Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.08.38 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.08.38

Dag Nikolaus Hasse, Amos Bertolacci (ed.), The Arabic, Hebrew and Latin Reception of Avicenna's Metaphysics. Scientia Graeco-Arabica, Bd 7.   Berlin; Boston:  De Gruyter, 2012.  Pp. viii, 398.  ISBN 9783110215755.  $150.00.  

Reviewed by Mehmet Fatih Arslan, Istanbul University (


This book is a volume of studies first presented at a conference at the Villa Vigoni in 2008. As stated by the editors, the particular doctrines of Avicenna studied in the volume represent a somewhat accidental choice. Many important issues in metaphysics, such as the proof of God’s existence and the theory of substance and accident, are dealt with only cursorily, and the collection will be of most interest to scholars who work on two subjects: the distinction between essence and existence, and the concept of the necessary existent by itself. However, the articles also do important work in testifying to the remarkable philosophical originality of Avicenna’s doctrines and the way they have been perceived, in both Hebrew and Latin cultures. The articles reviewed in what follows I have selected because of their bold claims; the others are no less important, but the volume consists of too many articles for all of them to be handled here.

Jules Jannens’ article “Al-Lawkari’s Reception of Avicenna’s Ilahiyyat” mainly focuses on the claim that al-Lawkari tries to develop an all-encompassing, synthetic survey of Avicenna’s Ilahiyat. Jannens successfully argues that one may remain somewhat hesitant about this claim, since al-Lawkari’s account of metaphysics, in contrast to that of Avicenna, seems to dissolve the unity of metaphysics, and the intimate link between universal science and theology appears to have been loosened. However, one may argue that Jannens misses the crucial point of Lawkari’s account: he probably gives independent testimony to the Peripatetic tradition, so it is not necessary for him to follow or reflect Avicenna’s account blindly, or to have the very same metaphysical beliefs.

Another remarkable article, entitled “Essence and Existence in the Eleventh and Twelfth Century Islamic East: A Sketch”, is by Robert Wisnovsky. Wisnovsky points out that in his Hikmat al-ishraq as-Suhrawardi attacked the doctrine that existence is something super-added to the quiddity of things in the concrete, extramental world – a doctrine he associates with those he refers to as the followers of the Peripatetics. Suhrawardi maintains, by contrast, that existence is among those aspects of a thing that belong purely to the intellect, i.e. it does not exist in the extramental world as a separate entity. Wisnovsky admits that some texts of Avicenna, such as the famous passage from the Taliqat where Avicenna states that ‘the existence of each category is extrinsic to its quiddity and super-added to it; whereas quiddity of the Necessary Existent is its thatness’, can be understood as the theory criticized by as-Suhrawardi. Nevertheless, he still questions whether this was the theory that Avicenna actually held, because to his knowledge Avicenna never explicitly committed himself to the thesis that existence is something super-added to the quiddity. So he argues that Suhrawardi’s attack may be read as a refutation of Avicennan ontology of mutakallimun such as Razi and Hayyam, rather than Avicenna’s own ontology. However, one may be hesitant to agree with Wisnovskly, for two main reasons. First of all, Razi himself criticizes this notion of existence as something super-added to the quiddity of things, classifying it as a type of sophism used by radical skeptics who deny existence, and also criticizes those skeptics for their recklessness. Secondly, it seems that Hayyam and as-Suhrawardi were almost contemporaries: there are a only few decades between two men. It is hard to believe that Hayyam’s ideas could have been so swiftly diffused. The fact that there is almost no trace of Hayyam’s ideas in the main kalamic books such as Sharh al-Mawaqif, Shar al-Maqasid and al-Muhassal also weakens Wisnovsky’s claim.

“It may seem peculiar to describe Farabi as part of the reception-history of Avicenna’s metaphysics, given that Farabi died before Avicenna was born,” says Stephen Menn. It is indeed a very strange notion at first hearing. But Menn makes a great deal of effort to make it sound arguable in his article entitled “Farabi in the Reception of Avicenna’s Metaphysics: Averroes against Avicenna on Being and Unity”. He argues that Farabi became part of that reception history because Averroes made him part of it. As is known, Averroes is harshly critical of Avicenna’s attempt to rewrite Peripatetic metaphysics, in what Avicenna thinks is a more appropriate logical order, systematically developing central ontological concepts and making the theological conclusions depend on properly ontological, rather than merely physical, demonstrations. However, Averroes thinks that Avicenna’s attempts weakened the demonstrative power of Aristotle’s arguments and left the Peripatetics open to Gazali’s criticism. Menn argues that in some issues Averroes classifies Farabi and Avicenna together and attacks both of them for deviating from Aristotle and his ancient interpreters. But in some central ontological issues, Averroes sides with Farabi against Avicenna and indeed takes Farabi to have diagnosed Avicenna’s errors before Avicenna made them. In order to justify his claims, Menn gives detailed analysis of some crucial concepts such as mawgud (being existent), wugud (existence) and unity, in the theories of Farabi, Avicenna and Aristotle. Despite the fact that sometimes these analyses are more detailed than necessary and somewhat hard to follow, they are well organized and support Menn’s claims coherently. They also make clear that many of Averroes’s accusations against Avicenna are based on arguments which cannot be traced back to Aristotle, but are due to Farabi. The only element that is missing in Menn’s article is an analysis of the role of mutakallimun in Avicenna’s attempt to rewrite Peripatetic metaphysics, which Averroes considered as a deviation from the demonstrative methodology of Aristotle. (Averroes harshly criticizes Avicenna for being deeply influenced by mutakallimun and as a result producing rhetorical arguments rather than demonstrative ones in metaphysics.)

