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Avicenna's "Suspended Man" Hypothesis

Avicenna's "Suspended Man" Hypothesis

The translation below is taken from the Latin edition by S. van Riet, ed., Avicenna Latinus: Liber de anima seu sextus De naturalibus, 2 vols., (vol. 1, Louvain: E. Peeters, and Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1972; vol. 2: Louvain: Editions orientalistes, and Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1968), I, 1, vol. 1, pp. 36-37 lines 49-68 (= Venice edition of 1508, fol. 2rb, marginal letter X):

We shall say, therefore, that someone from among us ought to be thought of as if he were created all at once and full grown, but with his eyes covered so that he would not see external things. And he would be so created as if he were moving in the air - or in a void, in such a way that the density of the air would not touch him that he might sense it. And his limbs would be, as it were, spread out in such a way that they would not come together or touch one another.

Now let him see if he affirms the being of his essence. For he will have no doubt about affirming that he exists. Yet he will not affirm outward things about his limbs, or interior things about what is inside him, neither his mind nor his brain, nor anything else outside him. But he, whose length or breadth or depth he will not affirm, will affirm that he exists. If, however, it were possible for him at that time to imagine a hand or another limb, still he would not imagine it to be a part of him, or necessary to his essence.

Now you know that what is affirmed is other than what is not affirmed, and what is granted is other than what is not granted. And, because the essence that he affirms to exist is proper to him, insofar as he is that very essence, and is something besides his body and his limbs, which he does not affirm, therefore, once he has been awakened, he has a pathway to proceed in full wakefulness to knowing that the being of his soul is other than the being of his body. Indeed, he does not need the body in order to know the soul and perceive it. But if he is a dullard, he will have to turn to that way [and rely on the body to gain a knowledge of the soul].

The text is Avicenna's famous "Suspended Man" passage (what Hyman and Walsh call the "flying man", p. 234). The passage is supposed to show a "real distinction" between the body and the soul, and results in a "two substance" view of man (soul and body, each a substance in its own right) rather than a "one substance" view (the soul is the form of the body, and the two together constitute one composite substance). The former view is Platonic/Augustinian. The latter view is Aristotelian. Note the bald assumption (there is no argument) that the Suspended man would affirm his existence - or indeed that he would be conscious at all. This too fits with Platonic/Augustinian "introspection".

This text gets cited by all kinds of people. It is an interesting test case to see whether an author agrees or disagrees with Avicenna here: would the Suspended Man in fact affirm his existence? You can tell a great deal about what an author thinks about many other issues by looking at what he says about this passage. Be on the lookout for it.

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Last modified: Sun Dec 27, 1998 / Jeremiah Genest