Can philosophy save the Middle East?
I think it can contribute to diminishing tensions, but I don’t think it can save the Middle East. My wife sometimes jokingly says I should take down ISIS and that would guarantee me the Nobel Prize. But some people really have these very inflated expectations of philosophy and think it’s a panacea that can solve every problem. I don’t think so.
One example of where I think it can actually make a positive contribution is a series of workshops I did over the last few years. The first one took place at a Palestinian university in East Jerusalem. I co-taught a class there with the Palestinian intellectual and philosopher Sari Nusseibeh, who was also the president of the university. The basic idea was to read texts by Plato and the medieval Muslim and Jewish philosophers who build on Plato, and develop a philosophical interpretation of Islam and Judaism.
We started with Plato and one of the questions we discussed was ‘Is violence justified?’ That’s obviously a key question of both sides of the conflict in Israel-Palestine. Nusseibeh himself is a prominent advocate of non-violent resistance against the Israeli occupation, but non-violence is not a very popular idea among the average Palestinian citizen. Understandably: people get hit, they want to hit back. Nusseibeh argued that non-violence might be a more efficient means to achieve the ends that Palestinians want to achieve, namely ending the occupation and gaining sovereignty. His argument was that Israel is a kind of enlightened occupier, like the British in India. Non-violent resistance doesn’t always work, but it does work in some contexts. It worked in India and he thinks it would also work in Palestine.
“Loving the truth more than winning an argument. That is the key philosophical virtue.”
We had a very interesting discussion about that when we read Plato’s Republic, because one of the key virtues that Plato advocates in the Republic is self-control, he thinks it’s something every human being should develop. Without self-control, you cannot live according to the instructions of reason because your emotions will always push you to do things that go against reason. We discussed how self-control can help you not to hit back when you’re facing an aggressor, knowing that not hitting back will actually serve your purpose better. You hold back your anger, you take the hit and you do something that will be more efficient to defeat your opponent. I think you can see there how this philosophical idea of living according to reason via self-control can make a positive contribution in this particularly fraught Middle-Eastern context. Does that mean philosophy can save the Middle East? I wouldn’t go so far as to say that, but I think in different ways this being one of them it can make a contribution.
How receptive were your Palestinian students to this idea?
I think they saw the basic point that self-control is important if reason tells you, you shouldn’t have another piece of cake for health reasons or drink another glass of wine because you have to drive home. But not all of them were convinced that in this particular context reason advises not to hit back. Some of them argued: why should Israel get away with aggression? Why shouldn’t we hit back? One of the things I recall replying was that this idea of retaliation is very intelligible. If somebody were to hit a member of my family I would want to hit back. It’s normal; but that doesn’t mean that it’s morally justified. If one can really show non-violence is a more efficient way of getting sovereignty, of getting rid of the occupier, then I think non-violence would be the right thing to choose.
Do you think because Plato was a strong influence on early Islam that your students were predisposed to understand these ideas?
Plato had a considerable influence on medieval Islamic philosophers. It starts with al-Fārābī in the ninth and tenth century, who is among the first philosophers of this tradition called “falsafa” in Arabic: philosophers in the Islamic world who see themselves as inheriting the project of Plato and Aristotle and reviving it. Al-Fārābī wrote a commentary on Plato’s Laws. Often people say that this distinctive Platonic concept of the philosopher king re-emerges in the Islamic world as the prophet: an enlightened politician who gives a law that directs the community towards virtue.
But I wouldn’t say this has survived into the contemporary Muslim world. You have some parts of the Islamic world where this philosophic tradition lived on. Especially in the East, in Iran for example, you still have people who study these texts as live texts, so to speak. But I wouldn’t say that the average Muslim has some kind of affinity to Plato and that they therefore are open to these ideas. I think the contrary is true. Sari Nusseibeh himself once, for the sake of argument, defended this al-Fārābīan concept of the prophet-as-philosopher-king and he was rather aggressively attacked in the student press for having advocated a heretical concept of the prophet because according to Islamic tradition Muhammad was ummi, he was illiterate. Part of the argument for the validity and the truth of the Qu’ran is that an illiterate person could not have come up with such a text on his own. The beauty and the depth and the richness of this text shows that it must be divinely revealed. But if Muhammad was illiterate he cannot really be a philosopher. People saw Nusseibeh’s restatement of al-Fārābī’s view as a provocation.
