Week 3a: Plotinus and Ibn Tufayl

Please write a couple of paragraphs on Monday’s readings. Below are some ideas, but, as always, feel free to comment however you wish.  Please read the other comments posted by the other people in the class.  Feel free to comment on their comments.

Plotinus questions:  Quantum communication and water?  ”Principle of that manifold life”?  Paradox?  The One?  The many?  Intellectual principle?  What is station immediately next to the One?  What is next station out?  These stations have a view of the One which are in turn something else.  What is Soul?  Does it move?  If you had to draw this scheme (or logos), how might you draw it out?  How does the human soul relate to the vegetal soul?

Ibn Tufayl questions:  How is living-ness related to the senses?  How does he figure out where to look for the problem in his mother?  What does he determine is the problem?  What was it?  Was his mother her body or something else?   Experimental behavior.  Fire and life-stuff?  What carries spirit around the body?  Brain and heart and spirit?  How does he learn?  How do plants differ from animals?  The basic, essential characteristics of stuff? Alchemy?  The natural directions of terrestrial matter.  Can you follow his infinite line argument?  How does he start to define the creator?  How do humans differ from beasts?

Back to Syllabus.

19 thoughts on “Week 3a: Plotinus and Ibn Tufayl

  1. I may be completely off, but here’s my shot at Plotinus…

    According to Plotinus, the One is the entirety of all of being and non being; it is the “principle of Emanation, of life.” Everything comes from it, so in a way it is like a spring that sources out water. Yet it does not ever deplete or it would lose the parts that make it the One. So it is unchanging–and unmoving–and from it comes all things but all that comes from it doesn’t affect it.

    If I understand him correctly, he organizes his theories in spheres and levels of being, so the Soul, that is, the image of the Intellectual-Principle, is that which orders all living things. His language interchanges between Soul and God often, giving the impression that, like the One, Soul or God leads to living beings. But he says in 2.1.5 that God is inside the Soul, so the Soul is something greater that informs the being of God, similarly to the way the sun gives the moon its light.

    It’s from the Soul (with the capital “S”) that comes the soul of human beings and other forms of nature. If nothing is completely severed from its prior, then everything points to its source, and on and on. So the vegetal principle, Plotinus writes, is the image of the Soul in the order of Sense and Nature. Everything points to the Soul, which points to the Oneness.

    • You understand him pretty well, so far as I can judge. He is sort of the mystical/religious Plato, mixed with the particulars of Aristotle. As such, he reads a bit like a religious text, and a bit like a scientific text. The metaphors are nice. Can you see how this stuff might interest all these monotheists roaming about?

  2. I found Plotinus’ creation story very similar to Aristotle’s–especially the Aristotelian concept of an original “unmoved mover”–except it is more realistic. When Plotinus wrote “The source may be no being but the being’s generator, in what is to be thought of as the primal act of generation,” it seemed Plotinus was excusing the concept of a God and admitting that it is nonessential to creation because the world can come about naturally. Additionally, when speaking on the human soul, Plotinus wrote “This image of soul is sense and nature, the vegetal principle,” he was interpreting the soul in a more literal, modern, and scientific way instead of assuming it is something more abstract. Plotinus’ juxtaposition of sense and nature reminded me of the nature versus nurture debate, which is currently thought to be the basis for how humans think and act (i.e. the way our souls work) impressed me because of how well it agrees with current theory.

  3. His rather poetic descriptions of the soul are nice and physical…. water and motion and the like. As you comment, the soul seems like something that you could locate, prod, and do experiments on. How does this conception of the soul compare with the child in the Ibn Tufayl story?

