Avicenna’s Metaphysics in Context

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Ars Disputandi
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Avicenna’s Metaphysics in Context
Allan Bäck
To cite this article: Allan Bäck (2005) Avicenna’s Metaphysics in Context, Ars Disputandi, 5:1,
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/15665399.2005.10819884
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Ars Disputandi
Volume 5 (2005)
ISSN: 15665399
Allan B‰ck
Avicenna’s Metaphysics in Context
By Robert Wisnovsky
London: Duckworth, 2003; ix + 305 pp.; hb. ø 50.00; ISBN:
[1] Robert Wisnovsky discusses two topics, the soul as cause and God as cause, `in order to analyze the sources and evolution of Avicenna’s metaphysics.’ [265] Not surprisingly, he nds the sources in Greek philosophers, notably Aristotle and Plotinus, and their commentators, Islamic philosophers like Al-Farab ,
and the Islamic theologians of the Kalam. Wisnovsky perhaps places more em-
phasis on the theologians and less on the Greek philosophers than others do. I
suggest below that he does so on account of his de-emphasis of the logical writings
of Avicenna.
[2] The book is well produced, albeit with some typos. [Omission top
84?] The Bibliography, like Wisnovsky’s use of secondary sources, seems rather
incomplete. E.g., works by Concetta Luna and John Martin seem quite pertinent
but are omitted. Howard Curzer is cited, p. 55 n. 20, but does not appear in
the Bibliography. Above all, despite being mentioned [2] and used [170 n. 20],
Goichon’s Lexique for Avicenna does not appear. I wonder also generally why
Wisnovsky did not make greater use of Goichon’s works in his book. He does
assert, rightly, that we have progressed beyond her work in having some of the
dictionary of Endress and Gutas done. Still, she does cite a lot of passages and has
the only lexicon specic to Avicenna.
[3] This book has two main themes. First, it claims that Avicenna inherited
an `Ammonian synthesis’ and then created an `Avicennean synthesis’. The former
consists in formulating a consistent, internal theory of Aristotle’s philosophy from
a Neoplatonist perspective; the latter synthesized the Kalam and Islamic philo-
sophy, especially that of Al-Far ab , with Aristotle. [156; 64; 266] Second, it
claims that Avicenna’s doctrine of the necessary being and its causing possible
quiddities to exist in re comes from his view of the soul as an entelechy. [37;
[4] Wisnovsky claims that how to understand Aristotle’s use of entelechy
(ântelèqeia) became a major concern among the Greek commentators. [205]
`Entelechy’ appears in Aristotle’s denition of the soul: the soul is `an entelechy
of the rst kind of a natural body having life potentially in it’. [An. 412a278] Is
this entelechy a process or a state? I should note that `entelechy’ appears quite
rarely in Aristotle, and seems to be used at least coextensively with the much
more common `actuality'(ânèrgeia), which the Revised Oxford Translation uses
to translate `ântelèqeia’ at 412a27. [Cf. 21; 26; Physics 201a28; 201b512] In
© November 1, 2005, Ars Disputandi. If you would like to cite this article, please do so as follows:
Allan B‰ck, `Review of Avicenna’s Metaphysics in Context,’ Ars Disputandi [http://www.ArsDisputandi.org] 5 (2005),
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Allan B‰ck: Review of Avicenna’s Metaphysics in Context
terms of the root meaning of the terms, an entelechia would be a perfecting or
completion, an attainment of the end [telos], whereas an energeia connotes much
more an operation or working (ergon). Wisnovsky goes into great detail about
different nuances of `entelechy’: to what extent does it connote a completeness or
an incompleteness? [28] The payoff, I guess, concerns what we are to make of
our souls: if they need completion but do not get there, do they dissolve at death?
(Indeed there was a Muslim cult following Averroes who held that only those who
perfected their souls had any kind of immortality, with the rest, the hoi polloi,
being extinguished like animal souls. [Cf. Herbert Davidson, Alfarabi, Avicenna
& Averroes on Intellect (Oxford, 1992), pp. 128ff.]
