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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


AVICENNA

( 980 — 1037)

 

ISLAMIC NEOPLATONISM

Avicenna (Ibn Sina) came from Bokhara in Persia, where his father was a government official. A polymath from an early age (compiling an encyclopaedia of the sciences when only 21), he practised medicine and wrote over a hundred books, including the million word Canon of Medicine. He was also a statesman, and in 1024 became a senior minister to the Emir of Hamdan. He is regarded as the first major systematizer of philosophy in the Islamic world.

 

METAPHYSICS/ RELIGIOUS PHILOSOPHY

[1] Although generally Neoplatonic, Avicenna's metaphysics was strongly influenced by Aristotle, and he regarded metaphysics as the study of Being as being and its transcendental attributes [a]. He considered there to be three modes or levels in which essences or 'intelligibles' can exist: (1) in God's Intellect as immaterial Ideas (ante rem); (2) in individual material things (first 'intention', or 'natural sign in the soul' — signifying things) (in rebus); and (3) as mental constructions or abstractions, 'universals' (second 'intention' — signifying concepts or other signs) (post rem) [b]. Essences, however, are what they are regardless of their mode of existence. Avicenna supposed existence in individual things to be an accidental property of their essence. He meant by this that while in itself an individual, say, Socrates exists as a possible thing, its existence is necessitated by the essence 'humanity' of which it is but one realization or embodiment; there are no essences without any existent instances. Essence is thus logically prior to existence and is thus far separable from it [c]. Similarly essences, although 'contingent' (they might not have existed), derive their existence necessarily from other essences. An infinitely regressive chain is not possible; there must be a necessarily existent essence to cause and sustain in existence the universe. This necessary essence is God, the uncaused and eternal being whose essence and existence are identical [d]. All such derived beings may therefore also be said to be necessary — by virtue of this necessary relationship to their causes [d]. However, while for Avicenna 'being' is in general a univocal concept, it would seem that these derived beings (including Aristotle's 'primary substances') are necessary beings in a different and analogical sense from the one truly necessary Being, that is, God [e][e]. Avicenna also supposed there to be a plurality of forms constituting the essence of an individual [f]. Socrates, for example, possesses the forms of corporeality, animality, and humanity (the soul), as well as accidents which contribute to his individuality.

[2] Avicenna distinguished between potency and actuality, on which potency is dependent. Potentiality is the principle by which a thing can change into another. It can exist as active potency (in agents) or as passive potency (in the patient, that is, what is acted upon); and he said that there is a gradation from pure potential, 'formless' being, which is prime and eternal matter, to pure actuality — which again is identified with God alone [a]. Further, because God has no potentiality or lack, He must be absolute Goodness — from which all other divine (and equally necessary) attributes, such as Truth and Love, are indistinguishable [b].

[3] Avicenna argued that 'creation' was an eternal and necessary generative emanation of the temporal world from the eternal God as a result of His self-knowledge and the radiation of His goodness — out of the necessity of His own nature [a]. But because He is simple He can have no knowledge of multiplicity; and because He is spirit He cannot create material things directly. He therefore 'creates' the First Intelligence [b]; that is, it 'proceeds' from him, and is thus like Himself. However, in this First Intelligence existence and essence are distinct and its knowledge of itself (as 'possible') is separate from its knowledge of God (as 'necessary') [c]. Nine more 'intelligences' are supposed by Avicenna to emanate hierarchically from the First Intelligence, the successive causal stages exhibiting ever greater multiplicity [d]. The last and tenth ('Active Intelligence') (1) gives the form of corporeality and specific (essential) forms [e] to pure potentiality (matter) [e] thus producing bodies composed of form and matter [e] (this being that which individuates concrete objects, including individuals sharing these forms) [e]; (2) serves as a single Active Intellect which enables each individual soul to grasp through abstraction the 'intelligibles', that is, universal essences in the mind (post rem) [f]. Consistent with his account of God's knowledge and the necessity of his acts that Avicenna rejected providence and free-will [g]; and he regarded evil as a privation [h].

 

PSYCHOLOGY

[4] There are three kinds of soul received from the Active Intelligence by and within appropriate compositions of matter. The animal soul takes up the vegetative; while the individual human rational, 'possible' or potential soul or intellect takes over the other two [a]. It is a separate spiritual substance but is not the form of the body (matter being the principle of individuation) [b]. Through the agency of the Active Intellect (Intelligence) the 'possible' soul is transformed into the 'acquired' or material intellect [c]. The latter can survive bodily death and, depending on the kind of life it has led (that is, its degree of 'actualization'), it exists as an individual soul in a state of eternal happiness or of torment, seeking its body (Avicenna thus does not accept the doctrine of monopsychism) [d].

