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Good Orientalism: Robert Irwin vs Ernest Gellner on Ibn Khaldun. Boom!

By Richard Marshall.

Robert Irwin, Ibn Khaldun: An Intellectual Biography, Princeton 2018

First, it’s got to be said that this is an absorbing and brilliant piece of scholarship that should be read by anyone seriously interested in Khaldun, history or good Orientalism. The blurb sets out the pitch:

‘Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) is generally regarded as the greatest intellectual ever to have appeared in the Arab world–a genius who ranks as one of the world’s great minds. Yet the author of the Muqaddima, the most important study of history ever produced in the Islamic world, is not as well known as he should be, and his ideas are widely misunderstood. In this groundbreaking intellectual biography, Robert Irwin provides an engaging and authoritative account of Ibn Khaldun’s extraordinary life, times, writings, and ideas.

Irwin tells how Ibn Khaldun, who lived in a world decimated by the Black Death, held a long series of posts in the tumultuous Islamic courts of North Africa and Muslim Spain, becoming a major political player as well as a teacher and writer. Closely examining the Muqaddima, a startlingly original analysis of the laws of history, and drawing on many other contemporary sources, Irwin shows how Ibn Khaldun’s life and thought fit into historical and intellectual context, including medieval Islamic theology, philosophy, politics, literature, economics, law, and tribal life…’

There’s so much fascinating material in the book about all this that to discuss that would have taken the whole review. But there’s another aspect to the book, equally interesting, which the blurb also identifies:

‘Because Ibn Khaldun’s ideas often seem to anticipate by centuries developments in many fields, he has often been depicted as more of a modern man than a medieval one, and Irwin’s account of such misreadings provides new insights about the history of Orientalism.

In contrast, Irwin presents an Ibn Khaldun who was a creature of his time-a devout Sufi mystic who was obsessed with the occult and futurology and who lived in an often-strange world quite different from our own.’

In the course of doing this he can seem to be dismissing scholars such as the Weberian philosopher and anthropologist Ernest Gellner. Gellner’s approach was very much to see Khaldun as a precursor to modern thinking in sociology. I think to dismiss this would be a mistake and so I spend my time addressing the issue. I propose that both approaches can live together.

So I came to this book as a card carrying Gellnerian. I’d come across Khaldun in the writings of Gellner and so expected to find a familiar figure as understood from the perspective of Weber. Both shared a tragic vision of life. Khaldun’s strict Islamic perspective saw all civilisations as doomed. Weber psychologically combined the anguish of atheism’s absence of redemption, solace and meaning with the anguish of a revealed religion that bred guilt. But his work’s logical basis, however, lay in voluntarism, the idea that the source of all values is the will. He was a Nietzschean who like Nietzsche gazed at the desolation of the disenchanted world given to us by science and realized that science was silent on how we were to live. The disenchanted world left us once and for all exiled from the comforts of a metaphysically ratified meaningfulness. Weber wanted to know how we got here. His questions remain vitally important: how did modernity emerge? what are our options? how different is modernity from the past? can any answer be objective? what are the limits of any explanation? His answers remain suggestive and fecund.

One resource he used to try and answer these questions was the ‘Ideal Type’. Weber’s Ideal Types are useful suppositions. They are models that present the explanatory features of a society. They are not history. The point of an ideal type is to abstract away from the messiness and noise so we can see the essence of a social order. It’s a thought experiment but precisely because of that it is helpful. How did Weber conceive of them? Weber commentator Bendix talks about Weber using a ‘kind of “existential psychology” involving generalizations concerning probable responses to certain conditions of human experience,’ and what he eschewed was any analogy ‘.. of a “system.”’ Systems for Weber did not apply to society.’ Not Systems then, but Ideal Types. How did he put them together? Well, he’d put one thing – e.g. monotheism – with a feature of the society – e.g. monarchical regulation of rivers and irrigation – and then seek out examples where the one did not go with the other – as in ancient Judaism where monotheism existed under conditions of constant exposure to foreign attack. What then needed explaining is both the contingency of the coupling and also what specifically makes the initial coupling occur when it does.

