Mullą Sadrąs Doctrine of Existence and the Objectivity of Imagination in Islamic Philosophy
Prof. Oliver Leaman
It is well known that Mullą Sadrą had a distinctive view of the nature of being and existence, and that this view played an important part in explaining his general metaphysics. There had up to his time been a protracted debate within Islamic philosophy of the comparative links between being and existence, where the former is linked with the essence or nature of a thing, while the latter refers to its actual instantiation.
A particular difficulty in the early translations of Greek philosophy was caused by the lack of a copula in Arabic (by contrast with the situation in Persian and Greek, of course), and the Arabic term wujud or mawjud was often used, among others, to represent existence. Other popular terms for existence were anniya, kąna, and huwiyya, while dhąt, mąhiyya and haqiqa variously represented essence. Mullą Sadrą defended the notion of the asąlat al-wujud, the primacy of existence, by contrast with those thinkers, the majority, who argued that essence came first. They argued that the first question to ask of a name is what sort of name it is (its essence), and whether that name actually exists, has a reference, is an entirely different question.
Mullą Sadrą, of course, accepted that such a distinction could be made, but he argued that the very consideration of that distinction presupposed the existence of the entities, which are used. Now, it is often argued in line with an Aristotelian principle that the first question in philosophy is ontological, i.e. about the nature of being. If this is true, then we shall see that this particular view of the nature of being of Mullą Sadrą is going to play a crucial part in his philosophical methodology.
One of the most important theses of Avicenna is the argument for the priority of essence over existence, sometimes expressed in terms of existence being an attribute of being. The idea here is that what really exists is being, the notion or definition of a thing, and its eventual instantiation is a question of whether something moves it from potentiality to actuality. This seems an entirely sensible idea, since there are many things, which we can think about (and so are possible) but which do not actually come into existence (and so are actually existent). There seem good reasons, then, to put being first and existence second.
As is well known, Averroes argues against this thesis. One motive for his rejection of it is its usefulness to thinkers like al-Ghazząli. The distinction between essence and existence establishes an important role for Gods action. If it is the case that something is always needed to move a being from potentiality to actuality, then this role can easily be attributed to God. In the case of Avicenna it is a prior cause which brings about existence, and ultimately this can be extended back to the first cause, or the ultimate source of existence at the first principle of emanation, the Necessary Being. This is the only thing, which does not require a prior cause to bring it into existence, since this Being is necessary in itself, not through something else. Unless there was such a being, Avicenna argues the search for causes would be infinite, which he suggests is absurd.
Averroes criticises this notion on the grounds that the existence of a thing may be more fruitfully regarded as being part of its essence, in which case existence can be seen as having priority over being. That is, the existence of a thing is not just an incidental part of it, but is essential to it, to its character and role, and cannot be regarded as something which is just added on to an idea of it. He uses this argument to suggest that many of the thought experiments which al-Ghazząli employs to show how the world could be a very different place do not work.
These thought experiments only make sense if we can hold an idea in our head independently of how that idea comes out in reality, and of course we can hold some such ideas in our head. The famous example is that of the griffin, which I am thinking about now, but which I should be unlikely to claim has ever or would ever exist. Nonetheless, there is no problem in thinking about it existing, at least mentally, and its real existence is entirely irrelevant to the idea of it, which we can grasp.
Averroes would argue that the idea of a unicorn is precisely the idea of something which is non-existence, except as an idea, and the fact that we can think about it does not show that it could exist as anything more than an idea. If the unicorn really could exist, Averroes argues, then it would exist, and since it does not exist, then it could not exist.
Most of the philosophers in the Islamic world were on the side of Avicenna rather than Averroes, favouring the priority of essence over existence. An exception here in Mullą Sadrą, who like Averroes (but apparently not knowing of his arguments), argued in favour of the priority of existence over essence. The particular mode of being of a thing determines its instantiation, and the latter cannot be identified with essence, since essence is nothing more than a mental concept. A mental concept is nothing more than an idea in someones head, an idea which cannot be more than an abstract formulation and so cannot make up the reality of anything more than the mental event. In presenting the relationship between essence and existence in this way Mullą Sadrą was consciously differentiating his view from that of Avicenna and al-Suhrawardi, two of his predecessors with whose thought he was much concerned. The latter argued that existence itself is no more than a mental abstraction, to which nothing really corresponds. This seems a rather strange way of putting the relationship between existence and essence, since if anything were concrete and real one would assume it is existence. But the argument for Suhrawardis view is that if existence is the source of reality then it will have to exist, but then this kind of necessary existence will also have to exist, and so on ad infinitum. This seems to be wrong. Cannot something just exist, and we can then say that it exists, and its existence is more important as an aspect of it than its essence? Not according to Suhrawardi, for whom the actual instantiation of an idea requires something to bring it about, which is surely reasonable, and then an explanation of how what brought it about itself came about, and so on, getting us back to the model which Avicenna produced. Why cannot we then say that what we have here is a regress that ends up with a basic principle, which in fact is what al-Suhrawardi asserts? In his case the basic principle is the Light of Lights, out of which the source of being in the world is created, and which itself is not illuminated by any prior or more basic principle of light. But on his view what is important in this picture is the way in which the principle of light brings about concepts, and the actual existence of those concepts is an entirely minor aspect of their reality. After all, the world in which things actually exist is the lowest world, higher worlds being those in which ideas are brought about and created. The whole point of having an imaginal realm is to have a world where questions of existence and non-existence really lose their point, since what is important is the way we can identify and use concepts, and the ways in which those concepts are constructed for us by light. The actual instantiation of anything is a poor thing by comparison.
