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In the year 529, Justinian closed the Schools of Athens, but fortunately for the West, Greek learning had been transmitted to the Near East, principally through the institutions of Alexandria and the Christian communities of Syria and Persia. Later, after the advent of Islam, this learning was fostered and developed by various Islamic philosophers and eventually carried across North Africa into Spain, where it flourished in such places as Toledo and Cordova. From the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries, it trickled and then flooded into Western Europe to augment the Christians’ meager and unbalanced knowledge of Greek philosophy.

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Avicenna was, perhaps, the most important Islamic philosopher. Besides being a prolific writer on philosophy and religion, he was a court scholar and physician, an active politician, a civil administrator, and the writer of medical texts that were standard works in Europe through the seventeenth century. Of his approximately one hundred works, the two most important are the philosophic encyclopedia, Kitab al-Shifa’ (early eleventh century; book of healing), the bulk of which was known to late medieval thinkers, and an abridgment of it, Kitab al-Najat, commonly known as The Book of Deliverance. This essay is based primarily on the section of the work dealing with Avicenna’s philosophy of mind, which was translated by F. Rahman and published under the title Avicenna’s Psychology.

In order to discuss Avicenna’s philosophy of mind and his epistemology, it is necessary to outline the system within which it is elaborated. Avicenna regarded himself as an Aristotelian, but his Aristotelianism, like that of both his predecessors and successors, was influenced by the pressure of religious considerations and by the fact that the Aristotle transmitted to him had become colored by Stoic and Neoplatonic elements.

The modifications in Aristotle’s philosophy are evident in Avicenna’s notion of God, his doctrine of creation, and his cosmology. He describes God not only as an eternal, unchanging, immaterial unmoved mover but also as a being whose existence is necessary because his essence is identical with his being, as the one who is indivisible, as true perfection, as pure benevolence, and as a continuously active Agent Intellect who, by emanation, creates the cosmos and all that is in it. Because intellect and will are identical in a pure intelligence, God can create simply by thinking. When he contemplates himself, he automatically generates the first created being, which is, because it stems from him, a pure intelligence.

God and the Intelligences

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The First Intelligence can also create by contemplation, but because it is a finite intelligence, it can contemplate and create in different ways. In contemplating God, it creates the Second Intelligence. In contemplating its own essence and in knowing that it is a contingent being characterized by potentiality, it creates the body of the first celestial sphere. In contemplating itself and in knowing its existence as necessary in that it flows necessarily from God, it generates the soul of the first celestial sphere.

Because the celestial sphere is attached to a body, its soul is not a pure intelligence and therefore does not create, but it does seek to emulate the perfection of its creator, the First Intelligence. It does so by contemplating the intelligence and by perfecting its own body. Because the only change simple celestial matter can undergo is a change of position, the soul perfects celestial matter by circular motion. Hence, the First Intelligence is the final cause of both the existence and motion of the first sphere. The Second Intelligence, by contemplating the First Intelligence and by contemplating itself in the twofold manner, produces the Third Intelligence and the body and soul of the second celestial sphere, that containing the stars. In a similar manner, further intelligences and spheres are produced as the creative process works down through the spheres of Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, the Sun, Venus, Mercury, and the Moon. The Tenth Intelligence does not produce a sphere, but it does produce sublunar things by providing souls and forms and by uniting them with suitably disposed complexes of sublunar matter. These complexes of matter come about as the four Aristotelian elements combine and recombine under the influence of the celestial spheres. The Tenth Intelligence is the Agent Intellect, or Giver of Forms, which looms large in Avicenna’s psychology and which provides a linkage between Aristotle’s Active Intellect and the Active Intellect of the Scholastics.

Avicenna agrees with Aristotle and disagrees with the theologians in claiming that this creative process is not a temporal process and that it is not creation out of nothing. Creation is not a temporal event, since time is the measure of change and thus presupposes the existence of matter, and it is not a temporal process because a cause must be contemporaneous with its effect. Furthermore, creation is not ex nihilo because form can only be imprinted on matter that is already available. Consequently, God, matter, the cosmos, and creation itself are eternal. Things exist because God exists, because he contemplates himself necessarily, and because their existence flows directly or indirectly from this contemplation. Insofar as it explains why things exist, the theory of emanation suggests a nontemporal sequence of active, efficient causes grounded in the supreme efficient cause, but it also suggests a hierarchy of essences following from one another in sequence. When God contemplates his own essence, he sees the network of implications that flow from it and thus, unlike Aristotle’s God, knows the cosmos in detail.

