Potestas Essendi

A Virtual Space for Thoughts on the Middle Ages, by Nicola Polloni

Divergent Ontologies

Divergent Ontologies: A Study on Gundissalinus’ Metaphysical Syncretism

Doctoral Resarch (2012-21015) – University of Pavia/Autonomous University of Barcelona

Screen Shot 2016-03-22 at 07.49.32Dominicus Gundissalinus (ca. 1115-post 1181) is one of the most prominent figures of the Toledan translation movement, as well as an original philosopher. In collaboration with the Jewish philosopher Abraham Ibn Daud and Iohannes Hispanus, he translated over twenty Arabic works into Latin. These translations are used by the Toledan philosopher as main sources for his original speculation, concretized in five philosophical treatises which show Gundissalinus’ conviction of the strong coherence between Christian, Islamic and Jewish philosophical traditions. These works are the first Latin treatises to analyze the main Arabic and Hebrew philosophical doctrines that will constitute the theoretical basis for Latin speculation in the thirteenth century.

After a brief examination of Gundissalinus’ biography and his work as translator in Toledo, this dissertation focuses on Gundissalinus’ metaphysical reflection, as it is presented in his original treatises. The method used herein is the doctrinal and genetic analysis of the writings, dealing with the three main aspects of Gundissalinus’ metaphysical speculation: the being of God, the creatural being, and the cosmogonic causation. The aim of this study is to delineate the theoretical structure by which Gundissalinus’ original ontology is built on his peculiar use of the Arabic and Hebrew works he translated and how this structure is explicitly interpreted by Gundissalinus as doctrinally coherent with the Latin philosophical tradition he aims to update. In this respect, this analysis is a comparative examination – both doctrinal and textual – of Gundissalinus and his Arabic-Hebrew sources: Avicenna, Ibn Gabirol, al-Ghazali and Ibn Daud, and his main Latin sources:  Boethius, Calcidius, Thierry of Chartres, William of Conches and Hermann of Carinthia.

The Biographical and Philosophical Context of Gundissalinus’ Work

Gundissalinus is first attested in the capitulary archives of Segovia’s cathedral in 1148, as archdeacon of the small town of Cuéllar. These documents show that Gundissalinus spent at least fourteen years in Segovia or Cuéllar, as he first appears in the Toledan chapter in 1162. It is likely that his activity as a translator began in this year, an undertaking sponsored by the Toledan archbishop John II and strongly linked to the presence of Abraham Ibn Daud – or «Avendauth» – in the Castilian capital. In the scientific and philosophical context provided by the so-called «Gundissalinus’ circle», Abraham Ibn Daud, Iohannes Hispanus and Gundissalinus translated more than twenty philosophical works from Arabic into Latin, including Avicenna’s Metaphysica and De anima, Ibn Gabirol’s Fons vitae, and al-Ghazali’s Summa theoricae philosophiae. Concurrently, Gundissalinus and Ibn Daud created an original philosophical speculation on many issues found in the texts they translated. The results of this reflection have been concretized in five philosophical treatises – De unitate et uno, De scientiis, De anima, De divisione philosophiae, and De processione mundi – written by Gundissalinus during the second half of the twelfth century.

screen-shot-2016-11-20-at-10-19-25In these writings, the archdeacon of Cuéllar shows his deep syncretism towards different, and often divergent, philosophical traditions. Using mainly the the Arabic-Hebrew speculations to which he had access, Gundissalinus built an original doctrinal system where many core theoretical concepts, such as Avicenna’s Active Intellect or Ibn Gabirol’s universal hylomorphism, are thematized in the horizon offered by the Latin tradition, especially the Chartrean speculation, the Weltanschauung through which Gundissalinus interprets his sources.

Gundissalinus’ debt toward Chartres leads our study to a preliminary acceptation of the hypothesis, proposed by many scholars, regarding his presence there before appearing in Segovia in 1148. For this reason, the Chartrean masters are examined as main sources for Gundissalinus’ metaphysics in this study: only at the end of this work will it be possible to come to a definitive conclusion regarding this fascinating hypothesis.

The second part of the dissertation’s first chapter examines the philosophical corpus produced by Gundissalinus, which illustrates the coherence of the metaphysical program presented in the De scientiis and the De divisione philosophiae and analyzed in the De processione mundi. This comprehensive examination of Gundissalinus’ philosophical production likewise offers the means of establishing the main theoretical bonds that link the De unitate et uno, the De anima and the De processione. The chapter ends with a specific analysis of the metaphysical works composed by Gundissalinus – the De unitate and the De processione – as preliminary illustrations of the main themes discussed in subsequent chapters.

