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Heads In The Clouds

Is philosophy friendly with the Iranian regime? Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel, left, with Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, Ayatollah Ahmad Janati and former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, far right.
Is philosophy friendly with the Iranian regime? Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel, left, with Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, Ayatollah Ahmad Janati and former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, far right.
When the ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes depicted the philosopher Socrates as having his head in the clouds, he made a lasting impression upon the general public's view of philosophy. Indeed, the discipline is typically seen as being so arcane and speculative as to be totally removed from that most worldly of activities — politics.

One wonders whether the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) had its head in the clouds when it decided earlier this year to have the Islamic Republic of Iran host this year's World Philosophy Day, an annual event held “to celebrate, in particular, the importance of philosophical reflection, and to encourage people all over the world to share their philosophical heritage with each other.”

Controversy began when Ottfried Höffe, a German specialist in Immanuel Kant and Aristotle who was scheduled to be the keynote speaker in Tehran, pulled out of the conference. In July, Höffe claimed that Iranian president Mahmud Ahmedinijad sought to manipulate the conference by appointing Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, a thinker purported to be close with the Ayatollah Ali Khameini, as chair of the organization committee.

Anger towards UNESCO spread quickly through the world philosphy community, culminating in an open letter from an anonymous Iranian philosopher published on Leiter Reports, the leading blog of the English-reading philosophical community.

“Since the last presidential elections, hundreds of scholars and students have been arrested and/or dismissed from universities, and many university campuses in several cities have been attacked by the Revolutionary Guards,” he writes.

“I should also sadly mention that tens of students have been killed during the last year's demonstrations, among whom a young woman, Neda [Agha-Soltan], was a philosophy student, and no judiciary actions have taken place to clarify the circumstances of their deaths.”

What UNESCO did not anticipate was that there would be a very real clash about the relationship between politics and intellect. You see, the Islamic Republic is arguably a society ruled by philosophers. The regime's foundational ideology of velayat-e faqih, or “guardianship of the jurisprudents”, strongly resembles the “philosopher's kingdom” of Plato, an ideal government controlled by an elite class of intellectuals whose function is to maintain the moral and spiritual integrity of society.

The resemblance is not coincidental. Not only have models of the "philosopher's kingdom" been debated throughout Iranian history, but philosophers and philosophically-trained jurisprudents have been at the forefront of the regime since its inception, including Ali Shariati, Morteza Motahari, and most notably, the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, as well as, more recently, former president Mohammad Reza Khatami.

UNESCO, however, openly describes itsown understanding of philosophy as “provid[ing] the conceptual bases of principles and values on which world peace depends: democracy, human rights, justice, and equality.” As a philosopher would say, having World Philosophy Day in Iran would therefore have been a logical contradiction, if not outright sophistry.

Matters have since taken a turn for the silly, though. UNESCO has relocated the event, which begins on November 18, to Paris. Iran, meanwhile, is continuing with its own rival World Philosophy Day, beginning November 21, replete with a performance by the Tehran Symphonic Orchestra.

If Aristophanes had written his play today, would it be Ahmedinijad's head in the clouds?

-- Christopher Schwartz

About This Blog

Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at

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