BMCR 2019.12.22

The Arabic, Hebrew and Latin Reception of Avicenna’s Physics and Cosmology. Scientia Graeco-Arabica, Band 23

, , The Arabic, Hebrew and Latin Reception of Avicenna's Physics and Cosmology. Scientia Graeco-Arabica, Band 23. Boston; Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2018. 549. ISBN 9781614517740. $98.75.

This is the latest in the series of rich volumes edited by Hasse and Bertolacci on the reception of Avicenna (980-1037). The editors have been generous; about half of the contributions are forty pages or longer, some considerably more. The space is well-used.

The papers in the present volume concern the sections of two of Avicenna’s encyclopedic works that deal with physics and cosmology. Al-Shifā’ (The Healing) and Al-Ishārāt (Pointers). The former was addressed to philosophers; the discussion of the world of nature begins with a long and deep scrutiny of motion. The latter was directed at theologians (mutakallimūn); it spoke mostly of matter, hardly touching upon motion and was by far the more widely studied in the Islamic world, from its publication well into the nineteenth century.

Some readers of al-Ishārāt were adept at philosophy, and their glosses on al-Ishārāt present a huge body of rich give and take explored by Jon McGinnis. The critical problem was a fundamental circularity in defining time and motion; the definition of the one depended on the other. The options, to oversimplify, are the following: to give one of them, say time, a priority in the mental universe and the other (motion) priority in the extra-mental universe; to make one, or both, a primitive concept whose existence need not be proven; to allow some form of counter-predication, allowing the predicate to be made a subject. McGinnis focuses on three topics: Athīr al-Dīn al- Abharī (d. 1265), whose miniature encyclopedia, al-Hidāya, enjoyed an enormous readership and engendered numerous commentaries; a commentary on al-Hidāya by the great Persian philosopher Mulla Ṣadrā (1571-1636); and Faḍl-I Ḥaqq Khayrābādī (d. 1861). These are but major milestones in a rich and dense tradition, as McGinnis acknowledges. McGinnis may be reminded, perhaps, that the mutakallimūn were for the most part atomists—with regard to time and space as well as matter. Philosophers aligned with the Aristotelian tradition may not be able to come up with a definition of time, but they can and must show that it is not atomistic. This may explain why Khayrābādī took “Aristotle and Avicenna’s discussion about the relation between time and motion merely to show that time must be continuous, not to define what the essence of time is” (p. 19).

Dimitri Gutas, unchallenged dean of Avicennan studies, continues his assault on the misattribution to Avicenna of an esoteric, mystical theosophy (or some combination of those terms). His focus is on the phrase al-hikma al-muta’āliya, likely a hapax in al-Ishārāt. Al-muta’āliya should mean “being on high”; the full phrase then refers to knowledge concerning the supernal, celestial bodies. At issue, as Gutas clearly states, is “the thorny problem of knowledge of particulars by the celestial souls and intellects” (p.30). Unfortunately, a slew of medieval and modern students of Avicenna have taken muta‘āliya to mean something like “transcendent”. Surprisingly, the initiator of this misunderstanding is none other than Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī (1201-1274), who generally went out of his way to defend Avicenna in his commentary to al-Ishārāt. The phrase is embedded in a long and unwieldly sentence, which Gutas unpacks with great precision. 1 Gutas concludes, “The study of the reception and interpretation of Avicenna’s thought … provides the best chart for the development of philosophy and theology in the Muslim East in the centuries following his death” (p. 39).

Jules Janssens and Peter Adamson each take a close look at passages from Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (d. 1210), a key and critical student of Avicenna’s writings. Janssens looks at the notions of place, void and directions in al-Mabāḥith al-Mashriqiyya; Adamson places under his microscope the concept of time—more precisely the question of the objective, extramental existence of time—as developed in al-Maṭālib al-’Āliya. Al-Rāzī produced an enormous body of writings, each with a distinct viewpoint. Of the two, only Adamson references occasionally other writings of al-Rāzī, and even he omits entirely the massive, unpublished al-Mulakhkhis, whose system differs from other writings of al-Rāzī. Both discern a fundamental debt that al-Rāzī owes to Avicenna’s Shifā’, directing their attention to points of divergence from Avicenna.

Janssens moves through the selected portion of al-Mabāḥith, pointing out the near or distant resemblance to the Shifā’; where none can be found, he appeals to other writings of Avicenna, and when that fails, he identifies other sources. While this approach may be expected in a volume of essays on the reception of Avicenna, as a reflection of al-Rāzī ‘s thought it seems to me to be illusory. Al-Rāzī did not work by first rephrasing the Shifā’, then pulling from his shelf works increasingly removed from Avicenna, as the topic required. Adamson nicely characterizes al-Rāzī as “the sort of theologian that an analytic philosopher would enjoy” (p. 65). Largely under the influence of Avicenna, Muslim thinkers designated the deity as the “necessary existent” ( wājib al-wujūd). However, close analysis of the nature of time may lead to the conclusion that time alone, or together with the deity, is the “necessary existent”; neither position is an option for a Muslim. This is perhaps the most vexing of the issues treated by Adamson, whose investigation shows that al-Rāzī ‘s views fit the Platonic conception, with which al-Rāzī explicitly identifies.2

