Tuesday, December 5, 2006

The nature and stages of perception in Mulla Sadra’s Philosophy

The nature and stages of perception in Mulla Sadra’s Philosophy


Cognition and perception as philosophical themes are of extreme importance and between them take up a major part of issues investigated within Islamic Philosophy in general, and particularly in Sadrian school of Philosophy.
In this paper, we intend to briefly examine the nature of perception and its stages from Malla Sadra’s view point.
To do this we need to have a cursory look at the history of cognition in Islamic Philosophy and develop our discussion within the following sections:
Mulla Sadr’s innovative approach to the philosophy of cognition.
The essence of perception within the philosophy of Mulla Sadra.
Perception and its relevant stages in Mulla Sadra’s philosophy.


"The theme of cognition and its historical development within Islam philosophy".

The pre-Islamic philosophy in general (Greek’s, Alexanrain, and new platonic etc.) contained very little on the theme of cognition.

Oswald Kulpe points to this fact in his book (Einleitung in die philosophie).

"The early philosophers never dealt with knowledge or cognition as a distinct issue. Even Plato discusses cognition within an overall section that the calls "Dialectic". Aristotle also analysis the same theme under "Metaphysics". Non of these philosophers have made a clear distinction between cognition and what are purely metaphysical or logical issues.

Examining correctness and the general veracity of cognition were the most important issues that incient philosophers dealt with. Their discussion is devoid of almost all of the contemporary themes, like the relation between the objectives and the subjective factors in cognition, the role that the perceived and the perceiver play in perception, the limit of the human cognition and the definition of the nature and the reality of pure experiments.

Other issues such as evolvement of and the bases for the verity of cognitions, simplicity of Nafs (soul) and the classification of its powers into perception and others, division of mental knowledge into minor and general and the general knowledge into initiative and speculative types, make up the most important part of philosophical concepts about cognition that were extremely brief and unclean in the pre-Islamic era of philosophical history.

The pre-Mulla Sadra (1571-1640) Muslim philosophers undertook an in-depth study of the above issues. Not only they clarified major ambiguities that were remaining within this field; they manage to present a vast amount of new ideas on the issue of cognition.

For example Mohammad bin Mohammad bin Tarkhan al-Faraabi’s (872-950) division of cognition into imaginative and affirmative types lead to a great transformation for the first time within the philosophy of cognition as well as logic. Among the new concepts presented for the first time in the context of cognition was "mental existence". Fakhrod-din-Razi (1149-1209) has a chapter under this title in his book "al-Mabahith al-Shariqieh" (eastern discourses).

Khajeh Nasired-Din expanded this concept even further and consequently developed a new definition for knowledge and perception. Before Nasirod-Din Tusi, philosophers used to believe that knowledge and perception of the perceived was due to the pictorial form or impression of the thing within the intellect (howa as-sura al-hasilah min al-sha’i ladal ‘Aql).

Although grand philosophers like Farabi and Abu Ali Sina as well as others have made use of this definition in their books, this definition was inherited from the pre-Islamic philosophy.

From Nasirod-Din Tusi onwards, knowledge and perception were re-defined as "the existence of the reality and the essence of the known with the knower".

This definition radically changed the concept of knowledge and turned it into a form of existence of the known within the knower.

The significance of the concept of "mental existence" is not only due to the fact that it provided new definition for knowledge and perception, but its significance is mainly due to the linkage between mental and reality or between the knower and the known that became the foundation for the modern understanding of cognition.

The topic of mental existence completely transformed the concept of cognition within Islamic philosophy and presented a new dimension for this context. This topic also influenced the analysis of existence, essence and nafs (soul). Discussing the development and the mode of influence of these ideas will be beyond the scope of present discussion.

Division of knowledge into empirical and intuitive introduced a major new idea in Islamic philosophy. In the empirical knowledge, the knower attains through mental existence a form of that to be known however this mental existence is different from the external existence of the known.

In intuitive knowledge the known in its external reality appears before the knower. In other word in intuitive knowledge a unity is achieved between the knower and the known.

Separation of knowledge into empirical and intuitive paved the way for a very important Sadrian philosophical concept, which is the unity of intelligent, intelligible and the intelligence.

There is no clear historical record indicating clearly when this division took place, however, the earlier Muslim Philosophers like Abu Ali Sina, within the self knowledge of Nafs (soul), do discuss the notion of unity of intelligent and the intelligible.

Fakhord-Din Razi in his book al-Mabahith al-sharqieh (the eastern discourses) also discusses this concept and states that "fin anna ta’aqol al-shy’ li-dhatih howa nafse dhatih wa anna dhalika haadhiron abada".

(The understanding of the knower of itself is like itself and is permanently present), and uses the phrase hodhoor (intuitive).

