by Ted Honderich

A letter from a philosophy conference in Iran, published in The Times Literary Supplement.

It is unlikely that Tony Blair will ever make a long opening speech in Westminster Hall, partly about the intrinsic and extrinsic worth of truth, to a conference of philosophers flown in from everywhere, no expense spared. Say a conference to celebrate our 17th Century philosopher Thomas Hobbes and his opinion that without a social contract, life would be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. It is unlikely that at such a conference a foreign guest will put a question to a philosopher disguised partly by her reasonableness who has just discoursed at length on Plato's Form of the Good -- and that it will turn out from audience reaction to her good answer that she is Mrs. Thatcher's daughter. 

In Iran, things are different. About 750 philosophers and somewhat philosophical Islamic scholars have lately gathered in Tehran for a week. Officially we were paying homage to the largest Iranian or rather Persian philosopher of the past 400 years. Sadr al-Din al-Shirazi, 1571-1640. Also known as Mulla Sadra. He was not much of a working teacher, and would have fallen under the eye of one of our own inspectors of universities. But he summed up almost all previous philosophy in his major work of nine volumes. He affirmed that brute existence comes before quiddity or essence or idea, thereby seeming to anticipate Sartre and Existentialism by some centuries. 

The conference organizers, however, were not confident that Islamic philosophy and religious thinking could mix nicely with, say, the analytic stuff of Dr. Stephen Williams of Worcester College, Oxford. That was a piquant piece of Philosophy of Language about referring to things by such definite descriptions as [italics] the world congress on Mulla Sadra. Or the contribution in Philosophical Logic of Prof. Paul Horwich of University College London. He persisted in the curiously tempting idea that truth doesn't consist in correspondence to fact, there being no general problem of truth at all, since to say `It's true snow is white' is only to say `Snow is white'. 

Certainly the Islamic materials were a little less definite. I myself was not illuminated by the mullah who explained how Allah foresees every last thing we do and yet we are as free as birds. I thought a little better of K. Kharrazi on Mulla Sadra's theory concerning the relationship between mind and body. And, having discovered K. Kharrazi was Iran's Robin Cook, taking a little time off from Kosovo negotiations, I felt that Iran's foreign relations might be in safer hands than ours.  

To revert to the opening speech, partly about truth being valuable both for itself and as a means, it was made by The Hojatollah Khatami. He is the more executive of Iran's two leaders, described as the liberal as against the conservative one. The Honourable President of the Islamic Republic as distinct from the Great Leader of the Islamic Revolution. He said the beauty of the face of God is [italics] proof . The speech wasn't bad. Less elusive than ruminations in the Labour Party on The Third Way. And the woman philosopher distinguished from the daughter of our own Ayatollah Thatcher by more than her chador or black tent? She was the daughter of the original Great Leader of the Islamic Revolution, the Ayatollah Khomeini, he of the fatwah on Salman Rushdie. 

Two educated young wives in their chadors, by the way, at a private dinner with two of us, said that they would still carry out the fatwah personally if they got the chance. Everybody would, they implied. The fatwah could not possibly be rescinded. Their government could not have done that. Rushdie, they said, had knowingly insulted a people for purposes of self-advancement and self-advertisement. That was the main thing, still larger than his blasphemy. 

As I say, the organizers of the congress were not persuaded that Islam would mix nicely with the stock in trade of British and American philosophers. So, except for a few common sessions, we Westerners met with Iranian and other sympathizers in one set of lavish conference halls, while the Islamic people met in a bigger set elsewhere. It seemed a pity not to try harder to cross the divide. Maybe it was an indication of the uncertainty co-existing with pride in an ancient people still going its own way despite the other month's decision to exchange ambassadors with Britain. 

After our mass visit to the humble living quarters of the Ayatollah Khomeini and to his teaching room, nothing if not emotional, we might have put some effort into getting something out of Mulla Sadra as Illuminist or Mulla Sadra as Theosophist, Mulla Sadra on the nature of time and motion, and Mulla Sadra and the Verse of Light. Conversely, the Islamic personnel would certainly have got something from the fine and fierce Leftism of the American Prof. William McBride of Purdue University, not of the same mind as other emissaries to the conference from The Great Satan.  

