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Philoponos and Avicenna on the Separability of the Intellect: A Case of Orthodox Christian-Muslim Agreement

Dimitri Gutas, The Greek Orthodox Theological Review ,
vol. 31, n. 1-2, 1986, p. 121- 129


Aristotelianism, the longest lived and historically the most influential philosophical tradition in the West and the Near East, provided the common ground where philosophers of all religions - pagans, Christians, Muslims, and Jews, and schismatics of all sorts - could conduct a meaningful dialogue across the centuries. In this paper I wish to study an instance in which the affiliation of Ioannes Philoponos (d. after 560), an Orthodox Christian (1), and of Avicenna (d. 1037), a Sunni Muslim (2), with this tradition led to their agreement in the solution of a particularly difficult philosophical problem with serious, implications for their respective monotheistic religions.

The problem concerns the interpretation of Aristotle's opening words in his examination of the intellect, Be Anima 429a l0-12:

Concerning the part of the soul with which the soul knows and thinks, whether this part is separable or inseparable with respect to magnitude but in theory only... (Περί δε τοῦ μορίου τοῦ τῆς ψυχῆς ᾧ γινώσκει τε ἡ ψυχή καί φρονεῖ εἴτε χωριστοῦ ὄντος εἴτε καί μή χωριστοῦ κατά μέγεθος ἀλλά κατά λόγον ...)

In his Marginal Notes on De Anima, a relatively late work, Avicenna interprets the above passage as follows (3) :

Aristotle begins [here] the investigation of the theoretical faculty about which he asks whether its essence subsists separately (4). By his statement, "or inseparable with respect to magnitude," Aristotle means, "inseparable from magnitude." Themistios understood Aristotle to mean "or it is inseparable with respect to location," (5) but this is incorrect because Aristotle ' s discussion in this passage about whether it is separable or not does not concern location, nor is he occupied with it at the moment; rather, the extent of his discussion and investigation is devoted to [the subject of] subsistence. In another translation [of the same passage into Arabic we read]: "or inseparable, like the separation of a body from another body," (6) that is, without needing it to subsist (7). It appears as if this translation is more correct.

In the Be Anima translation by Ishaq b. Hunayn that Avicenna was using, the Greek text εἴτε καί μή χωριστοῦ κατά μέγεθος ("or inseparable with respect to magnitude") was rendered by aw ghayr mufariq bi' l izam (8) . As far as the Arabic construction of the phrase itself is concerned, the preposition bi- is ambiguous in that it could mean a number of things, none of them completely satisfactory for the sense. Avicenna interpreted it as the particle introducing the object, li - (i.e., ghayr mufariq li'l - izam) thus understanding ' izam ("magnitude") as the object of the participle mufariq ("separable"), and elicited the sense, "inseparable from magnitude." This interpretation is unwarranted on the basis of the Arabic phrase alone, for despite its ambiguity, the preposition bi- in the present context cannot yield this sense. It is therefore obvious that Avicenna is following here traditional ways of interpretation, a brief review of which will reveal his precedents.

To start with some general observations: the discussion is about whether the rational (part of the) soul-or the intellect-is separable or not. The question, however, is, separable from what? The answers that were given by the Greek commentators whose works are extant can be classified into three categories:

(1) separable from the body;

(2) separable from the other faculties of the soul (i.e., the nutritive, etc.) (a) in essence (τῇ οὐσίᾳ) or (b) in theory (κατά λόγον, τῷ λόγῳ);

3) separable from the other parts of the intellect (a) in essence, or (b) in theory.

Alexander's theory of the soul is quite consistent as a whole with that of Aristotle; he considers the soul to be the form of the body. At the end of the discussion about the presence of the soul in the body as its form he states,

If then the soul is, as it has been shown, a form, then it is necessary that it be inseparable (ἀχώριστον) from the body whose [form] it is, and also that it be incorporeal and immovable in itself (9) ; and concludes,

Since the soul is the form of a body, as already stated, such a form, by being inseparable from the body, would also perish together with it; that much of it, at any rate, which is the form of a perishable body (10).

The last qualification was made with the "intellect from outside" (νοῦς θύραθεν) in mind, which, not being the form of a perishable body, is not perishable itself. This is stated more explicitly in another passage where Alexander says about the active intellect (νοῦς ποιητικός) that it exists without matter:

It is for this reason [ scil. that it has no matter] that it is also separable in itself; for none of the forms in matter (ἔνυλα εἴδη) is separable, except in theory only, as they perish when they become separated from matter (11).

The same theory is also expressed in Alexander's De Intellectu. The active intellect, coming to humans from the outside, is not a part or faculty of the soul (12). As for the other two parts of the intellect, they are described as mere potentiality (passive intellect) and as potentiality with a certain disposition towards something (intellect in habitu) (13) .