The Thematization of God’s Being

The first metaphysical aspect of Gundissalinus’ reflection analyzed herein is his thematization of God’s being as ontologically different from the creatural one, a viewpoint which indicates a primary doctrinal shift. In the De unitate, God is primarily characterized as the metaphysical One, the absolute and perfect Unity from which the ontological unity that constitutes creatures’ being is derived. However, in the De processione, this first divine attribute has less significance, as the primary characteristic of God is found in the causal and modal ontology elaborated by Avicenna. In this perspective, God is the Necessary Existent, the self-sufficient being that causes the being of every subsequent existent. These created beings have in themselves a possible being – neutrally liable of existence as well as non-existence – that constitutes the being they are entitled to and which become a necessary being only through the causal intervention of the Necessary Existent. In this way, there is a fundamental distinction between God and these beings: God is the Necessary Existent per se, while the other beings that actually exist are necessary per aliud only, i.e. thanks to their ontogenetic cause.

Screen Shot 2017-04-15 at 07.53.23.pngWhile the doctrine of necessary and possible being offers the main characteristics of God’s being, the De processione mundi further develops His divine attributes. Apart from His necessity and metaphysical Unity, God is also characterized as pure Act. It is the Goodness in se that, through its will and its wisdom, establishes the world in an act of creation ex nihilo, that by Gundissalinus’ intention, avoids any misinterpretation of God’s action as a demiurgic ordination of primordial chaos.

In the second part of this chapter, these aspects of Gundissalinus’ thematization are analyzed through the doctrinal comparison with its sources, beginning with Avicenna. From his Metaphysica, Gundissalinus receives the aforementioned doctrine of necessary and possible being and quotes a long excerpt from this text in the De processione mundi. Nevertheless, the reception of this theory, along with a lack of reference to other Avicennian doctrines regarding the analysis of God, is crucially influenced by two writings directly related to Avicenna: al-Ghazali’s Summa theoricae philosophiae and Ibn Daud’s ha-Emunah ha-Ramah. These two treatises play a decisive role in Gundissalinus’ hermeneutics, as they lead the Toledan philosopher to propose a clear link between the doctrine of necessary being and that of act and potency. However, many aspects of God’s thematization exposed by al-Ghazali and Ibn Daud have no place in Gundissalinus’ reflection, showing his lack of interest in the traditional Islamic and Hebrew doctrines concerning God’s attributes.

Gundissalinus’ conceptualization of God as pure and absolute Unity derives from a wider range of authors, who directly and indirectly influence his works. Textual analysis shows the main source for both the De unitate‘s and the De processione‘s treatment of this concept is Ibn Gabirol. Gabirol’s Fons vitae provides the basis of Gundissalinus’ conception of the role of God’s will and wisdom in the cosmogonic dynamics, asserting the first joining of matter and form – the former derived from God’s essence, the latter from his wisdom – is operated by the divine will.

Screen Shot 2016-03-22 at 07.50.26.pngNevertheless, other sources of these features can be detected in the Latin philosophical tradition, beginning with Boethius’s De Trinitate and De hebdomadibus, both examined further in detail herein. In this viewpoint, the doctrinal analysis of Thierry of Chartres’ speculation, especially his Commentum super Arithmeticam Boethii, sheds light on another important and peculiar aspect of Gundissalinus’ metaphysics. Indeed, examination of these writings show strong similarities in the methods (the compositio/resolutio procedure) and sensibilities (in particular, the numerological and arithmological approach) between the two authors. This connection is further supported by a direct quotation from Thierry’s Commentum on the De arithmetica in the De processione, as well as Gundissalinus’ adherence to numerous outcomes of Thierry’s numerological doctrine.

William of Conches likewise plays an important role, particularly regarding the explanation of the creative role played by the Trinity. Initially, Gundissalinus’ metaphysical treatises seem reticent on this fundamental doctrine of Christian theology, but a deeper examination of the writings shows an affinity with William of Conches’ treatment of Trinity, which is thematized by the Chartrean master through its specific causality on the world’s creation. This rendering was sharply attacked by William of Saint-Thierry in the mid-twelfth century, and the problems arising from this position of divine Trinity as only in reference to creation seem to explain Gundissalinus’ reticence on this issue.

The Ontological Composition of Creatural Being

The third chapter of this dissertation concerns the ontological composition of creatures’ being and its primary feature: the universal hylomorphism. Gundissalinus received this fundamental doctrine from Ibn Gabirol’s Fons vitae, and his strong adherence to this doctrine is found throughout his works. Albeit Gundissalinus’ reception of the hylomorphic composition of spiritual substances, he shows a progressive criticism of some of the features that accompany the Gabirolian doctrine. In the De processione mundi, Gundissalinus abandons the idea of the circular functionality of matter and forms, used by Ibn Gabirol in his explanation of the various levels of reality’s genesis. Gundissalinus’ rejection of this feature is related to his attempt to overcome the problem, directly implied by the circular functionality, of the functional and non-intrinsic determination of the two ontological constituents, upon which every level of reality is based on a «materialization» of form and a «formalization» of matter.

