AND LANGUAGE IN AVERROES TAHAFUT
Rationalism is one of the main issues which tends to be raised in
interpreting Averroes' thought. Whoever tries to define Averroes as a
rationalist, makes him basically a follower of the Greek heritage (and so, in
the end, a "Western" scholar). Indeed, Averroes himself offered the
opportunity for this assumption because of his attempt to harmonize Islamic
truths with Western philosophical (i.e. Aristotelian and Platonic) outlooks.
When we consider his works, however, we come across an indelible Islamic
framework Averroes is not able to pass over even when strictly philosophical
questions are concerned.
Averroes' rationalism has been widely discussed before today. I already
pointed out my dissatisfaction with an uncompromising rationalistic solution
like that of L. Gauthier, M. Cruz Hernández or Martínez Lorca - and I shall
not repeat my arguments here (1). Even Muhammad Abid
al-Jabiri's enthusiastic defence of a progressive modern Averroes has
in a sense missed the point. Al-Jabiri is completely right in showing
Averroes' proper position within the Almohad ideology and its reformistic
political programme (2). However, to put Averroes
in the mainstream of Zahirism as though he were a follower of Ibn Hazm
seems to me, on the whole, not always convincingly supported, especially
considering his role as a Malikite jurist and qadi
and his care in trying to legalize philosophy, that is to make philosophy
available in a religious context (3). On the
other side, al-Jabiri's contention that Averroes' rationalism lies
mainly in his refusal to translate the known into the unknown (4)
is rather simplistic, even though explicit hints are to be found in the Tahafut
at-Tahafut. For instance when Averroes argues that the
theological definition of God is not self-evident, unless we move from the known
to unknown (5).
I believe that the Tahafut at-Tahafut
is a useful pointer to Averroes' Islamic commitment. It stands with Fasl
al-Maqal and Kashf an Manahij
al-Adillah as the pivotal constituent of an entirely Muslim
philosophy. My aim is neither to undervalue nor to undermine the Averroistic
concept of rationality, but rather to make evident his failure in offering a
holistic interpretation of philosophy solely from the point of view of
rationality. Accordingly, the specifically Islamic concept of reason - founded
on a legal and dialectical rather than a metaphysical and apodeictical basis -
should be better appreciated. Our approach here will be more limited, though.
It is well known that some perplexities arise about the translation of
the title of the Tahafut at-Tahafut.
In the Middle Ages, the Latin translator Calo Calonymos rendered it as Destructio
destructionum, but destructio does not capture exactly the nuances of
tahafut. To be sure, Incoherence
of the Incoherence is better. Neither al-Ghazali nor Averroes
wished to demonstrate alternative theses with respect to their adversaries (al-Ghazali
vs. Avicenna; Averroes vs. al-Ghazali); but rather they wished to
point out the incapacity of a disputant to support his own position. This
implies that dialectic and not apodeictic demonstration is the true method of
the Tahafut at-tahafut.
Averroes himself says that the discourses of the Tahafut
at-Tahafut are not fully demonstrative, but they only hints at
the truth [pp. 47, 60, 69...].
This methodological perspective does shift, intentionally, the
debate from an onto-epistemic to a linguistic level. This happens or because of
a view like that of Wittgenstein in the Tractatus logico-philosophicus,
that we must be silent when we are not able to speak about a particular topic;
or because of the arrangement of Being into a linguistic level. I mean that, in
the latter case, it would be possible to work out the unavoidable aporias of
metaphysics on a level of formal concordance between reality, mind and
language. It is assumed here - but not proved of course - that the first
solution, that nearer to Wittgenstein, is al-Ghazali's: it implies the
final defeat of philosophy and a turn towards mystical fideism. The second
solution is that of Averroes, who stresses the concordance less between thought
and Being, than between Being and its predication, that is its linguistic
formalization. So, against Wittgenstein, we can speak of everything and
everything which we are speaking of - in obedience to the rules of logic - has a
correspondence in reality.
