141 - Into Thin Air: Avicenna on the Soul

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With his Flying Man argument, Avicenna explores self-awareness and the relation between soul and body.



Further Reading

• P. Adamson, “Correcting Plotinus: Soul’s Relationship to Body in Avicenna’s Commentary on the Theology of Aristotle”, in P. Adamson et al. (eds), Philosophy, Science and Exegesis in Greek, Arabic and Latin Commentaries (London: 2004), vol. 2, 59-75.

• P. Adamson and F. Benevich, “The Thought Experimental Method: Avicenna’s Flying Man Argument,” Journal of the American Philosophical Association (2018), 1-18.

• T. Alpina, Subject, Definition, Activity: Framing Avicenna’s Science of the Soul (Paris: 2021).

• D.L. Black, “Estimation in Avicenna: The Logical and Psychological Dimensions,” Dialogue 32 (1993): 219–58.

• D.L. Black, “Avicenna on Self-Awareness and Knowing that One Knows,” in S. Rahman et al. (eds), The Unity of Science in the Arabic Tradition (Dordrecht: 2008), 63-87.

• T.-A. Druart, “The Human Soul’s Individuation and its Survival After the Body’s Death: Avicenna on the Causal Relation Between Body and Soul,” Arabic Sciences and Philosophy 10 (2000), 259-273.

• D.N. Hasse, Avicenna’s De Anima in the Latin West (London: 2000).

• M.E. Marmura, “Avicenna’s ‘Flying Man’ in Context,” Monist 69 (1986), 383-95.

• R. Wisnovsky (ed.), Aspects of Avicenna (Princeton: Markus Wiener, 2001), the contributions of Hasse and Gutas.


Peter Adamson on 15 September 2013

The artwork

Thanks to Davlat Dadikhuda for the drawing!

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Yannick Kilberger on 15 September 2013

So Peter... now you are

So Peter... now you are commenting on your own posts? Do you mean to transcend the podcaster/commentator dualism?

In reply to by Yannick Kilberger

Peter Adamson on 15 September 2013

The commentator

I'm taking a leaf from Averroes, of course. Maybe I'll start super-commentating on my own comments, too, and I can also be Gersonides.

Kieron Sherida… on 15 September 2013


Very interesting and particularly the contact with the universal faculty of understanding of man across time and philosophical history to focus and develop ideas.

Ferenc on 18 September 2013

The Flying Man

Professor Adamson,

I am a little confused about the flying man thought experiment. Just what does Avicenna have in mind for what the flying man has in mind? Does the flying man have language without experience; can he think? I'm a little baffled on what consciousness would be without language or sensory experience. Any Pointers or Reminders would be greatly appreciated.

In reply to by Ferenc

Peter Adamson on 19 September 2013

Flying man

The idea seems to be that he can think, yes - since affirming his own existence would seem to be an act of thought. I agree he would not know (natural) language. Avicenna doesn't discuss the role, if any, of language in this context. I assume he is presupposing that thought doesn't require language, which is something I suppose a lot of philosophers would now think is obviously false; but it used to be something philosophers would have thought obviously true. Remember that Neoplatonists thought that there is a higher, non-discursive (hence non-lingustic) kind of thinking, and presumably God also thinks without language, even if He can also speak in language as when He sends a message through a prophet.

Pete Bataleck on 20 September 2013

Really enjoyed this podcast

But surprised you didn't include a link to your discussion of the flying man on Philosophy Bites, so here it is:


After all you can never have to much of a good thing (sorry Aristotle).

In reply to by Pete Bataleck

Peter Adamson on 23 September 2013

Link to Philosophy Bites

Oh right, good point. I think either I just didn't think of that or reckoned it would be superfluous since I say a lot of the same things here in this episode. But thanks for adding the link! I strongly urge people to check out the Philosophy Bites series in general, it's great.

Lemis on 1 October 2013


Professor Adamson, in which book did Avicenna propose his 'Flying Man' argument? Thank you for your work!

