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The Philo-Lit twins, realms of wonder and creativity, by Fatima Garba Yusuf

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The Philo-Lit twins, realms of wonder and creativity, by Fatima Garba Yusuf

Heat your cold, cool your heat

Live past death, breathe in peace…

My creative writing muse was almost spirited away by technical reports, laboratory experiments, project milestones, process simulations and several presentations over the last half year. Alhamdulillah, it was ransomed by an intellectual session organised by the ‘Forum for Literary and Philosophical Discussion” on Thursday, 20th June, 2024.

The forum had invited Professor Ibrahim Bello Kano (IBK) to speak on “The Relationship between Philosophy and Literature” in their maiden “Annual Sallah Lecture”. The professor, despite battling a cold, made it to the event and delivered an intellectually intriguing lecture which was followed by a Question-and-Answer session and a poetry presentation in his honour.

Not surprisingly, the hall at School of Arabic Studies (SAS) in Kano state overflowed with many attendees enticed by the prospect of listening to the erudite scholar, who began by laying the foundations of his talk with definitions of the discussion’s key terms.

The professor traced the history of literature to early human expressions of creativity in the form of fables, folklore, riddles, poetry and drama in ancient societies as a means of cultural and identity formation. “Its development was more rapid in civilisations that had the writing culture such as Greece and Persia.” Interestingly, he termed it as the “earliest philosophy”; he confessed to growing up hearing tales of Gizo and Koki, but not knowing about philosophy until much later.

“Philosophy did not exist before the 17th century,” he dropped the bombshell when he turned back to the origin of philosophy. He recounted a number of the earliest “records” of recognisable philosophical ideas, from Locke’s to Kant’s, each coming into “existence” after 1600, explaining that many of the great thinkers renowned for their wise sayings before the 17th century weren’t considered philosophers. Meanwhile, traditional philosophy was said to have declined, moving closer to experimentalism, after having metamorphosed into various forms of knowledge such as sociology, as well as political, social and experimental sciences.

From his notes and recollections, it was apparent that the history of Philosophy was a contentious one, with back-and-forth arguments about the nature of the universe (whether it was a pluriverse), and whether Reason or Passion should lead the human being. He recounted a number of tumultuous periods where early “philosophers” such as Nicolaus Copernicus, harboured ideas that opposed “religious” institutions such as the Catholic Church, giving rise to the Protestant movement.

“There is no universal definition of Philosophy,” he said. He highlighted that it has many branches, many tendencies, with various theories on Being, Knowledge and Politics, with the differences in perception giving rise to factions such as Logical Positivism, European Continentalism, Pragmatism and many more.

Plato had said, “Wonder is the feeling of a philosopher; and philosophy begins in wonder.” It is therefore understandable that philosophy in its broad nature seeks to investigate nature or origin, ethics and reliability of knowledge, asking questions such as “Who are we?”, “Where are we coming from?”, “How can we acquire reliable knowledge?”

The Professor quoted Quine, “Philosophy seeks the broad outlines of the whole system of the world.” At this point, he likened this scope of philosophy to what poetry seeks to achieve, as advocated by Greek-Roman literature, among others. He described Philosophy as “nothing but talk about talk, which makes it similar to literature where “reflector characters” engage in free indirect discourse, retelling or paraphrasing the words of others.”

Meanwhile, he asserted that the “argument of deconstruction” claims that philosophy is a branch of literature which can’t exist without grammatology and literary rhetorics, the most powerful form of expression. He also cited a number of personalities who seemed to be both literary artists and philosophers, such as Confucius, a Chinese poet-cum-philosopher who wrote about “how people should live”. This indicated an indispensable relationship between the two concepts.

“The relationship between Philosophy and Literature is that they’re twins, even though they may be antagonists here and there,” said Prof. IBK. “Without Philosophy, literary studies would have stagnated; without literature, philosophy would’ve had a difficult time differentiating itself from the abstracts.

“There would’ve been no “Literary Theory” without philosophy, and philosophy wouldn’t have been expressed without literary narrative. You can’t separate philosophy from literature; philosophy employs the “rhetorics” of literature.”

The Professor also highlighted how both literary narratives and philosophical thoughts have been employed in the propagation of religion, with many Qur’anic verses prompting human beings to reason and reflect, while recounting tales of ages long gone.

Prof. IBK linked Religion’s fundamental belief in the afterlife with the scientific concept of the conservation of matter, hinting at the relationship between philosophical thought, scientific concepts and religion in their search for truth, conceptual explanations and the broad outlines of the world: “Life can not be destroyed, death can not be destroyed. That leaves us with a speculative afterlife.”

The “Philo-Lit” twins have been indispensable to the development of human civilisations, with Philosophy impacting experimental sciences and literary inspiration triggering scientific inventions; engineers and doctors construct and formulate aids to the mind and many a science fiction novel has foretold inventions initially considered far-fetched but becoming realistic after decades or even centuries.

As the Professor rounded off his talk, a stream of questions flowed from the audience, propelled by curiosity, interest or wonder. I couldn’t stop myself from asking whether, with the peculiar language which literary giants and philosophers are renowned for, they’re supposed to prioritize speaking with the utmost beauty of language, or target the understanding of their audience.