These premises, in my view, allow a better understanding of the structure
of both the treatises (the Incoherence and the Incoherence of the
Incoherence). We could choose as an exemplification of this thesis many
topics, but let us concentrate on the well known question of the eternity of the
In order to explain the philosophical doctrines concerning eternity
["First discussion" in Van den Bergh's translation, pp. 4-10 Bouyges'
edition], al-Ghazali argues, on behalf of the philosophers, that the
contingent cannot stem from the eternal and that, if the world was born in time,
it would have needed a determining cause which sometimes did act, but sometimes
did not. This latter option, with regard to an all-powerful and ever-creating
God, would be impossible. Averroes disputes the philosophical character of al-Ghazali's
discourse saying that: 1) the term "possible" is equivocal; 2) there
are different kinds of possibility, and 3) each of these has different
determining causes. Averroes disputes his adversary not on the ground of
substance, but on the ground of form. Al-Ghazali is loose in his
language, applying the same terms indifferently to man and God. On the contrary,
these terms are not interchangeable if the subjects which they refer to are
unlike each other. Also the term "eternal" is used in different ways,
so that al-Ghazali's argument does not work, largely on the ground
that it misinterprets issues of meaning.
Al-Ghazali goes on without offering any alternative
"demonstration". He confines himself to wondering rhetorically why the
philosophers claim not to believe that the world has been produced by a divine
will, so that before it did not exist and after it came into existence.
Answering this question, Averroes launches into a long philippic arguing that an
effect can have a delay in relation to the will, but not in relation to the act;
that al-Ghazali's suggestions do not rule out the issue whether acts
give rise to changes in the Agent - provided that the eternal Agent is
unchangeable -; and that, however, all is difficult to explain (
asir al-bayan)...! In any case, we are not able to
consider as "will" something that eternally distinguishes between two
contraries (specifically, existence and non-existence) because the will
naturally gives up after having distinguished between some choices: so, al-Ghazali
does not respect the meaning of "will", considering divine will and
human will interchangeable on a semantic plane. The matter is of especial
interest to Averroes who is convinced that we can know the substance of a thing
through its definition: definition is not only a mere linguistic factor, but an
aspect of Being (6). Then, if a theologian
retorts that the eternal divine will does not give up after the act of willing,
Averroes, speaking as a philosopher, would argue that the religious Law (Shariah)
interprets equivocally and indiscriminately "will" either as a natural
or a voluntary choice. This shows the existence of intermediate positions
between two contraries or extremes. We realize that the religious Law is able to
address any sort of man, even though the philosophers have at their disposal
apodeictic demonstration in order to get rid of any possible linguistic
It is worth defining this point more precisely. The problem of voluntary
or non-voluntary action is faced again in the so-called third discussion [pp.
148-156]. Averroes denies that the antropomorphic idea of a willing, powerful,
conscious God is an obvious definition; rather, it requires a demonstration. The
First Agent transcends the attribute of will because someone who wills is in
want of the object of the willing, while God cannot lack anything. Nor could
God's action be natural, because a natural action is thoughtless, while God is
an Agent because of His knowledge. If we distinguish between a voluntary and a
non-voluntary act, we have no need to underline - as al-Ghazali does -
that the former involves science and the latter does not. For action means to
transform non-existence into existence, so that such an action does not need
science. Averroes maintains that the true definition of agent is "someone
who does transform non-existence into existence", from potentiality to
actuality. An Agent working like an emanating deity does not necessarily need to
know what he produces.
We can distinguish between a voluntary and a non-voluntary action only if
we consider a true act - the passage from non-existence to existence -, not a
metaphorical one. Averroes quotes here [p. 156] the Quran (18:77): a
wall which wanted to fall to pieces, to argue that this kind of action is
only metaphorical because it does not involve a passage from non-existence to
existence. The theologians seem here to be right in referring this kind of
action directly to God and not to the wall itself; but Averroes argues that
the opponents of theologians might reverse the argument against them and say
[...] that "voluntary act" is a metaphor [p. 158], just because
No one ever says "He saw with his eye, and he saw without his eye"
in the belief that this is a division of sight; we only say "He saw with
his eye" to emphasize the fact that real sight is meant, and to exclude the
metaphorical sense of "sight". Accordingly, we could conclude that
creation is for Averroes only a metaphor, as it is a metaphor to describe the
real Agent as a knowing or willing Being.
