[3.2.1] Al-Farabi’s Cosmology

In The Political Regime and The Virtuous City, al-Fārābī (872-950 AD) provides a metaphysical and ontological model of the universe, combining:

  • Neoplatonic emanationism (see [2.4.2])
  • Aristotelian views on the celestial spheres
  • and hylomorphism (see [1.3.5], [1.3.7])

as can be observed in the following OntoUML diagram:

Al-Farabi’s cosmology
FirstExistentAl- Fārābī identifies the First Existent with God, who is the source of revelation for Rational Animals (Man) through the Active Intellect.
“According to the emanation (fayḍ) process described by al-Fārābī, the existence of every being proceeds from the First Existent (mawjūd al-awwal), which is perfect, eternal, everlasting, uncaused, free of matter and without form, with no purpose or aim external to itself, with no partner or opposite, and indivisible. The First Existent is distinguished from all other beings due to its oneness, which is its essence. This description seems very close to the Neoplatonic conception of the One, but it is not exactly the same. Al-Fārābī instead argues that, given that this First Existent is not in matter and has no matter, it should be an actual intellect (‘aql bi’l fi‘l). The First Existent is also intelligible (ma‘qūl) through its substance, and its identity consists in simultaneously being the act, the subject, and the object of its own intellection.”
emanates highest SecondIntellect
SecondIntellectEach Second Intellect creates and contains a Form for a CelestialBody (e.g. the form of Saturn), and emanates a next level of Intellect.

“Every existent comes to be, according to al-Fārābī, by the First Existent. This takes place through a sort of expansion or emanation through which the First Existent necessarily gives existence to every being in the universe. Yet this does not imply any addition to its own perfection. In the initial emanation, from the First Existent proceed the second intellects. These intellects themselves, through the apprehension of themselves and the First Existent, are in turn the cause of the celestial bodies.”
contains FormOfCelestialBody; emanates next level of SecondIntellect
ActiveIntellect The active intellect creates and contains particular Forms for the particular Bodies in the sublunary world. E.g. creates the form of the Mont Blanc.

“There is a tenth intellect, namely, the active intellect (‘aql al-fa ‘‘āl), whose activity is very relevant mainly for two reasons: (1) this intellect governs together with the celestial spheres the sublunary world, and is even involved in the processes of generation and corruption (al-Fārābī LI: 29–30; OI: 75); (2) furthermore… this intellect also provides the first principles of understanding through which human beings can attain happiness (al-Fārābī VC: 204–205)”
contains FormsOfSublunaryBody; is emanated by the lowest SecondIntellectIntellect (Moon)
The Form of Celestial Body is created by the corresponding Second Intellect.contained by a SecondIntelect; part of a CelestialBody
CelestialBody “..fixed stars, Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, the sun, Venus, Mercury, and the Moon.” is subkind of Body; Composed of FormOfCelestialBody and Matter
“In The Virtuous City he explicitly enumerates nine spheres starting with the first heaven, and then the fixed stars, Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, the sun, Venus, Mercury, and the Moon.”associated with 1 CelestialBody
A multidude of Forms of particular sublunary bodies are created by the ActiveIntellect. E.g. form of the Mont Blanc. contained by a ActiveIntelect; part of a SublunaryBody
The soul is the Form of particular a Living Body.
“Al-Fārābī describes the soul as Aristotle did in On the Soul 2.1, 412a19, that is, as the form or actualization (ἐντελέχεια / antalāshiyā or at-tamām) of a natural organic body that potentially has life. Living beings have different faculties: the nutritive, sensitive, appetitive, and rational faculties.”
E.g. the soul of Aristotle, created and contained by the Active Intellect.
FormForms can be of Celestial and Sublunary Bodies.
“there are also different kinds of forms, some of them of lower perfection, as the form of minerals or plants, and others more perfect, as the form of rational animals. This perfection is given by the faculties that each body has according to its natural disposition: while plants have basic faculties such as nutrition or reproduction, rational animals have a higher faculty, the intellect, which enables human beings to attain intelligibles in act.Forms can be of Celestial and Sublunary Bodies.”
Body“Al-Fārābī explains that the universe contains six kinds of body. In decreasing order of perfection, there are: (1) celestial bodies, (2) rational animals, (3) non-rational animals, (4) plants, (5) minerals, and (6) the four elements (al-Fārābī KS: 31; PR: 29).”contains Matter
SublunaryBodySublunary Bodies can be:
– Living Bodies: rational animals, non-rational animals, plants,
– minerals, and the four elements
E.g. Mont Blanc
contains FormOfSublunaryBody
LivingBodyLiving Bodies: rational animals, non-rational animals, plants
E.g. Aristotle as a human being, with Soul created by the Active Intellect and body created from matter.
contains Soul
RationalAnimalrational animals have a higher faculty, the intellect, which enables human beings to attain intelligibles in act.”is LivingBody
Non-Rational Animal is Living Body.is LivingBody
Plant Plant is Living Body.is LivingBody
MineralMinaral is Sublunary Body.is SublunaryBody
FourElementsThe FourElements are Sublunary Body and Matter at the same time.
“The four elements proceed from prime matter and, when these elements combine and mix in different ways and undergo the influence of the heavenly bodies, they generate numerous kinds of bodies: minerals, plants, non-rational animals, and rational animals (al-Fārābī VC: 112–115).”
is Sublunary Body and Matter
Matter“Concerning the origin and composition of matter, al-Fārābī explains that the circular motion of the celestial spheres generates prime matter (al-madda al-ūlā), which is common to all bodies in the sublunary world… Given that matter is the substratum of form, the different forms appear when the combination of the elements takes place, giving rise to different kinds of bodies.”