Suhrawardi particularly disapproves of the idea that there are things, and they have, or may have, the properties of essences and existences. He is also entirely hostile to the idea that there can be existences, which are the properties of essences. Once we start talking in this way we get into the problem of explaining the nature of the form of existence of the essence before the existence gets to it, as it were. We also have to argue that the existing thing exists because of the addition of existence, which gets us onto an infinite regress. The critical attitude, which Suhrawardi adopted to Aristotelian logic, runs right throughout his downgrading of existence at the expense of essence. For one thing, the basic distinction which Aristotle makes between genus and differentia, between what sort of thing something is and how it exists, is criticised by Suhrawardi, and it is not difficult to see how that distinction mimics the essence/existence distinction.
Suhrawardi attacks it on account of its attempt to explain a problem in terms of something, which is even more problematic; so that appealing to how a thing exists is no answer to the question of what it is. It follows from his ishrąqi principles, of course, that what we experience as the contingent form of existence is in fact a crude grasp by us of what has come about through its links with degrees of light, a real basis to things which we tend to misunderstand because we are wrongly fascinated by the question of what exists.
What arguments does Mullą Sadrą have for arguing that existence is on the contrary the basic notion of metaphysics? We need to recall here that according to Aristotle metaphysics is the study of being as being, which means that the proper subject matter of the most basic aspect of philosophy is being. Then after we have discussed the nature of being we could move on to look at the different ways in which being is expressed in existence. But Mullą Sadrą argues that where we should start is not with being in this sense. Why not? Firstly, being is the most universal of things, and so cannot be defined in terms of genus and differentia. Any attempt at defining it in terms of something else must fail, since it is the best known and most surely established of all notions. This might seem a rather dubious proposition, since if being is so well-known as an idea, why does philosophy start with it? The point which Mullą Sadrą makes is that being is the basis of all definition, and so there is no point in trying to define it, except in terms in which it is the being of something, i.e. in terms of which it exists.
Being is must one thing, but it manifests itself indifferent ways in reality, and the ability of one thing to characterise many things in this way is called by Mullą Sadrą the equivocality of being (tashkik). It is true that in so far as everything exists then it exists in the same way, but what sort of existence there is clearly differs from thing to thing, and some things have more being than others. There is little point in using the concept of being as essence as the concept, which characterizes reality, since it is far too general and equivocal to capture what it is for something to exist. What he has in mind here is that reality consists in a large number of existing things, things which actually figure as instantiated realities, and characterizing these hard facts in terms of their essences is to misunderstand how they stand. The fact that these things exist is indeed a fact, which we may choose to describe in terms of being, but this tells us very little, since the amount of reality of each individual thing differs in accordance with its mode of existence. The higher up the scale of reality it occurs, the more simple and clear it is, since it will consist primarily of rational and perfect ideas. The lower down the scale it is the more diverse, or better, the more diverse they are, and saying that they exist is really to claim that they exist in very different and varied ways. Hence, the equivocality of being, one is never quite sure how it is being used. How it is being used will depend on the nature of the existents, which it is describing. Of course, there is a great temptation to say that the only thing, which really exists, is God or the Absolute Being, and everything else is merely a pale reflection of that form of existence (rather in the way in which Averroes describes that relationship). What makes this even more plausible is the theory of constant movement from one mode of existence to another, which Mullą Sadrą sometimes characterizes as the progressive weakening and strengthening of being.
