Transcript: 184 - Robert Wisnovsky on Commentary Culture

Robert Wisnovsky joins Peter to discuss the enormous body of unstudied philosophical commentaries in the later Eastern Islamic world.
Podcast series

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.

Peter Adamson: I guess the first thing I should ask you to explain is what we're talking about here. So when we talk about later philosophical commentaries, what sorts of texts do we have in mind? How much material is there? Who was writing it? Who were they writing for?

Robert Wisnovsky: We're talking about a wide range of texts. We probably have about 60, 70, 75 or so major core texts that were written over the course of several centuries in the Islamic Middle Ages from Avicenna, who died in 1038 onwards, and then all the way through the 15th or 16th century. So scholars and philosophers would write commentaries on earlier texts by previous authorities, and then they would write their own new texts, which they hoped would be the origins of new commentary chains. So of those 60, 70, 80 or so major original texts that were written in the centuries by Avicenna and in the centuries that followed Avicenna, we probably have 800 or 900 extant commentaries. And by commentaries, I mean not only first order commentaries, that is to say direct engagements with the authoritative text, but also second and third and sometimes even fourth order commentaries, by which I mean glosses or super commentaries on a previous commentary, glosses on that super commentary, sometimes super glosses on the glosses and so on. So we have a very wide range of texts that were commented on, and also some of these commentary chains were very deep as well. And they began, as I said, in the period around Avicenna in the 11th century, and they last all the way up until the end of the 19th century.

Peter Adamson: Who are some of the other authors that they're commenting on? So the original core texts that provide the basis for either a commentary or a super commentary or a super super commentary and so on?

Robert Wisnovsky: Well, Avicenna is the person who in some ways, or in many ways, starts this post-classical philosophical commentary culture. His works served as the basis for future commentaries, particularly in the 12th and 13th centuries. As time went on, as I mentioned before, people who had written commentaries on earlier texts themselves wrote new original works of their own, and these new original works of their own became the basis of future commentary traditions. The most important one after Avicenna is probably Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, and Nasir al-Din al-Tusi wrote a philosophical creed called Tajrid al-i'tiqad, or Outline of Dogma, which itself spurred enormous number of commentaries, super commentaries, glosses, and super glosses. But not only Tusi, his contemporaries, Qazwini, Katibi and al-Abhari, wrote philosophical texts and logical texts which engendered enormous commentary traditions. So probably combined, these three authors, each of whom was active in the middle of the 13th century, between them probably engendered commentary traditions with over a hundred or a hundred and fifty or so commentaries, super commentaries, glosses, and super glosses.

Peter Adamson: That's really amazing. And this is material that survives today, mostly I guess in manuscripts in libraries found in the Islamic world today, is that right?

Robert Wisnovsky: That's right. When I'm talking about particular numbers or ranges of numbers, I'm talking about the number of manuscript witnesses or number of works for which we have at least one manuscript witness extant today. Of course, the number grows even larger if we take into account works that are reported by Islamic bibliographers, but which either have not survived in manuscript form till today and which were lost, or which we simply haven't been able to locate. Some of these works, of course, have been edited, but only a very small fraction of them, I would say probably 10 to 15 percent of the total number, which as I said at the beginning is probably around eight or nine hundred total philosophical commentaries.

Peter Adamson: So if you have these hundreds and hundreds of commentaries, obviously there must have been some kind of social and institutional context in which this was being done. And I suppose this is basically the madrasa system of education, is that right?

Robert Wisnovsky: That's right. So these commentaries serve a scholastic purpose. They're in some ways for the same reason that late antique Greek philosophical commentaries served a scholastic purpose, that they helped the professor in giving a philosophy lesson. So the professor would teach the students about a particular philosophical text by going through the original philosophical text that he was teaching. First in a kind of word-by-word way, and then in a broader philosophical sense in order to bring out the philosophical context of the arguments, how these arguments relate to other arguments that the author of the text would have written, and so on. And this was often part of a curriculum of a madrasa, particularly in the later period, certainly in the Ottoman and Safavid and Mughal periods, philosophical texts were part of the curricula of many madrasas, and in particular logic texts were part of the curricula of many madrasas. And this is because logic was seen as a useful propaedutic to legal studies, which was at the center of the madrasa teaching mission. Well, sometimes, however, when you were teaching, if you were a student or a professor, in a madrasa, and for one reason or another, philosophy or a philosophical text was not included in the curriculum of the madrasa - perhaps it was written into the deed of gift of the original person who endowed the madrasa that no philosophy should ever be taught at the madrasa. You see this, in fact, they're called "waqfiyyas," that no rational science should ever be taught in the madrasa. Of course, that doesn't mean that the professors and students at the madrasa never taught and learned philosophy. They just did it off campus, or they did it in an informal way and in an extracurricular way.

