Chapter Six Forms of Knowledge in the Arabic Plotinus

Peter Adamson

The theme of docta ignorantia, a "learned ignorance" or an ignorance that transcends knowledge, is a familiar one to students of Neoplatonism. It is perhaps most closely associated with the 15th century philosopher Nicholas of Cusa, but of course appears much earlier in the Neoplatonic tradition. Among these earlier appearances is the discussion of a "knowledge beyond knowledge and ignorance" (gnosin exo gnoseos kai agnoias) in a fragment of the Commentary on the Parmenides attributed to Porphyry (Hadot 1968, 2:78, ln.10-11). In the Arabic tradition, a doctrine of learned ignorance appears for the first time in a text known as the Theology of Aristotle. Mistakenly attributed to Aristotle, the Theology is in fact part of a paraphrase of passages from Plotinus' Enneads, apparently produced by a member of al-Kindi's circle of translators in 9th century Baghdad.1 We no longer have this paraphrase in its entirety, but it has been preserved for us in three texts. The first, the most well-known and by far the longest of the three is the so-called Theology of Aristotle (hereafter Th.A). The second, and shortest, is the Letter on Divine Science (hereafter DS). The third and final "text" actually consists of a number of fragments attributed to "the Greek Sage (al-shaykh al-yunani)," and which are collectively referred to as the Sayings of the Greek Sage (hereafter GS). The three texts together represent the Arabic Plotinus corpus (hereafter AP).2 Since I cannot here provide arguments as to the actual identity of the author of this paraphrase, I will refer to him simply as the Adaptor.

To understand some of the historical importance of the theme of learned ignorance in AP, we should note a few more aspects of Th.A. It is itself composed of three parts. The first is a prologue which says, among other things, that it represents a "commentary" by

Porphyry. The second is a series of "heads" or "headings" (rafts )that parallel Enn IV.4. Finally, there is the body of the text, which is split into ten chapters, each called a mimar (meaning "chapter" in Syriac). All this has led many to propose that AP is an Arabic translation of something written by Porphyry. The reference to a commentary and the presence of headings in the text could correspond to the "commentaries and headings" (hypnomnemata, kephalaia) that Porphyry said he produced in his Life of Plotinus. Furthermore, there are philosophical parallels between Porphyry and AP, including of course the doctrine of learned ignorance. In AP this doctrine appears specifically in two passages: rtf'iii 16 and a lengthy departure from the Greek text found in the second mimar of Th.A. This parallel between the Parmenides commentary and AP has been cited in favor of Porphyrian influence on AP (See below, section III). This provides a philological motive for close inspection of the doctrine as found in AP. Moreover, the notion of an "ignorance more noble than every knowledge" is among the most striking additions made by the Adaptor in his paraphrase of Plotinus: it shows the Adaptor at his most independent, either as an original thinker or as a transmitter of non-Plotinian Greek philosophy. In this chapter I will give an analysis of learned ignorance in AP, compare the doctrine to a related theme, that of a "potency higher than knowledge," and finally discuss the possibility that the doctrine has its source in the thought of Porphyry.

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