Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Mulla Sadra, Perception and Knowledge by Presence

Mulla Sadra, Perception and Knowledge by Presence


In Asfar III, 3, Mulla Sadra argues that there is no possible knowledge claim which can contain a representation of the self. This is because any such claim would already imply the existence of the self. This view has been developed by Mehdi Ha'iri Yazdi to argue that there is a radically different approach to epistemology in the ishraqi tradition as compared with the European philosophical tradition which stems from Descartes. The Persian school of philosophy is taken to be more empirical in the sense of valuing experience as compared with the Cartesian school, since the former bases its understanding of the nature of the self on the particular character of the experiences which we have when investigating the nature and role of the self.
What underpins the theory of the self in Mulla Sadra's account is the idea of there being a basic knowledge of the self, so basic that it cannot be doubted. Of course, this fits in nicely with the idea of light as the concept which replaces the traditional subject/object ontology of Cartesian philosophy. It is the "lighting up" of the basic self which makes possible the assumption of this self in our everyday activities, and in this way justifies the claim that ishraqi thought is more empirically orientated than Catesian thought. The arguments which have been produced for this notion of knowledge by presence as found in the thought of Mulla Sadra and developed by Ha'iri Yazdi will be considered and related to modern developments in Western philosophy.

According to many ishraqi thinkers, there is a type of knowledge which is so self-evident that it cannot be doubted. Of course, many philosophers have sought such a kind of knowledge, since if they could base their arguments on such incorrigible knowledge, those arguments would be soundly based indeed. We are familiar with Cartesian strategies which argue from a proposition which cannot be doubted, and even the opponents of the idealists, the empiricists, sought a level of knowledge which was certain on which they could construct different kinds of belief of varying degrees of reliability. What counts as self-evident knowledge for the ishraqi thinkers is that level of knowledge which is so intimately tied in with our perception of ourselves that in doubting it we would doubt ourselves, which is to imply doubting that with which the doubting is possible in the first place. The conclusion is taken to be that such doubt is impossible. The truth which is presupposed by any perception is that the subject of perception exists, It is perhaps Suhrawardi who explores this notion of immediate knowledge, `ilm al-huduri, most precisely, and he argues that it is so immediate and incontrovertible that it is known in far more than an intellectual sense. That is, there are propositions which we know through reason and which we know perfectly, in the sense that we grasp all aspects of them and can hold them in our minds all at once perfectly. We cannot doubt these propositions, but these are propositions, and they are only attainable through reason. The sorts of knowledge which are called `ilm al-huduri are not only indubitable, but we experience their indubitability. The light of knowledge which shines on them makes evident to us in more than merely an intellectual sense what truth they possess. Of course, another advantage which perception of the self has over discursive knowledge is that the assumption is made that the self is basically a simple thing, so the use of our intelligence implies the activity of a simple self, a self which is characterizable in terms its pure agency.

But surely, it will be said, there is far more to the self than merely a simple substance. Are not selves highly complex? Indeed they are, but what is being argued here is that the key to the self is merely its capacity to represent our existence, and as such it is simple. As Mulla Sadra points out, in knowing anything we know ourselves, and that self-knowledge is primitive epistemologically.1 He goes even further and suggests that we cannot even formulate that basic form of knowledge in propositional form, since it is so direct that we cannot construct a proposition around it, describing it as though from outside, as it were. We cannot do this because the knowledge is so much part and parcel of thought itself that expressing it propositionally would be to make complex that which is paradigmatically simple, and introduce issues of truth and falsity where they have no place.

