Eastern philosophy


Eastern philosophy
(al-hikmat al-mashriqiyya)
   In addition to his classic Aristotelian or Peripatetic (mashsha’i) works, Ibn Sina composed a small number of texts which he suggestively described as his ‘Eastern philosophy’ or ‘Oriental wisdom’. The two most important of these works, The Easterners (al-Mashriqiyyun) and The Fair Judgement (al-Insaf ), are no longer entirely extant. Of the former, only the introduction and the ‘Logic’ (and possibly the ‘Physics’) remain; of the latter, all we now possess is a commentary on Book Lambda of Aristotle’s Metaphysics and a partial recension of ‘Aristotle’s’ Theology (i.e. Plotinus’ Enneads). Other relevant texts are (1) the Prologue to The Healing (al-Shifa’), where Ibn Sina refers to The Easterners and describes its relation to his Peripatetic works, (2) his marginal notes on Aristotle’s De anima, (3) his trilogy of ‘visionary recitals’, or initiatory allegories (i.e. Living, Son of Awake [Hayy ibn Yaqzan], The Treatise of the Bird [Risalat al-tayr] and Salaman and Absal [Salaman wa Absal]), and possibly (4) the last portion of his encyclopedic Remarks and Admonitions (Isharat wa al-tanbihat), which deals with Sufi mysticism.
   Over the last century, there has been considerable scholarly disagreement as to the precise nature of Ibn Sina’s Eastern philosophy. According to one view (traceable to Ibn Tufayl and championed most recently by Henri Corbin and Seyyed Hossein Nasr), it constitutes an alternative, indigenous, esoteric and mystical system in which philosophy is re-envisioned as a kind of wisdom or gnosis (‘irfan) and the cosmos is seen not just as an external object of theoretical understanding, but rather as a symbolic, interiorized reality to be experienced. According to this interpretation, Ibn Sina’s Eastern philosophy is intended to supplement and even supersede his more rationalistic Peripatetic system, a system which is still true (so far as it goes), but ultimately limited and incomplete. Insofar as it infuses philosophy with Sufi mysticism and grants epistemological priority to intuition (hads), Ibn Sina’s Eastern philosophy can be understood as a forerunner of the school of Illumination (ishraq), which would come to dominate Islamic philosophy after the decline of the Peripatetic school. This is indeed the way numerous Persian Illuminationist thinkers (from al- Suhrawardi to Mulla Sadra and beyond) understood their own relation to their predecessor. The etymological connections between al-mashriq (the East) and al-ishraq (illumination, light) made the family resemblance between these two philosophies seem even more natural (they share the same trilateral root, sh-r-q, which has to do with the rising or shining of the sun). Advocates of this view argue that Ibn Sina’s place in the later history of Islamic philosophy is unintelligible if he is read simply as a Peripatetic faylasuf and not also as a proto-ishraqi. Another major view, espoused most recently and forcefully by Dimitri Gutas, maintains that all this is predicated on a somewhat fanciful misreading of what Ibn Sina himself actually says. Viewing the history of knowledge in a developmental way, Ibn Sina strongly believed in the possibility of intellectual progress beyond one’s predecessors, and made no bones about the ways in which he had revised and improved Aristotle’s system. The ‘Eastern’ philosophy refers not to some esoteric, indigenous alternative to western (i.e. Greek) thought, but simply the Khurasani school of Peripatetic philosophy (Ibn Sina hailed from the eastern part of the Islamic world). Nor does the philosophy of the ‘Eastern’ texts differ in any essential way from the philosophy set forth in his Peripatetic texts. Most crucially, it retains both the notion of the active intellect, which was a key Peripatetic idea, and the notion of intuition (hads), which, far from signifying some kind of super-rational mystical insight, has to do with the rational soul’s ability to hit upon the middle term of a syllogism. Further, Ibn Sina acknowledges the epistemological legitimacy of Sufi gnosis (from the standpoint of a sympathetic outsider) in the Remarks and Admonitions, a text that belongs to his Peripatetic oeuvre. The main difference between his Peripatetic and Eastern works, as Ibn Sina himself suggests in the Prologue to The Healing, is their intended audience and manner of presentation: while his Peripatetic works offer a more involved, technical and comprehensive treatment of topics (addressing all the requisite traditional issues and pausing to consider and refute competing views), the Eastern texts simply opt for a more straightforward, systematic and pithy presentation of Ibn Sina’s own views, unencumbered by the usual scholarly apparatus. Lacking the requisite texts, it is doubtful that this controversy will ever be settled to everyone’s satisfaction.
   See Ibn Sina; Ibn Tufayl; Illuminationism; mysticism; Nasr, Seyyed Hossein; Sufism
   Further reading: Corbin 1960/80; Gutas 1988; Ibn Tufayl 1972/2003; Nasr 1964/93; Nasr with Aminrazavi 1999; Pines 1995

Islamic Philosophy. . 2007.

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