Monday, March 28, 2011

Intro Philosophy: Islam & Early Europe

First, we look at the rise of Islamic civilization and its relationship to medieval European civilization with regard to philosophy, technology, science and scholarship. This is important to know, especially today. Second, we will look at central Islamic and medieval European philosopher/logicians (especially Avicenna and Aquinas).

America is particularly bad at Islamic Scholarship, though it is hard to beat out Europe. The United States has very few scholars who have contributed to the field. Because of this, there are no good comprehensive books about Islam published in the US, so books from the 50s and 60s are republished and taught (I have found this is true of Babylon and Persia as well). Centers for Islamic or ‘Near Eastern’ Studies focus on Islamic cultures in modern times, after the rise of Europe, so there is little opportunity to study the golden age of Islamic civilization and its massive influence on European civilization. In addition, philosophy departments rarely offer courses on Islamic philosophy or logic, and few departments of any subject study Islamic religion, literature, philosophy, or science.

Islamic civilization was the world’s great civilization before European civilization rose, so it is the natural place to look for the progression and development of philosophy, technology, and culture. It was the multi-cultural, scientific, and philosophical culture before Europe and it gave Europe an astonishing amount of technology and study. In spite of this, most scholars remain entirely ignorant as we rarely look outside of ancient Greek or Roman history to find influences on modern society. There is a greater appreciation of India and China in American scholarship, one that does not acknowledge equality with Europe but which acknowledges some depth. It is a good example of what has been called the “grandfather effect”: the grandfather (China and India) has tension with the father (Islam), the father has tension with the son (Europe) but the grandfather and grandson get along great because there is no direct relationship or conflict. Because Islam has always shared a border with Europe, Islam has always been portrayed in a negative light as warlike and despotic.

Here are some awesome ahadith, sayings of the prophet Mohammed, the second source of Islam after the Koran:

Go in quest of knowledge, even unto China.
It is better to teach knowledge one hour in the night than to pray straight through it.
A moment’s reflection is better than 60 years devotion.
The ink of the scholar is holier than the blood of the martyrs.

Law and protections for a diverse population were developed the most in Islam before Europe rose and took over. A woman had the right to sue her husband for divorce, and use algebra to get a percentage of his income. Nestorians and Jews fled to Islamic lands from European persecutions. Islam thus thrived as a multicultural and ‘cosmopolitan’ society. It would be centuries before Europe passed them. 1492 is a good example: it is the year that the Christian Kings of Spain and Portugal retook those lands from Muslims, and the start of the Spanish Inquisition that brutally attacked Jews, Muslims and non-Catholic Christians.

Algebra is possibly the most used device (if it can be called a device) in human history. It is important to consider algebra because in the second half of the course logic becomes an algebraic language (remember, logic used to be about debate in the ancient world, but it gradually became a highly specialized form of math that was intended to ground the foundations of mathematics). Before algebra, much of the world used the Egyptian doubling method (including ancient Greece and Rome) to do mathematics. Unfortunately, this method could not keep track of remainders and could not take account of series and other functions critical to the growth of math, trade and mechanical technology. Islamic mathematicians and logicians (some of whom are listed below) took the Indian base 10 system and began doing math in the form of equations we are all familiar with today (taught by law to everyone up through college).

Algebra allowed trade caravans to keep greater accounts of goods, as well as sophisticated forms of insurance and banking. Islamic merchants traded by caravan all the way up through Russia and Scandinavia, as coins discovered attest. In dark age Europe, Islamic culture was passing through town with the latest things and systems of thought (books come this way too from China). Castles are Questles, the Persian word for fort. Medieval dress and decoration are not modeled on Roman but rather Islamic Persian society. Consider hospitals with many beds, dosages measured with algebra, mechanical innovations such as gears, the chain and belt drive, pistons and clocks were all passed from Islamic to European hands before Europe became wealthy and successful.

Central to logic, it was with Islamic mathematics, philosophy, logic and science that equations became the language for structures. The ancient Greeks such as Euclid and Aristotle talked out problems in paragraph form. Today, many scholars use algebraic logic to explain ancient Greek ideas but is quite anachronistic and misleading to do this.

One of the sources of algebraic science was code-breaking or cryptography (also cryptanalysis). Between questles, codes had to be sent and algebra was used to make and break these codes. As nature was studied with mathematics, the philosopher/scientists discovered that algebra is an amazing tool for CODE BREAKING NATURE. What we call “science” is still very much this today. Consider the constant of gravity as a hidden code or message to be discovered and phrased in algebraic language.


Jesus is mentioned in the Koran more than anyone, the greatest prophet after Mohammed.
He is the patron saint of scholars and wisdom, and he sounds much like Confucius.