This comparative approach, as Bendix puts it, ‘… accentuates the specificity of causal relationships in society, which Weber then analysed in terms of the degree of affinity between social structure and ideas.’ Weber is the intellectual culmination of the German Historicist tradition, a subtle thinker weaving his way between the twin positions of Positivism and neo-Kantianism prevalent in his day. Positivists saw determinism everywhere whilst neo-Kantians, desperate to maintain human freedom, argued for the irrationality and thus incalculability of human actions. Weber expressly argued for the necessity of a causal explanation of human action and denied that there’s any difference between a purpose and a cause – teleology for him was just efficient causality. But causality, though necessary, is not sufficient for understanding, and Weber pointed to the limits of a causal explanation. He writes: ‘ There is absolutely no bridge that leads from the purely empirical analysis of a given reality with the means of causal explanation to the affirmation or denial of the validity of some judgment of value…’ – and he asked us to think about some neurological explanation of a maths theorem to illustrate his point. Even if a complete causal neurological description of thinking about that theorem is available , it can’t uncover whether the theorem is valid or not. Weber concluded that causes explain according to certain laws: evaluating requires explanations according to general norms. What he has in mind is the difference between a causal explanation and a practical reason. From this he concluded that any practical syllogism reduces to a normative or imperative element not a covering law.

So, as noted at the start, Weber’s tragic vision involved both this fact-value distinction and voluntarism (the idea that stated that an individual must choose their values) but historian of the German historicist tradition Fred Beiser points to a third important element in Weber’s approach: ‘ … the old historicist principle, which had been invoked against the pragmatic history of the Enlightenment, that the historian should not judge past events, personalities, books, works of art according to his standards but he should examine them according to their standards. The reason he should refrain from judgment is simply that he can better understand the past from its own point of view… there was also, ironically, a value in doing this; it enlarged the self for it to see that there are other selves who think and act differently.’

Anyhow, that’s where these Ideal Types come from. They’re designed to help us formulate those tricky normative features. They are thought-experiments. If the existential psychology embedded in the motivations seem plausible then we can hope to have some sort of plausible explanation. The Ibn Khaldun I’d been introduced to was a brilliant precursor to the Weberian sociological method. As Irwin writes: ‘ He was able to contemplate the complexity, unpredictability, and bloodness of politics as practiced by the merinids, Hafsids, ‘Abd al-Wa-dids, and nasrids, and having considered all that, he was able to generalize and draw from it laws that governed the formation and dissolution of communities. His version of history …His version of history … gave… weight to such factors as the economy, climate, kinship bonds, and the operations of the supernatural. The laws he had discovered would, he believed, explain not only what had happened , but what would happen.’ Weberian philosopher and anthropologist Ernest Gellner agrees and identifies a prototype of a Weberian Ideal Type lurking in the rich material produced by Khaldun.

Here’s a rough sketch of this Ideal Type’s main features (and keep in mind that Ideal Types are sophisticated thought-experiments!). Assume societies have their sheep, sheepdogs and wolves and social coercion is largely understood by how these three elements are ordered. The problem the sheep face is clear: on the one hand they face the threat of being eaten by wolves. On the other hand the sheep-dogs also might eat them. They have to look both ways: how to keep the wolves and the dogs at bay. The sheepdogs have to keep the wolves at bay themselves, and they like to eat sheep. They have to therefore maintain enough strength to keep the wolves at bay and at the same time control the sheep. The wolves want to eat sheep and so they have to somehow avoid the sheepdogs. This is roughly how Plato saw it and for Gellner Khaldun adopts it too.

