Averroes and the Limit of Thought

December 2, 2007 at 3:40 pm 1 comment

In criticizing Al-Ghazali, Averroes “insisted that the reality of causal operations could be inferred from sensory experience and argued that knowledge itself depended upon causality, since the distinction between what is knowable and what is not depends upon whether or not causes can be assigned to the thing in question” (John Henry, “Causation.” Gary Ferngren, “Science & Religion: A Historical Introduction.” 2002.)

This seems to blend epistemology and metaphysics together. It is critical in the sense that it draws a limit; in this way, it foreshadows both Kant and the Tractarian Wittgenstein. Averroes apparently draws the limit to what is knowable from a metaphysical principle—knowledge is based on the ability to assign a cause. I wonder if it might be better put that knowledge must be based on a justification. Averroes could have meant that when challenged on how it is we know a fact, we relate something that seems like its cause. I’m not sure that cause was the root of justification in Averroes’ philosophy. It isn’t Henry’s goal to be more specific on this point, but it seems like it could be a major failing in Averroes’ epistemology.

A theological approach to this might be what I’m finding so perplexing. For the early Wittgenstein, for example, no limit to thought can be drawn for to draw a limit is to know what is on the other side of it. To draw a limit to thought is to think, as he puts it, what cannot be thought (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Introduction). If, however, one accepts a certain amount of inscrutability in the nature of God then one can declare that much of God exists outside of human thought. We can contemplate God as Aristotle contemplated the Prime Mover, incapable of knowing its totality because of the limits of matter. As Aristotle had a tremendous influence on Averroes, this might be more fitting.


Entry filed under: Averroes (Ibn Rushd), Causation, Epistemology, Limits, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Religion, Wittgenstein.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Jer  |  April 19, 2009 at 3:55 pm

    This seems like a simplification of Averroes’ reply to al-Ghazali, and as such it is an unfair treatment of what he was trying to say. For Averroes, giving up on fourfold causation would require one to give up on the Aristotelean system altogether. Of course, today, we do not seem to have a problem with doing this, for modern scholars tend not to treat Aristotle’s writings so much as a system but as a body of autonomous realms of inquiry. Yet the Neoplatonic commentaries on his work tried to stitch it together into something representing a system (e.g. slashing off books 13-14 of On The Heavens and rearranging the remaining 12 into a cosmology). Averroes, of course, came to be recognized as “the” commentator on Aristotle, and so it comes to no surprise that he criticizes al-Ghazali for misinterpreting Aristotle’s philosophy in order to advance his occasionalist metaphysics. Averroes writes in the Incoherence of the Incoherence:

    “Those things whose causes are not perceived and unknown are sought precisely because their causes are not perceived. Since those things whose causes are not perceived are unknown by nature and are sought, it follows necessarily that those things that are unknown do have perceptible causes.”

    Averroes criticizes al-Ghazali for not distinguishing between:
    (1) things that are self-evident
    (2) things that are unknown

    To understand something, you must understand its cause. If there were no causes to search for, then we would have nothing to understand.

    But this is not to say that cause is the only justification. Rather, it is an essential part of understanding something’s essence. He is not saying that knowledge is simply knowing fourfold cause full stop, but that for al-Ghazali to maintain a method of inquiry for our understanding, such as what we see in the methodology prescribed in the Posterior Analytics, he cannot pick and choose which parts suit his purposes, and discard those parts, like fourfold causation, which contradict his metaphysics.

    So it is not so much that cause is the only essential makeup of any this or that, but “essence” itself entails cause within it.

    “If each existent did not have a specific action, it would not have a specific nature, and if it did not have a specific nature, it would not have a specific name or definition. Thus, all things would be one thing, or rather not even one thing, since we could ask of that one thing: does it have an action or reaction specific to it or not?”

    Fire is fire because it necessarily can burn. Cotton is cotton because it necessary can turn to ash. To remove these essences is to abstract away the qualities of which we ascribe to their nature and to which we give these things a name. Averroes thus finds al-Ghazali’s polemic mere sophistry.


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Everything on this blog should be taken as a draft, the spilling over of mental activity flung far and wide. The author is a graduate of Hampshire College in Amherst, MA who enjoys many things but devotes most of this space to matters academic.
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