Carl Olson (2003) in his introduction to Zen and the art of postmodernism calls comparative philosophy “a promiscuous activity” (19) as the scholars involving comparing ideas need to try out different things, go around the block few times:
“The comparative thinker must remain intellectually promiscuous because of the possibility of the fusion of divergent horizons. This promiscuity takes place on the margins of philosophy, which is indicative of the uncertainty, riskiness, and dangers associated with comparative philosophy and one's willingness to venture one's self-understanding in the presence of the other.”Olson's idea of margin here implies that one is willing to cross the border which is not possible from the center.
However risky and uncertain this task maybe Tamara Albertini takes a stab on this under the umbrella of certainty. In the article “Crisis and Certainty of Knowledge in Al-Ghazālī (1058-1111) and Descartes (1596-1650)” Albertini draws an “epistemological platform” in order to compare and contrast these two influential thinkers. The idea here is not to equate these two thinkers although there are some similarities but to strengthen the platform where we could establish a nuanced understanding of both of them and furthermore proceed with dialogs that can enlighten our views about different traditions.
Al- Ghazālī, one of most influential Islamic thinkers, helped create a new path for Islamic philosophy by carving a way out of the influence of Aristotelian-Neoplatonic concepts. And Descartes is a towering figure in Western metaphysics after Aristotle who both of these thinkers read and commented on. However, as several scholars suggested the common thread here is doubt and skepticism. Following that line Albertini explores how “they thought that doubt could be defeated” (2) by focusing on their argumentations and methods.
After several years of teaching in a prestigious institution in Baghdad, al-Ghazālī underwent a profound spiritual crisis:
“So I became certain that I was on the brink of a crumbling bank and already on the verge of falling into the Fire, unless, I set about mending my ways. I therefore, reflected unceasingly on this for some time, while I still had freedom of choice (quoted in Albertini 2005:1).”The bulk of the article deals with al-Ghazālī works specifically how he criticizes different school of thoughts: the scholastic theologians, the Batinites, the philosophers, and Sufis. His goal is to define and find “true” knowledge, therefore he criticizes the various ways to get to that knowledge:
“[a] true knower does not stop short of grasping the originating principle of that object or of the epistemic process that he (or she) wishes to understand. On the other hand, a true knower also does not restrict reality to that principle only but follows it through all of its manifestations down to its lowest expression, such as reflection or a shadow in Plato, or in marks traced on a sheet in al-Ghazālī: (Albertini 2005:4).In order to attain this knowledge Al-Ghazālī defines what is “true”:
In order to achieve this certainty Al-Ghazālī proposes the idea of cleansing ones' mind of opinions and beliefs that have been absorbed from youth and onwards. As Albertini points out, he does not question the belief but questions the method. Hence when he criticizes the philosophical method, he is not demanding the end of philosophy as some scholars blamed him for that. His goal is to question the “untested epistemic content”.
In a similar fashion we find Descartes questioning:
“for all the opinions to which I had hitherto given credence, I could not do better than to undertake, once and for all, to get rid of them, in order to replace them afterwards either by other, better ones, or even by the same ones, when I would have adjusted them to the level or reason”(Discourse on Method, quoted in Albertini: 6). He then goes on delineating four rules. The first one is:
“The first rule was never to accept anything as true that I did not evidently know to be such: that is to say, carefully avoid all precipitation and prejudice, and to include in my judgments nothing more than that which would present itself to my mind so clearly and distinctly that I were to have no occasion to put in doubt. (Discourse on Method).
There are some significant methodological differences between them that comes into play how they understand such uncertainty. However, the common epistemological framework here is linking self-knowledge to knowledge of God:
“Like Al-Ghazālī, one finds Descartes linking self-knowledge to the knowledge of God. In the Meditations one learns, thus that by scrutinizing one's thinking one discovers ideas of such clarity and directness that they can only be innate. ..The Cartesian idea of God rests on two intrinsically related notions: infinity and perfection. Both notions are thought to be underived concepts that can be acquired neither through experience nor through a logical operation. Descartes' reasoning is that we do not acquire the notion of infinity by negating what is finite, and we do not grasp perfection by thinking of the opposite of imperfection.”
In Al-Ghazālī writings we understand the importance of reason but also the importance of intuition, these combined can show us the true knowledge.
Albertini, Tamara, 2005 "Crisis and Certainty of Knowledge in al-Ghazālī (1058-1111) and Descartes (1596-1650)" Philosophy East and West 55,1:1-14.
Olson, Carl, 20003. Zen and the Art of Postmodern Philosophy. New York: State University of New York Press.