Sarah Pessin

Ibn Gabirol’s Theology of Desire

Ibn Gabirol’s Theology of Desire: Matter and Method in Jewish Medieval Neoplatonism (Cambridge University Press, 2013)

“In this study, I challenge classic approaches to Ibn Gabirol in three ways…

First, treating his Neoplatonic text as if it were a standard system of metaphysics (i.e. which is the general assumption in the history of philosophy), I argue that centuries of readers have erred in reading Ibn Gabirol on “Divine Will” and “matter” as if he were an opponent to Plotinian emanation; on the contrary, I read his “Divine Will” (which I call “Divine Desire”) as the very marker of Plotinian divine emanation in Ibn Gabirol’s world-view. If he has a “metaphysics,” in other words, it is Plotinian.

Secondly, also taking Ibn Gabirol’s text as a “metaphysics” in an unproblematized sense (as per the history of philosophy), I re-read his puzzling doctrine of “layers of matter” (often characterized as “universal hylomorphism”) as mirroring tripartite Neoplatonic analysis: In this sense, I read Ibn Gabirol on “matter, matter+form, form” in conceptual alignment with the Neoplatonic emphasis on “remaining, procession, reversion.” (This approach on my part also allows me to make more sense of his apparently “trinitarian” approach to God.)

Lastly, I problematize what we think “Neoplatonic metaphysics” is as a discourse; taking seriously (in a way the history of philosophy has not) the implications for Ibn Gabirol’s text of apophysis (“negative theology”), I urge us to re-read Ibn Gabirol’s (and Plotinus’) words not as “metaphysical doctrines” but as paradoxical encounters with what I call the Paradox of Divine Unity.”

Read Sarah on Neoplatonism (and Invisible Kansases!) on the Cambridge U Press blog

Sarah’s interview with Peter Adamson explores insights on creation-emanation

Sarah’s video on Ibn Gabirol, al-Farabi, and the Theology of Aristotle

Carrie Figdor, in New Books Network ( “Neoplatonists, including the 11th century Jewish philosopher-poet Solomon Ibn Gabirol, are often saddled with a cosmology considered either as outdated science or a kind of “invisible floating Kansas” in which spatiotemporal talk isn’t really about space or time. Sarah Pessin, Associate Professor of Philosophy and the Emil and Eva Hecht Chair in Judaic Studies at the University of Denver, is committed to upending these traditional readings.

In Ibn Gabirol’s Theology of Desire: Matter and Method in Jewish Medieval Neoplatonism (Cambridge University Press, 2013), Pessin begins her reappraisal from the ground up, interpreting neoplatonist cosmo-ontology as a response to the Paradox of Divine Unity: of how God can be both complete yet also give way to that which is other than Himself.

Pessin argues that Ibn Gabirol saw being and beings as emanating from God via a process of divine desire – a kind of pre-cognitive, essential yearning to share His goodness forward. This desire infuses the initial Grounding Element, a positive conception of matter that (contrary to standard views) is prior to and superior to soul and intellect and utterly distinct from Aristotle’s notion of Prime Matter. Pessin’s provocative book is full of surprising insights that reveal the richness of the ideas of a “completely mischaracterized” figure and period.”

Read Sarah’s interview with NBN.

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