(Control) Why Are Philosophers Such Nasty People? (Patricia Crone)

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Why is it that philosophers tend to nastiness, tend to be such nasty people? Patricia Crone’s caustic assessment of philosophers and philosophy in God’s Rule — Government and Islam: Six Centuries of Medieval Islamic Political Thought is as funny as it is apt. It sums up my own sense about political philosophers (and political theology) working out of the Greco-Islamic-Germanic tradition. Whatever it is that they’re doing, it’s not really political. It’s more metaphysical than that; and not democratic.

The tradition of Islamic philosophy is much trumpeted. But in Crone’s more critical estimation, the philosophers are feckless figures occupying a marginal place in the larger scheme of Islamic political thought. Chapter 14 is dedicated to politics in Islamic scholasticism. To “most Muslims,” Crone contends, the philosophers were not just arrogant, and abstruse but complete failures in placing themselves vis-a-vis the religious scholars and jurists (ulema) as leaders in the community (p.186).

It turns out that so many philosophers, then like today, are men who care an awful lot about controlling things and people. They’re just not all that good at doing it.

The comment that I liked in particular is this one:

What the philosophers called ‘political science…formed part of practical philosophy, traditionally divided into ethics…, household management, and politics.  All three branches concerned themselves with the male aspiring to be in control, of himself in the first case, of his women, children and slaves in the second case, and of his co-religionists in the third. In the third case, however, the control was envisaged as intellectual. ‘Political science’ did not have much to do with what we know by that name today. Rather its focus was on what Pico Della Miradola (d.1494) ca….called ‘the dignity of man’ (and to most falasifa, this really did mean the male half of the species): man rising above the limitations imposed by his self and others, trying to elevate himself to the rank of the angels.”

No one wonder no one pays it any mind. Best not to call it “political.” Not just a phallic project, but certainly that too, this will to power, those assertions of superior gnosis (about identity or non-identity of being and thought), these ridiculous attempts to rise above the limits of human representation are all weighed down by a fundamental confusions about politics and “the political,” which tends to look more like a gesture than a theoretical model based on an actual art.

This has nothing to do with Islam and medieval Islamic philosophy per se. For anyone interested in gender and philosophy with a suspicious eye on the continental tradition as a whole, Crone’s reading is depressingly familiar.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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