Date of Submission

Spring 2014

Academic Programs and Concentrations


Project Advisor 1

Jay Elliott

Abstract/Artist's Statement

The goal of this project is to visit a crucial moment in the history of philosophy, the circumstances of which afford today’s reader a glimpse of the discipline as it staggered under the force of theological attack and came to redefine itself in order to face what came to be a crisis of purpose. In the eleventh century, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali wrote a book titled The Incoherence of the Philosophers which challenged the core metaphysical doctrines of many of the day’s Arabic-language metaphysicians for heretical implications and underpinnings in their ideas, specifically linked to their notion of a pre-eternal world. Ghazali was a leading scholar in Baghdad and the book served as a sudden blitz in what was already a steadily gathering push-back by theologians against the Muslim world’s philosophical schools. In response to this, in the early twelfth century ibn Rushd (or “Averroes” in the Latin tradition) authored a tract which he called The Incoherence of the Incoherence. As part of his fundamental argument, Ghazali brings forward a conception of a will which is radically obscured and unknowable, such that not only the motivations of God but even the motivations of human beings cannot be reduced to a given set of worldly causes—a will whose primary function is differentiation, including that of things from their similar. Averroes on the other hand sets out what amounts to a kind of predestination in the case of human action, arguing that all actions can be explained in terms of rational desire and that all possible events in the world have a definite set of causes rooted in the movement of the heavens, while even the acts of God can be understood as the choice of what is best over what is bad. There is an essential link, in Ghazali’s account, between there being value in the world and the world’s being contingent upon an unknowable will, almost in a vulnerable way, so that the world is itself “like an individual” as he says.

This project will explicate and critically read Ghazali’s charges. It will provide a critical reading of ibn Tufayl’s Hayy ibn Yaqzhan, itself also a response to Ghazali, which asserts that the story offers an account of faith which neglects the problem of the individuation of souls and neglects the significance of prophecy as a way of ultimately skirting the question of will by taking the Other and the community of the faithful out of the picture until after Hayy already ‘knows’ God. The project will provide a critique of Averroes’ Incoherence which both embraces many of the refutations of arguments set forward by Ghazali but at the same time fundamentally disagrees with the determinism and predestination that ibn Rushd sets forward. It will find that Averroes’ account of Creation’s relation to the Necessary Existent (God) fails to provide a coherent alternative to Ghazali’s account of the same, and that Averroes ultimately shuns and effectively elides the will as such from his own ontology. It will conclude with a discussion of the significance to the present moment of such a judgment about an old and relatively obscure debate. This largely under-studied moment in the history of philosophy sets a groundwork for much European discussion in the following centuries. We will claim that it is out of this particular debate that the need for a transcendental reason arises in philosophy in order to salvage the tradition from theology’s encroachments.

Open Access Agreement

On-Campus only

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