Avicenna’s views influenced much subsequent philosophy. Many, if not all, of the later Christian philosophers appreciated the proof of God’s existence from the existence of contingent things, the notion of God as an agent, the step in the direction of a suitable creation theory, the doctrine of intelligences as a foundation for a study of angels, God’s knowledge of the world, and the identity of essence and existence in God but their sharp separation in other things. They objected to the eternity of the world, the denial of creation ex nihilo, the piecemeal emanation of the created world, the determinism, and the doctrine of the Agent Intellect.

The External and Internal Senses

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Avicenna’s reliance on Aristotle, and in particular on Aristotle’s De anima (second Athenian period, 335-323 b.c.e.; On the Soul, 1812) is evidenced from the beginning of his psychology when he classifies souls as vegetable, animal, and human. The vegetable soul is characterized by the faculties of growth, reproduction, and nutrition; the animal has, in addition, those of motion and perception; and the human being is completed by the faculty of reason. There are really two faculties of motion in the animal soul: a psychic one characterized by desire and anger, which incite motion toward objects or away from them, and a physical one that actually moves the body by contracting and relaxing the muscles. There are five external senses, each operative when the form of the sensed object is impressed on the physical sense organ. For instance, when light falls on an object, it transmits an image through the transparent medium, and this image is impressed on the vitreous humor of the eye where it is apprehended by the psychic faculty of sight.

Avicenna’s analysis of the internal sense goes considerably beyond that of Aristotle, who did not distinguish explicitly between internal and external senses, and it anticipates in considerable detail that of the Scholastics. There are five internal senses: fantasy or common sense, representation, imagination, the estimative sense, and the recollective or retentive sense. These are unique faculties, each being associated with a different part of the brain. The common sense receives images transmitted to it by the five external senses, enabling people both to know that they differ from one another and to collate the data received from them. The function of representation or sense memory is to preserve the data received by the common sense. An external sense, such as vision, abstracts the form of a particular object from its matter, but it can do so only in the presence of the object, seeing the form with all the determinations imposed upon it by that matter and seeing it as being present in matter. The form in the representative faculty is still particular, but it is not seen as being present in or presented by matter. This further abstraction makes memory possible. Imagination is the faculty that enables people to separate and combine the images preserved by representation.

The estimative faculty detects the intentions of animate things and the effects of inanimate ones, thus enabling people to discover their significance for their welfare. On the first occurrence of such an insight, such as the sheep’s recognition that the skulking wolf means it no good, the response is an instinctive one in which the estimative sense operates on the images of common sense or representation to abstract the intention. Later it also seems to work by association, for after sense memory has stored up past correlations of a certain sort of visual data, say, with subsequent pain, the occurrence of such a visual datum will trigger the associated image of pain in the imagination and the estimative sense will then note the evil of that object.

Avicenna and the Scholastics note that intentions are not the objects of any of the five external senses, yet they insist, without explaining how it is possible, that intentions can be grasped only by attending to the images of common sense or representation. These intentions are particulars, but because they are nonsensible, apprehending them marks a yet higher degree of abstraction—an immaterial thing is abstracted from a material thing in which it exists only accidentally. Avicenna also points out that noncognitive judgment is involved in this process and that this is the supreme judging faculty in the animal. Furthermore, it is the function of this faculty to guide the two motive faculties. The function of the recollective or retentive faculty is to retain the judgments or insights of the estimative faculty, just as the representative retains the images of sensible things.

The apprehension of particulars occurs only through bodily organs, for a spatial thing can be present only to another spatial thing. This is so even in the case of the faculties of imagination, representation, and estimation, despite the fact that they operate in the physical absence of the object. To demonstrate this point, imagine two squares of exactly the same size that are separated from each other, then ask yourself how it is possible for there to be two separate squares. Because the difference cannot be accounted for as a difference of form, it must be the consequence of the same form being manifested in two different places. That is, there must be two images impressed on different areas of the middle ventricle of the brain, which is the physical seat of the psychic faculty of imagination. The point is a general one: The determinate features of imagery can be accounted for only if the form perceived by the faculty is at the same time a form manifested in matter. This line of reasoning, which does not appear in Aristotle, influenced the Scholastics and reappears quite explicitly in the works of the French philosopher René Descartes.


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Reason is divided into practical and theoretic faculties. With the help of the theoretic faculty, the practical faculty elaborates basic moral principles such as “Tyranny is wrong,” “Lying is wrong”; it considers purposes, deliberates, initiates behavior, and produces in the faculty of appetite such responses as shame and laughter.

The theoretic faculty can occur in various degrees. It may be dormant; it may develop to the point where it possesses the primary principles of thought, such as “The whole is greater than its part” and “Things equal to a third are equal to one another”; or it may perfect its potentiality by grasping the secondary principles as well and thus be in a position to think without the further acquisition of any other principles. These are the various degrees of the Potential Intellect. Finally, the intellect may actually think, exercising the capacities it has perfected at the prior stage. It is then called the Actual or Acquired Intellect. This last stage is not attained unless the Potential Intellect is activated by the Agent Intellect, the Tenth Intelligence.

