Scholia Reviews ns 16 (2007) 20.
Peter Adamson, The Arabic Plotinus: A Philosophical Study of the
Theology of Aristotle.
In this lucidly argued monograph Adamson presents an interesting case study of the complex transmission of Greek philosophical thought via Arabic writers. It illustrates one way in which Greek philosophy became a lasting influence on Arabic thought. Adamson aims to clarify the philosophical and historical context of a work which was known in Arabic sources as The Theology of Aristotle. The work is in fact a re-worked and reinterpreted version of views of Plotinus (d. AD 275) and one of several Arabic writings constituting a larger work Adamson dubs the Arabic Plotinus (AP). Theology was of course in Antiquity a term used for metaphysical as well as religious matters. Confusion over authorship was not uncommon either, and in this case the confusion may not only have been caused by an individual mistake, but also by the fact that Plotinus made elaborate use of Aristotelian ideas in his philosophical work.
The complexity of the case depends for the philological aspect on the diverse range of sources and their interrelations and a number of puzzles regarding the identity of the author for the Urtext, the prologue and the headings following the prologue. For the philosophical content the main issue is that of adaptation of Greek ideas into the Arabic context. Adamson describes this process as philosophical transformation resulting from an attempt to make Neoplatonism compatible with the religions of Christianity and Islam (cover), and determining for centuries how philosophers would approach Greek thought. Adamson is not only setting out the complexities of the sources and their transmission at several stages (Chapters 1-2), but more specifically trying to show that the version that can be reconstructed from these surviving versions is philosophically significant (Chapters 3-5). The study ends with the conclusion and a long appendix (pp. 179-205) in which the relationship between al-Kindi (c. AD 801-873) and the Arabic Plotinus (AP) is clarified.
In Chapter 1, The Arabic Plotinus Texts and their Origin (pp. 5-26), Adamson does some fascinating groundwork (building on important work of others, in particular the Oxford Arabist Zimmerman) to establish the nature of the relevant texts which form the basis for recovering the Arabic Plotinus. It survives in different versions in three main pieces of writing, each illustrating a partial version of what must have been the common source and a substantial work preserving Plotinian thought in Arabic. They are: The Theology of Aristotle, The Letter on Divine Science, and The Sayings ascribed to the Greek Sage.
What is important here is the claim that the author of this work (the Adaptor) did not come up with a mere translation but rather with a creative adaptation. The work of AP shows a high degree of truthfulness to Plotinus, in so far as he discusses topics from the Enneads, but he also consistently interprets more freely, re-arranges the order of topics and exhibits certain preferences while suppressing other materials. A further problem, (which Adamson tackles in Chapters 4-5) is the traditional view that the AP is in fact the work of Porphyry. This will be refuted in the next chapter.
In Chapter 2 (pp. 27-48) Adamson analyses the prologue in detail and the so-called headings (ru’ us). The prologue actually mentions several names, among whom we find al-Kindi as the corrector of the text. This has in the past attracted most attention, but Adamson wants to include the headings in his analysis to make two points: the headings go back to the Greek text of Plotinus Enneads 4.4; the author of the prologue uses Aristotelian ideas from Arabic sources. By unravelling the links with Aristotles Metaphysics Adamson is able to make plausible the thesis that the author of the AP read Plotinus through Aristotelian eyes (p. 35). Stylistic analysis follows to show that al-Kindi is a plausible candidate for authorship (pace Zimmerman who made a comment on the crude style not typical for al- Kindi). Wisely, Adamson does not commit himself to an issue which seems impossible to prove beyond doubt. A small section brings in the first points of philosophical nature, when the conception of philosophy is briefly highlighted in the Prologue: this conception runs along Aristotelian lines (p. 41) with sciences building upon each other. An important point on what philosophy tries to achieve concerns defining or delimiting (Prol. 8, see p. 41): knowledge grasps an end, not what is infinite. (Adamson here refers to the medieval notion of delimiting as defining; surely another obvious example is the Greek horizein / horos as already discussed in Plato and Aristotle).
His analysis of the headings is of interest, as they have been rather neglected. But Adamson first deals with the philological problems: the headings were viewed as evidence for the Porphyrian authorship. But the evidence is ambiguous here (p. 43) and what is more, it has not been observed that the full title is headings of the questions (ru su al-masail). Adamson therefore argues against the Porphyrian hypothesis by pointing out that the second part of the title Aporiai Problems on the Soul comes from the title given to the work by Porphyry, yet that the kephalaia might have been the work of the translators. Add to this certain discrepancies between the headings (which abbreviate a lot) and the paraphrase, and it becomes much more plausible to assume that the headings and paraphrase were made separately but both times with the Greek underlying them (p. 44). Regarding the purpose of the headings Adamson argues persuasively that they were intended to summarize the topics laid out in the parallel Greek text (p. 46). Adamson concludes that the headings do not present any significant philosophical ideas, but that they do allow us to see that they contain themes that are developed at greater length in the paraphrase (p. 47). They include the idea of a type of ignorance higher than knowledge, of the souls memory being in potency, and a philosophical link between these notions. Other divergences from the Greek also occur (esp. on the brute soul), so that it becomes clear that the same author wrote both headings and paraphrase (p. 47), yet that it is unlikely that al-Kindi was the author of these.
