Skip to main content Accessibility help


  • Akihiro Tawara (a1)


Avicenna came to an unexpected conclusion in the treatise On Plants in al-Šifāʾ: that plants are not alive. This judgment is surprising in view of Aristotle's opinion that that which has a soul is alive. This paper shows that there is a development in Avicenna's thought on plants' life. He begins with the Aristotelian view that plants are alive inasmuch as they possess a soul, as we see in his early A Compendium on the Soul. Later, however, through his investigation of the faculties of the soul, discussed mainly in the first part of the Canon of Medicine, he is led to conclude that plants could not be said to be alive. This paper indicates the importance of considering the influence of Avicenna's medical findings on his philosophical arguments when examining the development of his thought.

Dans la partie du Šifāʾ qui porte “sur les plantes”, Avicenne aboutit à cette conclusion inattendue que celles-ci ne seraient pas vivantes. Cette thèse surprend étant donné l'opinion d'Aristote voulant que tout ce qui a une âme est vivant. Cet article montre qu'Avicenne a évolué quant à la question de la vie des plantes. Il commence par adopter la conception aristotélicienne selon laquelle les plantes sont vivantes dans la mesure où elles sont dotées d'une âme, comme il ressort de son œuvre précoce qu'est le Compendium sur l'âme. Ensuite cependant, une fois qu'Avicenne a analysé les facultés de l'âme comme il le fait principalement dans son Canon de Médecine, il est conduit à conclure que les plantes ne pouvaient pas être dites vivantes. Cet article illustre ainsi l'intérêt qu'il y a, lorsqu'on étudie le développement de la pensée d'Avicenne, à prendre en compte l'impact de ses découvertes médicales sur ses réflexions philosophiques.


Corresponding author


Hide All

1 Liber I, Tractatus I; covering pages 1–55 in the edition, Alberti Magni De Vegetabilibus Libri VII (Berolini, 1867). A more recent reprint is Alberti Magni De Vegetabilibus Libri VII (Frankfurt, 1982).

2 Liber I, Tractatus I, Capitulum I. English translation by Grant, Edward, A Source Book in Medieval Science (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1974), p. 690. Latin text: Quia vero commune primum principium, quod omnibus convenit plantis et partibus earum, est vita, quae invenitur in plantis; ideo de vita plantarum primo inquiremus (p. 4).

3 Aristotle, On the Soul, 2.2, 413a21–22. The English translation of Aristotle I used is that in The Complete Works of Aristotle, The Revised Oxford Translation, ed. Barnes, Jonathan (Princeton, New Jersey, 1984).

4 Aristotle, On the Soul, 1.1, 402a5–6.

5 Aristotle, On the Soul, 2.1, 412a14.

6 Aristotle, On the Soul, 2.1, 413a32–3.

7 Aristotle, On the Soul, 2.2, 413a23–27.

8 Mansion, Suzanne, ‘Deux définitions différentes de la vie chez Aristote?’, Revue philosophique de Louvain, Quatrième série, Tome 71, N° 11 (1973): 425–50.

9 Mansion, ‘Deux définitions’, p. 445.

10 Avicenna, On Plants, p. 3, line 19. The Arabic text used is Sīnā, Ibn, Al-Šifāʾ, al-Ṭabīʿīyāt 7, al-Nabāt, ed. Muntaṣir, ʿAbd al-Ḥalīm, Zāyid, Saʿīd, and Ismāʿīl, ʿAbd Allāh (Cairo, 1385 [1965]). All translations of Avicenna's works are the author's own unless otherwise noted.