  4. In the Ibn Tufayl story, Hayy experiments with his mother’s body in order to find out what killed her. He seems to understand the concept of death, from looking at other dead beasts, but it determined to find out why the goat died, and how he can fix the broken part that caused it. The section begins with the boy analyzing the senses, and how he knows what killed his mother is on the inside of her body. His simple approach to the senses (if I close my eyes I can’t see, if I open them I can) is what he applies to his mother’s body. He has some concept that her heart is what allows her to be alive, yet finds no fault in it when he dissects it. It is at this point he realizes that her death may be caused by something he cannot see. Does this relate to the soul (spirit)? Is she dead because her soul is gone, or does her soul leave because she is dead? Since Hayy cannot see her living-ness (soul?) with his eyes, does it exist?
    He later relates her soul to fire, saying that a heart can only exist if there is fire in the empty ventricle he observed in her dead body. When he dissects living animals, he then finds there to be a vapor in this ventricle, that disappears as soon as they die. This spirit travels through arteries and when they are blocked for any reason, the living thing dies. What is the source of this spirit? Does it come from the perfectly balanced clay or another power? What is the difference between the spirit of the species and the individual spirit?

    • Excellent observations. His investigations on what gave his mother life lead him to this fire/soul that appears to be lacking in the heart. The arterial connection to this vapour is also interesting. His later vivisection experiments suggests that he finds a hot vapour that escapes…. causing death.

  5. When reading Plotinus I couldn’t help but think of the idea of self-recognition through recognition of the other. The One is both everything and nothing. It is unbroken, eternal. Being can be, because it comes from something outside of itself, the One, the other. We recognize ourselves as being because we are not the One, though we do come from it. When Plotinus states “this product has again turned to its begetter and been filled and has become its contemplator and so an Intellectual-Principle” he seems to be referring to this same idea. Being can become more than simply being through the One’s otherness. Being can become an Intellectual-Principle. Plotinus presents this idea in simpler terms: “the fact that something exists in presence of the One establishes being.” Through the division of the One and its creation, Being occurs. I really enjoyed Plotinus’ use of linguistic paradox to illuminate truths outside of the effable. He describes the soul getting its image (still and motionless) from its motion. The soul is a representation of the divine intellect that comes originally stems from the One.

  6. How marvelously deterministic for his time, Plotinus was! “[...] the tides that proceed from it are at one within it before they run their several ways, yet all, in some sense, know beforehand down what channels they will pour their streams.” And if the tides did not go their pre-determined ways, the Universe as we know it — as Plotinus knows it — would cease to be the Universe. This is classic determinism: the state of the Universe at any given time is pre-determined by the state of the Universe at the very beginning. From the fundamental laws of nature you can derive the state of the Universe at any future time, from the position of the last electron to the thoughts and feelings and actions of Karl Rove. (Yes, they are explainable.)

    And yet, his image of the spring ultimately bottoms out at an infinite regress, “[...] a spring with no source outside itself[...]” The existentialists called it a groundless choice; I call it an electron in free space with a 50/50 chance of coming out spin up or spin down if it’s “observed” (whatever that means, and what quantum physicist really knows?). That would point to indeterminism, right? Because if the electron comes out spin up, the Universe will be one way, and if it comes out spin down, the Universe will be a different way. Maybe determinism comes out of indeterminism; maybe there is a false disjunction between the two.

    • This way of explaining determinism is wild. The 50/50 spin argument… is it determined by a higher force, a better scientific explanation… Hidden Variable theories? Bohm? Can we rely on logic to answer these questions? Is math logical? Is logic mathematical?
      I like your indeterminate determinism. Very Plotinic.