In order to achieve its end of contemplating pure forms, theoretic reason must complete the process of abstracting forms from matter, a process already initiated by the external and internal senses. That is, it must turn to the imagination, to the images of particular objects, and, through the agency of the Agent Intellect, grasp the forms appearing there free of all the materially imposed determinations they still exhibit. This process of abstraction can be bypassed only by highly gifted individuals, such as the prophets, whose intellects are illuminated directly by the Agent Intellect, or the Giver of Forms. Reason recognizes that these pure forms could be manifested in many particular cases, so it regards them as universals; however, it also sees that these forms need not have been manifested at all, and therefore that they are, in themselves, neither particular nor universal.

Though he departs from Aristotle in holding that a form is not restricted to its occurrence in matter, Avicenna is not quite a Platonic realist, for he does not admit that a form can exist or subsist by itself. He introduces the famous doctrine of ante rem, in rebus, and post rem, a doctrine accepted later by Saint Thomas Aquinas and other philosophers as the solution to the problem of universals. The essences are ante rem insofar as they are the exemplars in the Giver of Forms, in rebus insofar as they are manifested in sensible objects, and post rem insofar as they are grasped free of material considerations by the human intellect.

Immateriality and the Soul

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Knowledge involves the discovery of necessary relations between universals, relations noted directly by intuition, which is a kind of illumination, or established indirectly by syllogistic reasoning. Although his model seems to be that of a body of knowledge derived by reason alone from universals and self-evident truths, Avicenna does point out that much knowledge about the world, though certain, is based partly on experience. Having noted the constant conjunction between things such as humankind and rationality and day and being light, and constant disjunction such as its not being both day and night, one must conclude that the noted constancy reveals a necessary conjunction or disjunction. Thus one must acknowledge necessary truths about the world, truths such as “Humankind is rational,” “If it is day, then it is light,” and “Either it is day or it is night.” However, apart from this sort of assistance and the assistance of the internal senses as providers of data, the intellect does not need the assistance of the body. It does not operate through a physical organ, for it can know itself and is not disrupted by strong stimuli, as the physical organ of sight is disrupted by a dazzling light. Furthermore, as is required by a faculty that apprehends pure forms, it is an immaterial faculty.

In defending his view that the soul is an immaterial substance, Avicenna invokes his famous “man in the void” argument. Suppose, he says, that a man is created in a void and suppose that his feet, hands, and other physical parts are separated from him in such a way that he has no sensation of them. Under these circumstances, he would have no experience of an external world and no experience of his body; nevertheless, he would still be conscious of himself. Consequently, the self he is conscious of must be an immaterial thing. Furthermore, since he can think of himself without thinking that he has a body, having a body is not essential to being a self and therefore is excluded from the nature of the self. That is to say, the immaterial self exists in its own right independently of other things and is therefore a substance. If it is associated with a body, the association is accidental. The soul is an entelechy because it governs and guides the body, but it is no more the form of the body than the pilot is the form of the ship.

This soul did not exist before the existence of its body, for if there were a number of preexisting souls, they would have to differ from one another; to do so is impossible because they would not differ in form nor would they be individuated by matter. If there were one preexisting soul, it would have to be shared by all men—an absurd idea. Therefore, the individual soul is created when there is a body suitable for it. By binding itself closely to its body, the soul is influenced permanently by the peculiar nature of the body and the particular events that befall it. Because the soul is a simple substance, it survives the death of the body, carrying over into the hereafter the individuality it has acquired.

In these various respects, Avicenna departed from the Aristotelian view of the soul in order to satisfy the requirements of theology. Therefore, the later Jewish and Christian philosophers welcomed his guidance when they encountered Aristotle. Avicenna’s position and arguments and those of Descartes are similar; the influence of the “man in the void” argument is particularly evident in Descartes’s work.

The Active Intellect and the Human Intellect

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To complete the survey of Avicenna’s psychology, one must consider the relationship between the human intellect and the Active Intellect. The human intellect does not achieve its highest status, that of apprehending universals and the relations between them, unless it is activated by the Tenth Intelligence, which is the Active Intellect, or Giver of Forms. Avicenna describes the Active Intellect as radiating a power that illuminates the potentially intelligible but actually sensible forms of imagination, thereby making them intelligible and present to a suitably prepared mind. In this way, Potential Intellect becomes an Actual or Acquired Intellect. In this process, images are important for two reasons: first, one must abstract the form from an image of the object if one is to grasp the form as the form of an object, and second, one must compare and contrast images in order to raise one’s intellect to a level where the divine illumination is able to enlighten it. It is to be noted that the Active Intellect, not the human intellect, abstracts the intelligible form from the image in the imagination. One’s dependence on the Giver of Forms is evinced further by the fact that because one has no intellectual memory, one must reestablish contact with it every time one thinks. Later, Saint Thomas Aquinas and others objected to Avicenna’s Active Intellect and insisted on fragmenting it into individual Active Intellects occurring as faculties of individual human souls, thus making each person responsible for the activating of Potential Intellect. They also feared, though Avicenna himself did not, that as long as people all shared the same Active Intellect, personal immortality was jeopardized. Also, they introduced intellectual memory and insisted that when intellection occurs, the knower and the known become one.

