Critique as reception: Can there be an objective study of Contemporary Arab Thought?


Critique as reception: Can there be an objective study of Contemporary Arab Thought?

Harald Viersen


16 January 2023


The distinction between the history of philosophy and philosophy proper would appear commonsensical. The former is essentially descriptive, whereas the latter is normative in nature. While philosophers critically consider and revise arguments about what we can know and what we ought to do, historians of philosophy describe which arguments and philosophical worldviews have been put forward until now.

As with most clear distinctions, on second thought this one is hard to maintain. Not all arguments are equal; some make more sense than others and it is precisely the goal of philosophy to assess which arguments make the most sense. As a consequence, the history of philosophy cannot, if it is to make sense of its subject, do without a measure of argumentative assessment of its own. Of course, historians should ask questions of the who-said-where-when-and-to-whom variety, but if the history of philosophy is to do justice to its subject it has to treat the arguments themselves and this necessarily requires pointing out inconsistencies and non-sequiturs. Unless the readers themselves are already familiar with the intricacies of the subject, not doing so risks leaving them with a false impression of an entirely consistent discourse. Yet, in doing so, the position of a historian as an objective outside observer is obviously compromised. To point out lacunas in arguments is precisely the job of philosophers.

Doing the dirty work of normative historical assessment is not all that obtrusive when the discourse under discussion is truly historical. Contemporary historians of Ancient Greek philosophy may have their personal darlings and fierce disagreement over the interpretation of particularly controversial issues in Aristotle or Plato will likely remain with us for the foreseeable future. These discussions may affect contemporary debates where these and other figures serve as inspiration. However, when engaging in a historical description of ancient philosophy one thing we can rule out is that one gets caught in a direct discussion with these two giants or any one of the less prominent ‘ancients.’

Things become murkier when we write about contemporary issues. When describing contemporary debates it is hard not to be drawn into the debates themselves. Again, a description of these debates ought to assess not just what people have said, but also why they’ve said it. Not doing so merely offers an overview of positions, not an informative analysis of how people have substantiated these positions and the potential problems that their argumentation runs into. The problem, from the standpoint of ideal historical objectivity, is that to pronounce a verdict on these matters is, in a sense, to become an actor in these debates. Laying bare the merits of one position over another is precisely what philosophers do. Hence, if you do this with regard to an ongoing discussion, it becomes hard to distinguish yourself from any other participant.

This problem of how to engage with contemporary philosophical discussions as an outsider is particularly pressing for those of us who work in Western academia and are interested in philosophical debates outside the West. While many feel the need (and rightfully so) to expand the horizons of traditional Western philosophy, it is easy to see why, given the continuing global dominance of Western academia and the hard local restrictions with which many in the Global South have to contend, one would want to keep a certain objective distance from these debates. I’m not talking here about the hoary old challenge of relativism, i.e.  the idea that different intellectual traditions or cultures are incommensurable and that therefore cross-cultural criticism is useless. I don’t think this has been the case historically and I certainly believe it makes even less sense in the increasingly interconnected world in which we live today. The claim at issue here is merely that, if one of the goals of covering philosophical discourse the world over is to break Eurocentric habits and give a voice to those who Western philosophy has tended to leave out, then the first reaction to these debates should be listen and learn, not to enter into these debates first thing.

As advisable as this might seem, I want to suggest that we reconsider it for precisely the reasons laid out above. If philosophy is about argumentation, then there cannot be any truthful way of describing its contents without going into the arguments themselves and assessing their worth. As with any philosophical discourse conducted by us fallible humans, an argumentative excavation of non-Western philosophies too is likely to yield bad arguments, inconsistencies, faulty translations, discriminatory biases, subconscious adherence to certain paradigms, and statements of purpose that are not borne out by actual argument. Showing these faults is part of what a good description ought to provide. Yet, doing this is precisely to ‘do’ philosophy yourself. In other words, there cannot be an entirely descriptively ‘objective’ account of any philosophical idea, book, or discourse and we should give up this hope (if we ever had it) with regard to both Western and non-Western philosophy.

Of course, I am not saying that historical accounts of non-Western contemporary thought that steer clear of argumentative analysis are without merit. Historical context is vital in understanding what the stakes in contemporary debates are and how individual contributions to them are likely to have been intended by authors and received by their audience. They are necessary if we are serious about broadening the scope of philosophy beyond the stale canons of Western thought.

Problems arise, however, when a historical account that remains aloof from argumentative analysis purports to give a substantial account of an intellectual’s philosophical positions, especially when this stance is contrasted with a rival. Lacking proper critical analysis, the reader is left with only statements of what authors intend to achieve with their philosophies, not whether they are successful in achieving them. This obviously leaves out something vital. A real grasp of any text comes with knowing, not just its content, but also its faults and inconsistencies and understanding their origins. Simply put, just as stating that you intend to produce a masterpiece offers no guarantee of actually writing one, stating that you intend to offer a particularly interesting, authentic, or consequential intervention in Arab intellectual discourse, does not ensure that you actually succeed in doing so. True insight into what’s actually going on in these texts requires personal, critical engagement of the outsider, but he is barred from that, precisely because that would turn the outsider into an insider.

