Encyclopedia of Medieval Philosophy

Living Edition
| Editors: Henrik Lagerlund

Aristotelianism in the Greek, Latin, Syriac, Arabic, and Hebrew Traditions

  • John MarenbonEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-024-1151-5_51-2


Aristotle was the most important ancient philosopher for all four main traditions of medieval philosophy: Greek philosophy from Byzantium; Latin philosophy; philosophy in Arabic (the work mainly of Muslims, but also Jews and Christians); and, from the thirteenth century, philosophy written by Jews in Hebrew. All these traditions drew, directly, or indirectly, on Aristotle as transmitted by the Neoplatonic schools of late antiquity. But the way in which the Aristotelian texts were disseminated (in translation, except in Byzantium) and studied varied in each of these traditions. And, although all the medieval philosophers had it in common that they lived in cultures dominated by a monotheistic religion, the range of attitudes to Aristotle varied from one to another. This entry has the strictly limited aim of giving enough basic information about each of these circumstances to enable comparisons to be made. Fuller treatment of each of the areas it covers will be found elsewhere in the Encyclopedia. Readers will also find a fuller exposition of most of the particular view suggested here in Marenbon (Medieval philosophy; an historical and philosophical introduction. Routledge, London/New York, 2007; Medieval philosophy. A very short introduction. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2016).

Translations, Availability, and Methods of Study

Aristotle had his own school of followers in antiquity – Alexander of Aphrodisias (c. CE 200) was the most famous and talented of them, Themistius (c. 317–388) probably the last. But the transmission of Aristotle’s work to medieval philosophers was the result of his inclusion in the curriculum of the Neoplatonic schools, since Neoplatonism was the dominant school of philosophy in the ancient world from the third century onwards. The Neoplatonists believed that Aristotle and Plato did not disagree. Their apparent differences were the result of different subject matter: Aristotle concentrated on the world as it appears to the senses, Plato on supra-sensible reality. The study of Aristotle, especially his logic, was thus considered indispensable as a preparation for work on Plato, and it produced a large number of Aristotelian commentaries, a number of which survive. Porphyry (c. 232–305), the first of the commentators, was especially keen to read Aristotelian works in an Aristotelian way; some of his successors tended, rather, to let their underlying Platonism tinge their reading even of his logical works.

The fullest, though not the most direct, medieval heirs of this tradition of Aristotelianism were the Arabic philosophers. The Platonic school at Athens had been closed by Justinian in 529 because it preserved pagan philosophy in an Empire by now strictly Christian. But the other great Platonic school, at Alexandria, remained open until the Islamic conquest in 641: first, its pagan teachers had been willing to compromise with the Christian authorities; then it came to be staffed by Christians. In the eighth and ninth centuries, there was a movement, encouraged by the ‘Abbāsid caliphs, to take over into Arabic as much as possible of the Greek texts and learning that survived in Alexandria. The Arabs were helped in this enterprise by Syriac-speaking Christians, who had already translated some of Aristotle’s logic into Syriac, a Semitic language like Arabic (Hugonnard-Roche 2004). The Syriac scholars themselves concentrated on logic and, perhaps as a result of ecclesiastical pressure, favored a shortened logical curriculum, consisting of Porphyry’s Isagoge, the Categories, On Interpretation, and the Prior Analytics up to the end of I.7 (avoiding, therefore, modal syllogistic) (Gutas 1999). But the translation movement into Arabic was not restrained by such boundaries, encouraged by such men as al-Kindī (c. 801–866), the first of the Arab philosophers. Al-Kindī, as a result of translations he had commissioned and other ones, was thereby able to read considerable amounts of Aristotle, including his Metaphysics, although he was more deeply influenced by the Plotinian material transmitted under the misleading title of The Theology of Aristotle. The Baghdad Peripatetics, such as al-Fārābī (c. 870–950/951) and his pupil, the Christian Yaḥyā ibn ‘Adī, studied almost the whole Aristotelian corpus in detail, and produced both short, epitome-type commentaries and longer ones (e.g., al-Fārābī on On Interpretation), which comment on the text section by section, looking in detail at the philosophical difficulties it raises, in the manner of the late ancient commentators (Gutas 1988; Pasnau 2010, Appendix B.3).

