Politics, religion, and culture where East meets West

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Democracy, dialectic, and subtle revolution

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From H.S. Maine‘s Popular Government (1885), Essay II:

The old Italian toxicologists are said to have always arranged their discoveries in a series of three terms—first the poison, next the antidote, thirdly the drug which neutralised the antidote. The antidote to the fundamental infirmities of democracy was Representation, but the drug which defeats it has now been found in the Caucus.

The “Caucus,” according to Maine, is “the agency, by which the representative is sought to be turned into the mere mouthpiece of opinions collected in the locality which sent him to the House of Commons….” Today, we can readily acknowledge this as an artifact of political “party.”

I found this quotation fascinating primarily because of the easy parallel that one can draw between “old Italian toxicologists” and so-called “Hegelian dialectics,” by which the zeitgeist formulates (1) an abstract idea, after which develops (2) its negation, and finally, (3) its “concrete” formulation. This formula is more commonly known as “thesis-antithesis-synthesis.”

When we run this through the subsequent filter of Marx, who advocated what is now called “dialectical materialism” (as opposed to Hegel’s “idealism”), we get this (from his afterword to the second German edition of Das Kapital, here):

My dialectic method is not only different from the Hegelian, but is its direct opposite. To Hegel, the life-process of the human brain, i.e. the process of thinking, which, under the name of ‘the Idea’, he even transforms into an independent subject, is the demiurgos of the real world, and the real world is only the external, phenomenal form of ‘the Idea’. With me, on the contrary, the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought.

By making Hegel’s dialectic purely material, Marx formulates a dialectic of, quite specifically, political economy. For anyone who wishes to hold on to Hegelian dialectic, though, Marx’s materialism as a “direct opposite,” or antithesis, of Hegel, may offer justification for Hegel himself if a subsequent sort of “synthesis” between the ideas can be agreed upon.

But anyway—returning to the parallel that I claimed I would make—observe how Maine’s assertion may seem to be influenced by contemporary Marxist thought on historical dialectic. Being that Maine is not too keen on the idea of “Popular Government,” the “zealots of democracy,” or the “Caucus,” the prospect of dialectic may seem appealing to him in this case. I will steal a line from Wikipedia by way of explanation (here, as before):

Dialectical materialism is a strand of Marxism, synthesizing Hegel’s dialectics, which proposes that every economic order grows to a state of maximum efficiency, while simultaneously developing internal contradictions and weaknesses that contribute to its systemic decay.

So, if party politics within a democratic republic (where democracy was the thesis and representation was the antithesis) is the concrete, synthetic, maximally-efficient, and final formulation of a political-economic order (democracy) in a materialist, dialectical conception of history, then it is the last stop before that political-economic order’s systemic decay, and subsequent revolution.

What is fascinating about this theoretical decay and revolution is that someone like Maine becomes the “revolutionary” in this case. This is a different kind of revolutionary than Marx described—he is one who openly scoffs at the proletariat, its corrupt tendencies, and the harm caused by its place in government. He is indignant, but he is also subtle.

Now, if the reader finds any of this—(a) the truth of dialectical materialism or (b) Maine’s interpretation of the development of party politics—convincing, more questions arise. What would Sir Henry James Sumner Maine’s revolution look like, if the system fell into decay? Could you tell if it were happening? Would the “contradictions” be visible? Would there be rallying cries or war? Perhaps economic upheaval? Would new terms be coined, or would the old ones simply be recast?

Knowing that a new “thesis” would only be met with “antithesis,” wouldn’t Maine publicly assert that, really, nothing had changed at all?


Written by M. James

October 13, 2012 at 10:00 am

Is “democracy” democratic?

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Plato, from The Republic, as quoted in a prior post:

And then democracy comes into being after the poor have conquered their opponents, slaughtering some and banishing some, while to the remainder they give an equal share of freedom and power; and this is the form of government in which the magistrates are commonly elected by lot.

From Wikipedia (here):

In politics, sortition (also known as allotment or the drawing of lots) is the selection of decision makers by lottery. The decision-makers are chosen as a random sample from a larger pool of candidates.

In ancient Athenian democracy, sortition was the primary method for appointing officials, and its use was widely regarded as a principal characteristic of democracy.

The Athenian reasoning for lottery in democracy was that it more accurately acknowledged the equality of men. An election, on the other hand, was by nature oligarchic or aristocratic because it consciously selected someone “better” from the population of free and equal men. Not to mention that the kind of people who seek to sell themselves for election are probably bad representatives of the population. So, by casting lots, the Athenians actualized their beliefs in equality.

