Towards a Networkological History of Philosophy: Spinoza and Leibniz, and their Roots in the Islamic Philosophical Tradition

The Statue of Maimonides in the Jewish Quarter in Cordoba: The Legacy of Islamic thought in Maimonides lives on in Spinoza

No-one, it seems, is more contemporary than Spinoza. The flurry of books on Spinoza in the past few years is starting to reach tidal proportions. And Leibniz, another long ago forgotten rationalist, is also making a comeback. The reason why seems to be that Cartesianism, with its mind-body split, is being called into question by everything from artificial intelligence research to the post-human and transvidual forms of subjectivity which are the result of various forms of global capital.

Add to this the fact that Leibniz and Spinoza were there at the birth of capitalism, and can be retooled with minor effort as media-theorists, and you’ve got something quite powerful. In fact, I believe that Leibniz and Spinoza are, in many ways, the guides we need today to help understand our capitalist mediascape.

I read these figures as two sides of the same. Leibniz’s theory of monads seems perfectly designed for the age of internet terminals, while Spinoza’s radical politico-ethics of immanence provides a pathway for thinking liberation from within an oppressive network structure which seems, oddly, in many ways like Leibniz’s atomized and terrifying (dys)utopia. If Leibniz is the theorist of the now, Spinoza is in many ways the cure. These two supremely networked theorists describe two complementary sides of our contemporary world. One describes a hyp0erreified netscape, the other a way to find the deeper logic beyond reification. If Leibniz is a thinker of superficial, harmony, then Spinoza is the thinker of logic within massively multiple creativity, radical difference. Read together, they provide a roadmap beyond the Cartesian roadblocks that are increasingly being called into question.

Leibniz and Spinoza: Back to the Post-Cartesian Future

In many ways, however, Leibniz and Spinoza are throwbacks, and certainly this was how they are often read. That is, after the radical advent of the Cartesian break, with the focus on individual subjectivity that became the foundation of so-called ‘modern’ philosophy, Leibniz and Spinoza are often seen as an attempt to turn the clock back to medieval theorizings of God using quasi-scholastic methods dressed up in semi-scientific methods. Descartes is the theorist of the individual, and the empiricists that fought him used his own tools of individual observation against him, while Kant simply radicalized him, and all modern philosophy, except that odd aberration of Hegel, another throwback, in many ways, to Spinoza, is merely a footnote to Kant. Or at least, so many contemporary historians of philosophy would have it.

But today that model is being called into question. Certainly Nietzsche, Darwin, Marx, and Freud are still seen as the great ‘hermeneuts of suspicion’ that called the Cartesian-Kantian model into question, but it wasn’t until the ‘linguistic turn’ inaugurated by Wittgenstein and Heidegger, and radicalized by analytics, cyberneticists, deconstructionists, structuralists and post-structuralists of various stripes, that we see the subject begin to fade. But a faded, deconstructed, shattered subject, even if part of a structure, is still a subject, and it is only today that we’re starting to see networked formations begin to truly rework subjectivity so that it no longer seems to be the province only of things reified in a tiny Cartesian cogito.

Today our very notion of subjectivity is increasingly being viewed by contemporary cognitive studies as embodied and emergent, and panpsychism is being taken seriously once again. From such a perspective, Leibniz and Spinoza seem, if anything, prescient, and the time of Descartes and Kant is seeming ever more like the efflorescence of bourgeois individualism that the Marxists so often said it was.

And so Leibniz and Spinoza are back, and with a vengeance. But as with any philosopher, you only understand them when you understand their sources, and how they mutated and warped these, synthesized them for their own unique needs. The process of knowing a philosopher so intimately that you can see what they stole, and how and why, often takes them down from the pedestal at first, as they seem radically less original and interesting than before. But I think it’s necessary to really get what a given philosopher is doing, their gesture in relation to the history from which they emerge, and their attempt to speak to their times and issues through the languages and materials provided to them by their understandings of the past.

All of which lead me to Islamic philosophy, for in fact, both Spinoza and Leibniz, unlike Descartes, are the children of Islamic thought, whether they know it or not. And from what we can tell, if they had an awareness of this, it was incredibly slight.

