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Islamic Thought in the Middle Ages

Islamic Thought in the Middle Ages: Studies in Text, Transmission and Translation, in Honour of Hans Daiber

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 Islamic Thought In The Middle Ages
  • Book Author:
Anna Akasoy, Wim Raven
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Islamic Thought in the Middle Ages – Book Sample


The reception of Arabic philosophy in the Latin West is an important but still fragmentarily known chapter in the history of Western thought. In an erudite essay, Hans Daiber has stated that the influence of the Latin translations of Arabic philosophical texts on Scholastic thought ‘has as yet by no means been exhaustively discussed.’1

This conclusion motivated me when choosing the theme of my contribution to this volume. It is concerned with the medieval reception of a well-known doctrine of Avicenna’s philosophy, whose significance for the history of Western metaphysics is generally underestimated. His original teaching on the primary notions of the intellect had an immense impact on Latin philosophy; it captivated medieval thinkers like Thomas Aqui-nas, Henry of Ghent and John Duns Scotus.

 They not only adopt Avicenna’s doctrine, but develop it in a critical and productive way. The reasons for this fascination as well as the nature of their adoption and critical transformation of the doctrine deserve closer scrutiny.2 To that end we shall first (1) examine Avicenna’s motive for the introduc-tion of primary concepts. Since he lists a plurality of such notions, we next consider them separately: (2) the concepts ‘thing’ and ‘being’, and (3) the status of the concept ‘one’. By way of conclusion (4) we attempt to characterize Avicenna’s doctrine as a whole in the light of the medieval reception.

(1) The Beginning of Thought:

‘The First Impressions in the Soul’

Avicenna’s doctrine of the primary notions has a place in his Meta-physics that suits its primacy. In the first treatise of this work, the Arab philosopher first deals with what one could call ‘the Prolegomena’ of his metaphysics: its subject-matter (ch. 1–2), utility (ch. 3) and contents (ch. 4).3 The constructive part of his account in fact starts in the fifth chapter, entitled ‘On Indicating the Existent (ens), the Thing (res) and their First Divisions’, in which he develops the doctrine of the pri-mary notions of the intellect.4

The chapter begins with the following statement: ‘“Thing” (res), “being” (ens) and “the necessary” (necesse) are such notions that they are impressed immediately in the soul by a first impression ( prima impressio) and are not acquired from other and bet-ter known notions.’5 This programmatic statement from Avicenna is probably the text from his Metaphysics most frequently cited by medieval authors. Two aspects are noteworthy in his doctrine.

Why is it necessary to accept primary notions? The structure of Avicenna’s argument does not become very transparent in his exposi-tion; its force rests on an analogy between two orders of knowledge, the order of ‘assent’ (ta􀀁dīq; in the Latin translation credulitas) and that of ‘conception’ (ta􀀁awwur; in the Latin translation imaginatio). He does not explain these terms which have been called ‘the cornerstones of medieval Arabic epistemology’.6

But Algazel, who in the Middle Ages was regarded as Avicenna’s faithful student, gives in his Logic a descrip-tion of ‘the first two parts of science’, according to which the order of credulitas concerns the domain of propositions, the order of imaginatio that of concepts.7

The analogy Avicenna has in mind consists in the claim that in both orders a reduction is necessary to first principles that are known per se. Just as there are first principles, known through themselves, in the realm of assent, so also in the realm of conception there are principles that are conceived per se and do not require any prior conception.

 If one desires to indicate them to somebody, his doing so would thus not make an unknown thing known, but would merely draw attention to them or bring them to mind through the use of a sign.8

In Avicenna’s argument, the first member of the analogy, the order of credulitas, is the better known, because he takes the Aristotelian analy-sis of the structure of demonstrative knowledge (scientia) for granted. Since ‘science’ is grounded knowledge, i.e. a habitus that is produced by demonstration, what is scientifically knowable in the proper sense are the conclusions of a demonstration, for these propositions meet the demand for foundation.

From this it follows that science is always derived from something prior, insofar as the conclusion is deduced from propositions previously known. This structure, however, raises the problem of the ultimate foundation of science, for the reduction (Gr. ‘analysis’, Lat. ‘resolutio’) to something prior seems to lead to an infinite regress.

 Aristotle solves this problem by concluding that the first principles of science cannot be demonstrated, since the search for a foundation would imply either an infinite regress, which is impossible, or a circular argument. Therefore the first principles of science are not derived from something else, but are immediately known.9 In his Metaphysics, Aristotle shows that the first principle of demonstration, which he calls the anhypotheton of thought, is the principle that ‘the same thing cannot at the same time belong and not belong to the same thing in the same respect’.10

Avicenna’s originality consists in his application of the finite structure of scientia to the order of concepts as well. For Aristotle, the ascent to the most general predicate of which a definition is constituted termi-nates in the ten genera generalissima, the categorial diversity of being.