He was literally attacked as well. In that context, philosophy becomes part of the conflict.
Yes, that’s right. In that particular instance it was just a verbal attack. But on other occasions he was beaten up, once, as he likes to tell the story, after he had given a lecture on tolerance and equality. People on the street often perceive him as a traitor because he has been consistent in trying to forge bilateral relations with Israel, especially with Israeli academia. So he’s seen as someone who is selling out Palestine, who is collaborating with the enemy. That was the background to the literal violence.
So doing philosophy in a fraught place like that comes with certain risks. I never saw Sari Nusseibeh without his four bodyguards. He is a very controversial figure. They would inspect the classroom before he came in and they would wait in front of the classroom until the class was finished, and he would often give me a ride back to West Jerusalem. I felt very safe with four body guards in the car. It’s a somewhat tense situation.
Plato’s Apology and Republic is your first book. You said you were often surprised by discussions with the people you spoke to who don’t approach Plato from an academic angle. How?
One of the fascinating things for me about this project was that I got to re-read texts in light of the concerns of people who are not part of the academic establishment, who read these texts in light of their real-life concerns. The Apology was one of the texts that I read with a group of lapsed Hasidic Jews in New York City. They lived a double life. Outwardly they kept up their ultra-Orthodox Jewish identity and were good members of the community and went to synagogue every Friday, and so forth. But inside, they were complete free-thinkers who had broken away from everything. Their idea of philosophy was that it is an essentially secular project. They think once you commit yourself to reason there is no space for religion whatsoever.
So we read the Apology and they were very surprised because Socrates is portrayed by Plato as a rather pious guy. His entire project is triggered by the Oracle at Delphi. He says he’s just carrying out the command of the god Apollo when he goes through Athens examining people and irritating them and provoking them. He says he has to obey God’s command and hence cannot give up philosophy, even if it’s going to cost him his life.
They were very puzzled by this. One of them had a theory that Socrates took a leap of faith. He arrived at the conclusion that the only thing he knows is that he knows nothing. That’s not very satisfying, so he embraced religion because reason doesn’t get you very far. But another made an even more interesting suggestion. He said, ‘Maybe Socrates died too early.’ I was very surprised, I said, ‘What do you mean, didn’t he live to seventy, or so?’ He said, ‘I didn’t lose my faith all at once, I lost is gradually, layer by layer: first, the things the Rabbis in our community would say didn’t make sense to me anymore and so I went back to the medieval commentators; then after a while the medieval commentators also didn’t make sense, so I went back to rabbinic literature; then the Talmud and the Mishnah didn’t make sense to me, so I went back to the Bible, and for a while I was proud that I was the only one in my community who stuck to the authentic word of God; but in the end the Bible also didn’t make sense to me anymore and then the bottom fell out and I fell into nihilism.’ His theory was that Socrates had not reached this final stage of repudiating religion and that’s why he remained pious, had he died a little later he would have fallen into nihilism just like this student had.
In your book, Teaching Plato in Palestine, you talk about discussing democracy with your students. I feel you’re quite ambivalent about how Plato and his elitist views about philosophers could actually be useful in a state of conflict.
I don’t know if Plato’s critique of democracy and of equality and freedom, which are the core values we were brought up with, can help with resolving conflicts. But I think reading Plato can be a Socratic exercise because you’re reading a text that is part of the canon of philosophy everyone reveres it but at the same time it advances views that are totally opposed to everything you believe in: equality, democracy, freedom. I think being faced with someone who argues throughout from positions that seem outlandish to you is a very good opportunity for you to critically reflect on your commitments. Many other medieval and ancient philosophers can have this function as well. Maimonides, for example, has an elaborate argument for coercion, imposing certain core beliefs by law on everyone. These are things that seem strange to us, but these were philosophers who were intelligent people, who thought for a long time about these things, and arrived at these conclusions. This creates a productive friction.
