- Non-Innate A Priori Knowledge in Avicenna
I. The Background Story
In his "The Empiricism of Avicenna," Dimitri Gutas interprets Avicenna as an empiricist.1 He analyzes Avicennian 'principles of syllogism' and claims that none of them are a priori. Moreover, regarding awwalīyāt and fiṭrīyāt—which are two groups of such principles—Gutas suggests that "[i]t appears that both kinds of propositions would be analytic, in Kantian terms. As for Locke, they would be what he called 'trifling.'"2 In my first comment in this issue, I disagreed with this view and argued that these two groups of propositions are a priori in the Kantian sense. Assenting to their truth is internal to the intellect and independent of empirical information. I also argued that at least some fiṭrīyāt are synthetic, rather than analytic. So Avicenna's epistemology accommodates instances of non-analytic knowledge that are independent of sense experience. This casts serious doubt on the plausibility of describing Avicenna as a full-blown empiricist. Gutas has responded to my note and claimed that the discussion of a priority, in its Kantian sense, is irrelevant to Avicenna's epistemology. He also defends the claim that awwalīyāt and fiṭrīyāt are both trifling and experience-dependent.
Before offering my rejoinder, I would like to thank Professor Gutas for his willingness to respond to my argument and for helping to clarify what is at stake. In the following section, I present a version of my argument, which, compared to the version developed in my previous comment, has less emphasis on Kantian notions. I do this to show that the strength of my argument does not depend on the application of Kantian language. In section three, I discuss Gutas' objections and explain why they fail. Section four concludes.
II. Avicennian Sense-Experience-Independent Propositions
For Avicenna, acquiring a piece of knowledge is either forming a concept (taṣawwur) or assenting to the truth of a proposition (taṣdīq). A concept is dependent on sense experience if and only if no human can grasp it without having specific sense experiences (i.e., without having specific experiences of the external world). Similarly, a proposition is dependent on sense experience if and only if even after grasping its conceptual components we [End Page 841] still need to have specific sense experiences to assent to its truth. But according to Avicenna there are propositions whose truth can be assented to independent of all sense experiences, even if their conceptual components are all dependent on sense experience. Avicenna believes that such propositions are imposed by the intellect on its own. This is exactly what Avicenna says about awwalīyāt and fiṭrīyāt. They could be constituted from concepts that are dependent on sense experience. Nevertheless, after grasping these concepts we do not need to receive further information through our senses to assent to the truth of these propositions. So, in this sense awwalīyāt and fiṭrīyāt are sense-experience-independent propositions that are constituted from sense-experience-dependent concepts. This idea can easily be extracted from some of the passages that Gutas himself has quoted:
An example of [awwalīyāt] is [the proposition] that "the whole is greater than the part." One does not come into possession of this either from sense perception (ḥiss) or induction (istiqrā') or anything else. To be sure, it is possible that sense perception provides him with a concept (taṣawwur) of "the whole," "the greater," and "the part," but acknowledging the truth (taṣdīq) of this proposition comes from his nature (jibilla)…3
It might be the case that no one can grasp the concepts 'the whole', 'the greater', and 'the part' without having any sense experience. If so, these concepts are sense-experience-dependent. However, after grasping them we can assent to the truth of the awwalī proposition 'the whole is greater than the part' without appealing to any further sense experience. So, the assent to the truth of this proposition is not dependent on sense experience.4
The same story applies to a fi...