BMCR 2004.10.14

Aristotele e i suoi esegeti neoplatonici. Logica e ontologia nelle interpretazioni greche e arabe. Atti del convegno internazionale Roma 19-20 ottobre 2001

, , Aristotele e i suoi esegeti neoplatonici : logica e ontologia nelle interpretazioni greche e arabe : atti del convegno internazionale, Roma, 19-20 ottobre 2001. Elenchos ; 40. Roma: Bibliopolis, 2004. xxi, 282 pages ; 23 cm.. ISBN 8870884619 €30.00.

This volume contains seven papers originally delivered at a conference at Rome in 2001 on the topic of the reception of Aristotle’s philosophy in late antiquity, especially among Greek Neoplatonists and Arabic philosophers. The authors and titles of the papers are: R. Chiaradonna, “Plotino e la teoria degli universali. Enn. VI 3 [44], 9″; F. A. J. de Haas, “Context and Strategy of Plotinus’ Treatise On Genera of Being ( Enn. VI. 1-3 [42-44]); H. Hugonnard-Roche, “La constitution de la logique tardo-antique et l’élaboration d’une logique ‘matérielle’ en syriaque”; C. Ferrari, “Der Duft des Apfels. Abu l-Farag ‘Abdallah Ibn at-Tayyib und sein Kommentar zu den Kategorien des Aristoteles”; M. Rashed, “Ibn ‘Adi et Avicenne: sur les types d’existants”; A. Bertolacci, “La ricezione del libro Γ della Metafisica nell’ Ilahiyyat del Kitab al-Sifa di Avicenna”; C. Martini Bonadeo, ” ὡς ἐρώμενον : alcune interpretazioni di Metaph. Λ 7″.

The period of the history of philosophy from, say, Alexander of Aphrodisias (2nd-early 3rd century CE) to Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) remains pretty much frontier territory except for the specialist. There are of course certain exceptional nodes of interest, including I suppose Plotinus (204/5-270), Augustine of Hippo (354-430), and Boethius (ca 480-524). Yet, during the above period, philosophy in the Platonic tradition flourished and the great flowering of the Islamic appropriation of ancient Greek thought began. One can, however, still find — if not in theory, then in practice — followers of the benighted Will Durant who, after writing a chapter on Aristotle in his immensely popular The Story of Philosophy (17th printing, 1964), paused only for a few desultory and condescending remarks about post-Aristotelian philosophy and the philosophy of the Middle Ages before moving on blithely to Francis Bacon. Naturally, there are reasons for the professional lack of interest, including linguistic and ideological ones. Perhaps the greatest scholar of medieval philosophy in the 20th century, Etienne Gilson, realized only too late in his very long life that one could not adequately understand Scholasticism without immersing oneself in its roots, especially in Arabic philosophy. In addition, as Gilson himself famously demonstrated, Descartes’ philosophy was itself firmly rooted in Scholasticism. To pretend otherwise is to contribute to or to acquiesce in the ongoing marginalization of the history of philosophy, particularly its early history. The present volume, by, and no doubt primarily for, specialists in the field, amply rewards study by those who would like to be reminded that the “story of philosophy” is much richer and complex than it is usually made out to be.

Chiaradonna’s paper analyzes Plotinus’ criticism of Aristotle’s theory of categories of reality in Ennead VI 3. He aims to show that Plotinus, unlike his disciple Porphyry, took Aristotle’s account of the structure of the sensible world as fundamentally incompatible with Platonism. By contrast, Porphyry, according to Chiaradonna, began the Neoplatonic project of harmonizing Aristotle with Platonism. In particular, for Plotinus, the absolute priority of sensible substance is not reconcilable with a hierarchical ontology according to which the intelligible is prior to the sensible. Chiaradonna demonstrates that Plotinus grasped that the contrast between universal and particular does not adequately represent the contrast between intelligible and sensible and that it is the latter that Plotinus wished to maintain. Chiaradonna argues further that Porphyry restores harmony by distinguishing the sort of relative priority that sensible substance has from the absolute priority of the intelligible to the sensible.

Against Chiaradonna, De Haas argues that the harmonization of Aristotle and Platonism is Plotinus’ project, too. He holds that Plotinus treats Aristotle’s Categories as a “quasi ontology of the sensible realm”. He rejects the approach taken by Chiaradonna and others that Porphyry “saved the Categories from Plotinus’ devastating attack”. The key to De Haas’ interpretation of Plotinus is the claim that Plotinus saw that Aristotle’s categorical schema could not be genera of being, since the primary category, substance, was itself hierarchically constructed (i.e., form is prior to composite and composite is prior to matter). In addition, as Plotinus understood, Peripatetics, following those in the Academy, denied that members of a hierarchy could be arrayed under a single genus. Thus freed of the burden of proposing an alternative to the Platonic categorical structure of reality, Aristotle’s Categories could be seen as an application of the Platonic schema to the sensible world.