It’s also a question that came up in Brazil. Brazil is, from a philosophical point of view, a special place because the Brazilian parliament passed a law in 2008 that makes teaching of philosophy obligatory in every Brazilian high school. The reason they gave is that philosophy is necessary for good citizenship. I liked this idea and I wanted to see what it looks like on the ground, where it’s a little less promising. There was a strong French influence on philosophy in Brazil. French professors of philosophy argued that only the history of philosophy makes sense, but the history of philosophy doesn’t lend itself to public philosophy, where you want to use it to engage in democratic discussion. I said, ‘You can actually use the history of philosophy to trigger a discussion because many of these historical texts challenge the views we have today and can be a springboard into a broader discussion about the values that we strongly feel attached to’. I used Plato as an example for that purpose.
Do you think things like this law can make a difference to the way that we think? Or do you think it’s something more private and ineffable?
I am basically sympathetic to a law like that. One of the key ideas I advocate in the book is called a culture of debate: basically an intellectual framework where we can discuss issues that we deeply care about but also deeply disagree on across cultural and religious divides. I think the main benefit in engaging in such a culture is that we have a chance to critically think about the core convictions that we live by. I think philosophy can be useful to ground such a culture because deep disagreements in themselves will probably not generate interesting debates they will rather generate frustration, possibly war. But if you can transform deep disagreement into this culture of debate through philosophy then I think there’s a chance that we can make these tensions and clashes and conflicts actually useful: intellectually productive.
By philosophy, I mean philosophical techniques: logical and semantic tools that allow us to clarify what we mean, make an argument, respond to an argument, and certain philosophical virtues. Most importantly, I think loving the truth more than winning an argument. I think that’s the key philosophical virtue. This philosophy mandated by law is not a bad thing, it can really be a way of equipping citizens to have interesting debates and using their disagreements, and their conflicts and tensions, in an intellectually interesting way.
Book Two is al-Ghazālī’s The Deliverance from Error. Why did you choose this book?
Al-Ghazālī is one of the most important medieval Muslim theologians and his authority remains widely recognised today. The Deliverance from Error is a text that he wrote towards the end of his life and it’s an intellectual autobiography. He starts the text by describing the crisis of faith he had in his youth, when he realised he would have been just as fervent a Jew or Christian as he used to be a Muslim had he been brought up in a Jewish or Christian community. He realises his commitment to Islam was not based on deliberation and choice, but on what he calls the authority of parents and teachers: the contingent circumstances of his upbringing. It’s an excellent way of getting philosophic questions going, of getting people to question their own convictions, how did they acquire those convictions? Is it because they actually thought about them or simply because they were educated in this way and have internalised them?
Once he has lost trust in Islam, al-Ghazālī asks himself: what can I trust? What can I have faith in? Where can I get knowledge from? He turns to his senses and to his intellect as the two cognitive faculties that provide us with knowledge. It’s quite interestingly parallel to what Descartes does in the First Meditation. He dismisses his senses very quickly because they misrepresent things, the example he gives is that we look to the sky and see the sun the size of a dinar coin but of course astronomy tells us that the sun is many times bigger than the earth. Here the intellect corrects the mistake of the senses. Then the question arises: can we rally trust the intellect? He argues that it’s not impossible to think that there’s a cognitive faculty out there which identifies the mistakes of the intellect in the same way as the intellect identifies the mistakes of the senses. The fact that we don’t have that faculty doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Maybe there are other beings out thereangels or something like thatwho have that faculty in the same way as animals don’t have intellect but human beings do.
He basically calls into question his intellect as well and he ends in total scepticism. So, Islam he cannot trust, his senses he cannot trust, his intellect he cannot trust. The only way out for him is divine grace. God shines light into his heart, restores his faith in his cognitive faculties and then he embarks on a project of rebuilding his trust in Islam, and he does that by examining the four main competing interpretations of Islam in his time, proposed by theologians, philosophers, esotericists, and Sufis. He ultimately settles on the Sufi interpretation of Islam.
This is very helpful for me because you can use al-Ghazālī as a model for both fundamentally questioning your commitment to your religious tradition but then also for justifying an internal debate within a religious tradition. He shows there are competing interpretations, you have to choose between them, you have to examine them, you have to make up your mind. It helps me to motivate this idea of a culture of debate from within the Islamic tradition.