For Gellner the fourteenth century Arab sociologist Ibn Khaldun brilliantly invented an Ideal type that showed how the Muslim societies managed this three-way stand-off. The model Khaldun presented is an important Ideal Type of a social order that is distinctive and very different from the Ideal Types applicable to feudal and hydraulic societies. Coercion and belief are significant factors in this social organisation, and are much more influential than wealth. Gellner detects in Khaldun an underlying and admirably functionalist account of how the sheepdogs, sheep and wolves are organized in this specific milieu. The social organization was recognizably still in existence right up to the 1930’s in North Africa at the very least. And more recently, western adventures in imposing democracy in places like Libya that were formerly organized in such a manner would have been less gung ho about expecting success had the leaders of these adventures been less ignorant of Khaldun’s model.

How does his specific model work then? The problem for the sheep is to avoid being eaten by the wolves, who are a constant threat. These can be members of their own society who grow too powerful and want to steal from them, or outsiders who want to. What the sheep need is a sheepdog – one strong enough to deal with the wolves. In Khaldun’s model, what happened was that the boss wolf is invited to become the sheepdog.

The wolves were the group Khaldun most admired. These were the nomadic Berbers. They were fierce tribes living on the periphery of the sedentary, sheepy bit of society. The wolfy tribes were in a state of constantly feuding with each other. It was constant because most of the time no tribe was able to become so strong that it could beat all the others once and for all. Despite all this constant personal upheaval Khaldun noted the structural stability. Mobile, armed, segmentary tribes roamed around ready to steal and offer violence to anyone who might try and travel through their territories. Because they kept on the move, and lived in the places that were unchartered and dangerous, the sheepy part of society couldn’t tax them and couldn’t control them – most of the time couldn’t even find them even if they looked. They were beyond the pale and close to being in a state of anarchy, certainly beyond the control of any sheep dog.

[Amir Abd Al-Kader-al-Jazairi from Algeria, a Sufi]

Khaldun admired their lack of material goods and strong social bonds. These were intense people without the need for civilization. They lived in tents, travelled by horse or camel and owned little because they were forever moving, fighting and looking after their seasonal pastures. They were Muslims, but for them life was tough and religion was less an endorsement than an escape. Their religion took the form of ecstatic and non-puritanical rituals, with drama, dance, music and drugs. This was the natural element for Sufi expressions of Islam. The wolves’ religious leaders were not doctors but saints, ritual specialists who worked at resolving disputes between tribes at territorial borders. Their role was incantatory, mystical and visionary, and in practice more a religion of the spirit rather than the book which of course reflected the low literacy rates in the wolf tribal units. Each saint’s legitimacy rested on lineages of sainthood.

Yet because they had no towns, they needed access to markets to sell their animals and buy the few items they required. They needed the towns, where the sheep lived. But how do the towns survive the arrival of the fierce wolf nomadic pastoralists? Khaldun’s model explains this. Occasionally – once in three generations is Khaldun’s judgment – warring tribes form alliances that hold for enough time for them to beat off all the other tribes. These unusually powerful affiliations are invited to rule by the town. They become the sheepdog for the sheep. In payment for their protecting the town they are paid handsomely. They adopt the ways of the civilized town and eventually lose their strong bonds. Their beliefs are of course still Muslim, but now the religion underwrites their life rather than offers an escape. It’s now bookish, in the hands of scholars and doctors. It’s sober, puritan and rational. The sheepdog slowly loses its ascetic fierceness and falls for the luxury of civilization. They get used to having fine things and comfort. They look down their noses at the wild tribal goings on of the whirling dervishes they used to like. Three generations is what it takes for the once fierce Berber tribes to become decadent and soft. The sheep gather round some sober, bookish puritan religious leader whose stern message denouncing the decadence fuses some of the wild wolves and brings them in to depose the old sheepdog. This new tribal wolf pack settles down to rule the sheep and the cycle begins once more.