Alexander did not discuss their ontological status, but as parts of a soul which is the form of a body, it is fair to assume from what has already been said that they are not separable. According to Alexander, then, the soul and all its parts are not separable from the body- since they are its form-except for the active intellect which, coming from outside, is pure actuality, without a body, and not part of a soul. His discussion of the separability of the soul thus belongs to category (1) in the table above.

It was this kind of separability (from the body) that all the Neo- platonist commentators on Aristotle were against, starting with Plutarch of Athens. In the commentary of Stephanos of Alexandria (Pseudo- Philoponos) we read the following passage:

Some have interpreted this passage [ scil. De Anima 429a 10 -12] as follows: either the intellect is separable from the body, or it is not separable from the body, being separable only in thought (τῇ ἐπινοίᾳ) but not also in actuality. This then is the first problem, whether the intellect is separable and eternal. Plutarch, however, does not like this interpretation at all and condemns it altogether. He himself interprets it by saying that what Aristotle meant by these words is the following: "either the intellect is separable from imagination and sense perception, having, apart from these, another essence (οὐσία), or all three have one essence which is many in theory only." (14)

With regard to the issue of separability, Plutarch was opposed to category (l)(the position of Alexander, to whom the pronoun "some," τινές, in the opening sentence above would appear to refer), and preferred to discuss the matter in terms of category (2). Instead of investigating, with Aristotle, whether the intellect is separable with respect to magnitude or in theory, he asks whether it is separable in essence or in theory from the other parts of the soul. In other words, in this interpretation there is a substitution of essence (οὐσία) for magnitude (μέγεθος).

In Stephanos, continuing from the preceding extract, this substitution is explicitly stated:

Aristotle is not seeking to find whether the intellect is separable from the body or not. For how could somebody, who believes that [even] imagination is separable from the body, entertain doubts about whether the intellect, which transcends all faculties, is incorporeal or not? But you should take "magnitude" to mean "essence" (μέγεθος δέ λαβέ τήν οὐσίαν). So the first problem, problem, too, is the following: either the intellect is separable from imagination and sense perception in essence, or all three have one essence but are different in theory only (15).

With Simplikios a further elaboration of the separability theme was effected. For him, as for his predecessors, the kind of separability in category (1) was out of the question. What is novel in him, however, is that he was not content with the second category either. He proposed, instead, yet a third alternative which he considered to be more accurate: separability of one part of the intellect from the other parts in essence or in theory (category [3]). This is what he says:

"Whether it is separable or not" [in the Aristotelian text] should not be understood with reference to the body [category (1)]... but to the parts of the soul already mentioned, viz., the nutritive and the imaginative [category (2)]. Or rather, since, as it has been said, Aristotle is going to present three aspects (τριχῶς... παραδώσει) of that thing which knows rationally, he proposes to investigate whether that thing which thinks in itself is separable from itself in magnitude or in theory [category (3)]. The investigation, then, would be whether there are in us three intellects as essences that can be also separated from each other, or only one intellect and one essence which, however, is differentiated in theory, sometimes turned wholly towards itself, sometimes inclining outwards, and being either perfect or imperfect [emphasis added] (16).

In the discussion of the separability of the intellect there is thus discernible in the later stages of Greek Aristotelianism a development towards greater emphasis on the subdivisions within the intellect itself rather than on the distinction among the various parts of the soul. This development points the way to the Arab philosophers and their adoption as a rule of a quadripartite intellect: the potential, the actual, the acquired, and the one in habitu. (17)

In Philoponos' commentary (18), however, there is a shift in interpretation which is in many ways similar to that of Avicenna. Philoponos says that the Aristotelian passage can be explained in many ways but he actually gives two. The first one he offers is the one of separability in terms of location. He proceeds to give the Timaeus as an example, where the various faculties of the soul are given a different bodily seat. This is unique in the commentatorial tradition, and it harks back to Themistios who is the sole commentator to give this analysis only by offering the example of Plato (19)." This explanation is quickly dismissed by Philoponos who now focuses on the second one:

It could be that "with respect to magnitude" [in the Aristotelian text]... means separate from body and magnitude, or "with respect to magnitude" means "with respect to essence and hypostasis," as magnitudes are said to be separated from each other, which is the same as that which follows, namely, that which has a substance separate from body and magnitude.... This, then, is the first of the problems, whether the intellect is separate in essence or in theory only (20).

