Suhrawardi’s critique of «Conceptual Knowledge»(knowledge by definition) in former Traditions

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A. Suhrawardi and agreement between Plato and Aristotle on the knowledge by definition
Traditionally, “definition” has been a mean through which knowledge of the external world can be attained. This method, which was primarily developed by Plato and often referred to as the “Socratic Method”, is based on a dialogue in which a “thing” is defined and redefined until we can know what “thing” truly is. Aristotle elaborates on this theory of knowledge by definition when he argues that definition should reveal the true identity of a thing by disclosing is essential nature. As he states “Definition is held to concern essential nature and is in every case universal.”

Suhrawardi’s theory of knowledge by definition is a rapprochement between Plato’s and Aristotle’s position. It is an attempt to reconcile the Peripatetic philosophy of Aristotle and the intellectual intuition of Plato’s into single and unified theory of knowledge. Suhrawardi’s notion of knowledge by definition, despite his disagreement with the Peripatetics, remains rather similar to theirs. However, he attempts to offer the view that an adequate definition is one that not only tends to capture the essence of a thing and its relation to its attributes, but also brings about a harmony between Aristotle’s view and those of Plato.

In his book The Philosophy of Illumination, Suhrawardi offers his criticism of the Peripatetics in a chapter entitled “Destruction of the Peripatetic’s Rules of Destruction” by arguing that Peripatetics, in distinguishing between “general essence” (jins) and “specific difference” (fasl), have made a grave mistake.

It is important to realize that despite Suhrawardi’s criticism of the Peripatetics on the subject of definition, he does not discard definition as an entirely invalid means of attaining knowledge. What he is trying to do is allude to the limits and inadequacy of definition is arriving at certainty. As we will see in his other works, he elaborates on these problems and argues the conditions under which definition could act as a means of attaining knowledge. Let us now turn to examine Suhrawardi’s view of definition in order to formulate his theory of definition.

B. Analyzing Suhrawardi’s the theory of definition
Suhrawardi in The Philosophy of Illumination, as well the Conversations and The Intimations devotes a chapter to the analysis of the theory of definition. In the second chapter of The Intimations he argues that it is not sufficient for definition of an existent being to disclose only the essential nature of that thing, since other attributes o a thing should also be considered as part of the identity of a thing even though they may be of an accidental nature. Therefore, a definition should include not only the essence but other elements as well.

A formula (qawl) is indicative of the essence of a thing and combines (yajma) all of its constituent elements. Regarding the principle realities, it [ the formula] is a synthesis (tarkib) of their genera and differentia.

This is a radical departure from the Aristotelian approach since its underlying assumption is that the identity of a thing not only consists of its essence but includes its other attributes which are also important. The other significance of this approach is that if the differentia or “the particular essence” (fasl) is not Known, then the definition of that thing remains incomplete. On the basis of Suhrawardi’s argument we can arrive at the following two conclusions:

1. Since we can never know all the “constituent elements” of a thing, it can never be defined properly and adequately and therefore it cannot be known by definition. 2. If a definition should include not only genus but also all the differentia and other constituents of a thing, that necessitates an a priori knowledge of the differentia since the differentia are an exclusive property of an existent being.

C. The topic of definition in the “Al- Mutarahat” ( conversations)
Suhrawardi’s treatment of the topic of definition in The Intimations, which is done in three sections, ‘Essential Nature,” “Description.” and the “Fallacies in the Construction and Use of Definition,” is followed by an even more extensive treatment of the topic in the al- Mutarahat. What follows is brief review of Suhrawardi’s view as illustrated in twelve different sections of the al- Mutarahat.

Having defined five different types of definition, Suhrawardi continues to analyze the very complicated issue of the relationship between mental concepts and their corresponding objects to define a thing so that its genus differentia remain united, it is not possible to do so in regard to the class of those things whose genus and differentia are one and the same, such as colors. A color, he says, is not like “Man is a rational animal” in that there would be a concept of man and a rationality so that the latter is a predicate of the former. Color is a genus without a differentia, therefore, no definition of it can be offered such that it would encompass its genus and differentia.

From the above argument Suhrawardi concludes the following:
1. Peripatetics are wrong in assuming that definition can be used unequivocally and without any qualification as a means to attain knowledge. In this case alone, (i.e., colors) we clearly realize the limits of definition in that it is only capable of defining certain things.
2. Color can never be known by definition since color cannot be defined by something other than its self.

In The Conversations, Suhrawardi once again stresses that a definition which is able to include the sum of all the differentia and other characteristics of the thing in question would be an accepted mode of cognition. In stating this, he implicitly is arguing that since it is not possible to define all the attributes of a thing, any attempt to define a thing would be in vain.

D. The base of Suhrawardi’s critique of the Peripatetic’s definition in “the philosophy of illumination”
Suhrawardi, in some of his works in Persian such as Partaw -namah, and Haykil al-nur, makes reference to the problem of definition but does not it is as much detail as he does in some of his Arabic works. In the Philosophy of Illumination, he summarizes his views regarding the Peripatetic view of definition by saying:

He who mentions a number of essentials cannot be certain that there may not be another essential which he has ignored. Commentator and critic should inquire (of his certainty), and if he says that were there another essential, we would have known it, (we should say) there are many attributes that unknown to us… The truth of things is known only when all of the essentials are known, and if there be another essential that we are unaware of, then Knowledge of than thing is not certain. Thus, it becomes clear that the limits and definitions (hadd) as the Peripatetics have accepted will never become possible for man. The master of the Peripatetics [ Aristotle] has confessed to this existing difficulty. Therefore, the limit and definition cannot exist except in regard to those items whose collective body is an indication of particularity.

Suhrawardi in above argument has demonstrated that the differentia of a thing is an exclusive property of that thing (i.e. the purring of a cat). Then, if we do not know what property is, we will never know the identity of the thing through definition. The purring of a cat in this case has to be defined through another definition, and this definition in turn needs to be defined through another definition which for Suhrawardi is absurd. There ought to be an axiomatic principle so that everything else is defined in terms of it. In fact, Suhrawardi, in his The Philosophy of Illumination, maintains that knowledge by definition is possible if and only if there be a first principle so that everything else is measured against it and yet itself is not subject to any definition because of its axiomatic nature. This axiomatic phenomenon for Suhrawardi is light and its derivative presence that underlies the very foundation of his epistemology.


suhrawardi and illumination school


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