Michael Peters (MP): Can I start with a question about Iran and philosophy? I understand that Iran is one of the largest publishers of philosophy books in the world. Why is that the case? Can you also speak to the position of philosophy and philosophy of education in Iran?
Khosrow Bagheri Noaparast (KBN): Historically speaking, Iran has had a strong relation to philosophy in both attracting philosophers and philosophical thought and contributing to the philosophy in its own right. To mention but a few examples, Plotinus (204-270 C.E.), the Egyptian philosopher and the founder of new-Platonism, came along with Gordianos who was at war with the King of Iran, Shapoor the First, in order to become familiar with the then famous Iranian thoughts. Also, when Justinian abandoned Athenian philosophers from doing philosophy in the early 6 century C.E., the then Iranian government accepted them and they stayed in Iran for a while and in return, Anushiravan, the then King of Iran, included a section in the contract with the Roman Empire indicating that the philosophers should be treated with ease and tolerance. In terms of contribution, it is interesting to note that most of the Islamic philosophers who are referred to as Arab philosophers were in fact Iranians and, just as a matter of the Islamic culture and civilization in which the Arabic language was dominant, they wrote most, but not all, of their works in the Arabic. Philosophers such as Razi (864-935), Farabi (870-950), Avicenna (980-1037), Ghazali (1058-1111), Suhrawardi (1154-1191), among others, were Iranians. Even though Mulla Sadar has been the last great Iranian philosopher since the 17th century, practicing philosophy has never been stopped after him as he has had important disciples and expositors. Such a long and extensive background of philosophy has been sufficient for making Iran a place for philosophizing.
As a consequent, philosophy of education has also been flourishing in Iran after becoming a well-known branch of philosophical thought by John Dewey among others. Given that, as James Kaminsky (1985) maintains, philosophy of education appeared on Sunday 24th of February 1935 in the Hotel of Trimor in Atlantic City, then only in two decades its wave reached Iran since the first Iranian philosopher of education (Ali Shariatmadari) was Dewey’s disciple and took his Ph. D around 1957. Then, naturally, pragmatism was the first dominant trend in philosophy of education in Iran. But gradually other trends were also introduced and entered in the sphere of thinking about education. Since the decade of 90s during which Ph.D of philosophy of education was offered by the University of Tehran and other universities, other trends such as analytic view, as well as continental philosophies, took the attention of philosophers of education. In 2009 Philosophy of Education Society of Iran (PESI) was established which in its own right provided a good atmosphere for active cooperation and discussion among the scholars and students. Apart from these academic endeavors, on the other hand, a need for providing the schooling system with a more local philosophy of education was badly felt. In effect, during the last decade some attempts were made to suggest a philosophy of education inspired by the Islamic sphere of the country which resulted in publishing some books and articles in this area.
MP: This history is deeply fascinating. Can you help English readers by providing a brief mapping of contemporary philosophy in Iran: what are the main schools and elements and how do they related to philosophy of education?
KBN: One part of philosophical endeavor in Iran today, and perhaps the main one, is concerned with the local philosophy which is dominated by the school of Mulla Sadra. He has provided a philosophy in line with the old metaphysical inclination but in the feature of a combination of mysticism, philosophy, and the Islamic religious views. On the other hand, a relatively strong translation movement has been shaped in which the Iranian readers are provided by some of the important sources of cotemporary philosophy in Persain including both the analytic and continental traditions. In the former, Wittgenstein, Searle, and Kripke, and in the latter, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Foucault can be mentioned. There have also been concentrations on a local polar contrast between Popper and Heidegger, and, due to the religious atmosphere, on philosophy of religion. Both the local and contemporary philosophical interests have been echoed in philosophy of education. Thus, a review of theses and dissertations in philosophy of education can show how Muslim philosophers, and in particular Mulla Sadra, and contemporary Western philosophers have occupied the areas of thinking in this field. In the case of contemporary philosophers, sometimes the view of a philosopher, such as Foucault, is applied in the realm of education or it might be the case that more straightforwardly the views of philosophers of education, such as Richard Peters or Paul Hirst, are used and critiqued.
