Occidental Rationalism: Its Early Impact on the Foundations of Modern Science

Rationalist thought has had a deep and lasting impact on modern civilisation. This influence has pervaded almost all facets of the socio-politico-economic and scientific domains of contemporary human experience. Religiously-oriented societies have, however, throughout their encounter with rationalism, generally struggled to reconcile some of their doctrines and practices with the principles espoused by rationalist philosophy. This strained relationship has always been particularly acute in the area of epistemology. The impasse in the development and growth of the emerging discipline of Islamic Economics clearly reflects this tension. In this paper (the first of a two-part series), I first describe some of the epistemological challenges in Islamic economics and then explain the need for its proponents to critically engage with these issues. I trace the roots of this problematique to the indelible influence of ancient Hellenist philosophy, which initially penetrated Christendom selectively, and later on, more substantively through the encounter of the Christian West with the Islamic World. It was during this second phase that European Christian scholarship had become fully exposed to the works of the Arab-Muslim philosopher-cum-scientists of the time, the likes of Avicenna and Averroes. Although of Greek origin, the predominantly rationalist nature of their writings and commentaries, in both philosophy and science, had planted the seeds of the rationalist/scientistic worldview that was to emerge only much later in Europe. After explaining how this occurred, I show how it created an insuperable tension between religious orthodoxy and the fledgling new philosophical outlook of the day, leading ultimately to a schism in the unicity of human intellection. The ensuing dualism has subsequently had a most profound impact on all aspects of human thought and praxis in the modern age, with grave implications for both humankind and its environment. How this latter aspect evolved will be fully examined and explained in a second part of this study which will be published in a subsequent issue of this series.

Working paper 543
1 September 2015

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