The analysis of eternity follows in the Tahafut's
"First Discussion" at [pp. 34-41]. Al-Ghazali is persuaded
that philosophers, discussing the divine will, are trying to submit reality to
dialectic by means of the removal of the the same reality on a
linguistic-conceptual plane. Certainly, by permission of the Divine Law (Shariah),
we are allowed to use the word "will", but the issue is more
substantial for the theologians: does there exist something, like an attribute,
which is defined as the "will" of God? If so, it cannot but consist in
the capacity of distinguishing between two similar things, and this due to its
freedom. Averroes agrees that the word "will" can be used instead of
another one, by permission of the Divine Law, to solve the clumsy device
of ascribing to God a specific human attribute: what is, in fact, substantially
the "will" of God? For Averroes, however, the problem is not the
choice between two similars, but between two opposites and contraries, i.e.
being and non-being.
Al-Ghazali makes God resemble a hungry man who has in front of
him two dates and who freely chooses to eat one of them leaving the other.
Averroes retorts that the example is erroneous: the man in the story does not
choose between two similar things, but rather he is facing a dilemma: to take
one of the dates or to take none; in short he can have his fill or he can die of
starvation. As for God, the alternative is not between the creation of this
world and the creation of another world similar to the first, but between
creation and inactivity. Since that inactivity is inconceivable for God, we must
deduce that the world is eternal. For al-Ghazali, the eternity of the
world would involve God's impossibility to act; for Averroes, if the world is
merely contingent, the infinite power of God would be denied.
Anyway, al-Ghazali is wrong in his example of the hungry man,
because hunger needs a constraint: if God is like that man, it would mean that
his choice between one world and another compossible one has been compelled by
an external factor which leads Him to make a distinction. But Averroes, on the
other hand, is wrong in mistaking two similar things for opposites: from a
theological point of view, God has in front of Him a plurality of equivalent
choices, not the horn of a dilemma. Displacing the problem on the level of a
clear-cut alternative between opposites, Averroes is right in arguing that the
will in se cannot mean a choice between two homologous facts: if I am
thirsty, to drink one sort of beer rather than another of a different brand is
irrilevant. Anyway, he betrayes al-Ghazali's fiction; and al-Ghazali,
on his part, is right in assuming that, if God is omnipotent, His will does not
concern two contraries, but two equivalents, because both possibilities are
feasible for Him.
Averroes' objection shows how much he was loathe to recognize a plural
Being and an open epistemology. Discussing the relation between movement and
time, we appreciate that, in al-Ghazali's view, time exists only in
relation with timed realities, i.e. things connected in a temporal order: it is
not an in se category. Imagination, he says, is unable to imagine the
beginning of a thing without something preceding it, and this "before"
of which the imagination cannot rid itself is regarded as a really existent
thing, namely time [p. 72]. Accordingly, imagination is unable to imagine a
space without other space beyond it. It happens because, in al-Ghazali's
view, the ontological structure of the world is escaping from a stiff
gnoseological determination, so that it is potentially changeable. As Nietzsche
would have put it, truth is curvilinear. On the contrary, Averroes replies that
truth is absolutely stright because our mind cannot but adhere to reality as it
is, translating it into positive science. Averroes says that the necessary
connexion of movement and time is real and time is something the soul (dhihn)
constructs in movement [p. 74]. It is impossible to convert the necessary
into the possible. Averroes charges al-Ghazali with confusion between
time and space, a mistake all who do not start their inquiry in a proper
scientific order [p. 78] easily fall into. The scientific order does
correspond with the factual order of the universe: how we speak of the universe
agrees exactly with what - that same universe - we are speaking of; so that,
while al-Ghazali is able to say that "above" and
"below" are relative (mudaf),
Averroes repeats that there are natural directions in consequence of absolute
weight and light [pp. 81-82].
