"...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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Thursday, February 5, 2009

Corbin - Luther - Heidegger - Thomas of Erfurt

The hermeneutic key to understanding prophetic philosophy came to Corbin through Martin Heidegger, but the prelude to this lies in Martin Luther, and in the Scholastic tradition of "speculative grammar," which has deep ties to the phenomenology of Husserl and Heidegger.

Luther's insight into the meaning of the significatio passiva was fundamental for Corbin. He writes,

"In the presence of the Psalm verse In justitia tua libera me [Deliver me in Thy righteousness - Psalm 71 KJV] Luther experienced a movement of revolt and despair: what can there be in common between this attribute of justice and my deliverance? ...[He] perceived in a sudden flash (and his entire personal theology was to result from this experience) that this attribute must be understood in its significatio passiva, that is to say, thy justice whereby we are made into just men, thy holiness whereby we are hallowed, etc... Similarly...[for Ibn 'Arabi] the divine attributes are qualifications that we impute to the Divine Essence...as we experience it in ourselves." (Alone with the Alone , 300, n. 25. For Erik Erikson's classic account of Luther's struggle with this Psalm passage in Young Man Luther see pp. 325ff in The Erik Erikson Reader.)

Corbin says that this experience of Luther's provided him with the key for understanding the meaning of mystical philosophy in Islam. It provides the connection between the Divine attributes in themselves and those attributes as they appear in the created world. Upon the significatio passiva hinges an entire cosmology, an entire metaphysics of creation. It provides another way of understanding the connection between "metaphysics," the intellect, and the transformation of the soul:

"One simple example: the advent of being in this theosophy, is the placing of being in the imperative: KN [Arabic], Esto (in the second person, not fiat). This is primary, it is neither ens nor esse, but esto. 'Be!'. This imperative inauguration of being, is the divine imperative in the active sense; but considered in the being that it makes be, the being that we are, it is the same imperative, but in its significatio passiva."

Corbin will link these "existential" ideas concerning the "modes of being" to the philosophy of Mulla Sadr. On this see Christian Jambet: The Act of Being: The Philosophy of Revelation in Mulla Sadra. Reviewed by David Burrell here.

Corbin continues, "I believe we can claim, therein, the triumph of hermeneutics as Verstehen [understanding], meaning that that which we truly understand, is never other than that by which we are tried, that which we undergo, which we suffer and toil with in our very being. Hermeneutics does not consist in deliberating upon concepts, it is essentially the unveiling or revelation of that which is happening within us, the unveiling of that which causes us to emit such or such concept, vision, projection, when our passion becomes action, it is an active undergoing, a prophetic-poietic undertaking." from Corbin's Interview with Philippe Nemo.

Corbin and Heidegger were both immersed in medieval theology and the German hermeneutic tradition. "Hermeneutics" in the Europe of the 19th and early 20th century still referred to the interpretation of the Bible. It was a theological concept. It was chiefly Heidegger who was to give the term the strictly philosophical and secular meaning that is has today. Corbin's reading of Heidegger was of course theological from the outset. His study of prophetic philosophy always centered on the meaning of the Book - on the true Interpretation of the Book.

In this extended excerpt from his interview with Nemo, Corbin gives a clear account of his reading of Heidegger's Being and Time in the early 1930's:

"First and foremost, I would say, there is the idea of hermeneutics, which appears among the very first pages of Sein und Zeit. Heidegger’s great merit will remain in his having centered the act of philosophizing in hermeneutics itself. Forty years ago, when one employed this word, “hermeneutic”, among philosophers, it had a strange, almost barbaric ring. And yet, it’s a term borrowed directly from the Greek and one that has its common usage among biblical specialists. We owe the technical definition to Aristotle: the title of his treatise peri hermenêias was translated into Latin as De interpretatione. We can go one better too, for in contemporary philosophical parlance hermeneutics is that which, in German, is called das verstehen, le “Comprendre,” “Understanding”. It is the art or technique of “Understanding”, as this was understood by Dilthey. An old friend, Bernard Groethuysen, who was once a student of Dilthey’s, always came back to this in the course of our discussions. There is, in fact, a direct link between the “Verstehen” as hermeneutic in Dilthey’s “Comprehensive Philosophy” and the “Analytic”, the idea of hermeneutics that we find in Heidegger.

