Richard C. TayloR

Averroes and the Philosophical Account of Prophecy



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Thomas Institut, Cologne 12 June 2012

Richard C. Taylor (Milwaukee)

“Averroes and the Philosophical Account of Prophecy”

Thomas Institut, Cologne, 12 June 2012

Richard C. Taylor (Milwaukee)

“Averroes and the Philosophical Account of Prophecy (12 June 2012)”

1. Introduction

Prophecy is an essential part of Islam as practiced throughout the ages and is acknowledged by all the major philosophers of the classical rationalist tradition stemming from al-Fārābī as central to religion and to societal fulfillment and happiness. A hadīth or saying of the Prophet Muḥammad has it that there have been 124,000 prophets sent to humankind,1 but, of course, it is Muḥammad himself who is the most important of them for reciting the Qur’an sent generously by God to human beings who already had the natural ability to know God as Creator and to know right actions by nature.2 Al-Fārābī himself made prophecy and the messenger known in philosophy as the agent intellect an integral part of philosophical psychology and epistemology of human knowing. The same is true of Ibn Sīnā or Avicenna who seems to have felt more strongly than al-Fārābī about the necessity of integrating Islam and rational philosophical knowledge and who provided much more detailed discussion, including a treatise on the proof of prophecy. Ibn Rushd or Averroes was himself a qāḍī or religious judge, rose to become chief judge in religious law at Seville and Cordoba and even wrote a handbook of jurisprudence.3 In his treatise on religious reasoning, his al-Kashf ʿan manāhij al-adilla fī ʿaqāʾid al-milla or The Explanation of the Sorts of Proofs in the Doctrines of Religion, prophecy is mentioned many times and is assumed as a foundation of religious doctrine. This topic also is touched upon in his Tahāfut at-tahāfut or Incoherence of the Incoherence many times. Prophecy is also discussed in his work commonly known as the  Decisive Treatise though the Arabic Kitāb faṣl al-maqāl wa-taqrīr mā baina ash-sharīcah wa-l-ḥikma min al-ittiṣāl can be more revealingly translated as The Book of the Distinction of Discourse and the Establishment of the Connection between the Religious Law and Philosophy.4  In light of all this, it seems quite worthwhile to give consideration to the account of prophecy in the major philosophical works of Averroes, among them his three commentaries on the De Anima of Aristotle and his paraphrasing commentary on the Parva Naturalia, works which will be the primary philosophical focus of my discussion today.

In what follows I set the stage for the study of Averroes by examining the epistemologies of al-Fārābī and Avicenna and their ways of integrating prophecy into their philosophical accounts of natural human reasoning and intellection. For each I provide a sketch of epistemology, a consideration of religious epistemology, and remarks about the conception of the relationship of religion and philosophy. In the case of Averroes, I provide (1) first an account of method in the study of his works. (2) I then consider the discussion of prophecy found in his commentary on the Parva Naturalia. (3) Third, I provide brief accounts of natural human epistemology in the three commentaries on De Anima and consider the question of an integrated account of prophecy. (4) Fourth, as a valuable parallel I provide remarks of what is found in the philosophical works of Averroes regarding another important religious teaching, namely, the afterlife. Starting with that issue, I provide on the basis of (1)-(3) an analysis of the thought of Averroes and the philosophical account of prophecy. If time permits, I will conclude with summary remarks on the matters mentioned in the opening paragraph of this presentation.

2. 1. al-Fārābī (d. ca. 950)

According to al-Fārābī human beings  do not have in their own natures all that is needed to be rational and knowing and so depend on the agent intellect, lowest of the intellects originated by the First Cause to realize their natures as intellectual. In his Treatise on the Intellect as well as some other works (see Taylor 2007), al-Fārābī provides an emanationist account of human knowing very different fundamentally from that of Avicenna who nevertheless drew much inspiration from him on this and other philosophical matters. For al-Fārābī the agent intellect does not provide here the intelligible forms or content of human knowing by emanation to or through a conjoining with the human intellect. Instead, it gives to human beings as their first perfection the first principles of understanding, such as that the part is greater than the whole and others, so that they may come to attain happiness (al-Fārābī 1985, 202-207). These are not enough, however, to provide the content of human natural knowing of the world. So the agent intellect then supplies also a power for actualizing the reception of intelligibles by way of separating and abstracting them from representative images garnered through sense perception. In this the human material or receptive intellect is made able to realize intelligibles in itself thereby becoming intellect in act while previously it was in potency. This empowerment enables the human being to transfer (yanqulu) what are intelligibles in potency in images derived from sensory experience to a new mode of being as intelligibles in act in the human intellect (al-Fārābī 1985, 198-200). In contrast to a Platonic or Neoplatonic account in which the soul has only knowledge by a recollection or by rising to and uniting with Intellect where the intelligibles primarily exist in the first emanation from the One, here the agent intellect as the last and lowest of the emanated intellects aids the human soul to understand for itself the intelligibles found in potency in the human experience of the world. While these correspond with the intelligibles existing in the agent intellect, their source for the human soul is the world and the manner in which they are apprehended is by separation or abstraction from their material existence. When it has attained intelligibles for itself and becomes them following the Aristotelian notion of the formal identity of knower and known, the human intellect is able to think them without dependence on the senses (cf. Aristotle, De Anima 3.4) and, when it has attained all the intelligibles, it no longer needs what is external for its thought. At this stage it comes to be acquired intellect and the human being is transformed in substance into an eternal entity, immaterially rising to the level of the agent intellect. This achievement of understanding and intellect yields the greatest happiness and is itself the afterlife (al-ḥayā al-ākhira), something not naturally present in all human beings (al-Fārābī 1983, 31). The agent intellect is also able to aid the rational animal by supplying the faculty of representation or imagination (al-mutakhayyala) with intelligibles or particulars directly with intelligibles or particulars:

[T]hings can also be present in the faculty of representation without having been discovered by deliberation, and so true visions will arise from the particulars which the agent intellect gives to the faculty of representation in dreams. But divinations concerning things divine will arise from the intelligibles provided by the Active Intellect, which it receives by taking their imitations instead. (al-Fārābī 1985, 220-221, tr. mod.)