My initial reaction is that all of this questioning would lead everyone to become atheistic. But of course we have many societies in which many people are atheists, but they’ve inherited it either from their parents or the people around them. They don’t question it either. What would a society look like in which everyone had their own individual paths to truth?
I don’t think that philosophical reflection leads to atheism. It’s true today that if you look at philosophers, the very great majority of them are atheists and are committed to secularism and to naturalism and so forth. If you look at the history of philosophy almost no philosopher was an atheist. There’s always this commitment to God, and you have very elaborate philosophical arguments for religious doctrines. We know of many different kinds, from rationalist to existentialist: Kierkegaard and so forth.
So I think you would end up with a plurality of views, sometimes incompatible views, but they would just be more reflective, more intelligent, more sophisticated. But my sense is that people often stick to their core commitments. Some people do have conversion experiences, but it’s relatively rare. I think a more plausible expectation is that people would revise these commitments, and maybe reinterpret their traditions in the light of these revised commitments, and so see it as a gradual progression towards the truth.
Which is precisely what happens in your book?
In my book, there’s really no aspiration whatsoever to nail down an absolute truth, but there’s still a commitment to the idea that it is possible to work towards the truth. Basically, I make a case for fallibilism, that we shouldn’t trust our convictions too much because they may turn out to be wrong. We have to somehow have a strong concept of truth otherwise this whole idea of debating and trying to revise and get things clear and more consistent wouldn’t make sense. My own view is that there is such a thing as the objective truth, but we can never be sure we have grasped it, so the debate remains open.
Let’s move on to Maimonides. Speaking of this truth, do you think that the truth that he’s looking for is the same truth that al-Ghazālī is looking for?
I think basically yes. Neither of them is a sceptic about the truth, but al-Ghazālī ends up with a Sufi view and Maimonides remains a committed philosopher. Al-Ghazālī rejects the position that Maimonides advocates. But I think they both think that what they have found is the objective truth, even though they disagree on important issues.
Maimonides is probably the most important medieval Jewish philosopher. He lived in the twelfth century, he was born in Córdoba, like Averroës, his famous Muslim colleague. They were both brought up in this vibrant intellectual culture of Muslim Spain, so he’s committed to Plato and Aristotle in particular, but he’s also a committed Jew, like Averroës is a committed Muslim, I think this is what makes Maimonides particularly interesting for me. When there are tensions between his religious commitments and his philosophical commitments, he resolves them by reinterpreting his religious commitments in light of his philosophical commitments. I can give you an example. Maimonides, and also Averroës, both think the best way of proving God’s existence is this cosmological proof that Aristotle develops at the end of the Physics and in book 12 of the Metaphysics. Aristotle argues that there must be an incorporeal unmoved mover who accounts for the eternal circular motion of the celestial spheres around the world. Both Maimonides and Averroës claim that the first to establish this proof was actually not Aristotle but Abraham. They’re trying to embed their philosophical convictions at the very foundation of their religious tradition, since Abraham is a founding father of both Judaism and Islam.
Obviously no-one would want to defend this proof today, the cosmology has been blown up by the Copernican revolution. But I think the hermeneutical approach remains an interesting one. You could say a religious intellectual today arguably should reinterpret his religious tradition in light of his considered views about God, the world and the human good. Maimonides, Averroës, and philosophers of this kind, can teach us how to reconcile intellectual commitments with a religious tradition, if one is committed to such a tradition. I think without something of that kind the culture of debate I propose couldn’t really work. If you are a staunch literalist who thinks the literal meaning of the Bible, or the Quran or the Vedas, or whatever, trumps everything, then, when there’s a conflict between your considered views and the literal meaning of the Bible, you will always let the Bible win. You need this hermeneutic openness that Maimonides exemplifies.
It’s about creating elasticity.
In your book you write that Maimonides left a reading list to a student in which he recommends only Greek and Muslim writers. I wondered if he was himself read by Muslim writers?
A student approaches him and asks ‘What are the philosophical books worth reading?’ He writes back and provides a list, and on that list you don’t find a single Jewish author. You might find that a bit puzzling, he’s a Jewish philosopher, after all. As you said, he recommends Aristotle and his commentators, and then mostly Muslim philosophers that he values, he doesn’t value them as Muslims but he values them as philosophers. Maimonides says somewhere that one should listen to the truth from whoever says it. He would want to see that principle applied to him.