What is crucial to the theory here is that we appreciate that in change the existence of a thing both changes and also remains the same throughout the change. It remains the same in that its link with the divine source of existence remains throughout, while it changes since it moves to a different mode and form, and expresses the principle of Absolute Being more, or less, perfectly. This sounds very mysterious but it is not that difficult to understand. When, for example, someone perfects their notion of love they may come to see that that attitude is more appropriately held towards the form of a being, as compared to its matter, so that the love which one feels is for something more abstract than was the case in the beginning. Then it is more real love, it is a more refined and perfect notion of love, and the sort of love, which exists, has changed. It has become more like the love which God himself has for his creatures, and less like the desires which animals mutually experience. The sort of love which now comes into existence is in a sense the same sort of love as existed before, since the love which existed before also had a connection with the perfect notion of love. Had it not had such a link, we could not have called it love at all. But the previous notion has changed to a more perfect notion, so it is both to a degree the same and to a degree different. This is possible given the notion of the equivocality of being.
It is important to distinguish this notion of equivocation and ambiguity. The meaning of being is not ambiguous but it is applied differently to different things. If I share out a handful of chocolate then everyone gets some but in different ways, and they really all get some. The argument for this is that we perceive a similarity between the things, which exist as opposed to between those things and that, which does not exist. Although everyone gets different amounts of chocolate, there is a closer connection between those different amounts and the situation of those who get nothing, since they have nothing in their hands to compare with the chocolate group.
What enables us to say that one person is different from another person? After all, both people share in the property of being human. The difference between them lies in the different ways in which they are individuated. Being becomes progressively more particularised as it spreads itself through the world, and there is a general process from the more general and more indeterminate to the more concrete and determinate types of being, a move from imperfection to perfection, and every thing is in permanent flux. The descriptions which we can provide of things are not, then, fixed but have to be regarded as making a reference to a certain level of being and perfection. This is an interesting model, since it contrasts with the more normal view of a decline in reality and perfection the nearer we come to this world. On this view by Mullą Sadrą, the higher level of being comes from the lower, and the highest level of all, God, is equivalent to Being itself, since it is not definable in terms of anything else. Does this mean that God himself comes from some lower level of being? This would be a radical assertion indeed, but it is not Mullą Sadrąs point. In so far as we naively identify God with a single being, that identification takes place at a lower level of being. This has a lot to do with the ways in which we perceive reality. The lower down the scale of reality the easier it is to define individuals, since it is easier to apply universals to them, while the higher up we go the harder it is to perceive essences.
The equivocality of being lies in the fact that reality is dynamic and not static, and so can exist in different and constantly changing ways. It is the existence of different things, which produces the ideas of different things, i.e. essences, in our minds, but in reality it is the existence of those things, which come first. They emanate from the source of being, and any ideas about them, which we subsequently produce, are entirely mental and not real. The relationship here is not entirely a matter of order, though, but a reflection of the basic constitution of reality. Existence comes about through emanation from the first cause or Absolute Being, and it is then joined with essence. After all, that is how the whole emanationist process manages to move from just one thing to more than one thing, through the production of a thought and then the further thought that there is something about which one is thinking. These essences multiply the lower down one goes on the scale of reality, in the sense that the lower down one progresses the more limited being becomes. The more essence there is, the less reality, as we can understand when we consider that God, the Absolute Being, has no essence and is pure.
As with Avicenna, we have at least two types of being, one which is contingent and which depends on something else for its existence, and one which is necessary and which depends on itself. One of the fascinating features of the al-Asfąr is the complex account, which he provides of a wide gamut of different kinds of being. He differs from Avicenna, although, in the definition of God, in that the latter is not to be analysed as a being whose essence implies his existence. God has no essence, He is pure being. No essence has to exist, since if an essence had to exist, its existence would follow from its essence, and hence its essence would precede or take greater significance than its existence. Mullą Sadrą completely reverses Avicennas ontology, so that the domain of necessity is that of existence while the domain of necessity is that of existence while the domain of essences is that of contingency.
Surely, though, it will be argued that in giving priority to existence Mullą Sadrą is threatening the fact that we can think about essences without claiming that they really exist. This is not a sensible objection. He is quite happy, as is Averroes, to accept that there is a logical distinction to be made between essence and existence (he gives the example of thinking about the anqa or griffin [al-Asfar I, 1, 269]). There is a whole range of things which we can think about but which have no claims to exist at all, except in our minds.
On the other hand, the fact that something exists in our mind does not mean that it only exists in our mind, or even that its existence in the mind is not real existence. In so far as our thoughts exist in our minds, their essences and existences are the same. The point he goes on to make is that it is possible to have a number of different referring expressions, all of which refer, albeit in different ways, to the same existing thing. It does not follow that the different ways of referring to the same thing are parts of it, or aspects of it. The existence of a thing is the same as the thing which is picked out by its description, it is not something else added to the (concept of the) thing.