The way in which Aristotle was studied changed forever in the mainstream Arabic tradition with Avicenna (before 980–1037). Although Avicenna did write a section-by-section commentary on Aristotle, which has been lost, his main works are all philosophical encyclopedias, longer or shorter, complex or more simple, in which he puts forward his own understanding of Aristotle. Although he usually follows the divisions of Aristotle’s work (dedicating separate books, or chapters, to physics, metaphysics, and the soul, for example), what he provides, by conscious contrast with the Baghdad Peripateticians, is not Aristotle’s doctrine, understood with the help of the late ancient commentary tradition, but a coherent philosophical system, with many original elements, strongly influenced by Aristotle. For most Islamic writers, Avicenna replaced Aristotle as the primary philosophical authority (although in logic there was a further move, in which Avicenna was left behind too, and the subject was taught through independent textbooks) (Street 2004, 2013, Sect. 1). The main, and as yet little investigated, philosophical tradition everywhere except in the Islamic West sought to combine Avicennian philosophy with kalām, the Islamic tradition of theological speculation. Independent study of Aristotle ceased and translations of his works did not circulate (Gutas 2002). In the West (Islamic Spain and the Maghreb), an interest in Aristotle’s texts, in the line of al-Fārābī, grew up in the twelfth century. Its greatest exponent was Averroes (c. 1126–1198). Averroes made a series of paraphrase commentaries and short compendia of almost all Aristotle’s works, and he wrote detailed, section-by-section commentaries on five works, including On the Soul and the Metaphysics. Averroes’ lifetime’s work of commentary is the last flourish of any but very indirect Aristotelianism in the Islamic Arabic tradition. It was almost totally forgotten in Islam until modern times, but it had a profound effect on Jewish philosophy and Christian Latin philosophy.

Until the end of the twelfth century, medieval Jewish philosophy was written in Arabic and its exponents worked within a broadly Arabic (as well as Jewish) culture. Although earlier Jewish philosophers had been influenced by Neoplatonism, it was not until Abraham b. Daud (c. 1160) and Maimonides (d. 1204), both of whom were educated in Muslim Spain, that Jewish thinkers began to look at Aristotelianism as the major philosophical system, to be reconciled or distinguished from their own views. In the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries, Jewish philosophy was carried on most vigorously in Hebrew, especially among the communities in southern France. There was an Aristotelian translation movement among these Jewish scholars, from the Arabic into Hebrew, but the texts they translated were not (with two exceptions: the Meteorologica and On the Soul) Aristotle’s own, but Averroes’ commentaries, all of which (except perhaps for the long commentary on On the Heavens) were put into Hebrew; also translated were some of al-Fārābī’s short expositions of Aristotle (Zonta 1996; Pasnau 2010). This preference for an indirect approach to Aristotle has been attributed to the influence of a letter from Maimonides to Samuel ibn Tibbon, in which he describes Aristotle’s works as “the roots and foundations of all the sciences,” but also remarks that they cannot be understood with the help of commentaries, by Alexander of Aphrodisias, Themistius, or Averroes (Harvey 1992). But Maimonides did not say that they should neglect the texts themselves altogether in favor of the commentaries: maybe there were no Arabic versions of Aristotle’s texts themselves available to them to translate. In any case, the Jewish writers made the shorter texts of Averroes and al-Fārābī themselves the subjects of “super-commentaries.”

By contrast with Arabic speakers, the Greeks were the direct inheritors of the tradition of the late ancient schools, and there was no problem of translation for them. The basic course of Aristotelian studies was, however, quite restricted, including just Porphyry’s Isagoge, the Categories, On Interpretation, and the Prior Analytics 1.1–7 (as in the Syriac schools) and the Sophistical Refutations 1–7, and extracts from the Meteorology and On Generation and Corruption. In logic, the tradition of ancient commentary was continued by scholars like Photios in the ninth century and Michael Psellos and John Italos in the eleventh century. In the twelfth century, Eustratios and Michael of Ephesus expanded the range of Aristotelian commentary. Michael wrote commentaries on parts of the Ethics and Metaphysics, on various of Aristotle’s books on natural philosophy and on the Politics; Eustratios wrote on parts of the Posterior Analytics and of the Ethics. All these commentaries reuse a great deal of old material – just as had been done in the ancient schools. Indeed, one form of Byzantine commentary consists simply of marginalia collected from a variety of sources, with an introduction added. But twelfth-century writers like Eustratios and Michael drew this type of material to make an integral running commentary on the text. The tendency of the Byzantine commentators to base themselves on earlier writers, and ultimately the ancient tradition, makes it a difficult matter to work out the respects in which they contributed their own thoughts (Ierodiakonou and Börje 2008).