It appears that Abu Ali Sina does make the distinction between intuitive and empirical knowledge, in his philosophy, however a transparent and precise definition for these phrases became available only within Sadrian philosophy.

The above has been a brief history of the most important concepts within the philosophical analysis of cognition before Mulla Sadra. These concepts have been used extensively in the Sadrian Philosophy and played a major role in his innovative interpretation of the philosophy of cognition.

Let us look at a few important concepts relating to cognition and perception within Mullah Sadra’s philosophy.

Brief accounts of Mullah Sadra’s innovative approach to cognition and perception.

Primordiality of Existence (Isalatol Wojood)

The theory of Primordiality of Existence forms the backbone to the Sadrian Philosophy. It clarifies all the ambiguities and difficulties that were faced in the pre-Sadrian theory of "mental existence".

One of the major difficulties faced by the theory of "mental existence" was how to explain the transmission of external characteristics of a known to the domain of mental existence?

Let us elaborate this further. We know that the supporters of mental existence believed that cognition in reality was that the essence of the known takes a mental reality and without this cognition would not be possible. Here, a question might be presented:

If the reality of the known exists in the mental domain, then it is natural to expect that its external characteristics must also be present. For fire to be perceived, the heat and burning characteristic must also be present in the mind. Perceiving snow must imply that the coldness and its freezing characteristics must also be present. For the mind to perceive fire and snow would imply in an instance the mind is cold and hot, and since they are intrinsically mutually exclusive this can not be possible.

Mulla Sadra’s reply to this question is based on the theory of the primacy of existence. He stipulated his reply in the following manner:

The presented objection rests on confusing of real existence that makes up the bases for the external reality with Mahiyat (essence) of things. What have the external characteristics in fire and snow is the external existence and not their mental existence.

A further theory presented within Sadrian philosophy is the theory of transcendental motion (harekate jawharieh). Mulla Sadra affirms that there is an intrinsic motion within all physical realities. Human nafs (nature) is a purely material being. However, it constantly moves through transcendental motion towards purity and abstract nature. Cognition and perception mark the beginning of that abstract form and are both associated with this state.

He claims "It is a fact that the human essence at the moment of creation was purely material but its existence and perception is abstract and spiritual. Since other philosophers were unaware of this concept (transcendental motion), they were unable to provide a solution to a number of issues like contingency and permanence as well as attachment and abstraction of human nature (nafs).

It is clear from the above statement that Mulla Sadra considers human nature to be non-material and abstract. He also concludes that,

The essence of man was created after its material body as a consequence of transcendental motion.

Man’s essence is devoid of any cognition and perception and neither has the potential for it.

Due to the abstract and simplicity of this reality, it posses a pure singularity of nature.

Human cognition begins with the sense perceptible. Once the mind has acquired enough information through the senses. It begins to develop and deal with intuitive forms of cognition and then evolves further. Expansion of human knowledge in reality takes place through the various forms of conceptual and judgmental divisions of intuitive cognition.

The following is ‘Allameh Shaheed Motahari’s abridged version of Mulla Sadra’s comments:

"The multiplicity of effects could be attributed to diversity of causes, variation in spaces within which the effects materialize, multiplicity of means or to the linearity of the effects in relation to each other.

As for human nature (Nafs), and its various forms of cognitions it can not be due to the multiplicity of ‘nafs’ itself, as it is abstract and simple. Even if it were complex, its complexity would not be sufficient to become the cause for these variations. The only possible explanation would be the multiplicity of means.

The combination of these means in addition to the simple sensual perceptions that are accumulated over the year would lay the ground for human intellect to comprehend conceptual and judgmental forms of cognition and by following this process as well as inductive forms of analysis, cognition can be expanded limitlessly.

The concept of unity of intelligence, intelligent and the intelligible is a further philosophical innovation that created a new outlook within the process of cognition.

The reality of perception in Sadrian philosophy

Mulla Sadra views perception as "the existence of the perceived within the perceiver but not in the immanent form.

For knowledge he asserts that: "knowledge is an abstract existence that forms within the nature of the knower". Once the soul due to the simplicity and transparency of its nature reflects images of sensual, imagining and intellectual world similar to the images that are reflected on mirrors, but with a fundamental difference between the two reflections. In mirror images, mirror has a passive role, but in human soul or nature, the soul plays a very active role in the process of creating these images.

Accordingly knowledge and perception are a kind of evolution and elevation for nafs (soul), and with every perception, soul gains a new reality.

Although every intellectual existence is a distinct reality for itself, it is also a reality for the soul of the knower and these two realities are in essence but one. Based on his theory of unity of intelligence, intelligible and the intelligent, Mulla Sadra claims that within perception, the power that perceives, the perceived and the perceiver are not three separate entities. In every perceptive act, a reality is created by the soul (nafs) for the perceived, but it also is a reality for the perceiver and these actions are not independent and separate from each other.

