"...the Imagination (or love, or sympathy, or any other sentiment) induces knowledge, and knowledge of an 'object' which is proper to it..."
Henry Corbin (1903-1978) was a scholar, philosopher and theologian. He was a champion of the transformative power of the Imagination and of the transcendent reality of the individual in a world threatened by totalitarianisms of all kinds. One of the 20th century’s most prolific scholars of Islamic mysticism, Corbin was Professor of Islam & Islamic Philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris and at the University of Teheran. He was a major figure at the Eranos Conferences in Switzerland. He introduced the concept of the mundus imaginalis into contemporary thought. His work has provided a foundation for archetypal psychology as developed by James Hillman and influenced countless poets and artists worldwide. But Corbin’s central project was to provide a framework for understanding the unity of the religions of the Book: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. His great work Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi is a classic initiatory text of visionary spirituality that transcends the tragic divisions among the three great monotheisms. Corbin’s life was devoted to the struggle to free the religious imagination from fundamentalisms of every kind. His work marks a watershed in our understanding of the religions of the West and makes a profound contribution to the study of the place of the imagination in human life.

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Friday, September 12, 2008

Henry Corbin On Heidegger

In the same years that Corbin was studying Turkish, Persian and Arabic he became deeply engaged with the German theological tradition, what he would later call the "lineage of hermeneutics:" Boehme, Luther, Hamann, Schliermacher, Dilthey, Heidegger and Barth. He lectured and delivered papers on Luther, Kierkegaard and Hamann, at the same time publishing translations of Suhrawardi in 1933, 1935, and 1939. In 1930 he first read Heidegger's Being and Time. As with his first encounter with Suhrawardi's Philosophy of Illumination, this was a defining moment in is life. His response to the challenge of Heidegger's dense and difficult German is revealing and probably unique: his copy of Being and Time was marked throughout by glosses in Arabic. In 1939 he published the first translation of any of Heidegger's work in French (a translation with which he was later quite dissatisfied).

Two aspects of Heidegger's work in particular were pivotal for Corbin: his treatment of history, and the central place given to hermeneutics.

"I must say that the course of my work had its origin in the incomparable analysis that we owe to Heidegger, showing the ontological roots of historical science, and giving evidence that there is a historicity more original, more primordial than that which we call Universal History, the History of external events, the Weltgeschichte, History in the ordinary sense of the term... There is the same relationship between historicality and historicity as between the existential and the existentiell. This was a decisive moment."

It was Heidegger who provided the key with which to open the locks closing him off from the other levels of being. "This key is, one might say, the principal tool equipping the mental laboratory of phenomenology." The key is hermeneutics. "The immense merit of Heidegger will always be that he centered the very act of philosophizing on hermeneutics... It is the art or the technique of Understanding."

But Corbin is traveling in wider circles than most Heideggerians. His grasp of hermeneutics and of the phenomenology that it makes possible springs not only from the undoubted originality of Heidegger or Husserl, but from far older, traditional conceptions of Sufism and Shi'ism. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, who taught with Corbin in Teheran for many years writes,

"Corbin...used to translate 'phenomenology'...to the Persian speaking students as kashf al-mahjub, literally 'rending asunder of the veil to reveal the hidden essence,' and considered his method...to be spiritual hermeneutics as understood in classical Sufi and Shi'ite thought." (Nasr, p. 26, n. 13).

Without doubt Heidegger provided the foundation for a bridge between Western philosophy and Islamic theology, but Corbin crosses it without hesitation to move into a more spacious world. He emphasizes that to use the key that Heidegger provided by no means requires us to adopt his mode of presence. "In Heidegger, arranged around this situs is all the ambiguity of human finitude characterized by 'Being-towards-death.'" But "this connection to the world, the pre-existentiell philosophical option...is itself a constitutive element of the Da of Dasein," which we need not take as our own. Once we have truly realized this and become conscious of our unconscious "decision" and therefore of our freedom to decide otherwise, the real meditation on our situation can begin: "From then on there is only to grasp as closely as possible this notion of Presence. To what is human presence present?"

For the spiritual philosophers of Islam, "the presence that they experience in the world...lived by them, is not a Presence of which the finality is death, a "being-towards-death," but a "being-towards -the-other -side-of -death..." It is the world of the imaginal that opened the way towards horizons that Heidegger "had not foreseen."

On all of this see From Heidegger to Suhravardi: An Interview with Philippe Nemo courtesy of the Friends of Stella and Henry Corbin.

Adapted from The World Turned Inside Out and Green Man, Earth Angel by the author.
Quotation from Nasr in Religion & the Order of Nature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996

Martin Heidegger in 1920.
Jacob's Ladder. (1973). Marc Chagall (1887-1985). © ARS, NY. Private Collection. From Art Resource.

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