- East And West: Allama Jafari on Bertrand Russell by Seyed Javad Miri
In 1964, an Iranian philosopher-theologian, Mohammad Taqi Jafari, wrote a letter to Bertrand Russell to discuss some of the issues introduced by the British philosopher in an interview with Woodrow Wyatt (consisting of a series of thirteen brief dialogues, which were filmed for BBC television during the spring of 1959). The interview had been published in 1960 under the title Bertrand Russell Speaks His Mind. The Iranian philosopher, who was also affectionately called Ostad (eminent teacher) and Allama (polymaths) by his students, wished to discuss three topics, namely philosophy, religion, and ethical taboos, which Russell had discussed, among many other topics, in the interview. Russell replied, rather briefly, to Allama’s first two letters, but there is no evidence of his reply to Allama’s last letter dated May 19, 1965. A year later, a Persian translation of Russell’s book with detailed comments by Allama Jafari was published.
Seyed Javad Miri, a Swedish Iranian Associate Professor of Sociology and History of Religion at the Institute of Humanities and Cultural Studies in Tehran, has used this brief encounter between the two philosophers to discuss the wider theme of East-West dialogue and to expose Westerners’ implicit or explicit snobbery in their dealing with their Eastern interlocutors. Miri’s book, East And West: Allama Jafari on [End Page 991] Bertrand Russell, is, in a sense, a plea for understanding: by elucidating Allama’s comments on Russell’s views with regard to the three themes of philosophy, religion, and ethical taboos, Miri has tried to argue that when it comes to philosophical deliberation both parties can learn from each other and the flow of ideas is not unidirectional from the West to the East.
The book is organized in three chapters plus an introduction, a prologue, and an epilogue. The prologue, written by Dustin Byrd, Professor of Humanities at Olivet College in Michigan, is an endorsement of Miri’s argument. Byrd concludes by emphasizing that “It is in the spirit of our common humanity that attempts by scholars such as Allama Jafari to enter into honest discourse with members of the intelligentsia from other civilizations are so important, as they are the first steps towards a future world reconciliation where hatred and war are abolished between peoples and nation-states . . .” (p. xvi).
In developing the book’s chapters Miri has tried, as much as possible, to compare and contrast the views of the two philosophers. To help his readers he has provided loads of extra information in the long endnotes of each chapter. He has also tried to remain impartial and provide critical and objective assessments of the views of Allama Jafari and Russell. Thus for example, he explains to the reader that while “dialogue” between scholars from different cultures and traditions is not, in principle, impossible, in reality one needs to take care of issues such as misunderstanding due to incorrect or inaccurate translations. He goes on to highlight a few such cases in the comments made by Allama Jafari on Russell’s views concerning notions such as “commonsense” and “self-evident beliefs.” He writes:
I am not sure if the concepts of commonsense and self-evident as well as primordiality (fitra) are synonymous. Allama Jafari has translated the concept of “commonsense” into Persian as “Primordial Beliefs.” We know that the concept of “Primordiality” or “Fitra” has a specific connotation in Iranian philosophy which is not similar to the concept of commonsense as employed in the British tradition of philosophy. In addition, to equate “Primordial Beliefs” with the concept of “self-evident beliefs” is a matter of discussion as they are not of similar category.(p. 26)
Notwithstanding such difficulties, Miri rightly maintains that “dialogue” across cultures, traditions, and civilizations is not impossible, and strong incommensurability, contrary to what some relativist philosophers argue, is not tenable. However, cultural differences make the task of comparative philosophers who want to bridge the intercultural gap...