In his book "Al-Asfar" in a chapter titled "Clarification that intelligence is in essence the unity between the intelligible and the intelligent", he writes: "The issue relating to the way human beings' the forms of external intelligible is one of the most profound philosophical subjects that has not been clarified for the philosophers yet". He then begins to shed light on this matter in a way that we have summed up in the following way: Impressions are to be divided in two categories: - First: The Gestalt, which is based on the material, its place and situation. This material element is not conceivable. It is not possible to perceive this through sense, only in an indirect way. What is then conceivable is the abstract of the concrete material existence. - Second: Impressions that are not based on the material, place and situation. It is rather an abstraction which is either complete that should be classified as an actual processed knowledge, or incomplete that should be classified as an actual perception or pretension" - he continues: "If something is conceivable this could be accepted under the condition that there is unity between knowledge and mind, otherwise it will not be possible". Thus the essence of this subject is that if the unity between knowledge and mind is rejected, knowledge itself will be impossible, because if knowledge has a separated existence compared to mind it will never exist.

In Asfar, in a chapter titled "To explain that discernment is the concord or unity between the essence of intelligent and the intelligible", Mulla Sadra asserts: "the way in which soul understands the form of the intelligible, is one of the most difficult philosophical issues that as yet our grand scholars have not been able to fully comprehend ". (Asfar vol. 3. Page 312).

The following is an extract of what he proposes as an ex-position for this issue: "things, have two different types of forms:

First - the physical form that is based on shape, situations and space etc.

The forms of external objects, immersed as they are in matter and material concomitants, can not move into the mind and become known, since mental forms and material forms are different in several essential respects. This particular form in its physical condition can not be perceived or understood, it neither can be felt, unless in a contingent way.

In other word, what can be sensed or felt, is its abstract form. The physical form is sensed only in a secondary way.

Second is a form that is free from shape and situation. If this abstractness (immateriality) is exhaustive and absolute, then the form will have a tangible or actual perception, and if this immateriality (Tajarrod) is partial and incomplete the form will be physically senses. (Asfar vol.3. p313).

Mulla Sadra adds: "for something to become intelligible, requires an intelligent being to comprehend it. If intelligent and the intelligible are at variance then the intelligible on its own can not become the object of knowledge. If the intelligible posses a complete existence distinct from the intelligent it can not be perceived". (Asfar vol.3. P315).

He continues: "we have already indicated in the previous chapters that two admixture must have equal existence and of equal status. If one has a primary existence the other will also have an existence of the same nature, and if one has potentiality for existence, the other will have similar statues.

As we divided the intelligible into potential and actually perceptible. The above relationship applies to both types of the perceptible too. There is a fusion between a perceiver and the perceived in actuality or potential. One should not misunderstand or falsely assume that our senses, in the process of perceiving, extract the forms of the perceptible from their essences and preserve their characteristics that in turn are further refined by our imagination. This is due to the fact that the forms of external objects, immersed in matter and material concomitance can not move into the mind, since mental forms and material forms are different in several essential respects). (Asfar, Vol.3, p 315-316).

He then adds: " Things that have material forms can never be conceptually known by the mind, perceiving them takes place through the illuminated perception that we are granted by the Almighty Allah. This illuminated power gives actuality to perception as well as the perceived. Before such illuminated power everything remains in the Potentiality State. The forms that appear in our materialistic/physical senses, simply pave the way for receiving that illuminative power that becomes instantly the perceived, perceiver and perception, in the same way that we explained the intelligible, intelligent and the intelligence". (Asfar vol.3, P317).

According to Mulla Sadra, perceptions in its three stages of "sense, imagination and intellection" are nothing but new beings for human nature, similar to the other realities of the world granted by the Almighty Allah (s.w). Human essence posses variety of means and lives in number of unique conditions for these means to develop, (like coming into contact with perceptive material).

Through these special characteristics, it arrives at the inception stage. This spiritual inception that materializes through the divine mercy, become the source of genesis that gives the soul the capability to unite with the perceived and the perception.

In other words, Mulla Sadra believes that "every perception is a new stage in the process of existence that is created for soul through divine mercy.

These divine illuminations generate the same images that are used for the creation of images by our imagination. Our imaginative faculty is in unity with our soul.

After the imagination stage, the soul begins its activity in the intellection stage, which is yet a further form of reality. Through the divine assistance, it creates the intellection forms that in itself a further stage in the existence of soul. In this stage the intellected images will be in unity with intellect and the intellectable.

The Phase and Stages of Perception in Mulla Sadra’s Philosophy

Under the chapter "types of perception" in Asfar, Mulla Sadra divides perception into four types., "sensory, imaginary, estimation and intellection", and then redefines these classifications into three types according to the three modes of beings: (sensory nature, the world of images and the intelligible realities.

