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Arab and Jewish Philosophy

Arabic Philosophy

In the centuries during which scholastic philosophy emerged among the Christians, Muslim thinkers in the Arab world that spanned Persia, North Africa, and Iberia dealt with many of the same issues. Like their European counterparts, Arabs tried to work out an appropriate synthesis of philosophy with theology, struggling as the Christians had with the relationship between faith and reason and the effort to provide an account of human nature that left room for the hope of immortality. But since their culture had preserved both the ancient texts and classical learning to a greater degree, the Arab thinkers had access to a wealth of material from the Hellenistic world of which the Latin philosophers of the dark ages were ignorant.

Thus, for example, the neoplatonic philosophy of the first great Arab thinker, al-Kindi set the tone for many generations of Islamic synthesizers. His near-contemporary al-Farabi not only made use of the logical treatises of Aristotle (which even the Christians knew) but also employed arguments for the existence of god based upon those in the later books of Aristotle's Metaphysics as well. Designed to provide a rational foundation for orthodox monotheism, many of these arguments would make their way into the Christian tradition only in the thirteenth century.

Not everyone appreciated such applications of the philosophical tradition, however. Several generations later, al-Ghazali wrote a lengthy treatise called Tahafut al-Falasifah (The Incoherence of Philosophers), in which he used logical methods derived from the philosophical tradition to generate puzzles and contradictions, thereby undermining confidence in the power of human reason and encouraging reliance on an unreasoned faith instead. Even in the more scientific culture of the Muslim world, philosophical speculation remained suspect for centuries.

Ibn Sina

Among the philosophers who flourished in the eastern portion of the Islamic territory during the eleventh century, the Persian Ibn Sina (whom the Christians called "Avicenna" in Latin) was the most subtle and sophisticated. Although his view of the world relied heavily on the familiar neoplatonic emanations, Ibn Sina had learned of the Aristotelean system in his medical studies and from the work of al-Farabi, and he tried to combine elements from both sources in a comprehensive account of reality.

All human awareness begins with knowledge of the self, which can be acquired entirely without the aid of the senses, through the active power of the "agent intellect" which is the human mind. But since the essential quality of human thinking cannot be realized without some prior existing cause, contemplation of our own reality as thinking things leads naturally to awareness of the existence of something else. In addition to the merely contingent beings of the created order, then, there must also be a necessary being, god, who is prior to all the rest.

God, then, is the central reality from which all else must be derived. Respecting the power of god and emphasizing the regularity of the natural order, Ibn Sina maintained that all of the genuinely causal connections that link the central core, through its successive emanations, to its final outcomes in the material world, must themselves be perfectly necessary. Since the cosmos is a single unified whole, everything that happens does so as it must; what appear to us to be the local causes of particular events are nothing more than the occasions for our awareness of what happens. Its ultimate origin is always god.

Ibn Rushd

A century later, in the lively Andalusian community at the western extreme of Arab influence, another great Islamic philosopher placed even greater emphasis on the work of Aristotle. Ibn Rushd ("Averroës" in Latin) wrote so many analyses and explanations of Aristotelean works that he became known throughout Europe simply as "The Commentator." It was almost exclusively as a result of his labors in translating and explicating the Aristotelean corpus that the Greek philosopher came to exert a lasting influence on the Western culture.

Devoted to the teachings of Aristotle, Ibn Rushd often disagreed explicitly with his Islamic predecessors. Writing his Tahafut al-Tahafut against Ghazali, he argued that application of reason to philosophical problems can lead to genuine knowledge of the truth independently of revelation. Against Ibn Sina and the neoplatonic emanation theory, he maintained that efficient causation is a genuine feature of relationships among created things, although the first mover remains the ultimate source of all motion. Following Aristotle's view of the individual human being as a hylomorphic composite of soul and matter, Ibn Rushd could only promise immortality through absorption into the greater whole of the universal intellect.

Jewish Thought

Medieval Judaism provided another significant stream of philosophical speculation. Social, personal, and intellectual freedom for Jews was greater in the Islamic world of that era than among the anti-Semitic Christians of Europe, who often simply regarded Jewish thinkers as Arabs. Though born in Egypt, Gaon Saadiah, for example, spent his most active years studying the Talmud in Baghdad. Most medieval Jewish philosophers dealt with the familiar difficulty of trying to synthesize philosophy with religion, but their neoplatonism was often infused with a greater degree of emphasis on the mystical apprehension of reality.

The greater breadth of learning achieved by Jewish scholars often resulted in the combination of particular elements derived from diverse philosophical sources. Although Ibn Gabirol accepted Plotinus's view of god as the center from which all created reality emanates, for example, he also defended a hylomorphic account of ordinary objects and proposed a physiological explanation for human conduct and morality. Ibn Daud made an even more explicit use of Aristotelean metaphysics.

The most widely respected of the medieval Jewish philosophers was Moses Maimonides, whose patient codification of centuries of commentary on Jewish law in the Mishnah Torah earned him a place of honor among Jews in the saying, "From Moses until Moses, there was no one like Moses." From the neoplatonic philosophical tradition, he took the central vision of god as the sole source of all genuine knowledge, of which human reason can only hope to gain a remote glimpse.

Thus, in the Moreh Nevukhim (Guide to the Perplexed) (1190) Maimonides suggested that philosophical reasoning about ultimate matters is neither necessary nor even helpful for most ordinary people, who would be better advised to rely upon faith. For members of the educated elite, who are more capable of understanding abstract philosophical reasoning, however, there may be at least some hope of success. Balancing the philosophical and prophetic traditions, Maimonides himself provided Aristotelean arguments for the existence of god, Biblical evidence for the creation of the universe, and a carefully-crafted synthesis of reasons for the possibility of a divinely-produced immortality for embodied human beings.

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