Porphyry and Learned Ignorance in AP

We have now seen the philosophical motivation for the doctrine of learned ignorance in AP. It falls into a general pattern of thought on the Adaptor's part in which he uses terms implying deprivation in order to express transcendence. Let us, then, turn to the question of the sources of the doctrine of ignorance as used by the Adaptor. I argued above that a major source for his defense of the doctrine was Aristotelian, but that Aristotle was not the entire inspiration for the passage in the second mimar. As previously mentioned, many commentators have seen in this passage a reflection of Porphyrian influence. In particular, an article by Pierre Thillet which appeared in 1971, and which remains among the most forceful presentations of the thesis that Porphyry was the author of AP, takes as a major point of interpretation the use of the doctrine of docta ignorantia by the Adaptor (Thillet 1971, 297-301). He cites Th.A 11.46-52, ru'Os 16, and DS 123ff (all cited above) as the appearances of the doctrine in AP, and compares these texts to a line from the Sentences of Porphyry: "One often speaks of what is beyond intellect (nou) according to intellection (kata ten noesin), but one contemplates it with a non-intellection better than intellection (theoreitai anoesia kreittoni noeseos), just as one often speaks of someone sleeping as if they were awake" (Sentences 25). One might raise here the question of whether the terms noesis and anoesia, which I have translated quite literally as "intellection" and "non-intellection," should be understood as knowledge and ignorance, respectively (as in Thillet's translation). But any hesitance on this score may be forestalled by turning to another Porphyrian text, a set of fragments from his commentary on the Parmenides.1

In this text, Porphyry does speak literally of ignorance (agnoia) and opposes this, not to noesis, but to gnosis:

In Parm. V.10-15: I say that there is a knowledge beyond knowledge and ignorance (gnosin exo gnoseos kai agnoias), from which there is knowledge. And how, if knowing, does [God] not know, or how, knowing, is He not in ignorance? Because He does not know, not as having come to be in ignorance, but as transcending (huperechon) every knowledge.

Just as, in the passage from the Sentences, Porphyry spoke of a "non-intellection better than intellection," so here he recognizes a "knowledge beyond knowledge and ignorance." As Thillet points out, these are paralleled nicely in AP by the phrase "an ignorance which is more noble than every knowledge" (Th.A II.47), and the statement: "we only say that He does not know, not because He is ignorant, which is the opposite of knowledge, but [instead] we mean that He is above knowledge" (DS 124). Note that these passages actually speak of ignorance in two different senses. In the text from the Sentences cited by Thillet, Porphyry is speaking of an ignorance on the part of the intellect which tries to grasp the One—in this case, ignorance is higher than knowledge because it does not do violence to the nature of the One through the multiplicity of intellection. This doctrine is, of course, quite compatible with Plotinus.

In the passage from the Parmenides commentary, on the other hand, Porphyry undertakes a dialectical discussion of the knowledge of God (ho theos). He first broaches the topic by remarking that God is never in ignorance (IV.34), but then qualifies this by saying that God is neither in a state of knowledge nor in a state of ignorance, in the passage quoted above. If God is not knowing, this is only because He transcends knowledge in the sense of a knowledge that is multiple. This is underscored in what follows:

In Parm. V.19-31: This is the knowledge of God, appearing (emphainousa) without any otherness or dyad, and with no difference in thought (epinoian) between knowledge and object of knowledge, but, as being inseparable from Himself, even though He is not in ignorance, He does not know. He is not ignorant, even if He does not know.ruly, if it is granted that in some way there is ignorance in Him, this is not according to contrariety (antiosin) and deprivation (steresin). Wherefore, if He is not ignorant then He knows, and in this way He is found to be superior (kreitton) to knowledge and ignorance, and knows all things, but not in the way the other knowers do.16

This too, is Plotinian insofar as it emphasizes the lack of duality on the part of the One. It strays from Plotinus somewhat more in its willingness to attribute knowledge of a more transcendent kind to God, yet there are of course passages in the Enneads that would countenance such a doctrine. Indeed, as Hadot shows in his study of the commentary fragments, this section is based on Enneads VI.9.6, in which Plotinus similarly argues that God transcends both knowledge and ignorance (Hadot 1968, 1:123). Porphyry departs from Plotinus only by arguing that this transcendence may be termed a type of knowledge, whereas Plotinus concludes that "What is thought [i.e. the One] does not think (noesis ou noei), but is the cause of thinking for something else.the cause of all things is none of them." Insofar as the Adaptor makes the same departure from his source, this may argue in favor of Porphyrian influence on AP.

Further evidence for such influence might be seen in the following passage in Porphyry:

In Parm. VI.4-10: There is also a knowledge which knows an object, going from ignorance to knowledge of the object of knowledge, and again there is another, absolute, knowledge, which is not knowing an object nor of an object of knowledge.

Compare this to part of the text in DS quoted previously:

DS 125 [B 175]: This is because there is no knowing

.::!■' 'lv'/juiexcept when there is a knowledge and an object of knowledge, and there is no intellecting I JJ" '"-rJ! 'except when there is an intellect and an object of intellect, so there is multiplicity with respect to this.