Understandably, people (including Plato) have frowned upon this form of government—as formulated by the Athenians—for the vast majority of history.

Here’s the problem: Absent an understanding of the tradition of democracy, people explain and justify modern phenomena by making comparisons between modern “democracy,” of which elections are a keystone, and Athenian democracy, which would unequivocally shun the idea.

In the original sense of democracy, then, our idea of democracy is not really democratic at all. Most would still posit, of course, that this is not a bad thing, as democracy in Plato’s sense appeared to be—in actuality—a government borne out by a mindless sort of class warfare.

I would like to suggest that this understanding of democracy’s pedigree may dampen, in some contexts, the supposed intellectual impact of the Enlightenment and the Age of Revolutions. People didn’t really change. Democracy changed.

Written by M. James

September 29, 2012 at 8:27 am

At the Blue Mosque: Logic before faith

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In the side rooms of Istanbul’s Sultan Ahmed Mosque, the debate between reason and revelation—logic and faith—defies the “norm.” Here, one Turk’s Islam favors reason over revelation, and three American Christians disagree.

The room was small and carpeted. Where there wasn’t Arabic calligraphy, there were books, and where there weren’t books, there were the small, 17th century windows set high in the wall. Low, cushioned benches lined most of the room, welcoming any visitor who was interested in more than just the architecture of the mosque.

Where the benches ended sat the Imam’s humble desk, as if to preside over a meeting. But he was not presiding over any meetings—he was swaying in motion, back and forth, reciting the Qur’an aloud.

The Imam had already welcomed us shortly after we arrived. He asked what we were studying.

“Felsefe,” I said.

“Ah, philosophy,” He smiled widely before returning to the Qur’an. “Maşallah.”

Left: The İmam of the Sultan Ahmed (Blue) Mosque, Emrullah Hatipoğlu, engages in what is probably a less interesting conversation than the one related here (yenisafak.com.tr).

It was over the sound of the Imam’s recitation that the discussion on the other side of the room began. There, three Christian Americans sat with a Muslim Turk, debating theology. Muslim Ghanaians, Christian Koreans, Muslim Nigeriens, and Christian Germans filtered in and out, listening and asking questions—but none stayed the duration.

As the outreach director of the mosque, the Turk was fluent in French and Arabic as well as English, which—after the Americans had exhausted their Turkish—became the language of the debate.

“Islam is the logical religion,” The Turk insisted. While he spoke, he patted the Qur’an—but he consulted it only three times. To consult it was unnecessary.

For all men, the Turk explained, the truths of Islam are self-evident. It is only delusion that leads one away from these truths. Blind faith in false gods, like the Christian God—or “natural science”—makes us ignore, or conceal, the truth. Even worse for these “concealers” is that the one true God does not forgive the association of false gods with Himself.

He quickly qualified his statement: “But nothing is beyond the power of Allah. He can forgive anyone and anything.”

When we asked him to explain how one can come to these logical conclusions about God and His Will without reference to the Qur’an, we were treated to little more than “Isn’t it obvious?” and an exposition about how the patterns, the beauty, and the complexity of the natural world point to the existence of a Creator—the unity of which is necessary. And the unity of which (tawhid) prevents the possibility of  “your Christian God’s three ‘persons.'” Or, as he added with visible disgust, “the Hindu gods.”

I thought it odd that his explanation for the necessary existence of the one true God made extensive reference to natural science (an aforementioned false God), but I wasn’t sure I understood, and chose not to address it.

We explained that his reason for God’s necessity seemed, to us, less a matter of logic than a matter of faith. He had an answer prepared.

“God does not give to man an impossible task,” the Turk explained. “For this reason, the Christian God cannot be. The oneness of God is logical, and we can understand this. But we cannot understand the nature of the Christian God. The true God would not give us the burden of something that we cannot understand.”

I nodded and we asked him to continue—but I did not fully comprehend the emptiness of his statement until the three hours had passed.

No doubt built with logic in mind.

Why—I later wondered—is “The Omnipotent” logically necessitated to give man only those tasks which he can logically understand? Is it not within the (all-powerful) power of God to instruct man to do such things as pray at least five times daily, to kill one’s own son, or to do other inexplicable things? And is it not the province of man to obey—to “submit” to the Will of God regardless? Is this not the very definition of Islam?

