The Primacy of the Transcendent In Human Being and Development


 Daniel Smith



My original intention for this conference was to write a paper entitled, Reason, Humanism, and Transcendence in the Philosophy of Mulla Sadra Shiraz. I planned to redefine 'humanism' in a way that would make room for the transcendental orientation of Mulla Sadra's theosophy. According to The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy (1999), humanism is "a general perspective from which the world can be viewed . . . [and that] can be contrasted with the emphasis on the supernatural transcendent domain; . . . [it] discerns in human beings unique capacities and abilities to be cultivated and celebrated for their own sake." Such a definition seemed to me to preclude the claims of many that, Mulla Sadra can be understood as a humanist, and to indicate a fundamental limitation in the dominant Western concept of what it means to be human. In exploring this question, however, I found myself drawn deeper into some basic metaphysical and ontological questions concerning existence and essence. In this paper I will not seek to definitively answer such classical philosophical questions as those concerning the ontological status of universals or the primacy of existence over essence; however, I will explore some of the implications different answers to these questions have on our understanding of globalization and human development in the 21 st century.

It can not be denied that today human life is organized through an increasingly globalized conceptual order. In fact the flow of being would appear to be increasingly determined by flows of mathematically expressed data within a single mode of production. From one perspective I suppose we could possibly see this as the realization of some kind of Pythagorean dream Others see it as a nightmare. What is clear is that this is new!

In terms of human subjectivity, life on earth has never before been governed according to such a virtually universal conceptual system. And, without going into a monumental Hegelian history of being allow me to just casually observe that the universal conceptual order which is governing human development in the 21st century has a very particular history. That history is closely connected to the materially productive and destructive power of what is generally referred to as the 'West', and a way of being in which that power has been, and is being, used to establish and strengthen its own hegemony. In brief the modern order is based in an undeniable superiority of technological power combined with the imperialistic spirit of a small minority of human being.

It is in this context that I would like to briefly compare and contrast 'Western' metaphysics and Mulla Sadra's "metaphysical prehensions." I will conclude by suggesting that Sadra’s transcendental metaphysics might provide a more reasonable foundation from which to defend the earth from what in the end appears to be a self annihilating potentiality within the heart of human being. Thus as the original title of this paper suggested I will use Mulla Sadra’s contributions to global philosophy to begin to outline a humanism based in our rational capacity which, if honestly developed, necessarily leads to a pious acknowledgement of the transcendent.

So, . . . Plato. I should mention that this paper is quite idiosyncratic and determined by the circumstances in which its author found himself as he moved from China to Ethiopia to take a position in the Department of Philosophy at Addis Ababa University. Upon arrival I was asked to fill-in for a professor who was attending a conference in Europe. The course was the first in a history of philosophy series and I was asked to present the students with an initial glimpse of Plato’s Forms and The Republic. It had been many years since I’d actually read and lectured on Plato. So, off I went to the library to ascend to the heights of metaphysics encapsulated in our university libraries in order to attempt to recollect what I had known in one of my previous incarnations. What I beheld was the dialectic and my old friend Euthyphro, i.e. the relation between reason and piety.

What is the proper way to relate to the transcendent? How could we possibly claim to know anything about such a relation and act in a politically effective manner within our own historically (socially, culturally, economically, religiously, etc.) conditioned community?

We all know the story. After 70 years of existence as the great Athenian gadfly ‘Socrates’, Socrates was confronted with quite a problem. Meletus had charged the old man with impiety for which, if convicted by a jury of his peers, Socrates could be executed. So, as Plato tells it, low-and-behold, along comes Euthyphro.

Now interestingly enough, given the dominant 'Western' characterizations of Iranian society, according to R. E. Allen, the author of a book I just happened to stumble across in the stacks of the John F. Kennedy Library in Addis Ababa University, it is important to realize that Euthyphro is a fundamentalist and clearly Socrates is not [Allen, R.E., Plato's Euthyphro and the Earlier Theory of the Forms, Humanities Press, Neew York, 1970]. Nonetheless, Socrates, as Plato portrays him, is hopeful that Euthyphro can help him defend himself against Meletus’s charge of impiety. It just so happens that Euthyphro is off to the courts to prosecute his father for the wrongful death of one of their workers and thus cleanse his household of the corrosive pollution that would inevitably lead to a familial catastrophe if the Gods were not appropriately appeased. In other words, young Euthyphro was concerned that something was dangerously out of balance in his families relation to the Transcendent. Perhaps it is not too much of a stretch to suggest that today our human family finds itself in an analogous situation.