It might seem that we have gone some way away from a proper grasp of the relationship between essence and existence here. Do we not talk of something existing as equivalent to some essence existing, in which case the essence appears to come first? Mullą Sadrą allows this sort of language, but he does not allow us to claim that the existence of the essence is some factor in the essence. There is only one ontological event, as it were, when something exists, and this is equivalent to the existence of the thing and the essence of the thing. Conceptually there are two or more ideas in being, but in reality there is only one, and there are a variety of ways of understanding that one thing. The existence of Zayd, of this particular Zayd, is the same event as his determination as this precise individual. This man and this actualisation of humanity are exactly the same ontological event. We can still distinguish between what Zayd is and whether he is, but this is a conceptual distinction about just one thing, which exists.
Although Mullą Sadrą does not refer to Averroes, it is interesting to note how exactly the same theory of naming is used by the latter to underpin his hermeneutic theory of the links between different ways of approaching the same truth. For Averroes, the philosopher and the ordinary believer both describe the same truth, albeit they do it in different ways. They apply different descriptions to the same thing, and there is no more problem with this than there is in understanding how we can apply different predicates to one physically existing individual, for example. What comes first is the individual, and what come after are the descriptions of the individual. It is certainly true that unless there were ways of describing the individual we should be unable to pick him out, but it is also true that unless the individual existed, in some sense, there would be nothing for the essences to pick out.
One of the interesting controversies, which have emerged concerning Mullą Sadrą, is how important it is to align his thought with mysticism to make sense of it. Some have argued that this can be overdone, since the main thrust of his thought is logical and conceptual, not mystical at all.
On the other hand, there is no doubt but that he has a constant interest in mystical topics, given his frequent references to the thought of Ibn al-Arabi and his many references to his teacher Mir Dąmąd. We have already noted the similarities between his views on existence and essence and those of Averroes, the arch opponent of mysticism, and we might wonder whether the mystical aspects of Mullą Sadrą are an essential part of his general philosophy.
It is difficult to appreciate the teaching of Mullą Sadrą in its entirety without giving due attention to his mystical views. As compared with Averroes, he has a view of reality which fits in closely with the notion of wahdat al-wujud or the unity of being, which is something he claims we can experience as we progress up the scale of awareness. The link between the unity of being and existing things is like the link between the sun and what the sun illuminates, and it is of course an error to identify the source of light with the things which are lit up as a result of it. The idea of tashkik al-wujud, of the equivocality or gradations of being explains why there is a differentiation of things in a world in which there is really only one absolutely real thing. As we improve our understanding of reality we come closer to appreciating the unity of everything, and we can do this at the same time as understanding how this basic unity is nonetheless diversified in the world of experience in a variety of different directions. We must remember the notion of substantial motion, which plays a key role in the system here, since it is more accurate to talk in terms of events rather than things in the philosophy of Mullą Sadrą. The world is in constant motion, and everything is changing at every time, and for this change to take place what originally exists, or exists at a particular time, has to be seen as changing into something different. There is a basic existing being which remains the same throughout, in a sense, but it constantly acquires new properties on the route to greater perfection. This description of the process is rather misleading, since time is not real according to Mullą Sadrą, being a reflection of how we think about this process rather than a part of the process itself. Perfection comprises the progress of things to ever-increasing degrees of light, to unity with the principles, which lie behind their possibility as things.
What is this level of reality to which everything is ineluctably moving? For Mullą Sadrą it is what has become known as the imaginal realm, the ąlam al-khayąl. The natural way to translate this into English would be as the imaginary realm, but many commentators have avoided this, as we have seen, because of what they take the negative implications of imaginary to be. It is certainly true that we sometimes call things imaginary when we mean that they do not really exist, and when we identify ideas as imaginary we often are using the term pejoratively.
The notion of the imaginal world is basically a product of the thought of Ibn al-Arabi and Suhrawardi. This world is designed to connect the lower world, the world of generation and corruption, with the higher levels of reality, where the perfect and pure ideas exist. One might wonder what need there is to postulate such an ontological realm, since between the ordinary ideas of our world and the purer and more abstract ideas of the world of ideas there does not necessarily have to be anything. After all, as I progressively refine my ideas of, say, number of stage is reached at which I no longer need to make those ideas concrete. To start off with I think in terms of a number of things, say three bananas, and I find it difficult to think of three except in terms of their characterising some physical quantity. Then I notice that it is possible to think about the number itself without connecting it to what it is a number of, and I start to think of the logical nature of number and the ways in which it works to define a range of abstract relationships. What need is there in such a model to have anything to intermediate between the physical numbers and the abstract numbers?
