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  • Did Suhrawardi Believe in Innate Ideas as A Priori Concepts? A Note
  • Seyed N. Mousavian

In a past issue of Philosophy East and West (Aminrazavi 2003), Mehdi Aminrazavi, developing his ideas expressed earlier in Suhrawardi and the School of Illumination (Aminrazavi 1997), attempted to argue “that Ibn Sīnā’s peripatetic orientation and Suhrawardī’s ishrāqī perspective have both maintained and adhered to the same epistemological framework while the philosophical language in which their respective epistemologies are discussed is different” (Aminrazavi 2003, p. 203). I disagree; however, this is not the point I am going to address in this short note. As part of his argument, Aminrazavi tries to show that “both philosophers seem to realize the need for a pre-cognitive ability that is based on a priori concepts and serves as the fundamental epistemic ground” (Aminrazavi, 2003, p. 206). Relying on Lenn E. Goodman (1992), Aminrazavi explains that “Ibn Sīnā offers two lines of argument against empiricism in favor of rationalism” (Aminrazavi 2003, p. 206). Here I will not be concerned with this claim either. I find it pretty unclear. The intended meaning of “empiricism” (and “rationalism”) is not clear. If “empiricism” means, for instance, that one who lacks sense experience lacks knowledge, there may be pieces of evidence suggesting that Ibn Sina is an empiricist (with no sense experience no further knowledge can be gained). And if “empiricism” reads, for example, that sense experience is our only source of ideas, there may be other pieces of evidence indicating that Ibn Sina is not an empiricist (at least, the source of some ideas or concepts is the Active Intellect, neither sense experience nor the human soul itself).

Even after clarification, and given that Ibn Sina has a coherent epistemological system, it may be that his epistemology does not stand on either side of the empiricism/rationalism distinction. Moreover, as far as I can see, what Ibn Sina’s first line of argument shows is that (empirical) induction does not “lead to universally true conclusions nor does it imply necessity” (Aminrazavi 2003, p. 206). This seems only to demonstrate a shortcoming of (empirical) induction. And his second line of argument is intended to show that rational knowledge does not and cannot have physical location in matter (ibid.). There is a gap, perhaps not easily fillable, between these conclusions and the thesis that Ibn Sina is committed to “knowledge through a priori concepts,” concepts that are “pre-given.” Whether Ibn Sina believed in such concepts deserves to be verified somewhere else. I can hardly find Aminrazavi’s claim in this regard convincing. [End Page 473]

However, the second part of his latter claim, that “Suhrawardi” also addresses the subject of knowledge through innate ideas interpreted as “pre-given” and “a priori” concepts that “constitute the mind and are not made by it” (Aminrazavi 2003, pp. 205–206) by “showing the place and significance of rationalism among four different modes of cognition” (ibid., p. 207),1 seems to me to be based on misreading, misinterpreting, and misanalyzing Suhrawardi, as I shall explain. Interpreting ‘not innate’ as ‘acquired’ and hence reading ‘innate concepts’ as concepts that are not acquired may be found in Hossein Ziai’s (1990, pp. 43–44) interpretation of Suhrawardi, too. At least some passages therein, like “innate knowledge is given an a priori status (considered part of the mind prior to any act of abstraction, or process of thought and without temporal extension), is considered independent of sense-data or of other given data, and is self-proven” (ibid., p. 44), strongly suggest that Ziai interprets ‘innate ideas’ or ‘innate knowledge’ in terms of a priori concepts or knowledge. Based on such a reading of Suhrawardi, Marcotte (2012) concludes that “intuitive knowledge provides access to a priori truths of which discursive knowledge can only be subsequently validated through a posteriori demonstrations” (Marcotte 2012). If by ‘intuitive knowledge’ Marcotte means knowledge by presence or immediate knowledge, then again it is not true that according to Suhrawardi intuitive knowledge necessarily provides access to a priori truths. For example, intuitive knowledge is the constitutive element of vision (Suhrawardi 1999, pp. 70–73); however, perceptional truths derived from vision are...