The Genesis of Spinoza and Leibniz’s Competing Networkologies: Classical Islamic Philosophy

If we look at Leibniz’s primary influences, they seem to be Descartes and the various medieval philosophers he was reacting against, as well as occasionalists like Malebranche who like Leibniz tried to unify Descartes with medieval models. Leibniz attempted to synthesize this all, but with a version of modern science much more flexible than the Cartesian mechanistic view of the cosmos, and which could sync up with his infinitessimal view of the world as composed of infinitely tiny invisible magnitudes, crucial to his notion of the calculus.

As for Spinoza, he seems to get much of what makes him a networked thinker from Moses Maimonides, who he mobilizes against Descartes to produce a counter system which can go beyond the limitations of Cartesianism. While Spinoza created a novel, secular, and geometrically organized system, many of the individual elements, as well as the over sense of coherency, come from Maimonides. And Maimonides, who originally wrote in Arabic, was himself transferring many of these elements, with his own twists, from Islamic thinkers of various sorts.

If we look at the roots of Leibniz’s theorizations of God, these derive from Malebranche and the various medieval schoolmen, such as Scotus, Ockham, and Aquinas. But the general approach of these thinkers to philosophical questions, the very language of concepts they used, all find their origin in Islamic thinkers as well. Leibniz and Spinoza are in many ways the dual inheritors of a tradition of networked thought, with God as the metaphor for the net, which has a common source in the Islamic world which, according to Laura Marks, can help us theorize the most contemporary of networked phenomena (for more on this notion, see my post here).

A Combinatory of Networked Philosophical Models: Theorizing God in Arabic/Islamic Thought (and a Guide to Self-Study)

The history of Islamic thought can in fact be viewed as a fast discussion on precisely what it means to be a network, and many of the most crucial thinkers in this tradition develop one or several of the elements in a vast combinatory of moves from which later network thinkers like Scotus and Leibniz, Ockham and Spinoza, Maimonides and Malebranche, will pick and choose. Most working within philosophy today are barely trained in medieval philosophy at all, though it is likely that folks may have a passing familiarity with some of the basic ideas of Acquinas, Scotus, or Ockham. But Islamic philosophy is completely left out of most contemporary discussions of philosophy, relegated to scholars of religion. When Islamic philosophy is discussed, it is as a vehicle whereby Plato and Aristotle came back to the European nations as they began to develop philosophy again after the Dark Ages. It is time this begins to change.

For those looking to learn more about this tradition, there are luckily an increasingly good set of resources for this. After reading Laura Marks’ excellent Enfoldment and Infinity: An Islamic Genealogy of New Media Art (2010, for more, see my post on this book here), I began to track down her sources. I found two books complemented each other nicely. The first was the excellent Cambridge Companion to Arabic Philosophy (2005) by Adamson and Taylor, with its focused essays on major figures and trends by different scholars. The second was Majid Fakhry’s Islamic Philosophy: A Beginner’s Guide (2009), which does a nice job of filling in the blanks, providing a more flowing historical narrative, even if it gets off to a slow start. What’s also nice is that this is a short and more user friendly version of Fakhy’s monumental History of Islamic Philosophy (2004), which can be used to supplement his shorter text whenever there’s a desire for more. Beyond this is the massive, 1232 encyclopedic Routledge History of Islamic Philosophy (2001), edited by Seyyed Hossain Nasr and Oliver Leaman, which while I lust for, is simply too expensive at nearly $100 for the paperback version.

After reading much of the Cambridge Companion and all of smaller Fakhry, I feel like I have a decent enough handle to dive into primary source materials, and I’m excited to do so. I’m starting with the McGinnis and Reisman anthology Classical Arabic Philosophy: An Anthology of Sources, but I’m also planning on diving into primary source texts by some later favorites not really covered in this volume. In particular, the new translations by William Chiddick seem great, and Mulla Sadra’s (also known as Al-Shazari) The Elixir of the Gnostics, Suhrawardi’s The Philosophy of Illumination are texts I’m really looking forward to. I’d also like to dig into some Ibn-Arabi. Also fascinating is the work of the Brethren of Purity (Ikhwan al-Safa), though unfortunately, the translations of their works are just too damn expensive for me right now.

