In the context of our recent discussions on how to make the philosophy profession more diverse along the race dimension, I’d like to put forward a modest suggestion for everybody’s consideration. It has in fact been put forward by a commentator in a NewAPPS thread quite a few months ago (unfortunately, I don’t remember the name of the commentator in question), and remained in the back of my mind since. Now that we are explicitly discussing these issues, it seems like an appropriate moment to bring it to the fore.
As noticed by me and others (Eric Schliesser at least, and possibly others), demographically speaking the biggest racial challenge in many European countries is how to absorb and integrate the Muslin immigrants and their descendants. In the Netherlands, for example, it remains a frustrating issue, as even third-generation immigrants do not seem to be given sufficient chances to thrive; statistically, these groups are still lagging behind on employment, education, health and most other well-being indicators.
Against this background, the modest proposal is to emphasize the Islamic and Arabic contributions to philosophy in the standard curriculum, even as early as in high school (in France, for example, philosophy is quite extensively taught in the last years of high school). Just as there has been a recent emphasis on recuperating the ‘female voices’ in philosophy of the past (Emilie du Châtelet, Margaret Cavendish, and many others), a focus on the Islamic and Arabic contributions might have a similar positive effect of facilitating the identification of those with an Islamic or Arabic background with philosophy as a discipline.
In fact, the neglect of Islamic and Arabic philosophy in many of the standard history of philosophy curricula is a scandal also from a purely historical point of view. In particular, between the 8th and the 12th centuries, this tradition was arguably the most sophisticated philosophical tradition world-wide. In my work as a historian of Latin medieval philosophy, I’ve encountered time and again the marked influence of Islamic and Arabic authors, so much so that the development of the Latin tradition itself becomes incomprehensible without reference to Islamic and Arabic sources. To be sure, there has been a lot of outstanding scholarly work on this tradition (I know in particular the work done on logic by people such as Deborah Black, Tony Street, Henrik Lagerlund, Stephen Menn, Wilfrid Hodges, and many others), but the traditional undergraduate philosophy curriculum by and large still does not discuss the Islamic and Arabic authors as much as it should. Authors such as Ibn-Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes), and possibly others, certainly belong in the highest philosophical pantheon together with Aristotle, Plato, Thomas Aquinas, Descartes, Kant etc.
Incidentally, the neglect of the Islamic and Arabic influence is to a great extent to be traced back to the Renaissance. The humanist rejection of Latin scholasticism in favor of the classical Greek and Latin sources was accompanied by a rejection of the ‘foreign’ influence of authors coming from the East (even though Averroes himself spent his whole life in the ‘West’, namely in Islamic Spain). Recently, I’ve looked into this tendency specifically with respect to the development of algebra: while the real birth of algebra is to be traced back to the Persian mathematician Al-Khwarizmi, who in turn was drawing extensively from Indian mathematics, and while crucial technological innovations had been introduced in the mathematical tradition of the Maghreb, an author like Viète claims to be first and foremost influenced by the Greek mathematician Diophantus. Nevertheless, it is obvious that he was greatly indebted to these ‘eastern’ developments for his innovations (I highly recommend a paper by A. Heeffer on the topic, ‘Humanist repudiation of eastern influences in early modern mathematics’).
In sum, it is high time that Islamic and Arabic philosophy occupy its due place in the standard philosophical curriculum; its neglect is the historical product of a somewhat xenophobic rejection of these influences in the Renaissance. Besides these historical considerations, it is to be hoped that, by making the philosophy curriculum more inclusive through the incorporation of Islamic and Arabic authors, those individuals who self-identify as belonging to this religious and ethnic framework might feel more compelled to pursue whichever interest in philosophy they might have.
(And before anyone feels excluded, I hasten to add that my focus here on Islamic and Arabic philosophy should not be read as a disregard for other non-European philosophical traditions, e.g. the Chinese or Indian traditions. I just don’t know enough about other traditions to be able to say anything sensible here.)