Stanford scholar explores Arabic obsession with language

Through a study of metaphor in medieval Arabic literature, Stanford comparative literature professor Alexander Key finds that the Arab world had a head start on the West when it comes to understanding how language works.

illustration of scholars from 13th-century Arabic manuscript

Medieval Arabic scholars developed a sophisticated philosophy of language that can teach us much today, says comparative literature professor Alexander Key. (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The Arab world’s preoccupation with the mechanics of language has a long history.

More then a millennium ago, scholars in what is now Iran were reading, thinking and writing books about how metaphors work.

Eleventh-century polymaths Raghib al-Isfahani and Abd al-Qahir al-Jurjani worked to understand and explain what happens to readers when a poem compares a flash of lightning to a book being opened and closed.

They wrote complex theories that detailed how our brains connect something our eyes read to something our hands touch, while at the same time processing the words on the page to help us imagine what lightning looks like.

According to Alexander Key, an assistant professor of comparative literature at Stanford, these ancient academics were essentially “giving an account of human cognition through an analysis of what happens in your brain when you read a metaphor.”

A scholar of literature and the intellectual history of the medieval Arab and Persian worlds, Key is fascinated by how 11th-century Arabic thinkers developed successful theories about metaphor and language.

Most significant, he says, is the fact that these scholars were working “with what appear to be basic structural assumptions about words and meanings that we just never had in the West.”

“I’m struck by the many points, particularly around metaphor, where the medieval Arabs and Persians may have just done a better job than we have been managing to do with these same questions,” Key said.

Key also found that the early scholars benefited from a holistic perspective. The ancients lacked the modern methodological divide between arts and sciences, and so were able to see language as a cognitive function shared between poetry and logic.

Key’s latest research showcases the Arab world’s unique understandings of language across grammar, logic, poetics, law and theology. The monograph connects four towering cultural figures of the Arabic 10th and 11th centuries: literary theorist Abd al-Qahir al-Jurjani, philosopher Ibn Sina (Avicenna), literary scholar and exegete Raghib al-Isfahani and theologian and jurist Ibn al-Furak.

Key found that they shared “sets of assumptions, with an absolutely fixed, established terminology about the workings of language, which contemporary scholarship has slid over because it appears to be so commonplace.”

The shared academic terminology helped medieval Arabic thinkers solidify their understanding of the relationship between words and ideas. For these scholars, Key says, such knowledge was the start of a process that presented “nothing less than the possibility of establishing a theory for everything – an account of how humanity functioned.”

Over the ages, Arabic scholars have been committed to understanding the mechanics of language. “It became a scientific pursuit,” said Key. And, as he pointed out, the considerable work by these theorists was a “reflection of society’s obsession with language.”

Beginning as early as the eighth century, Arabic educators and intellectual society in general emphasized the importance of the written and spoken word. “The philosophy of language has been a fundamental part of the Arabic curriculum for nearly a millennium,” Key said.

Language also had resonance outside of purely intellectual circles. In the Middle Ages, Key said, “Politicians cared about poetry, and logicians cared about language. Literature was the source of cultural capital for everyone, and consequently it was the battleground upon which struggles over identity and power took place.”

Important academic resources

Key is particularly keen to shed light on these “important academic resources,” which he says are erroneously dismissed because they are assumed to be “less sophisticated than modern thought.”

pages from al-Raghib's taxonomy and definitition of language from his poetics manual Afanin al Balaghah

The beginning of Raghib al-Isfahani’s taxonomy and definition of language from his poetics manual, ‘Afanin al-Balaghah.’ (Image credit: Courtesy Alexander Key)

There are Arabic critiques of classical poetry from the Middle Ages that are “as advanced and complex as 20th-century critiques of English poetry,” said Key.

Much as students and academics today study Aristotle to understand modern ethics, Key argues they “should study these critiques to better understand language today.”

In addition to his monograph on the 11th-century philosophy of language, Key is preparing a study of the least well known of the four intellectuals, Raghib al-Isfahani. It will include the first-ever English translation and Arabic-language edition of the polymath’s work on poetics.

Beyond medieval manuscripts

For Key it is important that the classroom provide students with the opportunity to appreciate and explore the originality of Arabic culture and language. In his spring 2014 seminar, Readings in Avicenna and al-Jurjani, graduate and undergraduate students from an array of fields read essential primary texts from the 10th and 11th centuries in the original Arabic.

The seminar was a valuable experience for Key, who found himself “learning relevant vocabulary for talking about cognition and syntax from a physics major, or thinking through a complicated theoretical passage with the help of the class and the whiteboard.”

Said Alex Muscat, a junior studying comparative literature: “Professor Key helped us develop concrete strategies for approaching difficult texts in any language, in addition to specific techniques for how to read Arabic works. I’m now reading the Tales of 1001 Nights in the original, and although it’s still a very slow process I would never have been able to even begin had I not taken Professor Key’s class.”

Working in the interdisciplinary environment of Stanford’s humanities departments has also been crucial to the development of Key’s work. “If I hadn’t come to Stanford’s Comparative Literature Department, I wouldn’t have had the conversations I have both on the analytical philosophy side and also with people in the Poetics focal group.”

Key, who has also studied literature and the Arab Spring, envisions a future project linking literary studies and philosophy of language with socio-political and cultural issues of the present.

“With North African hip-hop, for example, we are talking about a mixture of different registers of Arabic, English, French and their dynamic relation to both poetry and politics,” he said. “It is another area of Arabic language and thought that I am excited to work on.”

Biliana Kassabova is a doctoral candidate in French at Stanford. For more news about the humanities at Stanford, visit the Human Experience.

Media Contacts

Corrie Goldman, director of humanities communication: (650) 724-8156, corrieg@stanford.edu
Dan Stober, Stanford News Service: (650) 721-6965, dstober@stanford.edu