Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), considered by many to have been the 20th century’s greatest philosopher, ends his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus with the following words: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
Ray Monk, Wittgenstein scholar and biographer, notes the similarity between this final proposition of the Tractatus – the only book to be published in Wittgenstein’s lifetime, and which, somewhat ambitiously, was intended to settle the problems of philosophy once and for all – and the first line of the Tao Te Ching: “The Tao that can be expressed is not the eternal Tao.”
In other words, language is incapable of expressing the highest truths. In order to do that, according to Wittgenstein, one must initially climb up the ladder of thought and language – as provided by his Tractatus – and ultimately throw it away.
This mystical turn by his dream student caused the great British logician and philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) considerable consternation. (To give you a sense of just how highly Russell regarded Wittgenstein, Russell at one point considered giving up philosophy, thinking he had nothing more to contribute, following a particularly damning critique by Wittgenstein of one of his manuscripts.) Nevertheless, Russell did write an introduction to the Tractatus, one which Wittgenstein took issue with, suggesting that it was riddled with “superficiality” and “misunderstanding”.
According to Paul Engelmann, a close friend of Wittgenstein’s, Russell’s introduction had played a major role in downplaying the mysticism of the work. After Wittgenstein’s death Engelmann published his correspondence with Wittgenstein, together with a memoir, in order to encourage a wider reading of the Tractatus. On Russell’s introduction Engelmann wrote: “[It] may be considered one of the main reasons why the book, though considered to this day as an event of decisive importance in the field of logic, has failed to make itself understood as a philosophical work in the wider sense.”
‘The mystical’, or an understanding of life and the world that goes beyond simple surface interpretations, is intrinsic to human experience – in spite of what a scientistic worldview will have us believe. Our everyday interactions are fundamentally mystical, in that they point to a higher meaning of life. This is manifestly true in our experience of love. But more on love shortly.
So what then is philosophy? This, to my mind, is the central question that emerges from my earlier piece. And if it strikes the reader as odd that I am even posing such a question, then it is all the more relevant. How so? The question “why are there no Muslim philosophers?” assumes that there is a consensus as to what is meant when we speak of “philosophy”, when in fact no such consensus exists.
And if this assertion strikes us as stranger still, then it is because of the single “face” of philosophy that is projected outwards (as with science and other branches of modern thought), in spite of the massive internal contradictions and points of disagreement within philosophy as a discipline of the modern academy.
At the same time, there are certain styles of thought that are simply inadmissible. Mystical thought is one of them. It is my contention, however, that “the mystical”, or an understanding of life and the world that goes beyond simple surface interpretations, is intrinsic to human experience – in spite of what a scientistic worldview will have us believe.
Our everyday interactions are fundamentally mystical, in that they point to a higher meaning of life. This is manifestly true in our experience of love. But more on love shortly.
By way of comparison, as well as by way of attempting to open a conversation about why there are no Muslim philosophers, I would like to point to the central importance of mysticism in Islamic philosophy. According to a well-known Islamic saying “The metaphor is the bridge to the reality”. In other words, all of life is a metaphor, a symbol, a reflection of God, who is the only real reality.
“Wheresoever ye turn, there is the Face of God” (2:115), in the words of the Quran – and this becomes a central motif in Islamic thought, especially amongst the Sufis, which include figures such as Ghazali (1058-1111), Ibn Arabi (1165-1240), and Rumi (1207-1273).
William C. Chittick has recently brought to light the central importance of love in Islamic life and thought, where love is the highest metaphor pointing to a reality beyond ourselves. At the same time, when it comes to describing love, Rumi – perhaps the greatest mystical poet of all time – writes how his pen breaks. However, he still continues to write ecstatically about the very topic of love. It is significant that the greatest philosophers in Islamic history – whether Ghazali, Ibn Arabi, or Ibn Sina (980-1037) – wrote some of the finest love poetry ever known. There is a very real sense that poetry is capable of illuminating – by “showing”, instead of “stating” or “arguing” – the highest experiences of philosophers and ordinary folk alike.
In a comparable vein, it was one of Wittgenstein’s main concerns to be able to “show” the inexpressible, which by definition cannot be “said”, writing towards the end of the Tractatus: “There is indeed the inexpressible. It shows itself; it is the mystical.”
Showing the inexpressible
Commenting on a poem by Uhland called “Count Eberhard’s Hawthorn” (that without any embellishment, drawing of morals or even comment, tells the story of a soldier who cuts a spray from a hawthorn bush while on crusade, which he brings back home with him and plants in his garden, and beneath which he sits as an old man, when it is a fully grown tree, to remember his past) Wittgenstein wrote that it was “really magnificent… And this is how it is: if only you do not try to utter what is unutterable then nothing gets lost. But the unutterable will be – unutterably – contained in what has been uttered!”
So what does this all amount to? That philosophy is to be really found in poetry, and what we have come to consider as philosophy – as it is taught in departments of philosophy – is no more than language-games, to misquote Wittgenstein? (I am referring to one of the major concerns of analytic philosophy: the nature of language and whether anything of meaning can actually be said.)
Yes and no. Western philosophy has for too long been caught up in circular arguments of what can or cannot be expressed, rather than passing over in silence to attain to higher levels of knowing and, ultimately, being (which appears to be Wittgenstein’s final concern). If philosophy has anything to do with understanding how to live a better, more fulfilled life – as the ancients believed it did, and which had been understood as being the case during the vast majority of human history, and has only in recent times, in particular in the West, been separated from concerns with living “the examined life” – then the answer to the question “what is philosophy?” must once again include multiple dimensions of human expression and experience.
And if that were to happen, questions such as why there are no Muslim philosophers would begin to fall by the wayside, because the problems of power/knowledge – whereby knowledge is produced according to vested power-interests – would be turned inside out, becoming instead a question of knowledge making us utterly disempowered before the ineffable substance of life (whether we refer to that substance as God, the Tao or the unutterable), which can only be shown, perhaps, by way of a metaphor of the heart.
But I have already said too much. It would have behooved me, really, to have passed over in silence.
Hasan Azad is a doctoral candidate specialising in Islamic Studies at Columbia University.