Book Review: P. Adamson “Al-Kindi”

As promised, here comes my review of philosophy professor Peter Adamson’s 2007 book on al-Kindi, the 9th-century Arabic polymath and philosopher. Let me know your thoughts in the comments. And enjoy the read!

The book was published in 2007 as part of the series ‘great medieval thinkers’. Al-Kindi is a ninth-century Islamic thinker and he is considered to be the first philosopher in the Arabic tradition. He was the first to write original philosophical works in Arabic, and also explicitly referred to himself as a philosopher. Peter Adamson, the author of the book, is a professor of philosophy at King’s College London and at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, Germany. Also, he is the author of a highly interesting podcast series called ‘history of philosophy without any gaps’. He also has a separate podcast episode on Al-Kindi. Adamson says that he has studied al-Kindi for much of his adult life and together with a colleague has translated all of al-Kindi’s philosophical works into English, so he is very well acquainted with the primary sources. Adamson’s goal in this book is to provide a philosophical analysis of al-Kindi’s thoughts and place them within his respective historical context. 

The book consists of eight chapters. The first two are concerned with presenting al-Kindi as a historical figure and philosopher within his historical and intellectual environment. All the remaining chapters are devoted to various philosophical topics covered by al-Kindi in several of his works that exist today. 

Abū Yūsuf Ya‘qūb b. Isḥāq al‐KindĪ (full name)

Al-Kindi was born roughly in the year 800 of the Christian era which corresponds to the so-called formative period in the history of philosophy in the Islamic world. By the way, there is an ongoing debate among scholars studying Islamic civilization as well as historians of philosophy as to how best to call the philosophical tradition of the region. Adamson uses two expressions in this book – Arabic philosophy and philosophy in the Islamic world. So, al-Kindi’s name indicates that he is a descendant of a noble family that came from an important Arab tribe of the Kinda. Partly due to this, he is sometimes called “the philosopher of the Arabs”. He moved to Baghdad early in life and was educated there. His philosophical works were mostly addressed to caliph al‐Mu‘taṣim and his son Aḥmad whom he tutored. Therefore, he was well-positioned in the caliph’s court and had a close relationship with the ruling family. The historical sources tell us that al-Kindi wrote quite a lot of works. Roughly 300 titles have been listed but only a very small portion is extant. For instance, one of his most important philosophical works “On First Philosophy” exists today only partially, its full text has not reached us. This is of course important to keep in mind when analysing his philosophical arguments. 

Historical and intellectual environment

During al-Kindi’s time, there were several important trends that shaped the cultural environment. The first one was the translation movement, which was at its peak during this time. Al-Kindi was leading one of such translator circles. This movement was sponsored by the ruling caliphs who were investing in Arabic translations of a large amount of Greek scientific and philosophical literature. As one potential motivation for such investment Adamson mentions competition with the neighbouring Byzantine Empire. Whatever the reasons, the historical fact remains that the translation movement was a very prominent and well-funded project. The second trend was what Adamson calls the explosion of Islamic theological speculation or rational theology. This was related to the study of collected reports of the sayings and actions of the Prophet – hadīth. Theologians assessed the authenticity of these reports and engaged in disputations over interpretations of different theological questions with reference both to the Koran and the hadīth. Linked to this was the development of new and refined Arabic literature. Slightly after al-Kindi’s lifetime but close to it, there was another trend – the development of the so-called Baghdad school of philosophers. These thinkers had different commitments from the Kindian school. For example, they drew a sharp distinction between rational theology and demonstrative philosophy where only the latter was regarded as proper science. However, this polarisation between theology and philosophy will become more evident after al-Kindi’s time. 

Al-Kindi’s philosophical project

Al-Kindi was involved in translating Greek philosophical works into Arabic but, more importantly, he was also explaining, synthesising and adapting these works to produce philosophy for his contemporary Arabic speaking audience. Both during his time and also later in the Islamic tradition, there was a certain doubt about the legitimacy and relevance of philosophy as a foreign, Greek discipline. Therefore, for al-Kindi, the main issue was not to defend philosophy against rational theology, but rather to defend philosophy as a valuable discipline despite its foreign status. He thought that philosophy can and should be integrated into the Arabic language, first of all, by being translated, and then also by adapting it to be incorporated into the Islamic intellectual tradition. To achieve this goal, his strategy was to employ Greek philosophical ideas to solve various Islamic theological dilemmas. By this, he was showing that although this wisdom is imported, it is relevant and valuable wisdom nonetheless. His direct legacy or what we can call the Kindian tradition lasted for roughly 200 years after his death. During this time various philosophers engaged directly with al-Kindi’s works.  

Some of al-Kindi’s key ideas

Adamson quotes al-Kindi’s attitude towards and definition of philosophy:

“of the human arts, the highest in rank and the noblest in degree is the art of philosophy, which is defined as the knowledge of things in their true natures, insofar as this is possible for man”

§I.2, AR 95, RJ 9

For al-Kindi, philosophy is the knowledge of things in their true natures, with an important caveat – insofar as this is possible for humans. Of all branches of philosophy, therefore, metaphysics is the first philosophy because it studies the first cause and first truth that causes all truth. Here, he hints at the Koranic epithet for God, the Truth, and claims that “everything that has being has truth”. Since God is the cause of all being, the first cause, he is also the cause of all truth, the first truth. So, studying the first cause means also studying the first truth, which is in effect the study of God. According to Adamson, al-Kindi views metaphysics as synonymous with philosophical theology. For instance, it is not the nature of the universe that determines whether it is eternal or not, but the will of God.

