The Case for a Balanced History

In recent decades, an enormous amount of work has been carried out on the history of Islamic and Jewish philosophy. While little of the fruits of this research found its way into the ten volume Routledge History of Philosophy, Routledge has published two weighty works on these philosophical traditions in the Routledge History of World Philosophies series. The History of Islamic Philosophy, edited by Seyyed Nasr and Oliver Leaman, was published in 1996 and The History of Jewish Philosophy, edited by Daniel H.Frank and Oliver Leaman, appeared in 1997. For a long time, those with an interest in learning more about the history of Islamic and Jewish philosophy during the Middle Ages have had to turn to one of the standard histories of the individual tradition. The Routledge histories of these traditions stand as useful surveys of much that has been learned in recent years, with substantial attention given over to the Middle Ages.

These histories pay considerable attention to the history of single philosophical traditions. In order to study the philosophical reflection of many significant Muslims and Jews we must look beyond the academic histories of medieval philosophy that are themselves products of the scholarship of recent centuries. What is especially surprising at the end of the twentieth century, is that there is still no history of medieval philosophy that does justice to the philosophy of the three great monotheistic traditions. Considering that we possess recent histories of each tradition, the time is right to move in this direction. A balanced history is needed if we are to give a more accurate picture of the history of this important period of philosophical discourse.

One difficulty with highlighting only the Islamic and Jewish texts upon which the Latins depend is that much of the complexity and richness of these philosophical traditions is lost. To understand the Latin uses of Islamic and Jewish philosophy apart from the issues and contexts of these philosophies is to have a very unhistorical view of philosophy. Not only were the numbers of texts that reached the Latins limited, but nuances of original texts were lost in translation. It would be as if we were to discuss ancient Greek and Roman thinkers only from the viewpoint of the Latin scholastics— interpretations that historians of philosophy, have rightly taken pains to expose.

On the other hand, the Latin reception is important. Being clear about the intellectual exchanges that took place within and across continents during this vibrant period places into question the boundaries of what is often meant by "Western" philosophy. The arrival in Europe of texts and commentaries which represented the Muslim and Jewish philosophical labor of centuries rejuvenated and drastically altered Latin philosophy and theology. The intellectual map of the Europeans widened to include the Middle East, North Africa, and Muslim Spain. Clearly, the Europeans were on the receiving end in this exchange.

The time is right to begin to write a more balanced history of medieval philosophy, except that there is no recent model for writing this history. The best step in this direction is David Burrell and Bernard McGinn's excellent collection of philosophical and theological articles, God and Creation (1990), now over ten years old, which focuses on a single theme, namely that of the relation of God to creation. Our volume treats six philosophical topics including creation. Our goal is more historiographical, to widen and enrich the common picture of medieval philosophy that appears in the standard histories. A link does exist with the earlier volume, namely Burrell's continued focus on the relation of God to creation. His article, together with those by Kukkonen and Miller, serves to complement the earlier volume by providing further reflection on this topic.

Much research is needed in order to clarify both continuities and differences between the three great monotheistic traditions within the historical context. In order to begin to write this history, Medieval Philosophy and the Classical Tradition: In Islam, Judaism, and Christianity focuses on the Islamic, Jewish, and Christian use of—and reaction to— Classical philosophy in the period before the modern period. This book is a first step in this direction, an attempt to motivate specialists and general readers alike to rethink the boundaries of the historiography of medieval philosophy. Detailed discussions of the uses to which philosophy has been put in each of these traditions are supplied in order to be clear about influences, continuities, and differences between these traditions.

This work is not intended to be a history of medieval philosophy, but a prolegomenon to a revisionary history of medieval philosophy. So little integrative work has been done in this area that a first step is in order to identify starting points for the future of the history of medieval philosophy. Scholars who work on the medieval thought of each of the three great monotheistic traditions often have such limited knowledge of the other traditions. A volume is needed, indeed volumes are needed, that begin to identify important philosophical issues within and across these traditions. Only then will we be in a position to write a balanced and integrated history of medieval philosophy.

At least in the Middle Ages, Latin universities required the study of Islamic texts. Educated Europeans had some knowledge of Islamic medieval thought. As Walzer points out, the study of Islamic philosophy is difficult today because reading lists at universities no longer include Islamic texts (Armstrong 1967, 643). But as I have indicated, one of the difficulties with the Christian understanding of Jewish and Islamic philosophy during the Middle Ages is that they were only familiar with a portion of the texts. If we limit ourselves only to those works which influenced the Latins, we get a very distorted view of Jewish and Islamic philosophy. In attempting to reflect on the history of the Islamic, Jewish, and Christian philosophy in the Middle Ages it is important to remember that the reading lists of Islamic, Jewish, and Christian authors were not the same. There was no single set of common texts across each of the three traditions. This is the reason why the section of the book, entitled "The Latin Reception of Islamic and Jewish Philosophy," brings out the specific Latin use of the other traditions. Indeed, a unified historical account from a single perspective is not possible. That is precisely why it is important to include articles written by specialists on the different traditions that focus on specific concerns both across and within traditions.