But he has written very little that is pure philosophy. He was mostly interested in this project of reinterpreting Judaism in a philosophical way. In addition, he wrote most of his books, and in particular his philosophical books, in Judeo-Arabic: in Arabic, but with Hebrew letters. Today there’s an Arabic transliteration of The Guide of the Perplexed, so Muslim students can read it with more ease. Through this somewhat accidental fact I think he has limited the readership. Certainly, when someone like Thomas Aquinas was thinking about how to reconcile his Christian commitments with Aristotle, he had Maimonides in Latin translation open on his desk. We know he had an impact on later Christian philosophers who were dealing with similar problems. Meister Eckhart is quite indebted to him and so forth.
Overall he didn’t have a huge impact on non-Jewish intellectuals. But he had a huge impact on the Jewish tradition. To this day Maimonides is an icon of enlightenment. Lots of hospitals and schools are named after him. In the Middle Ages he was an extremely controversial figure because the philosophical interpretation of Judaism that he advocated was one a lot of people felt unhappy about.
Let’s move on to John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, your fourth book. I was quite surprised to see this book on the list. Why did you choose it?
I see John Stuart Mill as an intellectual ally of sorts. I think in general it’s not so difficult to make an argument for a culture of debate from within a Western liberal framework. You can always say a culture of debate promotes autonomy because it promotes critical self-reflection and if you live your life in a reflective way you’re more autonomous than if you live it in an unreflective way. You get a version of that in Mill. Mill is a utilitarian, of course, and he thinks that our individuality is a key to our wellbeing. By individuality he means the particular set of talents and strengths that we have, that varies from one person to another. Self-realisation is really the key idea that he promotes. The problem he sees is that society tries to suppress individualism. He thinks social institutions like education and religion and politics always push you towards conformism. They try to impose certain sanctioned lifestyles and values and so you have to counteract this informal power of what he calls the tyranny of the majority. You have to fight for your individuality against the tyranny of the majority that tries to push you into predetermined lifestyles.
The way he thinks we can counteract this tyranny of the majority is through a vigorous culture of debate, where people are forced to think about their convictions and that will open up the space within which they can design a life plan that suits their talents and strengths.
“I realized a lot of my interlocutors weren’t interested in autonomy and self-realization, but in God’s will.”
What I realised over time is that I found this appealing because I grew up in a cultural context where individualism and self-realisation where very highly valued. Intuitively it makes sense to me. I then discovered, once I engaged in this project, and had discussions with people around the world, that a lot of my interlocutors were not so interested in autonomy and self-realisation. They were much more interested in living according to God’s will. I realised that I could not make a Millian case for a culture of debate if I wanted to get these people on board.
I’m wondering to what extent people who identify as part of a group that’s either a minority group, or potentially even a persecuted group, haven’t got very much space for identifying their own individual talents and strengths as they are necessarily involved in identifying as part of a group they see as under attack?
For them, I would say Mill is not so useful. But you could also say this situation in itself is not a good one. Once we have a society that doesn’t marginalise and suppress minorities, then you can start having a debate that goes beyond these collective identities. But again, I think beyond this question of collective identity, there are a lot of people who just don’t place a lot of value on individuality. It’s something that is very deeply ingrained in our Western culture. We think we have to somehow find our own way and do our own thing and be different from others and find our distinctive place in the universe. But a lot of people don’t share that ambition and so in that sense I think the Millian project is also a provincial one.
Perhaps my question reveals exactly what you’re talking about. Not only did I assume everyone would be atheistic if they were given individual autonomy, but also that they would desire that autonomy. So I clearly believe that my cultural preconceptions are simply the truth.
That seems to me to be something very natural. I think this is a fact about human psychology. We need some kind of experience of contestation in order to start calling into question the validity of our prejudices: in order to recognise our prejudices as prejudices and not mistake them for the truth. In theory, you could just sit in your armchair and start reflecting on your beliefs. But it seems to me that if we’re not challenged we don’t really make the effort of thinking about these things. I think that friction is a productive thing.
Book Five is Karl May’s Winnetou. Is it true for you, as it was apparently for Einstein, that your whole adolescence ‘stood under Karl May’s sign’?