These two texts show both Porphyry and the Adaptor thinking along Plotinian lines, and arguing that knowledge or intellection (at least, the non-transcendent variety) inescapably involves multiplicity. Porphyry's argument for this is particularly interesting: he says that knowledge of an object must necessarily move from ignorance to knowledge. This is reminiscent of the argument we studied above, in which the Adaptor argued that purely noetic intellection does not go from potency to act (i.e. from ignorance to knowledge), but knows all things through a higher potency. All these points make the hypothesis of Porphyrian influence on AP seem rather plausible.

I think, however, that a closer look at these parallels reduces the temptation to put much weight on such a hypothesis. Let us begin by returning to the fact that Porphyry's text on ignorance in the Parmenides commentary was based on Enn. VI.9.6. This is significant because one of the key texts in AP dealing with God as a knower transcending intellection also comes from the same Plotinian source:

GS I.25 [B 187]: [The First Principle] has no motion, because He is before motion, before thought, and before knowledge, and there is nothing in Him which He would want to know, as the knower knows, but rather He is the knowledge which does not need to know by any other knowledge, because He is the pure, ultimate knowledge containing all knowledge, and [is] the cause of the sciences.17

Enn. VI.9.6: There is no thinking (noesis) [in the One], because there is no otherness, and there is no motion, for it is before motion and before thought. For what would it think? Itself? Then before thinking it would be ignorant (agnoon).

The passage in Plotinus is followed by the brief meditation on the problem of ignorance, which was the inspiration for Porphyry in his commentary. Unfortunately no paraphrase of this following passage remains in AP, if it ever even existed. But it is clear from GS 1.25 that the Adaptor would have read Plotinus' comments on ignorance. These could have been a source for his own doctrine, just as they were a source for Porphyry. It might be argued that the Adaptor makes the same departure from Plotinus as Porphyry, by reversing the sense of the passage and insisting that the First does have knowledge in some higher sense. But such a transformation was well within the bounds of the Adaptor's own strategy of introducing original ideas into the paraphrase. There are similar transformations, for instance, regarding whether the One thinks.18 And we saw above that there is a motivation for the Adaptor to make such a change, even without Porphyrian influence: if the First does not know, there can be no Providence. Thus it seems superfluous to suppose that the doctrine in AP represents, somehow, Porphyry's doctrines from the Parmenides commentary; the same ideas that Porphyry altered in his commentary were also available to the Adaptor from Plotinus, and their transformation along similar lines falls into a pattern easily explicable without reference to Porphyry.

This leaves us with the problem of the passage in mi mar II, by far the most developed text in AP dealing with ignorance. This passage does seem strikingly independent from Plotinus. Its doctrine seems unrelated to that found in the Parmenides commentary, since there Porphyry is describing the status of the One's knowledge, not the knowledge that the intellect has of the One. A more fruitful parallel is provided by the passage in the Sentences, which speaks of an anoesia kreittoni noeseos, a "non-intellection better than intellection." Certainly, like the Adaptor, Porphyry is committed to the notion that the First Principle cannot be perfectly known, so that we remain ignorant of it. But again, this is an idea which is found in Plotinus, even if he does not use the language of docta ignorantia. More robust parallels would be needed to suggest Porphyrian influence on mimar II. Not only are such parallels lacking, but none of the details of the Adaptor's argument in this mimar seem to be explained at all by referring to Porphyry. The linking of knowledge and causality, as argued above, seems Aristotelian. The second notion of ignorance, namely that the intellect is ignorant of its own effects, is not explained by the Porphyrian hypothesis.

Indeed, it seems that the only thing the Porphyrian hypothesis might explain is the use of the term "ignorance" to describe such a higher form of knowledge. But, as D'Ancona Costa has pointed out, there are other possible sources for this terminology, like the Pseudo-Dionysius. I myself would argue that, if all we are trying to explain is the appearance of the term "ignorance" in this context, that is too little information to reliably choose any one source as the one used by the Adaptor. It seems likely that he took the notion of a transcendent ignorance from somewhere, though it is not impossible that it was suggested to him by Plotinus (for example, by VI.9.6). But what is much more important is how he developed that notion, especially in mimar II. And this development seems to be best explained by a creative application of the Aristotelian doctrine of knowledge through causality. I would argue, then, that the theme of learned ignorance shows the Adaptor not as a slavish transmitter of views from other Greek sources, but as an independently minded philosopher combining the idea of learned ignorance (whatever its origin) with views taken from Plotinus and Aristotle to produce a largely novel doctrine. Other motivations peculiar to the Adaptor's situation may also have played a role; for example, we have noted that religious commitments could have led him to reverse Plotinus' doctrine on God's knowledge or intellection. All of this is consistent with the idea that the Adaptor was a member of al-Kindi's circle, and that he was using sources we know would have been available to such a translator. If anything is surprising in the interpretation given here, it is the extent to which the Adaptor's own view on learned ignorance does not depend on prior sources.

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