We have a fresh opportunity to reflect about Islamic philosophy.
At this point Professor Peter Adamson isn’t going to speak about his views on Islamic philosophy but he also speaks about some Islamic philosophers too.
Professor Peter Adamson.
Professor of Ancient and Medieval Philosophy.
Peter Adamson's primary areas of interest are late ancient philosophy and Arabic philosophy. His two monographs deal with the Arabic version of Plotinus, the so-called "Theology of Aristotle," and with al-Kindi (d. after 870 AD). He has devoted articles to several figures of the Greek tradition: Aristotle, Plotinus, and Porphyry; and numerous philosophers of the Arabic tradition, including al-Kindi, Abu Bakr al-Razi, Yahya Ibn 'Adi, Miskawayh, Avicenna, and Averroes. He has also edited several books including, most recently, "In the Age of Averroes" published by the Warburg Institute. In 2012 Prof Adamson moved to the LMU from King's College London, which is the home of a research project he oversees, on "Natural Philosophy in the Islamic World," funded by the Leverhulme Trust. He is also the host of the History of Philosophy podcast.
Q: First of all what made you take up Islamic philosophy?
PA: I was interested in history of philosophy since my undergraduate tudies (at Williams College), and decided to go into the area of medieval philosophy, because I had been interested also in medieval literature. Also, I figured that I should go into an area where there would still be quite a lot to do in terms of new research - I loved Plato and Aristotle but wasn't sure I'd be able to add something valuable to the existing literature on them. Really getting into philosophy in the Islamic world was the same thing: I realized that there were many un-explored figures who were really interesting. So it wasn't because I had any personal connection to Islam, for instance, it was really just historical curiosity. Another factor was that I am interested in Neoplatonism, and wanted to see how the Greek Platonist tradition was received across the spectrum of medieval cultures, which would include the Islamic world as well as the Latin tradition.
Q: I wonder what made you focus on Avicenna and how you see his impact on Islamic philosophy and philosophy of religion.
PA: Avicenna is the most important figure in the history of philosophy in the Islamic world, no matter how you measure it: certainly the most historically influential, and also the most interesting from a contemporary philosophical point of view. There was no previous book collecting studies by experts on all aspects of his thought, so that's what we set out to provide. We didn't cover absolutely everything in the book - for instance Avicenna wrote on mathematics and zoology and there are no papers on these topics in the volume - but it is very comprehensive. Another aspect of the book is that it looks at his reception in all three Abrahamic traditions, i.e. in Christian Europe, among Jews, and in the later Islamic world. When you take this all together it becomes clear that Avicenna was in fact the most influential medieval thinker of all, even more so than (for instance) Aquinas, because he is really the only one who has a vast legacy in all three traditions. (Admittedly, this is less true in Judaism where his influence is real but often indirect.) Another thing I'd emphasize is that the philosophical tradition in the Islamic world did not, as is often assumed, end in the medieval period. Rather, in the time we think of as late medieval, Renaissance, or early modernity in Europe, there is a huge amount of work in philosophy and theology going on, even during and in the wake of the Mongol invasions. And almost all of that (so far mostly unstudied) material responds to Avicenna. If you look at a list of the later commentaries on Avicenna this is quite obvious.
Q: Could you elaborate on Avicenna’s views on natural philosophy and metaphysics?
PA: Well, that's a big question of course! Let me just pick out one issue for each area. In natural philosophy, as in other disciplines of philosophy, he engages critically with Aristotle and works within the Aristotelian system but produces innovative ideas. A famous case here is his idea of "inclination (ميل )" which is compared sometimes to the modern idea of impetus, though it is slightly different. His idea is that a thrown object, for instance, has a certain "inclination" to move up that is imparted to it by a thrower, but also one pulling it down towards the earth. That is an innate tendency of the stone by the way, he isn't anticipating the theory of gravity. Still it is a step towards understanding momentum and impetus theory. In metaphysics probably the most famous thing is his proof for God as the Necessary Existent, which was enthusiastically repeated by many generations of thinkers later on.
By the way I cover this and other topics in my series of podcasts on the history of philosophy, which included several episodes on Avicenna (the first is at history of philosophy. net/avicenna-life-works).
Q: Could you comment on Avicenna’s epistemological and logical views?
PA: Again that is a big subject. Avicenna is an extremely important and influential figure in logic, who especially innovates in the area of modal logic, which means logic having to do with the idea of necessity and contingency. A number of the later commentaries I mentioned above deal with his logic, in fact. An area of his epistmology which has been explored recently (for instance by Deborah Black and Jari Kaukua) is Avicenna's emphasis on the idea of self-awareness. He has a famous example where we imagine someone being created by God in midair so that he isn't touching anything, and unable to see, hear, and so on. Avicenna claims that even this newly created person - who has no memories and no sensory input - would still be aware of his own existence. This shows, for him, that self-awareness is a fundamental feature of the human self.
Q: I would like to know how Avicenna argues from the conclusion that there is a necessary existent to the further claim that God so conceived has the attributes associated with the God of Islam.
PA: That's actually the topic of my chapter in the book. There I argue that just by proving that there is a necessary existent, Avicenna hasn't shown that God exists. After all philosophers have thought that plenty of things exist necessarily without being God (like numbers, or Platonic Forms, or even the universe itself). Avicenna realizes this and so he tries to show that the various traditional divine attributes can be proven on the basis of God's necessary existence. For instance, something necessary has no cause, and matter is a kind of cause:
Something that material things depend on in order to continue existing. This proves, for Avicenna, that the necessary existent is immaterial; on this basis he can then say that the necessary existent must be thinking, because the only kind of activity that is immaterial is thought. So with this kind of argument, he builds up a picture of the necessary existent as God, one attribute at a time.
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There is a lot of scholarly controversy about this; part of the controversy has to do with whether al-Ghazali is really totally opposed to Avicenna's ideas. He does criticize him in Tahafut al-Falasifa (Incoherence of the Philosophers) but I tend to think that what he does NOT criticize is also important. He is happy with Avicenna's work in logic for instance and may accept most of Avicenna's physics. It is really when it comes to philosophical theology that he has a problem with Avicenna's ideas. Above all what he rejects is in fact what I was just talking about, the centerpiece of Avicenna's idea of God: Necessity. Al-Ghazali (and other Ash'arite theologians) are of course happy to admit that God exists necessarily. But they object to the idea that all of God's features and actions derive from His necessity, since then He must (for instance) create the universe necessarily, rather than by free choice. So this, I think, is why al-Ghazali concentrates on the question of the world's eternity: for him the world's being eternal goes along with its being necessary, and he wants to avoid that at all costs.
AbdurRahman: Thank you very much, Professor Peter Adamson.
The Philosophical Works of al-Kindī, co-authored with Peter E. Pormann, Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Al-Kindī (Great Medieval Thinkers), New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
The Arabic Plotinus: a Philosophical Study of the “Theology of Aristotle”, London: Duckworth, 2002.
The Cambridge Companion to Arabic Philosophy, co-edited with Richard C. Taylor, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
the Age of Averroes: Arabic Philosophy in the Sixth/Twelfth Century
(Warburg Institute Colloquia 16), London: Warburg Institute, 2011.
For a complete list of publications, please see Peter's full research profile.
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