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Al-Fārābī on Extramission, Intromission, and the Use of Platonic Visual Theory Author(s): Bruce Eastwood Source: Isis, Vol. 70, No. 3 (Sep., 1979), pp. 423-425 Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of The History of Science Society Stable URL: Accessed: 26/06/2010 03:39
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he claims that the difference between Aristotle and Plato is one of terminology. there is no aptitudeto becomevision in actuality. 66. AND THE USE OF PLATONIC VISUAL THEORY By Bruce Eastwood* David Lindberg's very useful Theories of Visionfrom al-Kindi to Kepler devotes a brief section to al-Farabi's positions on the extramission and intromission theories of vision. . University of Kentucky.6 Finally." Islamic Culture. Lindberg. p. Any good *Department of History. 1940. 6See the text translation in al-Farabi. 1900). Youssef Karam. 3Ibid.' Lindberg's concern is simply to classify al-Farabi's thinking on the matter. according to Rosenthal.NOTES & CORRESPONDENCE AL-FARABI ON EXTRAMISSION. Theories of Visionfrom Al-Kindi to Kepler (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 43. 233. 42-43. visionis a potencyand a dispositionin matter. 1979. ISIS. Dieterici's translation of Der Musterstaat von Alfarabi (Leiden: Brill.2 Another time. 2Lindberg. is only potentialvision. Muhsin Mahdi (New York: Macmillan. in his Catalogue of the Sciences. Dieterici (Leiden: Brill. Idees des habitants de la cite vertueuse. the external light of the sun is the active participant and the eye is passive. Jaussen. Theories. but rather a "power"joins vision and the seen object. we have The Model State. 1962). I do not find both views in this treatise.8 Lindberg then notes that al-Farabil placed this statement in the larger context of a proportion wherein sun is to vision as agent intellect is to material intellect. However. described in Euclidean terms. trans. 14:412-416. 64. J. ' David C. Lexington. alFarabi seems to describe an Aristotelian state of affairs wherein. 42-43. 70-71 of Friedrich H. pp. The references are limited to pp. 253) 423 . INTROMISSION. 233. Philosophische Abhandlungen. 1976). pp. trans. 1977. p. 70 (No. 42. "On the Knowledge. a polemical work in defense of Aristotle against anti-intellectuals. 8Lindberg.beforebeingseen..Beforeseeing. 82:334. 43. since neither an actual "emanating" nor a simple "influencing"occurs. and colors.Through lightthatit receives the from the sun.The sun impartsto the eye a light that illuminates and to colorsa lightthatilluminates it. P. 5 Franz Rosenthal. Alfarabi's Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. Cf. where vision is made a mathematical study and therefore categorized in Euclidean language. in The Model State. quoting from The Model State. Apparently he supported the extramission theory. trans.arevisibleonlypotentially. them. I believe Lindberg's reference to the sources is unduly limited and that further investigation of al-Farabi's writings shows not exactly an "early opposition to the extramission theory of vision" in Islam but something quite different. n. 1949). . 1892). 415. in which the alternative views are both put forth within a few pages of each other. See my review in American Historical Review. Theories. claims Lindberg. in the natureof nor colors an aptitude to be visible in actuality. 4Ibid. Friedrich H.4 Rosenthal observed some time ago that al-Farabi deals with the issue in at least five works. p. Kentucky 40506. pp.5 In the Catalogue of the Sciences we find extramission. nn.3 Regarding this latter view. and the corresponding page of a French translation of the same work. discusses the Arabic traditions on intromission and extramission. In his Harmonization of the Opinions of Plato and Aristotle. in The Political Regime and On The Intellect we find intromission." p. Chlala (Cairo: Institut FranSais d'Archeologie Orientale.7 The particular text with which we are concerned is given by Lindberg as follows: .. 7Rosenthal. pp. the natureof the visualpower In that is in the eye. "On the Knowledge of Plato's Philosophy in the Islamic World. R. 3-4. 26. vision becomes seeing in actuality. 65. 66.