Peter Adamson explores a difficult topic in the psychology of Avicenna in his “Avicenna and his Commentators on Human and Divine Self Intellection”. He brilliantly demonstrates how Avicenna adds complex new arguments for Aristotle’s claims on this matter, with passages from Aristotle’s Metaphysics in mind. He also concludes that Avicenna stakes out entirely new positions of his own. For instance, the view that every self-subsisting intelligible object must be a subject of intellection is not clearly present in Aristotle, whereas it is very clear in Avicenna. Thus one may conclude that Avicenna gave an more elaborate justification for the claim that any intellect can engage in self intellection, and is more explicit about the inhibiting role of matter that Aristotle mentions in De Anima III.4. Adamson also illustrates the value of reading Avicenna alongside his two main commentators, namely al-Razi and al-Tusi. He examines the commentaries and shows, in al-Razi’s case for example, how he enriches Avicenna’s text by drawing attention to links between different parts of the Pointers (al- Isharat) and the relationship between Avicennan arguments and parallel disputes in Islamic theology.

In his article entitled “On the Latin Reception of Avicenna’s Metaphysics before Albertus Magnus: An Attempt at Periodization”, Amos Bertolacci claims that, thus far, studies have focused mainly on the Latin perception of Avicenna’s psychology in the Kitabl al-Nafs of the Shifa. Bertolacci also points out that, since research on the diffusion of Avicenna’s metaphysics is still at an immature stage, the picture we have is incomplete. His own present contribution fills the lacuna by providing a tripartite periodization of the circulation of the Philosophia prima (the Latin translation of the İlahiyat of the Shifa) in Latin philosophy before the middle of thirteenth century, a detailed account of these three periods, and an account of the evidence attesting the first diffusion of Avicenna’s metaphysics in the University of Paris, shortly before its employment by William of Auvergne. He also gives a brief account of remarkable scholars of that time in the University of Paris.

The co-editor of the volume, Dag Nikolaus Hasse, in “Avicenna’s ‘Giver of Forms’ in Latin Philosophy, Especially in the Works of Albertus Magnus”, tries to analyze how the datum formarum theory of Avicenna is perceived by Albertus Magnus. Before doing so, he first gives a brief overview of the fortuna of the concept in Latin philosophy. He then briefly discusses four of the (rare) positive reactions to it, those of William of Auvergne, John Buridan, Masilio Ficino, Tiberio Russiliano, before turning to one at greater length: that of Albertus Magnus. Hasse concludes that Albertus did not fully take over the eductio formarum theory of Averroes, as is sometimes claimed. It is true that Albertus distances himself from Plato and Avicenna, and that he criticizes the datum formarum theory. But his position nevertheless remains close to Avicenna. Hasse’s theory about likely reasons for Albertus’ adoption of the Avicennan theory of datum formarum makes this article very valuable. The only thing that could enrich it would be a little more detail about why Albertus did not fully take over the eductio formarum theory of Averroes, and discussion of the extent to which he was influenced by Averroes’ theory.

In his article, Giorgio Pini discusses Scotus’ and Avicenna’s account of what it is ‘to be a thing’. He analyzes a specific case, namely Scotus’ interpretation of the famous passage taken from fifth chapter of the first book of Avicenna’s Metaphysics. As is well known, Avicenna, in these chapters, makes some claims about the notions of a thing and of being, as the first notions received in our minds. Starting from this fact, Pini develops his article in three parts. First, he considers the views of Thomas Aquinas and Henry of Ghent about how to interpret Avicenna’s claims about what it is to be a thing. Secondly, he turns to Scotus’ view, which Pini considers as a development and criticism of Henry of Ghent’s position. Thirdly, he concludes with some remarks on the role played by the concept of a thing in cognition. Pini admits that Avicenna’s influence on Scotus is undeniable; but it makes little sense to speak of Avicenna’s influence without specifying in which way Avicenna was interpreted; thus, Pini devotes focused attention to how Avicenna was interpreted and what kind of dynamics are in act behind Scotus’ interpretation of him. He concludes that Scotus’ main interest was to understand how things are really in the world, and that Avicenna offered him some important conceptual tools to find an answer to this most fundamental question. In addition, since Scotus considered Avicenna as a salutary component to Aristotle, he benefited from Avicenna’s metaphysical explanation in a very efficient way. Even when Avicenna failed to consider some crucial facts, such as fall of Adam, Scotus found fruits in this very failure. For instance, Scotus thinks that it led Avicenna to put more emphasis on the concepts of thing and being, as the objects of our intellect – and that these concepts are what allow us to reconstruct the structure of reality, as far as that is possible for us in our present situation.

To sum up, this volume represents a valuable contribution to the study of the distinction between essence and existence, and the concept of the necessary existent by itself in Avicenna’s metaphysics. It is also surprisingly coherent for a collection of essays: most of the contributions complement each other very well. Without exception, the papers are very well researched, they reflect a variety of methodologies and approaches, are very rich bibliographically, and are meticulously edited. In short, this is an excellent and important collection of studies that greatly advances our understanding of Avicenna’s metaphysics and the way it has been perceived in three cultures, Arabic, Hebrew and Latin.

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