Theory of Science and the Sciences in the Post-Avicennian Period

Online workshop, March 29–30, 2021

Monday, March 29

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Time: Mar 29, 2021 16:30 PM Helsinki*

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Meeting ID: 634 1986 3910
Passcode: 977095

*All times are in Eastern European Time (UTC +2 hours). We will have moved to daylight saving time on Sunday, March 28 — please verify the difference to your local time


16.30-17.30    Hannah C. Erlwein (Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin), Analogy and scientific reasoning in post-Avicennan kalām

17.45-18.45    Michael Noble (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich), The role of astrology in Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī’s scientific soteriology

19.00-20.00    Dimitri Gutas (Yale), Parallel scientific epistemologies after Avicenna: Remarks on the how, why, and whither

Tuesday, March 30

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Time: Mar 30, 2021 16:30 PM Helsinki*

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Meeting ID: 649 1334 6572
Passcode: 013893

*All times are in Eastern European Time (UTC +2 hours). We will have moved to daylight saving time on Sunday, March 28 — please verify the difference to your local time


16.30-17.30    Matthew Melvin-Koushki (University of South Carolina), Panpsychism and mathematical humanism in Arabic and Persian classifications of the sciences

17.45-18.45    Nahyan Fancy (DePauw University), What kind of ʿilm is medicine? Reflections of Canon and Epitome commentators on Avicenna’s definition of medicine

19.00-20.00    Jane Murphy (Colorado College), Al-‘Ulūm al-gharība: Mapping the sciences in al-Jabartī


Hannah C. Erlwein, Analogy and scientific reasoning in post-Avicennan kalām

The early generations of mutakallimūn had at their disposal a variety of methods which they believed could yield scientific knowledge. One of these methods was analogical reasoning. This form of reasoning was employed in a number of thematic contexts, and it revolved around the idea that theologians could gain knowledge about phenomena which were outside the purview of direct experience by establishing an analogy to observable phenomena. Despite disagreement about the precise way in which this method, referred to as al-istishhād bi’l-shāhid ʿalā al-ghāʾib as well as radd al-ghāʾib ilā al-shāhid, should be employed, early practitioners of kalām were certain that it could bring about scientific knowledge. This certainty about the role of analogical reasoning in early kalām stands in marked contrast to the more skeptical position espoused by many post-Avicennan mutakallimūn. For a variety of reasons, they came to reject analogical reasoning as a mode of scientific reasoning in kalām, and replaced it by other methods.

In my paper, I will focus on the kalām discussion of the createdness of the world and its dependence on an outside cause (the part of kalām that could be linked to natural philosophy). Starting with looking at the use of analogical reasoning in this context by pre-Avicennan mutakallimūn, I will trace how and why certain post-Avicennan mutakallimūn came to object to their predecessors’ method.     

Michael Noble, The role of astrology in Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī’s scientific soteriology

Whilst he was one of Avicenna’s most dogged critics, Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (d. 1210) was also one of his greatest admirers—albeit a grudging one. It is no surprise therefore that the soteriology he formulated at the end of his career in his great theological summa al-Maṭālib al-ʿĀliya min al-ʿilm al-ilāhī co-opted and adapted much of the structure and language of the comprehensive scientific worldview that al-Sheikh al-Raʾīs constructed, whilst subordinating it to those theological imperatives that could admit of no compromise. What is surprising, however, is the extent to which the Ashʿarī theologian relied on astrology and Neoplatonic doctrines to topple that pillar of the Avicennan scientific project: the Active Intellect. He apportioned its cosmological function as the metaphysical efficient cause of terrestrial forms and matter to the World Soul that governs the outermost sphere. And the Active Intellect’s function as the originating principle of the human soul, he assigned to the Perfect Nature (al-ṭibāʿ al-tāmm), an encosmic celestial spirit, that represented the origin of an entire class of human souls; and since, in Rāzī’s anthropology, humanity comprised numerous such classes, each divided from the other by essential difference, there were as many such perfect natures as there were classes of human.

In this way al-Rāzī cleared the ground to erect his own counter-Avicennan soteriology for members of the scientific elite, each of whom could realize the perfection of the theoretical faculty through a stabilised noetic connection with his own perfect nature, by means of which he could engage in scientific inquiry and pursue the sublime goals of metaphysics. Motivated by the concern to neutralize the explanatory power of the Avicennan naturalistic account of prophethood, his aim was to preserve the exclusivity of prophethood for an essentially distinct class of human, whilst providing the space for the personal soteriology of the scientific elite.

What is even more surprising for the close reader of al-Rāzī’s oeuvre is that this grand project began in one of his earliest works, al-Sirr al-Maktūm. A magisterial study of the astrology and talismanic craft of the astrolatrous Sabians, it drew on Avicennan psychology and celestial kinematics to account for how the practitioner could draw down celestial forces into a talisman to affect changes in the sublunary world that breached the empirical norm. For al-Rāzī, this was a genuine science, with an epistemology grounded in empiricism, analogical association, inspiration, and a trans-cultural tradition of astrological principles and empirically observed data that extended from prehistory to the present. Of signal importance to the Sabian scientific enterprise were astrology and the tutelary role played by the scientist’s perfect nature.

This paper will focus on al-Rāzī’s defence of astrology in light of the Avicennan critique, and his use of astrology to defend those doctrines in which he grounded the scientific soteriology with which his career culminated.

