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From Perception to Knowledge: Before and After Avicenna


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.


In Representation & Reality, two post-doctoral researchers (David Bennett and Seyed Mousavian) will cover the Arabic tradition. They will attack the problem from two directions as follows:

David Bennett will examine the context of the Arabic reception to Aristotle, surveying the literature on sense perception, the psychology of dreams, and cognition in the 9th-10th centuries. Bennett will be concentrating on those points of synthetic innovation, where early Muʿtazilites (a rationalistic school of Islamic theology) engaged with the Greek tradition, and on how those early encounters shaped classical Arabic philosophy. This work will show that Avicenna’s robust philosophy of mind (and soul) was not merely a commentary on Aristotle, but rather an achievement rooted in various inter-related disciplines, benefitting from developments in the practical sciences, as well as from theological controversies for which the status of inquiries about certain aspects of the soul had profound significance, and the vicissitudes of the translation movement. Besides papers that will be submitted for other outlets, PR1’s contributions to programme’s final publication (the three volumes) will address the complex mutual influence of early Arabic theories of sense perception within and beyond the Aristotelian tradition, the anti-Aristotelian arguments about the veridical dreams in Avicenna, and the technical terminology of cognition at play in the period.

Seyed Mousavian will be mainly focused on the open problems in the literature on Avicenna’s philosophy of mind, language, logic, and epistemology. Avicenna’s ontology of the human mind does not allow the human soul to perform the role of the Aristotelian “form” for the human body. Similarly, his contingentism regarding the human soul, according to which the human soul does not pre-exist the human body, does not allow Avicenna to be a Platonist or Neoplatonist in this regard. This position has led to a number of controversies in Avicenna scholarship, both in philosophy of mind, and then as a result in epistemology. Mousavian will attempt to address these issues and try to follow some of the corollaries in the post-Avicennan Aristotelian tradition in the Arabo-Islamic philosophy.

The programme will also benefit from substantial contributions by two visiting scholars. Rotraud Hansberger (LMU), the leading scholar on the Arabic adaptation of the Parva naturalia, will add her expertise on that text and its reception. Ahmed Alwishah (Pitzer) will contribute a study on Avicenna’s theory of sense perception and its ramifications for the philosophical and medical study of delusions.

Relation to Other Sub-Projects

As for work across teams, 3 dimensions may be distinguished. First, R&R will produce a collection of co-edited volumes. The topics will range from the reception of “The Parva naturalia in Greek, Arabic and Latin Aristotelianism” to “The internal senses in the Aristotelian tradition”. The volumes will cover topics researched across different languages and from distinct philosophical perspectives. Second, the three co-authored volumes to be published at the end of the project include joint researches tying up history of philosophy, particularly Arabic Aristotelianism, with contemporary trends in analytic philosophy. Third, and consequently, there are cross-institutional sub-projects (the results will appear as peer-reviewed journal papers) aiming at reconstructing Avicennan philosophy and providing a new interpretation of his cognitive theory that is not, at least, theoretically inferior to the alternative readings.


Page Manager: Andreas Ott|Last update: 3/1/2019

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