Comparative Philosophy and Phenomenology

~Henry Corbin

The term 'comparative philosophy' is appealed to often enough nowadays. In spite of this, if one bears in mind the scope of numerous comparative disciplines—comparative grammar, comparative literature, comparative aesthetics, etc —one has to admit that comparative philosophy is still only in its infancy. This late start is hardly to be wondered at. There is the difficulty of constituting a method which can safeguard itself against mere arbitrariness, for not all things are comparable with one another. Thus we face the difficult art of defining the field of comparative research in satisfactory terms. At the very heart of this difficult problem is the fact that there are today all too few philosophers capable of simultaneously grasping several complete cultural unities and suf-ficiently prepared linguistically to be able to cope with the texts at first hand. As far as I know, the concept of comparative philosophy was first explicitly formulated back in the early 'twenties of this century in a doctoral dissertation presented under that title at the Sorbonne by Paul Masson-Oursel, who was subsequently to occupy the chair of Indian religion of the Section des Sciences religieuses in our École des Hautes Études. Masson-Oursel applied himself to the task of defining as strictly as possible the aim and purport of a comparative philosophy. He saw it as consisting essentially in disentangling not so much likenesses in terms which are more or less deceptive, but rather analogies of relationship (of the type a/b = c/d ).

But his analysis remained perhaps too subservient to the unique perspective of the history of philosophy as history, in subordination to the chronological succession and the hypo-, thetical laws of historical causality. Certainly one should not exclude this type of research: there is the right time and place for it. But it is not primarily or in essence the object of a comparative philosophy, one of the first investigations of which must be to enquire into the form, here and there, of time lived, and thus of the advent of the concept of something like a history, and so of a history of philosophy.

Consequently, what a comparative philosophy must strive for in the different sectors of a defined field of comparison, is above all that which is called in German Wesenschau, the intuitive perception of an essence. This term belongs to the vocabulary of phenomenology, but let us say to Husserl's phenomenology of strict observance rather than to the existential phenomenology (above all let us not say existentialist) of Heidegger. And it seems to me that it is precisely the appearance of phenomenology that has seen to it that an effort like that of Masson-Oursel must find itself from now onwards to have been overtaken. The tasks postulated by the intuitive perception of an essence are quite different from those set for itself by a historical approach anxious to determine the genetic causes, currents, influences, etc, which make themselves felt at such and such a date, in order to deduce from them certain processus, in the belief that it is possible to compare them among themselves. We must therefore very briefly once more recall the sense of the word phenomenology.

I have already had occasion to define this term elsewhere (Note 2). There is also a sense of it independent of every particular phenomenological school. Let us not attempt to translate the word into Persian by a mere dictionary equivalent. Let us look rather at the course of action which phenomenological enquiry accomplishes. It is connected essentially with the motto of Greek science: sozein to. phainomena, saving the appearances. What does this mean? The phenomenon is that which shows itself, that which is apparent and which in its appearance shows forth something which can reveal itself therein only by remaining concealed beneath the appearance. Something shows itself in the phenomenon and can show itself there only by remaining hidden. In the philosophical and religious sciences the phenomenon presents itself in those technical terms in which the element '-phany' from the Greek, figures: epiphany, theophany, hierophany, etc. The phenomenon, the Greek phenomenon, is the zâhir, the apparent, the external, the exoteric. What shows itself within this zâhir, while itself remaining concealed, is the bâtin, the interior, the esoteric. Phenomenology consists in 'saving the appearance', saving the phenomenon, while disengaging or unveiling the hidden which shows itself beneath this appearance. The Logos or principle of the phenomenon, phenomenology, is thus to tell the hidden, the invisible present beneath the visible. It is to make the phenomenon show itself forth such as it shows itself to the subject to whom it reveals itself. It is thus an altogether dif-ferent course from that of the history of philosophy or historical criticism. Is not then phenomenological research what our old mystical treatises design as kashf al-mahjub, the unveiling or revealing of that which is hidden? Is it not also what is designed by the term ta'wil, so fundamental in the spiritual hermeneutic of the Quran? Ta'wil is the process of tracing something to its origin, to its archetype (Persian: chizi-ra be-asl-e Khwod rasanidan). In the course of taking it back to its origin, it is made to pass through level after level of being, and it is in this manner that the structure of an essence is released (which does not in any sense mean structuralism). Structure in this sense means the tartib al-mazdhir, the system of the forms of manifestation of a given essence.

