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Definition: Avicenna from Philip's Encyclopedia

(Abu Ali al-Husayn ibn abd Allah ibn Sina) Persian physician and philosopher whose work, through his Canon Medicinae, influenced the science of medicine for many centuries. He was a great philosopher and scientist of the golden age of Islamic learning. He also made enduring contributions in the field of Aristotelian philosophy.

Summary Article: Avicenna from The Classical Tradition

Avicenna is the Latinized name of Abū-Al al-Husayn ibn-Abdallāh Ibn-Sīnā (b. before 980-d. 1037), the greatest and most influential philosopher in the Islamic world.

Avicenna lived during the period of the uncontested supremacy of medieval Islamic civilization. He came of age at the end of the 10th century, a time when the philosophical and scientific movement in Islam, and the Graeco-Arabic translation movement it fostered and sustained, had been in progress for more than two centuries. The vast majority of Greek philosophical and scientific texts had already been translated into Arabic upon demand from scientists and scholars, and in all intellectual fields new advances had been made in works originally composed in Arabic that surpassed the achievements of their Greek prototypes.

The outlook in which philosophical and scientific research was seen as a cultural good was developed in Baghdad, along with the beginnings of the Graeco-Arabic translation movement, in the second half of the 8th century, during the first decades of the rule of the new Arab dynasty of the Abbasids. With the decentralization of political power that followed the gradual erosion of caliphal authority by the middle of the 10th century, there arose in the vast Islamic empire, from the Iberian Peninsula to central Asia, local dynasties that took over regional governance while acknowledging the caliph in Baghdad as the ultimate overlord. With the decentralization of power there also came decentralization of culture, and the several capitals of the local dynasties began to imitate and rival Baghdad for intellectual and cultural supremacy, adopting the same tastes and fashions as those in the Abbasid capital.

Avicenna grew up in Bukhara, the capital of the Muslim Persian dynasty of the Samanids (819-1005) in central Asia. His precise date of birth is not known, though it is certain that it was quite a few years before 980, the year given in some sources. His father was governor of nearby Kharmaythan, and Avicenna grew up in the company of the Samanid administrative elite. His education began early, as was customary, and continued throughout his teens. He studied the traditional subjects—the Qur'an, Arabic literature, and arithmetic—and had a particular propensity for legal studies (Islamic canon law) as well as medicine (Galenic). In his famous autobiography, which is our sole source for this information, he reports that he had started practicing both law and medicine by the time he was sixteen.

In the autobiography Avicenna also says that, at the same time, he was studying all the branches of philosophy at increasingly advanced levels. The course of study or philosophical curriculum he says he followed was patterned on the classification of the philosophical sciences in the Aristotelian tradition of Alexandria in late antiquity and of the Baghdad Aristotelians under the early Abbasids: logic came first, with the Organon, as the instrument for the study of philosophy, followed by theoretical philosophy, which consisted of physics (Aristotle's physical and zoological treatises), mathematics (the Quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music), and metaphysics. His studies were crowned by advanced research in the royal library of the Samanids, which he describes as follows in the autobiography:

[The ruler of the Samanids] gave me permission and I was admitted to a building with many rooms; in each room there were chests of books piled one on top of the other. In one of the rooms were books on the Arabic language and poetry, in another jurisprudence, and so on in each room with a separate science. I looked through the catalogue of books by the ancients and requested those which I needed. I saw books whose very names are unknown to many and which I had never seen before nor have I seen since. I read those books, mastered their teachings, and realized how far each author had advanced in his science. So by the time I reached my eighteenth year I had completed my study in all these philosophical sciences. At that time my retention of knowledge was better, but today my grasp of it is more mature; otherwise the knowledge is the same, nothing new having come to me since. (Gutas 1988, 29)

Avicenna's description of the Samanid library and its contents is a significant witness for the spread and dominance of the Greek philosophical and scientific culture that was created in Baghdad in its first two centuries of existence (the city was founded in 762). As for his statement concerning his extraordinary performance in his studies, it is no conceited boast but is intended as a concrete illustration of his epistemological theory, which is centered on the ability of some individuals with a powerful intellect to acquire knowledge of the intelligibles—that is, theoretical knowledge—all by themselves, without the help of a teacher.

After a youth spent in tranquility, Avicenna was forced to abandon his native land as a result of the political troubles that led to the fall of the Samanid dynasty around the turn of the first millennium. He moved west and spent the rest of his life in the courts of local rulers in the Iranian world, predominantly in Hamadan and Isfahan. Though his services to these rulers were both political and medical, he spent most of his free time on philosophy, composing works on demand from disciples and patrons alike, holding philosophical sessions, and responding to philosophical questions presented to him by other scholars or former disciples. He died in 1037 in Hamadan and was buried there.

