"...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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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Importance of Henry Corbin

Henry Corbin's life work was to serve as a champion of the supreme importance of the individual and of the central place of the imagination in human experience. He was, in my opinion, one of the most important philosophers and religious thinkers of the 20th century. But the place that his work occupies with respect to the various academic disciplines is so unique that his opus is impossible to adequately classify. This is one reason that his work is so little appreciated outside of the world of Islamic scholars. His interests are eclectic and wide-ranging and deny all the traditional boundaries of academic scholarship, and some would argue, good sense. There is no doubt that his writings seem at least at first reading to "belong" to Islamic Studies, and readers with little or no knowledge of things Islamic will find them challenging for that reason alone. But his stance is less that of a scholar than that of a partisan of certain forms of mysticism which on his reading escape the bounds of Islam and are to be found as well in Judaism, Christianity and indeed Zoroastrianism. More than this, Corbin saw Iran, or more accurately, ancient Persia, as a kind of mediating realm between the religions of the East and those of the West. Thus it is significant that one of his passions was for the mystical visions of Immanuel Swedenborg, who D. T. Suzuki, the great scholar of zen Buddhism, called the "Buddha of the North."

But here we notice another characteristic of Corbin's work that some scholars may find hard to accept. Corbin followed the Imagination wherever it led him - and so the marginal figures who people the histories of the great religions were often his particular favorites: Swedenborg and Boehme, alchemists and kabbalists, Sufis and Ismailis, poets and visionaries of all stripes who take their stand against the dominant and powerful orthodoxies of their times were particularly dear to his heart. It is hardly true however that Corbin stood outside of the "traditional" scholarly world. Solidly grounded in the philosophy and theology of the West, he knew thoroughly and deeply the works of the most important modern philosophers and religious thinkers - Kierkegaard and Barth, Nietzsche and Heidegger and a host of others whose names are familiar to even casual students of modern Western thought.

One of the things that to my mind reveals his particular genius is his ability and willingness to effortlessly cross boundaries that to others mark the limits of well-defined and independent realms of knowledge. His talents as a linguist were of course crucial to this cross-cultural and polyvalent vision, but his remarkable ability to move simultaneously among the traces of disparate cultures and intellectual traditions is the mark of something more than linguistic virtuosity. I think it is his boundary-crossing ability that reveals Corbin as a truly "postmodern" thinker. He refused steadfastly to be bound by the strictures of the prevailing historicist orthodoxy, preferring to adopt what to some critics seems a dangerous and ill-conceived a-historical eclecticism. But he was early and independently embarked upon what was to become a hallmark of a kind postmodern approach to reality - the ungrounding of literal and totalitarian modes of knowing in favor of something more difficult and subtle, which was for Corbin an extension of what medieval philosophers called an apophatic stance towards to reality. This fundamental attitude towards human knowledge and human being is what is required to understand Corbin's vision of the imaginal world. And it is a radically poetic view of knowledge rather than a discursively rational one. In the modern Western tradition we can find the roots of this kind of "romantic" vision not only among the poets but also in the works of those essential figures in Corbin's pantheon: Hamann, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.

Corbin tells us that the world of the Imagination has been left to the poets in the modern Western tradition. He wanted to reclaim it for philosophy and theology and to place the Imagination at the very heart of human life because he believed, along with Ibn 'Arabi, that it lies at the very center of reality. This is so very post-modern. A turn to the Imagination, or less threateningly perhaps, towards the "literary," characterizes much of Western philosophical and theological thought from at least Kierkegaard and Nietzsche on. Most tellingly for Corbin, Heidegger placed hermeneutics and not abstract logic at the very heart of human being and knowing. But unlike Heidegger who wanted to free it from theology, Corbin turned his hermeneutic gaze back upon a theological vision that is not only Christian, but embraces the entire Prophetic Tradition from Abraham onwards. He thus perhaps anticipated by several decades the "theological turn" in contemporary philosophy and had already turned in an entirely and essentially ecumenical direction. Among modern theologians and philosophers it is perhaps only Henry Corbin, with a deep knowledge of Greek, Latin, German, Persian, Turkish and Arabic who was able to see the religions of the Book with a sufficiently passionate detachment to grasp their essential unities and to show us how we might re-imagine the heart of these traditions to bring them alive and whole into a new cosmopolitan world free from the fundamentalisms and conflicts that have nearly obliterated the prophetic message throughout its long history.

In the end, despite the difficulty of his work, the transcendent beauty of which makes the effort of reading more than worthwhile, Henry Corbin belongs not to Islamic Studies, or even to philosophy and theology, but equally to the poets, the artists and the visionaries. His work belongs to all of us and, we must hope, to the ages yet to come.

The Assembly of the Birds: Page from a manuscript of the Mantiq al-tair (The Language of the Birds) of Farid al-Din cAttar, ca. 1600; Safavid

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