The Centrality of Philosophy in the Pre-Modern Islamic Intellectual Tradition

Dimitri Gutas, Professor of Arabic and Graeco-Arabic at Yale University

Mellon Sawyer Seminar One Workshop One

Rationalist Sciences I: Logic, Physics, Metaphysics, and Theology in the Post-Classical Period

Keynote address: Friday, November 3 at 4:00 pm

Participants:  Asad Q. Ahmed (Washington University in St. Louis), Alnoor Dhanani (Harvard), Dimitri Gutas (Yale), Tariq Jaffer (Amherst), Ahmet Karamustafa (Washington University in St. Louis), Jon McGinnis (University of Missouri, St. Louis), Ayman Shihadeh (SOAS), Robert Wisnovsky (McGill)

Post-classical logicians writing in Arabic faced the humbling and daunting task of working in the shadow of the magisterial philosophical synthesis of Avicenna (d. 1037). The Shaykh Ra’is or the Preeminent Scholar, as Avicenna was known, had confidently broken free of the logic of Aristotle in a number of ways—e.g. in his statistical modalization of the absolute proposition, in his descriptive reading of a proposition, and his division of syllogisms into connective and repetitive. Many of these innovations by Avicenna were undergirded by an implicit metaphysics that seems to subscribe to some form of the Principle of Plenitude—the claim that there can be no possibilities that remain as possibilities and yet are unrealized either mentally or extra-mentally throughout all eternity—and an ontology that recognized only near-world possibilities—the view that physical laws much like those of the actual world set constraints on what “real possibility” is. All these innovations were also extremely attractive to post-classical logicians, who nevertheless felt great unease about the rough edges and inconsistencies of Avicenna’s system as a whole. Thus, for example, the Principle of Plenitude and the ontology of near-world possibilities did not allow syllogisms with minor possibility premises to conclude. A concrete instance then would be that while, according to Avicenna, one should be able to infer “Necessarily, all humans are animals” from the premises “Necessarily, whatever is sleeping is an animal (Major) and “Possibly, all humans are sleeping” (Minor), post-classical logicians were not wont to allow such syllogisms with Minor possibility premises. Moreover, since such syllogisms are central to conversion rules and so to the development of the syllogistic (or proof theory), the post-classical tradition, in its impressive program of systemization, developed an entirely new syllogistic.

The recent Cambridge Companion to Arabic Philosophy in a number of chapters has hinted that similar major system-wide transformations, critiques, and shifts in the focus of post-classical rationalist disciplines such as metaphysics, theology, and physics are also observable. But we know only the surface of the internal workings of these disciplines and their internal disputes; and we know even less about the nature of such systematic and cross-disciplinary interface as indicated in the example above. Seminar One, divided into two workshops, will therefore bring together a number of scholars from outside to collaborate with St. Louis-based scholars for a deeper penetration of logic, physics, metaphysics, and theology.

All events are open to the public.