MP: How did you come to complete a PhD from the University of New South Wales? What was the topic of your thesis and the main influences on your thinking? What is the present state of philosophy of education in Iran today?
KBN: I had taken my bachelor on psychology and the master degree on the history and philosophy of education. Then, when I started my Ph. D in the University of New South Wales in 1990, I was concerned with integrating the two threads of my background on psychology and philosophy of education. The issue that attracted my view was the two rival types of explanation of human behavior and personality, namely mechanistic and teleological explanation. I knew that these two viewpoints were essential in philosophy of human sciences including philosophy of education. In particular, Peter Winch’s The Idea of a Social Science and its relation to Philosophy (1958) was fascinating to me as a teleological approach in understanding human behavior. On the other hand, the mechanistic views that were dominant in psychology and education, such as behaviorism, were attractive for educators. I actually had no empathy with the latter but I knew that it could not be ignored and should be dealt with by a scholarly motive. Thus, the title of my thesis was formulated as follows: Mechanical and Teleological Explanation in Personality Theories. I knew that this topic required a vast reading and contemplation, thus I did not mention educational consequences of the two approaches in order to provide enough time for dealing with the philosophical and psychological foundations but it was clear to me that my findings will have inevitable implications for education and could and should be the subject of later pursuit. This thesis led to a new perspective which was, in a way, a synthesis of the two views which I called constructive realism and appeared in my article in 1995 under the title Toward a more realistic constructivism. The element of realism in this synthesis was inspired by supporters of the mechanistic view, such as Quine, and the element of constructivism had a reference to George Kelly whose personality theory was my target in relation to the teleological explanation. The new approach of constructive realism has been my concern since then and I have applied it in some areas including the suggestion of a local philosophy of education for my country. Constructive realism seems to me as a sophisticated approach as it avoids both naïve realism and naïve constructivism. As for the present state of philosophy of education in Iran, it should be stated that unlike the recent fall of this discipline in some countries, such as UK, it is well and alive in Iran. This can be observed in the considerable number of scholars and students of the field. Even though there is a growing problem in terms of the employment of the graduated people, the rate of entering students in the field is still relatively high.
MP: Can you say something more about constructive realism and how it applies in philosophy of education?
KBN: Constructive realism is a synthesis of constructivism and realism which have more or less been in a contrastive thesis/anti-thesis relationship. Thus, constructive realism is different from both constructivism and realism. On the one hand, constructive realism is subjectively oriented but not to the extent that it is concerned in the pure constructivism. Even though constructivism is in fact a long range in terms of subjectivity but subjectivism runs the whole gamut from cognitive to radical constructivism. The main critique of constructive realism to constructivism is the undermining the independence of reality including natural and human reality. A constructivist puts emphasis on developing constructs in human beings; however, it should not be ignored that the very construct development of human beings is an independent reality. In other words, construct development itself cannot be the subject of constructs since this evidently leads to a dark solipsism. On the other hand, constructive realism is concerned with reality but not at the expense of neglecting the role of interpretation of the reality as it has been the case in different forms of naïve realism such as positivism. What is being undermined in naïve realism is the role of language, context, as well as emotions in providing people with qualified realities. Language by its concepts and statements about realities leads to understanding them in certain ways. Likewise, the particular context in which a problem is confronted can give a particular feature to the same problem in a different context. Finally, certain human emotions, such as aggression and love, modify realities in terms of their significance.