The effect of such uncritical historicization of contemporary thought is felt especially by those without expert knowledge on the subject. Not having the time or the language skills to access these materials themselves, non-experts with an interest in contemporary non-Western thought must rely on secondary sources. Yet, if these studies aim to render its content faithfully without offering complete translations and if they, at the same time, limit themselves to reporting the stated intentions that the authors had in presenting their ideas without criticism, then it’s almost impossible for the reader to get a sense of what the original sources actually say. Consequently, readers may either accept these claims at face-value, or wonder whether there is any argument underpinning them, which in turn may lead them to dismiss these contemporary debates as a game of would-be philosophers pelting each other with unsubstantiated assertions rather than engaging in substantive debate.

An example of what this uncritical historicization of contemporary thought ends up doing may be found in a recent publication by Ahmad Agbaria titled “The Politics of Arab Authenticity.”[1] The aim of this book is to present the debates surrounding the modern interpretation and usefulness of the Arab-Islamic heritage (turath) by focusing on the works of two contrasting intellectuals: The Moroccan philosophy professor Muhammad Abid al-Jabiri and the Syrian literary critic and all-round intellectual Jurj Tarabishi. While the book’s focus on turath as a pivotal issue following the Arab defeat in the Six Day War of 1967 and its link to the ideal of authenticity is by no means novel, it offers interesting insights and historical detail of the overall cultural setting within which late 20th century Arab thought evolved. In particular its analysis of different groups of critical thinkers and its focus on the “advent of North Africa as a center of new Arab thought” (20) is very welcome, indeed.

Notwithstanding its obvious historical merit, as an analysis of its two protagonists it falls into the trap presented above; it presents the motives of Arab ‘critics,’ but it does not assess whether what they intend to achieve is actual realized through the arguments they develop. For example, quoting a passage from Samira Haj’s book Reconfiguring Islamic Tradition, in which she describes Islam in terms of a tradition that “engages a conception of truth, reason, and ethics different from those proposed by the traditions of the West,”[2] Agbaria applies this description to a new kind of “connected intellectual” that, he argues, arose in the 1970s. Rather than being solely concerned with European ideas, this intellectual is “keen is explore the intellectual potency of his own cultural heritage” (57). He (indeed, most of these critics are male) is someone who does not pick sides in a binary discourse shaped by the Western “modernist/development narrative”, but instead remains someone who “is critical of the Left and the Right, one who is neither modernist nor traditionalist“ (61).

Apart from the fact that Haj’s quote, which refers to an emphasis in 19th century discourse on embodied practice as a distinguishing mark of the Islamic tradition that is very much at odds with the rationalist position taken by both al-Jabiri and Tarabishi, is taken out of context, this assertion leads to an obvious follow-up question: Do these “connected critics” live up to their stated purpose? Are they really equally critical of modernists and of traditionalists? In short, do they live up to their claims?

If we focus for the moment on Agbaria’s main example of a connected critic, Muhammad Abid al-Jabiri, the case is far from clear. Sure, al-Jabiri is critical of the established narrative of modern Arab thought as a battle between modernists and traditionalists. He also proposes that we analyze what he terms the “renaissance question” of why “we (we Arabs, we Muslims, we the East)” fell behind while “others (Christian Europe, the West)” progressed in an interesting new way by suggesting that a productive understanding of this question requires a renewed conception of Arab intellectual history.[3]

Yet, at the same time one may question how “different” al-Jabiri’s reading of Arab history really is “from those proposed by the traditions of the West.” His main philosophical project, which al-Jabiri committed himself to during the final two decades of the previous century resulted in his magisterial four-volume The Critique of Arab Reason. The guiding thread throughout these books is a perceived need to historicize Arab intellectual history and rationalize its internal logic in a manner explicitly inspired by Western historiography. The goal is to uncover the rationalist strands in Arab thought that have been buried by ideological strife and religious dogma and to lay the groundwork for an authentic, rationalist, modern Arab society by recovering these strands.

Without wanting to enter into the particulars of this project one may justifiably question whether it lives up to what Agbaria sees as the “hallmark” of al-Jabiri’s legacy, namely an attempt at “marginalizing European frameworks and circumscribing the sway of its cultural models over the ex-colonized subject (i.e. conceptions perspectives, worldviews, styles of analysis)” (92). After all, it is far from obvious how a rationalization and historicization of Arab history that is explicitly inspired by a similar move in modern European historiography and that strives to bring a conception of ‘Arab Reason’ in line with ‘the age’ – i.e. the modern age – exemplifies a ‘marginalization of European frameworks’. After all, al-Jabiri himself explicitly mentions Europe as a model for this kind of rationalizing historiography, invoking Descartes and Bacon.[4] One could add to this al-Jābirī’s great reliance on European orientalist historiography – either directly or indirectly through the influential orientalist-inspired historical vistas offered by someone like Ahmad Amin – as well as a disdain for juridical reasoning and full-blown contempt for the intellectual tradition of Islamic mysticism that is typical of orientalist historiography. Taking this into consideration it is not at all clear in what way al-Jabiri is not himself caught up in the very frameworks he professes to undermine.

