Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Bertrand Russell on Arabic Philosophy

The following passage is from Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy (New York: Simon & Shuster, 1945), p. 427. I found it this morning here, but without a link and without a reference. So, exploiting the resources of my well-stocked library, I located the passage, and verified that it had been properly transcribed. Whether Russell is being entirely fair to the Arabs is a further question.

Arabic philosophy is not important as original thought. Men like Avicenna and Averroes are essentially commentators. Speaking generally, the views of the more scientific philosophers come from Aristotle and the Neoplatonists in logic and metaphysics, from Galen in medicine, from Greek and Indian sources in mathematics and astronomy, and among mystics religious philosophy has also an admixture of old Persian beliefs. Writers in Arabic showed some originality in mathematics and in chemistry; in the latter case, as an incidental result of alchemical researches. Mohammedan civilization in its great days was admirable in the arts and in many technical ways, but it showed no capacity for independent speculation in theoretical matters. Its importance, which must not be underrated, is as a transmitter. Between ancient and modern European civilization, the dark ages intervened. The Mohammedans and the Byzantines, while lacking the intellectual energy required for innovation, preserved the apparatus of civilization, books, and learned leisure. Both stimulated the West when it emerged from barbarism; the Mohammedans chiefly in the thirteenth century, the Byzantines chiefly in the fifteenth. In each case the stimulus produced new thought better than that produced by the transmitters -- in the one case scholasticism, in the other the Renaissance (which however had other causes also).