The new millennium opens against the backdrop of a deep existential discontent. The profusion of art and literature is only one part of the general pseudo-cultural agitation meant to put a new varnish on the face of the sad old reality. Neither the proposed global order, which stands for the triumph of economism, nor the lip service paid by the proponents of postmodern theories to pluralism, multiculturalism and political correctness contribute on the ground to the opening of a new space where the self could enjoy better modes of being. The question remains always how to inhabit the world, to open a space of being and thinking.
The atrocious European wars and the destructiveness of Western science have given to more than a twentieth century thinker cause to reexamine the inherited Western epistemologies in an attempt to enlarge life. Many Western thinkers have grown doubtful of the engrained assumption that history is bringing Progress. Some of them committed themselves to the pessimistic theories of decay and decline of Western civilization, while others clung to the belief in a possible last issue. Arnold Toynbee for instance declared that the last issue is religious. But beyond the nature of the last issue, what these thinkers have in common is a radical quest for a sense of an open world and immediate existence outside the limits of what Kenneth White calls "the Autobahn of Western History".
In his Decline of the West, Oswald Spengler emphasizes the idea that history is not a universal linear course of progress that leads humankind from an inferior state of savageness towards an ideal superior state of civilization. He speaks about two dynamics: one that drives the primitive towards civilization, and the other which orientates man in civilization towards a primordial state of nature. Spengler's conception of history and progress entails a deep rethinking of the higher principles of Western reason upon which a directional universal history has been predicated.
The notion that reduces man's existence merely to its historical dimension is traced back to its origin: the Greek dichotomized mind. Failing to grasp the totality of the world, this mind proceeded to a division of reality into a bad ugly rejected reality called Chaos or Disorder, and a good beautiful accepted one called Cosmos or Order. With such a division, a historical process was launched; its aim was a progressive subjugation of disorder and a final establishment of order. The achievement of such an end in history is now considered as the "End of History". Accordingly, if the intellectual energy deployed in the realm of the mind aims at attaining an ideal metaphysical reality, free from accidents, the scientific activity on the ground aims at the mechanistic conquest of the World. Both the philosophical discourse based on the Greek dualistic perception of reality and the ensuing scientific mind pursue metaphysical aims and dangling dreams at the End of History. Now that two thousand years of Western philosophy and science have elapsed and that the thirst for being is not yet quenched, a host of Western thinkers ask themselves how long it takes a civilization to come to terms with the world. The technological forays into other virtual spaces have proven desperate and far from providing man with a meaning in life and with skills to inhabit fully the Earth.
Instead of grubbing about in the matrices of Western science and philosophy to enlarge the framework of inherited epistemologies, a radical poetic thought concerns itself with the patterns of speech that are the concomitants of the "prehistoric" mind, wishing hence to rediscover dimensions of primordial existence in the world, on earth and not only in Western History. This poetic thought is based on the premise that the freshness of the word is a prerequisite for a fresh sense of the world. Titles such as Nietzsche's "Also Sprach Zarathustra" and Martin Heidegger's "Unterwegs zur Sprache" articulate clearly that what is at stake in this quest is a language freed from the grammar of Western metaphysical prattle (Geplapper). Unlike the static grammar of the Western discourse of metaphysics which has consisted in attempts to answer the question of what the world is, the poetic language will consist in pointing out the world as it worlds ("die Welt weltet", says Heidegger). The poetic thinking in this sense involves a very significant shift in the history of the Western mind from the traditional mode of knowing that aims at a comprehension of the whole scattered world, towards a new one that admits the limits of human reason and opens thus a space of contemplation.
With the relinquishing of old certainties that have accompanied Aristotlešs' Organum during the classical era, and Bacon's Novum Organum during the modern era, the self is projected in a world of flux with no bedrock of truth. Its undertaking is meant to elaborate an Organum open to the world constantly in becoming. This organum is of a "Cosmopoetic" nature according to Kenneth White. Nothing less than a strong poetic sensibility would free the mind from the essentialist logic that "corpsifies" the living and in consequence would ground our knowing in the whole "Chaosmos". To be a cosmopoet, in a nutshell, means to use one's technologies, one's science, one's mind to inhabit the world, not to change it; to magnify the feeling of the present moment, not to put off existence to future moments of awaited completion.
Since our purpose is not to survey the full range of cosmopoetics, let's try to examine its promises of liberation from the perspective of the Arabo-Islamic culture in order to assess the viability of its options outside the realm of the Western context.
For intellectuals from the Third World -- the Arabo-Islamic included -- cosmopoetics might be received as a smokescreen hiding the real malicious intent to perpetuate Western hegemony and to mask old forms of oppression. Judged from the perspective of those committed to the liberation of their peoples from Western imperialism, the celebrated poetic sensibility can be politically disabling; for once truth and morality are undermined, the Western culture can not be called to account. Gone are the modern times when the West resorted to a canonized rational mind to justify its intervention in other cultures; now Western culture resorts to sublimating the poetic ideal and to the rationalizing of the irrational as a means to appropriate other cultures and absorb them into Western civilization. If the modernists massed under the banner of "I know that I know and I that the other should also know", now the postmodernists fight in another cause: "I know that I ignore and that the other should also ignore". In depth, nothing basic has changed, one can say; the self is always the same self, that dictates; the other is always the same other, a reified object that was unable to know and which is now unable to ignore.