This is important for the ruler of the excellent city who has the representative power of prophecy for guiding the people through metaphor, simile and other forms of representation in imitation of the intelligibles received from the agent intellect. And it is through this emanated agent intellect that the First Cause or God which is itself pure intellect provides guidance for the development of all human beings, some of whom are able to reach the point of attaining understanding and fulfilling themselves in the realization of intellect and thereby experiencing their most complete happiness.  This much is of the conception of understanding and intellect is clear in some of the texts of al-Fārābī, but as Davidson has noted, this philosopher’s views varied considerably in various works, perhaps purposefully because of a particular audience for a particular work, perhaps because of developments in his thinking, or for other reasons. (Davidson 1992, 73; cf. Janos 2012)

Let us, however, explore this faculty of representation (al-mutakhayyala) — which I will call imagination henceforth — a bit further together with the philosophical account of prophecy in just one of his works, the al-Madīnah al-Fāḍila or The Perfect State.5 The faculties of the soul are discussed in chapter 10. There he says that imagination retains impressions of sensibles and is able to manipulate them connecting and disconnecting them with some of these connections being true and others false. (164) It is located in the heart (fī al-qalb), though the heart is not precisely its organ, and it performs judgments. Imagination is between sense (al-ḥiss) and reason (al-nāṭiq) and sense brings imprints to imagination which is most free to do its work with images in sleep when unperturbed by sense. Imagination also works in relation to things desired or thought by the creation of images to be focused on as something hoped for or expected, something wished for, including a desire for knowledge. This is particularly relevant to practical action when reason presents something as good and to be pursued with intentionality. (170-172)  Its work, then, is imitation, sometimes imitating sensibles received from below, sometimes intelligibles received from above. (210) Its nature is that of a “disposition and a form in a body” (hai’a wa-ṣūra fī badanin) but it belongs also to the soul. It receives things in accord with its nature by imitating things such as moisture without being itself moist and it can reach beyond to intelligibles thanks to reason, imitating them through sensible images it has in itself from sense. (212-214) What is particularly important for religious epistemology is that it can even imitate the rational faculty and intelligibles such as the First Cause, immaterial things and the heavens. (218) Sometimes the agent intellect emanates directly to imagination intelligibles which properly belong to reason, in which case imagination received these in accord with its nature, namely, by way of imitating them since it cannot receive them as intelligibles themselves. In sleep “true visions will arise from the particulars which the agent intellect gives to the imagination in dreams. But divinations concerning things divine will also arise from the intelligibles provided by the agent intellect which it receives by taking their imitations instead.” (220, tr. mod.) This can be so powerful in some cases that projections can come forth into the air and be perceived in the world by the prophet and others.  This then is the nature of prophecy, the imitation of intelligibles, some theoretical and some practical, and this is the “highest rank of perfection which the imagination (or: faculty of representation, al-mutakhayyala) can reach.” (224, tr. mod.) Those who attain the afterlife are able to gather and use their intellects to attain more and more happiness. (258-262) Those with bad dispositions who have spoiled their imaginations really do not have imagination available to them at all (aṣlan). (270). al-Fārābī does not state clearly whether the imagination continues with the soul into the next life since it belongs to the soul even though, as indicated earlier, it is a “disposition and a form in a body.” Prophecy, then, comes from the agent intellect in special cases but it essentially consists of the apprehension of intelligibles. The intelligibles, be they apprehended by abstraction or received from the agent intellect, are understood by philosophers as they really are, while the prophet through the power of imagination converts the intelligibles into symbols and representations for the rest of the populace. (278) That is for the sake of the proper arrangement of the city through the use of intelligibles imitated for the sake of the masses who are unable to understand truth in its literal form, something that philosophers are able to do. Religion, then, for al-Fārābī is an imitation of philosophy or as he says in the opening lines of his Book of Religion, it is about opinions.6 Al-Fārābī even goes so far as to hold that it proper to say that philosophy is prior — even temporally — to religion. In sum, then, al-Fārābī fully integrates prophecy into his philosophical epistemology in the science of psychology.7

2.2. Avicenna (d. 1037)

Avicenna holds that the afterlife is a reality for all human beings because he has a very different understanding of the nature of the human soul than does al-Fārābī.  Rather than conceiving of the soul as form of the body requiring a substantial transformation for its intellectual fulfillment, Avicenna instead considers the human soul as per se rational and as using the body as an instrument for its development and perfection as rational. Avicenna illustrates this with his famous suspended or flying man argument reasoning that even deprived of all sensation, the rational soul would still know and affirm its own existence as individual. (See Marmura 1986.) As perfection and final cause for the body, the rational soul has existence in its own right though it came into existence with the body and does not perish with the human body. For Avicenna the bodily senses function to separate or abstract sensible forms from matter and the common sense unifies what is received from the senses, depositing the images of particular experienced things into the retentive imagination. On the basis of these the famous estimative faculty, the highest animal faculty, forms intentions and is able to apprehend non-sensible intentions such as the danger perceived by the sheep at the presence of a wolf. These intentions are then held in memory and become available for the activity of the compositive imagination which, when controlled by reason in the case of human beings, is called the cogitative faculty. (Black 2000, 59-60) By use of these bodily instruments and their various abstractions, the rational soul is able to prepare itself for intellectual abstraction, the apprehension of intelligibles. (Cf. Herrera 2010, 77-97)

There are four sorts or stages of human intellect in the account of understanding and intellect in the thought of Avicenna. material intellect is the receptive capacity belonging to the rational soul, a potency for a reception of immaterial intelligible forms. The disposed intellect (‘aql bi-l-malaka) has the primary principles mentioned by al-Fārābī as provided by the agent intellect to every human being. The intellect in act or actual intellect (‘aql bi-l-fi‘l) is the stage of having attained knowledge and understanding of intelligibles though in this stage they are not being actively thought. Finally, the term acquired intellect (‘aql mustafād) is used of the human intellect in the very act of thinking the intelligibles. Although he uses the language of abstraction (tajrīd) to describe the realization of intelligibles in the human intellect, Avicenna does not hold the Farabian view that human intellect intellectual understanding is the result of abstracting and receiving the intelligible content of sense perception under a new mode of being. Rather, he asserts that pre-noetic levels of abstraction and image formation involving bodily powers function only as preparation for the human intellectual apprehension of intelligible forms in the agent intellect. Using two different metaphors — emanation (fayḍ) and conjoining (ittiṣāl), neither of which alone fully captures the sense of his teaching —, Avicenna rejects the notion of the soul as mirror of the intelligibles in the agent intellect and instead holds that human intellectual understanding involves the reception of an emanation from the agent intellect (min-hu) and a conjoining with the agent intellect (bi-hi) which itself contains all the forms and is the source of the forms of the world. (Avicenna 1959, 246-7)

