Transcript: 152 - Richard Taylor on Averroes

Averroes scholar Richard C. Taylor joins Peter to talk about Averroes' views on the relation between Islam and philosophy.
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Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

PA: Today's episode will be an interview about Averroes with Richard C. Taylor, who is a professor of philosophy at Marquette University. So thanks for coming on to talk about Averroes, we're going to focus on the extent to which his philosophy is consistent with the Islamic religion, and whether he himself thought there might be tensions between philosophy and Islam. Perhaps you could start by addressing his use in a work that I've already talked about in an earlier episode, the so called "Decisive Treatise". He actually uses a phrase "truth does not contradict truth", and I was thinking maybe we could start by having you say something about that.

RT: That's an interesting way to start, I have to say, but I want to start earlier with the title because I don't like the title "Decisive Treatise". I think right from the beginning, it causes a kind of misunderstanding of what the treatise is about. So I take it more literally following a Tunisian scholar named al-Ghannouchi, and he renders it as "the distinction of discourse". And so I think it's a treatise that distinguishes different kinds of discourse in various ways - a discourse that is appropriate for the masses, a kind of rhetorical discourse, a discourse that is dialectical in nature, where it assumes certain things, certain principles of religion, and then a further discourse, which is philosophical. As I see it, the philosophical discourse in the treatise (which is explicitly a legal treatise) is a subtext underneath the religious treatise.

PA: So the Arabic title is "Faṣl al-Maqāl", and so you're saying "Faṣl" means distinction, and "Maqāl" is just something you would say. So it's a distinction between different ways of speaking.

RT:  That is right, different sorts of discourse, and this is following the view of al-Fārābī to some extent, in the Book of Religion and other works, but Averroes has his own way of doing this. What's important in this then, you raise the question of this text about "truth does not contradict truth", and as you know, I discovered this hidden away but in fact, it's a quotation from Aristotle's Prior Analytics - which is completely unsuitable to have in a religious treatise that is based on principles of religion. And this has remained hidden from all the translators and commentators up to the year 2000.

PA: Until you!

RT: Well, yeah, I found it but it became an interpretive key for me, an understanding, because now what I will say is, this is a treatise on distinction of discourse, but the question is, whether the three discourses can intersect. 3.00

PA: But isn't there also a question about whether different discourses can get at the truth, I mean, relating what you just said about distinction of discourse to the quotation "truth does not contradict truth" - is the idea that the truth that you establish through demonstration and philosophy cannot contradict the truth that you establish in dialectic or rhetoric - is that the point?

RT: No, the point the point is, in fact, the reverse. So, there is there is a level of understanding and a discourse over the rhetorical kind, and there is a discourse that is suitable for religion. But those discourses cannot contradict the truth. And so philosophy, in his own account, must ultimately be what decides the truth with regard to discourse. So he will later say, that when it comes to matters of religion, where there are different understandings of a certain scriptural passage, then ultimately, the decision on the meaning of that passage will have to be determined through scientific consideration of what the truth is. This is clear right at the beginning of the treatise, where he talks about, we must use the appropriate kind of qiyās, which in a religious context means religious analogy. 

So the Prophet acted in a certain way, described in one of the hadīths or something, and then we should analogically apply it today on how we should act. So for example, the prohibition on wine today should analogically be also a prohibition on cocaine and other drugs and that sort of thing, because they distort the mind and the ability of the mind to be open to the presence of God. So that's the religious principle. But the term qiyās, Averroes equivocates on, the term qiyās means syllogism. And then he goes on to say that in religious matters, we should use the most appropriate and perfect kind of qiyās, and he says the most perfect kind of qiyās is burhān, which is philosophical demonstration. So the ultimate criterion in all of this will be philosophical, and he makes it quite clear even in the Decisive Treatise, that the criterion is philosophical. 

So to come back to the point then - it isn't that these three discourses cannot intersect. But when a judgement is available through a philosophical discourse, then scriptural understandings must be reinterpreted in accordance with the truth that is available per se, in the philosophical science of demonstration, a truth which, in rhetorical context, or this religious context, the truth is hit upon only per accidens, not per se. This is back to Aristotle's notion, that demonstration itself is scientific understanding. 5.40

PA: Well, let's take a look then at some of the actual topics where you might think there's a tension then between philosophy and religion. And let's start with God - an obvious place to start. The Qurān describes God as a merciful and wise creator of the universe, and certainly Averroes agrees that there is a God, and that God is the cause of the universe. What difference does it make to his reading of the Qurān, that he brings a philosophical conception of God as a cause?

