Monday, November 14, 2011

A recent work on Mullā Ṣadrā - Ibrahim Kalin

At the heart of much of the Neoplatonist intuition about knowledge and reality lies the identity thesis, the proposition that in any process of perception and of knowing the perceiving subject and its object are identical, because intellection is an immaterial process. The data that the intellect receives constitutes immaterial ideas or essences. The foundational text for the theory is found in Aristotle’s De Anima III.4, ‘For in the case of things without matter, that which thinks and that which is thought are the same; for speculative knowledge is the same as its object’ (DA 430a3-6). Already in De Anima I.5, Aristotle introduces the notion that the soul and the objects of its knowledge have a ‘like-for-like’ relationship. The soul is an immaterial substance and hence it knows, grasps, assimilates even, that which is similarly immaterial. However, there is one fundamental distinction between the Aristotelian sense of the identity thesis and a more radically monist or idealist turn that it takes with Neoplatonists such as Plotinus. For Aristotle, knowing and thinking are intentional acts in which the objects of knowing and extrinsic to the soul and identified through the mutual recognition of like for like in which the essence for example of a horse that exists in the memory of the thinking person is identified with the essence of the horse that is grasped through the act of perception, abstracted from the substance of the actual horse. Thus the two essences, one intrinsic to the mind and the other extrinsic are identical. With Neoplatonism, intellection is not an intentional act since all the objects of knowledge, insofar as the person perceives the truth, are intrinsic to the intellect itself. There is no object of cognition extrinsic to the intellect. Therefore, unlike Aristotelian epistemology’s approach to knowledge of the truth through representation, knowledge can only be through a direct encounter, a turning within of the intellect. There are, therefore, no ultimate boundaries for the becoming of the soul. The intellect’s ability to grasp knowledge is boundless. It is this version of the identity thesis and the assimilation of knowledge to a metaphysics that is both simultaneously monist and somewhat idealist that is the concern of Kalin’s sophisticated presentation of the epistemology of the Safavid sage Mullā Ṣadrā Shīrāzī (d. 1635), a published version of his doctoral dissertation supervised by one of the pioneers of Sadrian studies in metropolitan academia, Seyyed Hossein Nasr. 

The work comprises three chapters. The first is a historical contextualisation that is divided into two parts: a Hellenic genealogy of attempts to make sense of Aristotle’s notion of identity, and then its Islamic reception from al-Kindī through al-Fārābī, Ibn Sīnā and then Suhrawardī. The second chapter presents the epistemology of Mullā Ṣadrā, beginning with a discussion of his ontology as a framework for making sense of his epistemology which rejects representationalism and uses the identity thesis (which Kalin calls the unification argument) in favour of a epistemology of presence, the famous so-called knowledge by presence argument of later Islamic, especially illuminationist (ishrāqī), philosophy made famous by the late Mehdi Haʾeri Yazdi [The Principles of Epistemology in Islamic Philosophy: Knowledge by Presence, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992]. The third chapter by way of a conclusion examines how Mullā Ṣadrā reconciles a monistically oriented metaphysics with a pluralistic order of cognition through the identity thesis. Appended to the chapters is also an excellent and highly useful (for those of us who teach Islamic philosophy and need texts in translation to do so) translation of the key text in which Mullā Ṣadrā expounds his understanding of the identity thesis, the Epistle on the Identity of the Intellecting Subject and its object (or as Kalin has it ‘the Unification of the Intellector and the intelligible – Risālat ittiḥād al-ʿāqil wa-l-maʿqūl).