When the rational power regards the particulars which are in the imagination and the light of the agent intellect shines upon them in us . . . , they come to be abstracted (mujarrada) from matter and its concomitant properties and are impressed on the rational soul, not as if the things themselves were transferred from the retentive imagination to the intellect in us and not as if the intention (al-ma‘nā) immersed in concomitant properties — for it is abstract (or: separate, mujarrad) in itself and in the consideration of its essence — makes a likeness of the thing itself, but rather according to an intention such that its study of it prepares the soul because the abstraction (mujarrad) emanates on it from the agent intellect. (Avicenna 1959, 235)

The unique intelligibles in act exist in the agent intellect; thus intellectual understanding requires the human knower to maintain a connection (ittiṣāl) to agent intellect so long as intellectual understanding exists in the knower. Intelligibles are not retained and there is no personal intellectual memory for human beings, though they do have in the intellect in act or actual intellect the power to reconnect readily to agent intellect for the fullness of intellectual understanding. However, in the realization of the acquired intellect the human rational soul does not become the intelligibles in the agent intellect since Avicenna rejects the Aristotelian doctrine of identity of knower and known. Rather, the rational soul has within itself immaterial representations of those intelligibles which it receives by emanation. In this way, when having actual intellectual understanding, each individual rational soul has in itself — by both emanation from and conjoining with the agent intellect — immaterial representative intelligibles which make its knowing actual in the soul. This doctrine is repeated in his commentary on the Theology of Aristotle, a work which likely influenced his formation of this doctrine that grounds science in separate intellect. (D’Ancona 2008, 64-66)

Human intellectual understanding necessarily requires the involvement of the agent intellect which is the last of the emanated intellects as set out in Avicenna’s own version of a metaphysical cosmology formed from his study of the account of al-Fārābī. God is the Necessary Existent (wājib al-wujūd) reasoned to and known in virtue of the primary intentions of existent or being, thing and necessary immediately present to the mind; he is also thought thinking thought eternally providing existence to things outside himself. By creation there emanates from him the first created intellect through which plurality is introduced into the universe. The process continues with that and the other intellects below it creating succeeding intellects as well as celestial souls and bodies down to the level of the agent intellect which not only plays the key role in human intellectual understanding but also gives forms to things of the sublunar realm when matters are suitably prepared to receive emanated forms that constitute the natural forms of material things. In this and in all other aspects of the universe God plays the role of the primary cause to which all must be traced. This includes religious matters in which the powerful imaginative powers of the prophet make possible the translation of intelligibles into language and meanings suitable for guiding human beings in the pursuit of what is good and right. Here the end is the education and perfection of the immaterial rational soul for the attainment of intellectual excellence and concomitant happiness in the present and eternally in the next life.

In a short work on the proof of prophecy Avicenna starts directly with an explanation of the nature of the human rational soul which, in contrast to the view of al-Fārābī, is in itself an immaterial existing thing. It is able to receive emanated intelligibles with or without mediation. When it is the latter, without mediation, this is the better and characteristic of the prophet.  He writes,

Revelation is the emanation and the angel is the received emanating power that descends on the prophets as if it were an emanation continuous with the universal intellect. It is rendered particular, not essentially, but accidentally, by reason of the particularity of the recipient. Thus the angels have been given different names because [they are associated with] different notions; nevertheless, they form a single totality, which is particularized, not essentially, but accidentally, because of the particularity of the recipient. The message, therefore, is that part of the emanation termed “revelation” which has been received and couched in whatever mode of expression is deemed best for furthering man’s good in both the eternal and the corruptible worlds as regards knowledge and political governance, respectively. The messenger is the one who conveys what he acquires of the emanation termed “revelation,” again in whatever mode of expression is deemed best for achieving through his opinions the good of the sensory world by political governance and of the intellectual world by knowledge.8

However, the precise philosophical explanation is that the prophet has a very special intuitive power (ḥads) by which the intelligibles are able to be received and understood immediately without sensation but by a direct emanation from the agent intellect. The powerful imagination of the prophet then translates these into images and accounts of a religious sort to convey to the uneducated (and the educated but insufficiently philosophical) people the truths albeit in the form of religious accounts and symbols more easily grasped by common human imaginations. These then are taken in religion in literal and concrete meanings by the majority while the philosophers see them for the underlying truths that they are representing. This is a religious epistemology built on Avicenna’s natural human epistemology and belongs both to psychology and also to metaphysics insofar as religion guides people who are essentially immaterial rational souls to happiness through finality and direction toward God. In contrast to al-Fārābī, for Avicenna all human beings are per se eternal in virtue of their immaterial natures of existing.  This is the nature of the afterlife, one that does not involve in a literal way the Islamic teaching on post-mortem resurrection of the body. As my late teacher Michael Marmura has shown in a paper being published posthumously, it may be that Avicenna conceived of the afterlife and promised resurrection to be matters of human imagination at work in the next life.9  This, however, may be problematic for Avicenna unless the particular human imagination is conceived not as a power of the brain but as a power of the rational soul itself. But that is a matter for discussion in another context.

3. Averroes (d. 1198)

3.1. Method

In his Faṣl al-maqāl the title of which I earlier rendered as The Book of the Distinction of Discourse and the Establishment of the Connection between the Religious Law and Philosophy, Averroes reasons to the priority of philosophical demonstration in the attainment of truth and the interpretation of scripture over religious literalism. While clearly setting aside the possibility of a double truth, Averroes nevertheless maintains a distinction of discourse based on a human educational psychology in which people are seen generally to fall under three classifications. Some are in fact intellectually weak in argumentative skills and easily swayed to assent by emotions under the influence of rhetoric; some see reality through foundational assumptions and build their thinking and reasoning on those, being persuaded to give assent by dialectical engagement; and some are skilled in philosophical logic and reasoning through the method of demonstration and so give assent to truth per se and with necessity because such is the nature of the product of demonstration.10 There he goes on to explain that those skilled in philosophical demonstration should not be so incautious or even destructive as to reveal truths and interpretations of scripture obtained by demonstration to those unable to understand. He makes this clear in the context of the nature of the afterlife.

