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Philosophy as Fashion 7 September 2006

Posted by ABD in ABD, Culture, Philosophy, Politics.
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As a student of philosophy, I am often confronted with the question, “Why?” As in, “Why would you do that to yourself?” Or “Why not do something useful instead?” These questions indicate the near impossibility of selling the worth of philosophy to someone who does not already find it worthy. Let me concede at the outset, then, that the strongest reason to study philosophy (i.e., that the examination of life’s biggest questions is its own reward) is the least convincing. But perhaps a weaker reason will suffice.

Leaving philosophy aside for the moment, consider the world of catwalks. I have never been to one (or on one), but it seems clear even to me that what the models are wearing this season is not in season. I doubt that anyone, anywhere, at any time of day or year would actually want to look like a peacock, voodoo doll or contemporary art installation.

That’s not the point, you might say. What the models are wearing represents the designer’s exploration of a new theme or trend in fashion. And I would agree. If the outfits are to make any sense, we must see them as deliberate exaggerations (as I imagine the models would be if we met them in real life). They are not meant to be worn but inspire.

What the designers, catwalks and models inspire in Paris in the spring might find its way (in some modified form) into European designer boutiques that year, into American department stores (in some further modified form) by the following spring, and into Mexican strip malls and Indian bazaars in another four to six years. “That is so last season” inevitably depends on where you stand in the fashion chain: season is as season wears.

Like retracing the clothes we wear, we can also retrace the origins of the words we use in everyday conversation. I believe that when words matter (i.e., where description turns readily to discussion and discussion to debate), they ultimately stem from competing philosophical views. By this I don’t mean that the original meaning of the words was philosophical, but rather that their current meaning is some diluted, vulgarized or otherwise modified version of an original philosophical claim.

Consider some of our buzzwords today. Freedom. Democracy. Diversity. Rights. What we mean by these words in a typical political conversation today may be substantially different from earlier uses in earlier conversations. The differences are the product of philosophy. Some of these differences require close study, but others are readily apparent to most of us (e.g., the substitution of faith for religion, relationship for marriage, partner for husband/wife, chairperson for chairman, and so on). In recovering an earlier meaning of the same word (or an earlier word for the desired meaning), we discover an alternative understanding, perspective or strategy that might illuminate our current condition.

A significant benefit of studying philosophy, then, is to be able to understand the origins of our current political and ethical vocabulary. Another is to participate in the philosophical conversations that will determine the vocabularies of tomorrow–like a Parisian designer that no one knows but everyone wears.

Here’s a final thought. Muslims will sometimes complain of being confronted with impossible choices: faith or freedom, tradition or progress, violence or acquiescence. Just like the question “Have you stopped beating your wife?” puts someone in a bind because it has been framed in terms he cannot agree with, so to with these words. But philosophy teaches us to wriggle out of the confines of particular questions and particular words. It reminds us that wider alternatives are available.

If we can learn how to play the game, we can also turn it around.

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Comments»

1. talib - 7 September 2006

i agree that studying philosophy can have great worth for a person, even for some muslim persons.

but there seems to be a question with the application of your fashion analogy. actually, i think you mention it yourself, ABD, in one of your pieces about tradition. as muslims we’re not supposed to be entranced and consumed by fashion. and when it comes to our (deen’s) answers to the biggest questions, that too is a matter of tradition and constancy. in fact, the bigger the question, the older and more stagnant the answer, with less room for fashionable modifications.

so in light of this, if i haven’t mixed metaphors too horribly, how does a muslim stay excited about studying philosophy assuming that part of the fun of fashion designing is putting bizarre, over-the-top designs on models who then strut for the world?

2. Irving - 7 September 2006

Though I have an MA in Philosophy, I have come to understand that it does not answer any of life’s questions. It does, however, improve your chances of asking the right question, or asking a question in the right way. Now having gone from Philosophy to the Sufi path, from agnosticism to love, I find that I have no questions left. They drop like leaves in the autumn wind.

May God bless you in your search.

Ya Haqq!