RT: Well, given the account that we just had, that there's a certain priority of truth to philosophy, because truth cannot contradict truth, but bears witness to itself in every way. So we can't have multiple levels and multiple kinds of truth. We can have ways of discussing things, modes of discourse. But ultimately, if we want to judge something with regard to truth, we have to use the best science available. Now, in the case of God, the best science available will be the philosophical science, understanding the true nature of God, which does not work with analogies and metaphors as much as religion does, and does not have as its end, the bringing about of certain beliefs in people to motivate their actions in a certain way. But rather the end of philosophy is truth. 

Practical philosophy can be about action, but even then, it's in the sense of truth in action, and moral virtue, so he can integrate that. So in the case of God, one has to understand, then what is the nature of God as first cause and the kind of causality that God has. And if we're going to stay with this notion that philosophy is the primacy of truth, in Averroes' metaphysics, God cannot be an efficient cause, that is, He cannot be a maker directly. And so while Averroes himself can say the world is caused by God, and that God is merciful, and many other things, these images give the sense of a God who can intervene at any time in the world, and do things outside the regular norm of actions - and that is not what Averroes is about. Rather, if God is a final cause for things, that is, God is a goal and an end and perfection, toward which all reality strives and tries to perfect itself because God is the primary instance of being. And so everything strives to actualize itself as much as it can, within the limits of its nature. That striving itself is caused by God as the perfect end or goal that everything strives toward. Therefore, God is the cause of the universe,

PA: But he doesn't make it happen the way that I might make a ball roll across a table by pushing the ball?

RT: That's right, and you can pray to God as much as you like, but you don't change God's mind, so to speak. And this gets him also into some difficulties about the issue of whether as a final cause, what does it mean to say God hears your prayers? 8.35

PA: And in fact, something I already mentioned is that the Qurān certainly could not be clearer that God is merciful and benevolent. So how, given this conception of God, could Averroes say that God exercises providence or mercy over us?

RT: I think it's a great mercy that God has given us a beautiful day today. And the sky is clear, and it won't be raining. And we have this earth that we live on, and can breathe and have the excellent lives that we do, we can do podcasts, and have all kinds of communication. And so clearly, God is merciful and benevolent to allow us to have these opportunities.

PA: So His mercy and benevolence is exercised more in the way that He sets the world up in general, rather than taking care that each individual event turns out the right way - would that be fair?

RT: I think that's very that's a good way to say it, except it's wrong right from the beginning - because you said God sets it up. 9.30

PA: Oh, right. So what you mean is that God's being the goal or final cause of everything, yields a universe that is well ordered?

RT: Yes. And this is for Averroes as philosopher - while he will have a different mode of discourse speaking as a religious judge, because in that context he is working with the religious language and meanings for people - but philosophically, then this is creation, the ontological dependence of all reality where God by this final causality draws things from potentiality into actuality. And the very being of things is their actualized being. And that is, as all things strive toward the perfection that is God. So while the language may be the language of efficient causality or pushing and pulling, in fact, it's more the model that God draws things toward Him as God is the ultimate object of love and fulfillment for all beings.

PA: Right, so and of course, he believes that the world is eternal, as well. So it's an eternal process, which is just constantly going on.

RT: It also involves though that God is then in some way, eternally present to each and every being in the universe, drawing it toward God.

PA: One thing that I'm curious about on this view is to go back to the contrast I was drawing between the universal and the particular. I mean, I've already covered a long time ago, the view of Alexander of Aphrodisias who is one of Averroes' main sources, and Alexander thought that the divine providence exercised over the universe really only extends down to the level of general order and species, for example. So providence will ensure that there are giraffes but won't ensure that each individual giraffe has anything particular happen to it. And I'm wondering whether the final causation that is exercised by God on Averroes' view, would extend to things like ensuring that we're having this conversation right now? Or does it only ensure that, for example, there are humans, there are sunny days, maybe even that there are podcasts, but not that you and I are sitting here right now having this podcast conversation?