For anyone not adept in science, it is obligatory to take them [the descriptions of the next life] in their apparent sense; for him, it is unbelief to interpret them because it leads to unbelief. That is why we are of the opinion that, for anyone among the people whose duty it is to have faith in the apparent sense, interpretation is unbelief because it leads to unbelief. Anyone adept in interpretation who divulges that to him calls him to unbelief; and the one who calls to unbelief is an unbeliever.11

Hence, it is essential to the wellbeing of the community and society that there be a clear distinction of discourse between (i) religious accounts of practical living value suitable for presentation before people of each of the three modes of assent and understanding, the rhetorical, the dialectical and the demonstrative — even if those of the demonstrative group have another interpretation they keep to themselves — and (ii) truthful philosophical and scientific accounts garnered through demonstrative method suitable only for the third group. To divulge indeiscriminately the truths attained through this latter method would engender confusion and surely lead, as Averroes says, to undermining faithful belief perhaps to the point of unbelief.

In his own writing Averroes follows this guidance in preparing some works in the mode of religious discourse such as his al-Kashf ʿan manāhij al-adilla fī ʿaqāʾid al-milla or The Explanation of the Sorts of Proofs in the Doctrines of Religion, a work dealing with the topics of God’s existence, unity, attributes, transcendence and actions as understood in religion.12 He clearly declares al-Kashf to be an exoteric work in its opening pages.13 The Faṣl al-Maqāl is also suitably placed among religious works since it opens with the statement of its goal to be theas determining on the basis of religious or “Law-based reflection (an-naẓar ash-shar‘ī) whether reflection upon philosophy and the sciences of logic is permitted, prohibited, or commanded — and this as a recommendation or as an obligation— by the Law (bi-sh-shar‘).”14 But the Faṣl al-maqāl also functions at the same time on another level as a philosophical account of methods of reasoning in the context of religious belief, when its underlying Aristotelian principles are revealed. As I have explained elsewhere, the argumentative foundation of the treatise lies in its denial of the possibility of a double truth, one for religion and another for philosophy and science. Without the insistence that there is one truth, it would be possible to hold that religious believing and philosophical reasoning are non-intersecting discourses each with its own truth. Yet Averroes’s statement of the principle that “truth does not contradict truth” is in fact an intentionally well veiled quotation from Aristotle’s Prior Analytics of a principle essential to Aristotelian philosophy.15  As a religious principle, it functions as a dialectical foundation for the determination of the religious issue of the place of philosophy in religion. But on another level as a philosophical principle it functions in a subtext of the Faṣl al-maqāl as the foundation of a philosophical and scientific theory of interpretation for the primacy of demonstration in the consideration of any truth claims on matters to which demonstration pertains.  And although his famous Tahāfut at-tahāfut or Incoherence of the Incoherence contains a great deal of philosophical reasoning and argumentation, Averroes himself labels that work as dialectical and directs those who would seek the fulfillment of happiness through knowledge described by Aristotle in Nicomachean Ethics 10.7 to look in his works of demonstration.16 Following his direction on this issue, then, the Tahāfut at-tahāfut can be considered as dealing with religious topics in a dialectical fashion as well as in a philosophical fashion. Its philosophical value, however, must rest on the cogency of his arguments taken in their own right or on confirmations of the presence of the same philosophical reasoning in the philosophical works of demonstration. In this presentation on the philosophical account of prophecy, then, it is quite suitable to dismiss from consideration al-Kashf, Faṣl al-maqāl, and Tahâfut at-tahafut because on his methodological principles the statements in these works are religious and / or dialectical and not pertinent to philosophy where demonstration is the standard, something clear from his very own words in the Tahâfut at-tahafut.17  Consequently, my focus here is on his paraphrasing Commentary on the Parva naturalia and his three commentaries on De Anima.

3.2. The Commentary on the Parva naturalia

The Commentary on the Parva naturalia is a rather odd text because it is based on the corrupt version of the Aristotelian text that circulated in Arabic. For information on that, I refer you to the work of Rotraud Hansberger.18 By my estimation and that of others, it is an early work, perhaps written in the 1160s around the time of the Short Commentary on the De Anima. For present purposes, our focus is on Averroes’ discussion of prophecy in the section corresponding to Aristotle On Dreams. For Averroes dreams may be true or false but either way they relate to the imagination (al-mutakhayyala) and people believe that prophecy is from God (ya‘taqidūna fī al-wahyi anna-hu min Allāh). It seems particularly to involve matters of knowledge relevant to the attainment of happiness according to them (‘inda-hum).  (Ar. 67, tr. 40) But it comes about in us in the same way as the primary principles of understanding, that is, the way the agent intellect bestows those primary principles which can be helpful in the forming of new knowledge. (Ar. 73; tr. 42) What is most mysterious, however, is that the intelligences, this includes the agent intellect as well as God properly speaking, themselves cannot comprehend particulars since they have no matter and so only know universals. Regarding this Averroes expresses amazement over two issues. First, how can the human imagination get particulars of dreams from a universal immaterial nature which is an intellect? Second, how does the separate intellect (e.g., the agent intellect or even God) single out the particular recipient for the particular content with the particular dream if that intellect only knows universals? (Ar. 74-75; tr. 43-44) With no lack of boldness, Averroes then writes, “Now the discussion concerning these matters, even though it be very difficult for human comprehension, must nevertheless be undertaken to the limit of one's natural capacity for comprehension,

for the essence of happiness is nothing more than this very thing.” (Ar. 75; tr. 44)

We can see here that the first is metaphysically problematic. But Averroes handles it in a way similar to what he does in the Short Commentary on the De Anima and similar to what can be found in Ibn Bajja.19 Since universals from the agent intellect cannot be received as such in the particular human imagination belonging to the particular human knower, then the universals are received into the imagination as particulars. In the Short Commentary this means involves that the material intellect is a disposition of the forms in the particular human imagination. Perhaps we can describe this by saying that the particular in the imagination comes to have a qualification relating to universality such that the particular can be seen in the light of or under a mode or consideration of universality, though Averroes does not spell all this out here or in the Short Commentary. What is in the imagination then can in some way stand for the universal though the universal as such cannot be received into a particular human imagination without being particularized and no longer being universal. Universals then are received as particulars and are received into the particular imagination and its particular circumstances. What is received is received in the mode of the recipient. So what the individual receives is an individual spiritual (ruḥānī) form that is similar to the intelligible (Ar. 81; tr. 47) which, it seems, must function as a representation of the intelligible while also bearing some content similarity to what is in the intelligible. (Also see Ar. 82; tr. 48.)

