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Avicenna and Galen, Philosophy and Medicine: Contextualising Discussions of Medical Experience in Medieval Islamic Physicians and Philosophers

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In this article I discuss Greek and Arabic philosophical and medical debates about experience (taǧriba, empeiria). I consider the Greek and classical Arabic background for debates about experience among Arabic commentators on the Hippocratic Aphorisms. I argue that these authors are influenced by Galen’s ideas about experience in his pharmacological and dietetic writings, and Aristotle’s ideas about experience, expressed mainly in Posterior Analytics, Book Two. I argue, however, that the Aristotelian viewpoint of experience reaches the Arabic Aphorisms commentators through the intermediaries of Aristotle’s Platonist commentators and Avicenna. I show that most of the Arabic Aphorisms commentators understand experience to have the various meanings Galen assigns it in his medical writings. Ibn al-Quff is the lone, but no less intriguing, exception. In his Aphorisms commentary, Ibn al-Quff uses Avicenna’s definition of experience in the book On Demonstration (Kitāb al-Burhān) from Avicenna’s summa The Healing (Kitāb al-Šifāʾ) to explain Hippocrates’ words. Closely examining Avicenna’s On Demonstration, Book One, Chapter 9, reveals that Avicenna continues late antique trends, which meld medical and philosophical debates. Avicenna uses Galen’s idea of qualifed experience to resolve interpretive challenges in Aristotle’s Prior Analytics, Book Two, Chapter 23 and Posterior Analytics Book two, Chapter 19, where Aristotle speaks about experience’s role in the inductive process of knowledge acquisition. I argue that the fluid way in which Ibn al-Quff deploys Avicenna’s On Demonstration to explicate the Hippocratic Aphorisms marks a shift in which Avicenna’s philosophical thought becomes increasingly influential in post-classical Islamic medical discourse.

Affiliations: 1: The University of Manchester


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