The worst man is the scholar who is in error, since many people will err due to him.
The one who has learned and taught is great in the kingdom of heaven.
Stones, mud and gold are equal in my sight.
‘Teacher, who are the people of my race?’ ‘All the children of Adam.’
No one taught me. I saw the ugliness of ignorance and avoided it.
How many fruits, but not all are good! How many sciences, but not all of them useful!


Many are familiar with the Sunni-Shiite split of Islamic cultures without realizing that the central issues between groups are philosophical positions on human reason. The Sunni believe that revelation such as the Koran is the supreme authority, and all else is secondary. The Mutazilites, a smaller sect of Islam and one of the great forces for philosophy and science, believe that God/Being is fully reasonable and human reason and logic are supreme to following tradition or scripture. Mutazilites argued that God can not contradict reason and thus cannot possibly commit error, which became a major theological and philosophical issue in the golden age of Islamic thought and civilization. The Shiites, the second major sect of Islam like the Sunnis, take a middle position between reason and scripture/tradition. Sunnis argued that one must investigate matters when scripture and reason contradict each other. This is important to recognize today, as Muslims are often believed to be unquestioningly traditional and literal in their understanding of the Koran.


Al Kindi (801-873)
Pioneer of Islamic sciences, cryptography and the experimental method,
introduced Indian numerals and base ten system to Islam, where it was developed into Algebra. Wrote numerous medical treatises (including the memorable Treatise on Diseases caused by Phlegm). Unlike Galileo and Newton, who came much later, but like Einstein, argued that time and space were relative, as all things save Being or God are relative, subjective, and contingent. Avicenna took up this position powerfully later.

Argued that Islam and Philosophy/Logic are completely compatible. Our scholarship says that he mostly merged Neoplatonism and Aristotle, but he also incorporated Zoroastrianism and Indian/Buddhist Logic. Even though Christians in Europe followed Islamic Alchemy and Astrology for centuries, he was an early voice against both, saying they were both pseudo-sciences and the best method of knowledge was strictly observation and experimentation.

Al Farabi (872-950)
Little is known about Farabi’s origins or ethnic background. It is argued by scholars that he was Turkish or Persian. Farabi took the Aristotelian tradition of Alexandria, Egypt and expanded beyond. Maimonides famously said he could not understand Aristotle at all until he read Al-Farabi’s commentary, and then got it. Paid much attention to Imagination, as this is central to science, philosophy and religious prophecy. He argued that if you learn and get right, you have visions of the cosmos and its workings. This is close to Wittgenstein’s thought experiments in his later thought.

Avicenna or Ibn Sina (980-1037)
Foremost doctor of his time. His Cannon of Medicine was used as a text book for Europe in translation until the 1700s. His medicine was based on experimentation and clinical trials, fusing Persian, Greek, Indian and other texts together. He is credited with formulating the nature of infectious disease, randomized control trials, neuropsychiatry (hallucinations, insomnia, mania, dementia, epilepsy), and the syndrome, as well as hypothesizing microscopic organisms as the cause of disease. The first to correctly show the workings of the eye. He learned Indian Arithmetic from and Indian grocer. This is ignored in most. He was one of the key authors for understanding Aristotle and scientific investigation, even as he argued against Aristotle Europeans often took up his ideas as genuine fruit of Aristotle’s tradition of thought, thus ‘Aristotelian’.

The focus of the selection of Avicenna I gave you, was whether or not universals exist. Consider that Aristotle believed that universals are motions or forms of the eternal cosmos coming down from the stars. Today, in the wake of Islamic and European civilization, we understand universals to be concepts and mental rather than physical. Do our theories exist in the real world, or in our heads? This was the big issue. Avicenna asks: Does a unicorn exist? Does it exist in your head as one thing, the same way that a real horse is one thing? Does the horseness of the unicorn exist? Is it more or less real than the horseness of a real horse? Avicenna says that all are things (single beings) equally, but only the horse is real, while the unicorn and the universal ‘horseness’ are both mental. Avicenna uses the phoenix and unicorn as imaginary beasts to illustrate.

His floating man thought experiment, showing self-consciousness, shows imagination.
This is considered by some to be a source of Descartes’ ‘I think’ with demon.

After this, there was a split in his followers: which is primary, the essence or existence?
Essentialism (What it is 1st, the thing second) vs. Existentialism (thing first, what 2nd).

