This virtual publication offers students in the history of philosophy, science, and medicine a geographically wide-ranging selection of primary sources on experience in the premodern sciences of soul and body. Scholars around the world are invited to contribute their favorite source text on experience and complement it with an English translation and a short introductory essay.
Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Categories
First Half of the Sixth Century CE
Through this sixth-century Neoplatonist commentary on Aristotle, I follow the insights of the French scholar Pierre Hadot to discuss the nature of orality in ancient Greek philosophy, specifically in the thought of Plato. Plato’s attitude to written texts was ambivalent: despite finding them sometimes useful, he seems to have considered them open to misinterpretation and ultimately inadequate. In order to achieve their intended impact, philosophical arguments, discussions, and dialogues (in ancient Greek: logoi) had to take place face-to-face between teacher and disciple. I examine the theoretical presuppositions underlying this view of the superiority of oral discourse. For Plato and his Neoplatonic exegetes, what was the nature of the transformational impact that the Greek words spoken by a teacher had on a well-disposed student? Was it purely rational, or did it implicate other human faculties? Were words of the Greek language thought to exert some kind of semi-magical effect on the minds and souls of listeners by their very nature, or were they ineffective unless connected to the meaning they were intended to transmit? Finally, what implications do these questions have for the way we read, study, and teach Greek philosophy today?
Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna): al-Burhān min al-Shifāʾ (The Book of Demonstrations of The Healing)
Isfahan, ca. 1027 CE
The name of Ibn Sīnā (d. 1037 CE, known in Latin as Avicenna) has, like no other, been associated with science in the premodern Islamic tradition. And rightly so. He might not have been the first to practice and theorize about science; there were numerous others before him who contributed to the rise of Islamic sciences. But he made unprecedented use of the many works of science that were translated from Syriac, Greek, Persian, and other languages into Arabic when the ever-growing Muslim empire came to incorporate longstanding communities of learning. The canon of Ibn Sīnā’s scientific writings is enormous, encompassing metaphysics, physics, psychology—but it is logic where Ibn Sīnā sets forth his understanding of science, scientific investigation, and knowledge. His indebtedness to Aristotle’s understanding of science is obvious. Yet in the Book of Demonstration of his magnum opus, the Healing, Ibn Sīnā contrasts Aristotelian induction (Arabic: istiqrāʾ) with a method he calls tajriba, which we might translate as “tried and tested experience.” Both methods rest on observation. But Ibn Sīnā criticizes induction for promising too much, whereas experience is much more modest in its claims and therefore better suited for the practitioner of science.
Moses Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed, III, 37
Fusṭāṭ (Old Cairo), ca. 1185–91 CE
Maimonides wrote the Guide of the Perplexed, Dalālat al-ḥāʾirīn, in Judeo-Arabic, but it was through the accurate Hebrew translation by Samuel ibn Tibbon that it was primarily read, studied, cited, and commented upon by medieval Jewish scholars. My episode focuses on Book III, chapter 37 of this Hebrew translation, Moreh ha-Nevukhim (1204, revised translation 1213), but always with an eye on the Arabic original. The chapter discusses the reasons for the commandments concerning idolatry, which were particularly important for Maimonides because, as he writes, “the intent of the whole Law and the pole around which it revolves is to put an end to idolatry [and] to efface its traces.” The special interest of the chapter for our project lies in its reference to “experience” (Arabic: tajriba; Hebrew: nissayon), the only such mention in the book. Maimonides explains here that certain medical practices that seem to reflect the practices of the idolaters are permitted if experience shows they are effective and can cure humans of their ailments. His distinction between experience and reasoning (Arabic: qiyās; Hebrew: heqqesh) leads us to parallel discussions in his medical writings and raises the question whether reason must also approve of these practices.
Moses Maimonides, Commentary on Hippocrates’ Aphorisms
Fusṭāṭ, Egypt, 1190s CE
Hippocrates’ first aphorism, which includes the statement “Experience is dangerous,” was much repeated, frequently translated, and variously explained in Greek, Syriac, Arabic, Hebrew, Latin, and more. The statement is as compelling as it is enigmatic. What is experience and why is it dangerous? Is it dangerous to experiment on others or on oneself, or is there danger in accruing experiences? Approaches to these questions differ across linguistic, cultural, and intellectual traditions. Here we look at one important text used for centuries to explain the aphorism, Maimonides’ Commentary on Hippocrates’ Aphorisms. This work was written in Arabic, translated three times into Hebrew in the Middle Ages, and widely employed by Jewish physicians throughout Europe for hundreds of years. Maimonides tells us that experience is not always explicable using Aristotelian physics. This means it can be misapplied, rendering treatments dangerous that would have been beneficial in other circumstances. At the same time, according to Maimonides, most medicines and therapies are discovered through experience or experiment even though they cannot actually be explained with Aristotelian physics. Experience is thus itself an enigma: it is the basis for much, perhaps most of medical practice, but is not always explainable and so is potentially dangerous.