Al-Ghazali is ready to accept a relativistic perspective: if a
reasoning is universally valid, everyone would agree with it, but we see that it
does not happen thus with respect to God and world. Averroes contends that truth
and reality do not stand opposed to demonstration and cannot be denied (and vice
versa what cannot be refuted, exists) [pp. 13-15]. Again: Averroes replies
to al-Ghazali's statement that, from a theological point of view and
considering God's omnipotence, there are infinite possibilities (imkanat
la nihayah laha), arguing that possibilities reside in
the necessary properties of the things, namely possibility does not exist in
itself [pp. 31-33].
The debate about possibility is one of the most intriguing
epistemological points [pp. 92 ss]. For al-Ghazali possibility is
present in existence, it is a characteristic element of the
being of things, not a presupposition - a priority - of the becoming
process. So, we must consider it as a maqdur,
something subdued to God's arbitrary action and intervention. Al-Ghazali
means that even God cannot reverse logical impossibility. He is perfectly
able to make possible in some situations things which are impossible in other
situations, and vice versa. Thus, apart from any logical restriction,
possibility and impossibility are peculiar variables of the ontological
meaningless of creatures in relation to God who stays infinitely beyond them:
for possibility is like contingency [p. 98] and, moreover, the Intellect, in its
judgements, is by no means obliged to admit that a possible entity must exist
Averroes thinks that possibility is merely the state of non-existence; it
is the premise allowing non-being to become being; in a clear context, Averroes
links possibility to takawwun [p. 105],
a very meaningful term I translated as farsi essere (becoming being)
(7). After that, possibility becomes necessity, necessity of existence.
To deny the priority of possibility does mean to deny necessity, because
actuality, i.e. factual existence, is complementary to possibility. Averroes
enunciates precisely the principle of plenitude: the possible is the contrary
of the impossible without there existing a middle term, and, if a thing is not
possible before its existence, then it is necessarily impossible [p. 94].
Meanwhile, however, he fluctuates between the logical and the ontological.
Averroes agrees that an agent (and God in particular) cannot do what is
logically impossible; but denies definitely that the impossible can become, in
some occurrence, existent. So, if it is assumed [by the theologians] that the
world was impossible [to be made] (mumtani)
for an infinite time before its production, the consequence is that, when it was
produced, it changed over from [logical] impossibility (istihalah)
to [existing] possibility (imkan)
[p. 94-95]. In Averroes' mind, this transference from one plane to another is
intolerable: what is logically impossible will never become a possible existent
ready to convert itself in actuality, and so become necessary.
Averroes acknowledges that al-Ghazali views an infinite
possibility of existence depending upon God's will, but retorts that this
assumption would generate a consecutive chain of factually numerical infinite
worlds - not logically contemporary
worlds. This is an absurd conclusion in Averroes' mind [pp. 98-99].
As we can see, the dialogue is between the deaf. Al-Ghazali's
aim is to suggest that philosophy "is not able to...": to demonstrate
its propositions, to provide certainty, to know God and his hidden wisdom.
Averroes replies that, on the contrary, philosophy is fully able to, mainly
because of the greater accuracy of its language; and at the linguistic level, we
cannot refute or even discuss the reality and cogency of Being. Everything
depends upon an "ostensive" truth of knowledge, because, as Averros
said in the Fasl al-Maqal,
assent to a thing as a result of an indication [of it] arising in the soul is
something compulsory, not voluntary (8). He does mean that assent (tasdiq)
compelled by demonstration (burhan
or dalil) is the standard by which
philosophy can reach an inner self-verification.
Averroes however charges al-Ghazali with deception for having
claimed that self-known things have actually another meaning, because
intelligibles are known as such because of their obviousness [pp. 30-31].