For Avicenna, it is a logical complement of the Aristotelian analysis that the impossibility of an infinite regress and the reduction to a first likewise holds for the order of concepts. Just as propositions must be reduced to first indemonstrable principles, so too in the order of imaginatio there must be primary notions. ‘If every conception requires a prior concep-tion, then this state of affairs would lead either to an infinite regress or to circularity.’11

In his argument, Avicenna aims at a systematic beginning of human thought. His discovery of first notions realizes an ambition of meta-physics in its search for a first: our knowledge starts from first principles through which all subsequent knowledge has to be gathered. It is this aspect that may explain the strong medieval interest in his doctrine. Secundum Avicennam and secundum rei veritatem there are ‘firsts’ in what is conceived by the intellect, which are referred to as the primae intentiones, primae conceptiones or prima intelligibilia in the thirteenth century.12

 Most authors avoid Avicenna’s expression primae impressiones because of its epistemological implications; his terminology reflects an extrinsic view of the origin of the primary notions, insofar as they are seen as the direct impressions by the cosmic active Intellect. The term conceptio, by contrast, expresses the inner activity of the human intellect in the forming of these notions.13

The impact of Avicenna’s doctrine can be seen in two accounts of the transcendentals, those of Aquinas in De veritate q. 1, a. 1 and Henry of Ghent in his Summa a. 34, q. 3. Both thinkers prepare their accounts by adopting the Avicennian analogy between the two orders of intellectual knowledge. Aquinas describes them as the order of demonstrable propositions and the order of the investigation into what something is. Henry indicates them with the terms intellectus complexus, which connects concepts in a proposition, and intellectus incomplexus. In both orders a reduction (reductio) is necessary to a first that is known per se and therefore notissimum.14

(ii) Avicenna’s analogy argument is strictly formal; it does not say which concepts are the primary notions of the intellect. He twice presents a list of them. In the opening statement of chapter 5 he men-tions ‘thing’, ‘being’ and ‘the necessary’. Later in the same chapter, immediately after the analogy argument, he establishes that ‘what is most suited to be conceived through itself is that which is common to all things (ea quae communia sunt omnibus rebus), as are “thing”, “being” and “one”.’15 Between the two lists there exist some differences, which, however, Avicenna does not discuss.

In the first list, the conceptual primacy is accounted for by the impossibility of acquiring these notions from other and better known notions. In this idea it is implied that the primary concepts cannot be defined. Any attempt in that direction, Avicenna observes, rather con-ceals these notions.

If someone were to say, for example, ‘the reality of ‘being’ (ens) consists in being either active (agens) or passive ( patiens)’, that person uses a division of being that is less known than ‘being’. All men conceive ‘being’ without knowing at all that it must be either active or passive.16

 Another implication is that the primary notions are the condition for all further conceptual knowledge. Henry of Ghent clearly expresses this priority: Nothing can be known and understood as such, for instance, as ‘man’ or ‘white’, when it is not first known and understood under the notion of ‘being’ and ‘one’, that is, as ‘being’ or ‘one’. These notions are necessarily conceived to belong to a thing by a first impression, at least according to a logical priority—, before that thing is conceived as ‘man’ or ‘white’.17

In Avicenna’s second list, the conceptual firstness is related to the commonness of these notions. That may be the reason that ‘the nec-essary’ is absent here, because it rather belongs to the first division of ‘being’. In accordance with the title of the chapter that announces such a division, Avicenna, at the end of the chapter, deals with the modal concepts ‘necessary’, ‘possible’ and ‘impossible’.

It is striking that, when the medievals quote the opening statement of the fifth chapter, they always leave out ‘the necessary’.

The primary notions are the communissima;18 because of their universal predicability they transcend the categories of being that Aristotle had distinguished. So medieval texts refer to Avicenna’s primary notions as transcendentia.19 This reference illustrates an important development in medieval philosophy: Avicenna’s identification of the primary notions with the most common concepts was incorporated into the doctrine of the transcendentals that was formed in the thirteenth century.

 Transcen-dentia are the ‘firsts’ (prima) in a cognitive respect, the first conceptions of the intellect.20 Does this mean that Avicenna’s chapter on the primary notions essentially was a doctrine of the transcendentals? An answer to this question should be postponed until the conclusion of our essay.

(2) ‘Thing’ and ‘Being’

Avicenna’s exposition in the fifth chapter of the first treatise is focused on the two basic notions that are mentioned in both lists, ens and res. The introduction of the latter term is surprising, because in the preced-ing chapters he had shown that being-as-being is the proper subject of metaphysics without making any reference to res.21 The introduction of res is also remarkable, since the term does not have an antecedent in Aristotle’s Metaphysics.

 The Latin Avicenna was the origin of the career of res in medieval philosophy. But why did this concept enter philoso-phy and what was its significance for our understanding of ‘reality’?22 Some clues as to why ‘thing’ was introduced are provided by Avicenna’s analysis of the relation between ens and res: how they differ from each other and how they are identical.

He first shows that they have different meanings. In all languages, he states, res signifies something different from ens. Every ‘thing’ has a ‘stable….

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