  7. Quantum communication is related to the idea of quantum entanglement: two separate molecules that were created together can be effected the same way if something happens to one of them, no matter the distance between them. This plays perfectly with Plotinus’ idea about the Cause of Life and, consequently, the Soul.
    The Cause of Life, as Plotinus describes in metaphor as having been “poured” out, like a spring with no source outside itself, and has “predetermined” paths. (Although this seems like he would imply a lack of free-will for an individual being, I see this as a metaphor for describing actions that we consider “laws of the universe” in physics and other areas of science such as quantum mechanics, not daily life) This, then has developed into the One: all things, but no one thing, that have overflowed and produced the New. the Soul, coming from an outflow of the One’s Form and Idea, never knows spacial separation from itself and its source. A soul is always within the source, but never in physical space. Life is a sum of several parts that differ but create a self-conscious whole: the One. As these ideas develop in Plotinus’ writing, it is understood that the Soul communicates instantaneously with all aspects of life around it, because it is an outflow of the One, unbroken. An important point is made when Plotinus iterates that every Soul can identify directly with it’s prior, in this case Form and Idea and the One, as long as it holds contact. It is explained, however, that spatially this connection exists nowhere and everywhere. From this, one can gather an understanding of the non-physical connection between Soul and the One that allows constant communication. This communication eludes to quantum communication – the “faster than light” movement of information between things that are, at their source, related.
    The Soul moves because its image is created by movement, despite the origin being “motionlessness.” It reaches down, as well as to the origin. If I had to draw the scheme of the different stations and how they unfold, it would be (in two dimensional imagery) similar to a “spider” shaped flow chart, with the Cause of Life in the center as the “spring” that flows to the rest of the radial protruding arms such as the One. From the One extends the Soul, etc.
    Plotinus seems to have decided that everything is connected by their, for lack of a better word, energies. Our bodies are not in contact directly with the universe, but the universal Soul that exists in our entire body is in contact with a greater consciousness. It is then my question (which may be answered further in his writing): what does Plotinus consider our consciousness? because our consciousness is often related to our soul as the reason for it. In my experience, our conscious self is, at least born, unaware of the universal connection and knowledge that he claims the Soul to posses. Perhaps I have misunderstood his definition of the words, or perhaps consciousness, to him, is a separate entity or quality of Being: pure rationality, perhaps.

    • Love it… even in separation, everything shares in the source. The physical description of how this all works seems, as you point out, like quantum communication. Is Plotinus ahead of his time? Or is quantum theory just echoing past ideas using new metaphors?
      I love the spider web imagery. Perhaps, instead of 2-D, it could be wrapped around on itself and the periphery leads back to the center…? Would that be 4-D?
      What is consciousness? Do we learn new things, or do we uncover truths that we already know by coming to understand the source, the one, the new, the Good, the demiurge? Ouch!

  8. I’m a little confused about the concepts of finite/infinite – ness in the Ibn Tufayl. The story seems to make the point that Hayy decides that there is no such thing as infiniteness, as the line argument appears to go, yet during the long discussion of an Effector, he also seems to say that this Effector was the first mover, and the creator of the world, and thus would have to exist in a realm outside of time and space, which I think he talks about when he says this Effector cannot be felt by the senses or the imagination, which itself is just an extension of the senses. He goes on to say that this Effector is ‘abstract’ from bodies, and indescribable. Is he discussing God here? An infinite being? Or is he discussing a force that simply existed once and then disappeared.

    • All good questions and the confusion is well warranted. The boy/man, Hayy is also confused. He relies on his no-infinite-bodies proof for several of his later arguments. In the end, he seems to care not which argument is true, but that the ramifications of all of the arguments lead to one necessary answer… A literally non-sensical Effector – A bodiless cause. A prime mover? Is this God? Is this Nature? Is this science? One of the nice things about this story is that you get to share in Hayy’s confusion, and follow his thought process. It’s a bit like Galen not ultimately knowing exactly how the foetus is formed.

  9. The first time I read Plotinus’ theory of Intellective-Act, I enjoyed it and felt that it resonated well with my own awareness of what he would called the “Intellective-Act.” On an emotional level, it’s an appealing idea that when we come to be at peace with ourselves, we reflect and project Godliness—our truest essence and connection with source. Raised by practicing Buddhist parents, much of what Plotinus spoke of spoke directly to what I’ve been taught, i.e. “[…] consciousness tends to blunt the activities upon which it is exercised.” This exact claim, actually, is made by Oprah about 12x daily on her Twitter account. This western resurgence of spirituality—of connecting to the “spirit,” the “soul,” and to be present in life (as opposed to letting your consciousness alter your experience)—is fascinatingly present in Plotunius’ text. There must be something to it, as similar words appear across centuries of spiritual literature.

