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  • The Myth of a Kantian Avicenna
  • Dimitri Gutas (bio)

In my Oriens article on Avicenna's empiricism (Oriens 40 [2012]: 391–436), I present what Avicenna calls the principles of syllogism, which are the different types of propositions that form the irreducible and axiomatic starting points of syllogisms and definitions. As Avicenna states both explicitly and implicitly in numerous passages that I cite, these are all based on experience. Two of these are the primary propositions (awwaliyyāt) and those with built-in syllogisms (muqaddamāt fiṭriyyat al-qiyās), literally, "premises of fiṭra syllogisms," fiṭra being the natural operation of the intellect—thus, "premises whose syllogisms are constructed by the natural operation of the intellect." In his "Note" on my article, Mohammad Saleh Zarepour disagrees with me and claims that, according to Avicenna, these two propositions are not based on experience but are a priori.

To build his case, Zarepour engages in an extensive discussion of the notion of a priori, in particular that of Kant. This seems odd, for in the entire article I never discuss the concept, and the very few times that I use the term "a priori" it is never as the focus of the main argument; in particular I never use either the concept or the term in section V (pp. 404–410), where I deal with those propositions whose analysis Zarepour disputes. The reason I do not use it is because Avicenna himself never uses a term that could be so translated in his epistemological discussions: it does not appear in Avicenna, nor do I present it as appearing in Avicenna. The concepts of apriority and a-posteriority, if one were to insist, are treated by Avicenna in totally different terms through his description of the constitution of the [End Page 833] intellect—it is completely potential upon birth, and hence there are no innate ideas—and through his empiricism, by making "the senses," to quote him, "the means by which the human soul comes into possession of different kinds of knowledge" (L13 in the article). So whence Zarepour's preoccupation with a priori?

I do use the term once at the very end of the Abstract at the beginning of the article (p. 392), in the statement that the intellect "has no innate or a priori contents," where it clearly has a meaning equivalent to "innate" (disjunctive "or" equating the terms on either side), which is the basic dictionary sense of the word: "existing in the mind prior to and independent of experience; contrasted with 'a posteriori' (empirical)."1 Beyond this, nowhere in the texts I present, but also elsewhere, does Avicenna indicate that there is a time or instance between birth and a child's first experiences or after his first experiences when the intellect would form, develop, or acquire any ideas independently of experience. Hence for Avicenna there are no innate ideas, and none, even after birth, independent of experience, and thus for Avicenna "a priori" in that sense, were he to use the expression, is tantamount to innate. Zarepour imputes this statement to me; he says, "[Gutas] thinks that the notion of a priority is identical to the notions of innateness and pre-givenness." But this is Avicenna's position, as it can be determined: if he says that the intellect upon birth is purely potential and that ideas are developed only on the basis of experience, we can only say, if we have to use "a priori" terminology, that a-priority is identical to innateness.

However, "a priori" as used at the very end of my Abstract in that article is not the focus of attention or its subject, as is obvious to anyone who reads the whole passage and the article. But Zarepour picks on this passage, which he then splices into one half of a sentence in my footnote 41 to create an artificial thesis, foisted on me. He writes: "[Gutas] thinks that primary data and fiṭrīyāt… both… are non-a priori and 'analytic, in Kantian terms'." Apart from the fact that there is no such sentence by me and I never use the term non-a priori, the last...


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