Averroes

The Andalusian Arab Ibn Rushd (1126-1198 CE), known to the Latins as Averroes, was the most highly regarded commentator on Aristotle in the medieval and Renaissance Latin- and Hebrew-speaking worlds. Many of Aristotle’s central works first became available in Latin due to the translation of commentaries by Averroes that included Aristotle’s full text. In the early 14th century, the pope directed that European universities should teach Aristotle from the commentaries of Averroes, except where the opinions of “the Commentator” contradicted Christian faith. The first printed editions of Aristotle in the Renaissance were actually editions of Averroes with the works of Aristotle embedded in them.

Averroes was an Islamic judge in the Maliki tradition, and also an important medical authority. He maintained that philosophy and Islam taught the same truth in different ways. In addition to commentaries on Aristotle and works on law and medicine, he wrote several works on religion, and a short commentary on Plato’s Republic. The voluntaristic Sunni theologian al-Ghazali had written an influential denunciation of philosophy, which Averroes famously refuted in his Incoherence of the Incoherence. For most of his life he enjoyed the patronage of the Almohad caliphate, which controlled southern Spain and northwest Africa, but the situation was tenuous. Further East, the the Islamic Golden Age’s marvelous flowering of all sorts of learning and popular interest in “ancient wisdom” had already passed, as religious conservatives acquired greater influence.

As a reader of Aristotle, Averroes contributed greatly to distinguishing Aristotle’s own thought from that of the neoplatonically influenced commentary tradition. Though he only had access to Arabic translations of Syriac translations of the Greek, he did an amazing job of close textual analysis, comparing different translations of the same work to get better insight. He still inherited al-Farabi’s over-emphasis on demonstrative “science”, underestimation of the place of dialectic in Aristotle’s thought, and privileging of theory over practical ethical judgment, but on countless other points promoted textually sound and interesting readings of Aristotle’s works.

I feel a little guilty for perpetuating the Western obsession with a very narrow if important strand of his thought, concerned with his unique views on the nature of “intellect”, but I don’t read Arabic and my Latin is very poor, so my acquaintance is mainly based on sources in modern European languages. I also find the whole debate about intellect fascinating in its own right. (See also “This Human Understands”; “This Human”, Again; Averroes as Read by de Libera; Fortunes of Aristotle; Errors of the Philosophers; 1277.)

Hegel’s Ladder

Hegel’s Ladder (1997) by H.S. Harris is an incomparable intellectual achievement. Explicitly modeled on the great “long commentaries” on Aristotle by Averroes whom I also admire, its nearly 1600 pages comprise the only complete literal commentary on Hegel’s Phenomenology in existence. For each paragraph in Miller’s translation of Hegel’s text, he gives a pithy abstract, then discusses the passage in detail. (See numerous articles on Harris’ work on my Hegel contents page.) This monument of scholarship was preceded by Harris’ equally large Hegel’s Development, which seems to be the definitive study of Hegel’s work before the Phenomenology.

Harris’ main contention is that Hegel’s famously difficult and confusing argument actually makes good sense as it stands. He also defends the view that the perspective of the Phenomenology was never abandoned in Hegel’s later work. It is not a transcendental psychology or a transcendental history or some weird hybrid of the two, but in Hegel’s own phrase, a “science of the experience of consciousness”.

None of these three terms means what we might think. “Science” here is basically a coherent rational articulation. “Experience” is cumulative rather than immediate, and fundamentally includes many twists and turns of discovery that could not be anticipated in advance. “Consciousness” is not the universal medium in which everything takes place, but the everyday starting point of ordinary life that is both overturned and fulfilled by the progress of experience.

Hegel’s fundamental contention is that if we follow it far enough in its own movement, experience leads us — by way of what Paul Ricoeur later called a vitally important “long detour”, which I think is also the path of the genuine Platonic and Aristotelian open-ended quest for essence — from naive encounter with objects in the immediacy of individual awareness, to a situated ethical being that is at home in the world and free of what Kant called transcendental illusions. Such a freedom from fundamental transcendental illusion is all that Hegel ever meant to claim for what he called “absolute” knowledge.

Of course my own aphoristic style of commentary is as about as close to diametrically opposite of comprehensive literal commentary as could be, but I nourish the hope others will find highlights I pick out — and emphasis and interpolations I add — to be illuminating and relevant. Meanwhile I tremendously admire thorough and even-handed attention to detail like that of Harris, and find it an excellent cross-check.