Sensory perception is physically based and the perceiver senses and the perceiver senses the physical realities with their characteristics of time, space, quality, quantity and conditions.

However, what is present before the perceiver is the image of the perceived and not the physical reality. The kind of image that is produced before the perceiver must be equal in the status of being with the perceived. If this is not achieved then perception will not be attained.

The images created for sensory perception are incomplete abstraction of physical characteristics.

After sensory stage, comes the imaginary stage of perception, which in effect is similar to the images that were produced in the previous stage.

In the tawahom (estimation) stage, the object of the perception is the incensed intellectable and not general concepts.

In the intellection stage, perception is based on the reality and essence of things without due consideration to the specific conditions associated with that reality. This makes the perception general and more inclusive.

According to Mulla Sadra, every stage of perception requires a degree or form of abstraction;

In sensory perceptions three conditions must be fulfilled:

- The material presence of the perceived before the means of perception.

- The perceived must be accompanied with its characteristics.

- The perceived must be particular and not general.

The imaginary stage, does not require the first condition and tawahom (estimation), is free from fulfilling the second condition, while in the intellection stage, non of the above conditions need to be satisfied.

The difference between perception in its estimation and intellection stage is not due to the intrinsic nature of these perception; it lay in the external factors, like attachment to and adjoining with particular/partial issues or lack of such characteristics.

Accordingly, tawahom (estimation), is a lower level of intellections, and this in practice reduces perception into three major types. (Asfar vol.3 – P360-362)

We conclude from the above that:

There are four primary stages for perception.

1- The sensory stage, where perception is due to the actual or physical contact between the perceiver with the perceived and such perception comes to an end, by the termination of this direct contact.

In the imaginary stage, human mind preserves an image from the perceived from the direct contact. This image will remain even after the termination of this contact. Such images posses all the characteristic of the perceived, a part from its physical essence. In the tawahom (estimation) stage, the mind denudes all the characteristics from the image without totally severing the linkage between the abstract image and the physical reality. The image created by the mind at such stage can not be related to anything else but that individual or particular reality that was perceived. This image is similar to the image that is created in our mind, when an object is seen from far away without a clear understanding of its nature, (animal or human), colour, shape and size etc.

Such an image, although devoid of all the relative characteristic, can be related to a particular object and not to others. This particularity of the object is sheared with the perception in the 3rd stage. In such a stage, although the perceived is denuded of all sensory characteristics, however the image remains singular and individual and can never be applied to others.

In the intellection stage, the mind denudes all the relevant features even its singularity and turns the image into a general concept that can be applied not only to the perceived that is actually sensed, but to other examples that share with the perceived the general hallmarks. This is the stage for absolute and total abstraction of perceived images.

2- The difference between the sensory, imaginative and intellection perceptions are fundamental and intrinsic. Each of these stages represents a stage within the being of the soul that is different in other stages. While the difference between the estimation and intellection stage is the perceived, that is to say, that perception in the former is particular while in the latter is general, and this is not an intrinsic difference. The above account focuses the stages of perception into three:

"Sensory, imaginative and intellection".

This classification closely matches the division of the world into three distinct kinds.

The world of coarse matter and material bodies (nasoot); the world of images (‘Alam al-Mithal or Malakoot) and the spiritual world of intellection and pure ideas. (Jabaroot).

According to Mulla Sadra’s doctrine, the ontological structure of reality comprises three worlds. The material bodies associated with sensory perception, like, man, animal white, black etc., this is called the first intelligible (ma’ghoolate Aw-walieh), that lies at the lowest rung in the order of ascension, they constitute the basic order/stage with human intellection.

Then comes the world of pure images and figures that are associated with logical concepts, e.g. generality, singularity, differentia and accident that are used primarily in logic as distinctive hallmarks and referred to as logical intellection or secondary intelligible (ma’ghoolate thanieh).

The mind attains such intellection after acquiring the first intelligible. It then creates new concepts that can not be applied but to a very limited contexts. This stage lies at the middle rung of the ascension order.

Finally, the secondary philosophical intellection. (ma’ghoolate thaanieh phalsaphy). These are general philosophical concepts like, existence, nonexistence, unity, diversity, contingency etc.. that are similar to the secondary logical images, in that they do not have an external reality, however they can be applied to external examples, like EXTERNAL MAN that is contingent in its nature but not general in its application.

These constitute the most widespread and general intellectual concepts that the mind can have and unlike the first intellections have the widest of all coverage. These intellectual entities rung on the top of the ontological structure. (Asfar, Vol. 1 P 332, fi an-nal wujood ‘Ala ay-ye wajhwn yoghal in-naho minal ma’ghoolat al-thanieh)

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