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  • Avicenna's Notion of Fiṭrīyāt:A Comment on Dimitri Gutas' Interpretation
  • Mohammad Saleh Zarepour (bio)

I. Introduction

In an illuminating article, Dimitri Gutas has tried to show that Avicenna's theory of knowledge should be understood within a full-blown empiricist framework very similar to that of John Locke.1 Gutas' argument is based on an analysis of Avicennian 'principles of syllogism'2 (mabādī al-qiyās). The principles of syllogism are those judgments and propositions that form the irreducible and axiomatic foundations of syllogisms and definitions.3 Avicenna categorizes these principles based on how we accept and acknowledge the truth (taṣdīq) of them. This categorization appears, with some slight modifications, in many places in Avicenna's oeuvre, for example in the Kitāb al-Burhān of al-Šifā',4 and the logic parts of al-Nağāt5 and al-Išārāt wa-l-tanbīhāt.6 According to al-Nağāt, the principles of syllogism are divided into sixteen types based on the cognitive mechanisms through which we grasp them.7

Gutas' argument for his main claim has two steps: (a) he considers these different types of principles, one by one, quoting the most important texts in which Avicenna discusses each of these principles; and (b) he shows, based on his analysis of the selected quotations, that the acknowledgment of the truth of these principles is finally grounded on what we grasp from our sensory experiences (mušāhadāt). More precisely, Gutas wants to show, based on the textual evidence, that we cannot acknowledge the truth of the principles of syllogism merely by the operation of our theoretical intellect and without appealing to what we obtain non–a priori, in the Kantian sense.8 The conclusion is that, according to Avicenna, all sorts of human propositional knowledge have an empiricist bedrock.

No one can deny that Gutas' article, like all his other works, includes many valuable and insightful ideas. Despite this fact, I am not completely convinced by his analysis about at least some of the aforementioned principles. Specifically, what he says about the nature of the data with builtin syllogisms (qaḍāyā qiyāsātuhā ma'ahā or muqaddamāt fiṭrīyāt al-qiyās—henceforth fiṭrīyāt) seems implausible to me. Gutas believes that Avicennian [End Page 819] fiṭrīyāt are non–a priori and analytic propositions. However, in the present article I argue that a deeper look at Avicenna's writings on fiṭrīyāt reveals a plausible view that is very different from Gutas' position. I try to show that, contrary to what he proposes, Avicennian fiṭrīyāt are synthetic a priori.

My article is organized as follows. The next section below presents the details of Gutas' views about fiṭrīyāt. I show that there is an equivocation in the term 'fiṭrīyāt' and that it can be understood in at least three different ways (when it is employed as a property for judgments). In section III, I show that at least some fiṭrīyāt are a priori judgments. In section IV, I show, based on Kant's principal criterion for analyticity, that fiṭrīyāt are, contrary to what Gutas explicitly claims, synthetic. Section V concludes.

II. Gutas' Interpretation of Avicennian Fiṭrīyāt

Gutas argues that primary data and fiṭrīyāt are two groups of principles of syllogism "whose necessity is internal to the soul and is imposed by the intellect."9 The difference between them is that the truth of the former group is directly imposed by the intellect, while the truth of the latter group is only indirectly imposed by the intellect, that is, "through an operation natural" to it.10 This natural operation is the fiṭra of the intellect. In fact, each of our cognitive faculties, Gutas argues, has a natural mode of operation that is its fiṭra. Criticizing the common understanding of fiṭra according to which fiṭra is the main source of innate knowledge, Gutas tries to show that Avicennian fiṭra is not an independent...


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