We philosophers of the West became accustomed to what was betokened by our arrival in the V.I.P. lounge of Tehran airport. (It has the proper name of being the lounge for Commercially Important Persons merely.) Thereafter we were royally treated, transformed into the first of the philosopher-kings. Our daily progresses between our Western hotel and the conference halls were made with escorts of police cars and motorcycle outriders with sirens. We flew privately to the ancient site Persepolis, had poetry recited to us in courtyards, came to think it our due to enter state banquets on long red carpets. The feminists amongst us came to terms, until it got exceedingly hot, with the Islamic code of dress for women, which was in fact obligatory. 

Necessarily, non-philosophical speculation was also engaged in. Were all those plainclothes policemen on hand just to get us through the unimaginable melees of the traffic roundabouts in Tehran? If so, why could you see from the bus that the hefty one in the back seat of one car had his Colt 45 out of his holster and ready in his hand? Was that all about the armed opposition party, once Marxist, still just over the border in Iraq? Conceivably just about the embarrassment a while back when conservatives cut up rough with a bus of American business leaders disguised as tourists?  

Was it more worrying that conservative and liberal students were even now having another fracas in the university? Students had a lot to do with the departure of the Shah 20 years ago. More than one political realist among us visitors, thinking about the basic division between conservatives and liberals in the government, asked about the politics of the army, and got the true reply that there are two complete armies, one on each side. Two complete airforces as well. Probably navies. Might that actually be safer and better than one? 

Why were we there? It would be merely crass, even American, to leave out a society's and a leadership's inclination to a cultural tradition, scholarship and indeed philosophy. A kind of desire to know things and venerate values. The Honourable President, the Foreign Minister and the daughter of the new founder of the nation were evidence enough of that. They were acting in accord with a social reality of some size.  

But had the conference been organized several years ago by the conservative wing in order to show that Iran has no need to open itself to the West -- that it has such cultural wealth that luminaries, thinkers, scholars and erudites of the West will come to it? Were we instead now serving the purposes of the liberal President Khatami, author of three real books and the possessor of degrees in philosophy, taking his cautious way forward by way of overwhelming support in a democratic election? Some of us, including Ingrid Coggin Purkiss of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, were on television, indeed on `Good Morning Iran', proving that not all Westerners are monsters. 

What was the nature of this Islamic Revolution? Had it originally come out of political morality or political decency -- a secular thing that included the hope of a health service or the redistribution of land and no love for the Shah's mirrored palaces. Had the revolution then been hijacked by the mullahs and doused in too much religion? When our feminists got out of the Iran Air 747 at Healthrow, they did indeed tear off their headscarfs with relief and derision. They were right, I thought - even if it is a little hard to explain why our own Western state of dress and undress is better than both bare bosoms in Africa and the black tents in Tehran. 

Travel broadens even the philosophical mind. Despite reservations, I came away with kinder feelings. It helped that a mullah or two were as tolerant of my atheism as of the near-naturalism of my account of the nature of consciousness -- which at bottom consists in something called the existence of a world. They said it might go nicely with Mulla Sadra on existence and quiddity. It helped too that the sage Youssef Aliabadi, to mention but one of our hosts, showed that the Persian intellect can come home, be untouched by the benighted Popperianism of the London School of Economics, and still be in good touch with Frege's doctrine that the meaning of a word is not only what it stands for but also the word's sense.  

A pity, though, that the liberal wing in politics is also the wing more inclined to joining the American century. But there aren't any McDonalds in the bazaars yet, and there won't be for a while -- with luck, and a little help from Allah, a long while. Something else was learned by me. What was inconceivable in prospect turned out to be possible. You can go without a drink for ten days. A Jug of Wine, Verses underneath the Bough, a Loaf of Bread, and Thou is better, as an older Persian knew, but you can get by on the last three. And Zam Zam is better than Coca Cola. 

Does this piece have philosophical underpinnings? If so, some of them are  at What Equality Is and Hierarchic Democracy and the Necessity of Mass Civil Disobedience.  And more of them in the book After The Terror.