If there are crucial precursors of Spinoza, and to a lesser extent, Leibniz, within the Arabic speaking world, it is in many of these later sources. While neither of them realize it, many of their most crucial conceptual tools were developed and honed in heated arguments between rival schools in the Arabic speaking world, often by means of rival systems as complex as theirs.

For example, Suhrawardi’s Illuminationism is a philosophy of light, with much in common with that proposed by Bergson, and elaborated on by Deleuze in his Cinema books. For Suhrawardi, there are many types of light, and the way they intertwine gives rise to the various physical bodies and potencies of our world. Ibn-Arabi’s radical empiricist, existentialist immanence of being, as well as his way of discussing God’s attributes, provide a clear precursor to Spinoza. Mulla Sadra builds upon Ibn-Arabi’s approach, but adds the notion of intensities, so central to an immanent metaphysics. Many of the additional crucial moves made by Spinoza, such as the essence/being distinction, the notion of God as the only necessary being for whom essence is existence, and a radical notion of emergence, all come from one of the most influential of all Islamic philosophers, Ibn-Sina (known in the west as Avicenna). And the Brethren of Purity were a neopythagorean sect that combined Sufi mysticism with a worship of numbers whose philosophy can find many analogues in contemporary group theory, as well as in the Kantian notion of the ding-an-sich. And the radical atomism, combined with a notion of God as unity, as advocated by the Asharite kalam theorists, while radically different from many of the others and any sort of Spinozism, does echo in the future in some ways in the atomistic side of the Leibnizian monadology (though likely not via any sort of even indirect transmission).

Islamic philosophy is a vast combinatory of networked models. Should we think about God and his many nodes this way or that way? Are nodes dynamic, static, fixed, inside God, outside him, what operations are permitted, what gates are there, what types of processing, how many levels? And there were political stakes to all of these moves. Some of these philosophies were seen as radically dangerous, while others were endorsed at various times even by the Caliph. Many took on different valences when they were absorbed by the Jewish and Christian traditions. For example, the relatively minor systematizer of Aristotle named Ibn-Russhd became known to the Latin countries as Averroes, second only to Aristotle himself. Along with Avicenna, he was seen as the primary source of the wisdom of the ancients until Ficino and others under the Medici began direct translations of Aristotle, Plato, and other Greeks into Latin. Only then did the Latin speaking countries finally start to emerge out of their tutelage by the Arabic speaking world.

As I tracked all this further back, I also came to learn just how much the notions of what was considered a good reading of Plato or Aristotle had changed over the years, and both Fakhry and Cambridge Companion describe how this happened. And in fact, it seems that much of this finds its roots in the much maligned movement known as Neoplatonism.

The Neoplatonic Legacy of Classical Islamic Philosophy

For if there was anything that classical Arabic philosophy was, it was Neoplatonic. This might not be immediately apparent at first to the outside observer. Many of those trained in traditional ‘western’ philosophy know the Islamic tradition as the manner in which Aristotle reenetered the Latin speaking countries, primarilly via Averroes, and the rise of interest in Platonism, representing the shift from scholasticism to the Renaissance, while spurred in minor ways by Avicenna, was largely due to the direct retranslation of Platonic texts, with heavy emphasis on the Timaeus, in Italy under the Medici.

All this is true, but it is an understanding of how the Latin speaking countries read the philosophy of the Islamic world, which is radically different from how it was understood within that world, as well as the way it related to the Greek texts before it.  Some corrections are definitely in order now that we have much more complete textual and critical resources. For example, Averroes (Ibn-Russhd), was a minor figure in Islamic philosophy, with almost no impact on those who came after him, it was only in the Latin speaking world that he had such a large impact, largely because of his paraphrases of Aristotles work, which were as of yet untranslated into Latin. Avicenna (Ibn-Sina) was a minor influence in the Latin speaking world, but arguably the singularly most important philosopher in the history of Islamic philosophy. And both of these figures can be classified firmly as Neoplatonists, at least, as we understand the term today.

