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The fourth generation
... of Iranian intellectuals

By Ramin Jahanbegloo
November 9, 2000
The Iranian

"There are times when we must sink to the bottom of our misery to understand truth, just as we must descend to the bottom of a well to see the stars in broad daylight". -- Vaclav Havel

Controversies between Iranian intellectuals about the destiny of Iranian intellectual history play a big part in Iranian life as nationalism and religion.Whether one dislikes it, welcomes or deplores it, the fact remains that the clerks (to borrow a concept from Julien Benda) of Tehran still play a role in the Iranian society and exercise an influence on the political future of Iran.

The Iranian intelligentsia is torn between the aspiration to universal values and the particularist attitudes of the national situation; between attachment to democratic ideas and a taste for enlightened tyrants; between revolt against the state power and subordination to totalitarian ideologies, between the acceptance of instrumental rationality and the rejection of critical rationality.

It seems to me that this curious mixture constitutes the essence of modern Iranian intellectual heritage. Our relation as intellectuals with the Iranian intellectual history itself creates an intellectual question of the first magnitude, which is quite natural since our reflection on the history of Iranian intellectuals is also a self-reflection. Among the multiple aspects of this question, one is particularly important here: How can a group of young Iranian intellectuals challenge the cultural and intellectual soil that defines, delimits and constrains them?

There are two points here. The first point is that critical reflection is the rupture of a closure and the shaking of received truths, including and especially intellectual ones. The second point is that the Iranian intellectual heritage that we inherit today represents itself to us as a closure which could and should be broken, not for the mere pleasure of doing so, but because such is the exigency with which we are confronted by our own activity of critical thinking.

A critical reflection worthy of this name should be able to find in a philosophical struggle against all forms of ideological mystification a radical way of seeking answers to the above questions. Such a reflective experience is today that of the Fourth Generation of Iranian intellectuals, who have turned a critical eye toward their intellectual heritage, provoking a wave of analytical and critical research on the lives and works of some of its most representative figures like Jalal Al-Ahmad, Ali Shariati, Ahmad Fardid or EhsanTabari.

Such an intellectual reaction could be seen as part of the natural generational change of intellectual life in Iran, where patricide has a long distinguished history. But in this case it is also an invitation to a serious reconsideration of a long-standing tradition of illiberalism and anti-humanism in modern Iranian intellectual history, of which Iranian post-modern attitude is only one recent form.

If anti-humanism was in fact a virtual rallying cry for ideological intellectuals in Iran in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, it developed through very different strategies and very different perspectives. The Iranian anti-humanism of the these decades grew out of intellectual interpretations that derived from orientations as different as Marxism, on the one hand, and Heideggerian deconstruction of rationality to the other.

For the ideological generation of Iranian intellectuals after the Second World War, the basic theme was clearly in the project of carrying out a radical critique of subjectivity. The constitutive autonomy of subjectivity which is the liberal and pluralist claim of the metaphysical subject to mastery over its thoughts and actions and its claim to moral and political autonomy was assimilated by the ideological generation of Iranian intellectuals to a monadic bourgeois egoism.

Therefore, the practice of ideological rationality extended this negation of subjectivity into a formidable destruction of the idea of intersubjectivity. In other words, the critique of subjectivity among the ideological generation of Iranian intellectuals turned to be at the same time as a critique of democracy, the Marxist one conducted in the name of an ideal future, and the Heideggerian one, depending openly on the pre-modern islamic traditions.

There is no need to point out that today in Iran, the anti-humanist attitude of the ideological intellectuals of the 1950s,1960s and 1970s has collapsed. The reasons for this collapse should be mentioned : they depend in part on the internal mutations of the Iranian society which in the last 20 years has been substantially restructured on the economic, social, cultural and political levels by a younger generation of Iranians.

The election of Khatami in May 1997 was through the emergence of a new political force -- youth -- inspired by simultaneously individualist and democratic ideals that are incompatible in every respect with the authoritarian values and symbols traditionally associated in the Iranian intellectual arena with Marxist and Heideggerian World views. It is in this new social atmosphere that the emergence of a global community or a cyberpolis was able to reveal to the Iranian youth the true nature of instrumental rationality as modern universal standards.

This new faith among the Iranian youth in the structures of technical rationality and its advantages for the political future of the Iranian Self developed into a critical movement among those who I believe are the representatives of the Fourth Generation of Iranian intellectuals (mainly characterized by the journals such as Goftegu and Kiyan). In contrast with the ideological generation of Iranian intellectuals who in their encounter with the western modernity favoured a monistic attitude exemplified by Marxist and Heideggerian philosophies, the Fourth Generation of Iranian intellectuals decided on a move away and a critical distanciation from master ideologies.