Constructive realism is in the first place an epistemological and perhaps an ontological position. Being a philosophical position, constructive realism will have its own influence on thinking about education and developing a philosophy of education. Subject matters, such as mathematics and science, in terms of constructive realism would be confronted in a certain way. While according to naïve realism, such subject matters are concerned with pure facts rather than values, and whereas constructivism deals with them in terms of subjective constructs such as cultural values, constructive realism tries to take into account both objective and subjective dimensions. As far as the moral dimension of education is concerned, constructive realism again tries to deal with fundamental moral realities which are common among human beings as well as moral relativities due to different contexts. One of the aims of constructive realism in moral education is to draw the pyramid of values and to show which values are deeply rooted in human beings’ existence and which values are the subject of constructs.
MP: Can I quickly follow up on this final sentence of yours and ask which values are rooted in our being and which are constructs?
KBN: First of all, let me just paraphrase the question as: which values are constructs that rooted in our being and which are mere constructs? This is because we humans due to our languages, emotions, etc. deal always with constructs but the point is that some of them are more or mere conventional and contextual while some others are deeper and rooted in our existence. Let’s take social values into consideration. It seems that the case of mere constructive values is too clear to be need elaboration. The extensive changing values from one society to another are signs of their conventional and local identity. However, some of social values are so essential that no human society can exist without presupposing them. Truth telling is one example. This is a social norm that provides the very basis of social relations so that without presupposing it we cannot imagine a society at all. How can be there a give and take relationship without a mutual reliance between the two persons concerned? This value, in turn, drags another one with itself, namely human dignity. Truth telling is at the same time a sign of dignity; thus, when a person lies, he or she is being judged to losing his or her human dignity. Again, human dignity, in turn, drags other values with itself, such as right and justice. If every human being has dignity, then they have rights and keeping rights cannot be reached without appealing to justice. Let me mention here a famous Islamic saying about justice. I immediately should add that in my understanding Islam as a religion presupposes constructive realism as a philosophical underpinning. The saying is this: “Government survives non-believing in God but does not survive oppression.” Why is it so while believing in God is taken in Islam to be the most basic value? It seems because this saying deals with society and a social relation, namely government, and wants to show how justice is basic to human society so that without it the society does not survive. Having said all this, talking about existentially rooted values does not indicate that they should always be realized or followed in the real fact in order for a society to exist. On the contrary, these values have always been violated in human societies, but what is crucial is that they have always been criteria for deciding which human behavior is violence. This is the weight and place of such basic values that shows their roots in the human social reality. Methodologically speaking, there is an ambiguity in talking about necessary presuppositions of some values. Is it a de dicto necessity or a de re one? If one wants to argue along with analytic philosophers, then the answer is a de dicto necessity. That is to say, a transcendental analysis of the concept society, or a statement including the concept, leads us to the conclusion that the norm of truth-telling is logically precedent to talking about society. On the other hand, if we take the necessity a de re one, then it means that the very existence of a society is dependent on the values concerned. If the first kind of necessity is not taken to be inductive to the second one, then the former will be limited to the sphere of language rather than the social reality itself. If so, then I’m more inclined to think that the necessity of basic values is of the second type. What I’ve said so far is about social values. Given that we can divide values into social and individual, then the latter can also be understood in terms of the two categories, namely mere constructs and existentially rooted constructs.
MP: OK thanks for the explanation. An interesting thesis. I like your take on truth-telling. Do you know Foucault on parrhesis? If so, what do you think of his views. I was also intrigued about the comment that Islam presupposes constructive realism. Could you explain this further? I would like also to follow up the notion of constructive realism. Is this based on Fritz Wallner’s work?