So Khaldun proposes a never-ending and dynamic relationship between the centre and the periphery, a pendulum swinging beck and forth. At the centre a former wolf turned sheepdog rules the towns, taxing the sheep and becoming bloated with luxury and the good things of civilization. In the wild hinterlands beyond the reach of the towns roam the tribal Berber wolves, forever locked in feuds with one another and looking to rob and steal from the town whenever they can. All three groups – sheep, sheepdog and wolf all nominally share the same beliefs – Islam – and so all see themselves as connected. It’s a tragic vision: Khaldun’s civilizations all eventually succumb to decadence and collapse. Death and the meaninglessness of any civilisation are at the heart of it. But each civilization is replaced and that too falls eventually into terminal decline. But though each civilization is doomed to fail, the system is stable and replenishes itself. The pendulum swings back and forth over generations.

Modernity destroyed the social system Khaldun brilliantly identified. In Morocco it happened in the 1930s. At the point where the decadent sheepdog was about to get turfed out by a hungrier, meaner wolf group, the sheepdog phoned for help and brought in a pack of colonial sheepdogs who had fire power that outmatched the threatening wolves. The pendulum that had swung from periphery to centre and then out again over centuries was suddenly and violently stopped. The centre held, and the wolves at the periphery were suddenly defanged. This is a phenomenon that hasn’t been widely noticed, but it has brought about profound results. If this is right then Khaldun’s work is very relevant to understanding sheep, wolf, sheepdog relations in contemporary Muslim societies. What is noticeable about all current Islamic societies is that the hedonist, ecstatic, visionary, dream, Sufi mystic idiom of religion of the Berber wolves has been subjected to devastating attacks and heretication. Islam now self identifies as a puritan religion of the book, a literate, sober, orderly, scholarly religion whose content is interpreted by doctors, lawyers and learned, university people. It’s the very model of an urban religious high culture. The Berber Sufi excesses are downgraded as embarrassing signs of degenerate, uncouth, uneducated and uncultured types, country bumkin stuff easily discounted and degraded. Reformist Islam has a completed blueprint for social order done in modernity’s literate, sober and puritanical idiom. It centres of power are urban and bourgeoise. This reformation has been impressive and remarkably successful. It’s largely been able to convince everyone, both Muslims and non-Muslims that this new stable puritan Islam is nothing new at all but what Islam’s been about all along. Anyway, this is what the thought experiment of Khaldun’s Ideal Type suggests. As with all thought experiments it’s an abstraction.

I was surprised when I read that Irwin specifically rejects Gellner’s approach to reading Khaldun. He accuses this sort of reading as intellectual tourism. He says that to claim Khaldun as a ‘a superb inductive sociologist, a practitioner, long before the term was invented, of ideal types, a brilliant account of one extremely important kind of society’, as Gellner summarized him, is an example of pernicious Orientalism whereby western scholars impose western ideas onto their eastern material. This is an ungenerous and loaded accusation that doesn’t fairly represent Gellner’s reading of Khaldun. It’s doubly strange because Irwin has brilliantly written about how Edward Said’s book ‘Orientalism’ was a calumny against a whole field of scholars working in the field of Orientalism. His book ‘Dangerous Knowledge’ does a fine job exposing the double standards and faulty scholarship of Said. Yet of course his book came out twenty or so years after Gellner had already called out Said on all this. I’d have thought Irwin would have been much more sympathetic to Gellner

Irwin doesn’t seem to fully understand the model that Gellner’s Khaldun presents either. He writes: ‘In the cyclical progression, the wolves became sheepdogs and then the sheepdogs became sheep.’ Well that’s not the story. Some of the wolves become the sheepdogs for a while (3 generations or whatever) before more wolves are invited in by the sheep to replace them because they’ve become decadent and soft. The sheep aren’t made out of rejected or defeated wolves. The townsfolk and the peasants working the earth near the town are the sheep. The sheep are the farmers, merchants and the religious guys. Irwin says, as if to rebuff Gellner, ‘But, as the example of the Dawawida tribe’s shifting loyalties in the late fourteenth century surely shows, there was not much of a distinction between the latter two categories… [sheepdogs and wolves]… The dawawida were sheepdogs when they were paid and wolves when they were not.’ But surely that’s an obvious corollary to the idea that sheepdogs are recruited from wolves, not a counter-example?

