Arab philosophy from the 18th century onwards misunderstood

Arab philosophy from the 18th century onwards misunderstood

VUB research into why and how Arab thinkers disappeared from European philosophy canon

Arab philosophy has had an enormous influence on Western thought. Yet, from the 18th century onwards, little is to be found in the historiography of philosophy. Research at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel shows that history of philosophy has remained primarily “Christian and European” and that outside influence is minimised. As of the 18th century, the universalist approach turned into a Eurocentric one.

Translations of Arabic texts into Latin caused an intellectual earthquake in the 13th century. Not only were European universities confronted for the first time with the works of Aristotle, but they also came into contact with the ideas of the Andalusian philosopher Ibn Rushd, better known as Averroes (1126-1198). Koert Debeuf of VUB’s Institute for European Studies studied the influence of Averroes’s thinking on European philosophy. For this purpose, he studied philosophical texts from the 13th to the 18th century.

“I established that the current of Averroism has been influential for centuries. Traces of its ideas can be found in the works of Machiavelli, Spinoza and Rousseau,” says Debeuf.

From universalist to Eurocentric

Yet in the contemporary European historiography of philosophy, you find little about Latin Averroism. Debeuf investigated why, by examining the course of the historiography of philosophy from the 17th to the 21st century. He found that until the middle of the 18th century, the history of philosophy was considered universal, as an exchange of ideas between numerous cultures. Egyptians and Chaldeans (a people in Mesopotamia) influenced the Greeks, after which Greek philosophers were translated into Arabic. These translations, with Arabic commentaries and interpretations, formed the basis of European philosophy for several centuries.

In the course of the 18th century, Debeuf discovered, the universalist approach turned into a Eurocentric one.

“According to several German philosophers, philosophy was only Christian and European,” says Debeuf. That view spread across Europe and has shaped the European history of philosophy until today.

Debeuf found that the history of philosophy as we know it is the result of an ideological, Eurocentric struggle, without us being aware of it.

“I think it is necessary to rewrite the history of philosophy. European thinking has been deeply influenced by Arab philosophy. Therefore, we need to give Arab philosophers like Averroes again the place they deserve in our textbooks and in our education.”

Tomorrow, Koert Debeuf will speak about Arabic philosophy at Mindblowers, the collaboration between KVS and the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) in which academics and artists explore the boundaries of science and art. 


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