Transcript: 142 - Dimitri Gutas on Avicenna

Peter talks to leading Avicenna scholar Dimitri Gutas about Avicenna's sources, philosophical methods, and influence.
Podcast series

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

PA: I thought I'd start with a few questions about Avicenna's life story and how it might have impacted his development as a philosopher. One thing that I guess immediately leaps to mind here is that, whereas a lot of the philosophers we've looked at lived and worked in Iraq, especially Baghdad, so al-Farabi, for example, and the other members of the Baghdad school, Avicenna was from further East in Central Asia. So, I was wondering whether you thought that that had any significance for understanding his philosophical thought. 

DG: Yes, as always, the historical context is important. The thing to keep in mind is that around the year after 950, with the fall of the central importance of the caliph in Baghdad, there was great decentralization, both of political power, along with which there came decentralization of culture. And many of the cultural centers and city centers throughout the Islamic world, from Cordoba all the way to Bukhara in Central Asia, tried to imitate and get some of the culture they had developed in Baghdad. One of those things that intellectuals were interested in, of course, was philosophy. There was a great spread of philosophical knowledge through manuscripts and through individuals throughout these areas. So in Central Asia, also, and especially in cities like Bukhara, you had people who were knowledgeable about philosophy, if not philosophers themselves, insofar as the general upper-class culture included philosophical argumentation, philosophical thinking on various subjects, very much to a large extent. So Avicenna grew up in that context in which intellectuals studied philosophy, and they argued about philosophical issues as it had been done in Baghdad. 

PA: Right. But maybe they didn't have the same kind of institutionalization of philosophy. So there was no Baghdad school in Bukhara? 

DG: That's right. Bukhara school. The difference in this particular case is that there was no institutionalized or an established sequence of teachers and students in Bukhara that would constitute a philosophical school in that regard. So Avicenna was just an individual person who studied philosophy, both with teachers and on his own, as he insists. And so to that extent, he owes the information that he got to the fact that this philosophical knowledge had spread all around. But the particular emphasis, intensity with which he worked, obviously, these are due to him. 

PA: So that actually brings us to a theme that's very significant in his autobiography. He presents himself as having had teachers, but mostly as being a self-made man until actually speaking. Do you buy that? Is that basically right? Do you think? 

DG: Well, basically, it is right. There's always the truth is perhaps a bit tweaked in that regard, because of Avicenna wrote the autobiography, I believe and I have argued to show precisely that human reason by itself is able to acquire knowledge, the highest knowledge, knowledge contained in the intellectual spheres according to the cosmology of the time. So he presents you the biography as one person who actually was able to gain knowledge all by himself without necessarily having a need for teachers. On the other hand, he did have teachers and obviously they taught him something. We know especially an-Natili, who came to teach him ostensive logic, was actually both a physician and especially a pharmacologist. He edited the Arabic translation of De Materia Medica of Dioscurides, of which a manuscript, as a matter of fact, survives in Leiden University and in which he also added, in addition to the Arabic names, Persian words from Tabaristan, where an-Natili was himself. And Avicenna, his Canon, The Canon of Medicine, actually does use that version of the Dioscurides as such. So he certainly had teachers and he certainly had people from whom he learned, but he surpassed the level of his teachers very quickly. So from that point of view, he was a self-taught man. 

PA: When you say that he's actually presenting himself as an example of someone who can mostly reach knowledge by himself, do you think the point of that is literally just to illustrate that the theory must be true because it worked in his case? Or is it more like, I'm a genius? Or is it more like, look, you could do this too? Is it supposed to be some kind of encouragement to the reader? 

DG: None of those three. [Laughter] I think he simply shows it as evidence that is what actually happens. 

PA: Right okay.

DG: So it is evidence for his philosophical theory rather than either to boost his own ego or for any other reason. I think that is to show that, well, this is what happens. And there are individuals that can do this sort of thing. Well, then here is one. 

PA: So looking now at the other side of the teacher-student relationship, in addition to having teachers, he had students. And we have one text, for example, called The Discussions, the Mubahatat, which is basically a series of interchanges between him and some of his students on philosophical topics. How significant do you think that these relationships were for him? Do you think they had a major impact on the way that his philosophy developed? 