Though both Socrates and Euthyphro seemed to have agreed that knowledge, of some kind, was a necessary condition for right action they differed in that Euthyphro claimed absolute certainty in his own knowledge of the Gods while Socrates feigned ignorance. This leads to the introduction of dialectical reason as the dominant methodology to be used in our quest to understanding ourselves in relation to the gods or the Transcendent.

To Euthyphro the piety of prosecuting someone who is responsible for the death of another person is obvious. The fact that the victim is a worker, indeed a worker who himself had killed another person - a slave, in a drunken rage, and that the one responsible for the death was Euthyphro’s own father, was immaterial to the question at hand. However, Socrates is not so sure and quickly turns the question to more general questions revolving around the necessary conditions for objective judgment. This in turn points towards the epistemological problem of the relation between the subject and object of knowledge, and, to make an extremely long story quite short, for Plato, this ultimately leads to metaphysics and the ontological status of universals.


Before addressing these epistemological and ontological questions I would like to briefly touch on a political question that is implicitly raised in the Euthyphro and the story of Socrates' trial and death, but is not specifically addressed by Plato till the Republic. Can we justify a judgment independent of any culturally established authority in the face of a physically hegemonic power? Or, is it simply the case that might, indeed, makes right?

Such a question presupposes a situation in which there is real inter-and/or-intra-cultural conflicts among competing cultural authorities. In this context, it is simply impossible to justify a judgment with the claim, "This is what the Elders say," since, as in the Euthyphro the gods or the elders seem to disagree to the point of self contradiction. Any such claim in our modern situation would seem to be a veiled assertion that "We have the power to force you to accept our judgment, i.e., our might will make it right." While such claims can be articulated in the spirit of a sincere faith and conviction in the power of the Transcendent as known by "our" elders, ultimately, unless authority can convince the modern reflective human being through reason, the individual is forced to decide for herself whether she trusts the authority of the elders, what she believes, how important the question at hand is to her, and to what degree she can challenge the power of the established authority.

Roughly this is the position that both Socrates and the modern individual finds themselves in when confronted with a question of their relation to ultimate reality, their own life and death, their responsibility to their community, or the Transcendent. As human beings, we are forced to rely on our rational capacity. Not that reason determines our judgments; rather it is that the voice of reason within us cannot be avoided. We can seek to drive it out as the Athenians sought to drive philosophy out of Athens; however such attempts seem to inevitably result in an amplification of reason's voice. Once the value of the "examined life" has been announced it would seem that we have no choice but to at least hear if not listen to her counsel.

Unfortunately for Socrates and the modern individual, or at least modern 'Western' individuals, reason has proven to be incapable of establishing itself without resorting to metaphysical constructs that violate reasons own self understanding. Thus, the fashionable postmodern critique of the history of 'Western' metaphysics is perhaps an inevitable consequence of the path taken over two thousand years ago by Plato in his struggle to come to terms with the death of Socrates and his impious habit of undermining the authority of the Greek transcendent. However, such postmodern reflections really don't help us with the original problem of piety; indeed, they seem to close mindedly ignore it, thereby further undermining any powerful foundation for decisive collective action..

In my own work this has led me to explore the works of Jurgen Habermas and his theory of communicative action. In modern human society we have only one recourse for justifying ourselves insofar as we have agreed to refrain from physically coercive power and that is the consent of the community within which we are acting. And, in my opinion and contrary to Habermas, I think it is important to recognize that while we must appeal to reason, ultimately human consent is based in an extrarational movement of heart/mind/soul which determines our development until such time as the Real responds in some definitive manner.

While there are many important philosophical questions that need to be discussed in order to explain all of this, some of which I have addressed elsewhere, for the purposes of this paper let me just summarize the point i would like to introduce by saying: for the time being, "man is the measure of all things, of things that are, that they are, and of things that are not, that they are not."

