- Avicenna and the Aristotelian Left by Ernst Bloch
Avicenna and the Aristotelian Left is the first English rendition of Ernst Bloch's thought-provoking monograph dedicated to the thought of Ibn Sīnā (d. 1037, known in the West as Avicenna), the prominent eleventh-century Persian polymath. Published in 2019 by Columbia University Press as part of the New Directions in Critical Theory series, it joins a growing list of translations that goes back to the 1966 Spanish version by Jorge Deike Robles and, more recently, to Claude Maillard's and Nicola Allesandrini's French (2008) and Italian (2018) renditions, respectively. This new English edition is based on Bloch's final version of the essay--a revised version of the original 1952 text, later incorporated as an appendix to Das Materialismusproblem (1972)--and it provides an exhaustive introduction together with a broad group of explanatory notes on the translation and Bloch's original text.
As its title suggests, Avicenna and the Aristotelian Left maps the trajectory of Avicenna's interpretation of Aristotle from the Middle Ages up to the nineteenth century. Bloch attempts to show that Avicenna was the first philosopher to systematize a naturalist reading of the Stagirite, and that this specific reading contributed to the development of a vitalist concept of matter, later expanded by Giordano Bruno, Baruch Spinoza, and Karl Marx. As a result, Bloch states that Aristotelianism--and its conceptual distinction of form and matter, in particular--evolved in two opposite directions during the Middle Ages: On the one hand, the Christian world accommodated Aristotle to the "dogmatic" exigencies of faith, elaborating a notion of matter defined by its passiveness and, therefore, by its need for a transcendent principle for actualizing itself--namely, the form. On the other hand, the Islamicate world renewed the exegetical tradition of Strato of Lampsacus and Alexander of Aphrodisias by cultivating "an increasingly predominant interest in the worldly" (p. 15) and articulating a naturalistic understanding of matter, in which "the essences themselves exist already as specific material predispositions" (p. 22). Bloch labels these opposite trends as "Right" and "Left" Aristotelianism, correspondingly, suggesting that [End Page 1] Avicenna's naturalist appropriation of Aristotle mirrored the materialist reformulations of Hegelianism during the 1800s.
To distinguish the specific philosophical innovations of the Aristotelian Left, Bloch identifies three key ideas formulated by Avicenna. First, for the Persian philosopher, body and soul compose an organic unity, even though the latter is ontologically distinct from the former. In this respect, Avicenna asserts that the individual soul survives the death of the body but the properties associated with the individual organism--particularly the sensitive faculty--do not endure after this separation. As a result, there is no experience of pain or joy after death, and consequently the soul cannot be subject to rewards or punishments. The moral and punitive authority of religion is thus effaced (p. 17). Second, Avicenna--and Averroes (d. 1198) after him--maintains that the intellectual faculty is first and foremost an extrinsic property of individual bodies, that exists independently from of the specific habiti and material configurations of human beings. It is precisely because the intellect is nonindividual and eternal that everyone can participate in its activity. Accordingly, the intellect--or human Reason, as Bloch puts it--is a faculty that is common to all humankind, notwithstanding cultural and religious differences (p. 18). Here, Avicenna draws on the Aristotelian distinction between an active, universal intellect (nous) and a passive, individual one. While it is not clear whether Aristotle acknowledged a connection between the two, Avicenna stresses the preeminence of active reason over individual understanding. According to Bloch, the content of this universal intellect is not a specific religion or creed, but demonstrative philosophy in its most perfect form--namely, Aristotelian. Here again, Bloch highlights the political implications of Avicenna's ideas: if reason is universal and unconditioned, then it stands above any possible articulation of religious sectarianism. There are no dogmatic truths beyond the...