Peter Adamson: So, actually, one thing that makes clear is that these are institutions where they're not necessarily philosophical institutions for sure. So they're learning "fiqh" or jurisprudence. They're maybe getting ready to become theologians. And so one question that arises, I think, here is the extent to which we can really talk about the authors and the text as philosophical. So if they're commenting on Avicenna, for example, it seems pretty clear that there's a philosophical enterprise at stake. But do you think that we can even really distinguish in this later period between theologians and philosophers, or do we just have a kind of collision of the philosophical and theological traditions at this point?

Robert Wisnovsky: I think that there is a collision. There's not so much a collision as a conflation, a confluence of philosophical and theological traditions. Our terms, of course, philosophy and theology are English and don't necessarily map on to the Arabic equivalents of these terms. There of course is the Arabic term, "Falsafa," which has a relatively restricted sense in the Islamic intellectual context, and which refers to Aristotelian philosophy as undertaken in the late antique tradition, influenced by Neoplatonic ideas and so on. But there's also "Kalam." And Kalam has sometimes simply been translated into English as theology, but Kalam is more than simply theology. "Mutakallimun," the practitioners of Kalam, undertook extensive study and investigation and discussions of topics in natural philosophy, and they also wrote on theories of argumentation, on philosophy of language, and other topics that we would consider to be philosophical. And even in the parts of Kalam which are strictly theological, that is to say where there are discussions of and articulations of theories of divine being and divine attributes, the ideas of the great philosophers such as Avicenna were appropriated so assiduously and so enthusiastically by post-Avicenian Mutakallimun that in fact, in the post-Avicenian period, Kalam and Falsafa merge to a great extent. And as the famous North African historian Ibn Khaldun complained in the late 14th and early 15th centuries, it sometimes becomes very difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. The problems of Kalam become the problems of philosophy and the problems of philosophy become the problems of Kalam.

Peter Adamson: You've mentioned a couple of times that this is not the first occasion on which we find philosophy in the context of commentaries. You mentioned there are these late antique commentators, usually on Aristotle, which is something I covered way back in the podcast. And that makes me wonder what the sort of textual sources are for the writing of commentaries in this later Muslim tradition. It seems to me that there are two obvious potential sources. One is precisely these philosophical commentaries which were then imitated in the Baghdad Peripatetic school by Farabi and others, also by Averroes in Spain. But then there's also commentaries on the Quran, so Tafsir. And I'm wondering whether the philosophical commentaries that were written in the madrasas are drawing on one or the other of those commentary traditions, or both maybe?

Robert Wisnovsky: I think they're drawing on both, but they're drawing primarily on the late antique philosophical commentary tradition. We see the same range of commentatorial practices in the post-Avicennian period in Arabic philosophical commentaries that we do in the late antique period with Greek philosophical commentaries. So a commentator will be interested in a text or engage in a core or original philosophical text that he's commenting on in a variety of ways. So one of the first ways is philological. The commentator has to determine whether the text at hand really is an accurate representation of the original philosophical text.

Peter Adamson: So you mean there might be mistakes in the way the text was copied down by the scribe in other words?

Robert Wisnovsky: Exactly. The commentator we find often complains that a previous scribe might have mistranscribed a word or a phrase or missed out a sentence. And we find this in late antique Greek commentators as well as in post-Avicennian Arabic philosophical commentators. So that's the philological part of commentating. There's a lexicographical part as well. When a commentator encounters a particular term or phrase in the original text which is not transparent, the philosophical commentator will gloss that word or phrase with more familiar language. Sometimes the commentator will provide definitions of terms that are in the core text. Other times the commentator will provide identifications of authors and texts that are mentioned in passing and mentioned only vaguely in the text. So for example if the original text says, 'some authors think this,' or 'one of the modern philosophers says that,' sometimes the commentator will identify who in fact the original author is referring to.

Peter Adamson: Which is very helpful for us, if they're right at least.

Robert Wisnovsky: It's extremely helpful for us. Other times the commentator will engage in what we might consider to be more philosophical activities or will engage more philosophically with the text. So if there's a proposition in the text that's unproven, the commentator will supply a proof for that text. If there's a proof in the original philosophical text that is missing a premise or which contains a faulty premise, then the commentator will correct the proof in the text. Sometimes commentators will correct the replacement proofs of previous commentators.

Peter Adamson: And that's one of the reasons you would write a super commentary, right? Absolutely. You say, well, Fakhr al-Din has Avicenna wrong. So here's a better version of a proof that would support Avicenna.

