Manoochehr Ashtiani: Heidegger is a mystic, not a philosopher
TEHRAN _ Manoochehr Ashtiani has PhDs in sociology and philosophy. He wrote his philosophy dissertation under the supervision of Karl Löwith (Heidegger’s student and critic) and Dieter Henrich (one of the four great contemporary German philosophers); and his sociology dissertation under the supervision of Ernst Topitsch (Austrian philosopher and sociologist and member of Vienna Circle).Upon his return to Iran, he has worked as a professor at the universities of Beheshti, Tarbiat Modarres, and Allameh Tabatabayi. His paternal family, Ashtiani provided him with a clerical-political background and his maternal family, Esfandiari gave him a literary-political background. He has been politically active in the youth branch of Tudeh Party of Iran and accompanied the young members of Iran’s National Front during the Nationalization of the Iranian Oil Industry Movement. His political and academic memoir of that time is in press.
The following is based on our long interview with this pioneer professor of philosophy and sociology about his memoirs and academic reflections.
Q: Our goal in this interview is to get to know the narrative of your intellectual and scientific life, your experiences in formal academic environments or in informal places like cafés or among your friends. Your narrative—as one of the first graduates of sociology, educational sciences and philosophy in Iran— can be of great benefit to researchers. Let us start with your time at high school and how you entered the University of Tehran.
A: I entered the University of Tehran in the late 1320s (late 1940s). At the time, the Higher Teacher Education College included the Literature Faculty of the University of Tehran. There was only one student who wanted to do the philosophy major, and no one was going to enroll besides that person; therefore, philosophy was integrated into educational sciences and it was named after both of them—philosophy and educational sciences. I had philosophical background and the courses were rather easy for me; but for most of the students, they were difficult and only 5 out of 50 students passed courses every semester. I remember Shams Al-e-Ahmad was among the ones who failed the courses and after two years dropped out and started to study archeology. The ones who wanted to become teachers chose the educational sciences major and after a few semesters they received an allowance.
Q: Who were your teachers?
A: To name just a few: Dr. Shafagh taught modern philosophy, Dr. Yahya Mahdavi philosophical texts, Dr. Sedighi sociology, Allameh Fazel Tooni ancient philosophy, Mr. Khansari formal logic.
Q: Do you remember any of your outstanding classmates?
A: Haghshenas and Zaryab Khoyi, Zarrinkoob, Dr. Mohaghegh and many others –whom you still might hear of- were students at the time. Most of them are dead now, only few are alive. I am one the few ones still alive from that generation.
Q: At the time, which sociology works translated in Iran ignited your interest and made sociology your specialty?
A: Our educational material were all pamphlets. Professors would quote from different sources and the students would take notes. No one would ask any questions and if someone asked a question, the teachers would not give correct answers. I remember one of the students once asked a teacher that what he was saying was contradictory to what he had talked about previous week. The professor answered that there were a lot of paradoxes in Hume’s thoughts.
In the educational sciences major, the only course was the one that Dr. Sedighi taught. He was educated in France and was very proud that he was a student of Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, who in turn was Durkheim’s student and son-in-law. Dr. Sedighi coined the word ‘sociology’ (Jame’eh Shenasi) in his translations. Before him, sociology was called ‘the science of the society.’ ‘The science of the society’ included law, politics and sociology. This was based on the distinction made by Auguste Comte between social sciences and sociology. Dr. Sedighi taught 800 pages summary of Sorokin’s book—who was a Jewish Russian scholar at Harvard. The students asked him to turn the pamphlet into a book, but he did not dare to do so; he was afraid to publish it and its faults would be revealed.
However, in 1307 (1928), two years before I was born, Dr. Yahya Mahdavi had translated, authored and edited a book called The Science of the Society which was an anthology and abridged volume. It is the oldest book in the field.
In philosophy, people were not familiar with Kant or Hegel, because none of their works were translated. Descartes’s Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One's Reason was translated by Zaka-al-molk recently—which was the only available translated book on philosophy. At the time, the late Fardid had translated bits and pieces from David Hume and excerpts from Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. I took these with me to Germany and these were all there was, pieces that were translated based on necessity and whims. Nowadays, there is such controversy over ideas of different thinkers; it was absolutely unheard of at the time.
Back then, we tried to devote some time to learning foreign languages; Persian sources were not very good and most students liked to go abroad to continue their studies in higher levels.
Q: What language did you choose?
