PhiBor (Philosophy on the Border of Civilizations and Intellectual Endeavours)

is a research unit of the IMT School for Advanced Studies, Lucca

As a follow-up to the ERC project PhiBor, we aim to expand the complex of data acquired in it, and to study it from a new perspective, focused on interdisciplinarity. The medieval Arabic philosophical manuscript is investigated not only as a vehicle of thought, but also as a cultural asset to be valued, preserved and disseminated according to an innovative synergy of traditional ways of knowledge relevant to the humanities, and of some of the most advanced techniques and typical methodologies of the hard sciences.

Arabic Philosophy

The study of Arabic philosophy [falsafa] is the key asset of PhiBor. A special focus is given to the vast, demanding, and extremely rich philosophical work of Avicenna (Ibn Sīnā, d. 1037), the leading author of the classical or formative age of Arabic-Islamic philosophy. In the superabundant wealth of material penned by Avicenna, members of PhiBor work especially on the Kitāb al-Šifāʾ [Book of the Cure/Healing], a wide-ranging, all-encompassing philosophical encyclopaedia comprising 22 sections and more than 5000 printed pages. Logic and metaphysics are especially investigated, also in their reciprocal interaction (ontologization of logic). The metaphysical groundings of different disciplines, such as physics and psychology within natural philosophy, astronomy within theoretical mathematics, and logic itself as a discipline are also explored with a keen attention to the reception and development of Greek Aristotelian thought in Arabic milieu. Starting from Avicenna, wider lines of influence of his thought are traced by group members, in different directions: in the Islamic East, with the analysis of further developments of Avicennan logic and metaphysics up to Faḫr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, and in the Islamic West, with the critical reception of Avicenna's doctrines in the Aristotelian commentator par excellence, the Andalusian Averroes (Ibn Rušd, d. 1198). The peculiar relationship of al-Ġazālī – a Sunnī theologian often, but wrongly, credited as the one who gave the fatal blow to falsafa in Islam – with Avicenna's philosophy is also explored, with a keen attention to the interplay of rational philosophical thought and revealed authority in Islamicate contexts.

Aristotle teaching the astrolabe. Illumination from MS Istanbul, Topkapi, Ahmed III 3206

A doctor heals wounds. Illumination by Yaḥyà ibn Maḥmūd al-Wāsiṭī from Aḥmad al-Qāsim b. ʿAlī al-Ḥarīrī, Maqāmāt. MS Paris, BNF arabe 5847

Philosophy and the Sciences

In tight collaboration with other research groups at IMT interested in medicine, neurosciences and psychology, PhiBor studies the holistic model of knowledge which can be elicited from medieval summae of philosophy. In these veritable encyclopaedias, the first examples of which are due to Avicenna (Ibn Sīnā, d. 1037), what we are now accustomed to call 'science' dialogues and crosspollinates with the theoretical reflection normally named 'philosophy'. Philosophy, and within it in particular first philosophy or metaphysics, grounds the cogency of the 'inferior' disciplines, which however provide in themselves important elements for the development of human knowledge. These subdisciplines include meteorology, mineralogy, zoology, botany, applied mathematics, and further branches of modern science, which started then to develop, and to gain traction and autonomy with respect to the intellectual endeavour of Greek-Arabic philosophy. Medicine, for its part, constitutes in Avicenna – known through the centuries not only as a philosopher, but also as an outstanding physician – an important counterpart of philosophy, the source of many of its examples, and a peculiar intellectual enterprise, tightly linked with the foundation provided by natural philosophy.

Latin Philosophy

Within the vast domain of Latin-Christian philosophy, PhiBor is particularly interested in exploring the relation of Latin thought with its Arabic and Hebrew sources, in a fertile crosspollination of knowledge. This interest is articulated in two main directions: the study of the Arabic-Latin translation movement, especially in Toledo in the 12th century, and the analysis of the reception of Arabic philosophy in outstanding intellectual figures of the golden age of Latin Scholastic such as the doctor universalis Albert the Great. Albert, a German Dominican bishop and polymath who gave himself the ambitious task of making Aristotle intelligible to Latin readers, employed tens of Arabic authors as sources for his Aristotelian commentaries and paraphrases, as well as for his autonomous works on theology. The result of this intense intellectual interplay is a multi-layered oeuvre, whose theoretical stance is sometimes difficult to discern, but whose doctrinal depth does not end to challenge the interpreter, even today.

Leaf from an Antiphoner, Creation of heaven and earth. Photograph: Andrew Morris/The Fitzwilliam Museum, Image Li

A Christian and a Muslim playing chess, from Alfonso of Castilia's Libro de los juegos, 1283

Intercultural Dialogue

In a crucial moment in history, at the time of Islamic invasion of Europe, of the crusades and of the reconquista, philosophy was able to build a bridge between conflicting religions and unstable political regimes. This is demonstrated, inter alia, by the paradigmatic example of the diffusion of the philosophical thought of the Muslim Avicenna [Ibn Sīnā] between East and West, from India up to medieval Christian Europe. One of the aims of PhiBor is to document how philosophy, with its universal force, can overcome the borders of distinct civilizations and thus help creating a cultural unity among different peoples – in the Middle Ages as well as today, after the Battle of Poitiers (732) just as after 09/11 (2001). The idea of a clash of civilizations has been often used to describe the relation between the Muslim world and the so-called 'Western' civilization, as if no space for dialogue were possible anymore. PhiBor's research rather aims to highlight how in the past – in a dramatic historical phase – philosophy could be taken as a shared ground of cultural discussion between thinkers of different religious and political affiliations, on crucial topics for humankind as a whole. If, during the Middle Ages, European culture was able to retrieve knowledge of its Greek past through the mediation of the Arabic-Islamic "other", it is certain that analogous forms of dialogue and positive interaction can (and should) be explored also today.

Manuscript Studies

Philosophy is one of the most abstract activities of human mind, but philosophical thoughts do not float in the air: rather, they are transmitted, altered, studied, translated, nuanced and reworked thanks and through their material support, which has been for a very long time, and even after the introduction of modern printing technology, the manuscript. Manuscripts are thus invaluable instruments for the analysis of the development of human thought in and between different cultures, as they are the material medium through which immaterial ideas gain body and traction, and are transmitted and transformed through time and space. PhiBor, in the wake of the homonymous ERC project and its huge gathering of codicological data, studies the philosophical manuscript as the main tool of transmission of knowledge, in order to provide new and better editions of philosophical texts in Arabic, Latin, and Hebrew. Codices are also explored in their material features, from binding to colophons to marginal glosses, also in connection with the most modern techniques of data analysis and preservation.

Scholars in a library. Illumination by Yaḥyà ibn Maḥmūd al-Wāsiṭī from Aḥmad al-Qāsim b. ʿAlī al-Ḥarīrī, Maqāmāt. MS Paris, BNF arabe 5847, f. 5v.

What we've done

Some major past achievements of group members

ERC Advanced Project

PhiBor 2014-2019

Falling Walls 2020

Breaking the Wall of Religious Diversity Through Philosophy

Amos BertolacciWinner in the Social Sciences and Humanities category, Falling Walls Remote 2020