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Possible Worlds in the Tahafut al-tahafut: Averroes on Plenitude and Possibility

From: Journal of the History of Philosophy
Volume 38, Number 3, July 2000
pp. 329-347 | 10.1353/hph.2005.0055

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Journal of the History of Philosophy 38.3 (2000) 329-347

Averroes on Plenitude and Possibility

Taneli Kukkonen

University of Helsinki


It has become customary to credit John Duns Scotus with having first systematically laid out the basis for treating the modal terms as referring to synchronic alternative states of affairs. This has been viewed as constituting a genuine shift in modal paradigms, as no former model had included the idea of genuine synchronic alternative possibilities. Historians of modal logic and contemporary logicians alike have found it interesting that certain key features of Duns Scotus's theory and subsequent late medieval work markedly resemble the so-called possible worlds semantics approach of modern modal theory.

Duns Scotus' innovations were not completely without precedent. Several key elements in Scotus' theory were foreshadowed by twelfth-century developments. Perhaps somewhat amusingly, one of the most important forerunners to the Latin discussion was one in whose context the expression "possible worlds" would have made sense in a very special way. This is the medieval Arabic debate on the eternity of the world and its modal status. In this paper I propose to take stock of the positions the Arabs reached, and to do so by way of consulting one of the documents central to the debate, the Tahâfut al-tahâfut or the "Incoherence of the Incoherence," by Abû al-Walîd Ibn Rushd (the Latin "Averroes," 1126-1198). In the first part I examine Averroes' exposition of the received Aristotelian tradition; in the second I assess the revisions to modal theory suggested by al-Ghazâlî (1058-1111), in the latter's comprehensive critique of philosophical doctrine. Though the two inquiries are obviously complementary, they can be accomplished independently of each other.

It will be seen that Averroes' and his formidable adversary's views on the interpretation of the modal concepts differ quite fundamentally. What makes the ensuing debate, often fraught with misunderstandings and misrepresentation, so engaging is that both parties, in spite of their differences, refer to a common Aristotelian backdrop in questions of terminology and mode of argumentation. Both Averroes and al-Ghazâlî are well-placed to present a considered and balanced account of what they take to be crucial in the issues involved. It is on account of this that the complex interplay between the old and the new comes to the fore with exceptional force and clarity in the Tahâfut debates.


The Tahâfut al-tahâfut, first published in 1180, is a philosophical rejoinder to an attack on philosophy, Abû Hâmid al-Ghazâlî's Tahâfut al-falâsifa or "The Incoherence of the Philosophers" (1095). In that celebrated work al-Ghazâlî had claimed to expose certain philosophical doctrines as not only contrary to orthodox Muslim belief, but also internally incoherent. Averroes' reply in turn was written in order "to show the different degrees of assent and conviction attained by the assertions in The Incoherence of the Philosophers, and to prove that the greater part has not reached the degree of evidence and of truth." The work is thus of a doubly dialectical nature. Whereas al-Ghazâlî tries to show the philosophers' reasoning to be defective, Averroes has to show both that al-Ghazâlî is likewise lacking in intellectual rigor and that philosophy, properly understood, is innocent of the charges leveled at it. If the Islamic philosophers (al-Fârâbî and, above all, Avicenna) have in fact erred, this is only to the extent that they have misrepresented correct Aristotelian doctrine.

Averroes' presentation is appropriately delicate considering the complexity of the task at hand. Averroes quotes al-Ghazâlî exclusively in full, lengthy passages, with the result of incorporating almost all of the Tahâfut al-falâsifa in his own work. In so doing he gives us an adequate and comparably fair representation of al-Ghazâlî's views. Averroes then goes on to discuss what al-Ghazâlî says both in the philosophers' name and in his own, and points out their respective deviations from Aristotelian doctrine. The text thus comes laid out in three successive layers, with Averroes' own running commentary enjoying pride of...

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