The point of talking about an imaginal realm is to note that there is a stage in human thought during which we play about with ideas in ways, which are not entirely determined by our experiences, but also in ways, which are not entirely unrelated to those experiences. We have private and personal experiences, and these work their way into our more abstract speculations, so that, for example, if I think about the nature of love I may think about the people whom I love myself. Yet I appreciate that the notion of love has a wider extension than is experienced by me, and some people love things and people which I should find difficult to love. How can I understand what it is for them to love those objects? Imagination, or the imaginal realm, is what is important here, since I work from my experience of love to what I take their experience of love to be, and this is not something, which can be carried out in a flash of recognition. One has to work slowly to change the way ones ideas feel to make sense of this new and unusual idea of love. For this the imaginal realm is necessary, in the sense that we have to use our capacity to imagine what it is like to love in this new situation. This comes out nicely in Suhrawardis description of the imaginal world as linking our microcosmic reality (what is important for us) and the macrocosmic nature of objective reality. The forms of the imaginal world are material in the sense that they use physical imagery, but also abstract in the sense that they point to what is higher than it. It is more real than our world, but not as real as the higher world. In the imaginal world we have imaginal bodies (al-jism al-khayąli) which differ from our physical bodies in that they can roam more widely across a range of ideas and experiences than our ordinary day-by-day bodies. This is surely right, in that when we use our imagination we are not limited by our personal experiences or the range of our bodies, but may extend our selves in a variety of different and novel directions.
This suggests that the sorts of very mysterious types of expression which mystics use can often be given a more down-to-earth meaning. This is even true of the wahdat al-wujud doctrine, which seems to be a mystical claim about the unity of existence and the necessity to develop some very special ways of understanding that unity. No doubt there are techniques which we might employ in order to see reality as one thing rather than as many different things, but the claim that everything comes down to one thing is not as difficult to understand as one might think. We need to recall that the view of creation as emanation, so powerful a result of Avicennas continuing influence over Islamic philosophy, and the effect it has on the notion of being.
The major contrast between Avicenna and Aristotle lies in the responsibility for matter, which for the latter does not apply to God. Aristotles God is indeed the cause of the world, but not of the matter of the world, so that there is something in existence apart from God and His effects, namely, matter. There is also the matter of whether this ultimate source of existence can be described in terms of substance and accident, in terms, that is, of the categories, which for Avicenna is impossible. It is impossible because whatever brings about the form and matter of the universe cannot be defined in the same terms as the things within that universe.
The source of being serves as a limiting concept, and we should not expect to be able to use the same concepts when describing such a concept as we can when describing what that concept makes possible. The only route we have to grasp the nature of the source of being is through contemplation of what it is for a perfect thing to bring about another thing. The only proper analogy for this is the way in which a thinking thing brings about its thoughts, but it has to be in a pure and autonomous way. It should not be as a result of the ordinary ways of thinking to which we are subjected by our life as members of the world of generation and corruption. Those thoughts have to flow from our self as aspects of our contemplation of our self, a contemplation, which succeeds in picking out the most important aspects of our being.
According to Avicenna, we cannot talk about the world and God, as though these were two different entities. Without God there is no world, and the world is merely a result of Gods self-contemplation, so that in a sense there is no God without the world either. It is not as though God decided to bring the world about, as though he had a choice in the matter. He had no more choice in the matter than did a good logician in working out the correct conclusion to a syllogism, once he is provided with the premises, a point which annoyed al-Ghazząli so much.
Everything is one in the sense that it all stems from God, and plays a part in the rational structure of a reality, which could not be otherwise, according to Avicenna. This is a point, which is made even stronger by Mullą Sadrą, who goes so far as to claim that God is equivalent to existence itself. What this means is that the answer to the problem of why anything exists lies in the existence of God and his role as the source of the existence of everything in the world. Ordinary language is always going to find it difficult to explain how this is to be explained, since ordinary language rests on a form of existence which it itself cannot explain. Hence, the need for mysticism. It might even be said that the move from the notion of the wąjib al-wujud, the Necessary Existence, to the doctrine of wahdat al-wujud is logically quite clear.
Is there a serious problem about reconciling different ways of looking at the same truth? There is certainly a difference in style, with some philosophers mistrusting the ability of philosophical approaches to the truth to get to completely the right result. That is, if one sees experience as being an important aspect of knowledge, then there is certainly no guarantee that any purely intellectual process will lead to that experience.
