Avicenna, Pt. I

This set of posts will be exploratory in nature. Not being a professional philosopher or even a full-time student of philosophy, I represent my presentations or conclusions in these posts to be merely provisionally informative, the result of my non-specialist attempts to work my way through some difficult texts and their historical developments.

The early Muslim philosopher Avicenna (980-1037) made a distinction between essence and existence in contingent (created) beings.:”(The following summary of Avicenna is a synthesis of materials found in several sources, including John Marenbon, Medieval Philosophy: An Historical and Philosophical Introduction [London and New York: Routledge, 2007], pp. 17-19 [on Plotinus] and 103-111 [on Avicenna]; David B. Burrell, “Avicenna,” in A Companion to Philosophy in the Middle Ages, eds. J.E. Gracia and Timothy B. Noone [Blackwell Publishing, Ltd., 2003], pp. 196-208; Jean Jolivet, “From the Beginnings to Avicenna,” in Routledge History of Philosophy Vol. III: Medieval Philosophy, ed. John Marenbon [London and New York: Routledge, 1998], pp.29-48; and Stephen Dumon, “Henry of Ghent and Duns Scotus,” in ibid., pp. 299-328.)”: Avicenna agreed with an earlier Muslim thinker, Al-Farabi (870-950), who thought of metaphysics as a “universal science” exploring what was common to all beings. On this concept, metaphysics studies being-qua-being (being-as-being), which is epistemologically (and perhaps even ontologically?) prior to any specific kind of being. But, since for Islam God is the source of all being, He must be the proper object of metaphysics – He must be the being-qua-being that metaphysics studies.

Up to this point it is possible (though perhaps not uncontestable) to argue the basic metaphysics points from the text of Aristotle. From this point, however, Avicenna modifies Aristotle’s presentation in the Metaphysics (I.5-7), such that Avicenna tries to explain why any beings exist at all. Aristotle merely took for granted the existence of beings, assuming that they (especially the world) were necessarily existent. Avicenna, however, went beyond Aristotle by explicitly placing the necessity of existence in the One, simple, Necessary Being, which was explainable by reference to nothing outside of itself. Existence is necessarily grounded ultimately in the Necessary Being.

But why do beings other than the Necessary Being exist? Why do contingent (non-necessary) beings exist? Regarding contingent beings, Avicenna posited the distinction between “what it is” (essence) and “that it is” (existence). The reason why contingent beings exist is because, as the Koran puts it, the Necessary Being, God, “said ‘be’ and it is.” God is the source and ground of all contingent beings, and they exist because He made them to exist. Nevertheless, for Avicenna (and contrary to the Koran) the creation of contingent beings is itself a necessary thing. God did not have a choice to create or not to create them.

Now in this metaphysical necessitarianism, in this assumption that God had no choice but to create things other than Himself, Avicenna was following the “emanationist” scheme of the Neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus. For Plotinus, the account of why a given thing exists is to be sought in that which gives it unity (Enneads VI.9.1). Following Plato himself (from the dialogue Timaeus), Plotinus posited a hierarchical “emanation” of beings: starting with the One (or the Good) at the top, which can only be described by negation, being descends through Intellect (nous) to Soul (both “World-Soul” and individual souls) to the world of sense experience. For Plotinus, although the One was itself entirely self-contained and does not need any of the other levels, at the same time it cannot keep its perfection to itself. It cannot help but “overflow” and “diffuse” its perfections into external images of its own internal activities.

So then, the emanations from the One are necessary: the One cannot help but create things other than itself. Although in and of themselves these things other than the One are contingent (they can be conceived of as not-existing without there being any ontological contradiction), at the same time but in a different sense, they are necessary. Apparently the connection between this Neoplatonic scheme of emanation and Avicenna’s basic Aristotelianism is to be found in his use of Aristotle’s concept that the Necessary Being is “pure Act with no Potentiality.” I will have to leave verifying or disproving this speculation for a future post, as I am still working through the material.

In the meantime, we might wonder why Avicenna, otherwise so deep into Aristotle, made such heavy use of a key element of the Neoplatonist tradition. Aren’t Aristotle and Neoplatonism generally quite philosophically far from each other? The answer, other than noting that not all thinkers (e.g., Boethius) have thought Aristotle and Plato were totally incompatible, is that during the eighth and ninth centuries (a century before Avicenna) the Abassid caliphs had sponsored the translation of a large number of philosophical texts out of Syriac and Persian into Arabic. In the process of this work, some of the works of Plotinus had been inadvertently mixed in with Aristotle’s and attributed to Aristotle. In effect, then, Avicenna was working with a Neoplatonized Aristotelianism.

If the implications of this fusing of two philosophical streams for Islamic attempts to correlate faith and reason were enormous, the implications for Medieval Christian Scholasticism were to be even more so.


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