The second is religiously problematic if, as people of religion commonly believe, prophecy is from God and directed to particulars. The implication here is that with prophetic dreams God is providing particular intentional willed providential assistance to a particular individual. This would mean, for example, that God chose this particular man Muḥammad to be his prophet through whom God revealed the particular words of the Qur’an by the command to recite made to this man Muḥammad. Averroes does not deal with this issue in this work, so indeed it must remain as remarkable and challenging as his exclamation indicated. That is not surprising, however, since to assert such a philosophical teaching would involve contradicting the philosophical view that God only thinks himself and has no primary intention toward anything other than himself.  This is a matter perhaps for further discussion. (For a discussion of providence in Averroes, see my forthcoming article at

However, what is notable in regard to the Commentary on the Parva naturalia is that Averroes, perhaps following al-Fārābī in part, I might speculate, found it suitable to follow the approaches of al-Fārābī and Avicenna and to explain prophecy in connection with human psychology and natural epistemology.

3.3 The Short, Middle and Long Commentaries on the De Anima

Averroes wrote three commentaries on the De Anima of Aristotle. His Short Commentary or Mukhtaṣar was likely written ca. 1158-60 and has as its stated purpose the establishment on the basis of the accounts of the philosophers of what he considers to conform best with what has been explained in natural science and best fits with the purpose of Aristotle.20 It does not follow the order of Aristotle’s book with precision but rather consists of a series of essays starting with the substance of the soul and then proceeding to its powers of nutrition, sensation, sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, common sense, imagination, reason and appetite.

His Middle Commentary or Talkhīṣ, completed and made available before 1186, contains many texts identical to the Long Commentary or Sharḥ based on an earlier incomplete version of the Long Commentary.21  The Middle Commentary is a paraphrasing account of Aristotle’s De Anima in three parts in accord with the traditional division of the Greek. However, the account of reason includes discussion which does not precisely correspond to the text of Aristotle, including a paragraph22 just before his paraphrase of De Anima 3.4 and 3.5 and a lengthy excursus23 following De Anima 3.5. It is in these additional materials that Averroes rejects his account in the Short Commentary and sketches a new understanding of the power of reason and the human soul. The Middle Commentary has no preface indicating the purpose of the work, but it is generally assumed that the middle commentaries were composed at the request of the caliph, Abū Yacqūb Yūsuf, subsequent to Averroes’s introduction to the Caliph by Ibn Ṭufayl.24

The Long Commentary on the De Anima, extant as a whole in Latin but in Arabic only in fragments and the lone commentary on the soul by Averroes translated into Latin, is a lengthy work containing the complete De Anima of Aristotle with detailed commentary passage by passage. While Averroes himself says that this was completed in 1186 as the first of his long commentaries,25 it is unknown when he commenced the Long Commentary on the De Anima. Still, it has been established that an early version was the likely source for some identical texts found in the Middle Commentary and also found in an important Arabic manuscript written in Hebrew characters.26 The version of the text represented by the Latin translation is generally taken to be Averroes’s mature and final understanding of the soul and intellect since its new doctrine of soul and intellect is referred to in his late Long Commentary on the Metaphysics27 and for other reasons.28 Like the Middle Commentary, the Long Commentary on the De Anima has no preface explaining the work’s purpose and structure. However, unlike the Middle Commentary, the Long Commentary extends Book 2 to the end of the traditional 3.3 and starts Book 3 at De Anima 3.4, the beginning of the detailed account of intellect.

The teaching on the soul in all three of these philosophical commentaries depends on the same starting point of reasoning, namely, Aristotle’s definition of soul crafted in De Anima 2.1 where Aristotle reaches the conclusion that the soul is the first actuality of a natural body having organs. (412b5). In each commentary Averroes has to address the issue raised by Aristotle as to whether the intellect and the power of theoretical reasoning constitute a distinct kind of soul peculiar to human beings which may be separate, as what is immortal is separate from what is perishable (De Anima 2.2, 413b25-27).  Aristotle himself questions the value of a universal definition of soul (De Anima 2.3, 414b20-28), apparently prompted by the problem of the power of theoretical reasoning. (415a8-13). This is because Aristotle will contend in De Anima 3.4 that the intellect must have a receptivity but also be uncontaminated and unmixed with body — and so immaterial — in order that it can be the place of forms (429a13-30). He then goes on to state that intellect is separate (429b6) and simple (429b23 ff.) and to imply strongly that it is the immaterial subject for the understood forms (429b22, 429b 23-430a9) which Averroes will call intelligibles in act. For Averroes the different positions he takes in the three commentaries each hinges on consideration of just what is the nature of intelligibles in act and into what sort of subject they may be received.29

3.3.1. The Short Commentary on the De Anima

His Short Commentary has as its stated purpose the establishment on the basis of the accounts of the philosophers of what he considers to conform best with what has been explained in natural science and best fits with the purpose of Aristotle.30 It does not follow the order of Aristotle’s book but rather consists of a series of essays starting with the substance of the soul and then proceeding to its powers of nutrition, sensation, sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, common sense, imagination, reason and appetite.

The power of imagination plays a very special role in Averroes’s first commentary on the De Anima. First, for all animals it contributes to well being by playing an essential part of the process by which external reality is apprehended, a process involving impressions received by the external senses and affecting the common sense. From this there come about in the imaginative power intentions which are the perfection or realization of that power. Second, in the case of human beings alone, Averroes holds, the imaginative power plays a distinctively different and higher role insofar as the still particular forms or intentions that come to be in the individual human being’s imagination become the subjects for intelligibles in act and so for the universal.  For this Averroes reasoned that the human soul’s power of imagination “is distinguished by the fact that it does not need an organic instrument for its activity.”31 This is because in this work Averroes conceives the material intellect, that is, the power receptive of the intelligibles in act in the soul that make possible human intellectual understanding, to exist in the individual human being as a disposition belonging to the forms in the human imagination.

