It is a commonplace in the history of philosophy that issues surrounding self-awareness, consciousness, and self-knowledge do not become prominent until the earlymodern period. For medieval philosophers, particularly those in the Aristotelian tradition,the nature of self-knowledge plays only an ancillary role in psychology andepistemology. This is a natural consequence of Aristotle’s characterization of the intellectas a pure capacity that has no nature of its own: “Thus that in the soul which is calledmind ... is, before it thinks, not actually any real thing.”
Until the intellect has beenactualized by some object, there is nothing for it to reflect upon; hence self-knowledgefor Aristotle—at least in the case of human knowers—is derivative upon knowledge of other things: “Thought is itself thinkable in exactly the same way as its objects are.”
Like all historical generalizations, of course, this truism admits of striking individualexceptions. The most obvious and well-known exception in the medieval Islamictradition is Avicenna (Ibn S
, 980-1037), whose famous thought experiment known asthe “Flying Man” centres on the human soul’s awareness of itself. But Avicenna’sreflections on the problems of awareness and consciousness are by no means confined tothe various versions of the Flying Man.
In particular, two of Avicenna’s latest works, the
—both of which are in the form of remarks compiled byAvicenna’s students
contain a wealth of tantalizing and often problematic reflectionson the soul’s awareness of itself (
The purpose of the present study is
3.4, 430a1-2, and more generally to 430a9. Cf. 429b5-9. All translations of Aristotle arefrom Barnes 1984. For parallel remarks regarding sensible self-awareness, see
3.2, 425b12-13, andmore generally to 426a26. The claim that the intellect can only think itself after it has thought some other object is in turn a consequence of the principle of cognitive identification according to which the knower insome way becomes
the object known in the act of perceiving or thinking
2.5, 417a18-20;418a3-6; 3.4, 429b29-30a1; 3.7, 431a1-6; 3.8, 431b20-432a1.
The Flying Man was popular amongst medieval readers of the Latin Avicenna, and modern commentatorshave often compared it to the
of Descartes. It occurs three times in Avicenna’s major philosophicalwritings: twice in the
(1.1, 13 and 5.7, 225), and once in
119. There is avast literature on the Flying Man. Some important recent articles are Marmura 1986; Druart 1988; Hasnawi1997. For the influence on the Latin West, see Gilson 1929-30, 39-42; Hasse 2000, 80-92. The label “FlyingMan” is not Avicenna’s; as far as I can tell, it originates with Gilson 1929-30, 41 n. 1.
For the nature of these works and their place in Avicenna’s philosophical development, see Gutas 1988,141-44, and Reisman 2002. Many relevant passages from the
have been discussed andtranslated into French in Pines 1954.
throughout as “awareness,” which is the most natural English equivalent. While the termusually denotes self-awareness, it is occasionally used more broadly for awareness of other objects. See
148, 162. See
148, 162. In such cases it is close in meaning to
“apprehension” or “perception” (taken broadly without restriction to sensation).