This change of perspective in Gundissalinus’ reflection is due to an overall problematization of his previous positions on ontology – as expressed in the De unitate and the De anima – that operates through the reading of and the adhesion to some Avicennian theories, which are extremely divergent from Ibn Gabirol’s. The doctrine of necessary and possible being also plays a key role in the thematization of creatural being. Gundissalinus interprets the hylomorphic composition as directly related to the intimate and intrinsic possibility of being proper of matter and form before their mutual union and the actual necessity per aliud of the hylomorphic composition. As for the treatment of God’s ontology, this peculiar hermeneutics – the core of Gundissalinus’ ontology –  is taken from al-Ghazali’s and Ibn Daud’s positions on spiritual substances. As stated in the treatises of these two authors, the being of spiritual substances is composed by something analogous, but not coincident, with matter and form, i.e., the possibility and the mediated necessity of their being. Ibn Daud’s influence appears particularly strong here, as in his philosophical treatise the Jewish philosopher harshly attacks the very fundaments of Ibn Gabirol’s ontology, pointing out six main theoretical mistakes that supposedly deprive Ibn Gabirol’s outcomes of any philosophical reliability. Curiously, a response to this attack is found in Gundissalinus’ De processione, another attestation of Ibn Daud’s leverage towards his Toledan colleague.

Thierry of Chartres also broaches the problem of spiritual substances’ composition. In the Commentum to Boethius’ De arithmetica, Thierry provides a peculiar solution that views composition of spiritual substances as made of identity and difference, while the corporeal substances consist of matter and form. However, it is likely that Thierry was not satisfied by this solution, since the problem is not further analyzed in his subsequent works, apart from a synthetic reference in the Glosa, where the Chartrean master proposes a composition of spiritual substances made of pseudo-matter and form, a similar position to those of al-Ghazali and Ibn Daud.

The analysis of Gundissalinus’ and Thierry’s positions shows not only the similarity of approach, but also the Gundissalinus’ effort to solve Thierry’s unsuitable solution to the composition of spiritual substances, an effort based on the de-corporeization of matter, through which a universal hylomorphism can be affirmed without entailing the corporeity of spiritual creatures.

Herman_of_Carinthia.jpgA different answer to this same question can be found in Hermann of Carinthia’s De essentiis, one of Gundissalinus’ major sources. While it is possible to underline many doctrinal similarities with Gundissalinus’ metaphysics, Hermann remains grounded on Timaeus’ cosmology, and even where a universal hylomorphism can be supposed, it is unconscious on the part of Hermann himself. Indeed, the context of his analysis of matter and form is far from Gundissalinus’, exactly for his Platonic context and his astronomical interest. This becomes particularly evident through the doctrinal and textual examination of Calcidius’ commentary on Timaeus, which shows how far apart Calcidius’ and Gundissalinus’ perspectives are. Even when a cursory presence of the Commentarius can be seen in Gundissalinus’ texts, it is always mediated, mainly by Thierry, Hermann, and William of Conches.

The chapter closes with a theoretical analysis of William’s hylomorphism, which displays differences between Gundissalinus and the Chartrean master on creatural ontology. Indeed, William rejects all possibility of a spiritual composition of matter and form, as well as a potential state of the form before its union with matter. Nonetheless, the speculative distance established by this comparative analysis is diluted by Gundissalinus’ direct quote of a passage from William’s Glosae super Platonem.

Cosmogenesis and Progression of Beings

The last chapter of this study examines the creation of the Universe and Gundissalinus’ cosmogonic description of the order in which the different substances came to be. Here also, a discrepancy in Gundissalinus’ treatises can be found. In the De unitate, Gundissalinus accepts and illustrates an emanative process through which different hypostasis – intelligence, rational, animal, and vegetative souls, nature – are borrowed by Ibn Gabirol and presented without any significant doctrinal alteration. By contrast, in the De processione, Gundissalinus proposes a different and original cosmogonic description, where creation is resolved on the causation of matter and form and their first composition. This first union gives birth to the first composed beings – angels, celestial spheres, and elements – that will act as secondary causes for the cosmic institution.

The doctrinal analysis of Gundissalinus’ systems shows, on the one hand, the different specification of cosmogonic causality (i.e., creatio, compositio primaria and secundaria, generatio), derived from the De essentiis, albeit Gundissalinus’ alternations to Hermann’s doctrine. Gundissalinus is likewise indebted to Hermann’s treatise on the subject of cosmic creation.