I wondered: Why does this particular Turk put so much stock in logic (so much, in fact, that he justifies his belief in God with an appeal to a “false god”)? Why was it unacceptable to him that his religion could be, at root, a matter of faith? How can the revelation through Muhammad (the Qur’an), by comparison to logic, be so unimportant?

Distilled—my thoughts led me to the only real answer: For some reason, the primacy of logic was very important to this guy, and I’m not sure why.

Three more hours at Sultan Ahmed and maybe I’ll figure it out.

Written by M. James

July 27, 2012 at 6:06 pm

Posted in Culture, Religion, Turkey

Tagged with , , , ,

A Response to Robert R. Reilly

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Robert R. Reilly (AFPC)

Robert R. Reilly pleads insanity on behalf of Sunni Islam.

When I read this post by Robert R. Reilly, author of The Closing of the Muslim Mind, I intended to respond to it, as it did not make sense based on what I had read of Sunni Ash’arite theology. But after my written request to post a response on The Catholic Thing was ignored, I convinced myself that it was simply not worth responding to.

Since then, I have been finding Reilly’s view—that today’s Islam is inherently unreasonable—more prevalent, and thereby more worthy of attention.

I would first like to emphasize, before addressing his argument, that my response is not a philosophical vindication of Sunni Ash’arite theology but a practical endeavor. The practical implications of the view that Sunni Islam is unreasonable is that the ideas and actions that result from it are incoherent—unexplainable. If we accept this, then there is no use in trying to explain or justify anything that the Muslim world does. Suddenly, all the things that we cannot understand are not even worth understanding. Suddenly, the proximate cause of everything (disagreeable) that happens in the Islamic world becomes misguided fundamentalism. Consciously or not, Reilly is justifying the ultra-expedient “talking to a wall” mentality that has pervaded Western foreign policy—and the violence that naturally comes with it. The additional fact that he “has taught at the National Defense University and served in the White House and the Office of the Secretary of Defense” is telling, and perhaps worrying.

For the sake of space, I will provide no synopsis of Reilly’s post, so before I continue, I encourage the reader to read his argument.

Abubakar Shekau of Boko Haram

In his post, Robert Reilly is seeking to explain the murderous practices of Boko Haram, an Islamist group in northern Nigeria. He does so by describing their practices as consistent with the theology of Sunni Islam—specifically the dominant Ash’arite school. The implication of this consistency is, significantly, that mainstream Islam is supportive of the terrorism of Boko Haram and organizations like it. But Reilly bases this supposed consistency on two troublesome premises: (1) an oversimplification of Ash’arite theology and (2) an unprecedented assumption.

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Khan: Freedom to interpret Shari‘ah

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In Khaled Abou El Fadl’s collection of essays, Islam and the Challenge of Democracy, which I reviewed here, there was one essay response in particular that I thought worth posting. That was M. A. Muqtedar Khan’s “Primacy of Political Philosophy,” as it is titled in the collection. In a slightly more primitive form than in the book (from Khan’s website), it is reproduced below.

I recommend reading the original post as well as Abou El Fadl’s essay before continuing.

Instead of saying that liberal values are at the heart of Shari’ah, and potentially leaving it up to government jurists (ulema) to decide what that means, Khan gets rid of the jurists entirely, forcing the demos to interpret Shari’ah for themselves—individually. Khan maintains that if the jurists aren’t kicked out, there will be an inevitable regression to a government where the jurists, the privileged interpreters of Shari’ah, rule. The only answer is to remove them from government.

It is tempting to read Khan’s argument as “Shari’ah is not necessary for Islam, so let’s get rid of Shari’ah and make way for democracy.” Unfortunately, Khan is careless, perhaps relying on Abou El Fadl’s prior explanation of Shari’ah. So to understand Khan’s argument, one must think of Shari’ah as unquestionably divine and perfect, notwithstanding its earthly interpretation and practice. Indeed, its earthly interpretation and practice is what Khan takes issue with, claiming that when there is a monopoly on interpretation of Shari’ah, democracy is not possible. Instead, there must be individual freedom to interpret Shari’ah. Unlike Abou El Fadl, who attempted to liberalize Shari’ah itself for the sake of assigning rights (acting all the while as a jurist), Khan encourages the liberalization of interpretation.

In the space permitted, I think that Khan makes a good case for not only (1) the necessity of individual freedom of interpretation for the success of democracy, but also (2) the Islamic precedent for individual freedom of interpretation. But it’s about time I allow Khan to speak for himself, and the reader to decide.

