The Seminar
Elizabeth Suzanne Kassab
Morad Diani
Zoom audience during the Seminar

The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in Doha hosted Professor of Philosophy at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, Elizabeth Suzanne Kassab, on 5 May 2021 to present her lecture “Contemporary Arab Thought, a Field in Isolation: Towards a Historiography of Contemporary Arab Thought Engaging Philosophy, the Plastic Arts and Culture”.

Kassab began by emphasizing how studies of contemporary Arab thought generally are restricted to productions commenting on this thought, writing texts about texts. The productivity of this approach has always been and remains extremely limited. Kassab presented her research project as an endeavor to interpret the intellectual corpus in conjunction with adjacent fields’ histories.

Focusing upon three neighboring arenas - contemporary Arab thought’s social history, Arab cultural studies, and contemporary Arab art - she observed that the past decade has seen remarkable and noteworthy development that holds promise of enriching our understanding of contemporary Arab thought. Exploring the strata of the ensemble may highlight Arab thought’s contemporary distinctiveness - particularly in dealing with issues taken up by the visual arts (as well as innumerable other Arab cultural expressions), such as the much brooded-upon binary of authenticityandmodernity and the omnipresent turath (heritage). Just as contemporary Arab art and cultural studies have derived inspiration and some of their basic concepts (to a certain extent at least) from Arab thought, Kassab suggested that an enhanced understanding of Arab thought itself may be inspired by drawing from these neighboring arenas of human endeavor - without isolating thought exclusively within the bounds of the written discourse.

In addition to this layered and cross-cutting exploration of broader cultural strata, research is needed on contemporary Arab thought’s social history, to expand our understanding of the circumstances of its formation and of the issues, approaches, institutions, resources and power structures involved. Here Kassab posed the following fundamental questions for seminar participants to consider: which research centers, publishers, and educational institutions were Instrumental in the formation of what is considered as “contemporary Arab thought”, who from the middle of the last century influenced its gestation and growth? What sustained this thought and the dedication of its pioneers? What was it that consecrated any one of these - almost invariably male - as an established and bona fide “thinker”? Whose voices were heard and whose were barred from the choir? To whom was given this right to speak? Who possessed the power tobestow this right? Whose thinking is that of “contemporary Arab thought,” and what rendered it such? Might there be an Arab sociology of knowledge that expands our understanding of the written intellectual production and its fruit? Is there a social history of this thought? How advanced is the existing sociological and historical research? Does it contribute to our understanding of this field through studies of contemporary Arab thought’s publishers, research centers and journals?

Concluding her remarks, Kassab emphasized that in asking such questions she does not seek to “uncover conspiracies” or “expose those malevolently responsible (for any faults),” but rather to discover the history of institutions, personalities, resources, and political and social conditions that undergirds this thought, to understand its historical nature - rather than approaching it as something given in a pre-determined and necessary form.