Hugonnard-Roche explores the reception of Aristotle’s Organon in late antiquity, especially Categories. He describes the standard approach, found in the enormously influential teachings of the Neoplatonist Ammonius (ca 440-after 517) and later in Al-Farabi (ca 873-950), according to which the demonstration syllogism as analyzed in Posterior Analytics is the focus of the work in general and Categories, De Interpretatione, Prior Analytics are preliminary studies of its elements — terms, propositions, and formal syllogistic structure. Hugonnard-Roche contrasts this approach with another, found in the 6th century Syriac writings of Paul the Persian and discernable in some later Islamic thinkers. On this approach, Categories is not understood as the most preliminary work, one dealing with the ultimate elements of demonstration. Thus, De Interpretatione does not presuppose Categories. Rather, that work explores the modalities of relation between that which is signified by predicates and subjects in demonstration, for example, genera and species. Accordingly, the sort of division of terms described in Categories is irrelevant to the syllogism.

Ferrari examines how the later Arabic philosophical tradition deals with the earlier Greek tradition in respect to a particular logical puzzle. The puzzle is that for Aristotle an accident is inseparable from a substance, but it seems that, for example, in the case of an apple’s fragrance, which is an accident of it, is in fact also separable from it. Ferrari examines the work of Abul-Farag ibn at-Tayyib (d. 1043), a Nestorian Christian philosopher and physician, who preserves three of the Greek solutions to this puzzle in his commentary on Aristotle’s Categories. The first solution rests upon a doctrine of physical emanation, according to which the accidental scent is defined as a stream of particles streaming out through the air. The second rests upon the idea of air as a medium through which the accident is perceived. The third solution has the accident impressed on the air and the air on the perceiver. It is the third solution that Ibn at-Tayyib argues is the correct one, and the one endorsed by Aristotle. In fact, Ferrari shows that the Greek commentators preferred yet another solution based on temporal modalities, according to which Aristotle should be interpreted as maintaining that an accident can be separated from that in which it was, though not from that in which it is.

Rashed’s article (to which is appended the first translation of Yahya ibn ‘Adi’s (d. 974) treatise on universals) explores in rich detail the problem crucial for Neoplatonists and medieval philosophers of the ontological status of essences. Rashed explains how Avicenna (980-1037) argued against the realism of the Neoplatonic tradition, exemplified by Porphyry, and carried forward by Ibn ‘Adi, according to which essences had an existence of their own. Avicenna wanted to insist that while an essence could exist in the divine mind, our minds, and things exemplifying it, that did not entail that it had its own existence. However, since this makes universality extrinsic to essence, the question remains of the ontological status of the essence as such. Ibn ‘Adi wanted to argue that the possibility of an essence existing so diversely entailed its having its own unique existence. By contrast, Avicenna held that “pure” essence or form was itself non-existent precisely because it did not have the complexity required of something that exists.

Bertolacci examines Avicenna’s efforts to apply the account of being qua being in Book G of Aristotle’s Metaphysics to a unified understanding of metaphysics. Avicenna famously claimed not to have fathomed Aristotle’s Metaphysics until he chanced upon Al-Farabi’s commentary on that work. This unified understanding depends on establishing the scientific character of metaphysics according to the strictures of Posterior Analytics. That scientific character is manifested in a universal demonstrative science of being qua being and being’s commensurately universal properties. Metaphysics is thus distinguished from dialectic, and theology is subordinated to a branch of metaphysics, not identified with it. As a branch of metaphysics, theology studies the principle and cause of being, God, the necessary self-caused source of being. It is noteworthy I think that Avicenna, who here claims to be following Aristotle, actually gives a Neoplatonic rendering of the place of a first principle of all in relation to universal science.

Bonadeo explores the Arabic philosophical interpretations of Book L, chapter 7 of Aristotle’s Metaphysics wherein the prime unmoved mover is characterized as “goal” or “end” of the entire universe. The contemporary (and traditional) interpretations of God’s finality and the problems with these are well known. Aristotle distinguishes two sense of “end”, the “internal” result of the operation of an efficient cause and the “external” purpose for which something is done. However, neither of these senses of “end” seems to make sense when applied to the unmoved mover as the separate and self-existing “end” of the entire universe. There is a rich alternative tradition of late Greek and Arabic commentary on this passage, and the prevailing interpretation within that tradition (perhaps deriving from an alternative text), assimilates the finality of the unmoved mover, as ultimate good, to a type of paradigmatic causality. This paradigmatic status is not adventitious and sporadic; it must flow from the efficient causality of the paradigm, that is, operate on all that its causal scope embraces. That is why the unmoved mover is paradigmatically good. The resistance to this interpretation is undoubtedly owing to the assumption that paradigmatic causality is resolutely rejected by Aristotle. Nevertheless, the general idea that Aristotle’s philosophy was hostile to Platonism was not an assumption shared by Arabic-Islamic falsafa.

This is altogether a welcome and impressive collection, with much stimulating material both for the specialist and for the generalist willing to explore the vast and intricate terrain situated between the classical period and Latin Scholasticism. The greatest benefit for the casual reader will be found in the fresh interpretive perspectives brought by Arabic philosophers to their reading of the Greeks.