The Priority of Politics: A Response to “Islam and the Challenge of Democracy”
M. A. Muqtedar Khan; Boston Review; Apr./May 2003

The Tyranny of Legalism

The Islamic intellectual tradition—which includes Islamic legal thought (Usul al-fiqh and fiqh), theology (Kalam), mysticism (Tasawwuf) and philosophy (falsafa)—is one of the most developed and profound traditions of human knowledge. In the area of political philosophy, however, this intellectual heritage remains strikingly underdeveloped. Read the rest of this entry »

“Islam” and the Challenge of “Democracy”

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Read something else.

Khaled Abou El Fadl says: We can’t be perfect, so why even try?

I recently had the opportunity to read Khaled Abou El Fadl’s Islam and the Challenge of Democracy—a lackluster essay on reconciling “Islam” with “democracy,” and some responses, bound together and cleverly disguised as a book.

The first thing you’ll notice—if you, for whatever reason, decide to read the essay—is that Abou El Fadl is fantastically imprecise. So imprecise, in fact, that by the end you won’t be sure that he’s said anything at all. One thing is for sure, though: The title of the book should be Islam and the Challenge of Some Particular Liberal Values.

My central argument … is that democracy—by assigning equal rights of speech, association, and suffrage to all—offers the greatest potential for promoting justice and protecting human dignity, without making God responsible for injustice or the degradation of human beings.

If you hadn’t guessed that he was targeting a Western audience already (and ignoring an Islamic audience), here’s your cue. According to Abou El Fadl, God can somehow be “made responsible” for injustice and the degradation of human beings. For a Muslim, the idea that we can “make” God responsible for injustice is—to put it lightly—absurd.

And when Abou El Fadl isn’t attempting theology, he’s attempting Islamic jurisprudence—and it goes equally well. Liberal values, he seems to be saying, can (1) be found in the Qur’an, and (2) serve as the basis for Shari’ah. Though I cannot dispute the former, the latter is quite a reach, and is a project unsuitable for a mere 34 pages of text.

He seems to recognize this problem at a certain point, and instead of actually reconciling Shari’ah with liberal values, he pulls a fast one.

…Shari’ah ought to stand in an Islamic polity as a symbolic construct for the divine perfection that is unreachable by human effort.

…the law of the state, regardless of its origins or basis, belongs to the state. Under this conception, no religious laws can or may be enforced by the state.

So, since we can’t enforce Shari’ah even if we try, we might as well enforce liberal values. Why? Because liberal values are actually at the heart of Shari’ah (never mind how he got to that conclusion), and that’s simply the best we can do.

Oh, and if you don’t like his argument, it all works out in the wash, because, as he concludes, “we will all have to answer, in the Hereafter, to God.” Is that the same God, I wonder, who is responsible for injustice when we’re not democratic?

Following Abou El Fadl’s essay are, generally, equally impressive, or trite, responses. I thought one of them—by M. A. Muqtedar Khan—stood out, though. So my readers don’t feel compelled to buy the “book,” I will post that response shortly.

Edit: The response.

Islamic cultural system: inductive?

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Behold the danger of [attempts at] universal history. Here’s an article by Thorsten Pattberg shamelessly stolen from his own book, The East-West Dichotomy: Behold the Law of Difference (seriously, it’s almost verbatim). Note that none of his examples of inductive reasoning come from the Islamic cultural system—even though he classifies it as one of the “Oriental” cultural systems.

I guess minor oversights like that are expected in universal history. Read the article as a comparison between broad themes in Western and Eastern philosophy and it almost works. Take away from it how difficult it is to paint intellectual history with a broad brush.

The East-West dichotomy revisited
Thorsten Pattberg; Asia Times Online; Dec. 13, 2011

“The West is deductive, from the universal to the particular; the East is inductive, from the particular to the universal.” 
– Ji Xianlin, 1996

According to the universal historians Arnold J Toynbee, Samuel P Huntington and Ji Xianlin, the world’s states form 21, 23 or 25 spheres, nine civilizations, and fall into four cultural systems: Arabic/Islam, Confucian, Hindi/Brahmin and Western/Christian, with the former three forming the Oriental cultural system and the latter one the Occidental cultural system. The main difference between the Orient and the Occident, so what people say lies in their different mode of thinking: The East is more inductive, the West is more deductive.

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Written by M. James

December 13, 2011 at 4:32 am