    However, in my opinion, his credibility broke down around the time of mirror metaphor. His claim that when the “mirror within is shattered through some disturbance of harmony of the body, Reason and the Intellectual-Principal act unpictured: Intellection is unattended by imagination,” is made hastily and with no indication of what would qualify as a “disturbance of harmony of the body,” which would shatter one’s inner mirror.

    At the end of 10 he does more than just make a claim of theory, he makes a suggestion on how to use spirituality to live a full life. Again, he sounds sort of like Oprah.

    • Wow! Maybe we should read some Oprah!
      The mirror metaphor is interesting and important, as it not only describes this metaphysical stuff, but also some physical optics. It will come up again in the Ibn Tufayl reading next week or the week after. When the mirror is shattered we cannot reflect the soul/power that is emanated from above… It’s like we no longer have cell service. We cannot be assisted by our imaginations, which rely on sensory input, and it is through sensory input that we formulate the analogies that allow us to get at the bigger picture… since, in reality, the bigger picture is immaterial, and thus not available to the senses, which rely on bodily stimulus. Do I understand this? Not exactly, but that is part of the fun. Clearly, lots of thinkers thought about this stuff and tried to make sense of it. It’s open to lots of interpretation. Make it work for you. Try to make it work for others in different contexts. It will always be a poetic description… a metaphor, at least at this stage of development. It’s the world of light. It’s a metaphor. We describe this world of light in terms of the world of shadows. Ouch! In other words. Roll with it. Truthiness is, perhaps, all we can expect.

  10. In the Ibn Tufayl story from last weeks section I noticed a greater picture of the cycle of life and death. This cycle continues as Hayy is able to learn about life through his mothers death. While studying dead bodies of different animals Hayy comes to the conclusion that the body is made up of two notions. If I understood correctly he is ultimately trying to say that there is a body and then there is a soul. He discusses movement of the longitude and latitude and the vegetative soul which I honestly found confusing. Regardless when talking about the ‘spirit’ of the body which he at first discusses as a vapour of some sorts he comes to the realization that this is what we identify with. Hayy after dissecting his mothers body realizes that it isn’t all of these physical parts that made her his mother but it was the ‘spirit’ which made her his mother. We do not know what exactly this spirit is, what it is made up of or where it comes from but it exists. He notices that a live body is hot and a dead body is cold adn the heat escapes the body once it dies. There was a lot of importance of heat and the body at this time of scientific discovery – was the heat the spirit? This discussion of the spirit made me think about the Plotinus story in which is describes everything coming out of the “Soul’ that the soul is connected to everything because that is what everything has been created from. So in that way everything is connected from that origin. This made me think of the origin of the spirit in the Ibn Tufayl story. When reading the story I imagined that there was a soul or spirit in each individual body and that when the body died the spirit left – but where i did it come from originally? Was the body created from the Soul such as the Plotinus story? Or is there an individual spirit in each body that isn’t connect to all of its surroundings but rather only what it comes in contact with? It made me think where does it go once the body dies? I for some reason imagine there being this ‘ether’ that everything is submerged in where spirits go back into once the body has died. It relates back to the Plotinus story where everything is connected but I think that might be stretching it too far.

    • Usually any mention of longitude and latitude has to do with extension… it exists in space… it is 3-D… it has volume.
      I find that part about his mother and her being the soul/spirit/vapour and not the body really sad.
      Where did the spirit come from? Where does it go? What is it made of? Does it contain the particulars of a human life, or is it just a life force that rejoins some collective life force after death? What does this do to the afterlife? The Last Judgment? The way spirits are depicted in movies?
      I don’t see you stretching anything “too far.” The story of Hayy is about his discovery and his questions about existence. What is science? What is religion? What is philosophy? What is the mind? What is the soul? Depends on what the definition of is is.???

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