This approximately is what 'phenomenology' means and this is what we have to do in order to put to good effect the task of a comparative philosophy, understood as quite distinct from that of the history of philosophy. Let us also say that phenomenology is able rather to preserve us from the perils of history. The awareness of these perils has become acute on the part of certain Western philosophers in our time. In order to understand this, and at the same time in order to help us conceive the task of our comparative philosophy, let us turn back to the distinguished philosopher with whom rests the priority in the use of the word phenomenology. I am of course thinking of Hegel and his Phenomenology of the Spirit. It is the fate of the Western philosopher of our time to be unable to avoid referring, one way or another, to Hegel. We also shall do so, certainly not in order to accept the incumbency of the Hegelian programme upon us, but rather in order to rid ourselves of it. For only then shall we know clearly why we have to deal with different forms of the post-Hegelian historical dialectic and what it is that we have to oppose against historicism, which is a form without hope, in order to 'save the appearances' without in any way having recourse to any dialectic whatever.

We shall have to face up squarely to the problem of why what one calls historicism is the result of the decomposition or of the explosion of the Hegelian system. We shall have to ask ourselves what is the place of history? Where is it enacted? Just what is it that the historicity of man consists of and what does it not consist of? Then the way will be open for us to attempt to extract from the philosophy that has been pursued in Iran three exemplary themes with a view to comparative research. That will permit us to finish up by distantly envisaging not only the meaning of the Occidental enterprise but also that of the adventure of the Occidentalisation of the world. Two aspects of the same phenomenon, but aspects which we cannot afford to let ourselves confuse with one another. This double enterprise will teach us to understand how if there are any 'Orientals' left in the world today, that is in the sense in which Sohrawardi understood that word, they do not belong exclusively to either the geographical East or West of our world.

How do we extricate ourselves from historicism? The 'phenomenology of the Spirit' as Hegel conceived it is without any doubt a unique monument in Western philosophy. I speak of it here in order to make a statement which is in no way a personal one and which comes down to this: it is not positive science, as one might have believed, that has exploded the Hegelian system, the very summit of which was the phenomenology of the Spirit; it is History that has done so. What precisely do we mean by this?

Political jargon transplanted into philosophy has in the first generation caused people to talk of a Hegelian right and a Hegelian left. The Hegelian right was represented by those theologians who were known as 'speculative' in the technical sense of that word (derived from the Latin speculum, a mirror) and who read Hegel in the same way as they read the great mystical theosophists like Meister Eckhart and Jacob Boehme, for whom Hegel himself had a deep admiration. Unfortunately it is not this manner of reading Hegel which has prevailed, and the Hegelianism which it represented has been clipped away to the profit of a totally different and unilateral interpretation, whose virulence has made itself felt down through the 19th century into our own time. There has been from the start an ambiguity weighing upon the whole system. We shall have to go more deeply into its origins in the light of a comparative philosophy which has new perspectives at its disposal, perspectives still unknown or at least ignored in the time of Hegel. The fact remains that it is this original ambiguity which has with justice permitted History to explode the Hegelian system. What in the end, in effect, is the situation of 'phenomenology'?

The Absolute Spirit has found its own feet. The times are fulfilled. History has been accomplished. Its eschaton, its final term, has come to pass. What is called eschatology in the language of theology in order to designate the events of the end, has already caught up with us. Certainly, if a mystical theosophist reads these things and understands them as an event accomplishing itself in the Malakut—the world of the Subtle Earth, the World of the Soul—and not in the world of the empirical earth or of historical objectivity, he will in no way be surprised or blocked in his perceptions. Unfortunately, in the Hegelian context it's very much a matter of events passing in this world, and of an eschatology fulfilled in these events (the figure of Napoleon, the Prussian monarchy). History ought to have come to a stop.
Unfortunately, History has gone on, but it could continue only because it had already overtaken an eschatology which up to then had oriented it in giving it its direction. Deprived of this eschatology, since henceforth it has it behind it instead of having it before it, History can only be disoriented, seeking desperately for a direction it can no longer find. Continuing on past its eschatology, History, in losing its direction, has become mad (I am also echoing a phrase of Chesterton's declaring that in our time the world is full of Christian ideas gone mad). We recognise all too vividly the drama of the laicising or secularisation of a theological system which was founded on the eschatological perspective, on essential and continual expectation. To cut off this expectation is to deliver eschatology up to the perils of history. There is now only a pseudo-eschatology, which makes a pseudo-mythology of the 'sense of history' weigh down our consciousness. For how can we discover a sense of history, a direction, in the absence of any landmark beyond history, any point at which history immobilises itself or rather demobilises itself? This means: without a meta-history, without a transhistoric dimension. It is important for us to have our eyes on this drama, for eschatology, the eschatological expectation, is rooted in the depths of the consciousness of all us Ahl al-Kitab (People of the Book), and it is this which makes it possible not to succumb to the perils of history. If we are not on our guard against this, if we entertain a certain complacence towards what is in fact the negation of ourselves, we shall find ourselves threatened with being engulfed. Certainly, the mystery of this cosmic dramaturgy, deprived of its sense because its eschaton, its ultimate perspective is no longer envisaged, would invite us to trace it back to its theological sources, of which all our ideological and socio-political systems in the West in the 19th century are only laicised variations. Where does the notion of an Absolute Spirit of which humanity is the seat and the organ come from in the works of a philosopher like Hegel?