A closer examination of cosmopoetics, however, reveals some hidden dimensions proper to the history of world cultures in general. Carried by enthusiasm, any culture would raise its principles to the level of universality and its history to the level of universality and its history , installing itself in the unidimentional logic of hegemony. At this particular stage from life of culture, emphasis is laid on edification and construction. But once that the edified mental systems prove stifling for the mind and that the edified monuments become suffocating for the human body, the intellectual energies are directed towards open spaces in order to breathe in some fresh life. A break with the previous concern for positive values happens now.
When they do not fall prey to nihilism, those intellectual energies do in better cases resort to deconstruction: a sort of game of rearrangement, of reshuffling and of redistribution. But for the lucid minds, the intellectual nomads, the ontological heroes and figures du dehors, this kind of deconstructing agitation is but a simulacrum; a genuine solution would consist in lifting one's tent off the soil where the mind has camped for a long time. In other words, they come to the conclusion that to be in the world is to be on the road.
This is not unique to Western culture. A deep scrutiny of history of Arabo-Islamic thought reveals trends of thinking similar to those that have characterized history of Western thought. The voices of Al-Ghazali, of Ibn Taimia, and Ibn Khaldun represent for the Arabo-Islamic culture the equivalent of what the voices of Nietzsche, Spengler, Heidegger and Kenneth White represent for Western culture. They contributed enormously to the opening of a cosmopoetic space.
For Ibn Khaldun, history is not a linear progress. In his theory of Al-Umran (literally: filling of earth) concerned with ways how to inhabit the world, he asserts that at the origin of civilization there is Bedouinism (al-aslu fi al-hadarati al-badawa). This advanced conception about history debunks the accepted unspoken dichotomy that extols life in civilization as being the real existence in history to the detriment of life in Bedouin contexts which is reduced to nihilism and pre-history. According to Ibn Khaldun, man had enjoyed an intense physical-geographical presence on earth long before universal reason intervened to found/ground his existence and to launch a historical utopian-metaphysical process. The work of Ibn Khaldun subverts thus the distinction between history and pre-history, between existence and nihilism, and calls for a wider perception of cosmic reality. Civilization conceived of as the product of a universal reason that pretends to extracts mankind from non-being and from pre-history is doomed to decay and agony (Al-Hadara which means "civilization" in Arabic, shares by the way the same root with Al-Ihtidar which means "Agony"). Only a strong poetic sensibility framed in the framework of a non-static natural Bedouin life enhances the consciousness of human presence in a continuously changing world and lays the foundation for a lasting civilization. Genuine progress draws from Bedouin poetics; it consists in attempts to ground the metaphysical in the physical, to indulge in a historical linear trajectory of accumulation without losing the sense of immediate touch with earth and of being in the cosmos.
Ibn Khaldun's theory of Al-umran betrays the paradigms of an Arabo-Islamic poetic thought that conceives of science and philosophy as constitutive of a reality and not at all as reflective of universal reality. In one of the first heated polemics in the history of Arabo-Islamic thought, Abu Said As-seirafi argued that the matrices of logic are very cumbersome for a free mind. The undertakings of logicians are vain, he added; for knowledge is scattered in the world and wisdom consists in its perpetual pursuit. Imbued as he was with a poetic sense, he perceived the etymological link between Al-Ilm (knowledge /science) and Al-Alam (world). True knowledge is by no means static since the world itself is not static. Interestingly enough, the word "Alam" (world) shares the same root with the word "Alama" (sign) as well as with the verb "Allama" (to teach) and the verb "A'lama" which means "to hint". The world is not a dead passive object waiting there for the active subject to make sense of it, to say what it amounts to, or what it is. Knowledge at its highest forms of manifestation leads to contemplation of the world.
In the word "contemplation" we do have the word "temple". Contemplation leads necessarily to worship. In its widest sense, "worship" means the abandonment of the illusion that the self is capable of expanding itself to embrace the whole. This is clearly brought out in Al-Ghazali's experience. Fed up with the endless game of ratiocination and cogitation, Al-Ghazali aspires to find an opening likely to help him find solace.
By tracing the trouble back to the "self", Al-Ghazali contributed immensely to the liberation of human mind from the grip of the essentialist epistemologies as well as from the traps of poetic thinking. The last issue according to him dwells in a fierce battle against the self to bring it to the evidence that there is "a multitude of possible worlds" (Al-Awalimu Al-Mumkina) and that "truth" can never be a matter of comprehension. This evidence is imbedded in the semantic field of the word "Al-Kawn" (universe). It is a term for a previously given existence. In this given universe, mankind occupies but a locus, a place (Al-Makan). Out of place the mind proceeds to envisage the creation and the constitution of one possible world ("possible" means something like "placeable" or likely to emerge out of place). Once a possible world is conceived of, the mind proceeds to think about the appropriate technical means of mastery (At-Tamakkun).
If Al-Ghazali's notion of a multiplicity of worlds has anything to teach us in our quest for liberating epistemologies, then it would be that philosophical efforts to ground existence and scientific technical endeavors to subdue disorder and to eliminate accidents are vain. It teaches us too that action is meant to achieve mastery in one's own world, one's own space.
Last modified: 11 May 2001