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Passionate, genuine & deeply flawed
Thoughts on philosopher Ahmad Fardid

June 8, 2003

The more I thought about Daryoush Ashouri's eloquent debunking of Ahmad Fardid and Anoushe's indignant rejoinder, the more I felt the need to contribute to this debate based on my own experience.

I do not intend to dispute Ashuri's conclusions about the weaknesses of Fardid's scholarship and personality. Nor would I challenge the tragic reality that, like his intellectual hero Heidegger, (not to mention Hegel) Fardid was politically naive and myopic enough to mistake a local tyrant for the bounty of the destiny. (I can elaborate in greater detail on the origins and the nature Fardid's political naiveté and Quixotic illusions but that will draw me away from my main purpose here.) 

What I do intend to challenge is the wholesale vilification of the philosopher's life and work. The fact that Fardid is deified in some circles does not justify demonizing him without reserve. I sometimes wonder what is gained by depicting personalities who, for better or for worse, have shaped our intellectual or political history, in a broad, monochromic brush. Part of my admiration for Abbas Milani's "Iranian Sphinx" is because he has managed to avoid this pitfall, but I digress.

I consider Fardid as a passionate and genuine - though deeply flawed - intellectual. He had many faults but he was by no means the villain, fraud, or opportunist we are led to believe. What is more, he had a plethora of personal virtues that remain eclipsed both in panegyric praise and savage critique of his life. I feel obligated to flesh out these attributes and to defend him against unqualified blame. I believe a detailed and nuanced portrait of Fardid will help explain his impact on the creme of the crop of the Iranian intellectuals from Ale Ahmad to Ashouri himself in a way that the unflattering caricature of a shallow charlatan does not. 

Like Daryoush Ashouri, I knew Fardid personally. What is more, I owe him a debt of gratitude. For five years I audited his classes (though I was in the department of sociology not philosophy.) On more than one occasion I, Ahmad and a couple of other student strolled all the way from class to his modest house around the Vesal Shirazi street, while the peripatetic philosopher regaled us with scintillating ideas. Later, we would sit in his yard or in his den and wax philosophical for hours.

We realized Fardid had nothing to gain by spending time with us: teenage freshmen who were not even philosophy students. Nor was he looking for "disciples." He actively dispersed obsequious hangers on. Adamantly opposed to even oblique praise, he would interrupt the speaker with an adage from his native Yazd: "Agha jan saram o beshkan, vali nerkhamo naskan!" In other words, don't diminish me by your praise.

In my opinion, the only reason he would converse with anyone who would listen was his "love of knowledge" (the original meaning of the term "philosophy.") Fardid was genuinely excited, preoccupied, even obsessed about the possibilities of bridging East and West and exploring their intertwined destiny. The fact that Fardid was interested in the subject doesn't mean that he got it right; only that he was sincere and passionate about the project. He "lived" philosophy. That is something I can attest to. 

I do not believe that Fardid's sometimes laughable etymological deductions should be taken as the sole measure of his philosophy. Nor should the reader of Ashouri's piece conclude that every Fardidian etymological deduction is false. (This may not have been Ashouri's intent but the philosophically uninitiated may jump to that conclusion.) Who, for example, can deny the enormous impact of Fardid's ingenious translation of Heidegger's "DaSein" to "Havalat e Tarikhi" based on a reading of Hafiz?

Concerning what "is" outlandish in Fardid's thought one does well to remember instances of falsehood, foolishness, and patent nonsense in the works of thinkers whose greatness no one disputes -- in my own field I can name Kant, Hegel, Marx, Weber, Spencer, Parsons, and, of course, Heidegger. When it comes to chastising occasional lapses: sins of intellectual omission or commission, I am reminded of the anecdote told about Bozorgmehr the Sasanid Iranian sage and statesman who, upon confessing ignorance on a certain issue was lambasted by his interlocutor: "How can you draw such a large salary if you are so ignorant?" Bozorgmehr responded: "Lady, if I were to be paid on a scale proportional to my ignorance I would be the richest man on earth. My salary is based on what little I do know."

As magnanimous as Fardid was to students whose simple greetings figures much lesser than Fardid couldn't be bothered to return, he was indifferent, even dismissive toward administrators and "official" scholars. He unabashedly (and sometimes unnecessarily) attacked those he considered as unworthy, underhanded or overbearing. In short, he was, to us, the exemplar of the maxim: "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. " And yet, we were never left with the impression that his attacks were of a personal nature. He saw his contemporaries as carriers of ideas and trends. He was reticent in praise of his colleagues as well. He would grace even the prominent luminaries of his time (Hossein Nasr, Simin Daneshvar) as "pesar e khoob", and "dokhtar e khoob" (Nice boy, nice girl.)" His colleagues took him seriously, warts and all. I remember Khanum Daneshvar once smiled and said of Fardid: Ahmad considers all of us Gharbzadeh."