 

KNOWLEDGE

[5] Avicenna distinguished between primary intelligibles, such as logical truths, and secondary intelligibles, which are concepts and demonstrative inferences. Knowledge of secondary intelligibles presupposes sense-experience as a starting-point. The 'possible' soul must pass through three stages if knowledge is to be possible. It starts as pure passive potentiality; it then becomes 'positive' (partially in act) when it receives the images from sense experience; and finally, when it becomes the 'acquired' material intellect, it can receive the secondary intelligibles as 'intentional objects' and grasp universal essences — with the help of the illuminating and 'actualizing' power of the Active Intelligence [a]. Knowledge of the primary intelligibles is gained directly from the Divine emanation [b]. Avicenna also argued that the concepts of being and individual thing, although generally gained through sense-impressions, can be grasped necessarily through one's consciousness of the self [c]. He supposed further that certain 'prophets' by means of their 'imaginative faculty' can acquire through direct revelation what is reached and translated through philosophy, and can express it in symbolic language; so, although philosophy and theology are separate domains, there is no incompatibility between faith and reason [d]. Avicenna says we can have no positive knowledge of God as he is in Himself; our approach can only be negative. But appropriate spiritual exercises can enable the prophets to achieve a superior mystical vision of God which transcends knowledge and language altogether [e].

 

CRITICAL SUMMARY

Avicenna's subtle blend of Neoplatonism with Aristotelian concepts proved to be a major stimulus both to other Arabian thinkers and to Christian scholastics of the thirteenth century. The key features of his philosophy are his emphasis on essences as existing in three modes, and on existence as an accident of essence (except in God). However, many of his doctrines were not accepted uncritically. The more Platonic and rationalist elements in particular were subjected to close scrutiny for possible conflict with Islamic orthodoxy, and were also to prove problematical for later Christian philosophy — especially his view of the necessity of God's actions, his rejection of a creation in time in favour of the emanation account, and his denial that God has knowledge of multiplicity.

 

READING

Avicenna: Al-Shifāt' (The Healing); Al-Najāt (The Deliverance); Al-Ishārāt wa al-Tanbīhāt (The Directives and Remarks). There does not seem to be a convenient collection of Avicenna's principal writings in English translation. But see O. Leaman, An Introduction to Classical Islamic Philosophy.

Studies

D. B. Burell, 'Avicenna', in J. J. E. Garcia (ed.), A Companion to Philosophy in the Middle Ages.

L. E. Goodman, Avicenna.

R. Wisnovsky, Aspects of Avicenna.

Collections of essays

P. Adamson and R. C. Taylor (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Arabic Philosophy.

G. M. Wickens (ed.), Avicenna, Scientist and Philosopher: A Millenary Symposium.

 

CONNECTIONS

Avicenna

 

Note: The Neoplatonic influence on Avicenna can be traced primarily to Books IV-VI of Plotinus's Enneads and to the Elements of Theology of Proclus, both of which were translated into Arabic but were believed by contemporary Muslim philosophers to be works of Aristotle. Many of the ideas contained in these works were also utilized and transmitted to Avicenna by Al-Farabi (c. 873-950). However, in the following references the Neoplatonic tendencies in Avicenna's philosophy will be attributed to Plotinus for convenience. (See also the Profile on Proclus.)

 

[1a; cf. 1e] Metaphysics: Being as being; meaning of 'being'; modes of being

   Aristotle

Averroes

Albert

Aquinas

Henry of Ghent

Duns Scotus

   Suarez

[1a 13a]

[3a]

[1a]

[1b]

[1a]

[1a 1b]

[1d]

 

[1b] Essences — modes of existence: Ideas in God's mind, universals; 'intention'

   Plato

   Aristotle

   Plotinus

Albert

Bacon (Roger)

Aquinas

Henry of Ghent

Duns Scotus

Ockham

   Suarez

[1c 2a]

[13d e 14b c]

[1f]

[1i]

[2c]

[6e 6d]

[1a d 1b]

[1a]

[1b]

[2d]

 

[1c 3c] Essence and 'accidental' existence; essence logically prior; 'separability'

   Plato

   Aristotle

Averroes

Maimonides

Wm of Auvergne

Bacon (Roger)

Aquinas

Henry of Ghent

Duns Scotus

Suarez

[1c 2a]

[12e 13a]

[2a]

[2e]

[1b]

[1a]

[1d]

[1b]

[2b]

[1d]

 

[1d] God as pure act, unmoved mover, final and efficient cause; essence and existence identical; no infinite causal chain; proof for existence of God

   Aristotle

Averroes

Maimonides

Wm of Auvergne

Albert

Aquinas

Henry of Ghent

Duns Scotus

[12e 13a]

[2a d]

[2a]

[1h]

[1b]

[3a e]

[1b]

[3a 2b]

 

[1d e] Necessity and contingency, and God's existence

   Aristotle

Averroes

Aquinas

Henry of Ghent

Duns Scotus

[9b sec. 10 12e]

[2c]

[3e]

[1f]

[3a]

 

[1e] Meaning of 'Being' — univocity and analogy

   Aristotle

   Plotinus

Averroes

Aquinas

Henry of Ghent

Duns Scotus

[4b 13a]