This brings us to the second point that contains two related ideas – negative theology and eternity question. A core idea in Islam is about God’s unity and simplicity. God is the ‘true One’ in the sense that there is no multiplicity applicable to Him. And since all our language contains multiplicity (such as various categories, concepts), God is ineffable, he transcends our linguistic descriptions and, by extension, our full understanding. Due to God’s utter simplicity and oneness, no attributes can apply to God since that would immediately produce multiplicity. Therefore the notion of negative theology. Nothing that we can attribute to God through our language is properly true because we cannot apply any sort of categorization or traits to something that is absolutely one and simple.

This also links to al-Kindi’s thoughts on the eternity question. He holds that only God can be truly eternal. He argues that everything that contains multiplicity is composed, not simple. Everything that is composed is caused, and everything that is caused cannot be eternal. Since God is the first cause, the uncaused ultimate cause of everything else (including time), He is not composed and is the true One. Therefore, only God is eternal while everything else is created. Including the world and even Koran, God’s word, are created – a not uncontroversial thought already during al-Kindi’s time.

But what does al-Kindi mean by ‘eternal’? According to Adamson, he means more than simply existence for an indefinitely long time. He defines time as a quantity that is always associated with moving bodies. Therefore, because God is the first cause and contains no multiplicity (e.g., no body), He is unmoving. And so, He cannot be subject to time at all. In other words, if time is just another quantity and it applies to moving bodies, then God, being the first cause, is also the cause of time. Therefore, truly eternal for al-Kindi is not just that which can last for an indefinite future time, it is an actual infinity. And since he believes that such a thing cannot exist in the created realm that contains multiplicity and movement, and is, therefore, subject to time, only something that is outside time can be actually infinite or truly eternal. This can only be God.  

If God is the first cause, the true One, then He is also the true agent. This means that God’s agency, His will and actions, are not subject to anything external to Him. In Islam, God is the Creator. In terms of God’s relation to His creation, al-Kindi argues that God is the remote first cause for all creation but a proximate cause for the heavens (e.g., the heavenly bodies). Therefore, the heavens are the proximate cause for whatever happens in our world, and God is the proximate cause for the heavens. Heavens are regarded as God’s instrument for manifesting and executing his agency, and the heavens willingly obey God.

This argument gives theoretical support for al-Kindi’s belief in the predictive power of astrology. He saw it as a practical science based on these theoretical grounds that could be applied to predict future events, even very specific ones. For example, he thought astrology could predict when someone’s illness will reach its worst point.

Unfortunately, due to the lack of many of his works, it is not entirely clear whether he was a determinist and denied the existence of free will, which is one of the implications of his argument, especially given that he considers God as the true agent and so, presumably, all other agents are created and, therefore, not true (they are subject to some external influence). Adamson mentions towards the end of the book that, in his view, al-Kindi was a compatibilist. In other words, causal determinism where some free agency is still possible. However, this remained up for interpretation at the time he was writing this book.

Al-Kindi was a firm dualist in that he thought that soul is an immaterial substance and, therefore, immortal. Also, the soul’s nature is intellectual. Because it is immaterial and completely distinct from the body al-Kindi argued that the soul is accidentally attached to the body but does not need it to live. He explains this by arguing that the body itself is not essentially alive, since after we die, the body remains but life is gone. Therefore, it is the soul that is the essence of life and simply leaves the body when death comes.

Since the soul is an immaterial substance and immortal, it is of a divine nature. Al-Kindi states that it is from God’s substance like the light is from the substance of the sun. Given the soul’s divine nature and complete separateness from the body, it too cannot contain any multiplicity within itself. Therefore, al-Kindi thought that the soul is intellectual by nature (remember, being corporeal, material, meant containing multiplicity). Its purpose is to reach for the intellectual realm, which is the world of intellect where the universal truths can be grasped. When the soul is attached to the body, it can act through various bodily faculties and manifest through desire or anger, for instance. But these are linked to the nature of the body, not the soul. Intellection is the soul’s nature and it is not realized in the body. Nevertheless, when the soul is connected to the body it can be negatively influenced by the body if it focuses too much on the world of the senses instead of the intellectual world. The essential function of the human soul is, therefore, intellectual thought

This brings me to the final idea I want to highlight – it concerns epistemology. Also here Al-Kindi emphasizes the soul-body distinction. The objects that the soul and the bodily senses grasp are wholly distinct. Particular experiences are grasped by the senses through our bodies. These are, for al-Kindi, not objects of knowledge. In fact, for him, they are unknowable and he does not allocate any serious role to the senses in the acquisition of knowledge. This is because objects of knowledge must be stable, unchanging, universal – these can be grasped only by the intellectual soul. For something to qualify as knowledge it cannot be in constant flux, as the sensory experiences are.

The intellectual soul grasps the objects of knowledge, the stable universals, by receiving them from the so-called first intellect that is characterized as always thinking (unlike the second kind of intellect, human, which is further divided into various stages of its development but it is never in a constant state of thinking). This first intellect transcends the soul but it is not identified with God.

Al-Kindi’s considerations on ethics match his epistemological ideas. Since only the stable universals are knowledge that can be grasped by the intellectual soul alone, only such intellectual pursuits are beneficial if we want to consider ourselves wise. 

Concluding thoughts

This is a very interesting and helpful book that covers not just al-Kindi’s ideas but also provides insights into the historical and intellectual trends during the formative period in the history of philosophy in the Islamic world. Adamson’s writing style is engaging, he is very well acquainted with the primary sources, having translated all al-Kindi’s philosophical works into English. Also, he focuses on the importance of critical assessment of the sources, always highlighting the well-researched, uncontroversial parts and those that are still subject to an ongoing debate. I, therefore, highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the history of philosophy.    

keep exploring!

Image credit: Ylanite Koppens from Pexels

One thought on “Book Review: P. Adamson “Al-Kindi”

  1. Pingback: What Is Necessary Knowledge? – humanfactor

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