A: Originally, I did not learn English, because we spoke French in the family. Since French language was losing its status in Iran and more people favored English, some decided to revive it. My uncle, Nima Yushij, told me that there is a center in Pasteur Street called “Institut Français” and he has been a teacher there for a while. Therefore, I enrolled there and used to participate in the meetings afterwards. The meetings were founded by Francophiles. People like Dr. Karim Mojtahedi were also among the participants. These literary meetings were held in the Institut Français; where we dramatized parts of Moliere or Rimbaud’s works among other French poets and writers. I was about 22. I was young. We used to stage French stories in original— like Moliere’s works. Whenever we made a mistake, Sadegh Hedayat cursed and Ahmad Fardid hit the ceiling.
Q: How was your relationship with Sadegh Hedayat and Ahmad Fardid?
A: I got to know them in those meetings. I had heard of Sadegh Hedayat from my uncle, Nima Yushij, but I had not seen him before. Sadegh Hedayat, Ahmad Fardid, and Hasan Ghaemian were in charge of the literary meetings. Intellectually, they were half Iranian, half French, especially Hedayat. Of course, Hedayat and Fardid were familiar with Sartre in Paris and had talked on numerous occasions with him in sidewalk cafés. You know it is quite easy to spot the likes of Foucault or Lyotard in sidewalk cafés in Paris. Even now, the philosophy and humanities professors still have this habit. Ghaemian had studied in France and was translating Kafka.
We used to go the cafés in Lalehzar, where Hedayat and Fardid used to discuss, and we sat at a table near them, because they were important people and we were only students. At the time, I was 23 and they were in their 40s. They discussed existentialist issues, apparently pretending to be existentialists. In other words, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Heidegger and others, influenced them. Thus, during my four years of studies I was under the influence of Hedayat and Fardid.
Q: Do you have any recollections from Hedayat and Fardid circle in 1320s?
A: Yes, Mr. Ghaemian was part of the circle. He was translating Kafka. I think that later he published two or three of his books. Ghaemian and Hedayat were similar to some extent. None of them got married and they both committed suicide. Of course, Dr. Shahidi was also part of the circle, but the main intellectual force was Fardid. Although, Hedayat had an inkling, but it was Fardid who introduced Hedayat to Camus and Kafka. None had the philosophical knowledge that Fardid had. Sadegh Hedayat was very knowledgeable in literature, but he used to ultimately accept Fardid’s opinions in discussions. For instance, Hedayat had a general idea of Sartre’s literary works, but he did not understand existentialism deeply; while Fardid knew much more about eastern and western philosophy.
Of course, we had our own ideas. I remember that once I was sitting at a table with my friends and we were talking about national and patriotic issues. Hedayat came to us from the other side of the café—we were his students and he knew who we were. Although, he loved his country, but he loathed nationalistic talk, so he changed his voice and pronounced the word nation sarcastically.
Q: Please explain your relationship with Nima. How did he influence your thoughts?
A: Nima was a very influential character and he had connections with many contemporary poets—and I got to know them through him. I remember visits form Shamloo, Kasravi and Sayeh; sometimes, their visits lasted till morning. When they talked about poetry, Nima used to tell Mr. Shamloo and others that you have to write poetry as if you are using language for ordinary purposes. These group used to visit for a long time and sometimes they even went to cafés.
Hedayat and Nima’s motto was that “what is, should no longer be and something else must come.” The youth, back then, were lovers of everyday love; they were not concerned with celestial-mythical love. Therefore, Nima could influence them. Although, Nima was influenced by Hafiz and we know that he wrote the poem “Afsaneh” (The Legend) inspired by him. Later, I had disagreements on Hafiz with my Marxist friends.
When I left for France and Germany to continue my studies, I lost contact with Nima until his death. I was in Germany for 6 years that I heard from the students returning from Iran that my uncle has passed away. They asked me to organize a conference to talk about him. Students from around Germany were gathered and I talked about Nima. Later, when I came back to Iran, I continued to attend poetry and literature meetings with poets like Akhavan Sales.
Q: How did you end your studies at the University of Tehran?
A: I wrote my B.A. thesis under the supervision of Dr. Moin. It was about the Iranian national movements in the first three centuries [after Islam]. It must still be available at the university. In this book, I made it known that there were 123 other national movements besides Taherian, Saffarian and Samanian movements.
Finally, I came in first and the King awarded me two golden fountain pens and a medal. I got my degree and went abroad. Most people, like Dr. Mojtahedi went abroad after high school, but I left after my B.A. I went to high school with Dr. Mojtahedi. He left for France after getting his high school diploma.