3. ABD - 8 September 2006

a common thread to both comments (to which i would agree) is that philosophy is not very good at giving (final, definitive) answers. it is a remarkable fact that the questions plato raised more than two thousand years ago are still being debated today. for a believing muslim, however, that’s not necessarily a problem: we find our final answers in revelation, not reason.

this is why the focus of my analogy was not on philosophy’s power to find answers but rather its ability to challenge accepted beliefs. it certainly has a destabilizing effect, and should therefore be employed with wisdom. but we are beseiged by hostile opinions, and we ignore them at our own peril. to address your question more directly, talib, philosophy should be seen as a critical (and therefore defensive) task rather than a creative one. (admittedly, the two are not so easily separable in practice.)

Irving, your comment reminded me of a story about imam ghazali (i don’t know its authenticity). imam ghazali was described to an old woman as “the man who knows a thousand proofs for the existence of God”. to which the woman replied, “he wouldn’t need a thousand proofs if he didn’t have a thousand doubts.” (ghazali apparently smiled and asked God to give him the conviction of old people.)

thank you for your comments.

4. Irving - 9 September 2006

What a lovely story about Iman Ghazali :) Thank you for sharing it.

Ya Haqq!

5. talib - 9 September 2006

jazakAllahuKhair for the answer.

destabilization can go too far, however, no matter how wise we think ourselves. for secular minds, this seems to lead to nihilism, solipsism, post-modernism. for theistic minds: the tao, nirvana, universalism, wahdatalwujud, etc.

6. R - 10 September 2006

Masha’Allah ABD you explained it so well. I also see talib’s point.. but I believe the benefits outweigh the risks. I think the dangers could be minimized by constant vigilance and jihad against the self – maintaining a close relationship with Allah at all times. Given the nature of the task I believe that such an undertaking isnt just for anyone, but rather those well-grounded in faith and knowledge..(otherwise, I imagine the risks would increase).. because ultimately if you sincerely hold to Allah and fear Him, He will not lead you astray, right? and Allah knows best.

7. thabet - 12 September 2006

assalamu alaykum

“…it is a remarkable fact that the questions plato raised more than two thousand years ago are still being debated today. for a believing muslim, however, that’s not necessarily a problem: we find our final answers in revelation, not reason.”

Your criticism of philosophy, that Plato is still being debate and therefore cannot give final answers (I actually agree on that conclusion), can be applied to Islam: that is debates surrouding the ‘true’ nature of the Revelation are still ongoing and have been since the departure of the Prophet (upon whom be peace) from this earth. If that wasn’t the case there would have been no need for schools of law and theology, commentaries, histories, collections of hadith, etc. (we all know about the vast output of Muslims scholars). However, the existence of a varied tradition on what the sources of Islam say (and indeed what these sources are), still continues today and is evidence of continuing debate.

8. ABD - 12 September 2006

thabet: wa alaykum as salaam. i think i get the thrust of your criticism, but there are crucial distinctions to be made. i’m not sure whether you meant that muslims have substantive disagreements on a) the status of revelation (i.e., whether or not it is true), b) its nature, or c) the interpretation of its content. if you mean the third (to which i would agree), then the problem is a less significant one. we can still say things about revelation that we cannot about reason—i.e., that it is true, that it makes moral demands of us, and that it contains positive knowledge (without being clear, in a few cases, on what exactly it is saying).

i’d be happy to make a more adequate response if i can get a clarification on this point.

9. thabet - 21 October 2006

Sorry this is over a month late…

You say “we can still say things about revelation that we cannot about reason”.

But is this not a demand of reason itself? That is, we have used our reason to determine that this revelation is true (as opposed to other claimants to similar knowledge); that it makes moral demands of us we must conform to; and that it contains positive knowledge?

I suppose we could then distinguish between practical and pure reasoning, but we still haven’t escaped our circularity — that we’re using reason to create all these categories and levels of understanding.

Once again sorry for being so late, ABD! This is a very interesting topic that perplexes me a lot.

And let me get an early Eid Mubarak in, just in case I don’t come back for another month!

wasalam


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