[1b]

[2b]

[3c 7a]

[1g]

[1c]

 

[1f 3e] Form constitutes essence of individual; plurality of forms

Aristotle

Grosseteste

Maimonides

Bacon (Roger)

Aquinas

Henry of Ghent

Duns Scotus

[14a 13c 14b]

[1d]

[2f]

[1b]

[2a 2c]

[1h]

[2d]

 

[2a 3e] Pure potentiality (eternal matter) and actuality; change

   Aristotle

   Plotinus

Averroes

Albert

Aquinas

Henry of Ghent

Duns Scotus

[5b 14b 16c]

[1l]

[2c f]

[1h]

[1e 2a d e]

[1c]

[2f]

 

[2b] God as absolute Goodness, Truth, Love

   Plotinus

Aquinas

[1a]

[8a]

 

[3a b] Necessary eternal emanation of world from God's self-knowledge; the First Intelligence (has self-knowledge)

   Aristotle

   Plotinus

Averroes

Maimonides

Wm of Auvergne

Albert

Aquinas

Henry of Ghent

Duns Scotus

[12e]

[1c e]

[2e 2g]

[1b 2d]

[1c g]

[1e 1f 1f]

[3a 3f]

[1f]

[3e]

 

[3d] Hierarchy and multiplicity; Intelligences

   Plotinus

Averroes

Maimonides

Wm of Auvergne

Albert

Aquinas

[1d-g]

[2g]

[2f]

[1c]

[1g]

[3b]

 

[3e] Last (Active Intelligence) gives forms to matter; hylomorphism in corporeal individuals

   Aristotle

   Plotinus

Averroes

Maimonides

Grosseteste

Albert

Bacon (Roger)

Aquinas

Duns Scotus

[14b 15d]

[1f l]

[2h]

[2g f]

[1d]

[2c]

[1c 2a]

[2a 3b]

[2e]

 

[3e 4b] Matter and individuation

   Aristotle

Albert

Aquinas

Henry of Ghent

Duns Scotus

[14a]

[1j]

.[2b]

[1i]

[2g]

 

[3g; cf. 3a] No providence

   Plotinus

Aquinas

Duns Scotus

[2b]

[4a]

[3f]

 

[3h] Evil as privation

   Plotinus

Aquinas

[1m]

[4a]

 

[4a b; also 4c] Individual unitary rational soul (as intellect); not form of body; separate spiritual substance

   Aristotle

Averroes

Maimonides

Wm of Auvergne

Albert

Aquinas

Henry of Ghent

Duns Scotus

[15b 15d]

[3b d]

[4c]

[2a 2b]

[2a 2a]

[5a 5e]

[1h]

[4a b]

 

[4c; see also 3e 4a b 5a] Active Intelligence: converts soul's 'possible' to 'acquired'/ material intellects

   Aristotle

Averroes

Maimonides

Wm of Auvergne

Albert

Aquinas

Duns Scotus

[15d]

[3b]

[4a]

[2c]

[2c]

[5b]

[4b c]

 

[4d] Personal immortality ('acquired' intellect); no monopsychism

   Aristotle

   Plotinus

Averroes

Maimonides

Wm of Auvergne

Albert

Aquinas

Duns Scotus

[15e]

[2a]

[3d e]

[4c]

[2d]

[2b]

[5e f]

[4c]

 

[5a 3f; cf. 4c] Knowledge: sense experience, universals; illumination by active intelligence; secondary intelligibles as 'intentional' objects

   Aristotle

   Plotinus

Averroes

Maimonides

Grosseteste

Wm of Auvergne

Albert

Bacon (Roger)

Aquinas

Henry of Ghent

Duns Scotus

[16a 16c-e]

[3a]

[3b c]

[4a]

[2a]

[3b]

[3a]

[2a]

[6c 6d]

[1b 2a 2b]

[5b 5d]

 

[5b] Knowledge of primary intelligibles (emanation from the Divine)

   Aristotle

Averroes

Grosseteste

Wm of Auvergne

Duns Scotus

[17a]

[3a]

[2a]

[3c]

[5b d]

 

[5c] Necessary apprehension of Being (via sense and self-consciousness)

   Augustine

Wm of Auvergne

Aquinas

Henry of Ghent

Duns Scotus

[1e 2b]

[3a]

[6c]

[2c]

[5e]

 

[5d] Revelation and symbolic language; faith and reason — no incompatibility

Averroes

Maimonides

Wm of Auvergne

Bacon (Roger)

Aquinas

Duns Scotus

[1a]

[1a]

[1a]

[1f]

[1a]

[1a]

 

[5e] Mystical, transcendental vision; negative theology

   Plotinus

Averroes

Maimonides

Wm of Auvergne

Bacon (Roger)

Aquinas

[3b]

[3a]

[2b 4e f]

[3d]

[2a]

[7a]