- Averroes' Natural Philosophy and its Reception in the Latin West ed. by Paul J. J. M. Bakker
The volume under review presents the state of the art when it comes to tracking the reception of Ibn Rushd (the Latin Averroes, 1126–1198), the famed Aristotelian commentator from Andalusia, within medieval Latin philosophy. These are all very high-quality essays, each brimming with subtle insights into the way that themes and philosophical puzzles in Aristotle were framed in Averroes's works through the lens of late antique commentary, and how the Latin scholastics then furthered the agenda through their own creative work as well as further comparisons with other eminent philosophers of the likes of Augustine and Avicenna. A standing theme that emerges is the contested relationship between tradition and innovation. While the scholastics revered Averroes as the commentator par excellence on Aristotle, they did not hesitate to point out what they saw as discrepancies between the two, nor did they shy away from breaking new ground where this was seen as warranted.
Every generation, it seems, gets its own Aristotle; perhaps every second generation gets its Avicenna or Averroes. This is primarily a numbers game, having to do with the relative weight assigned to different time-periods within the historiography of western philosophy and the consequent cycles of academic production. Simply on account of there being sufficiently many scholars working on classical Greek philosophy, every generation ends up reconsidering the source-materials of much western philosophizing in Aristotle (and in Plato). This has resulted in shifting perspectives on what, if anything, might still be interesting in the works of the Stagirite for the contemporary philosophical imagination.
With a few notable exceptions—the retrieval of medieval logic as an independent object of study, the recovery of Philoponus's impetus theory in fourteenth-century physics, the attention presently showered on questions relating to consciousness, self-awareness and, yes, attention—trends in medieval philosophy tend to follow those in Aristotelian studies, only with a time-lag involved. If Aristotle, in other words, did not in fact say this (i.e. outmoded interpretation whose philosophical interest has faded) but instead that (i.e. exciting new reading that connects to current philosophical trends), then could it be that some of his Greek, Arabic, and Latin interpreters also caught sight of the more interesting reading? And might a look into Aristotle's reception add to the picture in interesting ways? The current fascination with medieval theories of action and emotions and the upsurge in neo-Aristotelian metaphysics each follow this pattern. [End Page 558]
Two bird's-eye-view observations arise from the contents of Bakker's collection. One is that academic fashions do not appear to impinge on Averroes studies all that much. While in terms of chronology and periodization the Aristotelian tradition is treated delightfully comprehensively these days, with a range that extends from Theophrastus and the late antique commentators to the Renaissance and the seventeenth century (and both extremes are present in this collection), it is mostly the standard ports of call that are visited and re-visited when it comes to situating Averroes: Alexander of Aphrodisias on the one side, Aquinas and the two Latin Averroist waves on the other. There is nothing wrong with this, of course; and it must be said that Edith Dudley Sylla's standout essay on fourteenth-century theories of alteration, for instance, builds on Ruth Glasner's earlier work while tackling a range of thinkers less frequently associated with Averroes. Still, the overall impression made by the volume is that of a mostly stable group of players, making largely anticipated moves.
A second, related observation is that for all that this is purportedly a collection on themes in Averroes's natural philosophy, cosmological and metaphysical concerns—even psychological ones—are never far from the surface. Again, there is nothing wrong with this: we have plainly yet to exhaust the reception of Averroes's critique of Ptolemy, or the many questions surrounding his treatment of the...