Robert Wisnovsky: That's right. In an even broader sense, commentators are engaged in systematizing the philosophy in the core text. So it's quite often the case that philosophers are inconsistent. That they say one thing in one place and another thing in another place.

Peter Adamson: You're not implying that Avicenna is inconsistent, are you?

Robert Wisnovsky: He is, but so is Aristotle. It happens to the best of us! And sometimes the job of the commentator is to address obvious inconsistencies in the core text and to explain how, in fact, what appear to be inconsistencies really are not inconsistent, that there's an underlying harmony within the text. Other times the author of the original text will have said one thing in one text and another thing in another text. The job of the commentator will be to address issues of consistency between those two texts and show how, in fact, there is an underlying harmony. Even more broadly, there may be inconsistencies between what the author of the original text says and what other authorities say. Other philosophers or other members, great figures in the school that the author is also a member of, say. And again, harmonization and systematization requires a lot of effort from the commentator. So that's what commentators do. At some point commentators also do what we, with our modern intuitions, might think of as truly philosophical, and that is sometimes they reject what is in the original text. They don't simply explicate it. They don't set it in context. They don't just explain how what appears to be incongruous statements, in fact, are harmonizable. They reject the theory and show where the arguments are wrong and supply a replacement theory. So in fact they're generating new philosophy in the commentary. And we see this particularly with John Philoponus, for example, and his theory of impetus, which is articulated in the commentary on Aristotle's physics in late antiquity. And we see it also in post-Avicennian philosophers as well. 
So this entire range of activities that philosophical commentators engage in was very much in line with and a continuation of late antique exegetical practice. To the extent that post-Avicennian philosophical commentators were also influenced by commentaries on the Quran, I would say that the attention that was paid - the very strict and close attention that was paid to textual study, to lexicography, to philology by commentators on the Quran, and as well as scholars in the traditional Islamic sciences, what were called the 'transmitted sciences,' the "Manqulat" - post-Avicennian philosophical commentators took from them their strict criteria of textual authenticity, of historical situating of the text, and so on and so forth. So to the extent that they were influenced by more traditional Islamic scholars, I think it was in those areas.

Peter Adamson: So it's like they're trained in the arts of, say, grammar and Hadith scholarship, and then they bring those skills to a philosophical enterprise that's fundamentally growing out of this late antique tradition.

Robert Wisnovsky: Absolutely. And they try to uphold the extremely high standards of philological and historical scholarship that, for example, scholars of Tafsir, scholars of Hadith criticism, show in their own work and apply those to the study of philosophical texts, the commentaries on philosophical texts.

Peter Adamson: By the way, out of curiosity, the word "Tafsir," to me that usually means commentary on the Quran, do they use the word tafsir also to refer to what they're doing, if they're commenting on Avicenna, for example?

Robert Wisnovsky: No. Tafsir in the post-Avicennian period is almost entirely reserved for Quran commentary. Of course, the exception is the commentaries that were written on Aristotle by Arab scholars, such as even Ibn Rushd, whose long commentaries are called tafsir because of their length. But by and large, the commentaries were called "sharh,” and glosses were called "hashiyyas" or marginal comments, "hawashi," "ta’liqat," appendices.

Peter Adamson: Actually maybe another question is how do they look on the page? So do you usually have a kind of core text in the middle with comments all around it, like in the margin? Or is it like the lemma, in other words, the quote from the main text is then just followed by a long stretch of prose, or do they do both?

Robert Wisnovsky: The commentaries would start as a single rectangular text block with wide margins on a folio, and then the commentary would get written in, often in diagonal lines, in the margins of the original text block. As commentaries became themselves more authoritative, as a single commentator's work of exegesis came to be established as the primary means of approaching an original or core text, that commentary would then become incorporated into the main text block. And margins would be left for a super commentary.

Peter Adamson: So returning to the philosophical import of all this, what are some of the philosophical issues that become really prevalent in this later commentary tradition?

Robert Wisnovsky: The main issues that were discussed by post-Avicennian philosophical commentators were issues of interpretation of Avicenna's own ideas, Avicenna's metaphysics in particular, his epistemology, his logic, and so on. Avicenna really served as the Aristotle of the late Islamic period. So just as we find many, many commentaries on different Aristotelian works in the late antique period, so we find many commentators addressing works of Avicenna in the post-Avicennian period. The work that they addressed most was the Kitab Al-Isharat wa-l-Tanbihat, the 'Book of Pointers and Reminders.' And this text was particularly attractive to post-Avicennian commentators for a number of reasons. One was that the text itself is relatively under-determined. It's a series of propositions. So that lends itself to commentatorial activity, where you can supply the proofs for those propositions that are simply listed in the Isharat. It's also one of Avicenna's last works, so there's a sense of definitiveness about what he's saying in the Isharat. It's also a relatively short work, so it doesn't require such an enormous commitment of time and effort to undertake a commentary on it in the way that commenting on his magnum opus, the Shifa', would. And in the initial commentaries on the Isharat, problems of Avicenna's modal logic come up. Avicenna invents a new way of, or a new pair of readings of modalized propositions, which supersede those of Aristotelian modal logic and become the subject of enormous discussion and post-Avicenian philosophical commentary.