This theory fits in nicely with Suhrawardi's suspicion concerning propositions which are complex, the basis of his critique of the notion of definition. Suhrawardi argues that the Aristotelian technique of basing the syllogism on a definition, which is supposed to be a sound basis for such an argument, is fatally flawed, for the parts of the definition which are supposed to be the logical properties which characterize the notion themselves require a proof before they are accepted as parts of the meaning, and so on ad infinitum.2 Suspicion of the complex is quite plausible, since how can one be sure that in one grasp of apprehension, as it were, all the characteristics of a thing have been captured? At this point we need to distinguish between two kinds of knowledge in Mulla Sadra, knowledge which is huduri and directly present to us, and knowledge which is husuli and which is acquired from without. There is nothing wrong with such knowledge, on the contrary, it represents our role in the world of constant movement in which we seek to perfect our understanding by aligning our consciousness so that it matches better the plurality of existence which describes reality.

What is perception for Mulla Sadra? We have to recall here his antipathy to essences, as evidenced by his adherence to an ontology in which existence is more basic than essence. 3 We also need to acknowledge the significance of change in his view of reality, so that we should not regard the perceiver as someone who seeks to come into contact with stable and pre-existing essences, which themselves in some way reflects divine reality. It is certainly true that when we know we come into contact with the divine creation, and we do this by moving from being able to know to knowing in actuality. Mulla Sadra is rather suspicious of the traditional mashsha'i understanding of knowledge as grasping the abstract forms which lie within things, since this is to reify essences in objectionable ways. He does adhere to the traditional idea of there being a variety of realms of understanding, ranging from the ordinary perceptual level to the higher intelligible, separated by the barzakh of the imaginative, but we certainly should not see this as a progress towards ever-increasing levels of abstraction. On the contrary, as we perfect ourselves we come closer to ever more basic forms of existence, and in this way come closer to the deity.

Now, there is an interesting aspect of light which makes it a popular concept in talking about knowledge, and that is the way in which it reveals that which exists, and yet which is literally invisible until it is affected by light. And light itself, of course, is also invisible, so that which is itself invisible brings to our attention what would otherwise be invisible. Light plays a large part in a large number of philosophies from different cultural traditions, and is certainly not limited to Islamic philosophy. For example, within Buddhism there is a traditional way of conceptualizing the mind as like a mirror reflecting the light of (potential) enlightenment which is ever-present in the universe. All we need to do is to blow the dust off the mirror, and then the pure light will be accessible to us! Some Buddhists like Huineng go ever further and claim that the light is always present within us, and the idea that anything could really impede it is mistaken.4 It is this idea that when something is illuminated then one cannot be mistaken about it, one cannot not notice it, as it were, which is such a crucial aspect of Mulla Sadra's notion of perception. For at theroot of our perception of everything outside us is our perception of what is within us, and the nature of the subject which is doing the perceiving must be known to us if anything is, since it is ever-present in the action of perceiving. There are many things which we can doubt, but as Descartes argued, the fact that we can doubt itself relies on certain facts which we cannot doubt, and those facts present themselves to us (they are huduri) in ways in which more dubitable forms of experience do not.

Many objections have been made to the attempt at identifying such incorrigible experiences, and these objections are soundly based. They basically suggest that even if there are such incorrigible experiences, they do not actually provide us with anything which is really information. For example, the knowledge that my experiences are the experiences of a subject does not reveal anything about the nature of that subject, apart from the fact that it is a subject, and anything we want to know about the subject has to be discovered in the normal sort of way. So the idea, which is quite evidently there in Suhrawardi, of a series of fixed and final objects of knowledge, facts which we cannot doubt and which ground further claims to knowledge, rests on a shaky philosophical foundation. But this should not worry Mulla Sadra too much, given the very different ontology which he constructs based on the notion of tashkik al-wujud. Although there is no doubt that Mulla Sadra also adheres to a doctrine of wahdat al-wujud, of the unity of existence, it is what he does with this idea of unity which is so interesting. The very same concept, the concept of light, which brings everything together also serves as its grounds for differentiation, since it is the degree of light which determines the level of reality of each individual thing in existence. As we increase our knowledge, we reach ever higher levels of perfection, we come into contact with more abstract and significant existences which are brighter and closer to the source of being itself, the deity.

