Islamic Philosophy – Avicenna


Avicenna (980-1037) was the foremost doctor of his time.  Like Confucius, his name (Ibn Sina) was Latinized by Europeans.  As a boy he learned Indian Arithmetic from an Indian grocer in his neighborhood.  His Canon of Medicine, translated into Latin like his name, was used as a textbook for Europeans up until the 1700s.  His medical practice was based on experimentation and clinical trials, fusing Persian, Greek, Indian and other traditions together.  He was possibly the first in history to hypothesize that diseases are caused by microscopic organisms, invented randomized control trials, as well as conceptions of hallucinations, insomnia, mania, dementia, epilepsy and syndromes.  He was the first to correctly show the workings of the eye, arguing that light does not emanate from the mind and through the eyes in perception, as we do not see in the dark, but rather goes into the eye from outside.  He was one of the key authors for understanding Aristotle and scientific investigation, and even as he argued against Aristotle on many points Europeans received much of Aristotle through his work.

elephant walking

As just mentioned with Farabi, Islamic philosophers increasingly turned to the human mind and imagination as the source of reality.  Consider that Avicenna, as a doctor, was treating patients for hallucinations and dementia while thinking about philosophy and the human mind.  While Aristotle understood universals, such as the group of all elephants, as a physical set of things, Avicenna argued against Aristotle by name, that universals are conceptions of the mind.  When we speak of elephants, we are talking about our concept, not the set of elephants that currently exist.  We are using our minds to bring all elephants, past, present and future, together in our heads.  We are not physically gathering any elephants together at all.  Along with mechanics and mathematics, it is this psychological understanding of reality as constructed in the mind that Islamic thinkers passed to Europeans, though many have mistakenly believed that Europeans are more self-conscious which allowed them alone to develop the self-conscious theories of science.


Avicenna asks about unicorns, which he knows to be fictional animals made by the imagination out of the parts of real animals, as well as the phoenix, the mythical bird of ancient Phoenicia that is reborn in fire.  He argues that while our concepts of unicorns and phoenixes do not correspond to real things, unlike our concepts of elephants and cows, the horse-ness of a horse, imaginary or real, is the same horse-ness included in our concept of unicorns.  Our conceptions of horses and unicorns are both mental constructs based on experience.


Avicenna’s floating man thought experiment should be important and included in any Intro Philosophy class because it is strikingly similar to Descartes’ Deceiving Demon, one of the first major concepts of modern European philosophy.  Avicenna, who worked with anesthetics in hospitals such as opium, asks us to imagine that we are slowly unable to feel our feet, then body, then sight and sensation, then memory and imagination.  What is left, the last and most essential thing that is ourselves?  Avicenna replies that it is consciousness, our awareness of existing even if we cannot think of who or what we are.  With that, we still can be said to exist.  Without that, it can be said that we are no longer there.  Descartes, who we will study next week, has us imagine that there is a demon who is deceiving us and creating the world as an illusion, but the one thing the demon can not trick us about is that we are aware.  Descartes concludes his argument with the famous declaration, “I think, therefore I am”, though it would be more accurate to say, “I am aware, therefore I am”, the conclusion of Avicenna, as thinking can be removed while awareness remains.

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