In reply to by Lemis

Peter Adamson on 1 October 2013

Source of Flying Man

He actually uses it several times, but the most famous examples are two passages in the Psychology (Nafs) section of his Healing (al-Shifa'). Unfortunately there is no English translation of this yet, but the argument has been translated in various places like by Marmura article suggested under "further reading" on this page.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Lemis on 1 October 2013


Thank you!
Which of Avicenna's work which has been translated into English would you recommend (that would give the reader a holistic perspective)?

In reply to by Lemis

Peter Adamson on 1 October 2013

Avicenna reading

Hm, that's tricky. His Metaphysics (from the Healing) has been translated but that's quite a challenging text. And he's never easy. Probably the best thing would be the selections in the Hackett reader on Classical Arabic Philosophy. That's also not so expensive and will give you texts by a wide range of figures from the formative period.

Hendra on 17 December 2013

flying man

With his flying argument, Ibn Sina shows us that to know the soul is self-evident, no need to the concept which has identically with language.

John on 28 July 2014

Avecenna's Flying Whale?

catching up on old hop episodes and got to Avicenna a couple of weeks ago. thinking back on the flying man I was reminded of the scene in Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide transforming the plant into a whale and recording the whale's reflections. Was that intended as a reference to the flying man? Does it fit anyways or have I misremembered the scene?


In reply to by John

Peter Adamson on 29 July 2014

Flying whale

Nice idea! I haven't read that in years but if memory serves the whale does think something like "here I am" and being aware of itself. But unlike the flying man the whale has sensory input, like I remember that the whale notices the wind whistling past as it plummets to its death (and then sees the ground coming and names it "ground" because it is a nice round-sounding word, or something to that effect). So in that respect it is not like the flying man.

Also the whale has dorsal fins, which may or may not be relevant.

Hoom on 25 June 2016

What would modern science say about the Flying Man argument?

What would a modern scientist say about the Flying Man argument? It seems that, now since we have more knowledge about the brain and the nervous system, we should be able to explain what would the flying man experience without resorting to the soul? Does this thought experiment still have any bearing into the body/soul debate today?

Imaad Mursyid … on 2 October 2016

asking for a transcript

I'm studen of philosophy of islam and I'm on my researching of my last task. I'm not native that's why, if you don't mind, could I have the transcript one? My hopes. Thankyou so much.

ellen on 13 September 2017

Ibn Sinna

I believe you should focus on presenting the material in a more respectful fashion. Ibn Sinna is a scholar that made tremendous progress in so many subjects such as medicine, poetry, mathematics, logic, theoologym geology, astronomy, chemistry, paleontology, etc. I believe it is not very respectful to only highlight him as a wine drinking alcoholic and not his actual achievements that revolutinized many fields namely medicine. 

In reply to by ellen

Peter Adamson on 13 September 2017

Ibn Sina

Well, I take your point but I don't think anyone who listened to the podcast could have missed how much I admire Avicenna or failed to see that I think he is staggeringly important. The wine jokes were just jokes - if you listen to more of the podcasts you'll see there is quite a lot of humor throughout the series and these should be taken in that context. This is also to some extent an ironic allusion to the fact that later Muslim thinkers often complained about his wine consumption and sexual appetite (though it turns out that the latter is probably the result of tampering with his biography by later authors: I mention this in an old blog post). Anyway, we are on the same side: we both love Avicenna!

Scott Williams on 14 February 2020

"Non-Western Philosophies"

Hi Peter,

I'm doing some research on the flying man and so read your article in the JAPA. I noticed that it is labeled as "Non-Western Philosophies." Do you think this is a correct label? I've seen various institutions put authors like Ibn Sina and Al-Farabi in the "non-western" designitation, but I don't really understand why that makes sense. Is it a simple geographic designation-- if you are east of X(?) then one is "non-western"? I'd think that if a philosopher (like Ibn Sina) is deep into the Greco-Roman heritage that that would be sufficient for counting them as "western." What do you think?  (I teach an 'Islamic/Arabic Philosophy' course which is designated as 'non-western', but I'm not quite certain what that means or is supposed to signal (non-Christian? non-Jewish? But that can't be right, because there were Christians and Jews in e.g., Baghdad).