RT: So your question boils down to whether there is, we'd say in philosophy, that whether there is particular providence?

PA: Yeah.

RT: God wanted us as individuals to get together for this podcast.

PA: Yeah, right.

RT: And that would contradict his following of Alexander of Aphrodisias on the cosmos. And he does follow Alexander quite precisely on this. I want to push something else though a little bit more. He does mention something about the preservation of species and he is quite explicit - God's providence does not act with regard to individuals, but it does work at the level of species. But I think that can be easily misunderstood because it isn't as though God knows species. Because he says elsewhere several times he makes it very clear that God does not have knowledge of particulars or universals. And because if God would know particulars, He would have to have senses and He would be posterior to the particulars, that is, the things would have to exist there, and then God would come to know.

PA: He would find out about them by looking and seeing, as it were.

RT: Yes and even universals, you have to look at particulars to form the universal concept.

PA: But if He doesn't know particulars, and He doesn't know universals, it doesn't sound like there is anything left?

RT: Well, I have got to be careful though, at the mention of species from Alexander that you made a moment ago. And that is, it would seem to imply then we would expect Averroes to say well then God can know species. But we just said God cannot know universals or particulars. And God also is a unity, so He cannot have a plurality of species in his mind. So I do not think for Averroes God can even know kinds. In fact, Averroes is extremely explicit on this, that God only knows the most perfect entity in the universe -

PA: Himself

RT: Himself. He knows that perfectly and completely. But Averroes will go on to say in virtue of knowing Himself as the perfect cause of all things in the universe, that He knows all things in the universe, because to know, is to know the cause - that's Aristotle.

PA: So actually, there's one particular that He knows, namely Himself, because He is a particular. 13.20

RT: Yes, well He is a unique entity. "Particular"? I want to be careful about the language sometimes, because in Arabic, particular is al-mushār alayhi, a thing that you can point to.

PA: Right, you can try to point to God.

RT: You could try - I don't know where you would point because He is immaterial.

PA: Well, what about humans then? So we've already talked a little bit about the way God's providence does or doesn't affect humans, in Averroes' view. I guess one issue that arises here in the context of thinking about providence is prophecy. Obviously, there's nothing more fundamental to Islam than the doctrine that Muhammad was a prophet of God. And that certainly looks like a case where God has selected an individual to bear His message to the rest of mankind. Does Averroes have any way of accounting for that, on this doctrine of providence that you just described?

RT: Well, we have to go back to the distinction of discourses, and the different kinds of discourses. So there is the sense of the general discourse for humanity, and to make the moral guidance for human beings available to all human beings - and this is what happens in the case of Scripture, and so that's at the level of rhetoric. And that is also at the dialectical level where they presume the existence of God and prophets, etc. and those prophets are guides in some way. 

But the question comes up as to how it is that God could pick out a particular person in a providential way, for example, how to pick out Muhammad as the Prophet. And Averroes gets into this discussion, interestingly enough, in his comments on the Parva Naturalia, a short collection of works by Aristotle that was lumped together as a single work in the Arabic tradition that concerns matters of sensation, dreams, memory. The Arabic Parva Naturalia was a weird thing - it follows Aristotle up to the point of dreams, and then when it gets into dreams, it draws on Plotinus and Neoplatonism and becomes rather bizarre. So Aristotle himself says that he considers the possibility about dreams providing truth - and in the end, he says, no, it doesn't really. 

But in the Arabic version, it says, yes, yes - yes in fact, in dreams, we are freed from sense perception, and we can really connect with the Agent Intellect, and receive from on high. Well Averroes was commenting on this, and he's not sure what to do with this, and he says something really quite strange. He says, well, if God is an intellect, and the other things are intellects through which we come to have this prophecy, then their knowledge is universal. Well, if their knowledge is universal, then how do they pick up particulars in the world to give providence? That is, it would seem if they are pure intellects and their knowledge is universal in some way, then how do they find a determined particular in the world? And this is our problem back with with providence and Alexander in a way - how to choose someone. So how did God choose Muhammad? And Averroes in this Parva Naturalia commentary says there are two key questions - one is an epistemology question, and then there's this question. The epistemology question he gives an interesting answer. This one - just forget the answer! 16.50

PA: Oops!