I have indicated elsewhere, such as it has seemed to me, the contrast with this figure of the Holy Spirit whom our traditional philosophers identify with their Active Intelligence and who is the Angel of Humanity, at once the Angel of Understanding (connaissance) and the Angel of Revelation. The acts of understanding, the bringing forth of the cognitive forms of the active power by this Holy Spirit Angel, also have as their seat this humanity whose Angel he is. But this Holy Spirit is not the Absolute Spirit in Hegel's sense, whose idea can all too easily give humanity a sense of intoxication from his apotheosis, not to say vertigo from his catastrophes. From time to time I have caught a glimpse at least, in a fugitive light, of what a phenomenology of the spirit might be, if it were rethought and reconstructed as a function of this Holy Spirit, who according to the Islamic gnosis is the simultaneous inspiration of Prophets and Philosophers alike. I shall not insist upon this for the moment. It is one of the tasks of a comparative philosophy to come, which one cannot attempt to formulate without 'fear and trembling'.
It is better at this stage to apply ourselves to the essential theme of this study: how can our comparative philosophy face up to its tasks by freeing itself from the perils of history by a phenomenological method which no longer leaves itself open to the catastrophe of Hegelianism? There is perhaps a link between the disappearance on the one hand of eschatology, involving a fall into a history without end or limit, and archaeology, 'protology' even, let us call it, that is to say the search for, nay the passion for all that is ancient, original or first, (the archeon, the proton, as the pole of the eschaton, the final). The eschatological perspective, that of an apocatastasis (as in Zoroastrianism), that is to say a final restoration and reintegration of all things in their original purity after the fulfillment of the drama of this world—this perspective was sufficient guarantee against all the menaces of death. Once this guarantee has vanished, everything happens as though a battle had been engaged against death, not just to weep over the vestiges of encampments that have disappeared, but in order to save the extinct civilisations from death and oblivion. What magnificent works and what backbreaking struggles have not been undertaken by the West over the past century throughout the world in order to speed what we might call this redemption of vanished civilisations! The West can truly be proud of its undertaking; it is a labour without precedent. But at the very heart of these triumphs we experience the same distress. Can the rediscovery of the ages of vanished humanity compensate us for the loss of our sense of the eschatological? Can it open the gates on to a future that flows out beyond this world, when it is we ourselves who have closed these gates against ourselves?

Archaeologists and prehistorians spare no pains in arranging the vestiges that they have brought to light once more, in chronological schemata the precision of which often leaves wide margins of doubt or disagreement. But when we have succeeded in this chronological description, just what shall we really have gained? Will the archeon of archaeology permit us to rediscover the eschaton of eschatology? Who would dare boast that much? Certainly not a philosophy of history, since this can be perfectly agnostic and content itself with the institution of causal principles, be they of whatever kind, but whose efficacy is infinitely vulnerable. In fact it is extremely rare that this kind of explanation holds up for more than a single generation. It is remarkable how the great encyclopaedic collections of historical synthesis have to be rethought and made all over again just about every thirty years.

And amongst all the principles of explanation which people make do with at little enough profit to themselves, there is this dogma on a pseudo-causality, as though every ideology were nothing but a superstructure raised on a socio-economic infrastructure, a dogma arbitrarily transformed into a principle of explanation which itself remains unexplained, since it is no less admissible that everything happens in exactly the opposite sense: does not man organise this world, his economic and political office in this world, as a function of the sense he gives to his own presence in the world, to his coming into and his going out of this world, in short, according to his vision of another world, without which one seeks in vain for a direction in this one? In this case, it is sheer illusion to transform socio-economic evolution into an explanatory principle when it itself is to be explained in as far as it is under the jurisdiction of a superior process. Everything will depend in fact on the vigorous flight or the decadence of metaphysic. An agnostic humanity cannot organise the world by giving itself the same goals as does a humanity whose effort goes into projecting an arc the far side of which penetrates beyond this world of ours, a humanity which escapes the perils of history gone mad from losing direction.

