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The Elements of Avicenna’s Physics: Greek Sources and Arabic Innovations

The Elements of Avicenna's Physics: Greek Sources and Arabic Innovations
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 The Elements Of Avicennas Physics Greek Sources And Arabic Innovations
  • Book Author:
Andreas Lammer, Avicenna
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 The Arabic Fate of Aristotle’s Physics

In this chapter, I survey the transmission of Aristotle’s Physics into Arabic, in order to set the basis for my subsequent investigation of the central concepts of Avicenna’s physics. Since Avicenna formed his philosophy by engaging with the materials from the preceding Greek and Arabic traditions, it is important to bring to mind which texts were available to him and what he might have known, used, and reacted to.

Accordingly, the contents of this chapter not only indicate the wide range of texts that need to be taken into consideration if the assessment of Avicenna’s natural philosophy is to be adequate, they also provide information on translators and translations that will be presupposed and referred to in the remainder of this study.

Much information here derives from the famous Kitāb al-Fihrist, an annotated bio-bibliographical catalogue composed by the Baġdādī book merchant Abū l-Faraǧ Muḥammad ibn Isḥāq al-Nadīm (d. ⁓ 385/995). This catalogue contains primarily two passages which report on translations of Aristotle’s Physics that either were available to Ibn al-Nadīm, had been in his possession, or were simply known by him ((Ibn al-Nadīm, Kitāb al-Fihrist, vol. 1, 244.5f., 250.7–27 (ed. Flügel)/vol. 2, 145.5f., 166.1–167.12 (ed. Sayyid).)).

Many sections of the Kitāb al-Fihrist, including one on Aristotle’s Physics, have been copied verbatim by the historian ʿAlī ibn Yūsuf ibn al-Qifṭī (d. 646/1248) into his own Taʾrīḫ al-ḥukamāʾ, often furnished with additional information ((cf. Ibn al-Qifṭī, Taʾrīḫ al-ḥukamāʾ, 38.9–39.21; cf. also Ḥāǧǧī Ḫalīfa, Kašf al-ẓunūn, §§7258, 10190, 10193.)).

Ibn al-Nadīm’s catalogue has received a large share of attention among scholars. With regard to its information on the Arabic transmission of the Physics, particular mention is to be made of Moritz Steinschneider’s well-known study Die arabischen Übersetzungen aus dem Griechischen and Francis Peters’ partial translation and study Aristoteles Arabus ((cf. esp. Steinschneider, Die arabischen Übersetzungen aus dem Griechischen, 50–55; Peters, Aristoteles Arabus, 30–34)).

Elias Giannakis’ unpublished doctoral dissertation on Philopo-nus in the Arabic Tradition of Aristotle’s Physics as well as a number of subsequently published articles provide valuable information on the context of reading Aristotle’s Physics in fourth/tenth-century Baġdād ((cf. esp. Giannakis, “The Structure of Abū l-Ḥusayn al-Baṣrī’s Copy of Aristotle’s Physics”; “Fragments from Alexander’s Lost Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics.”)).

Moreover, important information concerning the Graeco-Arabic translation movement, in particular regarding its influence on Avi-cenna’s philosophy, can be gathered from Amos Bertolacci’s assessment of the sources for Avicenna’s al-Ilāhiyyāt as well as from Dimitri Gutas’ analysis of the philosophical curriculum outlined in the Kitāb fī aṣnāf al-ʿulūm al-ḥikmiyya of Abū Sahl al-Masīḥī (d. 401/1010) ((cf. Bertolacci, The Reception of Aristotle’s Metaphysics in Avicenna’s Kitāb al-Šifāʾ, ch. 11; Gutas, Avicenna and the Aristotelian Tradition, 169–179.)).

Transmission and Translation – THE ELEMENTS OF AVICENNA’S PHYSICS

The transmission of Aristotle’s Physics into Arabic is intimately related to the transmis-sion of the Greek commentaries on the Physics, especially those written by Alexander of Aphrodisias (fl. ⁓ 200) and John Philoponus (d. 574) ((For the Greco-Arabic translation movement, cf. esp. Endreß, “Die wissenschaftliche Literatur”; Gutas, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture; “Greek Philosophical Works Translated into Arabic.”)).

As it turns out, this circumstance is to the detriment of anyone hoping to acquire an exact understanding of the scope and nature of the Arabic translations of the Physics, as the information we can gather from our bibliographical sources concerns more the commentaries than the text commented upon.

Of course, the Greek commentaries as we know them are, for the most part, lemmatised expositions, i.e., commentaries which, first, quote some lines from the Aristotelian text and, then, engage in a more or less free analysis of the quoted passage before turning to the next few lines from the text.

Lemmatised commentaries, thus, provide in and of themselves a relatively complete version of the Aristotelian text ((It is worth noting that the lemmata of a commentary follow a different line of transmission than both the running text of the commentary itself and the passages quoted or paraphrased within the running text of the commentary; cf. Primavesi’s remarks in Aristotle, Metaphysics A, 407f. as well as Barnes, “An Introduction to Aspasius,” 37. For a more positive evaluation, in particular regarding the lemmata in Alexander’s commentary on the Metaphysics, cf. Kotwick, Alexander of Aphrodisias and the Text of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, esp. 38–50.)). Yet, it is also clear that any information on the Graeco-Arabic translations of commentaries does not as such tell us anything exact about whether, and to what extent, an Arabic version of Aristotle’s text itself existed, circulated, and was used at a certain time in an intellectual milieu, or whether an interested reader had to turn to an Arabic version of (some parts of) a commentary and from there come to know (some parts of) the Aristotelian text.

This is particularly problematic, when – as in the case of Aristotle’s Physics – the bibliographical sources allow for different interpretations. Translations Mostly “with” the Commentaries of Alexander and Philoponus

The earliest attested translation of Aristotle’s Physics is that by Sallām al-Abraš (fl. mid second/late eighth century), who worked under the reign of Hārūn al-Rašīd (d. 193/809; r. 169/786–193/809), the fifth ʿAbbāsid caliph at Baġdād ((cf. Endreß, “Die wissenschaftliche Literatur,” 422; Gutas, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture, 72f.; D’Ancona, “Greek Sources in Arabic and Islamic Philosophy,” ch. 2. In Sayyid’s recent edition of Ibn al-Nadīm’s Kitāb al-Fihrist, vol. 2, 145.5, “Salām [sic] and al-Abrša [sic]” appear to be two translat-ors. The textual variant Sallām wa-l-Abraš, however, is also noted by Endreß, “Die wissenschaftliche Literatur,” fn. 38, 422.)). According to Peters, Ibn al-Nadīm did not specify the language into which Sallām al-Abraš translated the Physics, suspecting that the translation “may have provided the Syriac Vorlage for Ibn Naʿimah’s

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