- The Philosophical Works of al-Kindī transed. by Peter Adamson and Peter E. Pormann
Al-Kindī (d. circa 870 CE), or the ‘philosopher of the Arabs’ as his honorific title has it, will forever hold a crucial distinction: he was there first. Standing at the crest of the Arabic appropriation of the Greek philosophical and scientific legacy, al-Kindī’s work already exemplifies most of the movement’s salient trends. At the same time, because of the pioneering nature of al-Kindī’s exploits (if he had predecessors, we know precious little about them) his accomplishments have a peculiar flavor about them, as if one were witnessing a particularly freewheeling spirit reimagining Greek wisdom for an Arabic audience.
Al-Kindī’s creativity as a philosopher was predicated on an incomplete understanding of the principal Greek philosophical sources, one still prevalent in his own formative years, but al-Kindī himself contributed significantly to expanding the text base from which Arabic philosophers approached their task. Equally, however, his philosophical work was made possible by the availability of supplementary materials from cognate fields of inquiry. Al-Kindī not only wrote on astronomy and astrology, swords and spheres, medicine, music, and magic. Because of the relative permeability of disciplinary boundaries that would grow more rigid later (as indeed they had been before), he could mix and match perspectives in a way that was no longer open to successive philosophers. Al-Kindī, then, could really only appear at the time that he did. His status resembles that of an Eriugena, a Saadya Gaon, or a John of Salisbury.
The collection under review offers a fascinating glimpse into a moment in Islamic intellectual history when a philosopher might pay Aristotle’s Organon more than lip service, yet signally fail to integrate either syllogistic procedures or Aristotelian philosophy of science into his own vision of a perfected philosophy. Al-Kindī’s ideal science is neo-Pythagorean; his notion of what the intellect grasps and how it does so is more Platonic than Aristotelian; his practical ethics owes most to Stoicism. Al-Kindī feels equally comfortable refuting Trinitarianism and discussing the minutiae of Aristotelian elemental changes, and the biographies and bibliographies supplied by the translators (l-lxxii) testify to an even wider range of influences and a larger set of questions that al-Kindī addressed.
Is there a unifying vision to all these disparate threads? Adamson makes a compelling case for an affirmative answer in his companion monograph Al-Kindī (OUP, 2007) but in fact Adamson and Pormann’s anthology, when read in sequence, does an equally convincing job. If one begins from the top, from (1) God and first principles, and proceeds thence to a study of (2) soul and reason, then (3) the ordering of created reality, one may see that al-Kindī tackles the “big three” subjects of late antique philosophy—God, the cosmos, and the soul—in a bold and innovative manner, with the study of each throwing light on the other two. The remaining treatises presented by Adamson and Pormann deal with (4) pre-philosophical ethics and (5) the outlines of a philosophical education. While their placement at the back of the book allows the modern reader to tackle the meatier works (philosophically speaking) straightaway, it is useful to note that al-Kindī would likely have instructed the uninitiated novice to acquaint her- or himself with these prefatory materials first.
Adamson and Pormann’s translations are faithful to the tenor of al-Kindī’s prose throughout and, from a sampling, I could not catch any infelicities when comparing [End Page 546] them with Abū Rīda’s Arabic edition of 1950-53. The introductions and annotations are judiciously crafted and informative and draw on an impressively full bibliography.
The flow of the text is aided by the translators’ decision to spell out scarcely any of the original Arabic technical terms in the body text, apart from the treatise On Definitions, where each term is scrupulously recorded (300-311). Still, it bears...