Guy of Jerusalem on 1 July 2021

Philosophical wheels

Listening to your podcasts (my favorite pastime lately:), I keep getting the impression that latter-day philosophers keep re-inventing philosophical wheels. In this episode, for a moment I thought you were talking about 17th-18th century empiricists - "with the exception of a few basic principles and concepts, Avicenna thinks that everything we know derives from sense-experience". I don't remember ever reading or hearing that empircism owes something to Avicenna (even if unknowingly?). I think this is kind of a gap - a gap of identifying when a thought is truly novel, and when it is really just a position that was once (or more!) already occupied, albeit in different centuries, lands and languages. It seems to me that it would save a lot of philosophers a lot of time if they can know that their thoughts had already been developed. I mean they "can" know - a modern cognitive scientist "can" know that medieval philosophers already developed stuff that he is working on, but that would require actually reading medieval philosophy, instead of the latest research in the field. Thoughts don't come with a label "I have already been thought". Anyway, your comments, as always, appreciated. 

In reply to by Guy of Jerusalem

Peter Adamson on 1 July 2021

Reinventing the wheel

Yes indeed, I totally agree with that - in fact the first of my 20 "rules" for history of philosophy goes right along these lines. The only caveat I would add is that what looks to be the same idea in two different places and times might actually be somewhat, or even very, different once you take everything into account. For example, I don't think Avicenna was an empiricist anyway but even if he was, "empiricism" for him would have meant something quite different than for Hume etc, because his theory of sensation and cognition was so different. Still you're right that in philosophy those who don't know their history are condemned to repeat it.

Al-Goldberg on 29 September 2021

The Thought Experimental Method: Avicenna's Flying Man(2018)

Professor Adamson,

I am currently writing a bachelors thesis on Avicenna´s Flying Man, and have a couple of questions. 

I have read your new interpretation of the Flying Man Argument in (ADAMSON, P. & BENEVICH, F. 2018, "The Thought Experimental Method: Avicenna's Flying Man Argument", Journal of the American Philosophical Association, vol. 4, no. 2, pp. 147-164.) Jari Kaukua responds with some criticism (KAUKUA, J. 2020, "The Flying and the Masked Man, One More Time: Comments on Peter Adamson and Fedor Benevich, ‘The Thought Experimental Method: Avicenna's Flying Man Argument’", Journal of the American Philosophical Association, vol. 6, no. 3, pp. 1-12.)

I wonder if you have responded to Kaukua´s critics? He seems to focus more on whether the soul exists independently from the body rather than looking into the essence of the soul. Do you find his arguments fallacious in any way? 

Thank you for your continuous hard work!

In reply to by Al-Goldberg

Peter Adamson on 29 September 2021

Kaukua paper

Actually Jari Kaukua was kind enough to send us a draft of that paper so we went back and forth on it a few times and sort of agreed to disagree. I still think our interpretation is plausible but I wouldn't insist it is the only possible reading!

Jordan on 2 December 2021

Flying man

Hm... So at first I did imagine the flying man as myself, but imagining him as someone else makes the idea way more complicated.

As someone who just was created, the man is an infant regardless of how old he looks. He definitely wouldn't know anything more than a baby. And honestly, the flying man probably makes exactly as much sense as the regular world does to a newborn - it's less complicated! 

The baby has human impulses - it would cry even if it can't hear itself and isn't aware that it's crying. It would be upset until it found a person to hold onto it and to feed it. But this isn't a baby, it's a man... but why would we assume that grown men have fewer instincts than infants? If anything, there would be more sudden and predictable behavior the man would do without realizing. And if you try to control the situation to take emotional responses to emptiness and other survival instincts out of the picture, then what we have left isn't really a human being anymore, at least in a way that I think we can conceive.

Although now I think we're also doing that classic Psych 101 thing of daydreaming about raising some poor baby in a totally blank room with no human interaction. Not that we ever WOULD, but still... 

As I keep listening to the episode, the "hostility of wolf" thing is very much an "instinct" idea, but I feel like the meaning is more broad. Like instinct plus emotional reasoning plus something else.

I mean, I also wonder if a Flying Sheep who suddenly gained sight to see a wolf would react like a sheep who has been herded and raised by other sheep. Although that in itself relies partially on how domesticated the animal can be, which is again an inborn/instinct trait that can be gradually bred (like how we bred toy poodles). 

