Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

More Than the Sum of Its Parts: Animal Categories and Accretive Logic in Volume One of al-Jāhiz's “Kitāb al-Hayawān”
by Miller, Jeanne, Ph.D., New York University, 2013, 436; 3557020
Abstract (Summary)

This dissertation is a study of animal categories and the concept of the intercategory in Volume One of the ninth-century polymath Al-Jāhiz's Kitāb al-Hayawān, or Book of Animal Life. This volume consists of an introductory debate between Al-Jāhiz and an unnamed Addressee, followed by a debate between unnamed Proponents of the Dog and the Rooster about the merits and defects of those two animals. Both of these debates focus on the question of whether the dog should be considered horrible because it is intercategory between predator (sabu`) and prey (bahima), the two fundamental animal categories.

My dissertation argues that the disparate views of the intercategory represented in these debates reflect different understandings of material beings and their attributes. Al-Jāhiz advocates, and then demonstrates, a comparative approach to materiality that is inspired by physical theories espoused by speculative theology (kalam). This comparative approach denies esoteric essences, and draws on contemporary materialist turns in speculative theology (kalam) and law (fiqh).

Chapter One describes how a mis-reading of Aristotle's History of Animals in Arabic translation resulted in Al-Jāhiz's unique understanding of animal species that I call "large kinds." Al-Jāhiz used this approach to animal species to naturalize cross-breeds, while preserving their status as intercategory animals. Chapter Two provides a close reading of Al-Jāhiz's classification of animals, concluding that the passage is crafted as a critique of the monovalent technical terminology and hierarchical classifications that were key to Aristotelian logic. Al-Jāhiz's taxonomy instead seeks grounds for categories already implicit in natural language, but the process reveals that these categories while intuitively clear cannot be unequivocally delineated. Chapter Three examines the introductory debate between Al-Jāhiz and the unnamed Addressee, concluding that Al-Jāhiz's approach to material beings is heavily informed by doctrines about how atoms combine to form a totality. Chapter Four shows that the Dog-Rooster Debate employs a material method, according to which attributes of the dog are treated as separable, and are assessed through comparison to other animals.

Al-Jāhiz here presents a consistent epistemology that relies on a commitment to the usages of natural language, combined with rigorous comparative analysis.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Kennedy, Philip F.
Commitee: Katz, Marion H., Lezra, Jaques, Montgomery, James E., Rowson, Everett K.
School: New York University
Department: Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies
School Location: United States -- New York
Source: DAI-A 74/07(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Middle Eastern literature, Religious history, Science history
Keywords: Accretive logic, Animal categories, Debate, Epistemology, Horror, Intercategory, Jahiz, Kitab al-Hayawan, Monster, Taxonomy
Publication Number: 3557020
ISBN: 978-1-267-99598-8
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