On the Divisions of Science

Introduction by Charles Burnett

Algazel says: There was one among the philosophers to put natural science first. But we choose to put divine science first because it is more necessary and of greater diversity, and since it is the goal of all sciences and of the inquiry into them. Therefore they postpone it because of its difficulty and obscurity, and because it is more difficult to know it before natural science.

Original Latin

The Normal Order of Study

Aristotle had stated at the beginning of his Physics that, in the study of things, one naturally proceeds from what is closer to oneself (the visible objects in the world around us) to what is prior by nature: their causes. Knowledge of the causes informs us more thoroughly about the things themselves. It was common in ancient philosophy and its medieval heritage to divide nature into three realms:

   - realm of divine and eternal entities
   - realm of mathematical entities
   - realm of physical entities that come into being and pass away.

Boethius expressed clearly what Aristotle has already intimated at the beginning of the sixth book of his Metaphysics, that the natural division consists of things in motion:

   - forms of bodies together with their matter, which cannot be separated actually from bodies
   - the mathematical division considers forms of bodies without matter and thus without motion, but such as cannot be separated from bodies
   - the theological division (metaphysics) considers entities separable from bodies (De trinitate)

This division of the universe, however, did not necessarily prescribe the order of study. As Algazel says at the beginning of this passage, the usual order is to 'ascend' from natural science to metaphysics. This would follow the Aristotelian precept of deductive reasoning, starting from by which knowledge of what is easier to comprehend and progressing to what is more difficult. This is the order that we find in Avicenna's Kitaab a-Shifa', and in most arrangements of the writings of Aristotle (the Metaphysics comes after the Libri naturales). It would also seem to be justified in that the student arrives at the highest entities in the universe at the end of his study.

Doing things differently

Algazel, however, reverses this order, following the example of his principal source, Avicenna's Danesh Nameh. Algazel also follows the Danesh Nameh in prefixing his account of Metaphysics with a discussion of the divisions of science. He expands on his source, however, in dividing his discussion of the divisions of science into two 'preliminaries' (muqaddimat): the divisions of science and the demonstration of the subject of those divisions. This passage reproduces the whole of the first 'preliminary' (divisions of science).

Algazel's expansion of the Danesh Nameh has led to some incongruities, such as the juxtaposition of entities -- God and angels -- with states -- the cause and the caused, in the description of the contents of metaphysics. The Danesh Nameh is considerably clearer in its explanations, giving a single tripartite division, and characterizing objects as being described:

   '- naturally' in respect to their accidental changes
   '- mathematically', in respect to their number and size
   '- metaphysically' in respect to their being (p. 135)

Moreover, there are some added obscurities in the Latin when compared to the original Arabic text. The 'spirits' that are the object of theoretical philosophy are specified as being 'angels, jinn, and devils' in the Arabic text. On the other hand, where the Latin text mentions 'angels,' the Arabic text gives 'intellects'. These are the intellects that in Avicennian cosmology move the spheres, and act as intermediaries of God's providence. The Latin translation could reflect an element of making the text more compatible with Christian cosmology.

On the other hand, both the Latin and Arabic texts have a highly theological tone in the whole passage, in which philosophy is portrayed as a way to benefit society in this world and to achieve rewards in the Afterlife. While behaving well and doing good works (practical philosophy) will bring a reward after death, theoretical philosophy will restore to the soul the perfection which is proper to it. It will also enable the image of God (here called the 'Universal Being') to be reflected in it, just as an image is reflected in a mirror in the physical universe. Here the Latin expression is more vivid than the Arabic: while the Arabic text talks only of the arrival or occurrence (husul) of the configuration of the Universal Being in our soul, the Latin translation refers to it as being 'described' in the soul.