Following Aristotle’s account that expressly stated that the receptive and active powers of intellect must be “in the soul” (De Anima 3.5, 430a13-14), Averroes explained that “the material intellect, insofar as it is material, needs necessarily for its existence that there be here an intellect existing eternally in act,”32 scil. the agent intellect.  The material intellect does not receive the intelligibles in potency found in the imagination as images subsequent to the reception of impressions on the external senses and the production of intentional forms by the common sense.  Rather, these have to be raised from the mode of being of particulars intelligible in potency to the mode of being of intelligibles in act to be received in the material intellect.  For this the separately existing agent intellect is required to be present in the human being as “form for us”33 “uniting and conjoining”34 with the human soul to bring about the higher mode of being of intelligibles in act so that they could be received into the material intellect for intellectual understanding. In his own version of an account inspired in part by Ibn Bājja and in part by Alexander of Aphrodisias,35 Averroes understood the term “material intellect” not to denote properly an intellect — since intellect as intellect is necessarily something in act and separate — but rather to denote a receptive disposition (istiʿdād) having as its subject the forms existing in the human imagination.36  In this way the imagination — which Averroes thought not to be a wholly bodily power, at least in the case of human beings — is able to serve as substrate or foundation for a disposition which makes possible the understanding of intelligibles in act.37  That is, the intellectual power existing in each understanding human being called “the material intellect” cannot literally be an intellect since an intellect as such is not a potency nor can it literally be material since matter receives an actuality only as a particular; hence, since it is a disposition actualized in human knowing, it remains for it to be attached to the forms of the imagination as a disposition by which human understanding takes place.  Regarding this Averroes writes, 

Since it has been made evident that these intelligibles are generated, it is necessary that there be a disposition which precedes them. And since the disposition is something which is not separate, it is necessary that it exist in a subject.  It is not possible for this subject to be a body according to what has been made evident regarding these intelligibles not being material in the way in which bodily forms are material. It is also not possible that it be an intellect, since it is something in potency, for there is not anything in it in act of that for which it is a potency.  Since this is so, then the subject for this disposition must be a soul.  And there is nothing evident here closer to being the subject of these intelligibles among the powers of the soul than the forms of the imagination. Since it has been made evident that [the intelligibles] exist only as dependent on [the forms of the imagination] and that [the intelligibles]  exist with [the forms of the imagination] and perish with their perishing, then the disposition which is in the  forms of the imagination for receiving the intelligibles is the first material intellect.38

In this analysis Averroes does not provide all the details and perhaps is not fully coherent, but he does point clearly to the consequence that the individual human soul is itself perishable on this account.  For, while imagination is common to animals (and he says of human imagination that it “is distinguished by the fact that it does not need an organic instrument for its activity,” as noted earlier), it is nevertheless the case that the human imagination is a particular power belonging to the individual human being and is not separate immaterial intellect.  To that extent, the power of imagination is as perishable as is the body of the human being to whom it belongs.  And no argument for the immortality of the soul can be made through appeal to the immaterial reception of intelligibles in act into an essential power of the soul, since Averroes has said the material intellect is not literally intellect but is rather a disposition of the forms in the imagination. Precisely how this account allows for human intellectual understanding Averroes does not fully explain in this work, something not surprising since, as we shall see, he rejects this account in his later De Anima commentaries. However, what is clear on this account is that the imagination is dependent upon the soul, which is an actuality of the body, and that it and also the disposition called “material intellect” dependent upon it, perish with the perishing of the human body. Hence, there is no provision or rational argumentation supportive of post-mortem existence of individual human beings in the Short Commentary on the De Anima.39

But what of the philosophical account of prophecy? Unlike the Commentary on the Parva naturalia, here Averroes has no discussion of prophecy and makes no effort to integrate it into his philosophical psychology. Why?

3.3.2. The Middle Commentary on the De Anima

For the most part the Middle Commentary consists of a paraphrasing account of Aristotle’s De Anima. Here Averroes sets forth a view of the agent intellect similar to that of the Short Commentary insofar as the constitution of the human intellect involves a composition of the individual human material intellect and the shared agent intellect with this latter coming to be “in” human beings as “form for us”.40 It is through the intellectual abstractive power of the agent intellect that individual human beings are able to come to understand the worldly essences presented to the internal senses through sense perception.

It is clear that, in one respect, this intellect is an agent and, in another, it is form for us (ṣūrah la-nā), since the generation of intelligibles is a product of our will. When we want to think something, we do so, our thinking it being nothing other than, first, bringing the intelligible forth and, second, receiving it. The individual intentions in the imaginative faculty are they that stand in relation to the intellect as potential colors do to light. That is, this intellect renders them actual intelligibles after their having been intelligible in potentiality. It is clear, from the nature of this intellect— which, in one respect, is form for us (ṣūrah la-nā) and, in another, is the agent for the intelligibles—that it is separable and neither generable nor corruptible, for that which acts is always superior to that which is acted upon, and the principle is superior to the matter. The intelligent and intelligible aspects of this intellect are essentially the same thing, since it does not think anything external to its essence. There must be an agent intellect here, since that which actualizes the intellect has to be an intellect, the agent endowing only that which resembles what is in its substance.41

This understanding takes place through the reception of intelligibles in act into the receptive material intellect.  However, the conception of the material intellect in this work is very different from that of the Short Commentary.

