Aristotle's Metaphysics: A Dictionary for Christians and Muslims

Prof. Dr. Giovanni Ventimiglia and his research team analyse the so-called cultural DNA of the West thanks to the generous support of the SNSF. This time they scrutinise themes surrounding the notion of "being"; themes not only of interest to Aristotle and his medieval Latin and Arabic commentators, but also figuring centrally in the liveliest international philosophical and theological debates today in both Christian and Islamic worlds.

Over the past several years, Prof. Dr. Giovanni Ventimiglia and his research team have been analysing the so-called cultural DNA of the West. In this context, one can hardly overstate the importance of Aristotle. Not only has his philosophy deeply influenced the way we think today, but also our language bears his traces: potential, potency, substance, substantial, act, category, species, and many other words find their origin in Aristotle. In particular, the fifth book of Aristotle’s Metaphysics is literally a dictionary, in which he defined many words that we still use today, 2400 years later.

One of the universally most common words contained in this dictionary is "being," the translation of the Greek "einai." In their latest project, Ventimiglia and his research team study the commentaries on this part of the fifth book of Metaphysics by various medieval Arabic and Latin philosophers in both the Islamic and the Christian worlds.

Today we know it as a historical fact that Aristotle would have faded into oblivion had the caliphs and ruling elite of Baghdad in the mid-eighth century not saved him by advocating the translation of his works from Greek into Arabic. And we also know it as a historical fact that the Arabs were great commentators and connoisseurs of Aristotle. While Aristotle's metaphysics continued to develop in the Islamic world, it also reached the Christian world through translations from Arabic into Latin (only) in the thirteenth century.

In any case, Aristotle's dictionary, translated into Arabic, then into Latin, and then into all the languages of the world, did and does contain a vocabulary common to Muslims and Christians. In particular, both used the word "to be/existence" - "wujūd" in Arabic, "esse" in Latin - to understand and analyse the meaning of phrases such as "Socrates exists," "blindness exists," "evil exists" and "God exists." One of the central questions that all philosophers and theologians have always asked and continue to ask together with Aristotle reads: is the meaning of the verb "exists" the same in all these sentences? Does blindness "exist" in the same sense in which Socrates "exists"? And does God "exist" in the same sense in which evil "exists"?

These themes are as old as Aristotle himself. Not only did medieval debates revolve around them, but also today these topics are the focus of the liveliest international philosophical and theological debates. And ever since up until now they interest both Christians and Muslims.  

With this research project, Prof. Ventimiglia and his research team will explore another piece of the puzzle in the long-term endeavor to understand our imprints, the cultural – or more fitly put: multicultural - DNA of the West.

- Original title of the project: "Senses of Being. The Medieval Reception of Aristotle's doctrine starting from Metaphysics V 7 (1017 a7-b9)".

- Principal investigator: Prof. Dr. Giovanni Ventimiglia, Professor of Philosophy at the Faculty of Theology, University of Lucerne

- Project participants and collaborators: Prof. Dr. Nadja Germann, Professor of Arabic Philosophy, Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg; Dr. Marta Borgo, Commissio Leonina, Paris; Dr. Iacopo Costa, CNRS and Commissio Leonina, Paris; Dr. Mostafa Najafi, Assistant lecturer and postdoctoral researcher of Islamic Theology, University of Lucerne; PhD student (NN). Research network of the project: Prof. Dr. Gyula Klima (Fordham University New York); Prof. Dr. Matteo di Giovanni (Università di Torino), Prof. Dr. Fabrizio Amerini (Università di Parma).

- Project duration: 48 months

- Approved funding by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF): CHF 960'000 (rounded)