Averroes thinks that there is a special correspondence between subject
and object and he does repeat this belief in several passages of the Tahafut
al-Tahafut: for instance, all true intellectual concepts need
a thing outside the soul, for truth, as it has been defined, is the agreement of
what is in the soul with what is outside the soul [p. 103]. Again: as to
the existent which has the meaning of the "true", all the categories
participate in it in the same way, and the existent which has the meaning of the
"true" is something in the mind, namely that a thing is outside the
soul in conformity with what it is inside the soul [p. 304].
Averroes says that, if the existent is also true, existence will
correspond to essence [p. 400]: in other words, if discourse and logic speak
rightly of reality, there will be no split between what a thing is and how
it is. So, language can describe adequately the structure of the world. The
universe is eternal either from the point of view of rational demonstration or
from the point of view of factual ontological reality. Eternity is the objective
reality of the universe and, moreover, is a definition to express in a term the
complex process of everlasting production [p. 162]. This everlasting production is in fact the true relation between
the Creator and the world, even though the philosophers only call the world
eternal to safeguard themselves against the word "product" in the
sense of "a thing produced after a state of non-existence, from something,
and in time" [p. 162]. It is a conclusion repulsive from an orthodox
religious point of view, but Averroes is comfortably sure that religion and
philosophy are not at odds.
The problem now is the following: does all what we explained happen
because our language is flexible enough to capture [the] diversity of
view, so that
when [Averroes] tries to reconcile apparently contradictory views his
strategy is to argue that all these views are acceptable as different aspects of
one thing. [...] In his tentative remarks on language Averroes suggests that
this conflict comes down to a stress upon different aspects of one thing,
namely, the way the world really is (9)?
Or must we reduce Being at a linguistic level in order to by-pass the
inherent philosophical difficulties concerning the nature of that Being?
Averroes is really frightened by the possibility of breaking off the
linkage between Being and thought, a linkage which he is not able to demonstrate
apodeictically even though he is sure of its occurrence; he tries to demonstrate
that language is functional in order to translate one into the other. There are
different kinds of method to attain this end. The Tahafut's
solution has been sketched in order to show the prevalence of language over
metaphysics. Another interesting solution is offered by Averroes in the Fasl
al-Maqal, a treatise strictly linked to the Tahafut.
We shall consider the same problem with the eternity of the world. Is the
world created or eternal? The question is raised and keenly faced in the Fasl
and we shall not repeat in detail Averroes' arguments. He concludes that we can
define the universe as both created and uncreated: created in relation to God
who is a being ontologically superior; uncreated in relation to time because
universe is not preceded by time even though is brought into existence by
The epistemological equivalence of the two qualities and the two propositions ('p' and 'non-p') from the point of view of truth's unicity is a linguistic deception. As long as Averroes cannot demonstrate that the world is created, he tries to suggest that eternity is tantamount to creation. As long as he cannot demonstrate the ontological reality either of eternity or of creation, he succeeds in showing that they are similar from a linguistic point of view.
I suggest that a subtle jeu linguistique underlies this argument
and that it can suggest the ontological unreliability of philosophical
contention (11). Perhaps, I did not adequately
stress that Averroes' discourse in the Fasl al-Maqal
pointed at the general consensus (ijma)
more than at demonstration in itself, as de Libera argues discussing the part of
the treatise concerning the eternity of the world and concluding that les
philosophes, s'ils existent, appartiennent aux ulama_
dont l'accord est indispensable à l'établissement d'un consensus (12).
For, as far as the primary principles of faith are concerned, the ijma
of philosophers and ulama_ as
well must command that the obvious sense (zahir)
of the Holy Text must be retained. Now, even though the reality of a linguistic
approach to metaphysics has to be kept as the main interpretative philosophical
key of Averroes' thought, the previous remark is useful to establish an even
more Islamic concept of Averroes' main position.
Is being something of real or is it merely a linguistic convention?