RT: So the point would be if God is pure intellect and self thinking thought, as he says in his philosophical accounts - and he does say in some words, that if you want my real understanding, look at my philosophical accounts, not my dialectical accounts - so in this case, then it seems to be very problematic as to what prophecy is for Averroes.

PA: It is almost like he has no way of accounting for this in his philosophical system, but he doesn't want to come out and say that he has no way of accounting for it.

RT: Well, I think he doesn't have a way of accounting for it, yes, in his philosophical system - I think that is appropriate. But of course, when he is acting as a religious judge, then, in dialectical fashion, he assumes the existence of it, he assumes the truth of the scriptures, and deals in that context, with responses in that way. But philosophically, he doesn't have a way to account for it. Now, we could do something bizarre, and say that he had cognitive dissonance - and he thought this as well as something completely contradictory to what we see him say in his philosophy.

PA: That would be the famous twofold truth doctrine that's sometimes ascribed to Averroes?

RT: Right - but wait, we already took care of that, because truth does not contradict truth. And the ultimate judge with regard to truth is going to be philosophy. So it seems that he's developing - we see this in some of the other things you've already talked about - he's developing a very idiosyncratic conception of Islam. Because again, recall that God is not the efficient cause, but God is the Creator by drawing all things to himself. So the common language of God does this, God does that in the world, for him is is a way of speaking that is appropriate for the non-philosophical, but properly speaking, the philosophical account is that built on Aristotle, where God is a final cause. 18.40

PA: Something you mentioned just a minute ago, is the universality of the intellect. And that brings us on to what is probably Averroes' most famous philosophical doctrine, the unity of the intellect, which I actually talked about last time, so we don't need to go into the full details. But I wanted to at least ask you about what bearing this might have on his conception of Islam. And I thought, maybe the point to focus on would be personal immortality, because it looks like, according to this doctrine, what is eternal about humans is not our ability to see or have a body or even our imagination, for example, but only this universal intellect which is shared by all mankind. And if it's only one intellect that shared by all mankind, then it looks like at best when you die, and when I die, we will only live on by being one in the same intellect. So is that a fair accusation? Is there any way that Averroes could say, that I do live on after my death in a way that makes me different from you living on after your death?

RT: I think we need to discuss first of all, what mode of discourse we want to use in answering that question with regard to some kind of afterlife for human beings. Certainly in the mode of discourse that we find in one of his theological works, the Kashf 'an Manahij, in there we see him clearly stating that there is an afterlife for human beings and also asserting many of the religious doctrines. But again, we're back to the question of whether we should use that mode of discourse or we want to use the philosophical mode of discourse. In these podcasts, it seems that you want to talk about philosophy, so we will use the philosophical mode of discourse for Averroes. In the philosophical mode of discourse then, human particular individuals think and they come to reason and they carry out various activities. But the intellect, according to Averroes, is something separate that human beings share from time to time, and they are not always in perfect connection with. 

And so because among other reasons, he holds that in order for there to be the possibility of intersubjective discourse and a shared science, there has to be one thesaurus or collection of intelligibles or intelligible ideas, not you have your thesaurus, I have my thesaurus. And so since we have one shared intellect, in that fashion, then we each come to know these intelligibles in our own way, and connect with a separate intellect. It's a sort of Platonic doctrine in a way, but that Platonic doctrine in history of philosophy keeps popping back up about this commonality and how is it that we can have a shared discourse, But as individuals, I work hard to understand Averroes and philosophy, and you do as well in your areas, to understand philosophy, and that sort of individual personal effort and choices we make to stay home and read this book instead of going to the movies every Saturday night, or whatever things we do. And so it is through our own hard work, that we come to develop our intellects and our connections and understandings of universals and our connections with a separate intellect. This then means that once we have some universal knowledge, then we can make moral decisions. Because Aristotle talks about the practical syllogism, where we have a universal, a particular, and make a particular judgement as to how to act. Thomas Aquinas later criticises Averroes for this idea of separate intellect, and says it is impossible for people to be moral. Averroes has no problem with this at all - human beings make individual personal moral actions and responsibilities. 