During that time, I was also under the influence of my uncle Nima. My other uncle, Reza (Ladbon) Yushij had left Iran for the USSR a long time ago. Ladbon has written a few books and done research studies on philosophical waves before Zarathustra, Mithraism, Zurvanism, Kiumarthieh, etc., in which he has compared them to the new western philosophies. In a letter to my mum, Nima stated that his brother Ladbon had decided to research the relation between Mulla Sadra and Hegel.
Q: [After returning to Iran] you were offered a job at the University of Tehran, how come you went to the National (Beheshti) University?
A: Dr. Mahdavi told me that he would give me an office till the next semester starts and I would start teaching sociology at the University of Tehran. However, a day later, I got a letter asking me to call a certain number. I told myself that it is SAVAK (Organization of National Intelligence and Security)! Now that I am getting a job and I want to find employment, they have contacted me. I was doubtful whether to call the number or not. I consulted my father and he told me to call the number—if it was indeed SAVAK, I could not refuse calling them. I called and when I introduced myself, the person on the other side of the line told me that they have been disparately looking for me. I asked who he was and he told me that he is Mr. Iranpoor Jazani, the president of the National University. He said that he, too, had studied in Germany –Geography in Stuttgart- and asked why I wanted to join University of Tehran, even though I had studied in Germany. And that I should go to them, to the National University.
Next morning, I went to Dr. Jazani’s office. He said that the University of Tehran is located far from my house; Shemiran is much closer to me and other things along these lines. I contacted my uncle, Javad Ashtiani, who was close to the King. He said that it was good that two universities are competing to employ you but “don’t go to the University of Tehran, you were a communist, a member of the Tudeh party, and other memebers of the Tudeh party would gather around you and you would be imprisoned.” He added that the National university is theirs; meaning the royal court. Thus, I went to the National University, but mostly because it was closer to my house.
Q: Before going to Germany, how come you went to France first?
A: I went to France, because I was entitled to go to the country that I had studied her language at the university. When I wanted to go, all my teachers told me that you came in first in the philosophy class and Germany would suit you better. I studied German language for two or three months, but I found out that it is not that easy. As I had come in first, I could go abroad with a governmental scholarship. Nevertheless, my father was against the King; the government had seriously hurt him. He told me not to go with the government money and even if he had to sell his clothes, he would pay for my education. In the end, I got a student loan from the university that covered half of my expenses, and my family paid the other half and I went abroad. My expense were around 200 Marks with the exchange value of 9 Rials per Mark. The government paid 90 Rials and my father 90 Rilas. This continued for 7-8 years, until Mark became more expensive and I needed more money; therefore, I looked for jobs in factories or other places that one could find student jobs.
Q: What did you study there?
A: In France, I enrolled in Sorbonne University as a philosophy major. At the time, it was really crowded—unlike now that it is much better suited for studying. My cousin was the Iranian Consul in Hamburg. I wrote him a letter expressing that I wanted to go there. He told me to take the train and go there without hesitation; that he would help me change my major and country.
Q: What year was it? Which city and which university you chose in Germany?
A: I went to Germany in 1334 (1955). There was no Iranian studying humanities or sociology in Germany. They usually studied medicine. The only one we heard of was Dr. Falaturi who taught philosophy at the University of Tübingen. Anyhow, I went to Hamburg and then to Heidelberg and stayed there till 1973. There was a literary society in Heidelberg where all the noblemen’s children and the rich kids used to meet, people like Dowlatabadi, Firouzabadi and General Rahimi (who broke Mosaddegh’s door with a tank).
After a while, because I fell out with the Tudeh party, the Tudeh party’s followers and the royalists cut their ties with me. I was not only exiled from the city; they completely ousted me and thus, because of these issues and the insults, I relocated to a place 17 km outside Heidelberg. I stayed there until I came back to Iran. Because my stance was that according to the communist manifesto, all communists have the duty to aid regimes that are fighting capitalism and monarchy and to support them wholeheartedly.
In Germany, I did cultural work in addition to scientific work at the university and political activism in the Confederation of Iranian Students. For instance, one of my friends informed me that there is a lecture in Vienna on different religions and one of the speakers is Iranian. We went there together. A Christian, a student and a professor gave their lectures. Then, a man with a black turban and cloak and blue eyes started speaking in a very eloquent German about the similarities and differences between different religions. I asked who he was and I was told that he was Dr. Beheshti. His wife was also there; she was wearing a suite with a scarf. I introduced myself and told them who I was and that my forefather was Mirza Hasan Ashtiani. He knew him well and told me that I must be a very devout person! I asked him where one could meet him in Germany and he told me that he was the Imam of the Hamburg mosque.