Averroes provides a new analysis of the nature of the material intellect as a subject for intelligibles in act and of its relationship to the human soul in his account of rational power corresponding to De Anima 3.4-8. Disregarding the Short Commentary’s understanding of the material intellect as identified with a disposition of the forms in the imagination, Averroes insists that as intellect the material intellect “cannot be mixed with the subject in which it is found” since if that were so “the forms of things would not exist in the intellect as they really are — that is, the forms existing in the intellect would be changed into forms different from the actual forms.  If, therefore, the nature of the intellect is to receive the forms of things which have retained their natures, it is necessary that it be a faculty unmixed with any form whatsoever.”42  That is, the nature of intellectually understood intelligibles in act dictates that they be received into a subject that is unmixed with the body or powers of a body or any other form.  Consequently, the material intellect cannot be a disposition of the forms of the imagination but must rather be immaterial intellect and yet also receptive. Averroes writes,

Both approaches to the material intellect have thus been explained to you—that of Alexander and that of the others—and it will have become clear to you that the truth, which is the approach of Aristotle, is a combination of both views, in the manner we have mentioned. For, by our position as stated, we are saved from positing something separate in its substance as a certain disposition, positing [instead] that the disposition found in it is not due to its [own] nature but due to its conjunction with a substance which has this disposition essentially—namely, man—while, in positing that something here is associated incidentally with this disposition, we are saved from [considering] the intellect in potentiality as a disposition only.43

That is, the material intellect is not merely a disposition attached to the forms of the imagination but rather it is a disposition belonging to a human being who comes to be knowing through the actualization in being of that disposition by the abstractive power of the separate agent intellect. 

But how is that attachment of an unmixed and immaterial power, the material intellect, to the human being to be conceived?

For his understanding of the relationship of the human being to the material intellect Averroes draws upon his understanding of celestial entities, namely, the bodies which the souls are “in” and the intellects which are the causes of the movement of the celestial bodies by their souls, as Marc Geoffroy has rightly pointed out.44 In the case of the eternal heavens the moving body and its soul are not composed hylomorphically as are transitory sublunar beings. Rather, the soul is “in” the celestial body without forming a single hylomorphic composite from the two, each of which is an eternal being. In the case of humans, the material intellect is not literally “in” the body, the soul or the human composed of the two since the material intellect must remain unmixed to be receptive of intelligibles without distortion by pre-existing formalities. Hence, an individual material intellect belongs to and exists “in” the human soul. To this extent, the power of soul called material intellect has its existence and individuation through its relation to and association with the individual soul existing in the body. Although Averroes chooses not to draw the conclusion explicitly, it is clear the perishing of the composite of soul and body also entails the loss of individualization and existence for the associated material intellect. Hence, as was the case for the Short Commentary, here too in the Middle Commentary there is no provision or rational argumentation supportive of post-mortem existence of individual human beings. That is, in the Middle Commentary on the De Anima the ontology of the soul and its powers entails that the human soul and intellect perish with the death of the body.

But, again, what of the philosophical account of prophecy? In the Middle Commentary on the De Anima Averroes has no discussion of prophecy and makes no effort to integrate it into his philosophical psychology. Why?

3.3.3. The Long Commentary on the De Anima

Averroes again confronted the issue of the nature of intelligibles in act and the character of a subject suitable for them for the sake of human intellectual understanding in his last major work on the intellect, his Long Commentary on the De Anima of Aristotle.  Critically reflecting on the teachings of Themistius in the latter’s Paraphrase of the De Anima, Averroes brought his mind to bear a notion he had not dealt with at length in either of the two earlier commentaries, namely, the unity of knowledge that makes shared science and intersubjective intellectual discourse possible.  In both of those works Averroes held that each human being possesses his or her own personal material intellect.  In the Long Commentary, however, he adopts a view that he had explicitly rejected in the Middle Commentary45 and that he had raised as worthy of further consideration in a short work called Epistle 1 on Conjunction:46 the material intellect as a single separate entity shared by all human beings. In forming this new understanding, Averroes found the Paraphrase of the De Anima by Themistius a powerful stimulant.

In the Arabic text of Themistius Averroes read,

There need be no wonder that we all are as a group composites of what is in potency and of what is in act.  All of us whose existence is by virtue of this one are referred back to a one which is the agent intellect. For if not this, then whence is it that we possess known sciences in a shared way? And whence is it that the understanding of the primary definitions and primary propositions is alike [for us all] without learning?  For it is right that, if we do not have one intellect in which we all share, then we also do not have understanding of one another.47

This unity of intellect for the sake of “understanding of one another” Averroes applied to his conception of human intellectual understanding to form his novel understanding of the unity of the material intellect, a view inspired by his reading of Themistius although not held by Themistius himself.48 For Averroes this understanding of the material intellect satisfied the need for the unity of understanding on the part of distinct human individuals since this entity is the repository of abstracted intelligibles in act to which all particular acts of understanding and scientific discourse refer. This is possible only insofar as the nature of the material intellect is such that it is a unique reality constituting a distinct immaterial species so that intelligibles received are not particularized as they would be were it to be truly material. Averroes was well aware of the difficulty of asserting that something actual as immaterial intellect could be receptive, a notion he labeled as “the problem of Theophrastus.” Nevertheless, to solve the complex array of issues involved in accounting for the phenomenon of intellectual understanding on the part of transitory human beings, Averroes crafted this new account explicitly conscious of the metaphysical commitments entailed, something evident in his description of the “a fourth kind of being” in addition to matter, form and matter-form composites.49

With this new teaching Averroes held the familiar notion that individual human beings employ the external senses and the common sense to produce intentions in the imagination.  These are then refined and stripped of the extraneous by the cogitative power yielding denuded intentions placed in memory ready for transference from the mode of being of particulars to the mode of being of intelligibles in act.50 This takes place thanks both to the presence of the separate agent intellect “in the soul” as “form for us” effecting the abstractive transference and to the presence of the material intellect “in the soul” as well as the immaterial subject receptive of the intelligible now no longer in potency as it was in the external and internal powers of the individual soul but instead in act.  For the individual human knower this yields the theoretical intellect as a positive disposition of knowing (al-ʿaql bi-l-malakah, intellectus in habitu) in the soul which accounts for the human experience of knowing the intelligibles in act which Averroes had reasoned could only exist in the material intellect, the shared immaterial subject of intelligibles.  In this teaching the presence of the two separate intellects “in the soul” provides the connection between the individual knower’s cogitative power responsible for human acts of will in making pre-noetic preparations for abstraction. The realization of knowledge in that individual as the theoretical intellect coordinated with abstracted intellectual content in the material intellect. In this way the individual human knower can be called the subject of truth insofar as the individual provides the content intelligible in potency which comes to exist as intelligible in act in the material intellect — the subject of the existence of the intelligible in act — by way of the abstractive and elevating power of the agent intellect.

