General Notes on Averroes (Ibn Rushd)

Contact: Dr. Jan Garrett

This page slightly revised December 4, 2007.

Reconstructed from lecture notes, November 13, 2006. This page is not for direct citation in scholarly work. These lecture notes were created several years ago and have been only slightly modified recently.
A. Background
B. The Commentator
C. Averroes on three kinds of people
D. Physical proof of God's existence
E. The Intelligences
F. Metaphysical Doctrines
G. The Human Soul

A. Background

It is important to remember how small the Medieval Latin world of the Christian philosophers was. From Augustine on, few educated people in Western Europe could read Greek. Thus, they were dependent for philosophy upon Latin translations. Boethius had planned to translate all of Aristotle but he had only translated the logical works when Theodoric executed him. Doctrinal differences separated the Greek speaking Byzantine Empire, centered in Constantinople, from the Latin speaking Catholic West. Quite capable Greek language commentary on Aristotle's works continued to be produced in the Byzantine empire.

The rise of Islam in the seventh century produced a Muslim empire and civilization which shrunk the Byzantine empire in the east, dominated north Africa and established an Islamic civilization in what is now Spain and Portugal. Islamic Spain and Portugal lasted at least six centuries and was still thriving politically when the greatest works of West European medieval philosophy were being produced in Italy, France, and England.

Greek philosophy found a welcome in the Muslim empire when in the 9th c. a Caliph founded a school at Baghdad devoted to translation of Greek scientific and philosophical literature. Here lived and worked Avicenna (Ibn Sina), a Persian by birth (980-1037). Another important center, later, was Cordova in Spain, where Averroes (Ibn Rushd), a Spanish Moor, was born in 1126 (d. 1198). Both Avicenna and Averroes were Muslims and wrote in Arabic.

Avicenna drew upon Aristotle, the Neoplatonists, and his predecessors at Baghdad. Many of the metaphysical notions of St. Thomas and other scholastic philosophers are indebted to Avicenna.

B. The Commentator

I shall focus upon Averroes, because our story is essentially about European philosophy and Averroes was immensely influential in Western Europe during the two or more centuries after his death. This is mainly a result of his association with the Aristotle revival; he produced highly respected commentataries on Aristotle's treatises. When one referred to "The Commentator" during this period, every educated person knew that one meant Averroes. There were schools of European philosophers who were Averroists. Some positions attributed to them seemed to contradict Christian faith, and thinkers closer to the religious mainstream tried to refute these doctrines.

Averroes identified Aristotle with philosophy itself, and tried to defend it against two sources of opposition. One source was persons like Avicenna and others who had distorted Aristotle's philosophy by mingling it with non Aristotelian elements, especially those borrowed from religion, e.g., the doctrine of Creation. As Maurer puts it, Averroes tried to restore Aristotelian philosophy to its rational purity.

C. Averroes on three kinds of people

The second group consisted of those who attacked philosophy as an enemy of religion. Averroes says that humanity is divided into three groups:

1) the vast majority who live by imagination rather than reason. They need religious preaching, which works on the imagination.

2) the theologians those in whom reason is awakening who seek rational justification for their belief, but who are contented with merely probable proofs.

3) philosophers, who perceive the nugget of truth in popular beliefs and theologians' probable proofs, but rise above them to know truth in all its purity.

In Averroes' view, preaching, theology and philosophy are appropriate for different types of minds, or different stages of intellectual development. There is no necessary conflict between them. He does not wish to substitute philosophy for preaching, because philosophy would be ineffective to raise the masses to morality, while preaching, he thinks, can be successful. But preaching, and even theology, as he understands it, will be helpless to provide the rational satisfaction for which the most advanced minds thirst.

D. Physical Proof of God's Existence

Averroes believed it possible to give a physical proof for God's existence through an analysis of movement.

1. Whatever moves (from place1 to place2) goes from potency to act.
2. Whatever moves is moved by something which is itself in act.
3. There cannot be an infinite series of such movers.
4. There must therefore be something which is a mover but does not itself pass from potency to act; it is always in act.

Such an entity is a primary cause of motion.

There are as many primary causes of motion as there are primary movements in the universe (at the time, astronomers calculated 38); hence there are 38 pure acts or intelligences, each of which is divine. (A pure act must be an intelligence, as distinct from an embodied substance, because all embodied things contains matter, whatever contains matter contains potentiality, and whatever contains potentiality is not pure act.)