The first chapter is a deliberate and judiciously selective history of the identity thesis focusing on those discussions which will best elucidate Mullā Ṣadrā’s argument and which present his own understanding of the genealogy of the thesis tracing through al-Fārābī and his Risālat al-ʿaql, the Theologia Aristotelis, that central text of significance for Islamic Neoplatonism which represented an Arabic paraphrase of parts of Plotinus’ Enneads IV to VI and was attributed to Aristotle and, of course, Alexander of Aphrodisias whose reading of Aristotle’s De Anima was so influential in the East and the West. A historian looking for a more thorough background to the identity thesis in Greek thought will be disappointed here and would be better advised to look elsewhere – Ian Crystal’s Self-Intellection and its Epistemological Origins in Ancient Greek Thought (Ashgate, 2002) would be a good place to start (and it is somewhat surprising that Kalin was not aware of it before the publication of his book, especially as it does a good job of tracing the Neoplatonic trajectory away from Aristotelianism). However, Kalin’s account is focused upon seeing the issue through the prism of Mullā Ṣadrā’s selective history and for such an account it matters little whether the Theologia was not the work of Aristotle; what matters were those texts filtered through Arabic that played a pivotal role in shaping the conception of the philosophical heritage. More important is Kalin’s contextualisation for the identity thesis as central to epistemology in both theological and mystical circles: what is clear is that a certain Neoplatonic taste marked out the learned culture of the Islamic East. He quotes major illimunationist philosophers such as Suhrawardī (d. 1191) and Shahrazūrī (d. c. 1288) who considered the identity thesis to be at the heart of Sufi epistemology and the quest for mystical union, and also figures from the school of Ibn ʿArabī such as his stepson Ṣadr al-Dīn al-Qūnawī (d. 1274), and Afḍal al-Dīn Kāshānī (d. 1214) who was responsible for an influential Persian paraphrase of Aristotle’s De Anima, and whose Jāvīdān-nāma on the life of the soul was paraphrased and adapted by Mullā Ṣadrā into Arabic in his own Iksīr al-ʿārifīn (as William Chittick has shown in his studies on Kāshānī and in his translation of Iksīr). A number of medieval Sufis and theologians quoted the Theologia, and especially the famous doffing metaphor derived from Enneads IV.8.1 which provided the basis for their arguments about the original existence in the life of the transcendental nous and in the presence of God and the ability of the sage and mystic to transcend this life and enjoy the beatific vision of the divine in pursuit of mystical union. And in doing so, some of them recognised that this text represented Platonic, and not Aristotelian doctrine; in one famous passage in al-Muṭāraḥāt, Suhrawardī quotes from the Theologia introducing it by saying ‘the divine Plato said’. Alexander seems to be a key link in the noetics from the Aristotelian tradition through to the Theologia and al-Fārābī, as Marc Geoffroy has shown most recently. However, unlike the Theologia, al-Fārābī’s postulation of the identity thesis was more circumspect; hence when Ibn Sīnā comes onto the scene and once and for all attacked the non-Aristotelian sentiment not only of the Theologia in his famous notes that comprised part of the lost Kitāb al-inṣāf, but also the identity thesis associated with Porphyry [in a recent article on Porphyrius arabicus Peter Adamson has suggested reasons for this association], editor of Plotinus, as false, this posed a problem for later advocates of the identity thesis such as Mullā Ṣadrā. Therefore, his fundamental task was to show not only that ‘Aristotle’ and al-Fārābī (read in a partial way) were correct, but also that Ibn Sīnā’s critique was unsound. The choice laid before later thinkers in Islam was between an Avicennan metaphysics of pluralism and representationalist epistemology, and a more Neoplatonic metaphysics of unity and an epistemology of identity. For Ibn Sīnā, the human intellect conjoins with the active intellect to grasp intelligible in an infallible manner and rejects union. However, the response by those in favour of identity and of the union of the human intellect and the active intellect (i.e. ittiḥād and not ittiṣāl) began with Suhrawardī who initiated the argument that all processes of intellection at their very base are acts of self-intellection, and since self-intellection is through union, as indeed is divine knowledge, then all acts of knowledge, all perceptions must also be based on identification.