This is not to say that subjectivity determines objective reality. Rather it is through our 'measuring' activity that we relate to the Transcendent, including that which transcends our own self images; and, it is this relationship that we must try to understand. Thus, the question of 'piety' rather than 'representation', 'correspondence', or 'uncoerced consensus' appears to me to be the ultimate epistemological question with which philosophers need concern themselves and I think Mulla Sadra can help us understand this question.


What Mulla Sadra has brought into focus for me in a profoundly different way than ever before is that Platonic Forms are not real independent of a particular mode of being of which they are a part. Furthermore, to posit the ontological priority of a particular conceptual order via the reification of a set of subjective abstractions is to lay the metaphysical foundation of imperialist violence. And, at some point the impiety of such a reification is bound to come back and destroy that order no matter how much power it has temporarily succeeded in harnessing.

These are the points that I will try to elucidate with the following brief exploration of Mulla Sadra's metaphysics. So, “[let us] consider the arguments related to existence, the proof [of its primordial status] as the principal [arche] of all existences and that [indeed] it is a reality - every other thing being its reflection, its shadow, or its apparition [Mulla Sadra, Parvis Morewedge (trans.), The Metaphysics of Mulla Sadra, Internal publications of The Society for the Study of Islamic Philosophy and Science, New York, 1992, p.4].”

According to my extremely limited understanding of Mulla Sadra, what ultimately exists transcends any conceptual order. Our concepts are based in mental abstractions which can never fully grasp reality. Existence "cannot be described, because a description is due to either a definition or a [distinguishing] mark. . . . Since it has neither a genus nor differentia, it does not have a definition. Nor can it be described by a distinguishing mark, since its understanding cannot be supplied by anything more manifest and prevalent than it [ibid., p.6]."

In this passage Mulla Sadra seems to have summarized what Socrates is trying to explain to Theaetatus in the closing exchanges of Plato's dialogue concerning 'knowledge' . You may keep adding as many predicates as you like, e.g., - snub-nosed ugly, old, man, but you will never be able to give a comprehensive account of Socrates and thus explain how it is that you know him. In the Theaetatus this is an epistemological problem which pushes Plato in the direction of his Theory of the Forms and the ontological primacy of the universals. I like to imagine that the young Theaetatus remained unshaken in his knowledge of his mentor Socrates. But, poor Plato, since he was unable to give a satisfactory account of his own knowledge of his beloved master, was driven to conclude that, in effect, Socrates doesn't really exist but some how participates in a perfect Transcendent Formal Reality, the universal 'MAN'.

Thus, in a way it would seem that poor Socrates suffered two deaths. One as a result of drinking the poison as required by the Athenian State, and a second time, by implication, in Plato's annihilation of what to him were 'particular things' in his desire for epistemological certainty and formal perfection. Could it be that in this early Platonic annihilation the whole history of ‘Western’ metaphysics and imperialism was foretold? Could it be that it is Plato's 'MAN' whose death has been announced by the postmoderns and that a more pious humanism is still possible, even required?

Language here begins to get quite difficult, but clearly Mulla Sadra moves in a very different direction than Plato when confronted with the aporia of the Theaetatus. For Sadra, universals separated from or independent of what Plato calls 'particulars' are empty abstractions. Rather than, in effect, running away from his beloved master, it would seem to me that Mulla Sadra, so to speak, opens his heart and soul to the real transcendent Socrates. The one named 'Socrates' which is neither particular nor universal because there is only one. At any rate it is clear that in response to Plato he concludes, "There is nothing in [the realm of] form[s] corresponding to it [existence] [ibid., p.7]."

This is not to suggest that our concepts are meaningless or, as the postmoderns (a name which itself has curiously few self proclaimed designatums), would have it, that words only gain their meaning through the play of language and have no determinable relation to reality. While it is true that nothing in our minds corresponds to what exists independent of mind(s), according to Sadra, "for each concept-such as man-when we assert that it is the possessor of reality or existence, we mean that in the external [realm] there exists a designatum for which it could be asserted ["that is a] man" [ibid., p.11].

