On Alfarabi’s Book of Dialectic (Kitāb al-jadal): On the Starting Point of Islamic Philosophy by David M. DiPasquale

Catarina Belo teaches philosophy at the American University in Cairo.

Book Review

Alfarabi’s Book of Dialectic (Kitāb al-jadal): On the Starting Point of Islamic Philosophy. David M. DiPasquale. (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2019). Xxiv+338 pp. Online ISBN 9781108277822.

This book constitutes the first complete English translation of Alfarabi’s Kitāb al-jadal, his commentary on Aristotle’s Topics, which is devoted to the art of dialectic. This translation is preceded by an introduction and is followed by an extensive commentary on Alfarabi’s work. This is particularly useful because the structure of this commentary is not always straightforward. There is also a glossary from English to Arabic and Arabic to English.

DiPasquale bases his translation on complete Arabic sources and in particular on Dominique Mallet’s edition of this work by Alfarabi. Aristotle’s Topics constitutes part of his logical works, known collectively as the Organon, but DiPasquale stresses the link established by Alfarabi between the logical and the political aspects of dialectic.

The author highlights the way in which Alfarabi, as a Neoplatonist philosopher, seeks to add a political dimension to this philosophical tradition. DiPasquale also establishes links between dialectic and demonstrative or theoretical science, and also with the role of dialectic in education.

In the Book of Dialectic, Alfarabi establishes the goals of dialectic and the need to win over an argument and make prevail one of two parts of a contradiction. Alfarabi stresses that dialectic deals with universal questions, and uses generally accepted premises. According to Alfarabi, the art of dialectic can present doubtful elements, it can prove a thesis and refute it, but it serves as a preparation for the scientific or demonstrative method. In particular, it prepares the mind for philosophy. Indeed, one may only arrive at the truth in philosophy through dialectic. Dialectic can also deal with sophistical arguments and it serves to teach people.

Alfarabi notes that for the Stoics, dialectic is philosophy. He lists demonstration, rhetoric and sophistry among the parts of syllogistic logic. Moreover, dialectic is classified among the certain arts, alongside the practical and the logical arts.

Dialectic concerns moral issues; it includes generally accepted premises, and the link with politics is thus established. Among the moral issues discussed as part of the use of dialectic are education (effected by means of speech and habituation) and the obligation to serve God, as well as honoring parents and relatives.

This work analyzes issues pertaining to logic, in particular the question of definition and the ten categories. Alfarabi further states that dialectic is not concerned with particular things. Dialectical speeches include syllogism and induction. The former is clearly a logical form, and the latter pertains to the process of attaining knowledge.

In his analysis of this work, DiPasquale goes on to explore the links between logic and political science. The question of education also comes up and is discussed by DiPasquale, who highlights that dialectic is used in the education of kings and philosophers, as well as the youth and the general public. In contrast, rhetoric has the purpose of persuading the public regarding theoretical and practical matters. The issue arises regarding the method used by Aristotle in his works, and the apparent lack of demonstrations, for instance in his Physics. This seems to refer to the lack of syllogisms and Aristotle’s discussion and assessment of his predecessors’ theories.

DiPasquale establishes links with other works by Alfarabi, in particular The Book of Letters and The Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle.

DiPasquale also mentions Maimonides and his references to Alfarabi’s Book of Dialectic. Questions of method also come up in the debate on the eternity of the world: is this theory proved demonstratively or it is a dialectical thesis? DiPasquale argues that for Alfarabi, it is not conclusive.

DiPasquale argues that in logic and politics, Alfarabi is only second to Aristotle, and in this regard he is the true founder of classical Islamic philosophy, as the title of this book indicates. Moreover, in this work Alfarabi pursues his goal of reconciling Plato and Aristotle, in addition to recuperating Socrates’ dialectical approach, involving discussions to reach definitions, in preparation for the way to science.

DiPasquale ends his study by evoking the context theory which places Alfarabi’s works against the background of the logical works inherited by the Arabs and based on the Alexandrian curriculum. He takes issue with Deborah Black by bringing down the barrier between the demonstrative and dialectical ways, which Black views as quite distinct.

DiPasquale views Alfarabi’s work as a meeting place between East and West, ancient Greek philosophy and classical Islamic tradition. DiPasquale’s book constitutes a very important contribution to our knowledge of Alfarabi’s philosophy, in particular his approach to the art of dialectic.