I believe that as agents of societal transformation, writers, poets, dramatists and philosophers would do well to communicate effectively with the masses, rather than just their “elite” circle. Sadly, most of us are guilty of getting immersed in the beauty of stringing rhythmic words that we fail to consider the efficacy of their transmittance to the target audience.

And when another questioner asked about the elder “twin” between philosophy and literature, I perked up to hear the answer. “Literature came first,” said the professor, recalling earlier statements about how literature was part of the earliest forms of human expression (even before writing was adopted), while philosophy wasn’t recognised until the 17th century.

However, I found myself wondering why or how it is so… If literature was recognised in the moonlit tales of grandmas and proverbial sayings of grandpas because the root of literature is “creativity stemming from imagination”, why wouldn’t philosophy be recognised in the speculative reasonings and questioning ponderings of ancient civilisations before the 17th century since the root of philosophy is “wonder stemming from thought”? And is “history” suddenly oblivious of Muslim Philosophers such as Ibn Sina (Avicenna) (980 – 1037 AD), Ibn al-Arabi (1165-1240 AD), Mulla Sadra (1571-1636 AD), founder of Ishraqi Philosophy?

Ibn Sina, commonly called Avicenna by the “West” was applauded as a preeminent physician and philosopher who combined Neoplatonic and Aristotelian philosophy with elements of Islamic theology into a comprehensive system. He flourished during the Islamic golden age, impacting generations in the Muslim world and beyond; Latin translations of his work guided the 13th-century reception of Aristotle within Western Scholasticism, notably in the writings of Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas [1]. The polymath is considered the “Father of Clinical Pharmacology” and “Father of Early Modern Medicine” [2].

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy affirms that Sadr al-Din Muhammad b. Ibrahim b. Yahya Qawami Shirazi (Mulla Sadra) is described as a Metaphysical Revolutionary because of his uniquely posited doctrine of existence [3]. Meanwhile, Ibn ʿArabī was recognised as an Andalusi Arab scholar, mystic, poet, and philosopher, who was greatly influential within Islamic thought and cosmological sciences, with his teachings constituting the dominant world view in many parts of the Muslim world [4].

Aristotle had said, “I have gained this from philosophy: that I do without being commanded what others do only from fear of the law. The best form of philosophy is the contemplation of the universe of nature; it is for this purpose that God made human beings and gave them a godlike intellect.” Essentially, the distinctive feature distinguishing man and animals is essentially the faculty of thought, the seat of philosophy. It is conceivable therefore that countless people have pondered on the meaning of life, the origin of the universe and the source of Being and sought to provide explanations for them. Perhaps those early “philosophers” weren’t recognised by history due to mankind’s own limitations, but that wouldn’t necessarily negate the existence of philosophy in their time.

Except if we count blabbings of children before the minutest level of awareness as literature, we’d acknowledge the existence of wondrous thoughts in the minds of conscious human beings before they began to create and recreate literary works. Curiosity can be said to be the trigger of Philosophy, which employs the faculty of thought to imagine, create and innovate. What if it is the feeling of wonder, the thought process of the human brain, that begets literary creativity? And don’t we all find it interesting that high-ranking degrees, irrespective of discipline, are tagged M.Phil and PhD?

Even the mythical tales and fables characterising ancient societies were often attempts to understand, explain or propagate concepts of life, knowledge and ethics. And the esteemed professor himself had mentioned in his speech that “Literature is the earliest form of philosophy,” which implies that Philosophy was pre-existing, albeit in the background, while Literature, which was described as a “garden of wisdom” by James Ellis, was more apparent.

Regardless of their differences, the two find commonality in being often preserved in books which, as aptly stated by Barbara Tuchman, are the carriers of civilisation. She went on to state that, “Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill.”

These wonderful twins are beloved to me, to say the least. Enraptured by the Qur’anic references to those who think and know as well as the tales told of aeons come and gone, of people buried and borne, I embrace the Philo-Lit twins and look forward to learning more about them, while utilising them for the good of mankind and society. Sometimes I wonder which is dearer: getting immersed in the pages of literature or coursing through the waves of thought?

And in case I’m mistaken by my wonderings, irking the Literary giants, tread softly, prithee, for I am but an admirer of philosophy and a blooming bud in the fields of literature. Enraptured with thinking minds, my heart is moved by thoughtful verses within the guiding planes of religion and propriety.

In conclusion, I borrow a leaf from the pages of Khalil Gibran: “Keep me away from the Wisdom which does not Cry, the Philosophy which does not Laugh and the Greatness which does not bow in the presence of Children.”

Sincerely,

References

[1] Flannery, Michael (1998). “Avicenna: Persian philosopher and scientist” Encyclopedia Britannica

[2] Saffari, Mohsen; Pakpour, Amir (2012). “Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine: A Look at Health, Public Health, and Environmental Sanitation”

[3] Rizvi, Sajjad, (2021). “Mulla Sadra” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2021/entries/mulla-sadra/

[4] Ibrahim Kalin and Salim Ayduz (2014). The Oxford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Science, and Technology in Islam. Oxford University Press. Vol. 1 p. 162.

Fatima Garba Yusuf (A.Y.M)

Philosophy lover, creative writer and Chemical Engineer in the making. Email: faym2001@gmail.com 24-6-2024

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