Book review: Philosophy In The Islamic World | The Seamstress And The Wind

The latest volume of a philosophical history with a mission shows how vital Arab thinking was to the Renaissance in the West, writes Stuart Kelly

A Muslim worshipper prays at a Johannesburg mosque on 7 June, the first day of Ramadan, last month. Western hostility to Islamic faith belies the extent to which we embraced the thought of its followers. Picture: Marco Longari/Getty
A Muslim worshipper prays at a Johannesburg mosque on 7 June, the first day of Ramadan, last month. Western hostility to Islamic faith belies the extent to which we embraced the thought of its followers. Picture: Marco Longari/Getty
A Muslim worshipper prays at a Johannesburg mosque on 7 June, the first day of Ramadan, last month. Western hostility to Islamic faith belies the extent to which we embraced the thought of its followers. Picture: Marco Longari/Getty

This is the third volume of one of the most accomplished and ambitious ventures in publishing – “a History of Philosophy without any gaps”. Volume one took us from the Pre-Socratics to Aristotle; volume two encompassed the Stoics – including Seneca, who seems to be fashionable suddenly, with an excellent biography by Emily Wilson last year and a forthcoming and fascinating work by Peter Stothard later this year – up to St Augustine and Boethius.

This third volume is where this series comes into its own. The title is judiciously chosen. It is not an account of Islamic philosophy, although it covers the greatest names in that field – al-Kindi, Avicenna, al-Ghazali and Averroes – but the philosophers from different religious backgrounds who worked under Islamic political rule; significantly the Jewish writers Saadia Gaon and Moses Maimonides and the Christian writers Masawaiyh and Hunayn ibn Ishaq.

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In one of his more gauche statements, the former Ukip candidate, Robert Kilroy-Silk, asserted that “we owe the Arabs nothing”. Perhaps Oxford University Press might send a complimentary copy of this book to him to help with his clearly hard-of-thinking beliefs. Adamson gives a detailed and comprehensive account of not just how the Islamic world preserved the thinking of Aristotle and Plato and Plotinus, but how they interrogated it and influenced its reception back into the Christian West. Moreover, some of the questions they posed went far beyond the disputatious Church Fathers and went to the core of the dilemmas with which we still wrestle. Why is there something rather than nothing? How real is something imaginary, like a unicorn or a phoenix? Can God be understood through reason, or is God beyond humanity’s capacity to fathom Him? Are ethical obligations eternal or contingent – lying might be wrong, but would lying to the Nazi officers asking if you had Anne Frank in your attic be wrong? There will no doubt be subsequent volumes of Adamson’s history of philosophy, but many of the key topics are established in this work.

These books began as podcasts, and on occasion their transfer to print is less than successful. While it might be engaging on a weekly level to have references to Buster Keaton or similes involving giraffes, reading it as an entire work tends to make one jib at the frequency. Perhaps it might be better to treat the book as a series of amuse-bouches rather than a main meal; taken intermittently and infrequently rather than in one sitting. Incidentally, Adamson also has out one of the lovely Very Short Introductions series from Oxford University Press, on Islamic philosophy, and readers seeking a more succinct though less detailed account might choose to start there.

Likewise its Unique Selling Point – philosophy without the gaps – is getting a little gat-toothed. While I admire the concept, I wish it took in more geography than chronology. The first book, for example, was Greek to a fault; despite the fact that it might have included Confucius, Mencius and Han Feizi, for example. Peter Watson, Karen Armstrong and Karl Jaspers have all concentrated on the epochal point, the so-called Axial Age, where the “great moral rule” – do unto others as you would be done by – emerged in Greece, China and Israel at the same time.

Misgivings aside, this is a remarkable work. Until such time as the publishers of “classics” deign to give us versions of such originals as The Decisive Treatise, Pointers And Reminders, The Guide For The Perplexed or The Incoherence Of The Incoherence, Adamson’s book is the best guide to a philosophical tradition that has been overlooked and underestimated for too long.

Part of what is most inspiring about this work is the way in which ideas which have often been thought of as originating in Europe in the Renaissance were actually predated by Islamic thinkers. Take, for example, Avicenna’s thought experiment about the falling man. Actually, before that, take the idea of the thought experiment itself. Avicenna, who was much concerned with the difference between the potential and the actual, made the thought experiment a key form of philosophical rhetoric. But to the falling man: a man suddenly comes into existence miraculously, and is falling, his limbs widespread so he cannot even touch his own body. What would he be aware of? With no memory, no sensation, no perception, Avicenna concludes that he would at least be aware that he is aware. Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” is a bit johnny-come-lately in comparison.

In each of these books, Adamson has attempted to redress the bias towards the masculine in the history of philosophy. The 60th chapter deals with women scholars in the Islamic world, and does so without being overly apologetic. (That said, Rabi’a might be interesting enough, but is hardly as significant as Hypatia in the previous volume: the fourth looks more promising in terms of female thinkers).

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From the first volume onwards, a repeated refrain has been philosophers arguing that being a philosopher is the best choice in life. These books are so engaging, instructive and diverting it might almost make you believe that is true.

The Seamstress And The Wind

By César Aira, trans. Rosalie Knecht

And Other Stories, £7.99

This is a novel that revolves around the relative speeds of things – a work of literary trigonometry, if you will. When Delia Siffoni, a seamstress in the little Argentinian town of Pringles, discovers that her only son has gone missing and may be heading south towards Patagonia in a huge, long-distance truck, she sets off in pursuit in a taxi. A few hours later, when her husband gets home from work and hears what’s happened, he sets off after his wife in a little red truck of his own. Trouble is, the old 1930s taxi Mrs Siffoni is riding in is not as fast as the much more modern truck it is pursuing, and Mr Siffoni’s own truck is even slower than the taxi.

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In a parody of a typical car-chase, then – a sort of anti-pursuit – the three vehicles gradually get further away from each other as they slide through the desert. César Aira notes that the taxi driver must have been “intrigued, or at least confused, by what was happening. No-one had ever taken him on such an inexplicable trajectory before.” It’s a telling line, because the author tends to treat the characters in his story as if they are so many snooker balls, bouncing around a table and occasionally colliding when their paths intersect. At times, in sly, wry asides, it’s almost as if he’s taunting his readers, daring us to throw our hands up at the unlikeliness of it all: “All this may seem very surreal,” he pouts at one point, “but that’s not my fault.”

Translating all the subtleties of a book like this – bursting with ideas and full of maddening ambiguities – can’t have been easy, but Rosalie Knecht has done a masterful job of preserving the various nuances of the original without ending up with a text that sounds clunky. Even in its hallucinatory final third, when the seamstress finds herself deep inside the “insane zone” of Patagonia, being romanced by an amorous wind (yes, an actual wind), the prose bounds along with a gleeful spring in its step, dragging the improbable story behind it.

The author of more than 80 books, Aira has been described as “infuriating” – which he is – and “slippery”, which, as understatements go, is verging on the monumental. If you’re happy to have your buttons pushed, though, and to have the rug pulled out from under your feet so many times you start to wonder whether there’s any point in paying attention to the plot at all, then you’ll fall for this shaggy-dog-story-on-shrooms, and fall hard.

Roger Cox