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Philosophy Then

Existentialism Comes to Iran

Peter Adamson and Hanif Amin Beidokhti on Persian cross-cultural interpretations.

We live in a time when academics and students in Europe and North America are increasingly interested in ‘non-Western’ philosophical traditions, like those of Africa, China, India, and the Islamic world. The Western academy is thereby, however belatedly, returning a compliment, since European philosophical traditions have long been of interest in other cultures. In the Islamic world, philosophy first developed in part through the translation of ancient Greek works into Arabic. A millennium later, in the late nineteenth century, the last decades of the Ottoman Empire saw Turkish intellectuals engaging with figures such as Darwin, Durkheim, and Comte. An even more recent encounter with European philosophy took place in Iran. Thanks in part to translations into Persian, several philosophical movements from Europe came to the attention of Iranian thinkers in the twentieth century. One of them was existentialism.

Philosophers in Iran had a special reason to be interested in the ideas of authors like Sartre and Heidegger, namely the resonance between existentialism and the ‘philosophy of existence’ that has been so central in the Persian tradition. The major Iranian philosopher Mortaḍā Moṭahharī (d.1979) commented that “the assertion that the human, as compared to other existents, has the characteristic of not having a determinate nature and that they themselves make their own natures – which is called ‘existentialism’ or ‘precedence of existence over essence’ – has been demonstrated on much firmer grounds in our own philosophy and particularly in the philosophy of Mullā Ṣadrā, though in a different terminology and via a different method.

Moṭahharī refers to the greatest philosopher of early modern Iran, Mullā Ṣadrā (d.1640). While duly admitting a difference of approach, he connects existentialism to Ṣadrā’s theory of the priority of existence (iṣālat al-wujūd). But to understand this, we need to go back still further, to another Persian philosopher: Ibn Sīnā, known in Latin as Avicenna (d.1037). He was himself a creative adapter of ideas from European philosophers, especially of Aristotle. One idea that he added to Aristotle was a distinction between ‘essence’ and ‘existence’. He gave the example of a triangle. Just by thinking about the nature of a triangle, we can know that it essentially has three sides: if it doesn’t have three sides it’s not a triangle. But we can’t thereby know that a triangle exists. For a triangle, or indeed anything other than God Himself (the ‘Necessary Existent’), existence must come from an external cause, such as the geometer who draws it on a chalkboard.

This distinction provoked centuries of dispute, with some philosophers reckoning that objects outside the mind have essence as well as existence, while others doubted this. For them, the distinction is only a conceptual one: outside the mind there is just the triangle on the board, but we can think about it from two different points of view – in terms of its being triangular (essence) or in terms of its having reality (existence).

Ṣadrā took a new and rather surprising approach to the question. He said that outside the mind there is only existence (wujūd), which flows out from God and manifests itself in different degrees, like light emanating from a source and showing itself in various intensities. We invoke ‘essences’ to differentiate things from one another – this thing is a triangle, that one is a square – but these static categories are only concepts that we use to divide up existence, which is continuous, and continually changing. The essences themselves have no reality outside of the human mind.

Obviously Ṣadrā’s philosophy had a very different background and intent from the existentialists. Among other things, Ṣadrā was not primarily concerned with the existential situation of the individual human, as the Western existentialists were. His account applies equally to all existents. Still, after Sartre was translated by the surrealist author Ṣādeq Hedāyat (d.1951), his works won a following among Iranian intellectuals, some of whom thought that Ṣadrā had anticipated both Sartre and Heidegger. Ṣadrā had shown a way out of the substance-centered metaphysics that had dominated Western philosophy ever since Aristotle. As Moṭahharī notes in the above quote, a metaphysics centered on dynamic, constantly changing existence bears similarity to the existentialist notion that human existence is fluidly shaped by human will: Ṣadrā’s fluid metaphysics, with no fixed essences, seems likewise to offer unbounded possibility for self-definition. As Moṭahharī writes, “humans have no fixed nature on their own.”

The existentialists’ emphasis on freedom resonated with other features of Persian philosophy too. Shīʿite thinkers had long rejected the determinism of some Islamic theological schools, insisting that both divine and human will play a role in human actions. Moṭahharī suggested that European existentialism goes too far in the direction of denying determinism. The desperate, radical freedom described by Sartre sounded to him more like the idea that God fully ‘delegates’ action to humans and stays out of the picture entirely, whereas in truth humans cooperate with God to make things happen.

As this example shows, Iranian authors did not simply conflate French and German existentialism with the intellectual heritage of their own culture. They were instead interested in what is often called ‘comparative philosophy’, juxtaposing intellectual traditions of different provenance in order to gain insights into one or the other tradition (or both). This is among the things that Western philosophy can learn from other philosophical cultures. As it turns out, well before our current era of decolonialization and debates over broadening the curriculum, these other cultures were open to ideas that came from abroad.

© Prof. Peter Adamson 2021

Peter Adamson is Professor of Philosophy at the LMU in Munich, where Hanif Amin Beidokhti is currently a postdoctoral fellow funded by the Fritz Thyssen Stiftung.

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