Is this knowledge part and parcel of mysticism? It is difficult to know what to say about such a claim. Much of the technical language which Mulla Sadra uses comes from ibn al-`Arabi, and we know that he was interested in exploring a range of mystical approaches to knowledge. There is certainly a good deal in Mulla Sadra which acknowledges the significance of hikma, by contrast with other forms of rational thought, and which prioritizes the sorts of understanding of reality which come about through the personal contact between the individual and his or her creator. I have argued previously that we can understand Mulla Sadra's notion of the priority of existence over essence without bringing in any particular notion of mysticism, and that is true also of his use of the idea of the imaginal realm (al-`alam al-khayali).5 All these concepts have profound mystical implications, yet there is no need to draw these implications in order to understand them. This is hardly surprising, since most ideas have two sides, the zahir (open) and the batin (hidden), and we can understand them on each level without necessarily having to explore both levels. And it is fortunate that this is the case, since if it was the case that one could only understand ideas which are used mystically from a mystical point of view, it would not be possible to understand those ideas at all unless one were a mystic, and as we know on most accounts of Islamic mysticism this is a difficult and protracted process. I would not want to argue that the mystical aspects of Mulla Sadra's views on knowledge are not important, but in the spirit of the School of Isfahan we should accept that the mystical and the rational levels of discourse are capable of operating independently of each other,6 and it is within that spirit that the concept of knowledge will be explored here.

One of the most interesting defenses of the notion of `ilm al-huduri is that provided by Mehdi Ha'iri Yazdi, and he concentrates on the description of this kind of knowledge as specified by al-Suhrawardi, but it is essentially the same as that used by Mulla Sadra.7 The basic argument is that at some level knowledge of ourselves is not to be classified as prepositional knowledge, consisting of statements which could be true or false. If this knowledge was capable of being true or false then it would have to be assessable, yet any such assessment already presupposes the self which is doing the assessing. To take an example, there is much about which I could be mistaken, but I could not be mistaken that there is a self writing these pages. I could even get the name of the self wrong, but that there is a self acting here is incontrovertible. There are a variety of ways of expressing this idea. One is to say, as Wittgenstein does, that nothing could be evidence for the absence of such a self, since nothing could give us more grounds for disbelieving in such a self than in believing in it. That is, a world which turned out to justify the denial of such a self would be such a different world from that with which we are familiar that we would not know how to go on. In that case there is no more reason to deny the self than to assert it.

Another way of expressing this supposedly incontrovertible truth is to say that experience of the self is so perfect that it is undeniable. This is to take up a Cartesian strategy of taking some beliefs to be so clear and distinct that we can see everything that there is to see about them all at once, and are unable to deny them. The metaphor of light here is important, since once something is lit up, it is there in front of us and we are aware of it. But could we not be mistaken about its nature? We could be, we might for example imagine that we see something, that something is lit up, but really do not. We may be dreaming or merely having a powerful image before us to which nothing objective corresponds. Actually, this sort of objection will not work when brought up against ishraqi thought, since imagination and dreaming are here regarded as just as capable of yielding objective and significant experience as our everyday experience. In fact one might go further and suggest that dreaming and imagination is more capable of expressing reality than our ordinary experience, since it is while we are using our imagination that we are better able to represent to ourselves what is really important, as compared with what seems to be important.

The main problem with describing a particular type of experience which cannot be challenged is that to be persuasive the example has to yield very little detail. For example. it may be that as I am writing this I am having an experience of an I' doing the writing which I cannot challenge. I then say that this is an example of `ilm al-huduri because the experience of the self is so direct that it cannot be separated from the experience itself except as yet another example of the same experience. That is, if I consider the status of my experience of the self, then I am doing it through yet another experience of the self. But what does this actually show? It shows very little if anything about the nature of the self in question, merely that someone is having experience. It does not even show that it is the same subject which is having the experience of writing this paragraph that wrote the earlier paragraph, or is going to write the next one. Perhaps we need the mysticism after all to establish this sort of knowledge, and through such knowledge we can establish links between the different manifestations of the I'. If that is the case then it would be disappointing, since it is very much the direction of the argument that it will lead us to incorrigible propositions through the use of reason alone, and without making any specific religious commitments. After all, if to paper over the gaps in the argument we can use principles from mysticism then there seems little point to trying to establish the argument in the first place.