The point here is not that I rule out that al-Jabri is on to something. Perhaps there is a good argument to be made for how al-Jabri subtly steers clear of overreliance on Western paradigms. Perhaps Western historicism is invoked, for the simple reason that it is impossible to argue against something without mentioning it. That might well be, but the crucial fact is that this cannot be shown without engaging critically with the text in a way that is philosophical and not merely positivistically historical.

Do I, in suggesting this, undermine the task of understanding al-Jabiri ‘objectively’? Perhaps, if by ‘objective’ understanding you mean a perfectly detached report of what al-Jabiri says. What we should not forget, however, is that another (and to my mind more fruitful) pursuit of objectivity takes as its goal to see what a work actually does. This kind of objectivity is achieved, not through detachment, but through critical engagement. Here, a less detached position becomes indispensable in assessing the merits of a work, not as a self-subsisting object curated by its author, but as a move in a debate. As any debate seeks answers to particular questions, it creates a standard by which one can measure each individual contribution, namely whether a claim manages to coherently answer these questions. Viewed from this perspective, critical analysis is an essential part of explaining what an author and his ideas are about.

Certainly, there are other ways of achieving a similar effect. Instead of writing descriptions, one could offer complete translations of the original. While they are never pure renditions of the original – they introduce a host of different problems and always demand a degree of interpretation from the translators – good translations at least do not leave out the details, leaving it up to the reader to discover inconsistencies and personal interpretations. Of course, a clear grasp of what these books are about would require contextualization, which cannot be part of the translation, but at least the internal logic of the argument would not be lost on the reader.

Another way of giving a fuller account of a non-Western philosopher’s ideas while preserving a measure of detachment for the historian is to describe his reception among his peers. This, in a sense, is the high road. It not only creates a certain distance between the person describing a contemporary debate and the participants engaging in it, but it also offers a more dynamic and inclusive format for writing about a debate as a dialectical process that fosters critical thought. For example, one might include in a discussion of al-Jabiri’s an incisive critique of his philosophical project, such as the one provided in Jurj Tarabishi’s aptly named The Critique of The Critique of Arab Reason. (The fact that this direct and comprehensive critique written by the other of the two main figures in Agbaria’s book is entirely absent from the discussion is beyond startling. For those more familiar with pre-modern philosophy in Arabic, this would be the equivalent of writing a book on al-Ghazali and Ibn Rushd and not mentioning the tahafut al-tahafut, Ibn Rushd’s elaborate refutation of al-Ghazali’s refutation of the philosophical tradition in Islam, tahafut al-falasifa.)

In the end, I believe we need all of the above. We need more translations of contemporary thought, from the Arab world and beyond. We also need more work on the debates that gave rise to this thought, so as to understand the questions that these works stand to answer. Yet, what I believe we also need is more critical engagement.

The problem with the Eurocentric perspective is not merely that there is too little non-European philosophy that makes its way into Western classrooms, Western media, or Western bookshops. Rather, the problem is that they don’t receive proper recognition. Even if non-European (or European philosophers from marginalized sections of society) are read they are often read in an objectifying sense that does not recognize the claim to truth that lies at the heart of their work. We can translate all we want, we can fill entire libraries with detailed chronicles of debates outside the European sphere, but as long as there is no serious engagement with these ideas, as long as we treat non-European philosophy mainly in historical rather than philosophical fashion, there will always be something lacking. Recognition requires that we take each other seriously, but this implies that we weigh each other’s ideas and that we dispute them when we feel that it is necessary. Recognition implies a risk, on both sides, of being wrong and of being frank about when we feel this is the case. Such critical engagement with the text leads to greater understanding, but it also essential if we want to move from writing histories of thought to writing histories of philosophy at the global level.

[1] Ahmad Agbaria, The Politics of Arab Authenticity: Challenges to Postcolonial Thought (New York: Columbia University Press, 2022).

[2] Samira Haj, Reconfiguring Islamic Tradition: Reform, Rationality, and Modernity (Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 2009), 29.

[3] Muḥammad ʿĀbid (al-Jabri) al-Jābirī, “The Problematic of Authenticity and Contemporaneity in Modern and Contemporary Arab Thought,” trans. Farid Abdel-Nour, Contemporary Arab Affairs 4, no. 2 (2011): 176–77.

[4] al-Jābirī, 182.

Harald Viersen is an assistant professor at Radboud University Nijmegen. His research covers modern and contemporary Arab thought, with a focus on questions of ethics, philosophy education, conceptions of time and the discourses on religion.


Suggested Citation: Harald Viersen, „Critique as reception: Can there be an objective study of Contemporary Arab Thought?,” in Denkanstöße – Reflections, 16.01.2023,, ISSN 2941-0347.