In relation to the concerns of this paper Mulla Sadra's metaphysics is able to make sense of the assertion that 'human beings exist;" a claim that would seem to be a minimal necessary condition for any discussion of humanism. "Concepts that have individuals in the external [realm] are terms truly applicable to them [i.e. their instances] [ibid.].” "Names and specific differences of kinds of things and essences are known, but the real existence of any entity cannot be expressed in names or features, as names and features can only be correlated with concepts and universal meanings and not with respect to existences in their inner-nature and concrete forms [ibid., p.13]."

For me, it is in these metaphysical formulations that Mulla Sadra opens the door to a critique of Western metaphysics that might enable us to better understand just exactly what is at stake as a particular hegemonic conceptual order to establishes itself as the foundation of being in the 21st century. Of course it might be argued that while Plato seems to have annihilated the "particular" in the name of the "universal," Aristotle recognized this problem and placed Western metaphysics back on a path of reason that would ultimately lead to modern science and technology.

In the critique of Plato's Theory of the Forms in his Metaphysics, Aristotle also refers to the existence or non-existence of Socrates and what I have referred to as ‘MAN’. Aristotle argues that the Theory of the Forms, "helps in no way towards the knowledge of other things [sensible or particular things] (for they are not even the substance of these, else they would have been in them), not towards their being, if they are not in the particulars which share in them. . . . [F]urther all other things cannot come from the Forms in any of the usual senses of ‘from’. And to say that they are patterns and the other things share them is to use empty words and poetical metaphors. For what is it that works, looking to the Ideas? Anything can either be or become, like another without being copied from it, so that whether Socrates exists or not a man might come to be like Socrates; and evidently this might be so even if Socrates were eternal. And there will be several patters of the same thing, and therefore several Forms, e.g. animal and two footed and also man himself will be forms of man. . . . [I]t must be held to be impossible that the substance and that of which it is the substance should exist apart; how therefore, can the Ideas, being the substances of things, exist apart [Aristotle, Metaphysics, 991 a 12 - 991 b 2]."

Thus it would seem that perhaps Sadra was just rearticulating Aristotle's earlier critique. However, once again, given my limited understanding of both Aristotle and Mudra Sadra, it seems to me that Aristotle failed to grasp what was at stake Plato’s annihilating metaphysical moves and to reestablish a pious foundation for understanding human being (our selves) and Existence.

For Aristotle, universals are inseparable from particular individuals such as Socrates. To speak of humanity independent of any particular human beings is to speak of nothing at all. However, it is through our knowledge of the universals that Aristotle and modern science ultimately define and govern our lives.

Given my limited capacity and the limitations of this brief paper I cannot go into an exposition of Aristotle's understanding of "substance," which I think would be helpful in fully clarifying the issues involved. Therefore, let me refer to what Frederick Copleston, S.J., identifies as a possible contradiction in Aristotle's concept of "substance" that points in the direction of that with which this paper is concerned.

According to Copleston's interpretation of Aristotle, only "individuals are truly substance. . . . It is the individual alone which is the subject of predication, and is itself not predicated of others [Copleston, F., a History of Philosophy, Volume I: Greece and Rome, Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, New York, 1993, p.302]." Only Socrates "is Socrates." Thus, it would seem that Aristotle comes close to agreeing with Sadra when Sadra says things like, "the real existence of any entity cannot be expressed in names or features, as names and features can only be correlated with concepts and universal meanings and not with respect to existences in their inner-nature and concrete forms [quoted above, Mulla Sadra, p.13]." However for Sadra it is a pious respect for the "inner-nature" of mawjud (existents) that is important, whereas for Aristotle, in our desire to know, it is the universal that is our object.

As Copleston says, for Aristotle, though only individuals are truly substance, "the species may, however, be called substance in a secondary sense and it has a claim to this title, since the essential element has a higher reality than the individual qua individual and is the object of science. . . . In this way Aristotle has brought upon himself the charge of contradiction [Copleston, p.302]." It is in this apparent contradiction that the annihilation of the individual, by a universalizing science which claims the authority to establish itself as the absolute foundation of human being and development, once again rears its imperialistic head.

