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Before Essence and Existence: al-Kindi's Conception of Being

From: Journal of the History of Philosophy
Volume 40, Number 3, July 2002
pp. 297-312 | 10.1353/hph.2002.0043

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Journal of the History of Philosophy 40.3 (2002) 297-312

In the person of al-Kindi (died ca. 870 A.D.), the Arabic tradition had its first self-consciously "philosophical" thinker. Those familiar with al-Kindi may know him chiefly because of his role in the transmission of Greek philosophy, though it is his transformation of the ideas he inherited that will interest us most here. While it is not clear whether al-Kindi himself could read Greek, it is well documented that he guided the efforts of several important early translators. These included Ustath, translator of Aristotle's Metaphysics; Yahya b. al-Bitriq, who paraphrased several Platonic dialogues as well as translated Aristotle's De Caelo; and Ibn Na'ima al-Himsi. Al-Himsi translated logical works of Aristotle and parts of the Enneads of Plotinus, the latter in a paraphrase that has come down to us as a group of three texts dominated by the so-called Theology of Aristotle. (I will refer below to these three texts collectively as the Arabic Plotinus.) Al-Kindi's circle of translators also produced a similar paraphrase of Proclus's Elements of Theology, which went first by the name Book on the Pure Good in its Arabic version and later, in its Latin version, by the title Liber de Causis. Translations in the Baghdad circle were made from both Greek and Syriac, and were supported by the 'Abbasid caliphs al-Ma'mun (reigned 813-33) and al-Mu'tasim (reigned 833-42). In his own works, many of which are letters addressed to al-Mu'tasim's son Ahmad, al-Kindi repeated and developed ideas and terminology from the philosophical works he read in translation, often in answer to questions posed by the recipient.

It would appear that al-Kindi considered the study of metaphysics to be primary in his endeavor to reconstruct Greek thought. His most significant remaining work, On First Philosophy, assimilates metaphysics or "first philosophy" to theology, the study of "the First Truth Who is the Cause of every truth." His survey of the works of Aristotle likewise confirms that the Metaphysics studies God, His names and His status as the First Cause. A similar conception underlies the Prologue to the Theology of Aristotle, which claims to "complete the whole of [Aristotelian] philosophy," and promises a "discussion of the First Divinity . . . and that it is the Cause of causes." The Prologue also seems to portray this project as continuous with that of the Metaphysics. We might suspect, then, that al-Kindi took Aristotle's aim in the Metaphysics of studying "being qua being" as central to his own undertaking, and indeed as central to an adequate philosophical understanding of God.

In this paper I shall try to confirm this suspicion through a study of al-Kindi's corpus, focusing specifically on his conception of being, or, rather, on his conceptions of being; for as we shall see there are two competing treatments of being in al-Kindi. First, in common with the Arabic Plotinus and the Liber de Causis, he has a conception that emphasizes the simplicity of being, and opposes being to predication. Second, he has a complex conception of being indebted to Aristotle. These two conceptions can be reconciled: simple being, I will argue, is prior to and underlies complex being. Finally, I will suggest that al-Kindi's simple conception of being anticipates Avicenna's distinction between existence and essence, but only to a limited extent.

1. Terminology

Before embarking on this examination of being it may be helpful to provide a brief discussion of the terminology used for "being" by al-Kindi and his translators. I will be examining passages from three main sources: first, the aforementioned Book on the Pure Good or Liber de Causis; second, the Arabic paraphrase of Plotinus produced in al-Kindi's circle; and third, al-Kindi's best-known work, entitled On First Philosophy (hereafter FP). Part of the purpose of such texts was to establish technical terms for use in philosophy. Toward this end neologisms were invented, often for use in rendering Greek technical terms in Arabic. This is the case with three terms we find...

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