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From Perception to Knowledge: Before and After Avicenna

Project leader: T. Kukkonen

The Problem

In a plenary address made to the Society for the Study of Medieval Philosophy (SIEPM) in Helsinki some 25 years ago, Michael Marmura posited that when it comes to the reception of Greek philosophy into Arabic, the most significant change of all came with the Arabic translation and adoption of Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics. Subsequent research has amply verified Marmura’s contention, for instance when it comes to scientific methodology: scholars have shown that the early mathematical (Euclidean or Pythagorean) predilections of the school of al-Kindî (d. ca. 870) gradually gave way to strictly Peripatetic – in other words, qualitatively arranged – presentations of scientific knowledge in the works of the Baghdad philosophers of the 10th century, above all in the highly influential polemics of al-Fârâbî (d. 950). From here, there was really no going back.

More recently, McGinnis has elaborated on how in the work of Ibn Sînâ (the Latin Avicenna, 980–1037) the very notion of demonstrative knowledge is the ordering principle lending coherence to Avicenna’s presentation of metaphysics, natural philosophy, psychology, and logic. On the Avicennian picture, scientific inquiry aims at knowledge of the essences of things, such essences being embedded in the necessary causal interrelations holding between worldly beings. Logic is needed to sort out what kinds of inferences can legitimately be drawn from premises received through an elaborate cognitive apparatus involving the five outer and five inner senses. From this sensory data, the intellect can begin its work in assembling a veridical picture of the necessary world order: The rightfulness of this picture is vouchsafed for by the Agent Intellect, which in addition to its cosmos-forming role also imprints the intelligibles in the human mind.


2013–2015: What is needed in the first instance is a solid account of what one might call animal cognitive psychology in the Arabic Peripatetic tradition, the question of how – and how much – an animal apprehends its environment as it orients its life. This investigation provides the tools for the next phase, which consists of a renewed account of the human cognitive apparatus and its contribution to concept formation. This work will be undertaken in collaboration with ‘NN1’.

2016–2019: My estimation is that in the period 2016–2019 at least 4–7 journal articles will be produced on topics related to the issue of concept formation in classical Arabic philosophy. The following two areas can already be identified as being especially potent and ripe for exploration: (1) No serious study has been done of the way Averroes’s commentary on the Posterior Analytics (available in a single manuscript) interacts with his commentaries on De anima. This cuts right to the heart of the Aristotelian theory of concept formation and scientific inquiry, and should thus prove to be of the utmost interest. (2) The psychological and epistemological presentations of the Baghdad Peripatetics should be more closely scrutinized to achieve a fuller picture of what the infamously elusive al-Fârâbî meant to say. Even one of these would provide a full project; what else might emerge remains to be seen.

Relation to Other Sub-Projects

My sub-project presupposes an investigation of animal cognition which will be the topic of NN1’s sub-project; NN2’s work on the later Arabic tradition (see 2.3.2) relies on my sub-project and NN1. As for work across teams, the Arabic Aristotelians had access to Greek material and it is therefore to be expected that Ierodiakonou, Bydén and Mora-Márquez will provide relevant new items benefitting my project, while NN1 and I can hope to benefit to the Latin sub-projects.

Page Manager: Andreas Ott|Last update: 3/18/2013

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