There are two things to be noted about this passage. First, the discussion is raised to a different, unprecedented level. In Alexander, separability was discussed in terms of category (1), i.e., separation from the body, and the conclusion was that, apart from the active intellect, which is from outside and pure actuality, all the other parts of the soul are inseparable from the body qua its form. The later commentators objected to this interpretation in terms of category (1) and centered on categories (2) and (3). Philoponos, however, went back to a discussion of separability from the body (21) (i.e., category [1]), but with two modifications: first, he did not consider whether a part of the intellect only is separable from the body or not, as Alexander had done, but he considered the entire intellect or rational soul; and second, he did not consider this separability in terms of actuality or potentiality, again as Alexander had done, but in terms of substance (substantia) and essence (essentia) and hypostasis. In other words, he transferred the terms in which separability was discussed in categories (2) and (3), i.e., separability in essence or in theory, to category (1). He thereby created a dualism of body/intellect in lieu of the previous triadic divisions of nutrition/sense perception/reasoning, and passive intellect/intellect in habitu / active intellect, respectively. This new development in the interpretation of the Aristotelian passage and Philoponos ' emphasis can best be understood, I think, against the background of Philoponos' Christianity. It is of vital importance for a religious teaching about a future life that it maintains on a philosophical level the separate existence of the self, the intellect. It is noteworthy, however, that Philoponos was able to effect this shift without any drastic break with the tradition in which he was schooled, but through a mere transposition of the arguments and terms already available.

Second, Avicenna's interpretation relies heavily on that of Philoponos, and his formulation of the issue in Arabic can be understood adequately only by reference to it. Avicenna interpreted "inseparable with respect to magnitude" (ghayr mufariq bi'l-'izam) as "from magnitude" (li'l-'izam), just as Philoponos had interpreted the same phrase (separata secundum magnitudinem) as "separate from body and magnitude" (separata a corpore et magnitudine). Avicenna maintained that separability should not be seen in terms of location but in terms of "subsistence/essence" (qiwam), just as Philoponos had interpreted "with respect to magnitude" (secundum magnitudinem) as "with respect to essence and hypostasis" (secundum essentiam et hypostasim). Finally, Avicenna's preferred translation, "...or inseparable, like the separation of a body from another body..." (aw ghayr mufariqa ka mufaraqat al- jism li'l-jism) made the same point that Philoponos had made with his illustration "... as magnitudes are said to be separated from each other... " (ut magnitudines dicuntur ab invicem separari). The problem, then, is the same for Avicenna as it is for Philoponos, namely, whether the intellect, separated from the body, is subsistent or separate in essence. And the motivation behind the similar formulation also appears to be the same, namely, Avicenna's monotheistic (Islamic) frame of reference.

The agreement between Philoponos and Avicenna in both their understanding and solution of the problem does not seem to be accidental. As a matter of fact, there is considerable evidence that Philoponos ' commentary on De Anima, the Arab bibliographers' total silence on the matter notwithstanding, must have been known in Arabic translation (22), and that Avicenna must have used it. This, however, is a subject for future research.


(1) See H.- D. Saffrey, "Le chretien Jean Philopon et la survivance de l' é cole d'Alexandrie au VI e siecle," Revue des Etudes Grecques 67 (1954) 396-410. Philoponos was considered orthodox in his time; he was condemned as a tritheist only in retrospect (680). See ibid. p. 408, n. 2.

(2) For the purposes of this paper the question of Avicenna's sectarian affiliation is irrelevant. Suffice it to say that I believe that there is enough evidence to indicate that he was a Sunni Muslim of the Hanafi rite.

(3)Abd al-Rahman Badawi, Aristu 'inda' I-'Arab, Cairo 1947, p. 98.17-22. For the title and origin of the work, see my Avicenna and the Aristotelian Tradition (forthcoming), Chapter 2, Work 9.

(4) Literally, "whether it is separable with respect to the subsistence of its essence" (hal hiya mufariqa fi qiwam datihi [sic]). This literal rendering highlights the parallelism between Avicenna's paraphrase and Aristotle's words, "inseparable with respect to magnitude" whereby it is seen that the Aristotelian "magnitude" is interpreted by Avicenna as "essence." See the discussion further below.

(5) Themistios, In Libros Aristotelis De Anima Paraphrasis [ Commentaria in Aristotelem Graeca 5, 3], ed. R. Heinze (Berlin, 1899), p. 93.33; An Arabic Translation of Themistius, Commentary on Aristoteles De Anima, ed. M. C. Lyons (Oxford 1973), p. 163 has a different text.

(6) This is the poor Arabic translation, wrongly attributed in the manuscript to Ishaq b. Hunayn, and published by Abd al- Rahman Badawi, Aristu fi'l - nafs (Cairo, 1954). See R. M. Frank, "Some Fragments of Ishaq's Translation of the De Anima," Cahiers de Byrsa 8 (1958-59) 232, n. 7, last line.