Ever since Al-Kindi introduced Greek philosophical models to the Arabic kalam theological tradition, not long before the massive translation movement supported by the Abassid Caliphs in Baghdad in the 9th century, the crucial filter for all this was the reading of Aristotle and Plato put forth by the Hellenistic world, primarily the teachings of the inheritors of the Academy and Lyceum in Alexandria and Athens. And all of this bears the firm stamp of Neoplatonic readings of both Plato and Aristotle, which are widely different from how we generally read these texts today.

I’ll say more about why this is, and its implications, in a forthcoming post about Neoplatonism.


~ by chris on December 30, 2011.

6 Responses to “Towards a Networkological History of Philosophy: Spinoza and Leibniz, and their Roots in the Islamic Philosophical Tradition”

  1. […] is why, as I’ve argued in several places, Spinoza and Lebiniz are the path of the future, for they are not only both clearly media […]

  2. As someone doing doctoral rsrch on medieval Islamic thought and society (especially in relation to the Islamic occult sciences), and as big fan of Deleuze, Latour, et al., I find this very interesting. I think you might be further interested in the ways medieval Islamicate societies relied heavily on ‘networks’ (long-distance merchant relationships, ‘headless’ legal schools, mutlinodal military patronage states, tribes actual and notional, etc.) rather than European Christian-style ‘institutions’ (ecclesia, bloodline aristocracies, formal guilds), and the possible relationships between these ‘social’ features and the ‘networked’ Islamic philosophy you’re describing.

    • Wow, other than Laura Marks, I’ve yet to encounter anyone who studies both Deleuze, Latour, etc., and Islamic philosophy. I’m also very much interested in researching the links between the semiotic practices and effective practices (ie: mysticism, proto-science, astrology, etc.) as media techniques and forerunners of science, from neo-pythagoreanism and ancient mathematics to islamic variations to rennaissance proto-science like ficino, bruno, etc. I really do think these are vanishing mediators of contemporary science and math, which I think completely reify results and practices in these fields in ways that echo the dual reifying formations of the commodified object/isolated Cartesian-Kantian subject. I’ll likely have some blog posts up soon on why I think really cutting edge mathematics has some links to ancient mathematics in some interesting ways. But I’d really like to pick you brain on the Islamic sources as I get further into them, which is on my research agenda for this semester. Have you read Marks’ book? What do you think of it? Are you ever in nyc? Have any essays or blog posts about your work?

      • I’m trained as a historian, so the Deleuze and Latour has been pretty much on my own time, but I am trying to work some of the latter into my diss — gingerly, given that Islamicate historical studies as a field is a bit allergic to ‘theory’. I work primarily on Ahmad al-Buni and the occult science of letters (‘ilm al-huruf), a tradition that totally scrambles modern distinctions between textuality and materiality, language and the earth, etc., so I do find Latour and co. very useful for thinking past analytical models that would totally invalidate the subject being studied. I also specialize in manuscript studies – and, re al-Buni, the transmission of ‘heterodox’ knowledge via manuscripts – so I guess you could say I’m quite interested in medieval media theory as well. I’ve ordered Marks’ book. I don’t blog (nor do I have any idea where you or other academics find the time!), but feel free to contact me by email. I was actually just in NYC but have since returned to Ann Arbor. I’m in the city fairly regularly though. We’ll have to get together next time.

  3. Reblogged this on brndnjtkn.

  4. I may have misunderstood, but I’m interested in what you see as the substantial connection between Suhrawardi and Deleuze. In my reading, Suhrawardi does not so much posit many types of light as he does a singular, substantial reality which is light, the gradations of which really amount to diminishing intensities (with darkness appearing only in an apophatic sense as absence of light). And that is only to speak of the metaphysical, non-sensible order, which he is committed to distinguishing from the (lower) sensible world in which material, sensible ‘light’ is symbolic of its otherworldly counterpart. Even in its imaginal manifestation, metaphysical light is diminished and requires the limitation form if no material locus for Suhrawardi. All this is to say that the multiplicity of lights does not seem to be a Suhrawardian ontological principle, but instead it is contingency and barriers to light which serve as the principle of multiplicity in his Neoplatonic metaphysics and ontology. This seems to me at odds with the Deleuzian principle of difference and with Deleuze’s anti-hierarchical multiplicity. I’m interested as to whether you can sketch a path to reconciliation here. As always, very intriguing set of thoughts.

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