[5] Wisnovsky nds the discussion of `entelechy’ becoming crucial above
all in Plotinus and then in Islamic philosophers. [615; 803] Alexander distinguishes
teleiosis and teleiot es, with the latter always signifying a state of perfection,
while the former can sometime signify the process as well. [43; 45; 48] Wisnovsky
then charges Alexander with inconsistency in trying to use teleiot es for both energeia
and entelechia. [501] Alexander says that the rst teleiot es is energeia,
and the last is entelechia. [517] Wisnovsky thinks that Themistius did a bit better.
[61] Philoponus follows Proclus and not Aristotle, Wisnovsky says, in taking
teleiot es as higher than entelechia and making the soul the nal cause and not the
formal cause. [8493]
[6] The Ammonian synthesis affected how Aristotle’s Greek was translated
into Arabic. [99] In particular, telos and entelechia were confused by the translators
and later by Al-Far ab , Wisnovsky says. [1015; 10812] Avicenna inherited
this confusion but saw through it. His solution was just to ignore the issue whether
perfection in the world and the perfection of the One/God are univocal. [113]
Avicenna then follows Philoponus for better or for worse. [114; 137; 146] Still,
Wisnovsky concludes, Avicenna does not end up confused or rejecting Aristotle
for Neoplatonism. Rather he has a legitimate interpretation of Aristotle’s theory
of soul.
[7] I nd this picture of Philoponus a bit bewildering. In logic Philoponus
doesn’t follow Ammonius in accepting the canon of Proclus in his Prior Analytics
commentary. Philoponus often follows Alexander instead. Again, Philoponus is
well known for his originality in physics. It’s thus not clear to me how orthodox
a Plotininan or an Ammonian Philoponus is. Likewise Avicenna does not follow
Al-Far ab  on all logical issues and also rejects the Platonist theory of universals.
Avicenna seems to follow Philoponus mostly in logic (and also in physical science,
where they both diverge from Aristotle in taking space as a three-dimensional
[8] Of course, many of these claims depend upon having given an objective
standard of the correct interpretation of Aristotle et al.! I myself wasn’t convinced.
Again, why does Wisnovsky say that it is unacceptable for Aristotle to have a
view of our souls as incomplete entelechiai? But certainly the passive intellect
is incomplete, our actual knowledge imperfect. [Cf. Aristotle, An. 430145;
Alexander, in De An. 88,57; 88,234; 89,6; 89,1921]
[9] Moreover, I nd a lot of Wisnovsky’s discussion of a lot of this material
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Allan B‰ck: Review of Avicenna’s Metaphysics in Context
Byzantine. I confess that I happen to have been reading these Greek commentaries
and Plotinus recently. I cannot agree that their main focus was on the philological
and the conceptual analysis of terms nor even that the understanding of entelechia
was a central issue for them. Also Wisnovsky makes it sound as if the commentators
had a comprehensive theory. Rather, I think, the Greek commentators tend
to incorporate quotes and doctrines from a wide variety of sources and mix the
different terminologies into their discussions. They tend to quote a lot and to
react to those quotes en passant. They do not agonize over word choice but do at
times give statements about what a word means. Had I no rst-hand acquaintance
with the Greek commentators, reading Wisnovsky, I would have acquired a much
different picture of their methods and activities than the actual ones. Likewise
I would have thought that Avicenna agonized over word choice, instead of being
rather slap-dash in his writing.
[10] Then, on the other hand, Wisnovsky is proceeding as an Orientalist and
I as a philosopher. But then was not Avicenna a philosopher primarily (despite
his famous foray into philology mentioned in his autobiography)?
[11] Wisnovsky has a long discussion of the history of the use of `thingness’
and how Avicenna replaces it later with Al-Far ab ’s mahiyyat (a direct translation
of the Greek tì tÐ łn eÚnai; the Latin quidditas). [9; 14764; 179] After arguing for
retaining `thingness’ in the text of Ilahiyy at 6.5, Wisnovsky claims that Avicenna
takes it as a cause because of the Kal?mic usage of a thingness being an idea in
God’s intellect. [173]
[12] To be sure God has such quiddities (in se) in His intellect. However
Avicenna is leery about claiming God causes them: the logically possible is a
standard even for what God can think. Also, on moral grounds, if God creates
what is possible, then He would be responsible for the possibility of serial killers!
