Ibn Sina/Avicenna

‘Ibn Sina’s renown brought him the title ‘the leading eminent scholar’ (al-Shayk al Ra’is). Discuss the significance of his philosophical ideas with special focus on his distinction between his essence and existence, and its role in his proof for God as the necessary existent. Ibn Sina, or Avicenna, born 980 AD, was a leading polymath of many subjects; many of his theories are still renowned today; 240 of (approximately) 450 works can authentically be attributed to him, contributing to mainly medicine and philosophy, but also astronomy, physics, psychology, geology and even poetry. A devout Muslim and child prodigy, he had memorised the Qur’an by the age of ten, and quickly surpassed his teachers of the Hanafi Sunni school, and by the age of 16 was fully learned in the sciences of his time.
After studying medicine, he turned his attention to physics and metaphysics, reading Aristotle’s Metaphysics forty times, until he had memorised it, yet he could not grasp its meaning until reading al-Farabi’s commentary which enlightened his problems of understanding. He began writing his own discourse on this topic and many others on his travels to Isfahan whilst working as a physician to Kings and other important figures, gaining prestige in medical matters and his knowledge of philosophy, theology and metaphysics was widely recognised.
Even after his death in 1038 AD, his works have continued to influence philosophical and medical thought; his ‘canon of medicine’ served as the highest medical authority for 600 years, and the translation of kitab al-Shifa (Book of Healing) into Latin served as the starting point for many other prestigious thinkers, such as Aquinas, and this discourse will be further looked at here.

Avicenna is considered “the most famous and influential of the philosopher-scientists of the Islamic world” There are many other Islamic philosophers that have attempted to address metaphysics, but Ibn Sina’s works alone systematically and consistently focus on both ontological and cosmological arguments that are not self-contradictory and address the underlying issue of reconciling the Islamic faith with philosophy. “Before Avicenna, falsafa (Arabic Aristotelian and Neoplatonic philosophy) and kalam (Islamic doctrinal theology) were distinct strands of thought, even though a good deal of cross-fertilization took place between them.
After Avicenna, by contrast, the two strands fused together and post-Avicennan kalam emerged as a truly Islamic philosophy, a synthesis of Avicenna’s metaphysics and Muslim doctrine. ” This is the primary reason for his lasting prestige; his ideas in the Book of Healing concentrated not on medicine, but on the healing of the soul and body, and held two key fundamental ideas; the distinction between essence and existence, and God as the necessary existent, a doctrine that has previously not been merged successfully.
The doctrine of a ‘thing’ (shay’) proved difficult to define for the Mu’tazilis, as although they differentiated that a ‘thing’ can either be existent or non-existent; they struggled to define where the non-existent entities lay. Using the Qur’anic verse of creation: “our statement to a thing, when we wish it [to be], consist merely in our saying “Be! ” and then it is. ” (The Holy Qur’an 16:40), we can identify that something can exist in mentality before it exists in actuality; God thought of a ‘thing’ then willed it into being by saying “be! and it was. This shows that the idea of the ‘thing’ existed before its reality, meaning that the Mu’tazilis were able to conceive of the ‘thingness’ of contingent entities, and their universality (of thingness) can either exist in reality or in mentality. They could not address the idea of non-existent things, (ma’dum) such as a square circle, as their impossibility cannot even exist in the mind. This idea opposes the Sunni theological perspective, where they hold that ‘thingness’ and existence are one and the same.
They hold the idea of co-extensiveness (where all things are existents, and all existents are things) as they believe that this idea solves the problem of creatio ex nihilo; they did not want to give any flexibility to the idea that things existed before creation, or held eternality alongside God. They held that a ‘thing’ was the sum of all its predicates, one of which was existence; a thing could not be without it existing. However, this poses problems for the existence of things that can only occur in the mind, for example, a unicorn.