That said, Dilthey’s concept is derived from Schleiermacher, the great theologian of the German Romantic period, upon whom Dilthey had consecrated an enormous and unfinished work. Precisely there, we relocate the theological origins, namely Protestant, of the concept of hermeneutics that we use in philosophical circles today. Unfortunately, I have the impression that our young Heideggerians have somewhat lost sight of this link between hermeneutics and theology. To find it again, one would obviously have to restore an idea of theology altogether different from that which holds sway today, in France as elsewhere, I mean that definition that has become subservient to sociology when it is not handmaiden to “sociological-politics”. This restoration could only come about through the concurrence of the hermeneutics practiced within the Religions of the Book: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, for it is therein that hermeneutics has developed as a spontaneous exegesis, and therein lie reserved its future palingenesis.

Why? Because therein one is in possession of a Book upon which all depends. It is indeed a question of understanding the meaning, but of understanding the true meaning. Three things to consider: there is the act of understanding, there is the phenomenon of the meaning, and there is the unveiling or revelation of the truth of this meaning. Now, are we to understand by this “true” meaning that which we currently call the historical meaning, or rather a meaning that refers us to an altogether other level than that of History as the word is commonly understood. From the very outset, the hermeneutics practiced in the Religions of the Book put into play the same themes and vocabulary familiar to phenomenology. What I was enchanted to rediscover in Heidegger, was essentially the filiation of hermeneutics itself passing through the theologian Schleiermacher, and if I lay claim to phenomenology, it is because philosophical hermeneutics is essentially the key that opens the hidden meaning (etymologically the esoteric) underlying the exoteric statement. I have as such done nothing more than attempt to deepen this understanding, firstly in the vast unexplored domain of Shiite Islamic gnosis, and then in the neighboring domains of Christian and Judaic gnosis. Inevitably, because on the one hand the concept of hermeneutics had a Heideggerian flavour, and because on the other hand my first publications concerned the great Iranian philosopher Suhravardî, certain historians stubbornly maintained their “virtuous insinuations” that I had “mixed up” (sic) Heidegger with Suhravardî. But to make use of a key to open a lock is not at all the same thing as to confuse the key with the lock. It wasn’t even a question of using Heidegger as a key, but rather of making use of the same key that he had himself made use of, and which was at everyone’s disposition. Thank God, there are some insinuations whose sheer ineptitude reduces them to nothing… that said, the phenomenologist would have a great deal to say about the “false keys” of historicism.

And specifically with regards to this last point, there is a book within the ensemble of Heidegger’s work about which, perhaps, we no longer speak of enough. It is true that it is an old book… it was one of the first that Heidegger wrote, for it was his “habilitation thesis.” I am referring to his book on Duns Scotus. This book contains pages that have been particularly illuminating for me, concerning as they do what our medieval philosophers called grammatica speculativa. I was to make immediate use of it upon being called to stand in for my dear departed friend Alexandre Koyré at the Section of Religious Sciences in the Ecole des Hautes Etudes, during the years 1937 through 39. Having to discourse upon Lutheran hermeneutics, I was able to put into practice that which I had learned of the grammatica speculativa." - Henry Corbin

Heidegger's Habilitationsschrift was published in 1916 under the title, Die Kategorien- und Bedeutungslehre des Duns Scotus. As it happens, the Bedeutungslehre attributed to Scotus was show in 1922 to be the work of Thomas of Erfurt (14th century), the author of De modis significandi sive grammatica speculativa. See this excellent article on Erfurt and the speculative grammarians. (Also here.) Now as Corbin laments above, Heideggerians have until recently much neglected these aspects of Heidegger's work. But the emphasis of scholarship is shifting and his early grounding in theology is receiving much more attention. Although wading into the deeps of Heidegger scholarship is fraught with perils, the works listed below are a place to start.

On the Early Heidegger and Medieval Theology
McGrath, S. J. The Early Heidegger & Medieval Philosophy: Phenomenology for the Godforsaken. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2006. Reviewed by Christian Lotz in the Medeival Review, Sept. 2007, here (pdf).
Van Buren, John. The Young Heidegger: Rumor of the Hidden King. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.
_____ "The earliest Heidegger: a new field of research," in Dreyfus, Hubert L., and Mark A. Wrathall. A Companion to Heidegger. Blackwell companions to philosophy, 29. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2005.

Portions adapted from The World Turned Inside Out by the author.

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