Nasruddin Hodja—a master of the negative way

by Oscar Brenifier


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Brenifier argues in this article that philosophy is primarily a negative impulse, or rather it should be, to make us truly aware of ourselves and our own thinking. Philosophy—inspired by Socratic questioning and the cynics' propensity for shock and surprise—should always try to destabilise what common knowledge and general principles seek to establish. This is the only way to achieve genuine thinking based not just on idle imagination but on the reality principle.

The mythical medieval figure Nasruddin Hodja serves as an example of such negative philosophy or anti-philosophy. Nasruddin—with his vast repertoire of challenging retorts and human weaknesses—demonstrates that there are more effective ways to awake consciousness in a subject than by promoting traditional learning and objective information or indulging in pleasant conversation.

Øyvind Olsholt

A—The negative way

In the beginning of the Hippias minor dialogue, a discussion sets in between Hippias and Socrates, on the question of who is the best man in the Iliad, between Odysseus (Ulysses) and Achilles. The debate centers on the issue of lying, and Hippias claims that Achilles is a better man because he does not lie, contrary to Odysseus, who is the most cunning and does not hesitate to hold a false discourse. At a certain point, Socrates shows that Achilles makes as well statements which are not true, but Hippias then uses as a defense of his hero the fact he does not lie consciously: he just changed his mind, but he is very sincere. A debate Socrates concludes by claiming that Odysseus is better than Achilles, since when he lies, he very well knows that he is lying, so he knows the truth more than Achilles.

We would like to use this example of a classical philosophical text to introduce what we can call the "via negativa"—negative path—of philosophical practice. We call it "via negativa" just like the traditional concept of "via negativa" used in particular in theology which is commonly used to determine for example the nature of God through the denial of what he is not. Thus Socrates defends lying in order to defend the truth, with the same irony that he claims his own ignorance in order to teach. And what is here used in a more conceptual and rational way is encountered as well in more playful way by the clown, the actor, the novelist, the caricaturist, the humorist, etc. All these very common modes of expression describe or stage certain schemes, behaviors, characters and situations, as a way to denounce them and obviously prone the opposite of what they represent. Thus the pretentious, the selfish, the hypocrite, the ambitious or any other typical defect will be presented in such a ridiculous, gross or exaggerated fashion, that this scenic posture will evidently criticize the ones who are affected by these defaults in order to encourage the quality opposite to it. Or at minimum, it represents a "Know thyself" injunction.

An interesting aspect of this scheme is the large proportion of "unsaid" in those modalities of expression, which leaves tremendous room to ambiguity, and at the same time a lot of space for freedom, since it does not saturate meaning, since it permits multiple representation and interpretation. The emergence of the comedy in renaissance Europe is a clear example of this freedom to criticize, both society and the power in place, therefore giving permission to think. Or what allowed the court jester to play his role of mocking even the king while going unpunished was precisely the dimension and tremendous ambiguity, that for example allowed the punning, the spirited playing with words. Harsh criticism came out of the fool's mouth, but in such an indirect way that if one would get offended, he would reveal himself and become the laughing stock of all. The baroque conception where world and stage become one single entity, making us a distant spectator of our selves, is a good illustration of this general principle.

Page created: 12.10.05. Page last modified: 18.11.09 14:36.