Avicenna and Galen, Philosophy and Medicine: Contextualising Discussions of Medical Experience in Medieval Islamic Physicians and Philosophers

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In this article I discuss Greek and Arabic philosophical and medical debates about experience (taǧriba, empeiria). I consider the Greek and classical Arabic background for debates about experience among Arabic commentators on the Hippocratic Aphorisms. I argue that these authors are influenced by Galen’s ideas about experience in his pharmacological and dietetic writings, and Aristotle’s ideas about experience, expressed mainly in Posterior Analytics, Book Two. I argue, however, that the Aristotelian viewpoint of experience reaches the Arabic Aphorisms commentators through the intermediaries of Aristotle’s Platonist commentators and Avicenna. I show that most of the Arabic Aphorisms commentators understand experience to have the various meanings Galen assigns it in his medical writings. Ibn al-Quff is the lone, but no less intriguing, exception. In his Aphorisms commentary, Ibn al-Quff uses Avicenna’s definition of experience in the book On Demonstration (Kitāb al-Burhān) from Avicenna’s summa The Healing (Kitāb al-Šifāʾ) to explain Hippocrates’ words. Closely examining Avicenna’s On Demonstration, Book One, Chapter 9, reveals that Avicenna continues late antique trends, which meld medical and philosophical debates. Avicenna uses Galen’s idea of qualifed experience to resolve interpretive challenges in Aristotle’s Prior Analytics, Book Two, Chapter 23 and Posterior Analytics Book two, Chapter 19, where Aristotle speaks about experience’s role in the inductive process of knowledge acquisition. I argue that the fluid way in which Ibn al-Quff deploys Avicenna’s On Demonstration to explicate the Hippocratic Aphorisms marks a shift in which Avicenna’s philosophical thought becomes increasingly influential in post-classical Islamic medical discourse.




Franz Rosenthal, “ ‘Life is Short, the Art is Long’: Arabic Commentaries on the First Hippocratic Aphorism,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 40 (1966): 226–45; Jules Janssens, “ ‘Experience’ (tajriba) in Classical Arabic Philosophy (al-Fārābī–Avicenna),” Quaestio 4 (2004): 45–62; Jon McGinnis, “Avicenna’s Naturalized Epistemology and Scientific Methods,” in The Unity of Science in the Arabic Tradition: Science, Logic, Epistemology and Their Interactions, eds. Shahid Rahman, Hassan Tahiri and Tony Street (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2008), 129–52; Miquel Forcada, “Ibn Bājja on Medicine and Medical Experience,” Arabic Sciences and Philosophy 21 (2011): 111–48.


Philip van der Eijk, “Galen’s Use of the Concept of ‘Qualified Experience’ in his Dietetic and Pharmacological Works,” in Medicine and Philosophy in Classical Antiquity: Doctors and Philosophers on Nature, Soul, Health and Disease, ed. Philip van der Eijk (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 279–98, 289.


Ibid., 290.


van der Eijk, “Galen’s Use of Qualified Experience,” 287.


Peter E. Pormann, “Avicenna on Medical Practice, Epistemology, and the Physiology of the Inner Senses,” in Interpreting Avicenna: Critical Essays, ed. Peter Adamson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 91–108, 98–9.


See Pormann, “Avicenna on Medical Practice, Epistemology, and Physiology,” 98.


See John N. Martin, “Proclus and the Neoplatonic Syllogistic,” Journal of Philosophical Logic 30 (2001): 187–240.


Alfarabi, On Topical Analysis, 106.


van der Eijk, “Galen’s Use of Qualified Experience,” 282–3.


Ullmann, Medizin, 171.


See Jon McGinnis, “Scientific Methodologies in Medieval Islam,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 41 (2003): 307–327; Riccardo Strobino, “Avicenna on the Indemonstrability of Definition,” Documenti e Studi Sulla Tradizione Filosofica Medievale 21 (2010): 113–63. Strobino notes (Strobino, “Avicenna on the Indemonstrability of Definition,” 145) that Dem. 1.9 corresponds to APo. 2.19. This is true, but there is important material near the end of the chapter (Avicenna, Burhān, 97, ll. 1–15) that relates to the topic of accidental predication in APo. 1.5.


Gutas, “Avicenna’s Empiricism,” 400. I think Gutas is right to make much more of syllogism’s role in Avicenna’s theory of experience. It is certainly not a “throwaway line,” brief as it is (ibid., 322).


Avicenna, Burhān, 95–6.


McGinnis, “Scientific Methodologies,” 322–4. Based on James Lennox’s work on the links between Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics and Aristotle’s biology, it is clear too that in Dem. 1.9, Avicenna sees qualified experience as relevant to Aristotle’s discussion of essential and accidental predication in APo. 1.5; see in particular, Avicenna, Burhān, 97. The links between Avicenna’s Posterior Analytics and the biology of the Healing and its relationship to Aristotle’s philosophy of biology require a separate study; see James Lennox, Aristotle’s Philosophy of Biology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).


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