Fortunately we can say that such a strategy of using mysticism as philosophical glue would go entiragainst the principles of the School of Isfahan of which Mulla Sadra is such a distinguished representative. There is no doubt that according to the School of Isfahan the level of `irfan is the most superior form of knowledge, but it does not follow that there is no scope for using arguments appropriate to other kinds of knowledge within their own universes of discourse. As Seyyed Hossein Nasr argues, the main issue confronting the School of Isfahan is the reconciliation of shari`a, `aql and tasawwuf/`irfan.8 Different thinkers had different lines on how to accomplish this, but what is important here is to appreciate that no one type of explanation should be seen as precluding another type. For example, within the area of law the appropriate mode of argument is legal, and although it is doubtless true that the issues in law have other aspects, both rational and mystical, it would not be appropriate to resolve problems in law by referring to these different ways of working theoretically. We can use this argument to suggest that the criticisms which have been made of `ilm al-huduri cannot be resolved by importing concepts from a different logical level of discourse.

Must we conclude, then, that there is nothing of value in this concept of presential knowledge? What it seems to prove, if it proves anything at all, is that we can have a sort of knowledge which is beyond doubt, but that that sort of knowledge is literally content less, and as such is of no use to us. It certainly will not serve as the foundation of higher sorts of knowledge, nor will it transfer its incorrigibility to any of these other candidates for knowledge. But perhaps we are asking the wrong question here. We seem to be asking the question What sort of propositions are we unable to doubt?'. This is certainly the question which Ha'iri Yazdi raises and he seeks to link it both with ishraqi thought and with the sorts of claims which modern thinkers like Russell make about knowledge. Yet are they asking the same sort of question? I do not think they are. What we need to notice here is the very different ontology constructed within ishraqi thought as compared with the subject/object ontology of modern Western philosophy, the sort of philosophy in which the sceptical issues of how we know when we know or otherwise arise. Descartes and his successors tend to take the line on essence and existence that the former precedes the latter, so that we have all sorts of ideas and then wonder how or whether those ideas are instantiated. Of course, that ontology leads automatically to the sceptical question as to whether our ideas are anything more than ideas, i.e. do they have any existence connected with them? Now, Mulla Sadra's ontology works in the other direction. What we are confronted with primarily are different forms of existence, and the ideas we form of this are relatively unimportant. Why are they unimportant? After all, we cannot form ideas of existence without ideas, and these essences must be for us the route to understanding that existence. Here we have to recall the doctrine of transubstantial movement. There are no stable essences which reflect existence, since existence itself is forever changing and altering, and so there is little point in concentrating on essences as a guide to the character of existence. Just as one had grasped an essence the reality on which it is based would be changing, and so there is little point on looking to essences if we are interested in understanding the way things really are.

