- Self-Awareness in Islamic Philosophy: Avicenna and Beyond by Jari Kaukua
Kaukua's book will appeal to two audiences: historians of Islamic philosophy and philosophers concerned with postmodern theories of the self. [End Page 750]
It begins with Avicenna's Gedankenexperiment, the flying man, "imagined created all at once and perfect … as though floating in air or a void," completely bereft of sensations. This image is the capstone of Avicenna's two-stage argument for the existence and nature of the soul. Considering the soul in relation to other things, we see it is not a body, but a form, first actuality of the body, its perfection and power, as Aristotle said. Then comes the flying man, acting as an ishârat (pointer) directing us to the mâhîyya (quiddity) of the soul. Avicenna "will not hesitate in affirming that his self exists [li dhâtihi mawjûdatan]," even though unaware of his body. "Hence, the self [dhât] whose existence he has affirmed is … he himself, different from his body and its limbs." Consequently, he realizes "the existence of the soul [wujûdi al-nafs] as something different from the body" (30–36). The soul, then, is both form of the body and spiritual substance different from the body, a thesis based on Avicenna's metaphysical principles, mâhîyya and wujûd (existence), and followed by his pupil, Thomas Aquinas.
The flying man argument, however, contains a linguistic problem. The Arabic dhât is sometimes a reflexive, 'himself' or 'itself' or 'the self,' but at other times it means a thing's 'essence' (233). In this very argument, Avicenna's medieval Latin translators, Dominicus Gundissalinus and Avendauth Israeleta, at some points rendered dhât reflexively as se or sui, but at other points as essentia. And there is good reason for doing so. At points in the argument dhât must mean 'self.' But the whole argument is introduced as a search for the mâhîyya of the soul; and it ends with Avicenna's claim that the essence of the soul is such that its existence is not tied to the body. Kaukua, however, consistently renders dhât in this passage and others as 'his self' or 'the self,' avoiding 'essence.'
While I have my doubts about this translation, as applied to Avicenna himself, it opens up an arresting story of the development of conceptions of the soul within Muslim philosophy. And Kaukua himself also offers "pointers" to a parallel development during the period of modern philosophy in the West.
The Islamic story goes like this: The two metaphysical principles of Avicenna (d. 1037), essence and existence, are correlative with each other, and so allow inferences from one to the other. Since "Avicennian self-awareness is static and allows no room for development," it follows that "the self indicated by the phenomenon of primitive self-awareness" of the flying man "is a similarly static entity, an Aristotelian substance," the spiritual soul (103). In the ishrâqî (illuminationism) of Suhrawardi (d. 1191), however, essence is the more fundamental principle. In self-awareness, then, "I only see in myself [fî dhâti] existence and apprehension, nothing more," which undercuts any inference from this existence to the higher principle, the essence of the soul (119). Mullah Sadra (d. 1636) took the reverse position, namely, that existence is prior to essence. Since "we know through our intuition" coming directly from God, "when we apprehend ourself … all is absent from us except our simple itness, and no doubt this simple itness is nothing but existence" (182). So, an inference from this bare existence of ourselves to the essence of the soul is cut off. Consequently, Sadra "no longer ascribes our identity to a stable substantial core [or essence] to our being, but conceives of it as a feature that belongs and is due to our existence as a continuous whole" changing through time (226–27).
Here is the modern parallel: Descartes began with an Avicennian inference, cogito ergo sum, the "I" being a spiritual...