In Germany, Karl May is a hugely popular nineteenth-century writer of youth literature. I think his most famous books are this Winnetou Trilogy. These are Wild-West novels, even though Karl May actually never travelled to North America. This is the Wild West of his imagination. They’re not very good novels, but they do very much shape every German boy’s imagination.
Winnetou himself is the chief of the Apaches, he’s this stereotypical ‘good savage’. He has a white brother-in-arms, whose name is Old Shatterhand. The novels are about the adventures they have together and how they help each other. At the end there is a Christian element. Winnetou sacrifices himself for Old Shatterhand, he takes a bullet and dies. I remember crying, and all my friends were crying. We would discuss Winnetou’s sad fate. It’s really one of the key books that most German boys read at a certain age.
I spend my formative childhood years in a small German town by the name of Maria Veen. My father had a job at the local high school there. But when I was about ten my parents decided they wanted to move back to Brazil, where they were born and grew up. They had fled from Brazil in the 1960s because of the military dictatorship. They came as political refugees to Germany and settled there. I was born there and my siblings were born there and we spent much of our childhood there. My parents deliberately brought us up as Germans as they didn’t want us to stand out and feel different. Then we moved to São Paulo, from this small town to this colossal city. It was a tremendous culture shock. Everything was different: climate, social norms, cuisine. I spoke the language, but still, it was something very very strange for me.
One of the most traumatic experiences I remember was that nobody in my new class knew about these heroes that shape every German boy’s imagination. Suddenly, this entire cultural frame of reference disappeared. My reaction to that was diaspora nationalism. I idolised everything German. I even forced my parents to go with us to a German restaurant every two weekseven though we had never eaten German food at homeand started putting down everything Brazilian, which was particularly twisted because I have two grandparents who are German Jews who got kicked out of Germany and went to Brazil. In retrospect it’s very embarrassing, the ethnocentric biases of my teenage judgements. But it was also a very clumsy first attempt to defend a certain way of living and a certain way of looking at things. Obviously, I wouldn’t want to go back to that. But I think it was a rather formative experience, an experience of puzzlement.
I think I experienced something of what al-Ghazālī describes: the contingency of our beliefs and values. Suddenly what used to be my world became a tiny spot far away and I realised that it’s not ‘the’ world, that you cannot simply universalise. People in other places do things very differently. I think this experience of disorientation, of alienation, and of displacement in some sense laid the foundation of some of these questions that have remained with me and form my book.
I’m interested in some of the intersections this book brings to our discussion. You’ve worked with an Iroquois community and, as you say, Karl May didn’t go to America but is writing about an Apache warrior, and imposing on him his Christian values.
When I went to Akwesasne, which is an Iroquois reservation on the border between Canada and the US, they asked me ‘what do you know about Iroquois culture?’ I said ‘very little’ and I showed them a photo from my childhood album, where I was actually dressed up as Winnetou.
Part of the idea was to not go in there as an expert, but to go in as someone who has prejudices and doesn’t know much and is ignorant and is willing to be challenged and willing to engage in a conversation without claiming any authority and knowledge. So I playfully referred to my childhood passion for Winnetou. They laughed about it and told me they were trying to turn the idea of the noble savage to their advantage. They were offering a week-long immersion into Iroquoi culture, and that the Iroquoi culture they construed was one that none of them lived but was geared towards the Western tourist who wants to have this kind of experience.
I think it’s good to inform yourself about the other, but I think it’s not a precondition for engaging in debate. You will never know everything about everything. I think the really non-negotiable prerequisite is that you’re willing to let yourself be challenged by others’ views and in the process learn about others. I think the foreignness and friction that occurs is a good thing. That’s a chance to then revise your views that may have been shaped by Karl May and Winnetou, and see how real Native Americans live and what the real problems they face are.
ADDITIONAL RECOMMENDATIONS FROM READERS (VIA TWITTER):
E.F. Schumacher’s A Guide for the Perplexed is also recommended, by me! Wikipedia has a better summary than I can do in 240 characters. But his 4 fields of knowledge offers a unique perspective crossing self and other, objective and subjective—@Tom_Ruen
Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at email@example.com
Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you've enjoyed this interview, please support us by donating a small amount.