This suggests that raising the sorts of questions about the reliability of our knowledge claims is to miss the point. Mulla Sadra is not asking the question What can we know?' but rather What exists?'. Once we have decided what exists, it then remains to us to explain how we have access to that existence, It is at this stage that we can distinguish between two different kinds of knowledge, knowledge which is huduri and knowledge which is husuli. But it is all knowledge, and the latter kind of knowledge also provides us with a secure route to the truth. This is where we have to remember the significance of light as the main principle of definition here. There is a tendency to think of knowledge which is huduri as being more brightly illuminated than other kinds of knowledge, but this is misleading. My knowledge of myself is no more real than is my knowledge of scientific facts about the external world. What explains gradations of light is what explains gradations of reality, and as we grasp increasingly significant levels of knowledge we come into contact with different and higher levels of light. It is important when looking at the ontology here to realise that there is far more to existence than just facts. After all, what has come to be known as the imaginal realm (al-`alam al-khayali) is even more real than the world of generation and corruption, yet it appears to consist of nothing more than ideas. Similarly, there is a long tradition in ishraqi thought of meetings with imaginary people, yet these meetings are far from illusory. They represent very real meetings between different ways of thinking, and they result in an advance in understanding. Here the metaphor of light is helpful. An imaginary event may well be far more important to someone than a so-called real' event. The imaginary event may bring to light a previously unconsidered hypothetical possibility which changes our lives, because it shows us for the first time what it would be like for the world to be very different. There is a lot of empirical evidence that unless an individual is able to contemplate a particular situation, then he or she will be a lot less likely to be able to attain it, or avoid it. So the contemplation of a possibility, the possibility of an event which has not yet happened and which may never happen, may be of a far deeper significance for us than a boring empirical fact. This brings out nicely what is wrong in putting essences before existence. An essence, an idea or concept, may seem in itself insubstantial and far less real than a different concept, perhaps of something far more solid and present to us in the everyday world. Yet the former may be far more important to us than the latter, it may be far more vivid and real. In short, it may represent far more presciently what is real, what exists, and as such the question as to whether it is true rather misses the point.

Let us compare this way of arguing with a much more recent form of argument, that provided by Wittgenstein in On Certainty.9 Wittgenstein argues that there are some propositions which could in themselves be false, and yet which are so crucial to entire ways in which we do things that we cannot doubt them, at least not while we carry on with those familiar activities.10 In addition, even though those propositions could be false, it is not possible to doubt them, since there is no alternative proposition which could be any more certain than they are. Wittgenstein has often been accused here of being an idealist, since it seems that he is far more concerned with the ways in which our concepts relate to each other than he is in the question as to whether they actually correspond to something in the real world. This is a relevant question to ask him since after all he is contending with the traditional puzzles provided by the sceptic, whether what we take to be knowledge is really knowledge, whether the propositions which we take to be true are in fact true. And precisely the same questions may be put to Mulla Sadra, it may be asked whether we can ever really know anything by examining our concepts, given that the underlying reality is constantly changing and that existence is far more significant than essence. We could look for some transcendental guarantee, of course, by claiming a basis in divine reality, but this would be to go against the principles of the School of Isfahan, as we have already suggested. But what makes the question seem perplexing is not because it is difficult to answer, but because it is the wrong sort of question. We have to get away from the traditional subject/object, concept/object, language/reality dichotomies of modern philosophy. which Wittgenstein was also trying to transcend. He argued that the link between our language and extra-mental reality is a complex one. As he says, it is not that the former is dependent on the latter, but it is also not the case that there is no link between them. After all, if the world were a very different place, then different concepts would make sense, and he spends a great deal of his philosophical work examining alternative ways of going on conceptually, to explore the nature of the relationship between how things actually are and how that frames for us a particular range of possible ways of talking about that reality.