Because the human intellect is able to contact the Giver of Forms more easily on subsequent occasions, it is able to perfect itself, approaching the ideal of constant contemplation of the forms. By emulating the Giver of Forms, which contains all intelligible forms, the soul prepares itself to enjoy a higher and worthier status when it leaves the body. Insofar as it is the emulated intelligence, the Giver of Forms is a final and formal cause as well as an agent, and insofar as it functions in these ways, it brings the human soul into the sequence of efficient, formal, and final causes that stems from and culminates in God.

Besides influencing later Jewish and Christian philosophers in the various ways already indicated, Avicenna had a great influence on the work of Averroës, another great Islamic philosopher. Averroës presents a critical but sympathetic evaluation of Avicenna.


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Additional Reading

Afnan, Soheil M. Avicenna: His Life and Works. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1958. The author stresses the impact of Avicenna’s philosophy upon the thinkers of the Arabic-speaking world.

Arberry, Arthur J. Avicenna on Theology. London: John Murray, 1951. This important brief work contains Avicenna’s own autobiography and its continuation by his disciple and companion, Abu ‘Ubaid al-Juzjani, as well as Arberry’s discussion of Avicenna’s defense of monotheism and the immortality of the soul.

Avicenna. The Life of Ibn Sina: A Critical Edition. Translated by William E. Gohlman. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1974. Contains an annotated edition of Avicenna’s autobiography, the contemporary account of his life by al-Juzjani, and a critical examination of the bibliography about Avicenna.

Brown, H. V. B. “Avicenna and the Christian Philosophers in Baghdad.” In Islamic Philosophy and the Classical Tradition: Essays to Richard Walzer, edited by S. M. Stern, Albert Hourani, and Vivian Brown. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1973. A clear presentation of Avicenna’s philosophical differences with both Aristotle and the Peripatetic thinkers of the Baghdad school, despite his fundamental adherence to the rationalism of Aristotelian traditions.

Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy. Vol. 2. Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1955. Copleston clarifies not only the contributions of Arab philosophy to European medieval thought but also the diversity within this Islamic renaissance. Particular attention is focused upon Avicenna and Averroës.

Corbin, Henry. History of Islamic Philosophy. Translated by Liadain Sherrard. London: Kegan Paul, 1993. A detailed discussion of Islamic philosophy with a section on Avicenna.

Davidson, Herbert A. Proofs for Eternity and the Existence of God in Medieval Islamic and Jewish Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987. Davidson provides discussions of proofs of the existence of God in the philosophical writings of these two faiths, including Avicenna’s views.

Fakhry, Majid. A History of Islamic Philosophy. 1970. 2d ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983. Excellent presentation of Islamic philosophy with a long chapter on Avicenna.

Goodman, L. E. Avicenna. London: Routledge, 1992. A thorough account of Avicenna’s philosophy, sensitive to both his historical context and his contemporary relevance.

Leaman, Oliver. An Introduction to Medieval Islamic Philosophy. Cambridge, London: Cambridge University Press, 1985. Discussion, for beginners, of the issues in Islamic philosophy, including Avicenna.

Maurer, Armand A. Medieval Philosophy. New York: Random House, 1962. Reprint. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1982. Maurer presents a summary of Avicenna’s arguments on being, necessity, and essence; on proofs for the existence of God; on the doctrine of creation; and on humankind’s intuitive knowledge of the soul. Although an Aristotelian, Avicenna, according to Maurer, also had links with the Neoplatonists and the later followers of Saint Augustine.

Nasr, S. H., and Oliver Leaman. History of Islamic Philosophy. Parts 1, 2. London: Routledge, 1996. Thorough treatment of Islamic philosophy with a chapter on Avicenna.

Ormsby, Eric L., Theodicy in Islamic Thought. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984. Discussion of Al-Ghazzali’s Best of All Possible Worlds with multiple references to Avicenna.

Sharif, M. M., ed. A History of Muslim Philosophy. Vols. 1, 2. Wiesbaden, West Germany: Otto Harrassowitz, 1966. Multiauthored discussion of Islamic philosophy in connection with other disciplines.

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