As a result of this process the methodological position of the new generation of Iranian intellectuals is characterized by two main philosophical attitudes: the extension of an anti-utopian thinking on an intersubjective basis on the one hand, and the urge for a non-imitative dialogical exchange with the modern values of the West on the other.

Young Iranian intellectuals today sense themselves to be living at the end of something -- if not at the end of history, then certainly at the end of a history, more precisely an intellectual history that has defined their intellectual and political heritage for more than 150 years. Their concern is less to settle accounts with the intellectual representatives of illiberalism in Iran than to confront philosophically the phenomenon itself in modern Iranian thought. One can speak of a revival of liberalism among the younger Iranian intellectuals as a result of the sociological and philosophical diagnosis of the concept of modernity, characterized by a return to dual facets of the modern subject as autonomy and self-reflection.

Unlike the three previous generations what the study of the concept of modernity has taught the fourth generation of Iranian intellectuals is that democratic consensus is obtained through dialogue and discussion. By this I do not mean a consensus about modernist values and against traditional values, for the two concepts of tradition and modernity will not be spared from permanent criticism. I mean rather a consensus formed under the conditions of modernization, which are those of critical rationality.To my mind, this problem of achieving a social contract under modern conditions of rational criticism calls for two things among the fourth generation of Iranian intellectuals:

First, saying no to any pregiven consensus on the basis of a traditional authority or a modern ideology. Second, calling for an institutionalization of the public debate in the form of rational argumentation. Therefore, the real dividing line which runs between the Fourth Generation of Iranian intellectuals and the previous ones is not between progress and nostalgia, hope and memory, or the past and the future, but between the preachers of grand narratives and monistic utopias and admirers of dialogue and value pluralism.

The point is that the new Iranian intellectual is no longer entitled to play the role of a prophet or a hero. He/she is in the Iranian public space to demystify ideological fanaticisms and not to preach them. In short what all this means is that the new Iranian intellectual has finally returned to earth, to here and now, after decades of ideological temptations looking for salvation in eschatological constructions.

Throughout the modern Iranian intellectual history, intellectual life was marked by the fact that only a small number of prophet intellectuals did the thinking for everybody else. The Iranian intellectual and political scene was divided between the two cultures of traditionalists on one side and the literary intellectuals on the other.

Today the new generation of Iranian intellectuals represent the third-culture intellectuals. The strength of the third culture is precisely that it is a culture of dialogue and tolerance. Unlike the previous intellectual pursuits of literary intellectuals of the 1960s and 1970s, the achievements of the third-culture intellectuals in Iran are not the marginal disputes of a quarrelsome mandarin class. We can consider them as the inventors and supporters of a discursive civil society. In other words they act in support of democratic projects, not just by subverting the limitations of the Iranian tradition, but also by inventing and maintaining a culture of civility and tolerance.

Today in a society like Iran where there is a systemic deliberation deficit, the sentimental leftist view of the intellectual as an avant-garde guardian of an ideology and the demonizing traditionalist view of the intellectual as obstructor of national and religious traditions are both shown to be inadequate to the new Iranian reality. In contrast to the ideological generation of Iranian intellectuals, who wished to save the key concepts of master ideologies whose logics were monstruous, the preoccupation of the new generation of Iranian intellectuals with the concept of negative liberty, its sources, its fragility and the threats to it, colors all their other concerns.

Taken as the capacity for choice among different alternatives, negative liberty has become the central framework for a plural view of Iranian history where teleological and deterministic perspectives are replaced by the adoption of a self-creative perspective through choice-making. The centrality accorded to the activity of choice in the constitution of the new Iranian intellectual space reveals once again the affinities of the younger generation of intellectuals with the ideals of rational autonomy and value-pluralism as opposed to the applications of monistic ideas in the Iranian social and political realm by the previous generation.

The central point here is that the new generation of Iranian intellectuals have come to think in a different way not only as individuals, but also as a generation. Looked at more closely it becomes more clear that the Fourth Generation of Iranian intellectuals have been marked by one big event, the emergence of the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

Like a wall of water crashing against the shore, the Revolution disintegrated in the souls of these young intellectuals leaving them with the difficult task of living up to and thinking about what was happening in them and through them. Twenty two years later their distinctive contribution to the Iranian intellectual debate is not how to choose between morality and politics,in a society where cynicism and confusion cover the voices of common sense and civility, but how to forge a politics of responsibility, in the absence of which only silence and untruth would be.

It is time for us to sink to the bottom of our misery to understand our truth.


Ramin Jahanbegloo is an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto. His book Phoenix: Conversations with Isaiah Berlin will be published in November 2000.

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