Medieval Latin philosophers had two strands of access to Aristotle independent of Arabic philosophy. The first strand was due to the work of one man, Boethius (d. 524/526), a philosopher who lived in Ostrogothic Italy but, thanks to his aristocratic background, knew Greek fluently. He translated all of Aristotle’s logical works (except the Posterior Analytics – or, at least, his translation does not survive) into Latin. These translations came only gradually into circulation in the Middle Ages: the Categories, De interpretatione, and Porphyry’s Isagoge by the ninth century; the Sophistical Refutations, Prior Analytics, and Topics during the twelfth century. Boethius’ translations of these works remained standard until the end of the Middle Ages. Boethius also wrote widely read commentaries on the logical texts, which drew on the tradition of interpretation in the late ancient Platonic schools, especially on Porphyry (see Marenbon 2009). The second strand was due to the work of various translators, working in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Through the work of the twelfth-century translators (the best known was James of Venice), some of Aristotle’s nonlogical works became available, in translations direct from the Greek, whole or part, by the early thirteenth century. The most important thirteenth-century translator, William of Moerbeke (d. 1286), produced new or revised translations, from the Greek, of the whole Aristotelian corpus, and his versions became standard, except in the case of the logical works translated by Boethius. Before William’s work, however, Latin thinkers had benefited from the third, Arabic-dependent strand of access to Aristotle. In the later twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, various nonlogical works of Aristotle’s were put into Latin, in whole or part, from their Arabic versions. These translations would all be superseded by Moerbeke’s ones from the Greek, and so this side of the Arabic strand was of limited importance. By contrast, the translation into Latin in the same period of parts (principally, the Metaphysics and On the Soul) of Avicenna’s largest encyclopedia commentary, the Shifā’, and of many of Averroes’ commentaries, including the long commentaries on the Metaphysics and On the Soul, had an enormous influence on Aristotelianism in the later Middle Ages. Although – mostly thanks again to William of Moerbeke – a selection of ancient commentaries on Aristotle became available in Latin, Boethius’ role in introducing, explaining, and placing Aristotle’s logic in context was played, for the nonlogical works, by Averroes (who was called, simply, the “Commentator”) and, in a more general way, by Avicenna (see Pasnau 2010, Appendix B.1 and B.4; Brungs et al. 2017, 95–173).

Despite this debt to the Arabic world, the development of the Aristotelian tradition there could hardly differ more sharply from the ways in which Aristotle was studied in the Latin West. From the beginning, Aristotle’s texts were central to the school curriculum, and they were commented on closely. Before c. 1200, when only Aristotle’s logic was known, the study of logic – the central subject of the school curriculum – was based around these works (along with some by his translator, Boethius). From about 1250, the Arts Faculties of the universities adopted an Aristotelian curriculum, in which knowledge was divided according to his different works, and the study of each subject was the study of Aristotle’s text. This intensive study of the Aristotelian texts is witnessed by an enormous number of medieval Latin commentaries on Aristotle, usually designed for, or the products of, classroom teaching. From the ninth to the eleventh centuries, this commentary material usually took the form of marginal and interlinear glosses in manuscripts of the texts. From the twelfth century a large number of independent commentaries are found on the Categories, On Interpretation, and Sophistical Refutations. Normally they are anonymous, and very often survive in just one manuscript – the record of a particular teacher or student’s work, rather than a text disseminated in written form. In the case of the Categories and On Interpretation (and also Porphyry’s Isagoge), Boethius had written commentaries which drew on the ancient Neoplatonic tradition of commentary. These were, initially, very important sources for the twelfth-century commentators, although they soon started to develop ideas and discuss problems unthought of by Boethius (Marenbon 1993/2000). There was an important change in the most common form of Aristotelian commentary in the early thirteenth century – the period when the complete Aristotelian corpus was beginning to be studied and then became the basis of the Arts curriculum. Aristotelian commentaries began to be written in the form of quaestiones. These quaestiones would very often keep close to the text, and the solutions represent the Master in question’s view of Aristotle’s meaning, but they also gave the opportunity for ideas and problems to be raised which reflected current debates but were linked only loosely to the ancient text. There were, however, some important thirteenth-century commentaries in other forms. Albert the Great followed Avicenna in producing his own, discursive reconstructions of Aristotelian doctrine. Aquinas followed Averroes (and Boethius) in writing a series of detailed, sentence by sentence commentaries on Aristotle.