There is a split in Sunni philosophy where some believe that a thing can either be considered as extra-mentally existent, (and so exist just as much as they would in actuality) or some believe a thing that only exists in the mind simply does not exist whatsoever. This is problematic, as we can all conceive of a unicorn, despite its non-reality, (therefore it cannot simply not exist at all), yet we cannot think of a unicorn existing in the mind on the same level as our own existence. Ibn Sina draws upon al-Farabi’s identification that ‘thing’ and ‘existence’ cannot be used as the same copula; you cannot ubstitute ‘thing’ for ‘exists’ in a sentence in a way that can make sense; for example, one can easily identify that the statement ‘Zayd exists as a man’ to be appropriate, but one cannot say ‘Zayd thing as a man’, as it is nonsensical. Therefore, Ibn Sina concludes that there is a distinction between ‘thing’ and ‘existence’, and also makes the distinction between existents and non-existents. For Avicenna, “there are four kinds of scientific questions. 1) One is a question about the ‘existence’ or ‘non-existence’ of things. 2) Another is about the ‘whatness’ of things. 3) And another is about the ‘whichness or ‘thatness’ of things. ) Also, there is the question about the ‘cause’ of things. ” His distinction between essence and existence not only addresses the problem of the Sunni theologians, but, in his mind, satisfies what a ‘thing’ is, and that its ‘existence’ is not a predicate of thingness, and this argument can prove the existence of God as necessary. For Ibn Sina, existence adds to an essence specific determination external to the essence of a thing; existence adds to essence, an essence can be without existing, for example, the demonstration of the unicorn; its essence is separate from its existence as we can conceive of it without its actuality.
He further explains this with categorising the necessary (wajib) and the possible/contingent (mumkir). Avicenna makes three distinctions: concrete existent, a mental existent and that which is neither of these two. A concrete existent is that which adds existence to its essence: that is to say that it, as an essence, also has existence. A mental existent is that which has essence, but not existence (such as a unicorn – it has essence because we can think of it).
That which is neither is that which is logically impossible to exist even in the mind, such as a square circle; as it is impossible to conceive of such a thing, this does not even have essence. This solves the problem faced by Sunni philosophers, as it highlights the difference between mental essences without existence and concrete essences with existence. Avicenna continues to demonstrate three further aspects of essences: necessary, possible or impossible. Those that are impossible are those that it is illogical to think about, such as square circles, and as we have already shown, these do not have essence OR existence.
That which is necessary is so because it’s very essence implies existence; its denial would involve a contradiction, (which we will further explain later). The possible is that which has essence that has potential to exist; it can either exist, or not exist. This is what contingent beings are categorised as; they have the potentiality to exist, through the cause of another; it cannot exist through itself, as otherwise it would be necessary, and it cannot not exist, as otherwise it would be impossible. Once actualised (through another), concrete existence is added to the essence.
Avicenna would argue that mental essences are not concrete existents because they have not been brought into existence by another, so remain as potential essences that could exist, but do not in actuality. So far then, it has been demonstrated that Ibn Sina made the distinction of essences between that which cannot exist, that what can exist if brought into being by another, and that which exists through its own definition of its essence. When a possible essence is actualised through another, and becomes a concrete existent, it becomes ‘necessary through another’ – it must be caused by a cause external to itself.
This in turn, must also be caused by another previous external cause, and so on. However, these causes cannot continue ad infinitum- there must be an external cause that itself is not caused by any other being external to itself, that is to say, that the cause is contained within itself, what Avicenna calls necessary through itself. There cannot be an infinite regress of causes, but must be one cause that can sustain and contain all possible causes, but itself need not be caused, as its essence itself contains existence, the Necessary Existent; God.
So then, we have tackled the question previously posed of the existence or non-existence of things, what they are (possible/necessary), and the ‘thatness’ (whether it is necessary through another or itself) – in turn answering the fourth question set out by Ibn Sina of the cause of things. Proof of God’s existence from this argument stems from the cosmological argument; an idea from Aristotle that there must be a First Cause in order to bring about the causes that cause others.
However, Ibn Sina improves this argument by recognising that what something is differs from the fact that it is. “Ibn Sina’s way of making his point is to say that esse [fact of a things existence] is an accidental property of things – that is a quality it may or may not possess, without changing what it is…” Previously, philosophers such as Aristotle had only considered the nature of things, rather than setting them apart from their physical realisation. The distinction Avicenna makes between physical and mental existence is one that Aristotle had trouble in combatting. The most important text of this kind is Avicenna’s al-Shifa? ’ (The Healing, namely from ignorance). The title was wrongly (but aptly) translated into Latin as Sufficientia, as if Avicenna’s single comprehensive work was a sufficient replacement for the several books of Aristotle” This distinction was so important that every philosopher after Ibn Sina had to respond; the question was now apparent that there must be primacy of either essence or existence, as he had distinguished that they were not one and the same.