KNB: What is interesting to me in Foucault’s parrhesia is firstly that he has a distinction somehow parallel to what I referred to as de dicto and de re necessities. In his lectures on parrhesia he distinguishes between a merely logical analysis of truth and the role of truth telling in society:
And I would say that the problematization of truth which characterizes both the end of Pre-socratic philosophy and the beginning of the kind of philosophy which is still ours today, this problematization of truth has two sides, two major aspects. ..With that side which is concerned with determining how to insure that a statement is true we have the roots of the great tradition in Western philosophy which I would like to call the “analytics of truth”. And on the other side, concerned with the question of the importance of telling the truth, knowing who is able to tell the truth, and knowing why we should tell the truth, we have the roots of what we could call the “critical” tradition in the West. (Foucault 2001)
While Foucault considers the two sides for the ‘problematization of truth’ in terms of the two Western traditions, he clearly supports the second position and, hence, tries to provide us with a genealogy of truth telling in the Western history. This approach leads Foucault, on the one hand, to deal with different forms of truth telling in different periods of history depending on the power relationships. However, as far as truth telling per se is concerned, it seems that he takes it as a persistent, if not necessary as I termed it, feature of human society. The second important point with regard to Foucault on parrhesia is that he takes note of the ontological understanding of truth which was the characteristic of the Antique view on truth telling. As Beatrice Han has pointed out, the parrhesiastic model of truth is not self-standing but depends on a metaphysical understanding of truth and that the Antique view considered the ontological understanding of truth as the metaphysical basis for it. What is meant with ontological understanding is that “the truth of the parrhesiast’s discourse was testified by the adequation between his ethical substance and his words, but not ultimately grounded in his person.” (Han, 2003, p. 203) Han holds that Foucault cannot appeal to the Antique ontological view since it is obsolete, nor does he want to embrace modern epistemologically dominant view of truth since it divorces ethical dimension from objectivity. Instead, Foucault concentrates on ethical aspect of truth telling and that is why he take parrhesia into consideration because one of the differences between parrhesia and epistemological truth is that the former is an activity and a speaking subject is involved in it; thus, the sincerity of the truth teller is important and what is more is that what he or she says should be authenticated by his or her public actions. As for the relation between Islam and constructive realism, it is first of all clear that Islam as a religion is not a philosophy. However, Islamic texts, like any other text, can be analyzed in terms of their philosophical presuppositions. In other words, one might ask what kinds of assumptions are made in them concerning the reality, the human nature, knowledge, and so on. In this sense, I hold that a constructive realism is presupposed by Islamic texts. That is to say, an independent reality is held in them for God, the universe, human nature, and so on, but at the same time, it is presupposed that people can capture a proportion of these realities by means of their thoughts and understanding. Take, for instance, God; Islamic texts introduce God, on the one hand, as a real, and in fact the most basic real, entity, which is referred to by the word ‘haq’. On the other hand, it is stated that God’s reality is so profound that all precise imaginations about him are mere constructs (Kashani, 1995, p. 219). At the same time, Islamic texts introduce God in terms of some names and invite people to call God by using these names. The upshot is that people can achieve a proportional knowledge about God and this is what constructive realism amounts to. Finally, in terms of Fritz Wallner’s constructive realism, I should say that I did not know Wallner and his view until recently and now he is a very good friend of mine. When, a few years ago I came across to his essay on constructive realism (Wallner 1998), it was very interesting to me and I decided to meet him and he kindly invited me to introduce my view in the university of Vienna. Now, we have some cooperation as he recently published an essay of mine titled “Constructive realism: A reading of Islam and a new conception of religious science” (Bagheri Noaparast, 2012). While there are some commonalities between us, there seems to be some differences as well. When, I published my first article in 1995, titled ‘Toward a more realistic constructivism’ my main concern was to criticize Gorge Kelly’s personal construct psychology in terms of its hard pragmatism which does not take truth into account unless in terms of efficiency. I hold that the reality can be proportionally known and it is not the case that we are prisoners in a phenomenal world distinct from the noumenal one. Wallner by his technique of ‘strangification’ tries to reduce relativity and biases of our scientific theories but as far as the real world is concerned, he holds that our theories are dealing not with the real world but with a ‘microworld’ constituted by our concepts, instruments, and statements. He puts emphasis on taking control of nature as a sign of acceptability of our theories. I think the border between pragmatism and Wallner’s view, and thereby the place of truth in our knowledge, needs to be made clear.