Aristotle formed the basis of the Arts curriculum up to and beyond the Middle Ages in Latin Europe. Even among those who consciously opposed scholastic modes of thought, there was a lively Aristotelian tradition, and a number of Averroes’ commentaries were translated for the first time (from the Hebrew) in that monument to Renaissance Aristotelianism, the Juncta(s) edition of 1550–1552 on Aristotle’s works with Averroes’ commentaries.

Attitudes to Aristotle

In the early Islamic world (from the eighth to the eleventh centuries), there were two different methods of thinking about ultimate questions such as the constitution of the world, freedom and necessity, justice, and merit. One was kalām, a sort of philosophizing closely attached to problems raised by the Qurʾān and conducted in terms partly borrowed indirectly from the Greek tradition, partly invented by the Islamic thinkers themselves. Exponents of kalām divided themselves into many different schools, of which the most adventurous philosophically, and the most influential at the start, was that of the Muʿtazilites. The other method of thinking about these questions was that of Greek philosophy, introduced by al-Kindī in the eighth century. Al-Kindī was a Muslim and belonged to an important Arab family. He seems to have introduced Greek philosophy consciously as an alternative to Muʿtazilite kalām: it was a foreign importation, but one which, he tried to show, could be adapted to fit Islam. Although there were some thinkers in the tenth and eleventh centuries – particularly the Ismāʿīlīs – who also followed a conciliatory approach, mainstream philosophy took a different direction. It centered increasingly on whose work was commented on in detail by Baghdad peripatetics, many of them Christian. The outstanding member of this school was al-Fārābī, a Muslim but one who, to judge by his work, accepted Islam because he saw in it a symbolic way, suitable for assimilation by the masses, of stating the truths which were demonstrated in their full and clear form by Aristotelian science (On the early period of Arabic Aristotelianism, see Rudolph 2012).

The most influential of all the Arabic philosophers, Avicenna, seems to have developed his rethinking of Aristotelian philosophy mainly in isolation from religious considerations, although he may have been influenced by some of the questions raised by the Muʿtazilites. He was willing, in line with his understanding of Aristotle, to deny the fundamental Islamic doctrines of the resurrection of the dead and the non-eternity of the world. For these views, Avicenna was fiercely attacked by al-Ġazālī (1058–1111), whose writings had, and continue to have, enormous influence among Muslims. But, at the same time, al-Ġazālī was himself deeply influenced by Avicenna, and he played the pivotal role in infusing kalām with Avicennian philosophy. Although, then, Avicenna is the last major figure in the eastern Islamic tradition of Aristotelian philosophers, there continued into the late Middle Ages and beyond a stream of indirectly Aristotelian speculation – some of it conducted in commentaries on Avicenna – which now was part of, rather than a rival to, Islamic theology (Griffel 2009; El-Rouyaheb and Schmidtke 2017, 296 ff.).

In Muslim Spain and North Africa, as explained above, the tradition of direct study of Aristotle continued. Its outstanding representative, Averroes, was a dedicated Aristotelian who thought that the fundamental truth about the universe could be found just by the most careful scrutiny of Aristotle’s meaning. But Averroes was not a covert freethinker, doing his day job as an Islamic judge just to keep up appearances. There is every indication that he agreed fundamentally with al-Ġazālī over when a Qurʾānic text should be “interpreted” and its literal meaning rejected – when it was contradicted by a demonstration. He held, however, that a wider range of truths than al-Ġazālī accepted are demonstrable through Aristotelian science (Griffel 2000).