But now, if as phenomenologists and philosophers we rise up against this conception which can no longer envisage things except according to their chronological genesis and which calls itself historicism, what are we to say?

1. Certainly it's not a matter of giving up historical studies! A humanity which stopped studying more and more deeply its history would be a humanity suffering from amnesia; it would be just like a person who had lost his memory. Even today perhaps there is danger in delay; if not, how is it possible that certain declarations or decisions which involve directly or indirectly the fate of all humanity very often betray an unbelievable ignorance of history? And when the young and even the not so young declare that they do not want to know anything about the past they ignore the fact that among men of science, geologists and mineralogists on the contrary know extremely well just how far back in the past the object of their scientific search lies. After all, where are the sources of that energy there is so much talk about in our time, if not in the most distant past of our Earth? Where is the future of a river? Is it at its mouth where it begins to lose itself in the ocean, or is it rather at its source? May our human sciences not forget this!

No, it's not in any way with this kind of simplistic view that the protestation of the philosophers against what one calls historicism is related. What they have in mind is this:

2. They level their sights precisely on this conception which manifested itself with the disorientation of historic conscientiousness itself and which claims to restrict the meaning and range of a philosophic system to the age which saw it appear, as if this age alone was the explanation of it. Always the same mania. The state of society is held to be the primary datum, when in fact it merely results from a perception of the world which precedes every empirical state of affairs. The perspective of religious studies has been completely falsified by it. People say of a philosopher that he was 'very much of his time' but this explanation simply ignores the fact that a philosopher is from the very first himself his own time; for if he is truly a philosopher, he rises above what is by convention abusively known as his time, for in fact this time is not in the least his, since it is the anonymous time of the whole world.

Here we run up against the great failing of so-called modern thought, which is relentlessly set upon closing up all the outlets which could lead out beyond this world. This is what is known as agnosticism. It has utilised for its purposes sociology, historicism, psychoanalysis and even linguistics. Instead of saving the phenomena it has well and truly dispelled them, refusing them any transcendent meaning, in order to enact upon false security the impossibility from now on of formulating a valid metaphysics. But why should we bend before this decree? Should it be on the idle pretext of espousing our age? In this case, if we are able to see things after the manner of Sohrawardi, our Oriental Shaikh, (Shaykh al-lshraq), we shall hasten to pronounce the divorce. For our Oriental Shaikh there were, for instance, the observations of the astronomers; they continued to be valid even when receiving increasing precision, and all those who were not astronomers themselves had confidence in them. And there were the observations of the philosophers and spirituals who had penetrated into the Malakut, that is to say into the invisible subtle world, the world of the Soul. Their observations merited the same confidence as that of the astronomers, and those who themselves had not penetrated into the Malakut had only to be guided by them. Of what value in effect were the criticisms directed against those who themselves had seen, eye-witnesses in fact, by people who had never seen anything and never would? The position was a bold one, I know. But I believe that the situation of our time is such that the philosopher, conscious of his responsibility, must make this Sohrawardian intrepidity his own.

What I have just referred to as Wesenschau we can, with Sohrawardi, call vision of things in the Malakut. The date at which a philosopher formulated his vision is a landmark and nothing more. What makes for the truth of the 'oriental theosophy' of Sohrawardi is not the fact that it was formulated in 582/1187. For it is not in this world that the vision of these things occurs, but in the Malakut; not in the time of this world but in the time of the Malakut. Not to accept this vision at its face value, to refuse or to subvert its content, is quite simply to destroy the phenomenon. This perhaps is just what rationalist historical criticism does. Certainly it is not the purpose of phenomenology.

3. Arising out of this fundamental criticism which we are leveling at the historicist reduction of metaphysical perceptions, there follows another which is only one aspect of the preceding one. It rises up against the claim to restrict the notion of event to the events of this world, perceptibly by empirical means, verifiable by everybody, registered in the archives. No, there are other events which in all truth have full right to the status of event, but which are not subject to the norms of empirical events. These are 'events in Heaven, in the Malakut, as in the Prologue and Finale of the second part of Faust. The great weakness of this age is to be no longer able to conceive the reality of events of this type. This is why it shuts itself up in the false dilemma of 'myth or history?'. Anything that it cannot establish undeniably as historical in the empirical sense of the word, it calls myth, which is as much as to say unreal. And it falls into that mocking snare, so strong in our days: so-called 'demythologisation'—because it no longer has any presentiment of an order of events which are neither myth nor history.

