Абай, Штра́ус, и совет от моего отца.

The BBC has published my piece on Abai Kunanbaev, which I was working on while in the United States. It’s entitled, “Abai’s thoughts, Kazakh matters”, which is a play on what struck me as a very Abai-esque quote from a young Kazakh psychologist I just happened to bump into underneath Grand Central Station. The Kyrgyz version was released yesterday; still to come is the Uzbek version, and then the original English version, which I believe will come during the early summer. This is a big moment for me, as it’s not everyday one can get published on the BBC, much less in three languages and about philosophy, that perennially “un-newsy” of disciplines — alhamdulilah!

Like an excitied little boy, I shared the English copy with my close friends, colleagues, and family (I can’t distribute it publicly at the moment due to copyright). My father had the following remarks to make:

Congratulations, Chris! Heady stuff, although that’s nothing new. Reading your description of Abai as Kazakhstan’s first philosopher as a tie in to today’s independent journalists there, makes the whole piece all the more timely. Also, in my opinion, it is very well written, and I could follow it as I read it, not too obtuse although certainly intellectual. Key elements for your first direct BBC contribution. Love, Dad

Not only is this advice I will remember as I continue to seek one path of service as a public intellectual, finding a way to communicate complex and important ideas for a general audience, but it also resonates with the direction many of my thoughts have been turning in recent months.

When I look back, it seems almost inevitable that combining studying Averroes with professional work as a journalist in today’s infotocratic era would lead me to become interested in what it means to be critical. This interest, only somewhat conscious, was behind my concern over the ways in which we methodologically see and read ourselves into our religions, my initial attraction to Abai, and most recently, my curiosity about the phenomenology of philosophy and journalism.

It’s the season of the 19-Day Fast in the Baha’i Faith again, and so far, it has been an unusually penetrating period. Among other things, via one of my courses, I have been re-introduced to the work of Leo Strauss. In my rasher twenties, I knew about him (and had written him off) as the purported grandfather of American neoconservatism. Today, I’m struck by his relevancy for my own interests.

Strauss argued that only revelation, and not philosophy, can provide the basis of a universal morality. To be sure, this universal morality is based on faith and not certain knowledge. Philosophy cannot produce law on its own, but revelation cannot provide certain knowledge of the mystery of its origins. Indeed, revelation — which can be generalized to mean culture, society, status quo, etc. — comes up against its own limitations in this world whenever it attempts to articulate philosophical foundations for itself, while philosophy emerges out from the socio-conceptual and linguistic matrix established by revelation. The prophet’s task is to legislate, but the philosopher’s task is to problematize and criticism, i.e., construction versus deconstruction.

Personally, I don’t think I instinctively agree with Strauss fixing this as the perennial state of philosophy and revelation, of reason and faith or reason and society, but it is a very useful approach, and it may also capture something about what it means to be critical today, in liberal modernity. It certainly informs my interest in recovering the religious aspect of journalism. Oh, and guess what? He was profoundly influenced by al-Farabi, Maimonides, and you guessed it, Averroes, not just in terms of his vision of what it means to be a philosopher, but also in terms of his general project. Leora Batnitzky, author of an excellent entry on Strauss for the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, writes,

In the context of such claims about Strauss’s influence on the Bush administration’s policies on Iraq and the Middle East more generally, there is an irony, namely, that Strauss himself was devoted to revitalizing Islamic philosophy, as opposed to Christian thought, for the very sake of the future of western civilization.

As always, I’m struck, for the divine confirmations continue, like calligraphy being penned through the seemingly disconnected moments of my thoughts by some unseen hand.

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