Who Was Avicenna?

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Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the Persian Islamic philosopher, Avicenna. In the city of Hamadan in Iran, right in the centre, there is a vast mausoleum dedicated to an Iranian national hero. Built in 1952, exactly 915 years after his death, it’s a great conical tower with twelve supporting columns. It’s dedicated not to a warrior or a king but to a philosopher and physician. His name is Ali Al Husayn Ibn-Sina, but he is also known as Avicenna and he is arguably the most important philosopher in the history of Islam. In a colourful career Avicenna proved the existence of god, amalgamated all known medical knowledge into one big book and established a mind body dualism 600 years before Descartes and still found time to overindulge in wine and sex.

Listen to the In Our Time episode on Avicenna

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Philosophers of the Islamic world enjoyed thought experiments. If the heavens vanished, they wondered, would time continue to pass? If existence were distinct from essence, would that mean that existence itself must exist? Can God turn your household servant into a horse, so that you come back home to find it has urinated all over your books?

But the most famous is the so-called ‘flying man’ thought experiment, devised by the most influential philosopher of the Islamic world, Avicenna (in Arabic, Ibn Sīnā, who lived from 980 to 1037 CE). Imagine, he says, that a person is created by God in mid-air, in good condition but with his sight veiled and his limbs outstretched so that he is touching nothing, not even his own body. This person has no memories, having only just been created. Will his mind be a blank, devoid as it is of past or present sensory experience? No, says Avicenna. He will be aware of his own existence...

Continue reading Peter Adamson's article: What can Avicenna teach us about the mind-body problem? 

Further Reading

Abū-ʿAlī al-Ḥusayn ibn-ʿAbdallāh Ibn-Sīnā [Avicenna] (ca. 970–1037) was the preeminent philosopher and physician of the Islamic world.[1] In his work he combined the disparate strands of philosophical/scientific[2] thinking in Greek late antiquity and early Islam into a rationally rigorous and self-consistent scientific system that encompassed and explained all reality, including the tenets of revealed religion and its theological and mystical elaborations. In its integral and comprehensive articulation of science and philosophy, it represents the culmination of the Hellenic tradition, defunct in Greek after the sixth century, reborn in Arabic in the 9th (Gutas 2004a, 2010). It dominated intellectual life in the Islamic world for centuries to come, and the sundry reactions to it, ranging from acceptance to revision to refutation and to substitution with paraphilosophical constructs, determined developments in philosophy, science, religion, theology, and mysticism...

Continue reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Avicenna by Dimitri Gutas 

Bonus Webcomic

Islamic Holdem' - Existential Comics

Related Topics

If you’re interested in Avicenna, check out some of the following related topics for more resources:

 The History of Philosophy | Islamic Philosophy

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