Hylomorphism (see [1.3.5], [1.3.7]) can be observed in the following relations:

  • Matter – CelestialBody – FormOfCelestialBody
  • Matter – SublunaryBody – FormOfSublunaryBody
  • Matter – LivingBody – Soul


  • All citations from: López-Farjeat, Luis Xavier, “Al-Farabi’s Psychology and Epistemology”The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
  • Herbert A. Davidson, “Alfarabi, Avicenna, and Averroes, on Intellect”, Oxford University Press 1992
  • Amelia Carolina Sparavigna, “The Ten Spheres of Al-Farabi: A Medieval Cosmology, Article in International Journal of Sciences January 2014

First published: 11/07/2019

[2.5] Porphyry on Universals

Neoplatonic philosopher Porphyry, the Phoenician (234?–305? BC) in his work Isagoge commented on Aristotle’s Categories (see [1.3.2]), where:

  • he listed the predicables (universals) as genus, species, difference, property, and accidents
  • and raised (but did not answer) paradigmatic questions about universals: “I shall abstain from deeper enquiries and aim, as appropriate, at the simpler ones. For example, I shall beg off saying anything about (a) whether genera and species are real or are situated in bare thoughts alone, (b) whether as real they are bodies or incorporeals, and (c) whether they are separated or in sensibles and have their reality in connection with them.” (Porphyry, Isagoge, in Spade 1994)

Porphyry’s model of universals is in the following OntoUML diagram:

Porphyry on predicables
Predicables (Universals)Porphyry “proceeds not by talking about the ten Aristotelian categories directly, but instead by discussing five words or notions that he says are important for a clear understanding of the Categories. These five notions are: genus, difference, species, property and accident.
They came to be known as the five “predicables” — praedicabilia, not to be confused with the predicaments, which are the ten Aristotelian categories.
Although there is considerable doubt about it, people sometimes say that Porphyry’s list of five predicables is based on a similar list of four items that Aristotle presents in his Topics I.4 101b23–25, and again in more detail in Topics I.5 101b37–102b26. There Aristotle discusses: definition, property, genus and accident.
Porphyry’s list differs from Aristotle’s by adding difference, which Aristotle doesn’t have on his list, and by substituting species for definition.”
Genus“The genus is the part of the real definition that answers the broad question What is it? What is man? Man is an animal. Now in Latin, the interrogative pronoun ‘What?’ is ‘quid’. And so the genus of a thing is said to be predicated “in quid” of that thing. The phrase ‘in quid’ is a kind of horribly abbreviated way of saying “with respect to what the thing is,” or “in a way that answers the question ‘What is it’” — or in effect, “in a way that gives you the genus.”is in a recursive association with itself; each level splits the superior level in 2 or more, based on the attributes marked in Difference
Difference“On the other hand, the difference is the part of the real definition that answers the question What kind of a _ is it?, where the pause is filled in with the genus. What is man? Man is an animal. What kind of animal? A rational one. In Latin, the interrogative pronoun ‘What kind of?’ or ‘What manner of?’ is ‘quale’. And so the difference of a thing is said to be predicated of it not in quid, but rather in quale.”defines Species;
Species“Man is a most specific species. Below man there are only individual men, not yet lower species. What this means, of course, is that the differences among individual men are not essential differences but accidental ones. If they were essential differences, then we would have lower species after all.”relates to itself recursively
Property“In Aristotle and in Porphyry, and in medieval metaphysical discussions generally, the word ‘property’ means, first of all, something that is not essential to a thing (genus, difference and species are the essential predicables), but that nevertheless belongs to it and to it alone. (So exclusive ownership is only part of the story.) Now we’re not talking primarily about individuals here. In fact, Porphyry has very little to say about individuals at all in the Isagoge. We’re talking at the level of genera and species. And when we say something is a property of a certain species, we mean that it belongs to exactly the things in that species, and to nothing else. So we say, for instance, that it is a property of the species man to be risible — that is, to have the ability to laugh.”characterizes Species
Accident“the differences among individuals are accidental ones, not essential ones. […] Accident is what comes and goes without the destruction of the
characterizes Individual
Individual“Below man [as species] there are only individual men, not yet lower species. What this means, of course, is that the differences among individual men are not essential differences but accidental ones.”subkind of Species

Related posts in theory of Universals: [1.2.1], [1.3.1], [1.3.2], [2.5], [2.7.3], [4.3.1], [4.3.2], [4.4.1][4.5.2][4.9.8]


  • All citations from: Spade, Paul Vincent, “History of the Problem of Universals in the Middle Ages”, Indiana University 2009
  • Emilsson, Eyjólfur, “Porphyry”The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
  • Adamson, Peter,“92 – King of Animals: Porphyry”, History of Philosophy without any Gaps podcast

First published: 28/05/2020