On the other hand, Classical philosophy did provide a reading list that was to a large degree common across the three traditions. The focus of the present volume is on how each of these traditions used the ancient philosophers, that is, on the common philosophical ground. We are singling out a shared philosophical background, even if members of different traditions interpreted it in different ways.

I do not mean to imply that individuals understood or accepted the other religious traditions. Certainly Aquinas did not have even a basic understanding of Islam and his knowledge of Judaism is questionable, but he did read Averroes and Maimonides very carefully and adopted much of what they have to say about Classical philosophy. Maimonides, along with other important Jewish thinkers, borrowed much from Islamic thinkers. In fact, significant Islamic thinkers helped to motivate and shape both the Jewish and the Christian philosophical traditions and it is this that has been left out of the standard histories. Being aware of this continuity can change the way we conceive of medieval philosophy and the way we read a single tradition.

There are good reasons for why we should aim at a more balanced perspective when writing the history of medieval philosophy. For example, this understanding can supply a wider perspective than scholars normally possess and lead to a rethinking of accepted interpretations within single traditions. Writing on issues that cut across traditions introduces scholars to interpretations, approaches, and methodologies that they would not normally encounter if left to one tradition. I have learned from Daniel Frank's work on Maimonides, which I applied to an interpretation of Aquinas's discussion of human understanding. Aquinas treats human understanding within a moral context, a point overlooked in the literature. Reading Frank on a similar point in Maimonides helped me to clarify this argument (Inglis 1998, 258-259). Reading Leo Strauss and Howard Kreisel on Maimonides also helped me to formulate the conclusion that historians of Christian philosophy often posit a false dichotomy between reason and revelation. In these and other points I began to understand Latin authors in a manner that has not been pursued by scholars who work within the Latin tradition (Inglis 1998, 279).

One might argue that research on Maimonides is needed in order to aid the understanding of Aquinas since the latter did indeed read the former. But, to remain only at this level of historiography is to reside within the standard approach of reading only those Islamic and Jewish intellectuals who influenced the Latins. It is also instructive to read different writers on topics when they did not directly influence one another. For example, reading Aquinas and Ghazali on similar topics can be instructive. When Aquinas says that each thing acts according to its own nature, he can sound like a Deist, that is, as if holding that God created the world to run on its own. Brian Davies could be taken to imply this when presenting Aquinas's arguments for the existence of God in his contribution to the Routledge History of Philosophy. I focus on this because Davies captures many of Aquinas's concerns. For example, he explains that God is both the beginning and the goal of creation, that is, God both created the universe and is its end or purpose. Yet the reader can forget this point and misunderstand Aquinas. For example, Davis explains the first argument for the existence of God noting that things in motion have been moved by another. This leads to the Aristotlian conclusion that an unmoved mover must be responsible for all such motion (Marenbon 1998, 245). A reader might imply from this history that the world operates according to its nature apart from God— that by reflecting on the motion and change of the world itself, we can intellectually come to understand that creation relates to a first mover.

From this understanding one might read Ghazali as philosophically at odds with Aquinas. For example, Ghazali states in Incoherence of the Philosophers that causation is not necessary. He argues that what appear to be causal connections between things are due to the prior decree of God and are not in themselves necessary (Ghazali 1997, 170; Discussion 17). While some philosophers hold that necessary causation operates in the world around us, Ghazali holds that this view goes against attributing all power to God— it seems to place limits on God's power. In order to avoid this conclusion, Ghazali argues that God must stand behind each "cause" that occurs. Ghazali offers as an example that God causes the one who eats a meal to feel satisfied. Food does not cause satiety, God does.

Aquinas is often presented as holding the (contrary) view that created things operate according to nature, that is, that things operate necessarily according to their own natures. But paying closer attention to Aquinas's text indicates that the picture is more complex. For example, when Aquinas considers whether God imposes necessity on creation in his Summa theologiae (ST), he states that God does impose necessity on some things.9 This sounds as if it is opposed to a view like that of Ghazali. But immediately Aquinas qualifies this view by pointing out that causal connections are only necessary to the degree that God wills them as such (ST 1.19.8.ad1-3). He does not view causation as necessary apart from God and is in fact closer to Ghazali than one might think. Neither is a Deist or views creation apart from God.

Because these authors often read the same ancient and medieval texts and had similar concerns, a close reading of one can help when reading another. Profit can be gained even when writers like Ghazali and Aquinas did not read each other on a similar point. For this reason, a balanced history of medieval philosophy needs to be more than the history of a single tradition. Even though we have good histories of Islamic, Jewish, and Christian medieval philosophy, these histories do not represent a balanced history of medieval philosophy. Autonomous histories are unable to devote the detail needed in order to clarify relations and parallels between traditions. A wider framework is needed than a separate history can supply.

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