Thursday, August 21, 2008

Philosophical Name-Calling

Ramadan's coming up and I'm fasting my last day of make-up fasts for this year. Fasting from sunrise to sunset isn't usually a problem for me. It's just a few hours with no food and water. But today, I'm beat. Maybe because I've been reading Sophie's World all morning. Too much philosophy in one day can really knock you out. Especially when you can't take in any form of nourishment for another few hours. How do all those monks and hermits do it?

Anyways, as I was reading Sophie's World I noticed something that the author, Jostein Gaarder, kept doing in the book. Whenever he mentioned Western philosophy, he did not limit it to Greek and Judeo-Christian philosophy. He purposely included Islamic philosophy under that label.

The categorization of Islamic philosophy as "Western" struck me. In the mainstream media and much of today's popular culture, Islam and the West are represented as the negations of one another. They are opposites destined to do no more than clash and destroy one another.

More enlightened individuals and groups have showed that this "clash of civilizations" theory doesn't have to take place. Instead, they focus on the shared culture, values and heritage of Islam and the West, subjects which cover an area far greater than the differences between the two identities. (For example, check out Michael Morgan's Lost History.)

After getting over my initial surprise, I realized that Gaarder's classification made sense. Islamic philosophy has so much more in common with Greek philosophy than, say, Buddhist or Hindu philosophy. Muslim scholars and philosophers have endlessly borrowed, preserved, and added to Greek philosophy. (Unfortunately, some classical theologians, like their counterparts in the Church, even adopted Aristotle's rather unflattering views of women.) So it makes more sense to call Islamic philosophy "Western" than "Eastern."

But wait. Should all these Western philosophies even be called "Western" in the first place? They all came, after all, from the Mediterranean region -a region that scholars from northern and western Europe later claimed as the basis for their own intellectual heritage.

Pshsh, all this categorization and claiming seems like we're making too big a deal out of this. It's back to Edward Said's essentialism. How about we just say that these ideas are of human origin and belong to all of us? But people tend to resist that. We all like to clearly mark out who we are. An often impossible, not to say dangerous, feat.

Or maybe I'm just an idealist that needs to be fed, ASAP.


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