What is the philosopher self-taught about?
By Jesús R. Velasco | Published on September 25, 2019
In the beginning, an un-identified narrator runs into a wonderful wise man. He is tall, and his body is strong and straight. He has long, white hair and beard. His face, illustrated by a welcoming smile, shows rides and wrinkles, that is the beauty of the one who is aging. The narrator wants to engage in a conversation with him, as they share the same language. The wise man declares that his name and his lineage are “Alive” and “The Son of the Awaken”, that is, Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān.
Thus begins Ibn Sīnā´s tale, or letter titled Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān, and that we do not know to what extent it was known in al-Andalus in the 12th century.
But if you have ever wondered what Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān was before becoming the wise, old, beautiful man enlightened by a deep knowledge of the science of the soul, and metaphysics presented by Ibn Sīnā, your answer may be another letter written to another friend by the Andalusi thinker Ibn Ṭufayl, and with the same title, Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān.
We would like to know everything about how Ibn Ṭufayl, wherever he was in al-Andalus, came to know the work and ideas of his philosopher of preference —as he himself states at the beginning of his Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān—, Ibn Sīnā. He may have known some of his works or have even heard in depth about Ibn Sīnā’s Ḥayy and Absāl and Salāmān. As Murad Idris reminds us, there is little evidence that Ibn Ṭufayl may have had access to the books themselves, but we very well know that culture, including philosophical and theological cultures, find its way to its unlikely interlocutors in unpredictable ways. The problem, of course, is that no matter what we can imagine, we cannot create an argument based on silence. Silence is silence.
That does not mean that we need to be quiet. Scholars in Ibn Ṭufayl abound, and they have a very clear list of his work translations and uses across history. They know what Ibn Ṭufayl read or did not read. They know that the first translation was that of Pococke, that was followed by an English translation by Simon Ockley, and that thus begun the presence of Ibn Ṭufayl in the Orientalist Western tradition. Iberianists, however, may present some doubts to this. The first one is that maybe even Ibn Ṭufayl’s narrative is in itself an Orientalist narrative —it presents itself as a letter unveiling the secrets of the East, and it was written from the West of Islam. The second doubt would concern translations: maybe there is one strange translation in Spanish, due to Alfonso de la Torre, in his Visión deleytable de todas las ciencias (A Delectable Vision of All Sciences), and composed around 1440 for Carlos of Navarra, Prince of Viana —at the behest of the latter‘s tutor, Juan de Beaumont. Also, maybe, but we do not really know, Alfonso de la Torre came to know the work not in Arabic, but through some Hebrew version, which is not unlikely, given that Andalusi Arabic Aristotelianism, and Averroism were cultivated among Maimonidean Jewish philosophers and thinkers. Again, here, we hit silence once again.
The question that remains, however is —what do we do with Ibn Ṭufayl hinc et nunc, if, in fact there is anything we can do with the theoretical investigations (epistemological or otherwise) the author engages with through this Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān before Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān. In the words of Bernard Harcourt, what work this text, or these texts, can do for us?
This set of questions is just as important as identifying the specific circumstances and the philological conditions in which these texts we examine were first produced, received, read, commented on. We could perhaps comment them with the same freedom and creativity with which some of these authors commented one another.
Both Souleymane Bachir Diagne and Murad Idris have proposed us ways to work with this book. A book that is a letter to a sincere friend (reminding us, maybe, of the Ikhwān al-safā’, or Sincere / Pure / Good Friends and their academy of letters in Aristotelianism), and that within it contains a narrative that makes us read with the utmost delight. Only a few weeks ago, my undergraduate students were reading it and getting goosebumps while coming up with ideas on knowledge and hospitality (the subject of our course). They made me understand how important it is that we read this letter as if it were addressed to us.
Souleymane Bachir Diagne puts it at the center of what Alain de Libera had conceptualized as the crisis of faith and reason, not to intervene in this crisis, but rather to complicate it with some of the contemporary issues that seem to be hampered as well by the political presence of certain theological theses —namely, for instance, the current planetary ecological crisis. Before that becomes a crisis, Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān is already imagining ways to protect the small planet in which he lives, by creating a dietary system that is sustainable.
Murad Idris puts us in a different perspective —the question of what is “political” about Islamic political philosophy. Idris’s six theses break the spell of Orientalism, and open up new forms of research into politics, community, forms of governance, the right to speak, and, even, the acceptance or rejection of life in community.
I am certain this session will open up many questions about Ibn Ṭufayl and his work, but, above all, I also expect that our guests will give us the chance to think with them about a philosophical and conceptual world that has been long covered by the veils of colonialism and orientalism.