Philosopher Stephen Ogden’s research on intellect and questions of enduring relevance lands him a book prize and an NEH fellowship

Author: Beth Staples

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Stephen Ogden, the Tracey Family Associate Professor of Philosophy

Stephen Ogden is having an impressive winter — the Tracey Family Associate Professor of Philosophy won both the Journal of the History of Philosophy (JHP) Book Prize and a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) fellowship within a span of a few days.

The awards recognize his research and expertise about theories of intellect developed by Muslim philosophers Averroes (whose Arabic name was Ibn Rushd) in the 12th century and Avicenna (Ibn Sīnā) in the 11th century, respectively.

While the philosophers have been dead for centuries, Ogden said, their theories are pertinent to some of today’s important issues: What is intellect? What is intelligence? What is artificial intelligence? Can something that is computational have intelligence? What are the implications for creating something like that?

“These are philosophical questions of enduring relevance,” said Ogden, who notes that the philosophers he studies were also experts in science. “The more scientists are able to think philosophically, the better off we are, and the more philosophers we have talking with scientists, the better off we are.”

‘New ideas and perspective can emerge’

Ogden’s Averroes on Intellect: From Aristotelian Origins to Aquinas's Critique — the only book about Averroes’ theories on intellect written in English — won the JHP Prize for its contributions to the history of philosophy.

“After all that work, to get the JHP Prize means that the book spoke to not just experts in my field but people working in other areas of the history of philosophy,” he said. “That means a lot to me.”

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Averroes on Intellect: From Aristotelian Origins to Aquinas's Critique is the only book about Averroes’ theories on intellect written in English.

Ogden is also grateful for feedback from outside experts and Notre Dame faculty members which he received on the manuscript in 2018-2019 when he was an A.W. Mellon Junior Faculty Fellow at the Medieval Institute. That guidance, he said, helped him polish and focus on what became the award-winning book about Averroes.

The Muslim philosopher, physician, and judge developed the unicity thesis, which is the view that all people share one eternal intellect.

“When individuals understand 2 plus 2 equals 4, there's nothing about the concept that's unique to any one person,” Ogden said, explaining the theory.

“The concept isn't limited to language, so if you were thinking that same thought in Arabic right now, it would still be the same concept. There’s nothing personal about it. It seems eternal. It’s something we’re tapping into — it’s not dependent on us.”

The idea of one shared intellect has gained new relevance, Ogden said, given the advent of cloud computing. Considering that at least 100 septillion bytes (that’s 100 followed by 22 zeros) of data will be stored in the cloud by 2025 — a Deloitte executive equated that amount of shared information to a stack of Blu-ray discs stretching from the Earth to the moon 23 times — the potential for a central source containing all knowledge now seems plausible.

Regardless, Ogden said, it’s not necessary to agree with Averroes about his theory of intellect.

“What’s important,” he said, “is that through discussion and debate, new ideas and perspectives can emerge.”

‘Intermediary between God and humanity’

Soon after his JHP prize, Ogden won the NEH fellowship in support of what is expected to be the first book centered on Avicenna’s theory of intellect.

Avicenna, who also was a famous physician, theorized there were two types of intellect — the human intellect (which Averroes seemed to deny) and the active intellect. The latter is described as a single, eternal intellect ultimately responsible for all human understanding and for the major metaphysical components of the Earth.

“Oftentimes when you explain it to nonexperts, they say, ‘That sounds like God,’” Ogden said. “It’s similar to God, but in Avicenna’s system, it’s a lower, semi-divine substance or intellect. It’s an intermediary between God and humanity.”

In the book, Ogden will defend his unique interpretation of the theory and historically contextualize it with respect to Avicenna’s predecessors and to later philosophers in both Islamic and other traditions.

Ogden said the book, tentatively titled “Avicenna on Intellect,” will be a fitting companion piece to Averroes on Intellect.

Avicenna and Averroes developed two of the most important theories on intellect in classical Islamic philosophy, he said, and they heavily influenced later Islamic, Christian, and Jewish philosophical traditions.

Evaluating the philosophical and historical contexts in which Avicenna and others developed their views can help people today consider their own preconceptions and biases, Ogden said.

“I think there's something valuable — I emphasize this with my students — in reading something that’s a thousand years old, 2,000 years old, or older,” he said.

“A lot of things seem perfectly natural to our minds, given where we stand in history, but if read by an outsider a thousand years from now, they might not seem that obvious. We’ve gained much more empirical data, but philosophers and neuroscientists are still debating and exploring the nature of the human mind.”

‘The whole range of knowledge’

Learning about non-Western traditions also is important, Ogden said. Especially at Notre Dame, which has the nation’s largest philosophy department and strives to provide unrivaled coverage of the history of philosophy.

“There’s a nice tradition here, and I’m proud to be a part of it and continue it,” he said. “The world of philosophy is a lot bigger at Notre Dame because of our numbers and all of the various interests that we have.”

Ogden’s courses, including Islamic Philosophy, Islamic Political Philosophy, and God, World & Soul in Classical Islamic Philosophy, incorporate philosophers from the earliest days of Islamic tradition to present day, including contemporary Muslim feminists.

Muslim thinkers had an influence on Catholic thinkers, Ogden said, and knowing how philosophy evolved within another Abrahamic tradition is useful for Catholics in considering how religion shapes knowledge and vice versa.

“Notre Dame is committed to thinking about the whole range of knowledge, from a Catholic perspective,” he said. “I’m Catholic, myself, and find it valuable to study another faith tradition. It informs how I think about my own tradition and the tradition of the University.”