Let us go at it by the shortest way. The dominant conception of our days is to represent man as being in history. This is the conception of history as external, exoteric, which succumbs to the mirage of a historical causality which it introduces there itself. Against this view a basic contrary conception is counterposed, a conception without which that of an exterior history, of 'historical phenomena', is deprived of its very foundation. This opposite view considers that it is history that is in man. It is only with man that something like history begins, and this is why man essentially brings with him something which is always anterior to history, something which never ceases to accompany him and which will be his recourse against exterior history. It is then a matter of interior history, esoteric in the etymological sense of the word, subtle history whose events do not take place in the exterior world of objects, but in the subtle world of lived states, events in the Malakut, in the world of the Soul, in the 'Heaven' or the 'Hell' which man carries within himself. This history which he carries within himself, this Heaven and this Hell within him, objectivise themselves in the web of exterior facts which result on each occasion of the intermingling of human wills. They objectify themselves equally in a history whose events in reality still have for their theatre the Malakut, even if actions and exploits fit into a scenario which is apparently of this world. But in fact these events are only perceptible and recognisable by an organ of perception other than that of empirical, physical or historical knowledge. These are the events of heroic epic (of the Avesta and of the Shah-Nameh, for example, or of our own Grail Cycle). Once again, it is the events of secret, interior history, which inspire the genius of parables, the truest of all stories. More broadly speaking, these are the events which make up sacred history, hierohistory, and if we wish to avoid all confusion with empirical history, let us say simply the events of the hierologies. In order to perceive these events one has to belong oneself one way or another to this sacred history such as it comes to pass in the Malakut, that is to say, in the interior man. The proof is that those who do not belong to it vehemently deny the reality sui generis of these events when in fact they are by no means totally indifferent in their regard. We all know the Quaranic episode of the question posed to the whole of humanity present in the form of the primordial Man: A-lasto bi-rabbi-kom? Am I not your Lord? Certainly this is not history in the current sense of the word, for the episode occurs before the time of this world. But it is not myth either, in the ordinary sense of the word. I could multiply examples taken from the Bible, the Kabbala, the Quran, the hadlth. These events are of a totally different order from those of the campaigns of Julius Ceasar or the reign of Napoleon, which can be recorded in the manuals of history. To give their due to these events, to do justice to them, means recognizing the reality proper to them in an intermediary world which was the special object of the investigations of our Iranian philosophers: the 'alam al-mithal, the mundus imaginalis, that imaginal world which is not imaginary at all, but the barzakh, the space between, the intermediary between the sensible and the intelligible.

Now you can see it: whether it's a matter of establishing the phenomena of exterior history as grounded in the interior history of man, or those of the intermediary world which are the visionary manifestation of this interior world of man, to understand the sense, to save the reality, demands the same procedure : kashf al-mahjub, to detach, to unveil that which reveals itself while remaining hidden in the phainomenon. I said jusi now that this is what phenomenology is, and that it is also precisely this that the ta'wil does in the works of our mystical theosophists. It's not a matter of any dialectical construction: It's a matter of leading the observer to a point where he allows himself to see what it is that lies hidden. This essentially is what hermeneutic is. It is worth noting that among the three great families of the Ahl al-Kitab (People of the Book), this proceeding has theological origins.

4 We are now in a better position to conceive the task of a comparative philosophy, to see how it is not concerned with the chronological schemata of the history of philosophy, not with the purpose of constructing a philosophy of history. I will give an example which will touch us in Iran with a familiar note, since I shall refer once again to Sohrawardi. If our Shaikh al-Ishraq had believed, as he would have been informed in our time, that a philosophy is no more than a superstructure which simply reflects the state of a society in a given moment, a superstructure which is immediately outmoded by the succeeding one, he would never have been the resurrector in Iran of the Philosophy of Light professed by the Sages of ancient Persia. His resolute decision was sufficient for the chronological hiatus to be abolished. From his time on, the Khosrovani-yun of ancient Iran have been the precursors of the Ishraqiyun, the 'Platonists of Persia'. For the historian of materialist posi-tivism this is perhaps a view of the spirit. For the phenomenologist it is in its own right a validly established spiritual fact, with all the consequences that must follow from it. This viewpoint once grasped, I shall now put forward three examples, three themes which from the very first will show us the role which the work of the Iranian philosophers can assume among the tasks of comparative philosophy. I have skirted two other comparative themes in the observations made earlier: on the one hand, a metaphysic of the Spirit based on the identification of the intellectus agens of the philosophers and the Holy Spirit of Revelation; on the other hand a metaphysic of the Imagination, taking up the phenomenology of the barzakh, the world of the Imaginal. I have already dealt with these themes in my books. That is why I would prefer to fix your attention on three themes of comparative research which for me are still at a programmatical stage. Do not therefore expect precise conclusions but rather the assurance of further inquests along these lines in the future.

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See: Henry Corbin