Tuesday, April 15, 2008

paradoxe du bouquiniste

I'm reading Dominique Urvoy's Les penseurs libres dans l'Islam classique (Albin Michel 1996/Flammarion 2003), which I picked up at the airport in Casablanca.

Urvoy points out an oddity which he calls the paradoxe du bouquiniste. Anyone who spends a lot of time at secondhand bookstalls finds an image of the history of French thought in the 18th century quite different from what he was taught. In his studies they would have talked only of thinkers who were opposed to established religion, above all to religious orthodoxy; but in the bookstalls one finds a vast army of defenders of the faith, names one has never heard of, or heard of only as someone who criticised Rousseau... Since the Renaissance, he suggests, we have placed emphasis on originality, on individualism, so our intellectual history devalues whatever was typical of its time, rates highly whatever was at least self-proclaimed as original. Books offer us chapters on great individuals, with perhaps a dutiful chapter on background which the reader feels free to ignore.

In the history of Arab thought, on the other hand, the opposite is true. It has been written not by philosophers but by historians, and they privilege "representative" authors. The Arab philosophers who drew on the Greek philosophical tradition have just about managed to get taken seriously because of their immense influence on Scholasticism - but many Islamic scholars regard them askance as marginal thinkers. Attention was concentrated on the religious apologists, who were seen as expressing the essence of Arabic-Islamic thought. [I am writing this awkward English because paraphrasing DU, something I do very badly.]

Urvoy comments: the enterprise of setting out a collective structure of thought, with occasional detailed studies of individuals, is entirely legitimate. But isn't there something odd about this radical antithesis between the study of Western and of Arab thought? Can it really be right for the Arabist to concentrate solely on writers whose equivalents he would despise if he were a specialist of the 18th-century in France?

The wider relevance of this point speaks for itself.

I have posted DU's text in French on PP's sister blog over on Wordpress (here), which I now use for texts that interest me which I don't have time to translate/comment on properly.


ghost said...

thank you for this. ordered the book.

Du Wed said...

Although I never cared much for the period that Urvoy deals with, this might explain sthg I experienced in studying Arabic in France, which is that the great traditional french Arabists sometimes show much contempt for their object of study, mentioning how unoriginal, traditional, some poems are, how most of arabic classical literature, from theology to history, is "boring", &c., while spending their carreers and hundreds of pages to their careful translation.