Peter Adamson: So by modal logic, you mean propositions that involve necessity and contingency? Possibility?

Robert Wisnovsky: Absolutely. That's right. And issues of metaphysics are extremely contentious. How best to interpret Avicenna's distinction between essence and existence, whether or not essence and existence are distinct in all beings other than God, or whether essence and existence are also distinct in God, too, is a major point of debate amongst post-Avicennian theologians. The idea of necessary and possible existence, intrinsically necessary existence, extrinsically necessary existence - these are very central Avicennian distinctions, and how best to interpret them and mesh them with other Avicennian metaphysical ideas and theories and distinctions becomes the primary focus of post-Avicennian commentary. Issues of epistemology come up, the role of the ancient intellect in producing our knowledge of universal concepts, the role of the "Wahm," or faculty of estimation, in the process of abstraction. Again, these are issues that come up in trying to interpret what Avicenna said, to repair Avicenna's own theories, amongst some commentators, and with other commentators trying to replace Avicenna's theories if they're irreparably damaged with better theories. And this occurs initially in commentaries on the Isharat, but then they become the main set of problems for all philosophy, regardless of whether you're engaging directly with the text of Avicenna or not. So the great authors of the middle part of the 13th century, Tusi, Qazwini, Katibi, Abhari - who themselves write great textbooks of logic and philosophy, are very much operating with the set of Avicennian problems in mind as they compose their own works, which then dominate the attention of commentators in the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries.

Peter Adamson: Just in closing, you just told us that Avicenna has set the agenda for this later tradition. What is the agenda now that faces us? I mean, one thing I think that you've conveyed is that there's a huge amount of material to be studied here, and a lot of it might not be that philosophically gripping, right? Because if they're just describing the philological situation or the meaning of a certain Arabic word, we might not think, 'okay, well, that's really philosophically important.' But it sounds like any one of these texts might contain gems of philosophical insight and analysis. So what do you think is the future in terms of the prospects for understanding and studying this vast mountain of material that's mostly not even edited, never mind translated and studied?

Robert Wisnovsky: It's a daunting prospect trying to come to grips with this enormous body of philosophical material. And as you say, you're not necessarily going to be rewarded with pearls of wisdom each time you delve into a philosophical commentary. Some commentaries are, of course, derivative and dry and uninteresting. But anecdotally, my experience and the experience of colleagues whom I've been in contact with, who are increasingly interested in and engaged in investigating this post-Avicennian commentary material is that we don't actually have to look that hard to find philosophically interesting material in these commentaries. Setting these ideas in their philosophical context, of course, requires a lot of historical research, it requires a lot of philological effort, because as you say, many of these texts remain in manuscript form. But the rewards are great. And simply as an effort to try to understand the place of philosophy in the context of Islamic civilization, I think is worth the effort. It makes it worthwhile for us scholars to really try and understand what happened, how philosophy evolved, and the place that philosophy occupied in Islamic intellectual culture. This is something that has, for many, many generations, been assumed to have been a very marginal activity. And in fact, what we're discovering is that it's much more central than we had previously thought. So the gems of philosophical insight will come out, but I think our motivation has to be primarily simply to try and understand what happened, to try and construct a narrative of what happened to philosophy in the post-Avicennian period. And in the process of constructing that narrative, in the process of undertaking research on the texts that we need to look at in order to construct that narrative, we will inevitably come across gems that will be of interest to contemporary philosophers - people who are simply interested in philosophical ideas and not necessarily interested in Islamic intellectual history. But we can't predict precisely where those will occur. The reason I'm confident is not only because I've had the experience myself, so anecdotally, of coming across really fascinating ideas and fascinating distinctions and new examples, but that in the case of the late antique Greek commentators, which again had been assumed to be interesting and valuable only insofar as they contained fragments of pre-Socratic philosophers - for example, or of Stoic philosophers - and which had been found upon further investigation to contain really quite interesting and innovative philosophical ideas. I think that that experience allows us, or justifies our extrapolation to the post-Avicennian field, to the post-Avicennian period, this same kind of confidence that we just simply need to get to work and really investigate these philosophical commentaries in a systematic and comprehensive way, and the gems will be there. 


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