MP: Can I get you to explain the thesis or argument of your paper on a constructive realist reading of Islam.
KBN: In the essay, I wanted to suggest that a constructive realism is presupposed in the Islamic texts. That is to say, as far as ontology is concerned, there are realities in the world including the reality of God but epistemologically speaking, achieving these realities involves construct development in the human mind. Thus, while knowledge is held in this reading to be toward reality, reality is taken to be achieved through human constructs. I am concerned in the essay with epistemological foundations presupposed by Quran. In order to do this, I have divided this epistemological discussion into two sections; one in relation to “the known” and the other with regard to “the knower”. This division is helpful in dealing with constructive realism according to which knowledge has two poles; one being rooted in the things known and the other in a subjective being namely the knower. Thus, first I have attempted to show that there are realistic presuppositions in Quran as far as the first pole is concerned. Then, in relation to the second pole, I have shown that the realistic concern in Quran is qualified by appealing to the role played by the knower. In the first part, by analyzing verses of Quran, I have suggested the following characteristics for the knowledge: 1) the discovery nature of knowledge; 2) correspondence to reality as the criterion for the truth of knowledge; 3) different levels of knowledge parallel to different levels of reality; 4) stability of true knowledge; 5) a unified knowledge of the world being itself unified. Since here I cannot mention all relevant citations, let me give just one case in relation to the first part of characteristics. Referring to a historical fact and some people’s conjectures about it, Quran states: “And they have no knowledge of it, they do not follow anything but conjectures and surely conjecture does not avail against the truth at all.” (Quran, 53: 28). Here knowledge is taken to be a true statement about a fact that cannot be attained by mere conjecture; rather, mental activities should obtain the truth concerned. This is clearly a realistic standpoint. However, what is stated in the first group of characteristics of knowledge does not give the whole story about knowledge as it is understood in the Quran. Thus, in the second part of the essay which refers to knowledge in terms of the knower, I have suggested the following characteristics for knowledge in terms of analyzing verses of Quran: 1) knowledge as a matter of human attempt and access; 2) knowledge as a response to human needs; 3) different levels of human needs and different sorts of knowledge; 4) dynamic nature of knowledge; and 5) plurality of knowledge. Again, let me mention just one citation of Quran in supporting these features. The constructive characteristic of knowledge has been mentioned in this verse: “Therefore turn aside from him who turns his back upon our reminder and does not desire anything but this world’s life. That is their goal of knowledge; surely your Lord knows best him who goes astray from His path and He knows best him who follows the right direction.” (Quran, 53: 29-30) Even though here the knowledge of the people concerned is not confirmed to be in the right direction, an amount of knowledge is attributed to them nonetheless by saying that: “that is their goal of knowledge”. What is more is that where the knowledge is in the right direction, it could have as many features as the number of all persons. This is stated in a famous Islamic saying: “The ways toward God are as many as the souls of creatures.” The latter can be taken in support of what is referred to as personal constructs nowadays. Now, the crucial point is that the characteristics in the second group have been defined in a manner that apparently are in contradiction with the first group and seem to be alternative to them. However, regarding the Islamic texts, these two groups are complimentary and considering one without the other gives us an incomplete picture of knowledge as understood in these texts. This complementary relationship is exactly what shows that Islamic texts have presupposed a constructive realism standpoint. This is because while the first group of characteristics indicates a realistic feature in knowledge, the second group urges us to hold a constructive feature for knowledge. The upshot is that while knowledge, as far as the known is concerned, is about something real, the acquired knowledge in terms of the knower qualifies the knowledge as constructive without negating its realistic feature altogether.
MP: OK I follow this: constructive realism a useful theory. What is your view of Bhaskar’s work? Now I am wondering whether there is a general kind of statement about the relations of Islam, philosophy and education you might like to make? And perhaps to finish off can I ask you about the future of your own work (where are you headed?) and of the future of philosophy of education in Iran?
To be continued