DG: Increasingly, as we study these texts better, we find out that it was indeed very important in the later stages of his life because these discussions apparently took place in Isfahan, that is the last 15 years of his life when he was in Isfahan, with his students. And these discussions took the form both of written discussions because those who were not in Isfahan at the time would write to him questions, as would other scholars, and he would respond. And of course, orally, with those disciples, perhaps, if not students, who would be around. And it is possible, if one researches a particular subject in these notes, to see a sequence of letters, an initial statement by Avicenna of a certain theory, a subsequent question by a disciple. ‘You said this, but what about this point? Could you elucidate this point, please?’ And then Avicenna would come back and then go over the same theory, changing a few things here and there to make it both more intelligible and perhaps more cogent, the argument that he had made initially. So clearly, doing philosophy, as I called it, the praxis of philosophy, was very much an alive thing in his milieu at the time. So the argumentation, especially along with his disciples, certainly contributed to him fine-tuning many points that otherwise may not have been elucidated by him. I consider this give and take with his students also a paradigm, a model for philosophical discussion that really gave a lot of impetus to philosophical thinking in the following two, three centuries in the East. 

PA: Oh, right. Okay, that's interesting. I guess another area where we see the significance of his pedagogical activity is just the way that he wrote. He adopts several approaches to writing about philosophy. And if you contrast, for example, the Shifa or Healing, to the Isharat, the Pointers, or you want to translate that, you would almost not even realize you're reading the same philosopher as far as the style goes, even though the content, of course, is very similar. And I guess that that too is something that's basically inspired by pedagogical reasons, is that right? 

DG: That's yeah, that is correct. Avicenna, it seems from the very beginning, once he had studied all philosophy, all the different branches of philosophy, he developed this concept that he should have a project to unify philosophy, all the different parts of it that historically had been developed. And there were so many inconsistencies in the especially the Aristotelian tradition in certain points, incorporate into it issues that were important to his time and place. And these are primarily issues that had to do with religious life and update philosophy and make it logically consistent. In addition, he wanted this new philosophy, this new synthesis of philosophy that he made to reach as many people as possible. And for that reason, he wrote in different styles, all the way from expository to poetic. He has quite a few long poems in a very simple meter that had been developed before in the Islamic culture, Arabic poems for purposes of instruction, because they're so easy to memorize. And he wrote those and he wrote the same theories in a couple of allegorical tales, as well as the Pointers that you mentioned, which is a very elusive style, which should help the students to learn by prodding them on to try and understand precisely what he's talking about and therefore do the research themselves rather than spoon feeding them or the arguments. So he experimented and he wrote in all those different styles. And this is very important. And also the reason, one of the reasons why his philosophy was also so successful, because people from every walk of life and with every kind of intellectual background, all the way, let's say from mystics who are interested in more symbolic forms of expression to hardcore theologians who wanted logical argumentation to literary people who would enjoy a good poem, all the different levels of intellectuals would find something in his writings to attract their attention. 

PA: I'd like to think that if he were alive now, he'd be doing a podcast. 

DG: Yes, as a matter of fact, he would be using what these things call now, the social media. 

PA: Exactly. He'd have a Twitter account. So actually one thing about that is that from the autobiography and other sources, we actually know something about when he wrote which of these works. So in addition to the changing style that he's using, we can also track the change of his thoughts on certain philosophical topics. And obviously this is something you've worked on quite a bit. So I was wondering if you could give us an example of a topic on which his thought actually evolves over time, despite his claim in the autobiography that he never changed his philosophical position since the age of 18. I think that's right. 

DG: Well, basically he says that he hasn't learned anything new since that age. He has not added to his knowledge since then. 

PA: That's a bit different. 