Andreas Lammer looks at the theory of time in one of the many productive, creative, and virtually unknown medieval Islamic thinkers, Sayf al-Dīn al-Āmidī (d. 1233). Lammer begins his essay with a lucid and rich discussion of the topic in earlier philosophers, from Plato to Avicenna, pointing out how the nature of the inquiry changes; for example, Avicennians had to ask not only does time exist, but how does it exist? In the mind only, or in external reality as well? Lammer’s analysis of al-Āmidī ‘s dense and difficult exposition is remarkably clear. Inter alia, he shows how a Platonic conception of time seeps into al-Āmidī —and Avicenna before him—when they unwittingly implied that motion occurs within time, rather than having time conform to motion, as Aristotle maintains.

There was considerable intellectual polarization between the two extremities of the medieval Islamic world. Avicenna, a Persian, set the agenda for philosophy and medicine in the east; Averroes (Ibn Rushd, 1126-1198) was the champion of the Maghreb. Following upon some of her earlier work, Cristina Cerami detects that Averroes’ fierce criticisms are often motivated by his fear that Avicenna has allowed too much Ash‘arite kalam (speculative theology) into his system, thus opening it to the critique of al-Ghazālī (1058-1111). This makes a lot of sense; Avicenna was seen as a competitor, al-Ghazālī a hostile opponent. In the present study she aims to facilitate further research by providing a “broad map” of Averroes’ criticisms in the fields of natural philosophy. Her tabular presentation listing all explicit references to Avicenna is very helpful in this regard; the tables are followed by a detailed discussion of each criticism. Ranging over some eighty pages, the paper covers Physica, De caelo, De generatione, and Meteorologica. Not all the disagreements concern philosophy or kalam. The critique labeled by Cerami “On the effects of thunderbolts”, briefly treated on pp. 227-8, concerns Avicenna’s observation, experiments, and attempts to explain theoretically metallic meteorites; iron meteorites have been exploited around the world, especially for weapon manufacture. Avicenna was one of the few who attempted to harmonize the phenomena with Aristotle’s theories of rainfall and metal formation.

Abraham Ibn Da’ud (1110-1180), supposedly the first Jewish Aristotelian, has long been thought to have drawn on Avicenna. However, no one has been able to determine whether he read Avicenna directly, or learned of his views by way of al-Ghazālī; perhaps he read both, perhaps neither. Resianne Fontaine’s painstaking analysis of the few passages in Ibn Da’ud that deal with natural philosophy leads to no firm conclusion. Are the enormous resources put into cataloguing and then comparing “technical terms” in their various linguistic instantiations and lexicographical entries wisely invested? It seems to me that a thorough account of Ibn Da’ud’s accounts of motion, the infinite, and so on, free of suppositions or even suspicions of “sources”, would be more helpful at this stage. Note, for example, that Ibn Da’ud’s remark that motion begins with “God’s command”, hints at a possible, weighty input from kalam. Fontaine acknowledges that “Ibn Daud’s religious conviction plays a part in his teachings on natural philosophy. This is not to say that religious convictions are lacking in Avicenna” (p. 259). But are their convictions identical? The religious traditions of the two are certainly not. What, then, is the point of belabored comparisons, tempered by opaque reflections like those just cited? Fontaine’s considerable talents should have been put to better use.

Gad Freudenthal begins with Samuel Ibn Tibbon (ca. 1150-ca. 1230), famed translator of Maimonides’ Guide and, in Freudenthal’s words, “one of the few true Avicennians in the history of medieval Jewish thought” (p. 269). Ibn Tibbon was troubled for twenty years by the difficulty of reconciling the biblical account of “the gathering of the waters” (Gen. 1:9), producing dry land on the same surface as the oceans, with the accepted naturalist doctrine, based on Aristotle, that the four elements should occupy concentric spheres. He finally found a solution in Avicenna’s Shifā’, which advances a theory of infinite cycles of the emergence and subsequent re-submersion of dry land, a theory with radical implications for life on earth, as Freudenthal duly notes. A full exposition of Ibn Tibbon’s ideas is offered elsewhere;3 here Freudenthal moves through a long list of medieval Jewish thinkers, examining their reception of Ibn Tibbon’s Avicennian hypothesis, and using this to map these thinkers on a scale marked at one end by “bold naturalism” and at the other by “literalist fideism”. The coverage of writers, mostly minor, is impressive and mostly accurate. A few corrections are in order, for example, the Hebrew min ha-din, which Freudenthal translates as “lawful” and labels a “rare expression” (p. 293 n. 113): Isaac Albalag and Levi ben Hayyim both use it, suggesting to Freudenthal that the former read the latter. However, the term, which is not that rare, is a vestige of Talmudic terminology and denotes a logical conclusion.