Screen Shot 2017-04-15 at 07.53.04.pngNevertheless, examination of the Chartrean hermeneutics of genesis, which is seemingly close to Hermann’s, shows a large divide between these biblical reflections and Gundissalinus, as his interests are focused on different aspects of the cosmogenesis. There is one feature, however, that is directly linked to the Chartrean biblical hermeneutics, and which finds specific treatment in the De processione: the doctrine of primordial chaos. There, Gundissalinus quotes a large excerpt from Hugh of Saint-Victor’s De sacramentiis, as an example of Timaeus’ theory of God’s ordination of a primordial elementary chaos. The Toledan philosopher rejects this idea, using some of William of Conches’ arguments, while exceeding his source, since the solution proposed by Gundissalinus is based on the universal hylomorphism. In this sense, the refutation is an attempt to finally resolve the problem of primordial chaos, harshly debated in France at the time, due to this «new» ontological theory.

Finally, a deeper analysis of the text allows us to clarify some more ambiguous aspects of Gundissalinus’ speculation, chiefly his abandonment of Gabirolian cosmology. This change in Gundissalinus’ perspective is referred to his acceptation of Avicennian cosmology, and it helps further illuminate obscure passages of the De processione mundi, for example, the «intelligence’s mediation», that should be identified as the causal mediation acted by the first intelligence of Avicenna’s cosmology. Nevertheless, as previously mentioned regarding his ontology, Gundissalinus’ Avicennism is crucially influenced by al-Ghazali and Ibn Daud, especially the latter. The analysis produced at the end of this chapter shows that Ibn Daud’s ha-Emunah ha-Ramah presents many fundamental aspects that directly influenced Gundissalinus’ De processione mundi, in particular his description of the causality performed by the angelic creatures and the doctrinal link that individuates the secondary causation of nature with the elements.


The genetic-doctrinal analysis provided herein, along with the comparative examination of Gundissalinus’ metaphysics with his main Arabic-Hebrew and Latin sources, allows for some significant conclusions. First, Gundissalinus’ indebtedness to his sources must be stressed, without, however, entailing a complete specularity, as if he were a mere epigone of his sources. The outcome of Gundissalinus’ reflection on metaphysics remains an original development, and it constitutes a philosophical system that can never be resolved in any of his sources; in other words, while deeply dependent on their sources, neither the De unitate et uno nor the De processione can be qualified as «collationes».

On the contrary, Gundissalinus’ approach to his sources is aimed at an intense syncretism and a deep-rooted belief in an overall coherence between philosophical traditions that allows him to use authors and text derived from two main perspectives – Platonic and Aristotelian –  and from three cultures and religions. In his approach, Gundissalinus is well aware of the consequences this choice potentially entails; many results proposed by the Arabic and Hebrew authors he uses are very difficult to integrate in the Latin philosophical tradition he is willing to innovate.

Moreover, when compared, the doctrines Gundissalinus receives from his sources are often contradictory, exemplarily testified by the opposition between the Avicennian and the Gabirolian ontologies. Notwithstanding these theoretical oppositions and doctrinal contradictions, Gundissalinus proposes a coherent, original and mature metaphysical system as it is presented in his De processione mundi.

Screen Shot 2017-04-15 at 07.53.39.pngPassing over the influences of this source, the analysis presented here corroborates the hypothesis regarding the supposed bonds between Gundissalinus and Chartres. In his treatises, the Toledan philosopher shows a deep knowledge of Chartrean philosophy and of the problems related to some of its doctrines, as well as the works by Chartrean masters that mediated by Calcidius’ and Boethius’s influences found in Gundissalinus. Furthermore, the specific community of approaches and interests between Gundissalinus and Thierry that has been detected, particularly the peculiarities of Gundissalinus’ use of Hermann’s De essentiis – seems to testify in favor of the hypothesis denoting Thierry as direct master of Gundissalinus, a supposition that will inevitably require further evidence. By all means, the philosophical perspective elaborated in Chartres in the first half of the twelfth century constitutes the theoretical lens through which Gundissalinus reads and interprets the Arabic-Hebrew writings he uses to propose his own ontology and cosmology.

Regarding the Arabic and Hebrew sources used by Gundissalinus, the results proposed by this dissertation are, on the one hand, support for Avicenna’s and Ibn Gabirol’s key role in metaphysics and ontology. On the other hand, Gundissalinus consistently problematizes Ibn Gabirol’s ontology and cosmology, partly as a result of a deeper knowledge and acceptance of Avicennian metaphysics. The Avicennian corpus used by the Toledan philosopher is read through the peculiar hermeneutics provided by al-Ghazali’s Summa and, even more, by Ibn Daud’s speculation, with which Gundissalinus tries to solve some problematic aspects of Gabirolian metaphysics that strongly influenced his speculation. These remarks further shed light on the key role played by Abraham Ibn Daud, regarding both the Toledan translation movement and the same philosophical reflection of Dominicus Gundissalinus, regarding his ontology and cosmology.

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