- Suhrawardi on Innateness:A Reply to John Walbridge
Here I shall focus on Suhrawardi’s use and conception of ‘fiṭrī’, translated as ‘innate’ by Hossein Ziai (1990), Hossein Ziai and John Walbridge (Suhrawardi 1999), and Mehdi Aminrazavi (1997, 2003),1 and will try to make some points in passing regarding Cartesian innate ideas in relation to Suhrawardi’s fiṭrīāt. I will try to explain my understanding of Suhrawardi’s i‛tibārāt ‛aqliyya (beings of reason) and their relationship to fiṭrīāt. As a relevant issue, I will touch on Suhrawardi’s distinction between objective and intellectual attributes. Considering Platonic forms as the godparents of Suhrawardi’s ‘innate’ ideas, I will end by justifying this question: Is Suhrawardi a Platonist?
Suhrawardi and Cartesian Innate Ideas
Let’s begin with Descartes. In his insightful response to my “Note” in this issue, John Walbridge has distinguished two senses of ‘fiṭrī’ as applied to conceptions (tasawwurāt), and not to assents (tasdiqāt), in Suhrawardi’s philosophy: “What we have, then, is two distinct uses of fiṭrī. In the first, fiṭrī simply refers to simple concepts that are known by direct experience. These are certainly not innate in the Cartesian [End Page 486] sense.” I share the view that according to Suhrawardi simple concepts known by direct experience are fiṭrī. Fiṭrīāt in this sense may include simple sensations like blackness or sound. These are not defined and may be used in the definitions of other things. Thus, it is not true that “all definitions inevitably lead to those a priori concepts which themselves are in no need of being defined” (Aminrazavi 2003, p. 207) since some definitions lead to simple sensations that are not a priori concepts in the first place. Likewise, it is not true that “innate knowledge is given an a priori status” (Ziai 1990, p. 44) since there is a sense in which innate knowledge may not be a priori.
Fiṭrīāt or ‘innate’ ideas in this sense “are certainly not innate in the Cartesian sense.” This last statement requires clarification. Descartes’ conception of ‘innateness’ is not crystal clear.2 Cartesian innate ideas, in some passages, are introduced as universally applicable or observable ideas: “after adequate reflection, we cannot doubt that they are exactly observed in everything” (Descartes 1985, p. 131). In some other passages, they are introduced as the ideas that the mind “would find . . . within itself” (Descartes 1991, p. 190) under proper circumstances. Moreover, Descartes explains innate ideas as not necessarily “actual” (Descartes 1985, p. 309); ‘innateness’ should be understood in terms of possessing ‘a certain ‘faculty’ or tendency’ (ibid., p. 304). Whether all these features can be put in a consistent theory is not at stake here. A common theme is that Cartesian innate ideas “are not acquired,” they are “present in our mind” from the outset (ibid., p. 306), and this characteristic distinguishes them from ‘adventitious’ (or acquired) ideas (ibid., p. 303)—‘made up’ or ‘invented’ ideas make up a third category of ideas for Descartes. What Walbridge and I share, and perhaps Ziai and Aminrazavi do not, is that Suhrawardi’s fiṭrīāt may be acquired and may not be present in our mind from the beginning.
It is worth mentioning that in Comments on a Certain Broadsheet, Descartes tries to extend innate ideas far beyond the ideas of God, self, and the like:
Nothing reaches our mind from external objects through the sense organs except certain corporeal motions, . . . But neither the motions themselves nor the figures arising from them are conceived by us exactly as they occur in the sense organs, . . . Hence it follows that the very ideas of the motions themselves and of the figures are innate in us. The ideas of pain, colours, sounds and the like must be all the more innate if, on the occasion of certain corporeal motions, our mind is to be capable of representing them to itself, for there is no similarity between these ideas and the corporeal motions.(Descartes 1985, p. 304)
Based on such an argument, it might be tempting to conclude that Descartes and Suhrawardi are talking...