Week 4a: Comments Blog: On Alfarabi, et al., Plotinus, and Ibn Tufayl reading.

Please post you comments by Sunday night.  I’ll add some leading questions later in the week.

Alfarabi thoughts: This is a very difficult reading.  What is the hierarchy he is describing?  How does he use the Aristotelian theory of form and matter to describe the larger structure of the universe?  Can you identify a theory of vision in his analogy that uses the sun and transparency?  Do you get the feeling that there is a repeating structure from prime matter up to the Agent Intellect up, and up to the One?  What is this structure and does differ going up from going down?

Hayy thoughts: Can you find some, parts of some, or all of the 5 Pillars of Islam in the story: One God and Muhammad is his messenger, daily prayer x5, charity, Fasting during Ramadan, and Pilgrimage to Mecca.  Can you find other rituals of a similar nature?  You might be interested in reading up on Muhammad’s “Night Journey” [Isra and Mi'raj] and stories about the Ka’aba.  How do the terms “in power” and “in act” relate to the terms found in the Alfarabi reading?  Can you figure out a correlation?  How did our character, Hayy, differentiate himself from plants and animals?


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11 thoughts on “Week 4a: Comments Blog: On Alfarabi, et al., Plotinus, and Ibn Tufayl reading.

  1. The Alfarabi reading was challenging but interesting. The importance and hierarchy of intellect and the concept of emanation are discussed by Alfarabi. Emanation is the theory that higher beings and intellects emanate from God’s excess outpouring of essence and intellect. This differs from creationism in that these intellects are not separate beings created by God, but formed of the overflow of the highest power’s essence. Emanation therefore is less deliberate than creation. This neoplatonic idea differs greatly from Christianity, for example, and is a different way of thinking about how the world came to be. Stemming from God are nine other intellects, the last being the Agent Intellect. The spheres descend from God through the planets, ending in the sublunar sphere, the furthest away from God. Alfarabi refers to Aristotle’s breakdown of the four intellects: intellect in potentiality, actuality, acquired intellect, and agent intellect. The differences in these concepts seemed subtle and were difficult for me to understand. Alfarabi uses an analogy to describe the agent intellect in relation to the intellect in potentiality by describing how the eye works. Just as the eye has sight in potentiality in the dark, it has sight in actuality in the light. Does Alfarabi not think sight exists in the dark just because we don’t see anything? Alfarabi goes on to discuss the necessity of prophet’s having the agent intellect, working alongside imagination. I was confused by how one moves from one level of intellect to another. Are there clear delineations between them? Do people move through the stages through intellectual learning or through a relationship with God, or both?

    • I like how you put it that emanation is “less deliberate” than creation. The vision analogy is very strange from a modern perspective. Light and vision and perception in general is mechanically very different from our modern theories… but aspects of the old theory are oddly familiar. We will have a reading on this shortly. The stages of thinking are spelled out (vaguely) by Aristotle in his De anima. This might be a good paper on down the line.

  2. Agreed, the Alfarabi was super dense; if only he had had the word “emergence”! It seemed to me that he was trying to organize a hierarchy of increasing orders of abstraction, integrative levels that contain phenomena that emerge from pre-existing phenomena at the antecedent level. His hierarchy is organized into a sequence of integrative levels — the levels of the intellect — in order of increasing complexity and abstraction. These levels are a means of organizing emergent phenomena based on their form and their position in the larger, global hierarchy.
    Each emergent level, with its complex abstractions (“intelligibles”), has properties in and of itself that are not shared by the component entities (the “matter”) from which those abstractions emerged. Emergent levels and abstractions are, in this way, “isolated” or “sealed off” from their lower levels and their matters. This isolation allows us to talk about individual emergent levels — individual stages of intellect — in a consistent and cohesive way without getting bogged down in a potential infinitude of lower levels of matters and abstractions.
    (I realize I wasn’t much less dense than he was.)

    • It’s hard talking about this stuff. I sometimes feel like I simply don’t have the words for something I think I sort of understand… Ibn Tufayl says as much. How these essences interact with matter is strange indeed. How these essences are related to higher forms…. even stranger.

  3. I’m just gonna quietly skip Alfarabi because I couldn’t glean much to be honest.
    So, on to Plotinus.
    He seems to be relating consciousness to a mirror, saying that it reflects our thinking and our actions, at least when our body is in harmony.
    He writes also however that we are not always conscious of our intellectual life, and indeed that some of the most intense periods of concentration we may not be conscious of. Thus, wise men or Sages who have intense periods of concentration a lot of the time, may be unaware of the depth of their thought, but that does not make it any less existent or meaningful. Indeed, the fact that they are not aware of it, may make it somehow a deeper part of their being, something they know without reflecting on.
    I like his examples of reading being unconscious at its most intent, and brave acts being most brave when unaware of the amount of courage needed for them. I agree that sometimes our most pure and genuine actions come from those we do not reflect on, or those we are not even aware of doing. The unconscious act is the unmeditated act, a reflection of our truest thoughts and feelings.