Undoubtedly, Averroes thought that Being is an absolute reality. Philosophy,
however, is not able to prove this assertion: al-Ghazali is right in
saying that philosophy is too ambitious and, in the end, ineffective. In my
view, Averroes was completely aware of the difficulty. His endeavour to save
philosophy is sincere, but rationalism is mocked: at the end, we need faith. For
Averroes, the Holy Quran can provide the key to a revealed - and so
unquestionable - foundation of logic and science, even because language, in the
Quranic perspective, is not conventional, but rather, being created by
God, it is an absolute tool for describing reality. I venture to suggest that
the Quran does represent a complete system of language whose result - in
quite Heideggerian terms - is to open the real meaning of Being.
If it was not so, we would not be able to justify the use of the Holy
Text in the Tahafut at-Tahafut.
For instance, when Quran 21:22 (If there were in heaven and earth
gods beside God, both would surely have been corrupted) is evoked to support
that only One principle rules the multiplicity of events [p. 177]; or when
Quran 41:11 (He inspired every Heaven with its bidding) is evoked
to support the ordered structure of universe and of the moving Intelligences [p.
186 and 191]. The perfect functioning of universe is reflected in the
providential care of God who reveals in the Quran: And the sun and
the moon and the stars are subjected to His bidding (16:12) (13).
The route we followed regarding the eternity of the world could be
repeated again, for instance regarding the relation between multiplicity and the
One or all the emanationistic system. Our purpose has been only to suggest in a
viable way that Averroes' rationalism is more difficult to grasp than is
generally believed; and that we must approach his work keeping in mind that he
is first of all a Muslim thinker.
L. Gauthier, Ibn Rochd, P.U.F., Paris, 1948; M. Cruz Hernández, Averroes.
Vida, Obra, Pensamiento, Influencia, Caja de Ahorros de Cordoba, Cordoba,
1986; A. Martínez Lorca,
Encuentro de Averroes,
Trotta, Madrid, 1993. I discussed Averroes' rationalism in both the
Introductions to Averroè, Il Trattato Decisivo sull'accordo della religione
con la filosofia (Kitab Fasl al-Maqal), Rizzoli, Milano, 1994, and
Averroè, L'Incoerenza dell'incoerenza dei filosofi (Tahafut at-Tahafut),
U.T.E.T., Torino, 1997.
See D. Urvoy, Ibn Rushd (Averroes), Routledge, London and New York, 1991.
M. A. al-Jabiri, Bunyah al-_Aql al-Arabi, Markaz Dirasat
al-Wahdah al-Arabiyyah, Beirut, 1992.
M. Abed al-Jabri, Introduction à la Critique de la Raison Arabe, La Découverte,
Ibn Rushd Tahafut at-Tahafut, texte arabe etabli par M. Bouyges,
Dar al-Mashreq, Beirut, 1992, p. 220; and cfr. p. 425 for a meaningful
quotation: If the distance between eternity and non-eternity is greater than
that between the various species, how then is it possibile to apply a judgement
about the empirical world to the invisible: for those two are opposite extremes?
And when you have understood the sense of the attributes which exist in the
visible world and those which exist in the invisible world, it will be clear to
you that through the ambiguity of the terms they are so equivocal that they do
not permit a transference from the visible to the invisible (English
translation by S. Van den Bergh, Averroes' Tahafut at-Tahafut (The
Incoherence of the Incoherence), Luzac, London, 1954, p. 256. I remember
that it exists a my own Italian translation, L'Incoerenza dell'Incoerenza dei
filosofi, already quoted in note 1. From this moment onward, I will quote in
the text between square brackets the number of pages of Bouyges' edition. The
English translation is always by Van den Bergh.
See the Commentary on Metaphysics, Book IV, Comm. 13.
My translation, p. 155. Van den Bergh simply: becoming (p. 62).
G. Hourani, Averroes on the Harmony of Religion and Philosophy, Luzac,
London, 1976, p. 57.
O. Leaman, Averroes and his Philosophy, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1988, p.
Hourani, Averroes on the Harmony of Religion and Philosophy, p. 55.
In the Introduction to Il Trattato Decisivo (see note 1).
A. De Libera, "Introduction" to Averroès, Discours Décisif, Flammarion,
Paris, 1996, p. 39.
English translation by N. Dawood, The Koran, Penguin, Harmondsworth,
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