Irwin disputes other details. He writes: ‘ … this presentation of townspeople as puritanical and sober is very much at odds with Ibn Khaldoun’s stress on the comfort and ultimate decadence of life in the cities…’ But the story isn’t that the whole town is full of decadent sheep. It’s the warlord king wolf turned sheepdog and his tribe that become seduced by wealth and comforts. The townsfolk are the sheep, the bourgeoise merchants and farmers who live under the protection of the sheepdog. They aren’t the elite rulers. They live in comfort relative to the austerity of the tribes at the periphery. They lack the fierce independence of the wolves: they were subjected to the sheepdog elite. They lacked the close kin bonds Khaldun associated with group loyalty and connection. It’s a big distinction and Irwin seems to just miss the point. Khaldun despises the way the wolves live when sheepdogs, getting fat off the protection goodies they extort in order to keep the sheep safe from the wolves howling at the borders. He despises the townsfolk who live under the rule of the sheepdog. Irwin says that ‘…Gellner has ignored Ibn Khaldun’s stress on the comfort and the ultimate decadence of life in the cities…’ but this is just wrong. Gellner’s point is that Khaldun contrasts the soft, orderly and religiously sober, puritanical Islam of the towns with the violence addicted tribes and their whirling dervish religious form of Islam out in the wilds, and finds it wanting.

Irwin is mistaken when he writes: ‘Gellner has ignored Ibn Khaldun’s praise for the Puritanism and strict monotheism of Arab and Berber nomads.’ The Berbers are strict Muslims, so they are monotheistic. They are puritanical and ascetic in their rejection of worldly goods – although Gellner realistically thinks this is less a result of beliefs and more a fact of living beyond the pale. They’re materially poor and ‘asabiyya’ (strong kinship group feeling) rich. But the form of their religion is not the same as in the urban centres. The religion of the wolves is not puritanical however. ‘Tribal society requires that the Word should become flesh; it needs human mediators, tribal frontier posts, spatial and temporary markets, masters of ceremonies; it recognizes an ethic of loyalty rather than an ethic of rules; and the urban poor, on the other hand, need ecstatic consolation. Sufism is the opium of the people.’ By contrast, the urban centres cultivate an ethos of ‘…scholarship, sober Unitarian piety, and aspires, not so much towards theocracy, as towards divine nomocracy….It has a much smaller need of opiates. This reverance for an extra-ethnic, extra-historical Law becomes part of the power balance of the society: it provides the burghers with an ideological sanction against authority, and one which can become seriously menacing if and when a puritan scholar succeeds in rousing and fusing some of the tribal wolves.’

Perhaps Irwin is here, like so many who take the ideology at face value rather than looking at the social institutions and structures that underpin it, blind to these two forms that the religion takes – and remember these are ideal types – models, useful fictions- anywhere you look reality will be a lot messier. That’s why maps aren’t life size and in 3-D. Irwin then goes to claim that ‘Gellner quoted the Muqaddima on how peaceful Egypt and Syria were without strong tribes, in order to explain why the Mamluk and Ottoman dynasties were exceptional in his historical sociology of Muslim society…’ And then he accuses Gellner of having ‘… mistakenly believed that the Ottoman regime did not have trouble containing nomadic tribesmen.’ Well this is just another ungenerous reading of Gellner’s point. Gellner is well aware that there are overlaps with the Khaldoun model in the Ottoman situation, but thinks the differences between the societies covered by the Khaldoun Ideal Type are big enough to require a different one. He writes: ‘The Ottoman Empire contradicts the model on a number of important points. It was stable, strong and long lived, by any standards, not only those of Muslim society. Except for its early period, when Turkic principalities in Anatolia, not yet united, exemplified the required pattern, it offered the example of a political system of great authority which was not based on the cohesion of a pre-existent tribal group, but on the contrary relied on conspicuously non-tribal eliet, recruited individually (by slave purchase, or taxation requiring subjugated non-Muslim populations to supply male offspring as recruits). This principle it shared of course with the Mamluk regimes… political cohension at the top was attained by the artificial creation of a new elite, technically ‘slaves’, ideally free of kin links to distract them from their duty, and formed, not by the shared hardships of tribal life, but by systematic training and education for wars and administration. Thus its solution of the political problem was closer to Plato than to Ibn Khaldun, but containing elements of each.’