    • Yeah… he seems to suggest that rationality can get in the way. Their own thinking gets in the way of their thinking. It’s like being self-conscious when trying to do something complicated, or when you are called upon in class to make some profound observation. Your own brain gets in the way. The truth seems to be in action, not in reflection? Does that work with this philosophy? Or is it mixing metaphors?

  4. As this section of the Ibn Tufayl narrative continues we see that Hayy continues to discover more things about himself and the world. in this section in particular there is a lot of attention towards animals and plants and the relationship with the human and the world. A lot of this is Hayy understanding and realizing a humans place in the world in terms of respect and duty – much of it relating to self control. Hayy comments that it is important to respect plants and animals that it is good to take care of them. When it comes to his hunger he notes that he should only eat enough to nourish him and that he needs to control himself from being tempted to eat more. He does the bare minimum to survive and respects the earth and other species as they are. A lot of these theories are unfolding parts of the Islamic religion and the five pillars. The five pillars are representative of being a good human being that respects oneself and others and the world. I think this section in particular on food and not eating more than what is necessary is related to the fasting of Ramadan in which individuals are reminded of the importance of food. It is about self control as well as sacrifice that makes a strong, and worthy human being.

    • Nice connection to Islam. Hayy doesn’t want his material existence to interfere with his search for the source.. the one.. the “necessary existent Beeing.” His body keeps interrupting his meditation. He mimics the souls he sees around him… resulting in an early form of environmentalist… sort of.

  5. Alfarabi is describing a hierarchy of energies that seems to parallel Plotinus’ flowing spring metaphor in terms of the One. Alfarabi draws upon Aristotle and Plato for his inspiration in different specific moments of his argument. Emanating from God, there are nine other spheres of intellect; in this way, God is much like “the One” with outflows to lower levels. Much like the One, God is all at once his essence and existence. In other words, although essence and existence are defined as separate in function and definition, God is an exception in which the words are identical. However, when we begin to understand the levels of intellect, we then understand the separation between the words. Intellect in potentiality is the human soul. It is the essence of all things, abstracted. When is in existence, the essence then becomes intellect in actuality. Using a metaphor of sight, Alfarabi concludes that sight is in potentiality when one’s eyes are in darkness. When those eyes are exposed to light, and therefore color, they become sight in actuality.
    The acquired intellect is a form, matter, for the intellect in actuality. Alfarabi explains that the forms “above” this intellect will not cease, not will they ever cease. This idea is, again, reminiscent of Plotinus’ idea that each outflow from the One can access the energies above it, and that each thing exists everywhere and nowhere; in a way, they never cease.
    The agent intellect never existed in matter, nor will it ever exist (the description for this in relation to the three prior intellects is so convoluted that I am without any explanation. Perhaps this can be resolved in class). Alfarabi does, however, make it clear that the agent intellect is not divisible. The fact that it doesn’t exist seems to allow the intellects above it to reach down and access its essence and, consequently, a higher state of existence.
    From what I gather, he is separating the soul from physical existence so that it may be defined it in a different context other than the body: in relation to God, and the connection with an outer source of intelligence and creation. His descriptions, however, still allow a symbiotic relationship between the different intellects so that it is possible for one (the soul) to inform the other (the body). If more examples would have been used, the argument could have been much more convincing. When Alfarabi talked about light and vision, it allowed a much more fluid comprehension of ideas, and therefore, understanding.

    • Wow! Nice pick up on the difference between essence and existence. You write, paraphrasing Alfarabi, “The acquired intellect is a form, matter, for the intellect in actuality.” That’s mindblowing. A form acting as matter. Seems impossible.
      Your suspicion that Alfarabi is setting up a soul that reflects God seems right on the mark. It is unclear, however, how this will impact individuality.

  6. I enjoyed this section of the Ibn Tufayl reading. It was interesting to see Hayy’s respect for nature in light of the extensive commentary throughout the narrative on the divine. This section reminded me a lot of Thoreau’s “Walden,” in that both stories share an interest in a very minimalist lifestyle. Also, when Tufayl wrote how ridiculous it would be for the divine world to exist without the actual world we live in existing, even though it would still be divine, it would not really matter without the juxtaposition of our actual world, and therefore we should give ours the respect it deserves.

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