151 - Single Minded: Averroes on the Intellect

Posted on 24 November 2013

You know what I'm thinking: Averroes' rather surprising notion that all humankind shares a single intellect.

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Further Reading

• Averroes (Ibn Rushd) of Cordoba, Long Commentary on the De Anima of Aristotle, trans. R.C. Taylor (New Haven: 2009).

• Aquinas, On the Unity of the Intellect, trans. R. McInerny (West Lafayette: 1993).

• D.L. Black, “Conjunction and the Identity of Knower and Known in Averroes,” American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 73 (1999), 159-84.

• H.A. Davidson, Alfarabi, Avicenna and Averroes on Intellect (Oxford: 1992).

• A.L. Ivry, “Averroes on Intellection and Conjunction,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 86 (1966), 76-85.

• A.L. Ivry, “Averroes’ Middle and Long Commentaries on the De Anima,” Arabic Sciences and Philosophy 5 (1995), 75-92.

• R.C. Taylor, “Averroes on Psychology and the Principles of Metaphysics,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 36 (1998), 507-23.

• R.C. Taylor, “Improving on Nature's Exemplar: Averroes’ Completion of Aristotle's Psychology of Intellect,” in Philosophy, Science and Exegesis in Greek, Arabic and Latin Commentaries, ed. P. Adamson et al. (London: 2004), 107-30.

Comments

Dave Martin 26 November 2013

Hi Peter,
Thanks for another great episode. In terms of why the history of philosophy is worth studying, I think it's just a great exposition of where logic can lead you when you start with slightly different axioms, and as such, is an informative exploration of logic, its limits and dangers (at the very least, you can see why the modern world can get its thinking so wrong from just a small deviation from the right starting point.)
Listening to the episode on Averroes, I couldn't help trying to back track to where he was starting and wonder why he and, indeed, the trail of thinkers back to Aristotle were having so many problems with knowledge and intellect. It struck me that their difficulty seems to be that, although they recognise thought and therefore knowledge as 'immaterial', they still tend to think about it as being 'possessed' and passed about as if it is a material thing. Thus, if I have knowledge, I have established some permanent connection to the actual thing I know (or unveiled a permanent connection that was always lying there under the surface). But - to use a crude analogy - the way this thinking works is equivalent to the way an ancient tribesman might think about having his photo taken (i.e. that the soul is being taken from the thing photographed, and that the photograph is in some way permanently connected to the object it depicts, rather that realising the subject and its image are forever separated the second after the photo is taken - and that each photograph may or may not be imperfect).
I'm wondering if that is a reasonable way of looking at it on my part, or am I way off base?
Regards, Dave M

Thanks, that is a great question. I agree that there is a long-standing problem tradition, since Plato at least, of philosophers making the criteria for knowledge so robust that they then have to develop ambitious theories (like this one of Averroes) to explain how it can be possible. I think the core intuition is that knowledge must be distinct from mere belief, even true belief, and that the thing that makes it distinct is certainty and perhaps also generality. So then if you start considering how this could come about, it becomes a puzzle how we could achieve rock solid and also universal knowledge on the basis of individual sense experiences. Again, that's all already in Plato, even Aristotle has some tendencies in this direction (see my episode on his epistemology, number 36) and of course Neoplatonism goes very far in this direction.

Thanks Peter, I'll go back and check episode 36 again. Presumably, at some point further on in the history, we get to where everybody doubts everything and this is no longer a source of problems.
Dave M

Rafaël Jafferali 13 September 2015

Dear Mr Adamson,

May I point out a slight inaccuracy in the suggested further readings : Ivry's "Averroes on Intellection and Conjunction" was in fact published in 1966, instead of 1986. The reference to volume 86 of the Journal of the American Oriental Society is nevertheless correct.

I take this opportunity to thank you for your wonderful podcast. May it last as long as the discussed ideas!

Best regards,

Rafaël Jafferali

Peter Adamson 14 September 2015

In reply to by Rafaël Jafferali

Oh, thanks! I'll fix that now.

Edralis 17 July 2021

Dear Mr Adamson,

I wonder whether Averroes' theory of the single intellect could be properly understood as just another formulation of the same insight that e.g. Advaita Vedanta (atman=Brahman) or Daniel Kolak's Open Individualism are, to my best understanding, describing: that there is only one experiencer/awareness, which finds itself experiencing all points of view of the world, i.e. experiencing the world from all perspectives, i.e. that there is only the single (empty) realizer/subject/manifester of all experiences.

In which case, well, I don't see how this theory (or rather maybe 'hypothesis') is 'obviously false'! : )

No, I don't think so, simply because the single intellect in his mature thought is only an intellect, and is not really intended to explain "experience" or "awareness" at all. In fact he would appeal to an individual, brain-centered, capacity to explain why individual humans have a subjective experience or awareness of intellectual thinking: basically, it is because the images in your brain are being used by the universal intellect that you have this experience. Furthermore most of our mental life does not consist of intellection: things like sensation, imagination, memory etc are all based in the individual's body and are experienced by that individual to the exclusion of others.

Nedim 29 August 2022

One question that occurred to me, and is connected to all philosophers in Islamic world, but particularly Averroes, is how did they distribute their works, so that they could be preserved? Later on (Byzantium?) you talk about the technology behind the production of the works, but I wonder what it is in the Islamic world. Do they have books, or are writing on papyrus, skins?

Secondly, how do the works get "distributed". I imagine Averroes writing his long commentary by hand... and than what? I guess the guys in the East had "schools" and students to then copy that stuff, did he have them as well? How do these works get to other people? You said Jews were very interested in them and copied them etc (and later the Christians). How to they get to these works, or get to know them? They do not get "advertised" in the market place ("hear, hear, another Long Commentary, get it while its hot"). Actually, while writing this I remember they had libraries, so I guess a copy would be deposited there and the interested parties could check them out? Or?    

That is a great question. In general the situation here would be the same as we discussed in the episodes on manuscripts in Byzantium, i.e. we are talking about individual handmade copies. So it was an expensive process: it's not too surprising that there is only one copy of Averroes' Long Commentary on the Metaphysics in Arabic, and none of any of his other Long Commentaries (we have the Latin and/or Hebrew), because these were enormous works and no doubt of interest to a fairly restricted audience. We also can't, I think, suppose anything like medieval scriptoria, to say nothing of the professional scribes turning out copies of textbooks by the hundreds for university students in medieval European cities. We're talking here about text transmission around elite court cultures, within small schools gathered around masters, and the like. The fact that they reached a Jewish and Christian audience in this case would be because there was enough overlap between the intellectual circles (I think especially via Jews; I wonder whether Christians would ever have accessed Averroes without the intermediary of Jewish scholars?). Still one shouldn't underestimate how active the copying industry was. For instance we know of philosophers (e.g. in 10th c Baghdad) who earned their money by working as scribes.

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