Return to Averroes

Some of my readers might like to know where exactly I am during the coronavirus pandemic. Last academic year, I was back in Leuven, as a guest researcher with the Computer Security and Industrial Cryptography (COSIC) research unit. I have been back in Bishkek this academic year, now as a visiting scholar at the Central Asian Studies Institute (CASI). What may be a little confusing is that I am still affiliated with COSIC as a guest researcher. My affiliation with both institutions is on the basis of my project with Dr. Rebekah Overdorf in Lausanne and the Civic Initiative for Internet Policy (CIIP) that combines machine learning and investigative journalism to research campaigns of sockpuppets (a breed of fake account) in Kyrgyzstan.

So, I am here in Bishkek with my wife, watching on the one hand the chaos unspool in my homeland as my people persist in the folly that an unfettered free market will save them, on the other hand how the authorities here in Kyrgyzstan have responded with a reach that has exceeded their grasp, and perhaps may even be exploiting it for ill gain. It has been a deeply symbolic Naw-Ruz, the wheel of history digging deep into the mud and forcefully driving our species into what could very well be a new era. Within the microcosmic confines of my own life, as I do not have an office and often work from my home, my modus vivendi has not been so dramatically overthrown as many others’. Still, there have been a lot of changes, and during this time I have turned for solace, perhaps surprisingly, not to the scriptures of my religion, the Baha’i Faith, but to an old philosophical mentor, perhaps even ancestor of a sort, Averroes.

In particular, I am reading his Long Commentary on Aristotle’s De Anima, Richard C. Taylor’s translation. I know Richard personally, as he was a kind of co-supervisor on my Master’s thesis about Averroes’s On The Harmony of Religions and Philosophy, also known as the Decisive Treatise. Now that I am 38 and have much more philosophical experience beneath the belt, I can more fully appreciate why Thomas Aquinas and other Medievals called him the Commentato”. And, naturally, it has gotten me to thinking about Averroes again …

It has been nearly a decade since my Master’s thesis defence. I recall how afterwards, Richard and my supervisor, Jules Janssens, took me out for a coffee at a bar across the street from the Institute of Philosophy. Richard is an astute fellow, to say the least. He suggested that I pursue a career in political consulting rather than academia, rightly discerning that I would probably both be good at it and enjoy it. Unfortunately, due to my faith’s provision against engaging in politics, this was never really an option for me. I confess to dabbling in it here in Kyrgyzstan during the 2017 presidential election, but it felt a little too … well, “Averroistic” with respect to my faith, in the naughty, “Double Truth” and Siger of Brabant kind of way.

So, I have continued to pursue academia, but by combining my experience in journalism with philosophy. I have been writing my dissertation under Bart Pattyn on “philosophy of journalism”. Broadly-speaking, I have been examining the ontology of journalism, the socio-linguistics of news, and the historical relationship between philosophy and journalism as to communities and disciplines of inquiry. Yet, now that I am reading Averroes again, to my own surprise I find again a certain Averroistic undercurrent beneath the surface of my research.

My dissertation began by analyzing journalism through the lens of collective intentionality, a philosophical doctrine that could perhaps be considered the modern-day descendant of Averroes’ notion of the “unity of the intellect”, albeit by way of Durkheim. However, since last year, when I began researching fake accounts and disinformation, my research has also moved in the direction of rhetoric, and with it, the whole notion of the audience, going back to Isocrates.

So, now I realize something else that drew me to Averroes a decade ago: I felt that he displayed a certain kind of emotional intelligence with his use of the tripartite distinction between rhetorical, dialectical and demonstrative “ways” of reasoning. I argued in my thesis that these ways of thinking are not only abstract and timeless; no, the Commentator also had in mind concrete audiences of people. At my defence, Richard, who had also intuited this with his important insight into Averroes’ use of the Aristotelian principle that “truth does not contradict truth”, commended my insight — something that I have always proudly carried with me.

Now, the tripartite distinction between audiences was, of course, not unique to Averroes, but I think he implemented it in a way that was more thorough than Avicenna and other philosophers of his era. The essential idea is that there are levels of truth depending upon who you talk with, each true equally with each other without contradiction. The way I am characterizing the concept here is, truth be told, slightly more Maimonides than Averroes, as the latter ultimately believed philosophy as the real truth, or perhaps the “truest” truth. Nevertheless, the Commentator starts Maimonides down that path of thinking, and it is reflected in my grandparents’ work of philosophical theology, Faith Through Reason. This notion of levels of truth is something which, for a reason not yet entirely clear to myself, has meant a lot to me. I have found myself implementing it a lot, in my journalistic work, my academic writings, and throughout my daily life.

I think it was Michael Kerlin, one of my undergraduate philosophy professors, now two decades ago at La Salle University in Philadelphia, interpreted Aristotle and Hegel’s conceptions of time like a corkscrew: cycles that still progress forward, uncovering new depths every time. I find that an apt way to think about my own inner life. Why am I reading Averroes again? Perhaps because, like so many others engaged in the Aristotelian tradition of philosophy, there is a certain transcendence to be found in the Classicals and their generations of intellectual descendants. Or perhaps because there is something to be said about the Commentator’s notion of the monopsyche — there somehow exists an eternal conversation after we are gone, echoing on in this frail, finite world …

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