11 The text of the Mabḥaṯ ʿan al-quwā al-nafsāniyya is included in Aḥwāl al-nafs, ed. Ahwānī, Aḥmad Fuʾād (Cairo, 1952), pp. 147–78; the pagination of the Arabic text is based on this edition. When citing this work, the page number from this edition is provided, followed by the page number from Alpago's Latin translation and that from van Dyck's English translation. The Latin translation is in Andrea Alpago, Avicennae philosophi praeclarissimi ac medicorum principis Compendium de Anima, De Mahad, etc. (Venice, 1546; repr. Westmead, Farnborough, UK, 1969). The English translation is by Dyck, Edward Abbot van, in Avicena's Offering to the Prince: A Compendium on the Soul (Verona, 1906). Another edition of the Arabic text, together with the German translation, is available in Landauer, S., ‘Die Psychologie des Ibn Sînâ’, Zeitschrift der deutschen morgenländischen Gesellschaft, 29 (1875): 335418; reprinted in Studies on Ibn Sīnā (d. 1037) and his Medical Works, vol. 1 (Frankfurt, 1996), pp. 65–148.

12 The chronology of Avicenna's major philosophical works is given in Gutas, Dimitri, Avicenna and the Aristotelian Tradition: Introduction to Reading Avicenna's Philosophical Works (Leiden, 1988), pp. 79145.

13 Avicenna, Compendium on the Soul, Second Section, p. 153, lines 8–9; Alpago, p. 5r; van Dyck, p. 28.

14 Avicenna, Compendium on the Soul, Fifth Section, p. 160, lines 12–3; Alpago, p. 14; van Dyck, p. 48.

15 Note here Avicenna's definition of the word ‘mutanaffas(a)’. It is immediately explained as ‘ḏawāt al-nufūs’, meaning the possessors of souls. We cannot read the word ‘mutanaffas(a)’ with the meaning ‘breathing’ because plants do not breathe.

16 Avicenna, Compendium on the Soul, Second Section, p. 152, lines 4–7; Alpago, p. 4r; van Dyck, p. 25.

17 The readers of Van Dyck's English translation might think that Avicenna is not coherent, because the following phrase is found: ‘living beings have in common that they are both sentient and perceptive’ (pp. 25–6). These faculties are not attributed to plants, so plants are excluded from ‘living beings’. But the Arabic words used here is ḥayawānī (Second Chapter, p. 152, line 7), an adjective of ḥayawān which means ‘animals’, and not ḥayy meaning ‘living’.

18 Avicenna, al-Mabdaʾ wa-al-Maʿād, Chapter 42, p. 57, lines 6–7. The Arabic text used here is in Jamil Ibrahim Iskandar, Tradução do árabe para o português do tratado i da obra ‘al-mabdaʾ wa al-maʿād’ (a origem e o retorno) de Avicena, doctoral thesis, Universidade Estadual de Campinas, São Paulo, 1997, v. 2.

19 Gutas, Avicenna and the Aristotelian Tradition, p. 32, note 1.

20 Avicenna, al-Mabdaʾ wa-al-Maʿād, Chapter 42, p, 57, lines 5–6.

21 An example of the explanation of ‘equilibrium’ is found in Rahman, Fazlur, Avicenna's Psychology: An English Translation of Kitāb al-Najāt, Book II, Chapter VI with Historico-Philosophical Notes and Textual Improvements on the Cairo Edition (London, 1952), p. 67, lines 9–20.

22 For the date of its composition, see Gutas, Avicenna and the Aristotelian Tradition, pp. 103–6.

23 Avicenna, On Plants, p. 3, lines 18–9.

24 Avicenna, On Plants, p. 3, line 9.

25 Avicenna, Compendium on the Soul, Second Section, p. 152, lines 4–7; Alpago, p. 4r.; van Dyck, p. 25.

26 Aristotle, On the Soul, 3.9, 432b12–19.

27 Nicolaus, par., 1. Isḥāq ibn Ḥunayn's Arabic translation of Nicolaus' De Plantis is in Nicolaus Damascenus de Plantis: Five Translations, ed. Lulofs, H. J. Drossaart and Poortman, E. L. J. (Amsterdam and New York, 1989), pp. 126215. In citing Nicolaus' De Plantis, the paragraph number from this edition is given.