As a good Weberian, Gellner sees the Ottoman and Mamluk exceptions as needing explanation precisely because it shared some but not all the features the Khaldun Ideal Type explains. According to this model, the sheepdogs were wolves but had extra training to resist temptations, although they eventually were seduced by special interests and love of gain, as happens. The comparative method is the heart of the Weberian approach. Returning to the opening comments about Weber, we have an ideal type that embeds the three features of his approach: the fact-value distinction, voluntarism and historicisms edict not to judge by one’s own standards but to stay object and stick with the standards of the subject being studied. And that final edict is of course a normative standard and therefore strictly irrational if the fact-value distinction goes through.

Without the possibility of an objective value then the enquirer is always hooked by her own perspective, her own values – that’s the relativist threat all studies face. Yet Weber also insists on an objective enquiry that drops one’s own values and looks just at the values of the subject being examined. There’s a huge tension. As Beiser puts it: ‘… the former demands that the social scientist have values to start his enquiry; the latter demands that he have no values to acquire objective knowledge.’ One way of dealing with this problem is to make a distinction between value judgments and the relation to values. Weber uses the distinction between ‘use’ and ‘mention’ . We can use values and we can talk about them without using them. The Weberian is committed to talking about them, not applying them. He tells the facts about the values but doesn’t appraise them. As we know, this doesn’t get round the problem. The Weberian chooses what to study and how to do so – and these choices are driven by her own interests and values. It is through her interests and values that the subject matter is defined and questions are asked that need to be answered. Different valuesand interests would lead to different definitions and different questions. Weber summarized this: ‘ social reality is no more a given than natural reality.’ I guess this is where Irwin critisises Gellner. Gellner’s modernist interests meant that he assessed and analysed Khaldun in the light of them.

Weber worked hard to block the move from this ‘value-orientation’ thesis to the rabbit hole of relativism, the idea that because enquiry depends on values, which are not rationally decidable, it is impossible to have objectivity in the social sciences. He argued that what and how far we investigate is a subjective choice but how we investigate depends on intersubjective norms. He argued that there’s a difference between primary and secondary historical facts. The causes we attribute to the object are objective. Subjectivity doesn’t come in at this level but at the level of delimiting the historical objective. In this respect Weber believed we can have an absolute unconditionally valid knowledge of history. And his fact/value distinction claimed we can make out objective truth whatever our values. So, for example, you might hate this essay, others might love it, but both can agree that there’s an essay.

For Weber, values are vital but not sufficient. Values select, define, interrogate and limit the subject of enquiry but causes of facts have to be determined independently of these values. It does end up looking very neo-Kantian. The scientist’s stance is the transcendental condition of any enquiry. This is where the empirical work takes place, determining basic facts and causes. But this can’t determine ‘… what a scientist wants to investigate, formulate his leading questions, and decide how much he wants to know…’ as Beiser makes clear.

Irwin doesn’t like Gellner’s interests and thinks there are better ones. But given Gellner’s interests, the fact that he found so much support for the Khaldun ideal type thesis suggests that Irwin need not be quite so negative about Gellner’s research program. But it looks like Irwin just doesn’t like any kind of idealization in his field. He writes that ‘…. To modernize Ibn Khaldun and to elide the strangeness of his thinking is to denature him. Previous accounts of his life and works, in the course of seeking to demonstrate that he was the first sociologist, or an early Marxist, or a philosopher in the Aristotelian tradition, or a forerunner of the political philosopher Leo Strauss, have exaggerated Ibn Khaldun’s rationality and posited an essentially secular frame of mind… The discarded parts include , among other things, his devotion to Maliki jurisprudence and his preoccupation with occultism and futurology, as well as some of his bizarre scientific ideas.’