The first Jewish Aristotelian, Abraham b. Daud, believed that Aristotelian science and orthodox Jewish doctrine were compatible, and in his rabbinic works Maimonides professed the same view. There he argued that the rabbis of old had honored philosophy and arrived at the same truths as were professed by the philosophers of the Arabic Aristotelian tradition, but they had kept them secret so as not to reveal them to the mass of the people. Maimonides’ most famous work – indeed, the most celebrated text in the whole tradition of Jewish medieval philosophy – the Guide of the Perplexed is, however, mainly directed toward the perplexities faced by the firm believer in the Jewish law who has also studied Arabic–Aristotelian philosophy and science. It is hard to be completely certain of how Maimonides resolves these perplexities: whether he has really retrenched from his earlier acceptance of almost everything in Aristotelianism, or whether he continues in and even extends his earlier position, though in a covert manner, hidden from those who read too straightforwardly. Such was Maimonides’ influence on subsequent Jewish thinkers, that the dispute over Aristotelianism in Jewish philosophy became in large part a dispute about whether or not to follow Maimonides. Since Maimonides himself was, from the beginning, interpreted in a more radical and a less radical way, the contours of the debate are hard to follow; some Jews criticized even Maimonides under a moderate interpretation for conceding too much to Aristotle, while for some of the most enthusiastic Jewish Aristotelians, he had not – even under a radical interpretation – gone far enough. But even a thinker like Moses of Narbonne (d. after 1362), who followed Averroes’ Aristotelianism closely, shared with Averroes the feeling that Aristotelianism did not in fact contradict the fundamental principles of his own religion. There was, then, a flourishing thirteenth- and fourteenth-century tradition of Jewish Aristotelianism, learned mainly through Averroes. But, at the same time, there was consistent opposition to this whole philosophical tradition, which resulted, for example, in an unsuccessful attempt of banning Maimonides’ works in the 1230s and, in 1305, the banning of Arabo-Greek learning to Jews aged under 25 in Catalonia. The greatest of all these Hebrew-language philosophers, Gersonides (1288–1344), took an independent stance and rethought philosophical problems, using Aristotelian positions and tools, but not feeling bound to them, in a way which eliminated most of the obvious clashes between religious orthodoxy and the results of philosophy. But the mood among Jews in the following century and a half became more generally and resolutely set against Aristotelianism, and against philosophy in general.

Suspicion of Aristotelianism – which was put under the general banner of “Hellenism,” that is to say, sympathy for the pagan thought of Greece – was a constant feature of the Byzantine tradition. It did not prevent scholars from maintaining a tradition of Aristotelian exegesis, but it could make life difficult or worse for individual scholars. Whereas, for instance, Michael Psellos, though accused of heresy, managed to escape condemnation, his student, John Italos, was not so fortunate. After a series of trials, he was condemned and his books burned. The charges against him were related to his use of Aristotelian logic in theology, and he was said, probably unjustly, not merely to have enquired into the doctrines of the ancients but to have accepted them as truths (cf. Clucas 1981).

As explained above, scholars in the medieval Latin West knew only a few Aristotelian logical texts until the mid-twelfth century. For this reason, questions about the compatibility between religious teaching and Aristotelianism, like those faced by Byzantine Christians, Muslims, and Jews, were not posed in the early Middle Ages. Although from time to time a religious thinker would cast doubt on the study of logic, or at least on its appropriateness as for monks, it was generally accepted that logic was valuable, or indeed essential, as a tool for presenting and defending Christian doctrine. It was only when it was misused that it became dangerous. And the tradition of logic, they recognized, was Aristotelian. But it was not just Aristotelian. A paraphrase of Aristotle’s Categories, widely read from the ninth to eleventh centuries, was attributed to Augustine (helping, incidentally, to ensure the Christian respectability of the subject). The curriculum usual in the early twelfth century included two Aristotelian texts, and five others, four by Boethius and one by Porphyry. Although the best logicians, like Abelard, seem to have shown a special respect for Abelard and to have had suspicions, rightly, about Boethius’ logical acumen, all three figures were generally treated on the same level as authorities. Questions about the relationship between Christian doctrine and pagan philosophy were indeed posed in this period, but in connection with Plato and writings in the Platonic tradition.