[see my `Avicenna and Averroes: Modality and Theology,’ in Potentialit‰t und
Possibilit‰t, ed. T. Buchheim et al. (Stuttgart, 2001)] All that is required is that
quiddities in themselves be the formal cause, which for Aristotle too often is the
same as the nal cause. Again I don’t ndWisnovky’s interpretation convincing. It
is far simpler to think that Avicenna is following Aristotle directly, not indirectly via
an Ammonian synthesis. The simplest explanation for Avicenna’s use of `thingness’
is that it means literally: what it is to be a thing. Focussing on `thingness’ could be
misconstrued as a request for both what the thing is, its quiddity, as well as for its
conditions of existence. Avicenna in moving to mahiyyat makes the separation
[13] Wisnovsky likewise takes Avicenna’s distinction of essence and existence
to have Neoplatonist sources. [181; 198] Again, I admit the possibility but nd
it far simpler to think that he is following texts like Posterior Analytics II.12.
He also claims, contra Goichon, that Avicenna’s views on essence and existence
evolved. [198] Yet again he barely discusses her views and the passages that she
quotes and cites.
[14] Wisnovsky makes very little use of Avicenna’s psychological or logical
theory. These materials would help the discussion a lot. For instance, Wisnovsky
does not discuss the role of the imagination serving as a bridge for both reverArs
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sion and progression between the perceptibles and the intelligibles. The Greek
commentators spend a lot of time developing a theory of imagination in order to
explain how we can connect up our sensory experience to the universal intelligibles,
and how the universal intangibles, of scientic theory and moral practice,
can inuence our particular lives. This, I believe, is the true bridge between the
human soul and the divine, noumenal soul, for Avicenna as well as later for Kant.
[See the forthcoming issue of TopÌcos.] The commentators spend far more effort
and space discussing this issue than the terminology for entelechia etc. So does
Avicenna. All this may be wrong, but surely Wisnovsky needs to say why.
[15] Let me give a central example of how the neglect of the logical materials
hampers Wisnovsky’s exegesis. Wisnovsky claims that Avicenna derives his two
main word groups for `necessity’, the stems d.
-r-r and w-j-b, from the Kalam, the
latter having the root sense of `obligation’ and covering `necessity’ in most of its
logical senses; the former meaning `compulsion’. [238; 2456; 2602] To be
sure, Avicenna does have this theological background and the w-j-b group gives
necessity a wider compass than the d.
-r-r group does. However, Avicenna states
explicitly that the d.
-r-r group has to deal with logical necessity while the w-j-b
group has to deal with what we would call physical or hypothetical necessity.
[Al-`Ibara , ed. M. El-Khodeiri (Cairo, 1970), 119,18; Al-Q yas , ed. S. Zayed
(Cairo, 1964), 166,16; 168,810; 169,16] In this way too w-j-b words will describe
more things as necessary than d.
-r-r words dobut only because of additional
hypotheses so as to make hypothetical necessities. I agree with Wisnovsky that
Avicenna does not always follow Al-Far ab ’s views on necessity and existence.
[2203] Yet again, he doesn’t consider the option that Avicenna is working from
and developing the tradition of Alexander and Philoponus who often do not agree
with Ammonius on these logical matters either.
[16] Again I nd the big lacuna in Wisnovsky’s discussion of modality that,
apart from some use of the `commentaries’ of Al-Far ab  and Avicenna keyed to
On Interpretation, he gives us little discussion of the logical works concerning
modality and existence: above all, Avicenna’s Q yas . Wisnovsky might reply
that he is pursuing theological and metaphysical issues instead. Yet Avicenna,
like Aristotle himself, regularly starts a discussion in the logical work and then
continues the discussion explicitly in his metaphysics. [E.g., on relations] So
looking there seems legitimate.
[17] In sum, I nd the book interesting, incomplete, and requiring a lot of
background. I nd Wisnovsky’s approach intriguing, but wish that he had worked
his claims out further through more texts.
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