Al Ghazali (1058-1111), Persian
One of the most celebrated scholars of Sufism. Sufism is Islamic mysticism, who like mystics of other religions and cultures believe that all is a supreme One and judgment and desire obscure this from human vision. Many are familiar with the Sufi story of the blind men and the elephant, a story that Sufis argue is about their practice being the religion of all religions. Ghazali was a pioneer of skepticism and doubt. His work ‘The Incoherence of the Philosophers’ criticized Kindi, Farabi and Avicenna as thinking too much of arriving at certain human knowledge. When he says ‘The philosophers say’ I have read authors say, ‘this means Plato and Aristotle’, but I trust the scholars who say he means ‘Avicenna says’ as the position he always attacks. He does say that Avicenna is beyond all doubt the most distinguished philosopher. He argued that Atoms are the only true things, and all else in the world is accidental. In his ‘Alchemy of Happiness’, wrote of Negative theology of embracing the One. St. Thomas Aquinas, the great ethics teacher of Christianity, read Ghazali as his favorite and central author. Unfortunately, Aquinas is in spell check today, while Ghazali is not.

Averroes, Ibn Rushd (1126-1198) Cordoba, Spain
Wrote commentaries on all of Aristotle’s works, thus central for Europe Aristotle.
Wrote ‘The Incoherence of the Incoherence’, arguing against Ghazali and for Farabi etc.

He was another central author in Europe for science and philosophy. He turned back to Aristotle from Avicenna, and Europe followed him. He is credited more than anyone with turning Europe on to Aristotle. Our science is now more like Avicenna, but for the longest time it was Aristotleian thanks to Averroes. It was only with Sir Francis Bacon in the 1600s declaring the syllogism as necessary to be flawed that Europe swung back into a ‘all is contingent’ Avicenna direction.


First, they would have called themselves ‘Platonists’. Neo was added by first translator into English, and the title has been adopted by scholars in Europe and America. The start of the tradition comes from Alexandrian (Egyptian) Greek Platonists who were reading the Timaeus and participating in religious/philosophical debates amongst the many cultures of the trade port, including Egyptians, Nubians, Gnostic Christians, Coptic Christians, Jews, Indians, Persians, Mesopotamia etc.

Two texts that were central to Platonism were the Chaldean Oracles, which were supposed to be the secret teachings of Zarathustra from Persia, and the Hermetic Corpus, the secret teachings of Hermes Trismegistus (Thoth-Tat as a sage) from Egypt. These two sources became very important in the Renaissance, showing us that it was much more than a love of Greece and Rome that artists and scholars celebrated. These two texts actually had just been invented by Greek authors who were clearly using Plato to try to back-form the wisdom of Persia and Egypt that the ancient Greeks themselves praised, but at the time they were believed to be authentic and then well past by European scholars. Thus, they were sources that were believed to be earlier than Plato, which conveyed the wisdom that Plato himself developed and passed on as the true philosophy of all cultures.

Most famous Hermetic text is the Emerald Tablet, a short set of aphorisms. The line most quoted: the world is a sphere in which the center is everywhere and nowhere. Chaldean oracles aphorisms:
Explore the river of the soul, to rise to the order from which you descended.
When you see a formless fire, flashing through the depth of the world, hear the voice of fire.
The intelligible draws open the flower of the mind.

Central teachings of this tradition of Platonism:

The Soul must return to the One, the All (All-Lord or God), which it must do by way of lesser gods or angels and demons. The system is very much psychology of the soul, which is also angelology and demonology in classifying forces of the cosmos.
The macrocosm is the microcosm- small and big, so soul/mind is the universe.
Opening up the mind is returning to the cosmos that produced you.
Theme of the Fall and the Return (later in Christians id with Adam and fall from Eden).

There are two motions of mind to develop:
Kataphania and Apophania, positing and negating, affirming and doubting.
To get to the One, you must move Dialectically, back and forth, to open up and become the whole.

Humans occupy a unique place in the cosmos. They have the ability to subsume all the motions of things low and high, thus are most like the all-motion of the One.
Humans are the One fallen away from itself, journeying back to itself.
Time and space are the eternal moment and unity fallen and fragmented.
This is truly the most beautiful thought of Europe, which most don’t know about because it happened long before the gap of tech and science separated Europe from other cultures.

All the main thinkers of European Christianity were (Neo) Platonists for quite a while, and it thus still held much sway even after things branched out considerably.
Augustine, Pseudo Dionysius, Boethius, Eriugena, Aquinas, Nicholas of Cusa, Ficino and Pico of the Ren (we will speak of them in particular), Bruno, Ren artists like Michelangelo, Botticelli, scientists like Galileo, Copernicus and Kepler.