DG: So that is a bit different. And I don't think again that he's lying as such, given the purpose, as I said, for which he wrote the autobiography. This falls into that pattern in so far as if you have already, through your reasoning, discovered truth as contained in the intellects of the celestial spheres, who know everything, basically all the abstract universal knowledge, then obviously there is nothing more to add in so far as you have that. The issue, of course, is in all sorts of details that one can come up again. And towards the end of his life, he does have a few sober moments when he says that human knowledge is so limited, so every generation should do its utmost to increase the store of human knowledge. So from that point of view, of course, he did believe that knowledge is cumulative and everybody should try to do his best to acquire as much as possible for the next generation. What he meant, I think, by that statement that he had not really added to his knowledge is that he understood the structure of knowledge and all the basic points of it as it relates to the world and the universe. And therefore, he did not need to add anything else. What we do see, of course, is that he kept fine-tuning a number of his ideas. And the one that I found very interesting is that in his epistemology, a theory of knowledge, which is very important for Avicenna, was one of the main areas in which he worked because since knowledge is all-important, how we know is equally important. He had many discussions in his logical works, repeatedly in work after work, the same discussion, about the axiomatic principles with which thinking begins. And he enumerates a number of things. And towards the end of his life, he adds, in addition to the other elements that we know axiomatically, which is when our senses tell us about something, this is direct sensory knowledge. When our inner senses tell us something, again, this is some other kind of knowledge that we have. Whether it is accurate or not is another issue. Or when we hear in our environment about certain ideas, certain popular ideas in which we espouse, this is another kind of knowledge that we have, to all these different kinds, which call the principles upon which you can base your syllogisms, he added self-awareness, the knowledge of the self. That is that we are aware that we are thinking. And as we are thinking, we know that we are thinking. The same with the second order knowledge, basically, self-awareness, which gives us immediate experience of the world and of ourselves. So in his general empirical approach to knowledge that Avicenna had, he added this further element of what he calls self-reflection, perhaps, i’tibariyya. And in that regard, he is able to explain a number of things that we know, especially when it comes to self-knowledge. So this is an area where he certainly developed his thinking. And one, by the way, I should say, I believe, was really, if not taken up by John Locke, repeated by John Locke a few centuries down the line. John Locke may or may not have known Avicenna. He certainly knew Avicenna in the Latin translations that had been made. But at the same time, John Locke was also an Arabist, and he could read Arabic. And he was friends with the first Laudian professor of Arabic at Oxford, Edward Pococke Sr. So there's a lot to be investigated. 

PA: That was intriguing. So instead of looking ahead to Locke, what I want to ask you about is looking back to some of his influences. And I guess the obvious source to talk about here is Aristotle, who, for Avicenna, as really for almost all philosophers in the Islamic world, at least until Avicenna, would be the most important philosophical source. How would you describe Avicenna's attitude towards Aristotle? Because on the one hand, he is very influenced by him, but on the other hand, he's critical, or at least very original in terms of his approach to Aristotle. 

DG: Well, he's both, as a true philosopher should be. He certainly was educated in the Aristotelian tradition. This is because it was the major philosophical tradition in the Islamic world already from the very beginning. The curriculum that he studied, as he says in his bibliography, is clearly the Aristotelian curriculum of studies, whose origin goes back to Andronicus's edition of Aristotle's works, as it was developed later in late antiquity. On top of that, he was not one that would believe blindly in anybody else's theories, unless he could check them himself. So he did check Aristotle's theories, and he found certain discrepancies here and there, which he said, fine, this is what we should correct and add to. And also, he found that there were no other philosophers who would lay any claim either to his allegiance or even to his credence, because he did not find anybody else, and specifically about Plato. He has to say that if Plato wrote only those things that we know about and what came down to us was available in Arabic, then certainly Plato was not really a philosopher that could be counted upon for any serious philosophical discussion. So therefore, he was Aristotelian from that point of view. At the same time, he felt that he could improve on a number of points, and this is of course what he does in all his works. In his Metaphysics, of course, our colleague Amos Bertolacci has written this wonderful book about exactly how Avicenna reshaped Aristotelian metaphysics, in a sense, into new directions. And we still have to write the book about that. Another area where he made huge advances on the Aristotelian thought was the theory of the soul. De Anima, of course, starting from that, which he developed tremendously from that time, exactly in order to accommodate his more advanced theory of knowledge of the time. So there are all these areas which he improved, perhaps it's not the right word, where he advanced beyond, let's say, within the Aristotelian parameters, but he advanced beyond the stage at which Aristotle had left it. So it was, I think, the proper attitude for a philosopher to have for a predecessor. Great admiration, of course, for the work that the predecessor has done, but at the same time, not blind allegiance, but trying to improve and correct whatever chinks there may have been, let's say, in the armour of Aristotelian philosophy. 