My connection here then to your question is okay, given that, is there any afterlife for individuals? And in his long commentary on the De Anima, there's no discussion of personal immortality. In fact, the arguments indicate that there is no space for it. The same is true for his middle commentary on De Anima, the short commentary on De Anima. And it seems that in these major philosophical works, there is no provision made for personally immortality. Sometimes the phraseology is used of "monopsychism" - where we all share one soul. The phraseology is wrong - we each have our own soul, but we share one thesaurus or collection of intelligible ideas, which makes shared science and intersubjective discourse possible. 23.05

PA: The idea here then, is that since as Aristotle tells us, the soul is the form of the body, when the body dies, the soul will die, but the intellect will live on. And since there is only one intellect, in fact, he does basically just bite the bullet in the end, and would have to admit that there is no personal immortality, so an immortality where I am different from you.

RT: It seems to be the conclusion. 23.30

PA: You said earlier that Averroes has what you call the idiosyncratic view of Islam. And certainly, from everything you said about the Decisive Treatise or Distinction of Discourse, it is clear that he wants to say that philosophy is in a position to determine the truth about these matters. So for example, providence, personal immortality, the way in which God causally relates to the world, all the things we've talked about, and some other things as well. The thing that I wonder, though, is, it is one thing to say, well, the Qurān is kind of unclear on this point, when it talks, for example, about God sitting upon a throne, should we imagine that God actually looks like a person and sits on something that looks like a chair literally? Well, arguably not, and many Muslims had wanted to distance themselves from that literal way of understanding God. But I think it's one thing to say something like that, and another to say, well, philosophy teaches us, for example, that no individual person can be picked out as a prophet, by the Divine. And there's really no way it seems to me to square even the existence of Islam as a religion with that philosophical position. Or again, it's one thing to say that philosophy tells us the sense in which we'll live on after death, but it's another thing to say that philosophy teaches us that we won't live on after our death at all. I mean, it seems like now philosophy is just saying p, where religion is asserting not-p. So is that a fair objection to make to Averroes?

RT: Well, I think if we're really going to be fair, we have to understand that he's a human being. And he's found a way of understanding things, a certain methodology to work with - and it is Aristotelian philosophical thought. And he thinks that in its idealised form, this really shows the structure of the universe, all reality, the nature of human beings, the nature of God. But nevertheless, he's not a perfect human being, he's not a perfect philosopher, there is no such thing. But he has a methodology. And it doesn't mean that he always applies the methodology perfectly, since no one ever does anything perfect anyway. And so he has these ideas, he applies them as much as possible, and, and takes them I think, really, to the limits of the classical rationalist tradition in Islamic thought, and really following on al-Fārābī, and he takes it in directions that Islam does not go, but more follows the Farabian line and pushes the limit as far as possible. 

So that reference we had earlier about "truth does not contradict truth" in the Prior Analytics of Aristotle - in his commentary on that Averroes is absolutely enthusiastic about the possibility of all human discourse being put into syllogisms, and then being judged on the basis of Aristotelian syllogistic thought. And that's an ideal, that's something that's never going to be fully realised. Well, he also pushes his whole understanding of metaphysics and religion, to its ultimate limit, according to this kind of methodology. Is this methodology the best kind? - there's a lot more philosophy than just Aristotle in the world today. So he really pushes it. And there's a short passage in his commentary in the metaphysics where he just pushes it to the ultimate end. And he says that there is a Sharīʿah, or a religious law, or this guidance, or even just religion that is specific to the philosophers. And he said this is the Sharīʿah which grasps God in the most perfect way, and God's creation in the most perfect and full way, and gives us the greatest insight. And he says, this is the science of metaphysics, and it is the most perfect kind of worship that you can give to God. And I think in all of this, he believes he has a model to understand reality, and he just sticks to it all the way. And it means that ultimately, if God is an immaterial reality, then we need to go beyond the material, we need to use the science of metaphysics as much as possible to have an insight into the real nature of God. And I think he's quite sincere when he says this is the most perfect kind of worship. 

But I don't want to get into the idea that he does not go to the mosque or something of that sort. We have every indication that in fact, he went to the mosque, he went with his family to the mosque. We don't want to bring into this a kind of modern or enlightenment conception of someone rejecting religion in some way. Religion is extremely important for the fulfillment of human beings and formation of character and even the development of the philosopher.


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