I guess the point is more about how animals seem to have empathy like humans, but I don't think a wolf is a good example of that. Sheep don't really see wolves and, from what little I know about sheep, project the idea that "the wolf is hostile" and THEN get afraid. But I think there are plenty of other examples. Animals interacting with humans, getting to know our routines and our moods, treating us like members of its family/pack/whatever. A cat watching a bug skitter around, constructing a pattern, and guessing where it will fly next. An elephant watching itself in the mirror. A flock of birds chirping contentedly versus hopping around tensely, ready to fly away. Those aren't about instinct or emotion, but I think are a result of emotion and instinct and logic all interacting in different ways. 

I do like the idea of the Forms or other ideas being in the Cloud. :)

In reply to by Jordan

Peter Adamson on 3 December 2021

Babies and sheep

Avicenna does say that the flying man is created as an adult and with all faculties fully developed so this is to forestall precisely your kind of worries about infant level capacities and instincts. Of course the more stipulations we make about the flying man's situations the less obvious it may be what our intuitions should be about his mental life.

Re. the animal case I think "instinct" would be an alternative explanation of these phenomenon, or could be: the animals don't need a cognitive faculty to perform such behaviors but just act "automatically" almost like machines. So that would be the kind of view we have later in Descartes. But one might invoke "instinct" to explain why they have the reactions they do using these cognitive powers that Avicenna posits in them; hence we need to say more about what "instinct" amounts to.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Jordan on 7 December 2021

Hey, thanks for responding…

Hey, thanks for responding to a comment on this ancient (in internet terms) episode!

I feel like "all faculties developed" is hard to imagine though. Either the man has a healthy adult understanding of the world and use of his senses (which requires enculturation, which creates bias and means his experience isn't universal) or he lacks those, making him underdeveloped (or perhaps having developed in a way that we can't understand or replicate). I think the closest to what we are supposed to imagine is someone like ourselves but with memory loss, having no memory of experiences - but even then, the way we think is going to be structured by the past and the culture that we don't remember.

I'm agreeing with you - sometimes you have to specify that online lol - but the Flying Man seems to be created to simplify the idea of consciousness even though it maybe doesn't do that if taken too seriously. I'd be interested if the same idea was tackled for the notion of sleep, where we're effectively cut off from our senses but still seem to have a "soul" or some form of consciousness that exists outside of perception. But that's also impossible to apply to everyone in the same way. (I, for one, normally don't experience my dreams as lifelike sensations, but I ate a pie the other night and, knowing it was a dream, focused on the texture and taste of the berries and the crust. But other nights it's just a blur. And some people don't dream but we don't say their souls are gone!)

I do disagree about using instinct to describe animal behavior. I was told that as a kid but if you spend time around animals long enough, you get to know their individual personalities - even bugs have unique personalities, so I don't think it's related to brain power.

I also try to imagine if there was some other species observing humans who didn't communicate or think the way we do - let's say they're all telepaths who don't need to use language or body movement. Our cities are elaborate and unique, but so are anthills to the ants. Our language differs from place to place, but that's true with animal calls too. Our frantic gesturing or noises to communicate with the species might seem to be a stress response (because it would be). We could paint a portrait of the other species to prove we recognize them, but the species has different eye receptors than we do and doesn't see the resemblance. Et cetera. I think the only way they could really "get to know us" is by choosing a specific person and spending time with them and analyzing how they differ from other members of the species. Which is what some scientists do, as well as every pet owner. 

I haven't written this down before so I'm sure there's a lot of holes with that thought experiment too. I'm just flashing back to my psych classes where we were supposed to learn about what consciousness is, and the answer was that no one agreed about what consciousness is. Because we can't agree on terms, it's impossible to measure.

Like, say Hiawatha the giraffe is the only giraffe on Earth with consciousness. But she speaks Giraffe, learns her parents' body language and enjoys giraffe activities. At night she wonders where the universe came from. She marries another nice giraffe and they eat leaves together, and she has a baby giraffe, and eventually she dies of old age. How would we as philosophers point her out from the other giraffes? She lived mostly on survival instincts and followed the crowd. She just had a different internal experience than everyone else (and was probably pretty lonely in a mental way, but she was socially active so she did alright).