PA: Yeah, I guess one thing that's always struck me about it is how he, even when he's got very different things to say about philosophical topics than Aristotle, for example, his proof of God's existence is completely different from Aristotle's, he still tends to adopt an Aristotelian agenda. He might reorder the questions, so for example, the metaphysics, as Bertolacci's book shows, he tackles a lot of the same issues, but in a different order. 

DG: In a different order.

PA: On the other hand, speaking of his philosophical agenda, it seems like a lot of the time he's also thinking about a very different group of thinkers, namely the Mutakallimuns, or the theologians, practitioners of Kalam. And I'm curious to know what you have to say about this. It seems to me that he's, at the very least, trying to address problems that they've raised. So there's maybe two rival agendas here, there's the Aristotelian agenda and the Kalam agenda. So how do you see Kalam as sort of feeding into the Avicennian project? 

DG: Basically I think Kalam was the dominant way of thinking among the theologians of his time, and by the time both have Mutazilis and beginnings of Asharite thinking as well, neither of whom Avicenna liked very much. The system of thought was so disparate. The theologians had this system based on the fact that only atoms have real existence, and each atom has accidents attached to it, which atoms are configured in every single instant by a god who creates whatever it is that instant he wants to create, denying essentially causality. This as such created great difficulties, of course, for Avicenna to accept as a system, because of course he was wed to the Aristotelian model of understanding reality. However, this does not mean that they were not discussing issues that he thought should be discussed and should be explained. Therefore he took from the theologians what I would say is the problematics of the issues, and he addressed and he tried to resolve them in his own way as such. Certain individual ideas that were around he certainly must have taken as well. For example, this very important theory that he has about the necessary existence as being the first existent. This as far as we can tell was before Avicenna was an issue that was discussed among the theologians and the very concept itself, the being that is necessary of existence, the Wajibul Wujud. So he did take that concept over and he found it very useful, but of course analysing necessity in an Aristotelian sense, as he did later on. Nevertheless, he was able to incorporate earlier details from the theological system into his own. But primarily, he simply took the areas that they discussed and tried also to discuss them, and he provided a philosophical answer to them. 

PA: By the way, the proof of the necessary existence, that's Avicenna. 

DG: That is Avicenna. 

PA & DG: That's the notion of a necessary existence. 

PA: Okay, so that's a quick look at the sources Avicenna was drawing on. Let's now look at his reception in the later Islamic world. I mean, it goes without saying, if only because I've already said it in several of these podcasts, that he's the most influential thinker in the Islamic world, very influential on Jewish philosophy, on Latin, Christian philosophy and so on. So, I guess this calls out for an explanation and that's something I'll be trying to explain later on, but it doesn't seem too early to tackle that now. So I guess one possible explanation is he's a genius, he has the best philosophical ideas and that's probably true, but maybe that's not the whole story. So what other aspects of his work do you think explains how he became so influential? 

DG: Now, the first thing I think is that he was able to prepare a system in which the philosophical knowledge from earlier stages was incorporated and presented as a unified system and the different parts of it were interrelated and logically consistent. So it was not simply one area, let's say metaphysics only or theory of the soul only or what have you, that he brought forward, he discussed all the aspects of philosophy, all the different branches of philosophy in one comprehensive system. Encyclopedia of universal knowledge, let's put it this way, he was able to put together and each one of those parts was internally consistent and logically verifiable. This is one, so it had a logical force to it. Secondly, and that was his major innovation, he incorporated into this philosophy within basically his understanding of the workings of the human soul on the basis of Aristotle's De Anima many issues relating to religious life. So questions like prophecy, which was of paramount importance of course for all revealed religions, if prophets bring real knowledge from God, how do they get this knowledge? Related to that is religious practices, praying, fasting, visitation of tombs and things of that sort. On top of that, he also incorporated certain things that one called paranormal activities like veridical dreams. Some people say, well, you know, I had a dream, and this dream came true basically, as well as some even less paranormal, perhaps more magical, like the evil eye. So, all these phenomena Avicenna tried to explain within his philosophical system in a rational way or as a scientist, you would say today, because he accepted their truth and their reality and he simply wanted to show, for example, for prophecy, he did not simply rest on what was then common in Islamic parlance as the concept of revelation. Well, of course, the Muslims believe that the angel Gabriel spoke to Muhammad and gave him the message, but this of course is only to be interpreted symbolically as something. So the real question is, how does a prophet, Muhammad and the previous prophets get their knowledge by working on human reason and the way in which human reason can arrive at knowledge, which is contained in the active intellect and in the interiors of the spheres. He was able to offer a scientific philosophical explanation of this phenomenon and so on with all the others. Because of that, people who were interested in philosophy could very well integrate in philosophical thinking their everyday religious life as well. It was not a separate chapter. And he did this without also positing a conflict between religious knowledge and philosophical knowledge at the same time. So this was a great advancement. And thirdly, I think exactly as I mentioned before, he was able to express all these ideas in different styles and in different contexts and in different literary forms, which were easily acceptable and understandable. 