As Parviz Morewedge puts it in his introduction to The Metaphysics of Mulla Sadra, when Sadra refers to 'inner-reality' and 'inner-nature' he is directing our consciousness towards the Existence of existents, "that which is due to its [the existents] own nature, independent of the universal [Mulla Sadra, Parvis Morewedge (trans.), The Metaphysics of Mulla Sadra, Internal publications of The Society for the Study of Islamic Philosophy and Science, New York, 1992, p.4]."

Ultimately, "no mode of knowing can apprehend it [ibid., p.10]." For the conscious rational subject the Transcendent "Primary Real Existent" is that to which we must piously submit. In my opinion, the dangers of our failure to acknowledge the Transcendent and escape the dialectic of Western enlightenment are readily apparent. Therefore, we must strive to reconstruct a pious humanism based in our rational and extrarational capacities as human beings. In this paper I have tried to suggest that Mulla Sadra’s theosophy has an important contribution to make in this 21st century project.


Daniel D. Smith

Department of Philosophy

College of Social Sciences

Addis Ababa University

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia






Master of Arts - Philosophy, San Diego State University, CA, 1986.

Bachelor of Arts - Philosophy, University of California, Santa Cruz, 1984.

Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) - Univ. of Cambridge, San Francisco, CA, 1996.


Associate Professor, Department of Philosophy, Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia (February, 2004 - current). Research, lectures, student consultation and assessment in English and Philosophy.

Visiting Associate Professor, Department of Philosophy and Department of Foreign Languages, Northwest University, Shaanxi Province, P.R. China, (September 2003 - January 2004). Research, lectures, student consultation, and assessment in English and Philosophy.

Visiting Associate Professor, Department of Philosophy, Wuhan University, Hubei Province, P.R. China, (September 2002 - July 2003). Research, lectures, student consultation, and assessment in English and Philosophy.

Visiting Lecturer, Kunming University of Science and Technology, Yunnan Province, P.R. China (August 2001- July 2002). Research, lectures, student consultation, and assessment in English and Philosophy.

Visiting Lecturer, University of Cape Coast, Ghana (Feb. 1999 - Feb. 2000). Research, lectures, student consultation and assessment in Critical Thinking, Logic, Ethics, African Philosophy, and the Philosophy of Education.

Visiting Lecturer, University of Namibia (Jan. 1997 - Dec. 1997). Research, lectures, and student consultation and assessment in Critical Thinking and the History of Western Philosophy.

English Teacher, El Salvador and Guatemala (July 1993 - Dec. 1994).

Philosophy Instructor, Solano Community College, Suisun, California (September, 1987 - June, 1993). Critical Thinking, Introduction to Philosophy, Logic, History of Western Philosophy.

Philosophy Instructor, Las Positas Community College, Livermore, California (September 1986 - June 1991). Introduction to Philosophy, Logic, Philosophy of Religion, Ethics, World Religions, and Humanities.

Substitute Teacher, Oakland Unified School District (Sept. 1987 - June 1988).


International Journalist (July, 1993 - 2001). The Namibian , Mmegi (Botswana), Diario Latino (El Salvador), etc.

Psychiatric Aid, Harbor Hills Hospital, Santa Cruz, CA (Sept. 1983 - August 1984).

Ski Instructor, Jackson Hole, WY (winter 1978/79) and Kirkwood, CA (1979/80).


World Congress of Philosophy, paper presented, Counter-Hegemonic Methodologies and Globalization , Istanbul, Turkey, August 2003.

The Dialogue of Cultural Traditions: A Global Perspective, paper presented, Globalized Sage Philosophy , Istanbul, Turkey, August 2003.

Ho Chi Minh Political Academy & Nature, Society and Thought (US based journal) international conference Global Economy and the Nation State , paper presented, Work Commodity Fetish, Ideology, and Globalization , Hanoi, Vietnam, January 2003.

East Asian Association for Semiotic Studies, paper presented, An Interpretation of Sankofa (from Western Africa) , Wuhan University, China, October 20002.

International Society for Value Inquiry Conference, paper presented, The Origins and Values of Epistemological Privatization , Guangzhou, China, June 2001.