For Mulla Sadra also the act of perception is not essentially an act in which the agent tries to emerge from his private self to gain access to an external and public world. It is an attempt at understanding an aspect of a changing world, and any claim to truth will have to be limited by a certain reference to time, since everything is changing all the time. What is changing is not the world outside us, though, but we are part and parcel of that world, we change with it, as do our ideas about it. Our ideas and the world which those ideas describe are all parts of the same world, and they are all capable of being just as real as each other. This comes out nicely in his account of knowledge, which often leads to perplexity. It is a familiar thesis in Islamic philosophy that in knowledge there is an identity between the knower, the object of knowledge and the process of knowing itself. This is what happens in the highest form of knowledge, where the object of knowledge is actually something created by the knower (ultimately, God) and where the knowledge itself is part of the essential activity of the knower and not just a casual event. Of course, for us, given the constant change of things themselves, there is in perception a move from potentiality to actuality which is only capable of grasping the truth as it stands at a particular time. In the case of perfect knowledge the constant changing of the substances does not matter, since what is known is more the pattern of change than the particular changing events themselves. One of the problems with such a view of knowledge as unifying knower, known object and process of knowing is that these all seem to be different. That is, I am different from what I am now observing, and the way in which I am observing it is something I might well not be doing, and so it seems strange to see it as part of me. Yet these distinctions only make sense if we adhere to the traditional subject/object ontology of modern philosophy. In Mulla Sadra's ontology there is no essential difference between the changing substance of which I am a part and its states (like perception), and the objects of my perception, since these are all ultimately reflections of higher principles and the activity of the deity. We draw distinctions between them, of course, but at a philosophical level we should appreciate the unity which brings all these different features of reality together. After all, it is just one principle, that of light, which serves as the key criterion both of identity and of differentiation, and any subjects and objects which we then construct out of this one principle is entirely the reflection of a way of thinking appropriate to a relatively low theoretical level of thought. That is how light operates, of course, it illuminates what seem to be a variety of different things which exist independently of it, but once we appreciate the unity of reality we come to appreciate that this variety (tashkik) is very much an apparent variety of an essential unity, the unity of existence (wahdat al-wujud).

It is this insistence upon interpreting reality as basically a unity which distinguishes Mulla Sadra's approach to knowledge as compared with most modern philosophers. Interestingly, as I have suggested, it could be argued that Wittgenstein also declines to adopt the view of reality shared by modern philosophy of the Cartesian variety. We have not shown here that this sort of approach is better than its alternatives, but we have tried to do is explain why it seems unsatisfactory from the perspective of the Cartesian theory. According to the latter, the main problem of philosophy is to explain what links there are between our ideas and what those ideas purport to describe. According to Mulla Sadra, this is not an important question, since our ideas and what they seem to describe are part of the same reality, and asking how they are linked is akin to asking how one side of a coin is linked to the other side. Many admirers of Mulla Sadra will feel that this account of his work is carried on at far too limited a level of understanding, and that it does not do justice to him as a master of esoteric knowledge, but the argument here is that he was in his work following the hermeneutics of the School of Isfahan. This implies arguing from the existence of our world to the existence of ever higher levels of existence, and from the higher to the lower, and for the significance of keeping these two means of argument separate from each other. Then it can be seen that the arguments from hikmah and the arguments from `irfan are really just two versions of the same argument, as one would expect given the basic unity which runs through the whole of reality.


1 Mulla Sadra (1965) Al-hikmat al-muta`aliyya fi'l-asfar al-arba`a al-`aqliyya, Qum: Intisharat-i Mustafavi, I,3,part 3

2 For more detail on this argument see Leaman, O. (2000) Islamic philosophy and the attack on logic', Topoi, 1—8

3 Leaman, O. (1999) Ontology' Brief Introduction to Islamic Philosophy, Oxford: Polity, 89—107

4 Huineng, Leaman, O. (1999) Enlightenment', Key Concepts in Eastern Philosophy, London: Routledge, 105--110

5 Mulla Sadra and Mysticism', ibid. Leaman (1999) , 96—100

6 Corbin, H. (1972) En Islam iranien: aspects spirituels et philosophiques, Paris Gallimard

7 Ha'iri Yazdi, Mehdi (1992) The Principles of Epistemology in Islamic Philosophy: Knowledge by Presence, Albany: State University of New York Press

8 Nasr, S.H. (1996) The School of Isfahan', Amin Razavi, M. (ed) The Islamic Intellectual Tradition in Persia, Richmond: Curzon, 239--70, The Place of the School of Isfahan i in Islamic Philosophy and Sufism, Lewisohn, L. & Morgan, D.(eds) The Heritage of SufismL Late Classical Persianate Sufism III, Oxford: Oneworld, 3--15

9 Wittgenstein, L. (1969) On Certainty, ed. G. Ansxombe & G. von Wright, trans. D. Paul & G. Anscombe Oxford: Blackwell

10 Wittgenstein, L.(1953) Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. Anscombe, Oxford: Blackwell, 230

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