This itself is strange talk for a historian. Not that I have anything against keeping strange cultures strange. But even if – and I think he is – Irwin’s right to say that modernizing Khaldun does make him more rational and less strange than he was, that’s no argument against the legitimacy of Gellner’s project. It is as if we were to dismiss accounts of Newton as a great physicist because we didn’t talk about his theology and occultism. The whole point of an idealization is to abstract away so that we get the thought experiment going. Of course it distorts. But not because it’s Orientalism in the bad sense at work, but because it’s science.

At least three types of this sort of idealised modelling can be commonly found in science. Galileo used abstractions to calculate his theories on the assumption that there were details missing that he would later be able to discover and build back in. That’s not like the Weberian model. Closer to Weber are the minimal model approaches that use the imagination to strip away the local and the irrelevant to provide us with clear discernment of the relevant and the universal. A mathematical model is the prototype of this approach.

And these models are highly distorting. In an explanation of crystal formation, for example, science converts the 3–D phenomena of crystals into a 1 dimensional representation. This is outlandish. It is different from the Galilean approach because it is an approach that doesn’t strip down and then hope to rebuild towards reality again when more facts come in. The simplicity remains and the actual complexity is forever eradicated from the explanation. The relation between explanatory truth and truth are inversely proportional in this approach.

A third type of idealized modeling is what philosopher of idealisation modeling Jonathan Weisberg calls the ‘multiple-models’ idealization. There are elements of the Weberian ideal-type approach in this as well. The Buddhist story of the blind men and the elephant illustrates this idea. In the story, the blind men are all given different parts of the animal to touch and from their descriptions are to try and work out what animal they are confronting. This picture captures science when working on very complex phenomena such as weather systems over the UK. The idea is that no single simplification will capture the complexity of the phenomena. Even a minimal model approach will fail to capture all the relevant causes. The approach therefore countenances different kinds of models that capture different parts of the systems. They may or may not all overlap but by treating them all together the scientists hopes to capture the whole phenomenon. It is as if separate map-makers converge with their maps to make one single map. Convergence is not guaranteed. It is a piece meal approach that science uses to discover weather systems, eco systems, cognition and the like .

It is a model that embeds perspectivism. In this it is an ancestor of Nietzsche. It is the least well-developed of the three idealization models used by science in terms of justification, according to Weisberg . Levins justifies the position in terms of trade-offs between the different theorists. Different theorists have different goals such as accuracy, precision, generality and simplicity and that these are traded off in order to reach a unification. Levins writes: The multiplicity of models is imposed by the contradictory demands of a complex, heterogeneous nature and a mind that can only cope with few variables at a time; by the contradictory desiderata of generality, realism, and precision; by the need to understand and also to control; even by the opposing esthetic standards which emphasize the stark simplicity and power of a general theorem as against the richness and the diversity of living nature. These conflicts are irreconcilable. Therefore, the alternative approaches even of contending schools are part of a larger mixed strategy. But the conflict is about method, not nature, for the individual models, while they are essential for understanding reality, should not be confused with that reality itself.’ Maybe this is where we can try and resolve Irwin and Gellner’s divergent paths. They are both brilliant scholars making wonderful maps that aren’t ever going to converge but together we get a much clearer understanding of the territory.

And philosopher Roy Sorensen approaches the question of how such a distorting idealization can be helpful in understanding reality using a distinction close to the ‘use/mention’ distinction Beiser attributes to Weber. Sorensen suggests a distinction between ‘supposing and asserting’. He argues that idealization is an act of supposition. The idealised models are therefore not assertions of the truth about the world but are fictions that don’t make claims about reality as such. They are a species of thought experiments. He argues that all thought experiments are suppositions, that all scientific idealizations are thought experiments and that thought experiments are a species of scientific experiment.