E. The Intelligences

The intelligences are arranged in a hierarchy, and the first in this hierarchy is the Prime Mover, the ultimate cause of all motion. The last in this hierarchy of intelligences is the intelligence which governs the sublunary world (the portion of the universe below the sphere of the Moon). It is identical to the Agent Intellect, which will be important in the theory of human knowledge. (Aristotle had written about the Agent Intellect but had not related it to the heavens; he was less of a systemizer than Averroes makes him out to be.)

First among the Intelligences = PRIME MOVER
. 36 other primary causes of motion
Least among the Intelligences = Agent Intellect
All of these intelligences are eternal and uncreated, as is the universe which they move. The spheres to which the planets and stars are attached are themselves ensouled, and they love the intelligences; this love inspires the spheres to move in perfect circular motion.

F. Other Metaphysical Doctrines

In holding that the universe is eternal, Averroes implicitly regards creation as a theological notion, inadequate to philosophy.

For Averroes universals exist only in the intellect, the cause of universality. In attributing this view to Aristotle, Averroes departs from Alexander of Aphrodisias, who attributed to Aristotle the view that universals exist in re and then, after experience and abstraction, in mente.

Material things are unions of form with matter; the essence of material things consists of form alone. (Though there is textual ground for this in Aristotle, it in fact runs counter to what Aristotle sometimes says, that the essence of a living thing involves both form and matter; thus it seems that Aristotle sometimes held that in defining human it would not enough to specify the human form or soul, but one would have to also describe the body, the collection of members, which that soul animates.)

Averroes rejects the attempt to distinguish existence as an additional factor, apart from form and matter, and apart from substances and their accidental attributes.

G. The Human Soul, especially the Intellect

The human soul, according to Averroes, is a corporeal form essentially tied up with its body and unable to survive death. Its highest power is a capacity called passive intellect, by means of which human beings connect with the possible intellect that can unite with the Agent Intellect. Human dignity consists in the human being's ability to be united through knowledge and love with the Agent Intellect.

In a cryptic passage of book III of On Soul, Aristotle had introduced three notions of nous or intellect--possible, passive, and active.

The possible intellect seems to be the mind as "place" of forms. It is possible even when we have acquired a universal idea, in the sense of an idea known but not at present being used.

Such an idea is actually present only when the active intellect, which functions like light (recall what Plato said about the Good in Republic VI), illuminates the intelligible forms potentially in the possible intellect.

Aristotle says that the active intellect is "separable, impassible and unmixed, being an actuality." (Sir David Ross, Aristotle, 150) Aristotle probably understands it as identical in all individuals. It is "immortal and eternal." On Aristotle's view, passive intellect is closely linked to the individual human body and perishes with it.

The ancient Aristotelian commentator Alexander of Aphrodisias equated the Active Intellect of Aristotle's On Soul with God. Averroes follows Avicenna when he equates the Active Intellect with the Intelligence of the sublunary world. Avicenna, however, had conceded to individuals their own spiritual souls and possible intellects. Avicenna's view is closer to Platonism and also to the Muslim and Christian doctrine of immortality.

Averroes' rejection, in the Long Commentary on the De Anima, of individual immortality with respect to the intellectual faculty is probably faithful to Aristotle. In one passage Averroes equates the passive intellect with the imaginative faculty of individual humans, which implies that it will perish with individual humans.

Thomas Aquinas will argue, against Averroes, for the individuation of the possible intellect. (Aquinas intends to use this doctrine to make plausible the Christian doctrine of individual immortality that Aristotle probably would have rejected. However, Aquinas recognizes that our having individual possible intellects is not sufficient to prove individual immortality.)

Is there ...   Aristotle  Avicenna  Averroes  Aquinas
individual immortality?  no  yes  no  yes
a different possible intellect in each human being?   ???  yes  no  yes
a different agent intellect in each human being?   no  no  no  yes

Averroes' devotion to what he took to be Aristotle's view and to philosophy got him in trouble with his fellow Muslims, who accused him of heresy and banished him temporarily from Cordova. His Latin speaking disciples, like Siger of Brabant, in the 13th century ran into similar problems with the Christian religious authorities.