The work he left behind is immense and has yet to be properly inventoried. His contributions lie predominantly in philosophy, but in medicine he produced the monumental Canon of Medicine, which for many centuries remained the standard textbook of medicine both in Arabic in the East and in its Latin translation in the West. In philosophy he wrote more than a hundred works, ranging from brief essays to multivolume summae, in a wide variety of styles, including analytical studies, expository works, commentaries, abridgments, allegories, responsa, didactic poems, and works in a format he introduced to Arabic philosophical literature, the allusive and suggestive genre of "pointers and reminders" that he employed in the homonymous work al-Ishārāt wa-t-tanbīhāt. His magnum opus is the book he called The Cure (of the soul, that is; in Arabic, ash-Shifā, most of which was translated into medieval Latin as Sufficientia), a summa of philosophy that includes, in 22 large volumes (Cairo edition, 1952-1983), all the parts of philosophy as classified in the Alexandrian tradition in late antiquity.

Avicenna treated practical philosophy very briefly in The Cure as an appendix to his section on metaphysics. He had little interest in these subjects, and other than some short essays on ethics and politics that are extant, he wrote a major work on ethics only in his youth, and it is now apparently lost.

The philosophical work of Avicenna is characterized by the attempt to create a philosophical system that would integrate, in a consistent whole based on Aristotelian logic, all the parts of philosophy as classified above. In practice this meant erecting a system that harmonized, rationalized, and completed all the discrete traditions of Aristotelian philosophy both among those traditions and with the Plotinian, Proclean, and other Neoplatonic accretions that accumulated over the ages. As a result, his works display a highly systematic and deeply rational structure and an all-encompassing comprehensiveness: whereas philosophers between Plotinus and Avicenna, writing in both Greek and Arabic, preferred the commentary as a form of expression, Avicenna eventually developed the summa philosophiae as his favorite genre. From this point of view he can be seen as the last philosopher of antiquity and the first Scholastic. In addition, he sought to express his new synthesis of philosophy in a way that would also respond to philosophical concerns of his age and society, which explains his experimentation with the wide variety of compositional styles listed earlier. He aimed at reaching audiences with different backgrounds and preparations in order to communicate the contents of his philosophy more effectively.

Avicenna's influence was monumental. Within Islam, he shaped the development of not only philosophy but also all subsequent intellectual life. His logic, a revised and expanded form of the Aristotelian Organon, achieved the status of the single scientific method of conducting research, and it penetrated—and dominated—modes of argumentation in Islamic jurisprudence and theology. It became the basis for further elaboration of numerous details, and it was cast and recast in various handbooks intended for pedagogic use. These handbooks by later systematizers were read in the traditional schools of the Ottoman Empire until the beginning of the 20th century, and they are still being read in religious schools throughout the Islamic world and especially in Iran. His physics, thoroughly Aristotelian, was the only physical doctrine to pose a serious challenge to the occasionalism of the Asharite theologians for the allegiance of intellectuals throughout the Islamic premodern period. His theory of the soul, going well beyond Aristotle's De anima and its late antique commentators, introduced novel theories on the function of the intellect, the internal senses, and the self-awareness that stand at the beginning of modern psychology. And his metaphysics, a systematic reorganization of the Aristotelian work by that name with significant developments in all major areas—causality, and the theories of essence, substance, and existence—which anticipate the modern approach to the subject, quickly became the major metaphysical doctrine of the Islamic world, penetrating Islamic theology and conditioning all later developments.

Avicenna's influence was no less substantial in the Latin West. Although relatively few of his works were translated into Latin, his ideas—often anonymously—shaped much in the way of terms and contents of discussion in both Scholastic philosophy and theology. In an interesting ironic twist of history, some of his ideas, which were attacked by Averroës for being un-Aristotelian, were used by the Latin Schoolmen to argue against Averroës himself during the height of the anti-Averroist controversy in Western Europe. His influence in European medicine was even more long-lived. His Canon was at the center of controversy in the Renaissance, with its new approaches to medicine, and new translations or revisions of its old approaches were still being made in the 17th century.

