The physics of Avicenna (A translation and commentary upon the physics proper of the "Tabiy'yat" of Avicenna's "Danish Nana-i Alai")

Jamila Jauhari, Fordham University


The historical importance of the Physics portion of Avicenna's Persian work, The Letter of Scientific Knowledge, heretofore unavailable in English, is that it reveals what he thought in his maturity about the relation between physics and philosophy. The associated exegetic task is to present his chief theses as part of a philosophical legacy concerning the physical universe, which is here called the "hylomorphic tradition." Today, physics is a host of highly specialized disciplines, which are difficult to hierarchize. Nevertheless, one can argue that there are fundamental physical theories. Because these theories make basic assertions about space, time and matter, they verge on metaphysics. It is this hierarchized view of physics which allows us to formulate a principle thesis of hylomorphism: that metaphysics is about the world through its selective support of fundamental physical theories and these, in turn, interpret and sharpen metaphysical principles. Upon this view, however the chief problem that exercises modern philosophers of science, the rationality of change of fundamental physical theories, should also vex metaphysicians. This commentary attempts to show how one might decide reationally between two rival metaphysical traditions about the physical world: hylomorphism and Pythagoreanism. It is argued that both of these traditions are, or can be made, coherent, so that they are not defeasible on logical grounds. They are, nevertheless, logically inconsistent with one another, so that they cannot both be true. There are, then, only three choices: (1) reject them both, (2) reject exactly one, or (3) admit that it is at present impossible to decide between them. The criteria used here is assessing the choices are chiefly two: (1) the clarity of each position when reformulated mathematically, and (2) the plethora of phenomena quantitatively explicable by the reformulated theories. It is concluded that, near the beginning of the 20th century, a metaphysician could rationally reject hylomorphism in favor of Pythagoreanism. After the theoretical and experimental bases for quantum theory were presented, however, it would be rash to reject either metaphysics without more empirical evidence and further progress in unraveling pertinent mathematical difficulties.

Subject Area

Philosophy|Middle Eastern literature

Recommended Citation

Jauhari, Jamila, "The physics of Avicenna (A translation and commentary upon the physics proper of the "Tabiy'yat" of Avicenna's "Danish Nana-i Alai")" (1988). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI8809474.