Yunnan Academy Of Social Sciences Conference, paper presented, Higher Education, the World Bank, and International Democratization , Kunming, China, June 2001.

Addis Ababa University, visiting lectures, Philosophy, Science, and Development , Ethiopia, March 2001.

7 th Annual Conference of the International Society for African Philosophy and Studies, paper presented, The University on the Threshold of the New Millennium , Addis Ababa University, March 2001.

American Philosophy Association Eastern Division Meeting, paper presented, Getting Over the Cold War , New York, December 2000.

Conference On Time and Development, paper presented, Do We Have Time for Each Other , University of Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, December 2000.

Moi University, invited lecture, Three Perspectives on Reason , Eldoret, Kenya, June 2000.

The Sixth Annual Conference of the International Society for African Philosophy and Studies, paper presented, Pragmatic vs. Ideological Development in Africa , University of Nairobi, Kenya, March 2000.

World Economic Forum: Southern Africa, article series, Human Rights and the World Economic Forum , Windhoek, Namibia, May 1998.

20th Southern African Universities Social Science Conference, paper presented, The Corruption of Democracy, Human Rights, and Development , University of Zambia, Dec. 1997.

Culture and Development Conference, paper presented, Knowledge in Culture and Development , University of Zimbabwe, August 1997.

Faculty Lecture Series, Articulation and Philosophy , Las Positas, Spring 1987.


Counter-Hegemony and Sage Philosophy , Council for Research in Values and Philosophy, forthcoming.

Higher Education, the World Bank, and International Democratization , in The Journal of Marxist Philosophical Research, Edited by the Institute of Marxist Philosophy, Hubei Peoples Press, 2002.

African Philosophy and Practice , (eds .) Gail Presbey, Daniel Smith , and Pamela Abuya, Konrad Adenauer Foundation, 2002. With a chapter, Pragmatic vs. Ideological Development in Africa , Daniel Smith.

The African Concept of Time , Ernest K. Beyaraza, Makerere University Press, 2000. Reviewed by Daniel Smith , polylog (A German based Internet Journal of Inter-Cultural Philosophy),

Do We Have Time for Each Other? , in Time and Development , (eds.) Sirkku Hellsten and Azaveli Lwaitama,, University of Dar Es Salaam Press, Tanzania, forthcoming.

The Corruption of Democracy, Human Rights, and Development , in Corruption, Democracy and Good Governance in Africa: Essays on Accountability and Ethical Behavior , Kwame Frimpong and Gloria Jacques (eds.), Lentswe La Lesedi, Gaborone, Botswana, 1999.

Knowledge in Culture and Development , in Culture and Development: Perspectives from the South, E. M. Chiwome and Z. Gambahaya (eds.), Mond Books, Harare Zimbabwe, 1998.


Organizer and Moderator, Towards a Culture of Human Rights in Namibia - A Public Forum , Faculty of the Humanities and Social Sciences in collaboration with the Ecumenical Institute of Namibia, University of Namibia, October 1997.

Organizer and Moderator, The "Land" Question - A Public Forum , Faculty of the Humanities and Social Sciences in collaboration with the Ecumenical Institute of Namibia, University of Namibia, September 1997.

Organizer and Moderator, AIDS and Politics , AIDS: Art Breaks Silence: Six Weeks of Exhibitions, Performances and Lectures , Solano Community College in collaboration with the City of Fairfield, Spring, 1993.

Accreditation Assessment Committee Member, Solano Com. Col. (Sept. 1992 - May, 1993).

Multicultural Education Committee Member, Solano Com. Col. (Jan. 1991 - May 1992).

Professional Development Committee, Las Positas Community College, California Teachers Association (Sept. 1986 - Dec. 1987).


American Philosophy Association

International Society for African Philosophy and Studies


Dr. Hao Changchi, Wuhan University, Dept. of Philosophy, Wuhan, 430072. Tele: 86 27 87682860

Dr. Gail M. Presbey, University of Detroit, Dept. of Philosophy, 4001 W. McNichols Road, P.O. Box 19900, Detroit Michigan, 48219-0900, USA. Telephone: (313) 993-1585 E-mail:



College of Social Sciences, Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia



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