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TitleTyranny makes philosophy more necessary

Reading Philosophy in Tehran

5 Jul 2010

■ Ramin Jahanbegloo

Since Plato, philosophers have strived to imagine societies and political systems in which it would be safe to philosophize. In their effort to examine life, philosophers have always presented some kind of a danger to the status quo. Socrates’ example has been in many ways a guide for philosophers throughout the ages. The idea that one can examine life by asking questions, timeless and universal questions, is still as revolutionary today as it was in Socrates’ day. The experience of tyrannies in history and, more specially totalitarian regimes in the twentieth century, showed that a political power conceiving itself as the embodiment of an ideology and the summit of philosophy can tolerate no philosophical thinking. Philosophy, however, has always survived both its martyrs and its persecutors.


‘The School of Athens’ by Rafael Santi

How might reading and teaching philosophy affect a person living under theocratic rule here and now? In other words, how can one read philosophy in Tehran? As odd as it may sound, reading philosophy in Tehran can not only be spiritually comforting, but also politically empowering. It is an open challenge to the monologism of tyrannical thought, but it is also an invitation to become a responsibly dialogical self in a culture that has systematically sheltered itself from the Socratic task of learning through asking questions and “living in truth.” In this sense, a philosopher’s nonviolent discourse is diametrically opposed to a theocratic standpoint which assumes that the teachings of a particular religious tradition represent an absolute truth and that consequently all other religious and individual interpretations are in error and in need of being corrected. Anxious times make the Socratic task of philosophy all the more necessary, and can make some persons living under tyranny more receptive to its lessons. It is not so much a fact or a doctrine as it is a sense of reality – one particularly worth cultivating – when life suddenly seems much more uncertain, and much less frivolous than it did before.

Philosophical thinking is rejected by all forms of fundamentalist thinking

The most important feature of “fundamentalism” in our world is the politicization of religion and the ideologization of the tradition. In the case of many religions like Islam, Judaism and Christianity, fundamentalists advocate the religious rendering of the existing order through the revolutionary seizure of power or through social reforms. Fundamentalism designates religious movements that strive to re-establish the core elements of a religious tradition, socially, culturally and politically. Therefore, fundamentalism reacts defensively toward value pluralism and hermeneutical methodology applied to religious traditions; instead, in fundamentalist movements, there is an affirmation of the absolute validity of the fundamentals of a tradition. This is why it is easier to establish a fundamentalist movement where core principles are spelled out explicitly in a sacred text. The authoritarian and absolutist dimensions of fundamentalist movements manifest themselves in the ideological manipulation of a religious tradition. In the eyes of most fundamentalists societies must be constituted on the basis of religious community.
There ought to be neither singular identities nor idiosyncratic quests for personal meaning. In other words, all individuals must belong to a religious collective, and their everyday lives must be governed by the normative traditions of such collectives. As such, philosophical thinking is rejected by all forms of fundamentalist thinking. In their eyes philosophical dialogue and hermeneutics are diseases from which people require protection. This is not to say that any contemporary movement uncomfortable with philosophical thinking is purely and simply fundamentalist. But religious and political movements inspired by defiance to philosophical interrogation are very often considered to be fundamentalist. Continued reaction to dialogical culture and a philosophy of self-choice makes a measure of religious fundamentalism the common undercurrent of all contemporary fundamentalisms. In their own eyes, the fundamentalists are people of dialogue and individual choice. In their commitment to the revelation of the religious tradition, they are pitted in a fight against dialogue and individual choice. Fundamentalists lay claim to exclusive possession of the divine truth and therefore proceed to show the “right path” to everybody.

The impact of fundamentalist discourse can be witnessed all over the Muslim world today. Given the acuteness of the anxiety evoked by the problems of modern world, for younger generations of Muslims the orientation toward Islam provides a ready standard against which modern urban society is judged. The rise of fundamentalism and its violence against modernity does not absolve the “project of modernity” of its sins, but it does serve as an alarm to all those who, plagued by the philosophical ills of modernity, come to hope that the reassertion of religion will help create a new ethical community. This is where reading philosophy can help us see the ontological difference between being critical of modernity, and remaining true to philosophy’s radical self-choice, which requires the ongoing Socratic task of bringing inwardness into political life as a lived corrective to fundamentalism.

With this sketch in mind, reading philosophy in Tehran is an encouragement to look for “signals of humanity” in everyday human experiences, but it is also a way of saying “No” to all those who want to use philosophy against its perennial responsibility, which is to think always critically and in another manner.

 
Tehran Review
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  1. […] Jahanbegloo has an interesting piece at Tehran Review on philosophy and its role under a theocratic […]

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    تهران‌ریویو مجله‌ای اینترنتی، چند رسانه‌ای و غیر انتفاعی است. هدف ما به سادگی، افزایش سطح گفتمان عمومی در مورد ایده‌ها، آرمان‌ها و وقایع جهان امروز است. این مشارکت و نوشته‌های شما مخاطبان است که کار چند رسانه‌ای ما را گسترش داده و به آن غنا و طراوت می‌بخشد. رایگان بودن این مجله اینترنتی به ما اجازه می‌دهد تا در گستره بیشتری اهداف خود را پیگیری کرده و تاثیرگذار باشیم. مهم‌تر از همه اینکه سردبیران و دست‌اندرکاران تهران‌ریویو به دور از حب و بغض‌های رایج و با نگاهی بی‌طرفانه سعی دارند به مسایل روز جهان نگاه کرده و بر روی ایده‌های ارزشمند انگشت بگذارند. تهران ریویو برای ادامه فعالیت و نشر مقالات نیازمند یاری و کمک مالی شماست.