While I am on this subject, I would like to offer a slightly different take on another one of Fardid's idiosyncrasies: his anti social antics. He told us many stories about misbehaving in public, political, and academic occasions. Also, we witnessed a few such episodes ourselves. On one occasion he interrupted Ayatollah Motahhari who was delivering a lugubrious but naïve lecture on critique of Hegel's logic by shouting from the first row: Aagha jan, taghsir az tarjomeh-hast!" (dear sir, the fault is that of the translations of Hegel.) Motahhari accepted the criticism and said: you may be right but I am not criticizing the real Hegel but the one that is presented to us in Persian. In these misadventures, we concluded he intended to emulate the persona of "Bohlul" (the "wise-fool" in the Persianate folklore) or that of "Schlemiel" (in the Ashkenazi Jewish culture.) He didn't mean to be funny or rude but disruptive and transgressive. 

It is said of Hegel, that when he taught his students would be so absorbed in his lectures as to lose all awareness of their surroundings. Only when the philosopher fell silent would the students notice that stars had risen and the university was deserted. In my entire academic career I have experienced such a thrill only in Fardid's classes. Another anecdote concerning the impact of Hegel's words could be invoked concerning Fardid's instruction: students saw the world in a different light after each and every lecture. We felt the entire world budge a little and sundry pieces of it fall into place as Fardid, his unlit "homa baizi" cigarette in hand, wiggled his Archimedean lever under a world of thought. I fell in love with Heidegger through Fardid.

The first book I bought and read upon coming to the United States was a collection of Heidegger's works. My interest and hope in Heidegger has since waned (though my enormous respect for him hasn't) but I owe it to him as well as his Iranian disciple to teach me that the business of thinking is not a myopic, humdrum, routine affair. It is said of the great Italian thinker Giambattista Vico, that he illustrated his thoughts with fireworks rather than charcoal. Fardid, I propose, dipped his pen in Vico's inkwell. 

Fardid's turbulent intellect was absorbed in the enterprise of synthesizing (promisingly or otherwise) the results of his studies of Eastern-Islamic civilizations, namely, Hafiz, Rumi, Shabestari, and others with the Western philosophy, as interpreted by Heidegger. Fardid's project remains unfinished and fraught with shortcomings and errors. Nevertheless, it remains an enormously intriguing and valuable endeavor. Heidegger himself on several occasions (including in his encounters with DTSuzuki concerning "transmetaphysical thinking" and in his valedictory interview with Der Spiegle) optimistically alluded to the possibility of a convergence of Eastern and Western thought but he never explored the subject matter himself, citing a lack of knowledge and insight about the non-Western universe of discourse. Ahmad Fardid, from his corner, hoped to produce a blueprint for the endeavor, but he only succeeded in vaguely adumbrating certain contours of it.  

The most prevalent charge against Fardid has been that he never wrote anything of importance. He was, to paraphrase Reza Barahani's snickering epithet, an "oral philosopher" (filsoof e Shafahi.) This was, to be sure a puzzling attribute. Although Fardid tried to justify his expository reluctance to the poverty and contamination of the language, (in the Heideggerian sense) I suspect his reticence stemmed from his paralyzing perfectionism. His predicament reminds me of Efimov, a character in Dostoyevsky's unfinished novel "Netochka Nezvanova" in which the protagonist, a violin performer, having had a brush with the sublime majesty of pure art abandons his musical instrument for good. Nevertheless, lack of written work, per se, should not be taken as the final verdict against a thinker. Socrates and, in more recent times, George Herbert Mead are exemplars of teachers whose profound thoughts have reached us solely through the transcriptions of their faithful students. 

However, Fardid's predicament reminds me less of the above two than that of another lonely scholar: Georg Simmel. Neither thinker accepted or acknowledged direct intellectual descendants; although their energies and ideas were widely adopted by successive generations of thinkers (and uncomprehending parrots) during and after their life, in ways that would have infuriated them. Simmel, the author of the magisterial "Philosophy of Money" once said: "my own legacy is like money. People take it and use it without any attribution to me." Fardid, too, witnessed many occasions. I remember when Reza Davari published some notes based on Fardid's readings of Hafez with no attribution to his source of inspiration.

Obviously, Fardid was not amused by what he considered plagiarism but his main objection had more to do with the contamination and simplification of his ideas than any questions of authorship. Concerning the ignorant use, if not the patent abuse, of Fardid's legacy, I am reminded of a vulgar and vicious attack on "modernism" by self proclaimed Fardid students in the post revolutionary Iran leading to a comical war by proxy between Heidegger (Fardidians) and Popper (Soroushians.)

Let me close with an anecdote apropos of this quaint predicament of Fardid: his inability to produce intellectual progeny: Once, responding to a young author who had published an article in a popular daily in Tehran, and who had dedicated it to Ahmad Fardid with these words: "Everything I know, I have learned from Professor Fardid" the philosopher shot back:

"You have learned nothing from me, youngster, get back to your homework." Later that day, still smarting from what he considered an offensive praise, he offered the following analogy:

"Every spring I buy grass seed from the store across the street and cast it in my lawn, but what grows there is just quaint and curious weeds and not what I have put in the ground. The same is true of those who claim my legacy or oppose it. They bear no resemblance to what I have sewn." 

Mahmoud Sadri is Associate Professor of Sociology at Texas Women's University. He has a doctorate in sociology from New York's New School for Social Research (See Features . See Homepage).

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