(7) The unique manuscript of the text, Cairo Dar al- Kutub Hikma 6M, has qiwam on the line. It was crossed over and qiyam was written over it by the same hand. Although the original reading appears to be the correct one, both would give approximately the same sense.

(8) See Frank, "Some Fragments," p. 224, frg. 35. The first line of this fragment, as printed, should be deleted. It is not Ishaq's text but Avicenna's paraphrase; see n. 4 above.

(9)Alexander of Aphrodisias, Scripta Minora . De Anima cum Mantissa [Commentaria in Aristotelem Graeca, Suppl. 2, 1], ed. I. Bruns (Berlin, 1887), p. 17.9-10.

(10) Ibid. p. 21.22-24.

(11) Ibid. p. 89.12-15.

(12) Ibid. p. 108.22-23.

(13) lbid. pp. 106.19-107.28.

(14) Ioannes Philoponos, In Aristotelis De Anima Libros Commentaria [ Commentaria in Aristotelem Graeca, 15], ed. M. Hayduck (Berlin, 1897), pp. 520.31-521.3. For the authorship of the third book of this commentary see the references by H. J. Blumenthal, " Neoplatonic Elements in the De Anima Commentaries," Phronesis 21 (1976) 72, n. 37.

(15) Philoponos, In De Anima p. 521.5-10 Hayduck.

(16) Simplikios, In Libros Aristotelis De Anima [Commentaria in Aristotelem Graeca, 11], ed. M. Hayduck (Berlin, 1882), p. 222.9-20.

(17) See, in general, J. Finnegan, "Al- Farabi et le Πεί νοῦ d'Alexandre d'Aphrodise," Melanges Louis Massignon (Damascus, 1957), 2, pp. 133-52.

(18) The third book of Philoponos ' commentary, preserved only in a Latin translation, was edited anew by G. Verbeke, Jean Philopon. Commentaire sur le De Anima d' Aristotle (Leiden, 1966). Some fragments of the original Greek were recovered by S. van Riet, "Fragments de l'original grec du 'De Intellectu de Philopon dans une compilation de Sophonias," Revue Philosophique de Louvain 63 (1965) 5-40. The Greek original of the passages discussed in this paper is not among these fragments.

(19) See n. 5, above.

(20) Verbeke, Philopon , pp. 6.32-7.42.

(21) This is also his stated purpose, as expressed in the preface to his commentary. See Blumenthal, " Neoplatonic Elements," p. 70, top.

(22) A good case was recently made about the influence which Philoponos ' commentary seems to have exerted on al- Kindi's treatise on the intellect; see J. Jolivet, L'intellect selon Kindl (Leiden, 1971), pp. 50-73. As for Avicenna, already in 1959 R. M. Frank had listed a number of passages from his marginal notes on De Anima in which Philoponos ' commentary appears to have been used ("Some Fragments," p. 236, note, top). The following instance from the same work (Badawl, Arista, p. 101.17-19) may be added to those enumerated by Frank, especially since it is indicative of specific borrowing: it transmits a unique mistake.

Avicenna says in this note that Alexander imputed to Aristotle the doctrine that the material intellect itself was hylic and material. From what we know of Alexander, he could not have made such a statement (J. Finnegan's references in this regard to Alexander's De Anima, p. 90.13ff. Bruns, are not to the point; see his "Avicenna's Refutation of Porphyrius," Avicenna Commemoration Volume, Calcutta [Iran Society], 1956, p. 192, n. 1, he held that the material intellect is not itself matter but that it is called material because it is, like matter, sheer potentiality (cf. his De Anima, p. 106.19-23 Bruns). In all likelihood, Avicenna received his misconception about Alexander in one of two ways: either directly from Stephanos (Pseudo- Philoponos, In De Anima, p. 519.23-28 Hayduck), who is the only extant Greek commentator to have attributed to Alexander the opinion that the material intellect is matter, or through a misunderstanding, misreading, or mistranslation of a Philoponos passage in which Alexander reported that Xenarchos , the first century B.C. Peripatetic, had misunderstood Aristotle and thought that the intellect was primary matter (Verbeke, Philopon , p. 15). It is also likely, as a combination of the two alternatives, that Stephanos himself may have been misled by the same passage in Philoponos.

It would seem from the above indications that the problem with regard to Philoponos' commentary on De Anima is not whether it was available in Arabic translation, but rather in what form or recension it was available. The Arabic tradition appears to carry traces of both the recension extant in the Latin translation and also the one circulating under the name of Stephanos. Whether these two recensions were available in Arabic separately or together, the names under which they circulated, and the reasons for the silence of the Arab bibliographers regarding them, are questions that have yet to be investigated.

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