Dialectic in Islamic and Jewish Philosophy

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In these closely related traditions dialectic is primarily associated with the science of kalām, commonly translated as "theology," but literally meaning "word," "speech," or "discussion." Kalām began in the eighth century as an intellectual defense of Islam against external critics and quickly developed into an internal debate over doctrinal issues concerning the legitimacy of political authority, the necessary conditions of religious belief, predestination and free will, the ontological status of the Qurʾân, and the relation of God's attributes to His essential Unity. Kalām was subsequently appropriated by Arabic-speaking Jews living in the Islamic realm, who shared some of its concerns and employed its distinctive techniques and formulas in the defense and systematic explanation of their own faith.

Kalām in general is marked by its dual reliance on revelation and reason. The kalām theologians, or mutakallimūn, took scripture as their primary data but employed rational argumentation to produce the most robust and coherent interpretations thereof. This distinguished them on the one hand from traditionalists and literalists who saw logical disputation and interpretation as leading to heresy, and on the other hand from the Greek-influenced Islamicate philosophers, or falāsifa, who were more fully committed to the demands of reason and thus wary of their theological brethren's residual dogmatism. Kalām 's method of reasoning and argumentation was dialectical in at least two respects. The first recalls the Aristotelian concept of dialectic, insofar as the mutakallimūn based their arguments on merely probable or generally accepted beliefsspecifically, the revealed truths of Islam or Judaismrather than rationally self-evident first principles or premises that necessitated consent. The falāsifa, who appropriated Aristotle's hierarchical distinction between dialectic and demonstration, considered this approach insufficiently rigorous. While their own adoption of the demonstrative syllogism held out the prospect of certitude, they saw the mutakallimūn as hobbled by the questionable epistemic status of their faith-based premises. However, the falāsifa did not reject dialectic altogether. They generally recognized its value as a propaedeutic for honing intellectual skills, as well as a tool for communicating crucial truths to those unequipped for philosophical discourse. The mutakallimūn, for their part, remained dubious about the philosophers' claims to apodictic certainty.

The second sense in which kalām was dialectical recalls certain aspects of the Socratic method. First, it was dialogical: It typically took a question and answer form, in effect presupposing the existence of an intellectual adversary to drive the discourse forward. Its method was thus parasitic: The mutakallimūn tended to establish their own conclusions indirectly, by teasing out inconsistencies or internal contradictions in the opponent's position. This strategy often involved the use of dilemmas, where the adversary would find himself trapped between two unacceptable consequences that could be avoided only by adopting the questioner's position. The mutakallimūn commonly fashioned their arguments with an eye to the specific concerns, presuppositions, and methods of their opponents as well, advancing internal critiques of their adversaries to refute them on their own terms. Ironically, their assault on the falāsifa in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, which effectively brought an end to the classical period of Islamic philosophy, required the instrumental adoption of Aristotelian logic, specifically, the demonstrative syllogism.

Although the presence of dialectical methods within the Islamic and Jewish traditions is often attributed directly to Greek influences, a number of contemporary scholars and historical figures have made the case that versions of these argumentative strategies in fact predate exposure to Christian, Greek, or Syriac sources.

See also Aristotle; Dialectic; Islamic Philosophy; Jewish Philosophy.


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Peter S. Groff (2005)