The Doctrine of Mtmar II

A long passage in the second mimar, almost completely independent from the Greek text, provides a developed discussion of the theme of learned ignorance. I quote the passage here in its entirety:

Th.A II.46-52 [Badawi 36-7]: Someone may say: if the soul has imagined this [lower] world before it reaches it, then there is no doubt that it also imagines [the lower world] after it has left it, and reached the higher world. If it has imagined it, then there is no doubt that it remembers it. But you have said that, when [the soul] is in the intellectual world, it does not remember anything from this world at all. We say that, even if the soul has imagined this world before it came to it, nevertheless it imagined it intellectually, and this act is ignorance (jahl), not knowledge J'/-'1-But this ignorance is more noble than every knowledge, and this is because the intellect is ignorant of what is above it through an ignorance which is more noble than knowledge 1 '''■'"■If it remembers the things which are there, it does not descend to here, because the memory of those noble things prevents it from coming down to here. If it remembers the lower world, it descends from the noble world, but that may be in various ways, and this is because the intellect is ignorant of its cause above it, namely the First, Ultimate Cause. It does not know [its cause] completely, because if it knew it completely, it would be above [that cause] and a cause for it. It is absurd that anything be above its own cause and a cause for its cause, because then the effect would be the cause for its own cause, and the cause would be the effect of its own effect, and this is very repugnant. The intellect is ignorant of the things that are under it, as we have said before, because it does not need knowledge 1 1 of them, because they are in it, and it is their cause. The ignorance of the intellect is not a privation '■ 'of knowledge, but rather it is the ultimate knowledge, and this is because it knows the things not as with the knowledge the things have of themselves, but rather [with a knowledge] above this, and more excellent and higher, because it is their cause. The knowledge that things have of themselves is, for intellect, ignorance, because it is not proper :or complete knowledge.

Therefore we say that the intellect is ignorant of the things which are under it, [and] we mean by this that it knows the things which are beneath it completely, not like the knowledge they have of themselves. It does not need knowledge of them, because it is a cause [for them] and in it are all its effects. If [all the effects] are in it, then it does not need knowledge of them. Likewise, the soul is ignorant of its effects in the way which we have mentioned above, and does not need knowledge of anything except for knowledge of the intellect and the First Cause, because these two are above it.

The first thing to notice about this passage is that it is not completely independent from the Greek text, for it seems to be based on the following remark in Plotinus:

Enn IV.4.4: For it could happen, even while one is not conscious (me parakolouthounta) that one has [something], that one holds [that thing] to oneself more strongly than if one did know.

This text is far from an endorsement of any "learned ignorance." Rather, here Plotinus makes a characteristically subtle distinction between knowing something and being aware that one knows something. Perhaps the distinction was lost on the Adaptor; at any rate, his paraphrase introduces the wholly different distinction of ignorance and knowledge (II.47). Certainly, then, the Adaptor did not take the notion of learned ignorance from Plotinus. Rather, one has the sense that he came to the text with this doctrine in hand, and saw this passage as an opportunity for a digression on the subject. This should encourage us to think that the Adaptor has another source in mind here, and is not just providing an unusually original interpretation of something in the Enneads.

A second thing to notice about the passage is that it is not the only reference to learned ignorance in Th.A. As mentioned above, one of the "headings" refers to the doctrine as well:

Th.A rjrns.li>:On the intellect, and that knowledge there is below ignorance (jahl), and ignorance is the glory of the intellect there.

This heading is in fact a paraphrase of the very same text in Enn IV.4.4 quoted above. This is significant for the relationship of the "headings" to the main text of Th.A. It seems that one of two interpretations is open to us. The first is that the Adaptor wrote both paraphrases himself, and both times the passage reminded him of the notion of learned ignorance. The second is that the Adaptor found the remark on learned ignorance already before him in a set of "headings" in his source text, and translated ru'ws-l^more or less verbatim. The long passage in the second rrnmar would then be a sort of commentary on this earlier heading. This would be consistent with the idea that the "heads" are just an Arabic translation of Porphyry's Greek kephalaia, and that Porphyry is thus the direct source of the doctrine of learned ignorance. We will have occasion to return to this point below, when we discuss the possible relation of this discussion of ignorance to that of Porphyry. But given that our current purpose is to analyze the theory as it appears in the text, the heading is of little value, if only because of its brevity. It affirms only that at the level of intellect, ignorance is superior to knowledge, without explaining why or in what sense this might be so.

Let us move, then, to a careful analysis of the passage in mimar II. A key element of the passage is the fact that not one, but two sorts of ignorance are described here by the Adaptor. In both cases, despite the fact that the digression is introduced regarding the soul and its knowledge of this world, the ignorance is in fact associated with "the intellect." (The sudden transition from soul to intellect can be explained by the fact that the Adaptor does not always distinguish carefully between these two hypostases. Encouraged, perhaps, by Aristotle's use of the term nous in the De Anima as the highest faculty of the soul, the Adaptor is prone to collapsing these two parts of the Plotinian cosmos together.) One sort of ignorance described by the Adaptor is ignorance of "what is above it," namely "the First, Ultimate Cause." The other sort of ignorance is "of the things that are under it," that is, objects in the sensory world. I will call these respectively "ignorance of the higher" and "ignorance of the lower." The Adaptor himself does not seem to be keeping this distinction clearly in view: in II.47, he shifts from describing the ignorance of soul as an intellectual imagination of things in "this world," that is, ignorance of the lower, to the ignorance of the higher that is attributed to intellect. A similar shift occurs in 11.49. Despite these shifts, the Adaptor does give two clearly distinct arguments for the two varieties of learned ignorance.