Augustine (300) brought it into Christianity (from ‘Pagan’ authors). One of the most important author and church father, he was North African. He made the gods angels officially (each with an office) and talked about how light into the mind creates visions/theophanies/ideas of the cosmos and its order.

Pseudo-Dionysius (500) was a Syrian Christian who read Augustine and other authors and was big into negative theology, kataphania. He argued that the journey to the One was essentially one of unknowing or kataphania, and the One was the great Unknown, above all qualities or being (just like 99 names of Allah).

Eriugena (800) merged these two, working them together with many other authors, to create an amazing system. The first European Christian Platonist, Hegel wrote about him in his History- ‘With him, true philosophy first begins’, since Hegel is tracing an evolution of all thought up to himself, and Hegel is quite a European Platonist.
Notably, Hegel ignores the Islamic Zoroastrian Platonists who are writing at about the same time we learned about last week. Eriugena was one of the only people who could read a bit of Greek at the time, and so he was protected in the court of Charles the Bald who protected him from the Pope in exchange for translating and commentary on PD.
Basically, Augustine was cannon, and Eriugena was heretically saying that Augustine and PD are two sides of the same coin.

Eriugena saw the One as HyperOusia- the sum of being and non-being, the source of both but neither of the two at the same time. He took the radical unknown One of PD and made it the unknown source of both known and unknown in all levels of the cosmos.
God splits apart into oppositions to then form all the differentiations of the cosmos.
For Eriugena, psychology is physics, as we co-create our world as a product of our vision and the One’s vision. The One is unknown to itself/fully known to itself above human divisions of judgement, and it shares both of these with human beings, the special mediators of the cosmos. Like in Sufism, Humans are unique in potentially being God, encompassing the lowest and highest of all orders (the worm and the angel). Humans have free will thus- it was defending this radically which led to condemn. Authority comes from Reason, not the other way around.

Nicholas of Cusa’s mustard seed thought experiment- the boundless and infinite are present both active/potential, in the mundane of the world, just like the One/Christ.

St. Francis of Assisi (later San Francisco in Spanish) Visited Sultan’s Court, came back with a very Sufi vision. All religion is one brotherhood in God, give all to the poor, contemplate all through radical love. At the end of time, we will be standing side by side, hand in hand with sister death and brother fire.

The Renaissance (1400-1500)
‘Italy’ was not something that Ren people would have known. “Florence”, the city state was their nation. ‘Italy’ had yet to be unified and titled such, so ‘Italian Ren’ is a bit of a mis-title. Central power of the Pope had withered, and now trader city states can create competing cultures (another fall apart, good for thought time).

Vatican Library shows how books and Greeks had yet to be popular in 1400 Europe:
1443- 2 Greek books, 340 books total (that’s it)
1455- 400 Greek, 1200 total
1484- 1000 Greek, 3650 total

Frequently assumed by scholars that Renaissance was celebration of Greeks and Romans, both Philosophy and Art. Taking a close look at Ficino and Pico, the two major Platonists of the Renaissance and thus fathers of all European scholarship to follow, shows that the Egyptian and Persian wisdom was given a higher place than Plato.

Cosimo Medici founded the Platonic Academy of Florence in 1462 (meeting, not building as thought) and Ficino rose quickly to soon lead it, with Pico della Mirandola as student. Cosimo de Medici, when he knew he was dying, ordered Ficino to put aside translating Plato’s complete works and finish translating the Corpus Hermetica, the supposed secret wisdom of Egypt passed to the Hebrews and Greeks. Shows who was important. Plato is a follower of Hermes, and Zarathustra. Ficino translated ‘Maat’ as Logos, which is a bit of a confusion. Ficino finished translating the 17 texts in 1471.

Ficino argued there was one unbroken tradition of wisdom which included the Eyptians, Persians, the Brahmans of India (who he doesn’t go into detail on) and the Greeks.

This is like the Sufis, as well as arguing that Phil and Bible were compatible.
Ficino gave Europe the first Latin trans of Plato’s works, many derived from Arabic sources. Ficino thought that Zarathustra was the first prophet of the one true phil/rel, followed by Hermes from Egypt, then Moses, then Plato, then Jesus.
Pico, his student, thought it was first Hermes of Egypt, then Zarathustra, then Abraham, then Plato, etc. These remained the debated opinions for centuries.
Thus, Bruno and Masons follow Pico in Egypt being lost center of all wisdom.
Ficino repeatedly uses the Zoroastrian oracles to back up his points, and continuously mentions the 3 persian Magi visiting Jesus as infant in the Bible. Ficino writes that Plato had a third eye, which contemplated the union of being and nonbeing (The One), which came from a strange source. Pico was very big on Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, saying it was Egyptian.