With regard to the classical tradition, Avicenna's influence is paradoxical. On the one hand he is without doubt the one thinker who is most responsible for integrating and, even more significantly, naturalizing classical Greek philosophical and medical thought into Islamic intellectual life. To put it differently, he made premodern Islamic intellectual life the natural extension of the classical tradition. By the same token, however, the very success of his efforts was also responsible for the gradual attenuation of interest in the original works of the Greek authors: after Avicenna, intellectuals by and large no longer read Aristotle and Galen; they read Avicenna instead. Even during the philosophical revival of the Safavid period in Iran (16th and 17th centuries), when scholarly interest in the translated philosophical literature was clearly evident—to this revival we owe the survival of many a philosophical manuscript that otherwise might not have been recopied—the Greek classics that were read were studied in the context of Avicenna's philosophy and his formulation of the problems. Nevertheless, the popularity of his thought and the long shadow of his influence, East and West, lent classical ideas, in whatever guise, a longevity they would not have otherwise enjoyed.

Avicenna, however, has hardly been credited for this accomplishment in either the East or the West. In the Islamic world, about a century and a half after his death there began to develop a tradition that presented his teachings as having esoteric and exoteric aspects, the esoteric part claiming to represent his true, and mystical, philosophy. Although he never ceased to be regarded as the unchallenged representative of Arabic Peripateticism, this aspect tended to fade into the background (or, among more conservative scholars, it tended to be indulged), as the allegedly mystical side was seen to represent his true teachings. In support of this thesis a number of pseudepigraphic works began to be attributed to him, and with the passage of time the "mystical" persona of Avicenna became dominant in popular perception. Especially in Iran, where in later centuries (and also because of his Persian origins) he was elevated to a most revered status, he was considered—and is considered to this day—the master of mystical illumination and esoteric gnosis, irfān, the origins of which allegedly go back to a pre-Islamic Persian spirituality. In this way, the classical heritage that Avicenna systematized, rationalized, and integrated into Islamic intellectual life is not recognized, and the vast majority of Muslim scholars to this day remain unaware of this accomplishment. As an example one need mention only the contemporary Moroccan philosopher Mohammed al-Jābirī, who, in his effort to introduce traditional rationalist thinking into modern Islamic discourse, presents Averroës as the true champion of rationalism and pits him against an allegedly obscurantist Avicenna, the source and origin of the plight of modern Islamic intellectual life.

Western scholarship has been hardly less guilty in this regard. In the 19th century, European scholars took their cue from the traditional Muslim view of Avicenna as mystic, and, aided by the European predisposition of their time to view "orientals" as mystical and irrational, concentrated on an investigation of the "esoteric" aspects of his philosophy. Most influential in this regard have been, in the 20th century, the studies by the French orientalist Henri Corbin. With the current resurgence of Islamic apologetic and anti-Western discourse, there are some in Western academia who, following Corbin's lead, present the mystical side of Avicenna as part of the age-old "oriental spirituality" that is far ahead of the West in its apperception of eternal truths. Avicenna has thus become a cult figure.

This state of affairs has delayed the serious study of Avicenna the philosopher and the translation and presentation of his works for an audience that is interested in philosophy. In the past two decades a younger generation of scholars has begun to look critically at his works in the context of the classical tradition and to reclaim for him the position of eminence that is his due in the history of philosophy in general and of Aristotelianism in particular.

  • "Avicenna," Encyclopaedia Iranica ed. Yar-shater, Ehsan (London1982--) 3:66-110.
  • Bertolacci, A., The Reception of Aristotle's Metaphysics in Avicenna's Kitāb al-Šifā: A Milestone of Western Metaphysical Thought (Leiden2006).
  • Gutas, D., Avicenna and the Aristotelian Tradition (Leiden1988) and "The Heritage of Avicenna: The Golden Age of Arabic Philosophy, 1000--ca. 1350," in The Heritage of Avicenna ed. Janssens, J. and De Smet, D. (Louvain2002) 81-97.
  • Hasse, D. N., Avicenna's De anima in the Latin West (London2000).
  • Janssens, J., An Annotated Bibliography on Ibn Sīnā (1970--1989) (Louvain1991) and First Supplement (1990--1994) (Louvain-la-Neuve1999).
  • Reisman, D., The Making of the Avicennan Tradition (Leiden2002).
  • Siraisi, N., Avicenna in Renaissance Italy (Princeton1987).
  • Street, T., "Arabic Logic," in Handbook of the History of Logic vol. 1, ed. Gabbay, D. M. and Woods, J. (Amsterdam2004) 523-596, and "An Outline of Avicenna's Syllogistic," Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie 84 (2002) 129-160.
  • Wisnovsky, R., Avicenna's Metaphysics in Context (Ithaca2003).
D. G.
© 2010 Harvard University Press (cloth) © 2013 Harvard University Press

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