One needs perhaps to use the theoretical machinery to come close to acquiring the experience, and then something else has to happen to make the experience possible. One thing, which has to happen, is that the seeker after knowledge should feel dissatisfied with the theoretical knowledge, in the sense that he should feel that there is more to know than can be known theoretically. Some thinkers who are not convinced of the significance of mysticism present their work in rather unproblematic ways, so that once one follows the argument one knows as much as one can know of the nature of reality.
Al-Fąrąbi and Averroes follow this sort of methodology, an approach that fits in well with the sort of agenda that Aristotle puts forward. Although it is often said, and quite rightly said, that these thinkers worked within something of a Neo-platonic context, there is no doubt that their work represents much of the spirit of Aristotle, the spirit being that the universe is a basically comprehensible place, where if one works through the right sort of principles one can accomplish a total grasp of that reality.
Individuals differ in their ability to attain contact with a more developed notion of reality. For some it is the result of a long and difficult process of working logically until one achieves some grasp of the real formal structure of the world. For others it is a matter of the occasional flash of understanding of the real nature of the world, with far more experiences, which are of a far lower level of understanding. Some people have purified their intellects sufficiently for them to be in contact most, or all, the time with the Active Intellect, and these Avicenna labels holy or angelic (qudsi, malaki).
For this individual the forms of reality are as real as are the events and objects of the world of generation and corruption, or it might be better expressed by saying that they are as vivid. The important thing to realize about this process is that it is not automatic. For us to make contact with the intelligible world we need something to mediate between the material world and the intelligible world, and that can be identified with the imaginal world.
The imaginal world consists of concepts, which share characteristics of both the material and the intelligible world, and unless there are such concepts it would not be possible to explain how movement from one world to the other is conceivable. What motive would we have to seek to advance our understanding unless we could form some conception of where we could go?
The influence of imagination is necessary to take us to a higher level, since we need to be able to visualize at a lower level of knowledge what it would be like to be at a higher level of knowledge. When Hayy tells the narrator of Hayy ibn Yaqząn of the constitution of reality in highly poetic and evocative language this is what he is going, he is outlining to the rational intellect why it should make the effort of perfecting itself, in terms which the ordinary individual will understand. In a sense the language which Hayy is using is descriptive of a higher level of reality than this world, since although the state of affairs which that language refers may not be exactly as he states, it is representative of a deeper truth which really does accurately describe the nature of how things are. That is one of the characteristics of imagination, although what it suggests is the case may not be the case, what it suggests is the case may point to what really exists at a level of existence which is beyond what we can acquire through using just our intellect and senses. Imagination, as a blend of intellect and senses, is capable of preparing the move to a more accurate and complete understanding of how things really are.
There are two leading theories, which seek to explain the use of allegorical and poetic stories to illustrate philosophical theses in Islamic philosophy. One theory suggests that the literary form of allegory is used to explain in simpler and more direct ways the meaning of the philosophical theory. For those who would not understand the philosophy, a more attractive version of the truth is available in terms of a story, often heavily illustrated with attractive imagery. This is implausible as an explanation. Often such philosophical stories are so replete with imagery and ideas of a mysterious nature that they are as hard, if not harder, to unpack than the corresponding philosophical theory. One needs the latter theory to understand the story, and so it is not correct to adduce the story as an easier version of the theory.
The other account of such literary devices goes in the opposite direction, and argues that there is more in the story than there is in the theory. That is, there is an aspect of mystical awareness, which is attainable through the story, and which is described in the story and this cannot be replicated by the corresponding philosophical theory. This is a more plausible suggestion, but it is still incorrect, since it fails to do justice to the fact that the story and the theory are precisely the same in terms of their meaning. It is true that the story may well include some experiential information, which certainly could not be found in a philosophical theory. But if it is the sort of story which accords with a theory then there can be nothing important in it which goes beyond the theory, since the theory is its meaning. Certainly there may be some personal information which cannot be replicated in a theory, but this will only be to illustrate in a more personal way an impersonal theory.
What we need to understand by the use of stories is their imaginative role. The stories are designed to show that more is needed to move into contact with the active intellect than just improving in intellectual ability. One needs some grasp of where one is trying to go, and why it is worth trying to get there, and the only way to do this is through imagination. That is why the notion of the imaginal realm is so important, since this is the conduit which moves us from being limited to this world to entering the higher world.
