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Adelard's Questions and Ockham's Razor:
Connections between Medieval Philosophy and Modern Science

(Released November 2008)

  by Carolyn Scearce  


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Arabic Scholarship in the
8th to 11th centuries


While natural philosophy languished in the Latin west, events in the Middle East lead to a surprising resurgence of scholarship. The development of Islam among the nomadic tribes of Arabia helped to unify an otherwise divided culture. In just the matter of centuries these warring tribes recreated themselves into the most militarily and intellectually formidable culture of the central Middle Ages. From the 8th to the 11th century Arabic culture experienced a period of intellectual efflorescence (Durant, 1950). An important stimulus to this time of intellectual expansion was the translation of Greek and Syrian texts into Arabic. Among the translated materials were much of the extant texts on Greek medicine, natural philosophy, and mathematics (Lindberg, 1992). Works of Plato and Aristotle, then lost to the West, were contained in Arabic libraries. Islamic scholars not only translated, but wrote extensive commentaries on Greek works, made corrections, and expanded on knowledge where they were able.

map of Islam spreading
The Spread of Islam, 7th & 8th centuries

ancient mechanisms
13th century Persian astrolabe
By the time Arabic scholarship reached its climax in the 11th century, it had surpassed Greek learning in a number of fields and created new branches of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy. Arabic astronomers provided improved observations and invented the astrolabe. Commentators such as Avicenna and Averroes wrote extensive texts explaining the metaphysics and natural philosophy of Aristotle. Arabic alchemists preformed extensive chemical experiments in attempting to determine the nature of matter and in the process invented the method for distillation. From Greek mathematics, Arabic scholars developed Algebra, and went on to invent Trigonometry. Further improvements were added to fields such as medicine, botany, and zoology (Durant, 1950). As the century progressed, religious and political forces began to curb this period of intellectual expansion. Even in decline, Arabic libraries contained a wealth of knowledge that would contribute to a further period of intellectual outpouring.

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