In Chapter 3, entitled Psychology and Ethics (pp. 49-83), we enter the philosophical analysis proper. It has two parts. First the Aristotelian influence on the Adaptors notion of the soul is discussed (3.1) and next ethical views, which the Adaptor emphasizes in his discussion of the relation between body and soul (3.2). On the issue of entelecheia, the soul as the perfection of the body, the Adaptor follows Plotinus in criticizing this view: he argues instead that the soul is the cause of the bodys form and emphasizes that soul cannot be the form of matter in the sense of an impression (p. 51). Thus there is a shift in the reading of Aristotles theory of soul by using Plotinus interpretation. The Adaptor distinguishes between two possible interpretations of Aristotles theory (p. 54, italics mine): a materialist one (which he criticizes) and a Plotinian one (which he adopts). This means that the Adaptor creates a shift from the Plotinian criticism of Aristotle to the correction of a misinterpretation.
As to the souls relation to the body, the Adaptor exhibits Aristotelian influence in his interpretation of Plotinus. Adamson traces in detail the different registers of the Adaptors account, uncovering slight differences and shifts in the treatment of soul and body (p. 57). AP sees the soul as form of body, but develops (pp. 59-63) a distinction between rational and brute soul (p. 62). He is also able to show that there is not only influence from the De anima but also from AP on an Arabic paraphrase of De an. from the circle of al-Kindi (pp. 63-67).
Language and epistemology form the subject of Chapter 4 (pp. 85-109) and this will lead up to the transformation of Plotinus theory of the One in Chapter 5. AP is shown to inject ethical language into passages where such concerns are not present (p. 69). This illustrates his greater concern with ethics than Plotinus, marking a real departure from the Plotinian approach, often using much stronger language and even changing the perspective on such issues as justice (for example, the virtue of justice coming to be in the soul instead, as Plotinus claimed, being the object of the souls inquiry).
The treatment of language and epistemology raise the special difficulty in Plotinus that he had made intellect and the One ineffable, that is, it is beyond the reach of language; yet he continued to comment on these throughout his work. The AP is seen to develop original ways to apply language to these higher metaphysical principles (p. 85). The notion of learned ignorance, here glossed as ignorance that transcends knowledge (p. 88) is another important element in the AP, representing the first known doctrine on this topic in the Arabic tradition. In this case it is elaborated almost completely independently from the Greek text (mimar II). AP offers a doctrine, which seems to ignore the subtle distinction Plotinus makes between knowing something and being aware that one knows something (p. 90).
The fifth and last chapter (pp. 111-70) brings in issues belonging to theology and metaphysics. Here we find the most radical and significant changes made by the Adaptor: those having to do with God (p. 111). Plotinus One has now been turned into a Creator God, which is only possible if the One in Plotinus undergoes a thorough re-thinking (ibid.). By way of a discussion of negative theology Adamson progresses by concentrating on the application of predication by causality and eminence to the One. It is noteworthy that in this part of the account the additional influence of Arabic thought becomes palpable, as the discussion is related to debates between practitioners of rational theology (ilm al-kalam), which establishes a link with the time of al-Kindi. In the treatment of the negative theology (indirect description of the One) and positive theology (using names to signify) the Adaptor is seen to get rid of subtleties in Plotinus. Instead of allowing for naming out of necessity, AP allows for attributes outside the First principle, despite the fact that he agrees that the One does not have attributes (a sign of multiplicity). It would seem that the Adaptor holds the view that God relates to the attributes as Plotinus thinks nous does to the forms (its objects): they are identical in the sense that they can only be distinguished analytically: the attributes are in Him in the manner of cause (from Theology of Aristotle IX.71 quoted on p. 124).
Several other important issues of the Adaptors theology are discussed in this chapter, but it would take us too far into intricate metaphysical arguments on God as first being, pure actuality, creation and time, so I deal with the concluding chapter in brief. Adamson draws a number of important conclusions from his analysis, starting with some speculation on who would be responsible for the differences between Plotinus and the Arabic Plotinus (p. 171). Porphyry is discarded, since the already strong case against it by Zimmerman has been strengthened with further arguments (4.1.3), and Adamson prefers to think it was someone from al-Kindis circle, opting in the end for al- Himsi (p. 177). General considerations are brought in to support this, in particular the insight that al-Kindis works show that the early reception of Greek philosophy in Arabic circles is characterized by the attempt to mediate between Aristotle and Neoplatonism (which in many instances simply meant emphasizing the pre-existing Aristotelianism of the Enneads, p. 173). Adamson even contemplates al-Kindi himself as the better candidate for authorship (given the latters brilliance as a philosopher and access to all the necessary sources -- further developed in the substantial appendix), but there are objections that go against this. Because the evidence does not exclude al- Himsi, on balance he seems the most likely option. Thus this fascinating study of a complicated text ends with a solution that is based on a thorough scrutiny of its most important philological and philosophical aspects. This is no mean feat, as it also represents a useful case study in the reception of Greek thought in Arabic culture, offering another piece of the puzzle that is the story of intellectual transformations.