" The nuance of meaning is important. Der Musterstaat. and I translate it as "sufficiency. needing the cooperation of another part with complementary capability. 13Alfarabi'sAbhandlung..'2 which is the cause whereby the thing is imprinted on the material intellect. colors are only potentially visible and apparent until they are seen. Just as the vision. pp. The Arabic text appears in Alfarabi's Abhandlung. 1895). The agent that translates the intelligible from potentiality to actuality is an essence. or potential) intellect are considered primarily in their states of acting. and finally sees the objects which were formerly visible only potentially but now become visible actually. 17. Kifdya is used consistently in the passage (p. Dieterici ed. Thus by the light dispensedfrom the sun the vision becomes actually seeing and actually fit to see. The activity of the material intellect by itself. Reference to vision is intended to clarify by means of an analogy. cause of the light in the eye.. . through the light itself. Both translations seem to preserve the sense of the original rather well. Dieterici (Leiden: Brill. andjust as little a sufficiency is there in the substance of colors to be actually seen and looked at. for the sun confers on the vision a light which enlightens and on colors a light whereby they become bright. 44-45. not in their states of being.424 BRUCE EASTWOOD Aristotelian would agree then with Lindberg'sconclusion that "he [al-Farabi] thereby makes it quite clear that in his opinion the eye and the power of sight participate passively in the visual process. this transformation of the material intellect is mentioned again in the final clause of the quotation.'3 As represented in this text-and indeed throughout the treatise-the actual (or active. The intelligible in potentia becomes actual whenever it becomes an intelligible in actu for the intellect. is insufficient to produce an effect. but I do mean that there is already a capable part.the material intellect makes use of ("thinks through") the gift from the actual intellect ("as the light is to the eye") and then becomes sufficiently like the actual intellect to "think the actual intellect" (like seeing the sun). so it is also with the material intellect. Vision is a power and a tendency in matter and only potential vision before one can see. looks at the light. Likewise by this light colors come to be actually seen and actually looked at after being seen and looked at only potentially. the cause of seeing. To become that it needs something else. In the substance of the visual power in the eye there is not a sufficiency (kifdya)lIfor sight to become effective.) uses aptitude. likewise it [the material intellect] becomes actual intellect after having been only potential. 44. Al-Farabli says. And so the actual intellect bestows on the material intellect some thing which it [the actual intellect] has imprinted on it.which better preserves the meaning of the Arabic kifaya. 4). By "sufficiency"I do not mean simply a quantitative difference. ed. or immaterial) intellect and the material (or passive. although there occasionally occur -ratherdrastic reorderings of phrases. a revision of the above translation is needed as well as addition to that translation and notice of other statements by al-Farabi in the same treatise. Thus the intelligible requires something else to carry it from potentiality to actuality. "Two translations for the text are those of Dieterici and of Jaussen et al. and then also sees the sun. some thing corresponding to the illumination which the sun gives to vision. When something is added to the material intellect 9Ibid.10 Neither in the intellect nor in that which Nature provides is there a sufficiency so that it [the intellect] may become by itself an actualized intellect. It becomes actual intellect. This last thinks through that which is to it as the light is to the eye and then thinks the actual intellect. H. This latter thing is to the material intellect as the light is to the vision. like the activity of the vision without light. The chapter within which the quotation appears concerns the intellect and how it works."9 But the character of al-Farabi's Aristotelianism here is just what requires further discussion. the German translation offers Geniuge. Hereby things only thought potentially before come to be thought now in actuality. which takes it from potentiality to actuality. Whereas the French translation (Jaussen et al. Only with this word do I find a significant variation between the two translations.e. pp. 121. To begin with. 'l0n the following translation the italicized portion corresponds directly to the translation provided by Lindberg. which is only potential intellect. (see n. 44-45. the substance of which is an intellect both actual and immaterial. if intelligibles have existence in it. lines 7. F. below. This intellect confers on the material intellect. 18).