The foregoing is important for the issue of the ontology of the soul since the philosophical reasoning must be focused on the natures of the intelligibles in act and natures of the subjects into which they are received. For Averroes human intellectual understanding comes about when the two separate substances, the agent intellect and the material intellect, are intrinsically present in the human soul by a form of sharing or participation. But the human soul is the first actuality of a natural body having organs, while the those intellects are separate from body. In light of this, Averroes determines that the term soul is equivocal and that intellect is not properly part of the essence of the human soul.  Explaining his understanding of Aristotle, Averroes writes,

[I]t is better to say, and seems more to be true after investigation, that this is another kind of soul and, if it is called a soul, it will be so equivocally. If the disposition of intellect is such as this, then it must be possible for that alone of all the powers of soul to be separated from the body and not to be corrupted by [the body’s] corruption, just as the eternal is separated. This will be the case since sometimes [the intellect] is not united with [the body] and sometimes it is united with it.51

That is, for a human being soul is the actuality of body responsible for the formation of the hylomorphic composite. The rational part of soul or intellect is not properly soul as form of the body; it can be called soul but only in a wholly equivocal sense.  Intellect then does not belong properly and per se to this hylomorphic composite in virtue of itself but rather is only shared through the presence of the agent intellect and the material intellect during the earthly life of the human individual. Hence, no argument for personal immortality can be based on the per se presence of an intellectual — and thereby immaterial — power of the soul fully intrinsic to each individual human. The consequence is that, while the agent intellect, the material intellect, and also the human species can be reasoned to be eternally in existence,52 there is no basis in argument for a continued existence of the individual human soul after the death of the body. For Averroes in the Long Commentary, then, the ontology of the human soul does not entail any post-mortem existence for individual human beings. 

But, once more, what of the philosophical account of prophecy? In his final effort at setting forth an account of the science of psychology in his innovative Long Commentary on the De Anima Averroes has no discussion of prophecy and makes no effort to integrate it into his philosophical psychology. Again, why?

3.3.4. Religious Teachings and the Philosophical Thought of Averroes The Philosophical Accounts of Providence, Afterlife and Prophecy

In an article for a forthcoming collection celebrating the work of Carlos Steel, I provide an account of Averroes on Providence. That study is focused on the Tahāfut at-tahāfut (The Incoherence of the Incoherence), and the Tafsīr mā ba‘d aṭ-Ṭabī‘a (Long Commentary on the Metaphysics) and showed in detail that Averroes follows Alexander of Aphrodisias in holding that the nature of God as thought thinking thought entails that there can be no particular providence, that is, providential acts by God directed toward particulars. In fact, he shows that all God’s primary intentionality must be directed to Himself and any providence on the part of God with respect to the rest of the universe is only second intention or incidental to His own primary intentionality. At the close of that article I remark that this

points to a religiously problematic conception of particular religious events such as the revelation of the Qur’an to Muḥammad and many others that are essential to Islam. That, the denial of creation ex nihilo and de novo, the assertion of creation understood as eternally ongoing, the denial of direct and primary intentionality in relation to created things of the world, and also the doctrine of divine self-knowledge all point to an idiosyncratic conception of Islam on the part of Averroes.53

Simply put, unless provided with a complex and convoluted philosophical explanation — something which is in fact not impossible — the position of Averroes is contrary to a basic teaching of Islam on this matter.

Further, as I have noted toward the end of each of the discussions of the three commentaries on De Anima, the philosophical accounts in those works do not hold reasoning sufficient to support the continuing existence of the human being or human soul after earthly death. In fact, the doctrines in each commentary entail the perishing of each human intellectual power with the bodily perishing of each human being. Averroes does hold that the human species is eternal through many individuals coming into existence and passing out of existence and he does hold that the separate substance called the agent intellect is eternal. And in the Long Commentary on the De Anima he holds that the one material intellect shared by all human beings is also eternal. But his philosophical teaching on the afterlife of the individual is also contrary to basic Islamic religious teachings. This possibility or something close to it is raised by him in the Faṣl al-maqāl when he speaks of the complexity and difficulty of the doctrine of the afterlife and the freedom that should be allowed to scholars who keep their views on it to themselves and refrain from sharing them with the unlearned who would only be confused and may even have their belief undermined were they to hear such discussions. In an article forthcoming in a special issue of Muslim World I discuss this matter in connection with the methodology of Averroes in the Faṣl al-maqāl and De Anima commentaries concluding that on his own principles he must conclude when using the critieria of philosophical discussion that there is no afterlife, even if he never stated that directly.  This I also discussed using other religious texts of Averroes in my October 2011 video presentation at the DARE conference held here in Cologne.

In similar vein, in what I have presented today I have found that, although Averroes held for a doctrine of prophecy integrated with his philosophical psychology in the early Commentary on the Parva Naturalia, in later mature works on the De Anima such as the Middle and Long Commentaries — and even in the Short Commentary which may have been produced at a time close to that of the Commentary on the Parva Naturalia  — Averroes provided no integrated account of natural epistemology and prophecy, indeed no discussion of prophecy, as had al-Farabi and Avicenna. (I have reason to believe Averroes was following al-Farabi in part in the Commentary on the Parva Naturalia but I am not prepared to argue that here.) That is, there is no evidence that the mature Averroes held for the doctrine of prophecy in the philosophical works discussed here as that doctrine is commonly understood in Islamic religious thought. Religion and Philosophy for Averroes

Rather than close this already long presentation with further analysis of these issues, I suggest that the conclusions of this study and the others I have mentioned be something we discuss in the remaining time.  However, ‘to fan the fire,’ as the saying goes, I close with a quotation from Averroes’s the opening pages of his Long Commentary on the Metaphysics where he addresses the issue of the philosopher and religion.  This quotation was not translated into Latin by Michael Scot.  Averroes writes,

The sharī‘ah [that is, religious law or religious teaching to be followed, RCT] specific to the philosophers (ash-sharī‘ah al-khāṣṣa bi-l-ḥukamā’) is the investigation of all beings, since the Creator is not worshipped by a worship more noble than the knowledge of those things that He produced which lead to the knowledge in truth of His essence — may He be exalted! That [investigation philosophers undertake] is the most noble of the works belonging to Him and the most favored of them that we do in God’s presence.  How great is it that one perform this service which is the most noble of services and one take it on with this compliant obedience which is the most sublime of obediences! (Averroes 1952, 10.11-16.).54

Notes to this draft presentation are unavailable at this time.