Friday, February 10, 2012

Avicenna's Metaphysics - What was that all about?

Generations of scholars, attempting to grapple with Aristotelian metaphysics and his notion of first philosophy as the study of being qua being, had to deal with the seeming confusion in the Metaphysics concerning its subject matter and purpose. Was the Metaphysics a work about the abstract notion of being, was it a primary science that determined the subject matter of all the other branches of knowledge, was it another name for theology (or perhaps more specifically what the post-Heideggerian tradition calls onto-theology), or was it somewhat a study of ultimate causes? At the heart of the problem was the very notion of metaphysics and indeed of being itself. This question and problematic animated the young Ibn Sīnā and as he famously noted in his autobiography, he read and read the text and failed to grasp its purpose until serendipity intervened and he chanced upon a copy of al-Fārābī’s short work explaining the Metaphysics. It is this Avicennan turn, and the wider question of metaphysics as first philosophy, as a transcendental science whose subject matter itself ought to be transcendental that accounts for the research focus of Koutzarova’s published dissertation that deservedly won one of the Iranian Book Agency’s Book of the Year award in 2011. Central to the thesis is the insight that making sense of the metaphysics is a focal step in the critical systematisation of Aristotelian science and the very possibility of science. Metaphysics as science is only possible if it is transcendental and has a transcendental subject.

The text is divided into four parts and three sets of conclusions. The first part lays out the problematic and considers the scope of metaphysics taking its inspiration from that famous passage in the autobiography of Ibn Sīnā just mentioned and then considers what it means to define the subject of metaphysics as the Being of beings (al-mawjūd al-muṭlaq). For someone like myself more in tune with later discussions the use of mawjūd as opposed to wujūd is interesting: the texts I tend to study prefer the latter and the constant conflation of the two in favour of the latter by the likes of Mullā Ṣadrā may account for his creative misreadings of Ibn Sīnā, a point on which Koutzarova takes me to task. The second part focuses on this concept of mawjūd as the primary referential subject of metaphysics and engages in four chapters of careful textual analysis of Ibn Sīnā’s Metaphysics linking the ontological structure of being with the epistemological architecture of science. The third part examines the term mawjūd, starting with a chapter on al-Fārābī and continuing with chapters that locate the notion in category theory and concern the predication of the term. Central to this section is a discussion of what one understands by the tertium quid of tashkīk that locates being as a term that is neither univocal nor equivocal. The fourth part furthers the epistemological issue of conceptualisation (taṣawwur) by engaging with mawjūd and ‘its sisters’ namely the status of being a thing (shayʾ) or being necessary (ḍarūrī). In Ibn Sīnā’s work this is partly a critique of kalām ontology that displaces mawjūd as the ultimate ‘genus’ (or at least quasi-genus) is favour of the term ‘thing’ which in its first diaresis divides into ‘existent’ (mawjūd) and ‘non-existent’ (maʿdūm). For Ibn Sīnā, the fact that something exists is equivalent to stating it is a thing (in whichever mode of existence one takes that since Ibn Sīnā is one of the first Muslim thinkers to conceive of a mental mode of existence that the later traditions terms al-wujūd al-dhihnī), and to its being necessary – as the axiom of Islamic philosophy states (in genuflection to the related radical contingency of his proof for the existence of God as the necessary being): ‘that which is not necessary cannot exist (lam yajib lam yūjad)’.  The conclusions that follow consider metaphysics as a transcendental science, the significance of the notion of the transcendental in Ibn Sīnā and the problematic legacy of the Avicennan notion of the existent in consequent philosophical discussions. This clarifies further also why Ibn Sīnā consider his philosophical approach to be superior to theology as a means for understanding the true nature of reality and of God as the ultimate existent. Throughout the work one notices the careful attention to textual analysis with copious citations and considerations from the Avicennan corpus that one expects from the best traditions of German Arabism and specialists of medieval philosophy. In particular her inter-textual approach is an important facet of Avicennan studies today – the need to understand how to locate meaning assigned to terms across his works from the Metaphysics to the Organon and through the Physics. No serious study of Avicennan ontology can neglect his category theory addressed in the logic and she certainly does not fail to do so.

A final note about language. In our times, it is rare indeed to find even scholars bothering to keep up with literature written in other languages not least other European languages (the failure to read secondary literature in Arabic and Persian is even more shameful). This work under review makes yet another case for why anyone interested in the study of Islamic philosophy and theology needs to have a familiarity with German. It is a pity that the work was not written in English – it certainly would reach a wider audience and perhaps would have had a larger impact. But the case for a scholarly engagement in German is clear and necessary here. 

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