The argument for ignorance of the higher is as follows: "the intellect is ignorant of its cause above it, namely the First, Ultimate Cause, and it does not know [its cause] completely, because if it knew it completely, it would be above [that cause] and a cause for it" (11.49). Here, "ignorance" refers to an actual lack of knowledge on the part of the intellect: it fails to have an exhaustive grasp of its cause, and necessarily so. For, according to this passage, there is an intimate link between the causal hierarchy and knowledge. In general, a cause can know its effect completely, but not vice-versa. This has the important immediate consequence that there can be no perfect knowledge of God by anything else, since God is the highest cause.3 One can hardly recognize this without thinking of the scholastic distinction between knowledge through causes, or propter quid, and knowledge quia, that is, knowledge of causes through effects. A common source for both doctrines readily suggests itself: Aristotle's theory of demonstrative knowledge. As Aristotle puts it, "We suppose ourselves to possess unqualified scientific knowledge of a thing.. .when we think that we know the cause on which the fact depends, as the cause of that fact and of no other, and, further, that the fact could not be other than it is" (Posterior Analytics, 71b10ff). The same doctrine can be found in other Aristotelian works, notably the Metaphysics (see, for instance, 981b: "the master workers in each craft are more honorable and know in a truer sense.. .because they know the causes of the things that are done"). The assumption behind our passage, that knowledge of a thing can only be through a perfect grasp of the cause of that thing, is certainly an Aristotelian one. And there is good evidence that the Adaptor knew the Aristotelian corpus.4 This seems a likely source, then, for at least part of the Adaptor's reasoning about the intellect's ignorance of the One.

A related line of reasoning is developed with regard to "ignorance of the lower." At II.51, the Adaptor argues that the intellect "does not need" to know things in the sensory world, "because they are in it, and it is their cause." Thus the intellect is ignorant in this sense as well. But in this case, the ignorance in question is no longer a deficiency of knowledge, but rather a transcending of knowledge:

Th.A II.51: The ignorance of the intellect is not a privation of knowledge, but rather it is the ultimate knowledge, and this is because it knows the things not as with the knowledge the things have of themselves, but rather [with a knowledge] above this, and more excellent and higher, because it is their cause. The knowledge that things have of themselves is, for the intellect, ignorance, because it is not proper or complete knowledge.

Again, the Adaptor is relying here on the notion that the intellect can "know" the lower things by knowing their cause, namely itself. In this sense, it does know these lower things. But in another sense, it does not: if by "knowledge" we mean the sort of knowledge that the lower things have of themselves and of each other, then the intellect "fails" to have this sort of knowledge, for it is above such knowledge. This lower knowledge is not described here, except that we may infer that it is not knowledge that proceeds from a complete grasp of causes. In Aristotelian terms, it is knowledge that falls short of complete scientific demonstration, which the Adaptor calls "proper and complete." Again, this doctrine of ignorance of the lower would have a significant corollary regarding God: if the argument is extended to the level of the divine, God will be revealed to know His creation only by knowing Himself. This, of course, would later be the position of Ibn Sina on the question of providence. We will briefly return later to the consequences of the doctrine for God's knowledge in AP.

Though one must acknowledge the Aristotelian premise employed by the Adaptor in these two arguments, one must also acknowledge that simple familiarity with Aristotelian demonstration would not be sufficient to inspire the doctrine. For, consider some of the un-Aristotelian aspects of the arguments just presented. First, though Aristotle says that complete knowledge requires knowledge of causes, this does not imply that if x has complete knowledge of y, then x is itself the cause of y. But this is exactly what the Adaptor seems to hold in his argument for ignorance of the higher: he says that if the intellect knew the First completely, it itself would be "a cause" for the First.5 This is a crucial premise, for without this premise one need not conclude that effects can never know their causes completely. Second, a corresponding premise in the argument for ignorance of the lower seems manifestly contrary to Aristotle's intent. The Adaptor argues that if the intellect knows itself as the cause of lower things, it does not need to know the lower things. But on Aristotle's account, to know the cause of a thing just is to have the best sort of knowledge of that thing. The Adaptor, then, concludes that the intellect is in a sense "ignorant" when a straightforward Aristotelian would have presumably inferred that we can only speak of knowledge in the case of the intellect, if intellect is the cause of what is known.

Finally, and most significantly, there is nothing in Aristotle to suggest that one might call a certain type of knowledge "ignorance" because it is more complete than a more familiar, or lower, sort of knowledge. This terminological choice, almost rhetorical in its force, seems more at home in the Neoplatonic dialectic of affirmative and negative predication which is employed with regard to transcendent causes. None of this is to take away from the Aristotelian overtones of the Adaptor's thought process in this passage. Rather, what I want to suggest is that the arguments in II.46-52 could only be the work of someone who is trying to write an Aristotelian gloss on a notion of learned ignorance which he has from somewhere else. No text of Aristotle states that there is a form of ignorance superior to knowledge. But it is quite plausible that a reader of Aristotle might read somewhere else that the intellect is ignorant in the sense of having a transcendent knowledge, and conclude that this is because it is a transcendent cause. We are left in the following predicament: we know that the Adaptor brought an Aristotelian sensibility to his interpretation of the ignorance of the intellect. But we do not know what motivates him to explain the intellect's cognition precisely in terms of ignorance, either with regard to his other philosophical views or his sources. To move towards an answer to the first part of this dilemma, a consideration of some further context from AP will be helpful.

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