Al-Fārābī: Five Aphorisms
Baghdad, Aleppo, Damascus, or Cairo, late ninth/first half of the tenth century CE
As has long been recognized, the monumental founder of the philosophic arts and sciences in the Arabic-speaking world was al-Fārābī (256–339 AH/CE 870–950). His rearticulation of Classical Philosophy made the architectonic or organizing science of all the sciences what he called “humane” or “political philosophy.” Al-Fārābī’s Humane Philosophy was intentionally comprehensive, aiming to be true to all of human experience. It included inquiry into opinions and experiences gained through the senses, through publicly inherited sources of wisdom, through subconscious but powerful longings and affections, through the rational arts such as music and poetry, through opinions and experiences gained from the religious sciences of jurisprudence and Qur’ānic theology, and through philosophic science. Al-Fārābī avoided unnecessary abstraction. One of his introductory treatises on Humane Philosophy, the Five Aphorisms—which I present here—is an influential exposition, criticism, and elaboration of Aristotle’s philosophic arts and sciences, introducing them into the complex world of Islamic civilization. Written in a learned aphoristic style, the five rhetorical masterpieces beautifully condense the foundational inquiries of philosophy. Al-Fārābī addresses a perennial epistemological topic: How do we come to know the nature of love, justice, belief, and human happiness, and how can we evaluate our experience of each?
Hendrick Uwens: Excerpts from Tratado da Estática
Hendrick Uwens (1618–1667) was a Flemish-educated Jesuit who became a missionary to the Mughal Empire. Prior to embarking on his missionary work, he taught mixed mathematics in Lisbon, Portugal, in the early 1640s. As part of his teaching, he wrote a 400-page manuscript textbook in Portuguese on statics. Before addressing the motion of water, Uwens explains the nature of water. He argues that water has no viscosity, following the teachings of Galileo. Uwens presents three experiments to support his point, which are the experiments in this source. These experiments are the same as the ones used by Galileo in last book, Two New Sciences (Leiden, 1638), published only seven years earlier. Thus, these sources show how rapidly Galileo’s experiments spread through their teaching in Lisbon and in the vernacular. Uwens knew of philosophical problems arising from these experiments. But rather than criticizing the work of natural philosophers, as Galileo did, Uwens only stated that the mixed mathematics followed a different method than natural philosophy. By repurposing Galileo’s experiments in a classroom setting, Uwens helped to transform and disseminate key ideas of the new sciences through early modern Europe.
Richard of Saint Victor, The Mystical Ark (Benjamin major)
Paris, ca. 1160–70
One of the most influential twelfth-century European theologians, the Scottish monk Richard of Saint-Victor, who became prior of the Abbey of Saint-Victor in Paris, was particularly interested in the processes of mystic contemplation and in how the mind could ascend beyond the limits of the intellect to experience the truth of divine mysteries. This excerpt comes from his treatise known commonly as The Mystical Ark or Benjamin major, which explains how the mind ascends from the sensory world, through the intellectual sphere, to contemplate questions beyond the powers of human reason. Of interest for our purposes are the rich descriptions he gives of the experience of thinking. Richard’s work is considerably more detailed than other writings on the mind in the twelfth century. He goes beyond his contemporaries, who provide only the thinnest descriptions of cognition, to describe not just the nature but the experience of thought. The internal powers of cognition cannot actually be seen, and Richard’s elaborate, almost poetic imagery in discussing the powers of imagination, ingenuity, and reason are attempts to visualize for his audience the invisible experience of thought. His Mystical Ark is, then, one of the key texts for psychology in this period.
Roger Bacon: Perspectiva (I.1, 1–3 and I.10, 3)
In the opening pages of his Perspectiva, Roger Bacon (ca. 1219/20–ca. 1292) compares the five senses in order to determine their particular contributions to knowledge, and singles out vision as the one sense that allows us to “experience” received wisdom. I consider Bacon’s arguments for this claim, and work out the exact meaning of experiri in these very dense pages. I ask whether we should read Bacon’s statement as a commitment avant la lettre to experimentalism in the early modern sense, and put forward an alternative reading: I argue that Bacon’s theory must be understood in light of his analysis of the visual process and, more specifically, of his claim that vision is the only sense in which perception takes place “by syllogism.” On these grounds, Bacon argues that vision is the only sense with a science of its own—perspectiva—dedicated to identifying the cases in which our perception can be taken to be true and trustworthy. Indeed, Bacon did not intend to ground science on experiments, but rather to establish and employ the “science of vision” as a way of verifying sense-perception, so as to enable perceivers to “experience” received knowledge and attain new insights into the world.