Kalin sets up Mullā Ṣadrā’s presentation in chapter two by locating it within his ontology of the primacy of existence and of the nature of existence that is wholly singular but also graded (the doctrines of aṣālat and tashkīk al-wujūd), and his wider epistemology in which he discusses four theories of knowledge of which his own is the most appropriate because it recognises not only that the soul is an expression of existence but also that knowledge itself is existence; hence all knowledge must be an aspect of a singular and graded existence. This is the pivotal chapter in which the argument culminates with a discussion not only of the nature of the simple intellect and its knowledge (modelled on Greek discussions arising out of the De Anima and Metaphysics lambda), but also how the identity thesis and the unification of the intellect and intelligibles is the central intuition of an epistemology of knowledge by presence, whereby humans can strike a similitude to the divine. Kalin does not make this explicit, but the culmination of the argument that links knowledge by presence with God’s knowledge of things is a deliberate instrumentalisation of Mullā Ṣadrā’s very approach to philosophy as a way of life; since philosophy is a rehearsal of what is means to be like God (the notion of theosis or taʾalluh in Arabic), then ultimately perfected human knowledge needs to imitate divine knowledge.

The final chapter in which Kalin attempts to show how Mullā Ṣadrā produces a reconciliation ultimately between monism and pluralism with respect to epistemology, is also an argument in favour of the possibility of mystical experience or of what recent philosophers of religion have termed ‘pure consciousness events’. Disembodiment is a key condition of spirituality but Mullā Ṣadrā was not solely concerned with otherworldly catharsis. Rather, his synthesis was based on the idea that the intoxication of mystical union and direct experience were not the end of the process but rather a beginning and an inculcation into a practice of living. There are, however, two potential problems with the presentation in this chapter. First, does the identity thesis have to end up in mysticism? In fact, was the fate of philosophy ultimately in the world of Islam somewhat like that of late antiquity to culminate in mystery cults? Second, while it might sound like Mullā Ṣadrā’s subordination of his noetics to his ontology signals an attempt to escape subjectivism through ‘naïve realism’, one wonders whether it, indeed like his gradational ontology, is successful. This is not a critique of Kalin’s excellent analytical reconstruction of Mullā Ṣadrā but rather to ask more critically and interrogate the Safavid thinker himself. The appendix containing the text is quite useful – however, again if the author had time to revise more thoroughly the recent critical edition published is far superior to Hamid Naji Isfahani’s attempt from the mid-1990s. The annotation on the translation is adequate but could do more to point to precise influences and trace the source of some texts.

Knowledge in Later Islamic Philosophy is a major contribution to the study of Mullā Ṣadrā and indeed to Islamic traditions of epistemology. It is perhaps one of the best analytical defences of the thought of the Safavid sage; one is reminded of some of the best work of recent neo-Thomists writing on the thought of Aquinas. The eminent figures who provided blurbs on the dustcover are not wrong on their assessment. Some elements of the contextualisation could be more explicit; my own stress upon Mullā Ṣadrā’s approach to philosophy as a way of life influenced by my reading of Pierre Hadot is a useful indicator of the framework in which to place his thought. The intellectual historian of Islamic thought would not doubt be pleased and would highly recommend the work. But the philosopher trying to grasp problems of epistemology and ontology and the very conception of philosophy in the contemporary Islamic world might reflect on what it means. Kalin has in fact provided a certain idiom for the contemporary thinker to think these issues through but the answers still remain elusive. 


kimiyagard said...

a question that i've been having is this: why is cognition construed in terms of a union? that is, why is the one i.e., union, said to be productive of the other i.e., knowledge or cognition? what is it about the one that entails the other?

any thoughts?

Mulla Sadra said...

the reason is that infallible knowledge is predicated upon self-knowledge and hence the best way to know an external object is through union that dissolves duality - so basically it comes down to how one defines knowledge

kimiyagard said...

so, if i'm getting this right, the definition of knowledge is 'union between knower and known' and the reason for this is because it's only union can guarantee that the knowledge be infallible? otherwise, i.e., if it isn't infallible, it then isn't knowledge?

Unknown said...

ei guess one would have to first of all define infallibility in order to deal with your question.