Inverting the void: a comparison of al-Ghazālī and Descartes
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In this thesis, I compare the intellectual trajectories of René Descartes (c. 1596 – 1650) and Abū-Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī (c. 1058 – 1111). In Part I, I begin by considering their initial skeptical phases, where the two thinkers are at their most similar, philosophically, methodologically and narratively. I argue that while they begin their projects almost identically, especially in their methods and course of argument, they nonetheless differ in crucial respects. I locate the principal difference to be in their particular uses of the dream. While al-Ghazālī uses the dream to doubt reason itself, Descartes uses it merely to doubt sense-perception and particulars. I analyze this difference by drawing distinctions between dream consciousness and waking consciousness, local and global states of illusion, and which position in time each thinker argues from. I conclude Part I by showing how, despite arriving at the same formal, global skeptical conclusion, our two philosophers nonetheless arrive at it in characteristically different ways. In Part II, I consider how the two thinkers attempt to defeat skepticism. I pay particular attention to their epistemological, phenomenological and metaphysical claims, and their negotiations between reason, experience and the supra-rational. In virtue of comparing their parallel journeys out of skepticism’s void, I am able to argue that the substantive content of their skeptical phases is integral to their positive conclusions. I show that their positive conclusions are direct inversions of those early skeptical structures. More generally, I argue that skepticism –– to its own demise –– is never empty of content.