I guess that's just the philosophy-zombie idea but applied to animals.

Michael Donova… on 27 February 2022

Ibn Sina on Soul

Thanks much.  This semester, UC Berkeley is offering what I think is its first Arabic Philosophy course.  Inspired by your podcast and changes in the textbook I've been using where I teach at a nearby community college, I decided to take their course.  We started with Al Kindi.  I was fascinated by his argument for a finite cosmos based on the inability to reach any given moment from an infinite past.  Now we've moved onto Ibn Sīnā.  I've been reading his account of the soul in Healing, within which is one of his accounts of the Flying Man.  I've also read your 2018 article on Flying Man.  In it, you wrote, "A person in the situation of the flying man has his or her soul as an object of mental grasping (it is maʿqūl) and thus as mentally existent while his or her body is not mentally existent. This shows that the body is not essential to the soul."  Then, shortly after, you write, "Admittedly, the flying man argument does not establish any positive attribute as being essential to the soul, but only rules out a candidate attribute, namely, connection to the body."  My question is this, could one go a bit further and say that "This shows that faculties dependent upon the body are not essential to the soul"?  What I'm thinking is something like this.  The many faculties of the soul he discusses before discussing the intellect, faculties which are dependent upon the body, would seem to be as accidental as the body upon which they are dependent.  If so, in the end, soul-as-such isn't essential.  Only rational soul.  My question may be based on a misunderstanding.  For starters, I don't know Arabic.  So, these thoughts may be based on some misunderstanding.  But, if so, at least it's an interesting misunderstanding.  And, if not, it seems to imply Ibn Sīnā believed that the soul had essential and accidental qualities. No? 

In reply to by Michael Donova…

Peter Adamson on 27 February 2022

Soul and body in Ibn Sina

First of all, that's great that you are delving into this stuff!

Second, yes that is exactly how we understand it. Especially if you read not just the flying man passage but the whole of that opening chapter, it seems clear that Ibn Sina distinguishes the soul's accidental relation to the body from its essential nature. The accidental relation would include any functions that depend on the body like, say, digestion. The only activity that is essential to the soul is thinking; and this fits with his proof of the soul's immateriality in book 5 of the treatise on soul.

If you want to dig into this more I highly recommend the book by Tommaso Alpina on Avicenna on soul, it also has selected chapters in English translation at the end.

Michael Donova… on 27 February 2022

Thanks much!

Hi again,

Thanks so much.  It's a fascinating take on the soul.  Of course, it leaves me wanting to return to Aquinas and Aristotle so I can rethink the tradition now that I've filled this gap. But that'll wait until summer.  I'll buy Alpina's book today. 

Thanks again!


Nedim on 21 December 2023


I had an impression that Avicenna introduced the concept of "estimative faculty". But I'm now reading something by H. Davidson where he is talking about "On the Soul" ("attributed to Porphyry"), where he says: "The treatise On the Soul further states that the human material intellect can never think without the aid of the "estimative faculty" (wahm), a physical faculty of the soul". There is a footnote to Kutsch, "Ein arabisches Bruchstuck aus Porphyries (?)," Melanges de I'Universite St. Joseph 31 (1954)". Thoughts?

In reply to by Nedim

Peter Adamson on 21 December 2023


Right, the issue here is that the word wahm (also tawahhum, same root) absolutely exists in Arabic philosophical texts before Avicenna and can be used to represent the idea of imagination or supposition. So it often corresponds to functions of the Greek phantasia (or the whole thing), or even a misleading illusion; Avicenna himself uses the term that way in fact. Al-Kindi even has a short passage, which is probably a fragment just found in the manuscript with his other works, about the different meanings of wahm. So if you just always translate wahm the same way, then it might seem that the "estimative faculty" predates Avicenna. But to use wahm with this specific meaning (a separate faculty for grasping features of particulars not available to the five external senses) is definitely new with him.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Nedim on 22 December 2023

That's super useful, thank a…

That's super useful, thank a lot. 

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