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

From: Journal of the History of Ideas
Volume 63, Number 1, January 2002
pp. 19-39 | 10.1353/jhi.2002.0004

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19 Copyright 2002 by Journal of the History of Ideas, Inc. The Theologian?s Doubts: Natural Philosophy and the Skeptical Games of Ghazali Leor Halevi In the history of skeptical thought, which normally leaps from the Pyrrhonists to the rediscovery of Sextus Empiricus in the sixteenth century, AbGF1 G8DGAAmid MuGCAammad al-GhazGAAlGCC (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, GhazGAAlGCC 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 (TahGAAfut al-falGAAsifa) has concentrated on the extent to which GhazGAAlGCC 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 Thanks to Rob Wisnovsky and also Lauren Clay, Michael Cook, Ahmad Dallal, Wolfhart Heinrichs, Baber Johansen, Richard Moran, Roy Mottahedeh, and an anonymous reader at the Journal of the History of Ideas. 1 This form of skepticism is different from the fideist anti-dogmatic skepticism of the Reformation Catholics, on which see Richard H. Popkin, The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Descartes (New York, 1964); also Christopher Hookway, Skepticism (London, 1999); Miles Burnyeat (ed.), The Skeptical Tradition (Berkeley, 1983); Michael Williams (ed.), Scepticism (Aldershot, 1993). 2 AlGazel, TahGAAfot al-FalGAAsifat, ed. M. Bouyges (Beirut, 1927), henceforth abbreviated as TF. I give references first by discussion or chapter in Roman numerals, then by page and line in Arabic numerals. Translation in Averro?s, Tahafut al-Tahafut (The Incoherence of the Incoherence), tr. S. Van Den Bergh (London, 19782), I; also Al-GhazGAAlGCC, Tahafut al-Falasifah, tr. S. A. Kamali (Lahore, 1958), and Al-GhazGAAlGCC, The Incoherence of the Philosophers, ed. and tr. Michael 20 Leor Halevi essence of GhazGAAlGCC from the book?s eclectic theology; I will argue for a different view of GhazGAAlGCC on the basis of a close reading of key passages. In the unusual sections where GhazGAAlGCC applies Aristotelian language to a world not following the ordinary laws of physics, some have found GhazGAAlGCC 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 GhazGAAlGCC is ancient. GhazGAAlGCC 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 MaqGAAGEEid al-falGAAsifa 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 GhazGAAlGCC had also written a polemical treatise against philosophy, TahGAAfut al-falGAAsifa, but they still wondered about his engagement with the ideas he challenged. AbGF1 Bakr Ibn al-cArabGCC, for example, commented that GhazGAAlGCC 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 Averro?s?s own sober sense of distance between philosophy and theology was partially a reaction to what he perceived as GhazGAAlGCC?s dangerous and carefree mixture of the two sciences.8 He attacked GhazGAAlGCC?s book in The IncoherMarmura (Provo, Utah, 1997). I refer to the standard edition (TF) and, for long passages, to Marmura...

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