One way of understanding the imaginal realm is through imaginative stories, through illustrations, which explain how our existing ideas may be extended in particular ways to bring them onto an entirely different and more perfect conceptual level. In just the same way in which we need something to mediate between our physical selves and our souls, and between our souls and the idea of macrocosmic reality, we also need something to mediate between our ideas and the level which those ideas can reach, if extended in the right sort of way. This is what happens in a good school, where the initial ideas of the students are extended through imagination to show them where they can get to, if they go abut it in the right sort of way. The sort of student who works hard but is unimaginative in the sense that he cannot see how his present ideas can go any further (and that is the impact of imagination in education, it makes one realise how far ones ideas can go) is unlikely to reach the stage of the acquired intellect, where his ability to know becomes fully actualized. What happens at this stage is that ones ideas become the same as the ideas of the supremely creative principles of reality, and imagination is an important route to creativity and activity. What Avicenna wants to show through his stories is that it is not enough just to acquire information and apply it to syllogisms. We need also to open our minds to wider ideas and experiences, which will then permit us to be active and not merely receptive with respect to knowledge.
The individual whose natural home is the imaginal realm is, of course, the prophet. His understanding is in contact with the active intellect, and he understands the nature of the universe. A prophet has the same sort of information as the philosopher, but the philosopher may, once he has passed through the imaginal realm, go onto the higher level of concentrating only on the rational nature of the information which is available there.
The prophets role is primarily political, by contrast, and he will seek to use what he has learned of imaginative language to instruct his community of the nature of the higher levels of reality, albeit in language which will accord with their ideas and habits. He will be able to do this because of his mastery of the vocabulary of the imagination. This is the language which moves us from one level of reality to another, and the prophet is the person who helps us here, since he moves us from one form of understanding of our world to another.
The prophet is said to have a holy or angelic intellect; he is like an angel the same way that the angel mediates between heaven and earth. He is holy in the sense that he can show us how apparently ordinary actions may be given a transcendental significance through their connection with God. That is, he transforms the ordinary through imagination to show how extraordinary it is, in just the same way in which I can view my very ordinary garden right now and see it a blissful representation of divine purpose in the universe, if I am able to apply my imagination to it.
An interesting question arises here, and that is whether it is a necessary condition of attaining the level of the acquired intellect that one goes through an intermediary. Could not ones rational abilities be so well-developed that one could go straight on to conjunction with the active intellect, without the necessity of going through an intermediary? To give another example from education, while most children require an imaginative presentation of how a whole range of possibilities is available to them with respect, say, to a career and lifestyle, perhaps some children are able to appreciate this just through intellectual awareness of the facts. They also have no difficulty in making those facts a part of their personal lives, once they grasp their existence and their relevance to them. The answer would have to be that while it is perfectly possible for creatures like us to find it easier to understand why certain aims in life are relevant as compared with other similar people, while we are material creatures we are going to require some physical imagery and motivation in order to get things done. However, successful we may come to be in abstracting our rational soul from our body, while we live we are still obliged to link with that body in our thinking, and so imagination becomes an essential part of that thinking. It is important that we leave imagination behind once we manage to get onto the level of formal thought, since after that time imagination is a hindrance rather than help. For one thing, it infects our thought with material images, which we could well do without. Yet it is necessary for us to employ imagination to get onto the higher level, and that is why the imaginal realm is often described as being more real than the world of generation and corruption, although not as real as the world of forms. Imagination is like a ladder that one climbs and then discards when it no longer serves a purpose. The point of an isthmus (barzakh) is to get from one place to another. Once one has arrived, there is no point in lingering on the isthmus. Yet one could not have arrived at all had one not followed the right route.
When he discusses the concept of the barzakh, Ibn al-Arabi makes it plain that we should not restrict the imagination to only part of reality. Apart from God, everything is imaginary, in a sense. The world itself is imaginary, as he says, in the sense that it reflects the deeper reality of God, and has no existence in itself apart from God. We are ourselves imaginary in that we consist of varying dispositions to act, of a combination of soul and body, and even in the soul there is a variety of the spiritual and the carnal, the light and the dark, the visible and the invisible. A whole range of experience might be called imaginary, and yet be quite real. The links between the soul and the body are made possible by the soul employing the senses to allow us to think about the physical world. This is a crucial part of the imagination, the ability of the intellect to represent ideas to itself which describe the physical, which is only possible if the intellect is able to attach itself to more than the abstract and intellectual.
