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The Theologian's Doubts: Natural Philosophy and the Skeptical Games of Ghazali
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The Theologian's Doubts:
Natural Philosophy and the Skeptical Games of Ghazālī

In the history of skeptical thought, which normally leaps from the Pyrrhonists to the rediscovery of Sextus Empiricus in the sixteenth century, Abū āmid Muḥammad al-Ghazālī (1058-1111) figures as a medieval curiosity. Skeptical enough to merit passing acknowledgment, he has proven too baffling to be treated fully alongside pagan, atheist, or materialist philosophers. As a theologian defending certain Muslim dogmas, Ghazālī has not met what historians consider the mark of the true skeptic, a mind doubting the possibility of all systems of knowledge. But what is fascinating about him is that he brought into practical operation the tools of what I call "functional skepticism."1

He denied the claims to truth of Aristotelian physics—whose basis he showed to rest on groundless belief—then turned and argued for the possibility of the Resurrection tooth and nail. The scholarly debate on The Incoherence of the Philosophers (Tahāfut al-falāsifa) has concentrated on the extent to which Ghazālī qua Ashcarite theologian was seduced into Aristotelian philosophy despite himself.2 In my view this debate has been misguided in the attempt to distill the [End Page 19] essence of Ghazālī from the book's eclectic theology; I will argue for a different view of Ghazālī on the basis of a close reading of key passages. In the unusual sections where Ghazālī applies Aristotelian language to a world not following the ordinary laws of physics, some have found Ghazālī slipping, unconsciously perhaps, into an Aristotelian frame of mind. I will show that, as a skeptical theologian with a dialogic imagination, he was rather deconstructing Aristotelian discourse while playing a Wittgensteinian sort of language game.

Natural Philosopher or Speculative Theologian?

The disagreement about the extent to which philosophy infected Ghazālī is ancient. Ghazālī might have studied philosophy only in order to refute it. He himself defended his philosophizing with the claim that one cannot deconstruct a system of thought until one has understood it so deeply as to elaborate upon its fundamental principles.3 His Maqāṣid al-falāsifa was in fact received, especially in trans-Pyrenean Europe, as a philosopher's genuine summary of the object of philosophy.4 The book strikes me as suspiciously creative in its representation of philosophical discourse, but it appears in any case as an expert and surprisingly unbiased treatment.5 Arabic readers knew that Ghazālī had also written a polemical treatise against philosophy, Tahāfut al-falāsifa, but they still wondered about his engagement with the ideas he challenged. Abū Bakr Ibn al-cArabī, for example, commented that Ghazālī had been unable to extricate himself from philosophy.6 Other philosophers pondered whether or not he had been a closeted member of their charmed circle and sought in his writings traces of esoteric philosophy.7

Averroës's own sober sense of distance between philosophy and theology was partially a reaction to what he perceived as Ghazālī's dangerous and carefree mixture of the two sciences.8 He attacked Ghazālī's book in The Incoherence [End Page 20] of the Incoherence to restore philosophy's sense of purity, an aim he sought to accomplish by separating religious concerns from the philosopher's field of inquiry.9 Ironically, such a separation is precisely what Ghazālī might have wished to provoke by crisscrossing and blurring the line between religion and philosophy.

The modern debate on chapter 17 of Tahāfut al-falāsifa has concentrated on defining Ghazālī as either a natural philosopher or an occasionalist theologian. In his defense of the possibility of miracles Ghazālī presented two theories of causation, one denying the logical basis of Aristotelian notions of natural causality, and the other more or less adopting these notions. Jointly, the two theories have seemed incompatible, and for this reason scholars have attempted to sort Ghazālī out of the apparent confusion. In 1978 L. E. Goodman argued persuasively that Ghazālī exploited rather than denied the philosophers' ideas of causality. In two articles Michael Marmura challenged Goodman, contending...