The studies of the Latin tradition open with some sixty pages of “Notes” by Dag Hasse together with digitization expert Andreas Büttner, who is justly listed as co-author. The collaboration between philologist and programmer, academic neologisms such as “stylometry” and “dendogram”, and the entire research strategy based on smart computer searches for key terms, opened for this reader a brave new world of textual scholarship. The purpose is to identify the authors of several anonymous translations of philosophy from Arabic into Latin. Hasse does give priority to philology, meaning here stylistic analysis, which is then confirmed in large part by statistical analysis. Overall, the study buttresses suggestions made long ago, and without the help of computers, by Manuel Alonso, whose contribution is duly noted. A number of important texts are thereby added to the c.v.’s of two of the most important translators, Gerard of Cremona (1114-1187) and Dominicus Gundisalvi (1115-1190).

William of Auvergne (1190-1249) was one of the first to read the Latin versions of Avicenna’s metaphysics and psychology. Avicenna’s influence was so deep that “William usually refers to Avicenna when he speaks of Aristotle and his followers” (p. 372). Katrin Fischer explains that William stridently rejected Avicenna’s emanation theory and concomitant rejection of creation in time; however, he was deeply influenced by Avicenna’s theory of efficient causality. Here too, William’s theological commitment to human freedom of action led him to endorse a voluntarist position regarding human moral choices as well as to reject “the Peripatetics for even putting God on the level with the causes acting out of natural necessity” (p. 391).

Amos Bertolacci studies Albert the Great’s (1205-1280) different strategies for minimizing the disagreements between Averroes and Avicenna. As Bertolacci’s writes, “Averroes’ attacks … are not occasional and incidental diversions, but rather represent a leitmotiv and concentric attack …” (p. 397). This observation does not go far enough: Averroes’ attacks on Avicenna extend to medicine as well and, more importantly, are just the most extreme example of the rejection of Avicenna by scholars in the Maghreb. Albert’s efforts are classified as “material” (simply omitting Averroes’ criticisms), “stylistic” (avoiding joint mention of the two when discussing a particular issue), and “doctrinal” (a theoretical accommodation on the most crucial issues); separate sections of the article discuss each of the above.

Cecilia Trifolgi studies Roger Bacon (d. a. 1292), who clearly makes more use of Avicenna than the other Latins. Surprisingly, in his Communia naturalium Bacon appeals more to Avicenna’s Metaphysics than to his Physics. The reason seems to be that Bacon is particularly interested in the fundamental rules governing how nature operates, and these are consigned by Avicenna to metaphysics. By no means does Bacon agree with Avicenna on all points; however, rather than confronting him, Bacon cleverly claims that the views he deems unacceptable are not Avicenna’s own, but rather opinions cited from others. Avicenna is their recitator, not their auctor. Like several other contributors, Trifolgi appends to her close analysis of selected examples a full listing of references to Avicenna.

Avicenna’s meteorology, investigated by Jean-Marc Mandosio, had a choppy voyage to the West. At first, only two small segments were available: De mineralibus, which was misattributed to Aristotle, and De diluvis, which featured as a supplement to Plato. The entire work was translated only in 1280. Latin readers were by then heavily under the sway of Avicenna’s great rival, Averroes, who claimed that Avicenna was unfaithful to Aristotle. Much like Aristotle’s Meteorology, Mandosio’s paper ranges widely. I must however use my remaining space to call out Mandosio’s horrific choice (if it is his) of “lofty impressions” to render al-athār al-‘ulwiyya, without even a note to justify it. Literally the phrase means the traces, or effects, of the higher, i.e., celestial [bodies]. It is, in fact, the title of the Meteorology in Arabic and Hebrew (and not just of one section), since rain, rainbows and other atmospheric phenomena—which included meteors and comets, according to Aristotle—were thought to be the traces, or effects, of the motions of the celestial bodies upon the sublunar sphere, especially (what we call) the atmosphere. Do the author or the editors have any idea what the phrase “lofty impressions” conjures up to the native speaker of English? A simple Google search will reveal it. ​


1. I quibble with his vocalization of yulawiḥhuhu; pace Gutas, the first form ( yalūḥ) can take a direct object; see M.A. Friedman, A Dictionary of Medieval Judeo-Arabic (Jerusalem, 2016), p. 445.

2. More specifically, I think that al-Rāzī is on the same page as Iamblichus; see Y. Tzvi Langermann, “Ibn Kammūna and the ‘‘New Wisdom” of the Thirteenth Century.” Arabic sciences and philosophy 15.2 (2005): 277-327, on pp. 323-324.

3. Gad Freudenthal, “’The Gathering of the Waters’, a Watershed Issue in the Torah/Philosophy Controversy in 13th Century European Judaism: Samuel Ibn Tibbon, Jacob ben Sheshet and Menahem Ha-Meiri,” Daat 74-5 (2013): 267-298 [Hebrew].