restricted access Avicenna (review)
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Reviewed by
Lenn E. Goodman. Avicenna. Arabic Thought and Culture. London: Routledge, 1992. xv + 240 pp. $16.95 (paperbound).

No single figure looms larger in the history of Islamic medicine than that of Ibn Sina (d. 1037), known to Europeans as Avicenna. In his massive Arabic medical encyclopedia, Qanun fi al-tibb (The canon of medicine), Avicenna summarized the Greco-Roman and early Islamic medical writings available during the tenth and early eleventh centuries in the eastern provinces of the Islamic world. Medical thought of the day was so successfully synthesized and systematized in this encyclopedia that a stultifying sense of authority resulted, reinforced by the vast size of the volume and its title implying codification.

Yet, as important as this contribution to medical learning was, Ibn Sina was even more highly regarded as a philosopher, and it is the philosophical writings that are the focus of the present volume. It forms part of the Routledge series Arabic Thought and Culture, intended “to provide straightforward introductions to the Western reader of some of the major figures and movements in Arabic thought.” The first chapter of this volume presents one of the most readable accounts available of the life and productivity of Avicenna, set within a political and cultural context. The volume is to be recommended on that count alone.

The remaining three chapters are concerned with Avicenna’s metaphysics, his theory of ideas and immortality (including his famous Flying/Floating Man argument), and his views on logic, persuasion, and poetry. Here also the general readability of Goodman’s style, as well as his willingness to draw comparisons with European thinkers such as Kant, Hume, and Leibniz, make the chapters of considerable interest to those wishing an introduction to Avicenna’s philosophy. And since philosophy was an integral part of medieval medical thought, an acquaintance with Avicenna’s theory of knowledge and the reliability of sensory data should assist in understanding his thought.

It must be said, however, that some of Goodman’s interpretations, as well as some of his translations, are controversial. 1 Moreover, the easy flow of the author’s prose on occasion disguises the subtleties and difficulties of an argument. The reader is often swept along in the flow of the language, at times all too ready to agree with the arguments and the far-flung comparisons. The prose is also disconcertingly broken on occasion by the use of words that will send many readers reaching for large dictionaries for help—for example, émeute and elatton: the latter could not be located in any available dictionary, including the Oxford English Dictionary . [End Page 141]

Goodman does not give a great deal of attention to Avicenna’s scientific thought and its relation to his philosophical concerns. He does, however, provide a useful and succinct survey of the Canon of Medicine (pp. 32–36). Some of the dates given for later physicians are incorrect (as, for example, those for Ibn al-Nafis on p. 33), and his bibliographic references to medical writings are rather inadequate: he seems unaware, for example, of the translation of the treatise on cardiac drugs, as well as the edited version of Avicenna’s treatise on colic. A reliable guide to the editions, translations, and studies of Avicenna’s medical writings is the recent volume by Jules L. Janssens. 2 By combining this annotated bibliography prepared by Janssens with the discursive essay on Avicenna’s life and philosophy by Goodman, the reader will gain a very useful introduction and guide to Avicenna’s writings and ideas.

Emilie Savage-Smith
Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine, Oxford


1. For examples, see the comments of Norman Calder in Bull. School Orient. Afr. Stud., 1995, 58: 121–23.

2. Jules L. Janssens, An Annotated Bibliography on Ibn Sina (1970–1989), including Arabic and Persian Publications and Turkish and Russian References, Ancient and Medieval Philosophy, De Wulf-Mansion Centre, ser. 1, vol. 13 (Leuven: University Press, 1991).