Selections on the Floating Man

Avicenna (Ibn Sina)

circa 1027

Below are two short passages from Avicenna’s al-Nafs (On Psychology), which is a section of his al-Shifa (On Healing). Translations are from Michael Marmura, “Avicenna’s ‘Flying Man’ in Context,” The Monist 69 (1986).

Avicenna, al-Nafs V.7 (Marmura 1986, p. 390):

We say: If a human is created all at once, created with his limbs separated and he does not see them, and if it happens that he does not touch them and they do not touch each other, and he hears no sound, he would be ignorant of the existence of the whole of his organs, but would know the existence of his individual being as one thing, while being ignorant of all the former things. What is itself the unknown is not the known.

Avicenna, al-Nafs I.1 (Marmura 1986, 387):

He will not doubt his affirming his self existing, but with this he will not affirm any limb from among his organs, no internal organ, whether heart or brain, and no external thing. Rather, he would be affirming his self without affirming for it length, breadth and depth. And if in this state he were able to imagine a hand or some other organ, he would not imagine it as part of his self or a condition for its existence.

You know that what is affirmed is other than what is not affirmed and what is acknowledged is other than what is not acknowledged. Hence the self whose existence he has affirmed has a special characteristic of its being his very self, other than his body and organs that have not been affirmed.

Hence the one who affirms has a means to be alerted to the existence of the soul as something other than the body—indeed, other than body—and to his being directly acquainted with this existence and aware of it. If he is oblivious to this, he would require educative prodding.