28 Nicolaus, par., 24.

29 Nicolaus, par., 21.

30 Nicolaus, par., 81.

31 Avicenna, On Plants, p. 33, lines 3–4.

32 Nicolaus, par., 123.

33 Gohlman, William E., The Life of Ibn Sina (Albany, New York, 1974), p. 67.

34 Avicenna, Al-Naǧāt, ed. Muḥyī al-Dīn Ṣabrī al-Kurdī (Cairo, 1938), p. 158, lines 16–21.

35 The French translation used is Avicenne, Le Livre de Science, II, traduit par Mohammad Achena et Henri Massé (Paris, 1958). The chapter on the vegetative soul is found at pp. 54–5.

36 Al-Ġazālī, Maqāṣid al-Falāsifa, ed. Dunyā, Sulaymān (Cairo, 1961), p. 346, lines 4–7.

37 Avicenna, al-Išārāt wa-al-Tanbīhāt, ed. Forget, J. (Frankfurt, 1999 [originally published: Leiden, 1892]), pp. 134–5. Goichon's French translation is in Sīnā, Ibn, Livre des directives et remarques, traduction avec introduction et notes par Goichon, A.-M. (Beirut and Paris, 1951), pp. 342–3.

38 Barhebraeus' remarks in the botanical section of Candelabrum seems to be directed against this argument, even though he does not mention Avicenna by name. Barhebraeus criticises judging something not to be alive by the lack of voluntary movement on ground that the sun and stars, which he seems to assume to be alive, do not move at will. This argument is found in Barhebraeus, Candelabrum, II 3.3.2, Section on plants, first part (in Nicolaus Damascenus de Plantis, ed. Lulofs, p. 56).

39 The Arabic edition used is al-Qānūn fī al-ṭibb, 3 vols. (repr. Baghdad, 1970; originally published: Būlāq, 1294 [1877]). In citing the Canon of Medicine, the page and line number from this Arabic edition are given, followed by the page number from the English translation by Mazhar Shah in brackets: The General Principles of Avicenna's Canon of Medicine, trans. by Shah, Mazhar H. (Karachi, 1966).

40 Ǧūzǧānī, Biography of Ibn Sīnā, in Gohlman, The Life of Ibn Sina, p. 45.

41 Avicenna, Canon of Medicine, 1.6.4, p. 70, lines 19–21 [Shah, p. 132].

42 Avicenna, Canon of Medicine, 1.6.4, p. 70, line 33 [Shah, p. 133].

43 Avicenna, Canon of Medicine, 1.6.4, p. 70, lines 3–4 [Shah, p. 131].

44 Avicenna, Canon of Medicine, 1.3.1, p. 7, lines 19–20 [Shah, p. 6].

45 Avicenna, On Plants, p. 7, lines 10–12.

46 Avicenna, Canon of Medicine, 1.6.4, p. 70, line 21 [Shah, p. 132].

47 Avicenna, Canon of Medicine, 1.3.2, p. 10, line 6 [Shah, p. 30].

48 Another good example of Avicenna's explanation of the relationship of spirit to life can be found in his On Cardiac Drugs. Arabic edition: Min muʾallafāt Ibn Sīnā al-ṭibbiyya: Kitāb dafʿ al-maḍār al-kulliyya ʿan al-abdān al-insāniyya, al-Urǧūza fī al-ṭibb, Kitāb al-adwiya al-qalbiyya, ed. al-Bābā, Muḥammad Zuhayr (Aleppo, 1984), pp. 221–94; English translation: Avicenna's Tract on Cardiac Drugs and Essays on Arab Cardiotherapy, ed. Hameed, Hakeem Abdul (Karachi, 1983), pp. 1175. See especially Section Two (Arabic edition, pp. 224–6).

Related content

Powered by UNSILO


  • Akihiro Tawara (a1)


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed.