I will never forget that moment during a graduate seminar titled Theorizing Religion at the University of Michigan. The statement was so real and timeless that I altogether forgot the context in which it was made. The professor stated that “no longer will we have thinkers like Marx, Weber or Nietzsche. The age of specialization that we’re in now has made that impossible!” Upon hearing this, I was more relieved than frightened or shocked, simply because this realization had been precipitating in my consciousness throughout the previous years of my doctoral education.
It is an all too crucial question that seems to have been remarkably sidelined in the academic community: why hasn’t an all-encompassing thinker emerged in our society during these last few centuries? A cursory reading of history reveals that already in the earliest foundations of Western thought, figures like Socrates and Plato perceived the entire universe, beginning with God as the metacosm of all knowledge and including the dynamics of a society’s spirit, such as political regimes and poetry, to be the canvas for their reflective paint brush.
Yet today we find ourselves in neither the opposite nor a normal situation. On the one hand, the searing speed at which technology and science have advanced has eluded observers into assuming also that holistic comprehension has been following closely behind. On the other hand, this great elusion and modernism’s sleight of hand has conflated in our collective consciousness the difference between information and actual knowledge. Therefore, we find ourselves drowning in multitudes of disciplines that converse privately within their own circles using a terminology that is oblivious to any parallel ongoing discourses.
The problem is heightened when one realizes that this specialized language is understood only by the few who belong to the discipline. Even then, the obsession with critique and interrogation has somehow become the consensual standard for growth and development. It is only this constant return to ‘problematization’ that modern intellectualism relies upon as the source and mirror for personal discovery and progress. In my field of religious studies, for example, ‘revisionism’ seems to be a resurging trend whereby specialists begin with the premise that the story of the past should not be trusted.
One cannot truly comprehend the convoluted contours of this infinite division of laboring disciplines without first situating it within this narrative of the past. For even a notion such as the Socratic method of interrogation and inquiry, a pride of modern intellectualism, was originally imbued with a unique metaphysic and lens for witnessing reality at all levels. Therefore, the underlying question here is: how much is lost in translation when one simply adopts the techniques of the ancients or attempts to study the past without first acknowledging the drastic changes that occurred in our understanding of the universe and knowledge?
I’m reminded of a second pertinent interaction with a Roman Catholic farmer. This humble man, whom I met at a traditional martial arts dojo, explained to me why he chose to drop out of a graduate program in comparative religions. He said: “I realized that the difference between the Westerner and Easterner when studying religion is as follows. If both were to study a frog, the Westerner will go to the swamp, find the frog, kill it, rip it into pieces and study each part separately then glue it back together and repackage it as though it is still a frog. Meanwhile, the Easterner will go to the swamp, sit and listen to the frog. They go and come back many times and the frog will still be there.”
The only disagreement I have with my friend is that the issue here isn’t necessarily between West and East, but rather between a mindset – or ‘heart-set’ – that was common across the West and East among all those searching for truth. Although now it seems to be a distinction between West and East; in reality, it is the shifting perspective of disconnected disciplines that has originated over the past few centuries in the West and has taken a slower course across regions in the East.
However, the question remains: what was exactly this underlying metaphysic of the ancients that changed so much in our contemporary condition? And why does this difference in perception matter so much in how we approach knowledge and learning? It is best to address both these queries by engaging an example from that distant past. In this case, we will look at an encyclopedic work titled Rasāʾil Ikhwān ahl al-Ṣafā (Letters of the Brethren of Purity), written sometime between 10th-11th century.
Both the exact date and author(s) of this work remain a mystery. Fortunately, this has propelled the work’s importance since it has become more than the product of a single or multiple persons but a brilliant piece of literature that is aptly representative of the ancients’ vision of reality we’ve spoken of. The organization of the work itself is telling of this underlying perception, wherein the first 14 chapters are on Mathematics, next 17 on the Natural Sciences, 10 on the Psychological and Rational Sciences and last 11 on Theology.
One should not suppose that this is a haphazard organization. Rather, it reflects the author(s) and entire milieu’s understanding of prudent educational progression. Beginning with Mathematics, a person needs to learn first the structure of numbers and their interrelationships as the underlying foundation of the universe. This is followed by learning musical theory as the foundation for mathematical fractions. Then comes the study of geometry and shapes that predominate our physical world and the heavens.
Then comes the study of astronomy and astrology. The former resembles its modern counterpart, however the ancients also believed that the latter discipline is quintessential for observing the intimate connection between the movement of the heavenly spheres and human behavior. Only after studying all these branches of mathematical sciences can a person advance to the natural sciences: physics, biology and chemistry. Then comes the study of the rational sciences, including logic and philosophy. Finally, only after understanding these three branches of knowledge was one allowed to study theology.
The universe was perceived as a holistic organic being, each component of which alludes to the other in intricate ways. A mystic might better explain this by stating that the universe is a music box, one cannot truly appreciate the sound it produces without also understanding it’s texture, smell and overall spirit. Having awareness of any of these aspects, no matter how deeply, without also engaging the others is bound to produce the disconnected, yet superficially sophisticated, view of reality we live in today.
The great Sufi master Ibn al-ʿArabī (d. 1238) also highlighted this holistic nature of the universe by stating that ʿilm (knowledge) comes from ʿalāma (sign), because the ʿālam (universe) is a signpost that points to God, the ʿalīm (all-knower). In this way, Ibn al-ʿArabī lets us know that language itself holds the secret to deciphering this great cosmic structure. In other words, the etymological connections between words inked on paper allude to the etymological relationships between existential words engraved on the cosmic canvas.
What this Andalusian mystic also reveals for us is the essential need for art in order to appreciate the great narrative of the universe. We do not refer here only to an artistic mastery in disciplines such as astronomy or physics. Rather, we also refer to a need for modern science to rely upon the arts as a body relies upon the spirit for life. This is because the great questions that a scientist begins to contemplate after mastering their discipline, regarding truth and ultimate meaning of reality, are exactly the mysteries that motivate the creative inspiration of the novice painter and musician.
It is not enough, that the scientist simply dabbles with art during their free time as a pastime; or that they acknowledge a cursory connection between their artistry and scientific profession. Rather, we are in dire need for a movement to instill in the sciences, and all other disciplines, a return to the arts as the source of their journey and root for all knowledge. This is because the artist alone has the entire universe as their canvas, much like Socrates, Plato and the other ancients. The artist alone can redeem the current dissected and repackaged model of reality.