


Magee did state (in brackets) that “cultural contact with the Arab world in the 12th and 13th centuries was to have altogether a transforming effect on European intellectual development, and not only with regard to Aristotle” (ibid., p. 55).


Kevin R. D. Shepherd
March 20th 2010


ENTRY no. 16 


Copyright © 2010 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Summation So Far

This blog series has been commenting on diverse angles of analytical academic philosophy and the unofficial conceptualism of citizen philosophy. The Cambridge and Oxford traditions were profiled (entries 2-8), with some Continental extensions in logical positivism (entry no. 9).

My own angle has been broached, in the form known as interdisciplinary anthropography, or philosophy of culture (entry no. 10). The distinction between different forms of independent philosophy has been stressed, and in relation to the frequent preferences for Nietzsche (entry no. 11).

Factors involved in controversy about the integral theory of Ken Wilber have been mentioned (entry no. 12). Reservations have been expressed about the contemporary mindset in the commercial guise of Mind, Body, Spirit (entry no. 13), which has been part of the decline in literature. The phenomena of contemporary pseudomysticism are repudiated (entry no. 14), and including the manifestations of "cult" thinking that have become notorious.


The citizen way forward must be far more disciplined than the panaceas offered in the commercial mindset of pop-mysticism. For instance, in referring to the history of religion, due critical ballast should be provided in recourse to specialist sources.

The history of philosophy is not popular today. No apology need be offered for approaching that subject in a more flexible sense than is found in some academic versions, and in a more rigorous sense than is found in the popular dismissals preferring so-called “holistic” conveniences which omit analysis in favour of fantasy.

With regard to the history of religion, I have recently proffered the web article Early Sufism in Iran and Central Asia (2010). The subject involved is distanced from the field of conventional philosophy, but is not an insurmountable problem for an independent thinker. I would maintain here the relevance of investigating an international phenomenon extending from the Near East to Central Asia (and India in later centuries). Analysis of the topographical and conceptual features of the early Islamic cultural landscape are inseparable from the varied explanations for mystical religion (now known as Sufism) in evidence amongst Islamicist scholars. The majoritarian thinking process in the Islamic milieux eventually eschewed the heritage of Greek philosophy, but that is no barrier to intercultural analysis.

With regard to the history of philosophy, one should continue to be broad-ranging rather than unduly selective. From Bertrand Russell and Richard Rorty to Descartes and Kant, there is ample room in retrospect for flexible thought and potential insights. In addition, Plato, Aristotle, Al-Farabi, Ibn Rushd, and many others of more distant centuries can still be honoured, and doubtless with some surprises in store around committed corners of the mentation effort.

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
March 13th 2010

ENTRY no. 15

Copyright © 2010 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Pseudomysticism and Cults

The stance of an analytical citizen philosopher does not mean any form of convergence with popular beliefs. Quite to the contrary, at least in my case. Philosophy denotes a discipline of mind and exposition, and compromises are potentially disastrous.

I believe that the viable form of philosophical exercise extends to psychology, sociology, logic, language, history, biography, metaphysics, and yet other channels of analysis. For instance, the difficult subject of metaphysics is no barrier to philosophical commitment, and can be argued for and against with many permutations. To be convincing, the subject has to be closely argued with due reference points. This is just not the same procedure as one tends to find in the widespread “alternative thought” clich├ęs so closely associated with the confusing post-1950s American “new spirituality” trend.

The 1960s “Me” decade of pseudo-enlightenment left ongoing symptoms of debility in contemporary thinking processes. Simplistic refrains are still taken for granted, and the word “therapy” looms large in too many versions of supposed spirituality. Countercultural Americans of the neo-hippy ambience elevated therapy to the status of a mystical achievement. The Esalen commerce in alternative thought disliked philosophical rigour, which was and is unfashionable in sectors of “Inner Science” and related claims.


The general confusion is staggering when duly analysed. The field under discussion is ripe for linguistic and other forms of appraisal, which could perhaps never be exacting enough at the present time. The idioms employed to capture commercial therapy clients and nominally “holistic” subscribers have been nauseating for many years. The pseudo-holistic commercial adventure so frequently subsists upon banal language and suggestion.

The “workshop” vogue was imported from America to Britain and Europe, providing a career income for numerous entrepreneurs in the spurious esoteric. Some of this is on detailed record. The surfeits of pop-mysticism are not merely erratic, but totally misleading in too many instances. For some indications, see my web article Findhorn Foundation Commercial Mysticism (2008); Stephen J. Castro, Hypocrisy and Dissent within the Findhorn Foundation (Forres: New Media, 1996), chapter six.

Another pitfall was supplied by the “guru cults” and related phenomena. These have varied from relatively harmless religious sects to predatory activities, and also suppressive strategies conducted against dissidents. An early danger signal was afforded by the Rajneesh sect which transplanted to Oregon from India in the 1980s. Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (Osho) became noted for the sponsorship of reckless alternative therapy of the neo-Reichian type. This was strongly implicated as one factor causing belligerent attitudes within the sect at Oregon, where a group of Rajneeshi women resorted to terrorist acts of food-poisoning in the local area. The American authorities had to intervene, and Rajneesh was deported. See further L.F. Carter, Charisma and Control in Rajneeshpuram (Cambridge University Press, 1990). See also my web article Cults and suspect parties (2008).

A recent source has gained widespread interest for an account of discrepancies in the activity of “neo-Advaita” and “crazy wisdom” guru Andrew Cohen. See William Yenner, American Guru (2009). Yenner was a leading participant in Cohen’s community EnlightenNext for thirteen years. A related website describes the book as “documenting a history of abuses that Cohen and many of his current devotees have gone to great lengths to conceal.” See also the review by Professor David Christopher Lane.

My first three websites profiled some anomalies in the popular field of presumed “spirituality.” Psychologists, psychiatrists, medics, the victim support organisations, and yet other agencies, have been more than a little concerned at the drawbacks in evidence, which amount to rather more than the well known controversies about Scientology. The factor of solicitor correspondence in a case of dissident complaints has aroused interest in my web article Kate Thomas and the Findhorn Foundation (2009), especially in view of UN sanctions obtained by the alternative organisation concerned.

In future, it is not the claims to prowess that must be taken seriously, but the visible repression of dissidents by any suspect organisation. There is the further demerit of extremist verbal aggression displayed towards outsiders by some sectarian movements. See Internet Terrorist Gerald Joe Moreno (2009) and Hate Campaign Blogs (2010).

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
March 5th 2010

ENTRY no. 14

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© 2010 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.