One of the surprising comments which Ibn al-Arabi often makes about imagination is that he came into contact with imaginary men whom he treats just as though they were real. He also often treats dreams as real events, in the sense that there is experience in dreams, which can be highly significant to the individual who is having it. This is a strange way of talking, since one of the first distinctions we make between reality and illusion is in terms of the world we experience through our waking senses and what we dream about. But Ibn al-Arabi has a point in talking in this way, since it is true that the experience of a dream does have at least one foot in what we might call physical reality. The nature of a dream may, after all, be highly physical, and we sometimes wake up after a nightmare trembling with fear. Presumably this is because we felt at the time of the dream that what was happening to us was very real. But were we not mistaken about this? We were mistaken in a sense, and when we wake up we congratulate ourselves on not really having undergone the events described in the dream. But there is something real about the dream. It describes events, which often could have happened in everyday life, and the dream may have a significance, which makes it even more important than many events, which happen in the everyday world.
There are many accounts by thinkers like Ibn al-Arabi and Mir Dąmąd of contact with imaginary people, some of whom are from the far past and some more recent, but what these meetings have in common is that they take place in dreams or visions, not in what we might call real life. This seems rather strange also, since we would tend to classify such accounts as being fictional. Yet if we see these accounts as taking place in the imaginal realm, as they often are said to be, then what we are being invited to accept is that these encounters are more real, in a sense, than the everyday encounters of our ordinary world. How plausible is this? We should normally say that they are less real. The point is that what might take place in such an encounter could have more impact on us, more meaning for us, than a similar encounter which takes place in the ordinary world.
Take the case of a dramatic presentation, which moves us emotionally in a particular way. What we are seeing before us is literally not happening in the way in which it is being presented, since the hero who is suffering is an actor who is not really suffering, and the tragedy which is unfolding is not really affecting the actors. They are merely representing the tragedy, they are not participating in it. Yet that representation of a tragedy may have a stronger effect on us than a real tragedy, perhaps because of the way in which it is presented and the skill of the actors and writer in bringing out dramatically the nature of events in the play. It is a standard issue in aesthetics to explain how a fictional artifice can move us, and they can, and this is not the place to enter into that controversy. What is relevant, though, is to accept that many things may occur in fictional or imaginative space which we may quite legitimately take to be as real, or even more real, than similar events in our ordinary space, and it is on such a comparison that the description of contact with imaginal people makes sense. It is even more plausible if we remember that the so-called ordinary world is itself replete with a whole variety of barzakh, to the extent that it has within it the scope to take us to a different level of reality since it is itself an imaginative construction.
The ordinary world is itself a reflection of divine reality, and if we are to have an accurate view of it we must acknowledge this and come to terms with its multi-faceted nature. What we perceive in the ordinary world is often familiar and we feel no need to take it any further. But it is replete with the possibility of surprising us, because it is not just familiar. It has a meaning which transcends the world, as we have a meaning which transcends our physical limitations, and unless we are open to both aspects of the constitution of being in the world we seriously misunderstand the nature of that being.
We now return to the question, with which we started, namely, the significance of the account of being in metaphysics. Aristotle claims that it is the first question in metaphysics, but how can it really be the first question if very different philosophies can be constructed from identical accounts of being? There is little resemblance between the theories of Averroes and Mullą Sadrą, yet they are in agreement on the priority of existence over essence. Also, as we have seen, there are considerable resemblances between the basic theory of Avicenna and Mullą Sadrą despite their radical disagreements on the links between essence and existence. A plausible conclusion is that the account of being is not the first question in metaphysics, but that ontology will itself vary in line with the nature of a particular theory as it develops. But this would be a mistake, since despite the enormous differences between Averroes and Mullą Sadrą there is no doubt that their joint adherence to the priority of existence highlights a significant resemblance between their theories. They are both realists, they both argue that the basic constituents of the world are objects, in one sense or another and those objects have real existence. Averroes uses that approach to argue that the world could not have had a different structure than it does have, so that the objects have to take the form which they do. Mullą Sadrą also argues that the objects in the world are real, although for him the notion of reality is far more complex than is the case for Averroes, and he extends it to take account of a deeper sense of reality, including that which exists within the imagination.
Mullą Sadrąs super-realism provides a useful explanation of the acceptability of regarding the contents of the imaginal realm as real. They are real because they exist, and so by definition real. The familiar problem of the barzakh, which links this world with some other realm, and which then leads to the question of how real this link can be regarded, is resolved by the realism of insisting that all such levels of being are in fact different kinds of existence. Since they are different kinds of existence there is no essential difficulty in appreciating the objectivity of either the objects of the imagination, or indeed the objects of our world. A difficulty here only arises if we see the contents of imagination as essences, which may or may not be instantiated, and so may or may not be real. Mullą Sadrą defiantly rejects this difficulty by insisting on realism in ontology, and in this way brings out nicely the links which Aristotle quite rightly thought bind ontology and metaphysics closely together. Mullą Sadrąs account of being and its application to the imagination is undoubtedly a highly significant philosophical achievement.
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