I used to meet him in Hamburg for a while. I asked him what his general perspective on Islam was. I noticed that he had a socialist notion of Islam. He replaced the unity of the proletariat with the unity of the oppressed people of the world. Like Motahhari, he believed in fighting Imperialism and called it the battle against the Global Arrogance. I talked to my friends and told them he is a Muslim socialist. Some time passed and I never saw him again.
Soroush used to give lectures every Friday in Aghdasieh mosque after the Islamic Revolution—during Mr. Hashemi’s second term as the president. He would imply that there is no such thing as Vilayat-e Faqih; he would say that it is a construct and that it did not exist in Islam. A group of his apostles -300 to 400 people- used to listen to his lectures. He would criticize Motahhari that he had gone too far left and had accepted the notion of class conflict; that he accepted the existence of Imperialism and said that we must fight it. He also said that they- namely Soroush and people like him- consider it an illusion; there is no Imperialism in the real world and it is made up by Marxists.
Q: What was the topic of your dissertation?
A: My first dissertation was on language. In 1971, I wrote my PhD dissertation on a comparative study of Mawlana (Rumi) and Meister Eckhart. Karl Löwith was my supervisor. I found out there is actually similarities between western philosophers and Muslim mystics (Sufis)—that the comparisons are not without merit. I published it under the title of Historical Sociology. In this book, I showed that Mawlana, Eckhart and Heidegger’s ideas are not philosophical but mystical. Gadamer read my works and told me that I was right, he told me that “for the last thirty years, I’ve been saying that my dear teacher, Heidegger, is a mystic, but no one believes me. You are the first one that has written this down.”
It is surprising that Mr. Ayatollahi, Davari Ardakani and Dinani also believed this and they told me once that Heidegger’s being a mystic is the reason that they agree with his ideas. I told them that because I believe that Heidegger is a mystic, I am rejecting and criticizing him; because Heidegger is deviating from the rational German philosophy.
Q: As a last question, I want to ask you that – as a person who had Marxist tendencies- how do you assess the conditions of the leftist movements and communism around the world right now?
A: In many countries, there are remnants of socialist and communist parties, which still have some power. They might not be able to act directly, but they influence the social movements in many countries, for instance the Occupy Wall Street movement. I believe that the socialist and Marxist movements still exist because capitalism exists. And as long as capitalism exists, its opponent would continue to live on; if there is capitalism, there will be indispensable critiques.
But there are also anti-regressive and progressive movements that play their part on history’s stage, but they are not leftist in a literal sense of the word. For instance, reformist movements like social democrats who are not opponents of capitalism but they put pressure on capitalism to reform it.
There is another movement that started around 40-50 years ago resisting Imperialism and it is a grand one, much more powerful than the other ones. It is the pro-independence movements of countries like Brazil and many other Asian and African countries who want to be independent and not to serve any other country. Our country is among these countries that want to be independent and not subservient. That is why we emphasize independence.
A country that is not independent cannot establish social freedoms, because she would be forced to accept others’ definition of freedom and democracy. A country that is not independent would not have freedom and social justice. These three movements want to restrain the global capitalism’s ruthlessness and brutality. These movement are based on defending the billions of poor people’s rights against the five or six hundred million wealthy capitalists.
Q: Finally, how do you assess the Islamic Revolution of 1979 based on your intellectual line of thought?
A: Put simply, nations react differently in different historical epochs. Their reaction depends on the available directions at that particular historical era. As Max Weber says, the leaders of revolutions are history’s signalmen (switchmen). The reaction of a nation depends on what railroad is open to its locomotive of history. If a religious railroad is opened, the locomotive would follow that road, if a socialist one is opened, it would move on the socialist railroad like the October Revolution in Russia. It is very complicated matter and does not take any one’s lead. This is determined by history; history does not stand still.
If the intellectuals do not know what they want, but the clergy know that they want an Islamic republic, the history would not stand still and it will not rule for its own death. The intellectuals do not know what they want, so, the history would follow the ones who know what they want. We could see this during the war as well. They wanted to destroy the Islamic Republic with war. The history asks whom wants to go to war, do the members of the Tudeh party and communists want to go to war? When the history sees that the followers of the movement that believes in Islam –from 14-15 year old boys to 70 year old men who call Imam Hossein when using their bodies as shields against bullets- are doing something, it would support them. History needs people who go to war. When a country is invaded, what use does history have for people who sit at home and recites slogans?