Matthew Melvin-Koushki, Panpsychism and mathematical humanism in Arabic and Persian classifications of the sciences

The most influential Arabic and Persian classifications of the sciences produced during the twelfth to seventeenth centuries were explicitly predicated on a panpsychist cosmology, and hence frequently occult: mind-matter and mind-mind interactions are taken for granted as a basis for philosophy-science. To read these sources through the lens of materialist cosmology instead, as modern historians have usually done, is therefore to do violence to their epistemologies and ontologies, making impossible an accurate and proportional history of Islamic Science. Yet panpsychism—current in the Western tradition from Pythagoras to Peirce—is again coming back into vogue in certain corners of the Euro-American academy, including among prominent physicists, philosophers, philosophers of science, cognitive scientists, parapsychologists and even theologians. I propose that Islamic intellectual historians take advantage of this turn to revisit our sources. Here a focus on the occult sciences is especially illuminating, given their status in many of these encyclopedias as the only disciplines to formally transcend the otherwise strict epistemic and generic divide between the natural and the mathematical sciences specifically and the rational and the religious sciences generally. By the same token, certain prestige occult sciences appear to have been a primary vector for the emergence of “mathematical humanism” in the early modern period, and must therefore be considered integral to the mathesis narrative of the scientific Rise of the West.

Jane Murphy, Al-‘Ulūm al-gharība: Mapping the sciences in al-Jabartī

Islamicate exploration of the natural world was informed by and developed in dialogue with Mediterranean, African, Indian Ocean, and Central Asian traditions. The intellectual vibrancy of early Islamicate scientific work has been credited to this expansive imperial and cultural world, features noted both by practitioners and translators in early periods as well as by current scholarship. By focusing on scientific traditions after Ibn Sina, this workshop centers questions of later periodization and invites us to reconsider the intellectual and social contexts of scientific theory and practices in Islamicate societies broadly. My contribution moves to the eighteenth century, when Ottoman imperial expansion and translation of works from and into multiple languages were again central to addressing the problems of creating and transmitting knowledge, especially knowledge of the natural world.  

In this paper, I map out the social and intellectual roles of the sciences in the major work of the Cairene ‘alim, ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti (1753-1825 CE). Using chains connecting teachers to students, patrons to practitioners, and people to texts, I analyze al-Jabarti’s sustained attention to figures engaged in mathematical, medical, astronomical, astrological and divinatory subjects from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Following traces of these individuals, circulating texts, commentaries, and their interrelationships are necessary for us to be able to see the social and intellectual roles of the sciences in this major urban center and to begin to account for the astonishing volume of extent manuscripts in these subjects produced across the Islamicate world, in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  

Like other papers in this session, I am interested in questions of the classification of knowledge, examining this period in terms of two general categories that distinguished knowledge authorized by revelation (al-‘ulum al-naqliyya), dependent on appropriate interpretation and transmission of revealed material, on the one hand, from knowledge authorized by rational investigation (al-‘ulum al-‘aqliyya), dependent on human perception, speculation, and reasoning, on the other. Al-Jabarti and his Damascene contemporary Muhammad Khalil al-Muradi (d. 1791 CE) both further wrote of al-‘ulum al-ghariba. In exploring the contours of these categories of knowledge for period actors, I also ask how our analysis and periodization might better capture the significance of these fields in the century prior to large-scale European intervention and conquest in the Middle East and North Africa, arguing that al-Jabarti saw these studies as fundamentally connected to questions of justice.

In conclusion, I suggest that rather than see disinterest in or distancing from scientific or rational thought preceding or even enabling European intervention, we might instead find evidence that pursuit of the sciences became more polarizing in Islamicate societies as a result of increasing European intervention and direct attempts to control this knowledge and limit the authority of the ‘ulama’. More attention to active study of al-‘ulum al-ghariba and al-‘ulum al-‘aqliyya among a prominent subset of intellectuals in this period appreciates and makes legible their lives and commitments and offers the potential to reframe our questions of “response”, “appropriation” or “rejection” of science in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  

Nahyan Fancy, What kind of ʿilm is medicine? Reflections of Canon and Epitome Commentators on Avicenna’s Definition of Medicine

Ibn Sīnā begins the Canon of Medicine by defining medicine as “a science (ʿilm) through which one knows (yataʿarraf minhu) the states of the human body from the perspective of what makes [the body] healthy and [what] makes it leave [the state] of health.” In the course of this opening discussion he also stresses that all of medicine is a theoretical science, including its practical parts. Yet, later in the same lesson (taʿlīm), Ibn Sīnā maintains that for some medical matters the physician qua physician may only conceptualize them (taṣawwur) without passing judgment (taṣdīq) on whether they exist. The physician qua physician should accept such judgments from the scholar of natural science (al-ʿilm al-ṭabīʿī). Dimitri Gutas, in his oft-cited chapter from 2003, cited this latter passage as a reason for why physicians in Islamic societies were unable to critique or overthrow Galenic humoral theory since it was deemed off-limits to them. In this presentation, I shall examine the discussions of four Canon commentators and four Epitome commentators on the definition of medicine and what types of investigations fell under the purview of those engaged in medicine (whether as practicing physicians, teachers, or commentators on medical works). We shall see that the thirteenth century commentators had already come to understand the Avicennan definition and passage on what is permissible for physicians qua physicians in a way that did not limit their investigations into medical theory. Furthermore, from the fourteenth century onwards, the medical commentators not only investigated theoretical matters in medicine (such a humoral theory) but also the strictly natural scientific parts of medical theory, such as the theory of elements or understanding of motion. They felt comfortable doing so because they had even come to define medicine in such a way that investigations into matters of natural science were seen as falling within the boundaries of the science of medicine, at least to some extent.

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