Aristotelian sense of vision does not seem to be intended in al-Farabl's text. pp. p.. 15 Here the Greek aitios means "cause" in the sense of being responsible for.. What alFarabi seems to have done is to use a Platonic understanding of vision in order to modify an Aristotelian notion of the passive intellect with the ultimate purpose of making the intellect of his philosophical leader more like an active than a passive intellect. vision) is not inert passivity but rather something in need of completion. the eye is not purely passive.AL-FARABI ON VISUAL THEORIES 425 (or to the vision) an actuality (or seeing) is the result. Neither vision itself nor its vehicle. 99-103 (translation). 59-63.. not in the sense of being the origin of. pp."'8We need only add that Plato and Galen required sunlight in the medium for vision to occur. The critical difference. For Aristotle the eye is not active. we can find the likely source of inspiration for al-Farabi's text. and though colour be present. AlFarabi's language is not unambiguously Aristotelian but rather leans toward a Platonic conception of vision. p. dispensed from the sun?.. The passive. purifiedpneuma in the sense nerves (Ch." Similarly we find al-Farabi observing at the end of the quotation given above that the material intellect becomes actual. For Plato and for al-Farabi vision is always a power of the eye and is simply insufficient until something is added by the sun.'7 As Lindberg himself remarks. yet as being the cause'5 thereof is beheld by vision itself?'6 It is this text of Plato rather than any from Aristotle that best explains the nature of the visual process as quoted from al-Farabi's Model State.. is identical with the sun. to begin with. Though vision may be in the eyes and its possessor may try to use it. we are meant to conclude that the vision too becomes like the sun when light is present. Al-Farabi also refers to a Galenic. The nature of the potential being (material intellect. which we call the eye. The bond then that yokes together visibility and the faculty of sight is more precious by no slight form than that which unites the other pairs [of sense and object]. the most sunlike of all the instruments of sense. In fact. 27b. pp.... 21. Theories. pp. This minor point in the philosophy of al-Farabi suggests that one must be careful not to see him as either a thoroughgoing Aristotelian or Platonist. 9.. 17Lindberg.. pp. is the notion of activity on the part of the eye. Dieterici trans. Theories. '4Der Musterstaat. esp. yet without the presence of a third kind of thing specifically and naturally adapted to this purpose. 9-11. which Lindberg describes. Dieterici trans. In Book VI of The Republic (507D-508D) Plato says. Is it not also true that the sun is not vision. 1946).. the ideal State. "Aristotle. 98-102 (Greek). 62). solves the problem of vision by arguing that the eye and external media become parts of a homogeneous chain capable of transmitting motions (in the broadest sense) to the intellect of the observer. And does it not receive the power which it possesses as an influx. Instead. The visual theory used comes from Plato and is quite compatible with that of Galen. if we recall the theme of the treatise. But it is . Al-Farabi emphasizes just this point when he discusses intellect and leadership in a later chapter14and claims that the philosopher is in a state where his passive intellect has become so filled with intelligibles that it is more like an active intellect and might best be called an "acquired intellect.. his questions and his solutions may well involve a distinctive amalgamation of Plato and Aristotle (along with other sources).. Chapter 22. albeit incomplete and insufficient. you are aware that vision will see nothing and the colours will remain invisible. 18Lindberg. In the history of visual theories we can conclude that al-Farabi's brief mention of vision is not an abstracted scientific statement but rather an engaged philosophical statement.. Shifting to the other side of the analogy. .. 161 use the very literal translation by Paul Shorey in the Loeb Classical Library version (London: Heinemann. and this is because the vision had such a tendency and potential.. 90-94. and turn to Plato's ideal State (an ideal State was not discussed by Aristotle). like Plato... Ch. then. as it were..

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