This speech act of supposition unifies the three models of idealization and tames the anomalies that lead Weisberg to assume a limited pluralism with regard to realism. The anti-realism of the multiple-models idealization is removed by not assuming that any assertion is being attempted. A supposition isn’t an assertion and so can tolerate the inconsistency between the different theories of the perspectivism embedded in multiple models. The suppositions assign no probability to a theory. An assertion requires a justification from epistemology: ‘how do you know?’ A supposition doesn’t.

A supposition is distinct from make-believe and story-telling because in make-believe the author is pretending to be giving testimony. Supposition isn’t pretending to be doing that. In this way the scientific idealiser avoids the accusation of being a liar. Supposition is non-metaphorical, non idiomatic, avoids the pragmatic requirements of normal language use and is a form of autism. Application conditions need to be clear. The idealizations need to be very precise about how they apply. The model-world relation may appeal to theoretical similarity or isomorphism and avoid the risk of assertion by emphasizing that idealization is a suppositional not an assertion. Sorenson’s sensitivity to language approach leads to further refinements of what this kind of theorizing assumes. A subtle claim he makes is to deny that that logical equivalence implies equivalence in truth value. Suppositions that model reality well are logically equivalent to suppositionals that model reality badly. However, despite this, the good ones are better than the bad ones because they are closer to the truth. Even meaningless statements can be closer to the truth than other meaningless statements.

Irwin is resistant to giving Khaldun any part in this kind of thing. He thinks to find in Khaldun such modeling is to have him ‘.. stretched out on a Procrustean bed, in which certain parts have been loped off in order to make him fit on a piece of furniture that is of modern design. The discarded parts include, among other things, his devotion to Maliki jurisprudence and his preoccupation with occultism and futurology, as well as some of his bizarre scientific ideas.’ Fair enough. The book can be read as a way of building back in all the things that any idealized model has taken out. Irwin is protecting Khaldun from ‘the massed academics of the twenty-first century world.’ He wants us to see the wisdom of Aristotle’s observation, which he quotes sympathetically in the final chapter; ‘ Great men may make many mistakes.’ Yet he does ask whether Khaldun, refanged, might still have lessons for us today. I still don’t know what he thinks. He cites contemporary scholars such as Cheddadi who ‘believes that modern anthropology can learn from him…’ Himmlich who ‘finds support for the tenents of Marxism in the Muqaddima’…, and so forth. Irwin’s book is best read, I contend, as working back into our consciousness the strangeness, distance and otherness of Khaldun.

Irwin wields a formidable knowledge of Khaldun and his time We learn that Khaldun wrote a lot about sorcery, might have been a Sufi, sojourned among the mamluks and so on. He was a man of his time. You get wild, strangely compelling and odd passages like this all through the book:

‘ Late in life Ibn Khaldun settled in a house by the Nile where, Ibn Hajar alleged, he delighted in the company of singing girls and young men and he married a woman who had a mentally disturbed younger brother “and the disgraceful things multiplied” (though I find it hard to understand why marrying a woman with a mentally disturbed brother was disgraceful). Al-Maqrizi was quoted on the excellence of the Muqaddima, but this was a prelude to Ibn Hajar’s speculation that al-Maqrizi was keen on Ibn Khaldun’s history because they both believed in the genuineness of the Fatimid genealogy. Ibn Hajar also reported Ibn Khaldun as presciently remarking that “there is nothing I fear more for Egypt than the Ottomans.” (The Ottomans were to conquer Egypt in 1517.)’

Irwin has produced a wonderfully energized and feisty piece of scholarship that intends to reorganize where we place Khaldun in our thinking. Irwin wants him returned to his own time so we can see just how much the past really is a foreign country. I think this is admirable although it doesn’t need to be the only perspective we take on the wonder that was Ibn Khaldun.


Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

Buy his new book here or his first book here to keep him biding!

End Times Series: the first 302











First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, June 23rd, 2018.