SCHOLASTICISM AND THE MODERN THEORY OF KNOWLEDGE
Updated: May 17
During my talk on 2 February 2020 at the Free University, Amsterdam and in the extended conversations which followed later among the members of the Overseas Progressive Pakistanis (OPP), I developed the CONCEPT OF SCHOLASTICISM IN CONTRAST TO THE MODERN THEORY OF KNOWLEDGE.
Let me begin by stating an important Principle: What is truth or rather what is the criteria for assessing a true statement or postulate from a flawed or false one?
The answer is: truth is determined entirely on the basis of the standards or indicators of the truth - and these are determined by those who take part in a discussion pertaining to the truth. In the philosophy of the Social Sciences, it is called, INTER-SUBJECTIVITY.
In simpler words, it means an agreement among those who are considered experts or authority in a field of inquiry.
If you keep this in mind then the contrast between scholasticism and the modern theory of knowledge becomes easy to grasp.
Scholasticism was the school of primarily Christian theologians who would dispute and debate different items in THE LIGHT OF the skills to use logic and reasoning to prove that Christians doctrines and beliefs were true and logic and reasoning was used to debunk the opponent with clever arguments. THE MAIN PROBLEM with such an approach to knowledge was that the disputants were NOT BOUND BY EVIDENCE.
Thus, for example, for centuries Christians scholars debated as to how many Angels could stand on the point of a Pin. From St Augustine to St Thomas Aquinas Scholastic disputes and debates between experts of Christian philosophy took place.
An identical Islamic Scholastic school prevailed among Muslims during the declining years of the Abbasid Caliphate (750 - 1258). When Halaku Khan and his Mongols raided Baghdad in 1258 the Ulema and Fuquha were discussing as to whether when Imam Hussain stepped on the soil of Karbala he set his right foot first or the left one!
In the 15th century, in Germany, a Catholic Consilium debated for 80 years or so as to whether a chicken had teeth or not? One day a poor, oppressed peasant rushed into the hall were the Consilium was meeting, opened the teeth and showed that it had no teeth.
That poor man was burnt at the stakes on grounds of having violated the rules of scholasticism: which did not admit evidence as proof.
The truth is that whereas scholasticism has virtually been abandoned in the West, the contemporary Islamic world is still in the grip of scholasticism. You can easily verify this by visiting Youtube and listening to the arguments among the ulema of all Muslim sects.
Hundreds of books can be found on QABR KA AZAAB (the torment in the grave). What will happen when we die has a great fascination and the most amazing and traumatizing versions of it can be found in such books. None of the claims can ever be tested and verified; hence no end to the discussion.
FROM IMAM GHAZALI (died 1111) to Allama Iqbal the mode of argument is SCHOLASTIC.
The ideologues of Islamism, Abul Ala Maududi and Syed Qutb who represent Sunni Islamism and Imam Khomeini - all rely on scholasticism to defend their doctrines - that revelation is superior to reason and since many claims of revelation cannot be tested and verified we can continue disputing doctrinal issues till the end of time.
Let me add that the Ahmadi dispute as to whether Mirza Ghulam Ahmad t was a prophet or a mujadid cannot be settled because both sorts of claims can be found in his utterances but his community split into two and dispute it violently among themselves.
The same is true about the Hindu and other religions. No religious truth can be tested and verified. Therefore all religious beliefs are a matter of scholastic arguments.
THE MODERN THEORY OF KNOWLEDGE IS BASED ON Observation- hypothesis - testing of the hypotheses - law - theory. Thus whether Newton's Theory of Gravitation or Einstein's Theory of Relativism or the claim-truths of other natural and social sciences ARE TRUE UNTIL PROVEN WRONG. A scientific truth-claim must always be falsifiable or rather verifiable.
The Frontiers of Knowledge of Science are always expanding; those of religion never.
A rational way to handle this conflict between scholasticism and the modern theory of knowledge is to confine METAPHYSICAL TRUTH-CLAIMS TO SCHOLASTICISM AND PHYSICAL AND SOCIAL WORLD TRUTH-CLAIMS TO THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD OF INQUIRY REQUIRING EVIDENCE AND REASONING TO BE ACCEPTED AS PLAUSIBLE.
Ishtiaq Ahmed is a Swedish political scientist and author of Pakistani descent. He is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Stockholm University. He is currently Visiting Professor at the Government College University, Lahore. He was a Visiting Professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) during 2013-2015. He is also Honorary Senior Fellow of the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore. He was a Visiting Research Professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), National University of Singapore and at the South Asian Studies Programme, the National University of Singapore from June 2007 to June 2010. He is member of the editorial advisory boards of "Asian Ethnicity"; "Journal of Punjab Studies"; "IPRI Journal, Islamabad"; and "PIPS Research Journal of Conflict and Peace Studies, Islamabad.