Once translations of his nonlogical works began to be disseminated, this easy acceptance of Aristotle as a logical authority was no longer possible. Some of the earliest evidence for the study of Aristotle’s natural philosophy and his Metaphysics are the prohibitions issued in 1210 and 1215 against the study of this material in the Arts Faculty of Paris. But the authorities did not do much to enforce these prohibitions by the 1240s, and – as noted above – by the 1250s the curriculum of the Arts Faculties in Paris and Oxford was based around Aristotle. In a way that contrasts sharply with the Islamic, Jewish, and Byzantine traditions, Aristotelianism was thus incorporated openly and institutionally into the scheme of education approved by the religious authorities and which also was responsible for the formation of theologians and Church leaders. Although this theological formation took place in the Theology Faculty, students had either to have taken the Arts course or, if they belonged to the mendicant orders, its equivalent in their own schools: theologians were thoroughly trained in Aristotelian philosophy, and their approach to theological problems was deeply affected by it.

This institutional adoption of Aristotelianism did not, however, prevent there from being tensions between Aristotle’s views and Christian doctrine, in two areas in particular, one of which related primarily to the Arts Masters, the other to the theologians. Granted that the Arts Faculty was officially dedicated to the study of Aristotelian science, and that it was not its business to deal with matters of Christian doctrine, to what extent should Arts Masters be permitted to develop views which actually contradicted Christian doctrine? Two positions were especially at issue: the Aristotelian principle that the world – in the sense of the whole universe – is eternal (which clashes with the Christian doctrine that the world had a temporal beginning), and Averroes’ reading of On the Soul in his long commentary, according to which there is just one Intellect for all humans (which contradicts the idea of individual immortality and so the whole Christian teaching about heavenly reward and punishment). Although none of the Arts Masters seems to have proposed that either of these positions was true without qualification, there was some in the 1260s – such as Siger of Brabant and Boethius of Dacia – who tried to find some way in which, in their capacity as Arts Masters and so teachers of Aristotle, they could develop these and any other arguably Aristotelian views in their own terms, even if they acknowledged that, as a Christian, one must hold a different, incompatible view. Although this movement in the thirteenth century was crushed by ecclesiastical opposition, there remained until the end of the Middle Ages an important strain of “Radical Aristotelianism” or “Latin Averroism” in the Arts Faculties – of thinkers who, while acknowledging, at least verbally, the truth of Christian doctrine, looked to Averroes as the most reliable interpreter of Aristotle, even where his interpretations made his thought clearly unacceptable to Christians (Hayoun and De Libera, 1991). In order to prevent such speculations, the authorities obliged fourteenth-century Paris Arts Masters to swear that, if they touched in their philosophy on any subjects that also concerned the faith, they would give the answers demanded by faith and provide refutations of the arguments against the answer consistent with Christian teaching. Yet, even the cautious John Buridan, who taught for about 40 years in the Arts Faculty at Paris from c. 1320, makes clear that, for instance, the Christian teaching on the immortality of the soul does not follow from Aristotle’s position and must be accepted as a matter of faith (Sylla 2001).

For the theologians, the problem was, rather, the extent to which Aristotle’s God, as interpreted by the Arabic Aristotelians, was their God, at least in philosophical guise. By and large, Aquinas believed that he was. But in 1277, shortly after Aquinas’ death, a long list of propositions, many of them reflecting positions held by Arabic Aristotelians and their followers, were condemned in Paris. Although largely directed against Arts Masters, the condemnations indicate a growing awareness that Aristotle’s God, and the physical and metaphysical context in which the Arabic Aristotelian placed him, did not fit well with Christian belief. Late thirteenth- and fourteenth-century theologians, stimulated by their doctrinal requirements, although deeply learned in Aristotelian science and indebted to it for much of their thinking, rethought many aspects of Aristotelianism: consider, for instance, Duns Scotus’ account of God’s contingent causality or Ockham’s nominalism.



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Trinity CollegeUniversity of CambridgeCambridgeUK