PA: I guess one cost that philosophers pay for being influential though, is that the later authors who are reacting to them can sort of do whatever they want with them, right? They're dead. And I think that Avicenna in part because he was so important is a philosopher who was not just influential, but was often misread and well appropriated, let's say in various ways. So do you think that it would be fair to say that he was an author who was frequently distorted in the later tradition? I mean, maybe already within the first few generations? Or is he more someone who, I mean, did people actually understand what he was even trying to do? 

DG: Very much so. He was not so much misunderstood as interpreted in very different ways that fit the purposes of those who are doing the interpretation, whatever those were. Exactly because of the great success and popularity of his works and his thinking, after him, everybody wanted a piece of him. So the various strands of intellectual lines that we have in the Islamic world after him, they almost all want to adopt some part of him and perhaps tweak it a little bit to make it fit what it is that they wanted to say. But among the intellectuals in all traditions within Islam, I don't think there was any doubt as to what it is that he had done. As an example, I cite normally a certain Maliki scholar from Tunis, Mazni, who lived about a hundred years after Avicenna. He said precisely this. He said that Avicenna was the chief philosopher who was able to incorporate and explain religion through philosophical means. And the same thing was said 300 years after him by Ibn Taimiyya, the great Hanbali theologian. However, the members of other traditions, intellectual traditions within Islam, perhaps they were not as forthcoming in their appreciation and telling the truth because they wanted to appropriate Avicenna in their own particular way, as did the Asharite theologians within the Shafii and Hanafi traditions, as well as the Shiite theologians. In addition, Sufism, Islamic mysticism, which after Avicenna's time became more widespread and with the appearance of certain great thinkers like Ibn Arabi, for example, also became a mainstream intellectual tradition. They had their own interest in appropriating some of Avicenna's ideas so that we see very soon about a century after his death, some pseudepigraphic works being attributed to him and this continued to the next two, three hundred years. But one particular turn that was taken was to make a mystical philosopher out of Avicenna. Because of the way in which he expressed himself in some works, because of some of the allegories that he wrote, which work obviously in symbolic terms, it was very soon after him spread that Avicenna essentially had two kinds of knowledge to offer, one real knowledge, mystical knowledge, and then the logical, logically verifiable Aristotelian one. And this continued throughout the centuries, especially in the Persian speaking areas in Iran, precisely because of Avicenna's presumed Persian origins himself, that his mother tongue was likely was Persian, but also in the West. I think Ibn Tufayl in Spain, in medieval Andalus, who was perhaps the person most responsible for initiating this kind of interpretation, he came to this philosophical tale of his, Hayy ibn Yaqzan, in the introduction to which he tries to make some kind of compromise between a logical approach to thing and a mystical approach to knowledge. The European scholars in subsequent centuries, especially in the 19th century, they were prone to very much see Avicenna as an oriental in mystical terms. They started the tradition of seeing some of his works, the allegorical works especially, as being mystical in nature, as having a certain oriental philosophy, etc. And this continued until very recently. But all this has nothing to do with the real Avicenna. It is much more interesting if one studies the history of culture, basically, both East and West, to see the kind of terms, but not as far as Avicenna himself was concerned.


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