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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Labyrinth of Subjectivity: Constructions of the Self from Mullā Ṣadrā to Muḥammad Iqbāl

  • Advisor(s): Ahmed, Asad Q
  • et al.

Referred to by some philosophers as “the knot of the universe,” investigations concerning human selfhood and subjectivity can help unravel questions of central contemporary relevance, such as what it is to be human in a globalized, secular world. As one scholar has pointed out, understanding our “selves”—our natures, capabilities, and possibilities—is the most captivating of all questions because, in the final analysis, it cannot be attained through empirical research alone. That is, there are no facts which can help us decisively determine whether our selves constitute parts of our bodies, or are incorporeal substances which somehow inhere in our bodies, or are epiphenomena of our minds.

Against the general backdrop of these kinds of concerns, my dissertation investigates the creative ways in which concepts of selves and selfhood have been constructed in early modern and late modern Islamic philosophy (spanning from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries). I draw on the work of the three major thinkers during these time periods who made unique and lasting contributions in this regard: Mullā Ṣadrā (d. 1640), Shāh Walī Allāh (d. 1762), and Muḥammad Iqbāl (d. 1938). Alongside detailed analyses of each of these thinkers’ views on the self and selfhood, my study also situates their insights within the wider constellation of related discussions in late modern and contemporary philosophy, engaging the seminal theoretical insights on the self by thinkers such as William James, Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault, Richard Sorabji, and Daniel Dennett. This allows me to theoretically frame my textual inquiry within what can be called a tri-partite model of selfhood, taking in bio-physiological, socio-cultural, and ethico-metaphysical modes of discourse and meaning-construction.

One key insight which emerges from my comparative inquiry is that the Muslim philosophers whom I study reveal themselves to be fundamentally concerned in their own unique ways with the problem of the human condition in general. Their manner of addressing this central issue from their differing perspectives devolves on the cultivation of what can be called an anthropocentric notion of the self that emphasizes self-knowledge, self-perfection and self-transformation.

By putting the first-person perspective at the center of their conception of the self, these philosophers invite us to take a fresh look at our understanding of the self. This is because if the self is reduced to a set of cognitive functions or identified exclusively with various brain-states, as in neuroscience, one would downplay how the self appears from the first-person vantage point, thereby attenuating the concrete connection between human ethical agency and moral responsibility.

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