Debate has followed Ibn Sina’s argument, that has mainly taken two paths; Suhrawardi decides that essence is prior to existence, whereas Ibn Arabi believes that only existence is real and essences are how existence presents itself to us. Thus, it has been demonstrated that Ibn Sina was successful in using an argument from reason that signifies God as the one creator, First to cause others, from which we could not possibly exist if it were not for His necessary existence through Himself.
This was so profound for his time, as it had only been remarked that there previously lay a difference between the necessary and possible. Avicenna’s distinction between ‘through itself’ and ‘through another’ led to the reconciliation of Islamic thought and philosophical reason; there lies no contradiction between our own existence as concrete and God’s existence as wholly other, beyond our conception of contingent.
This argument was so influential on both later thinkers due to his ability to draw upon early philosophical ideas and his faith brought together Aristotelian and neo-Platonic philosophy and Islamic theology in a way that made the distinction between theoretical and practical knowledge; logically acknowledging that the first cause as a necessary existent can only be a monotheistic God, as all predicates, including that of existence are perfectly contained within the very definition of His essence.
This theory is reconcilable with Islamic thought as it signals disenchantment with neo-Platonic thought, developing a more personal philosophy that argues for our own necessary existence (through another), whilst still acknowledging that God is unattainably necessary through Himself. “[Ibn Sina] envisaged a world resting on two pillars: a) Greek philosophy and b) Qu’ranic revelation and the virtues of man…Ibn Sina was a highly spiritual and ethical person, considering that, for him, teaching and learning should lead also to rooting in faith deeply in the soul of the individual. This meant that each individual had meaning for their own life, which they could relate back to God, personally having their own cause rooted in the Divine Necessary Existent. Bibliography * Avicenna ; Farhang Zabeeh, ( Ed. Trans. ) Avicenna’s Treatise on Logic: Part One of Danesh-Name Alai (a Concise Philosophical Encyclopaedia and autobiography) (Martinus Nijoff, the Hague, 1971) * Charles Burnett, “Arabic into Latin: the reception of Arabic philosophy into Western Europe” in The Cambridge Companion to Arabic philosophy, ed.
Peter Adamson and Richard C Taylor (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2005) * F. C. Bauerschmidt, Holy Teaching: Introducing the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas (Michigan, Brazos Press, 2005) * Robert Wisnovsky, “Avicenna and the Avicennan Tradition” in The Cambridge Companion to Arabic Philosophy, ed. Peter Adamson and Richard C Taylor (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2005) * Sebastian Gunther, “Be Masters in That You Teach and Continue to Learn: Medieval Muslim Thinkers on Educational theory” in Comparative Education Review, Vol. 0, No. 3, (August 2006) Article DOI: 10. 1086/503881 Web Resources: * Encyclop? dia Britannica Online, s. v. “Avicenna,” accessed December 11, 2011, http://www. britannica. com/EBchecked/topic/45755/Avicenna * http://quran. com/ accessed 15/12/11 ——————————————– [ 1 ]. Encyclop? dia Britannica Online, s. v. “Avicenna,” accessed December 11, 2011, http://www. britannica. com/EBchecked/topic/45755/Avicenna. [ 2 ]. Robert Wisnovsky, “Avicenna and the Avicennan Tradition” in The Cambridge Companion to Arabic Philosophy, ed.
Peter Adamson and Richard C Taylor (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2005) p. 92 [ 3 ]. The Holy Qur’an 16:40 as cited from http://quran. com/16/40 (Sahih International Translation) accessed on 15/12/11 [ 4 ]. Robert Wisnovsky, “Avicenna and the Avicennan Tradition” in The Cambridge Companion to Arabic Philosophy pp. 106-107 [ 5 ]. Avicenna & Farhang Zabeeh (Ed. Trans. ) Avicenna’s Treatise on Logic Part One of Danesh-Name Alai (a Concise PhilosophicalEncyclopaedia and autobiography) (Martinus Nijoff, the Hague, 1971) p. 5 [ 6 ]. F. C. Bauerschmidt, Holy Teaching: Introducing the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas (Michigan, Brazos Press, 2005) p. 57 [ 7 ]. Charles Burnett, “Arabic into Latin: the reception of Arabic philosophy into Western Europe” in The Cambridge Companion to Arabic philosophy, p. 371 [ 8 ]. Sebastian Gunther, “Be Masters in That You Teach and Continue to Learn: Medieval Muslim Thinkers on Educational theory” in Comparative Education Review, Vol. 50, No. 3, (August 2006) pp. 376 – 377 Article DOI: 10. 1086/503881

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