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Theory of Knowledge

Subject-Object Relation in Mullā Sadrā’s
Theory of Knowledge

Ali Mesbah

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ABSTRACT: Dividing knowledge to knowledge by presence and knowledge by representation, Mullā Sadrā treats the subject-object relation with regard to each one of them differently. In the former, the subject is united with the object, or rather they are one, and the reality of knowledge is this very unity. In this type of knowledge, there is no medium. Such unity culminates, on the one hand, in knowledge by presence comprehensively and completely conveying the objective reality, and in its untransferability on the other. By contrast, in knowledge by representation, the subject experiences another kind of relation to the object of knowledge thanks to the presence of a medium in the subject’s mind, called "mental form." Mullā Sadrā considers mental forms as the mental existence of the same quiddities (māhīyyāt) existing in the external world. The only difference is that they have another type of existence. In this essay, I argue that this approach is congruent with the principality of quiddity, which is rejected by Mullā Sadrā. To be consistent with the basic pillar of Mullā Sadrā’s philosophy, viz., the principle of existence, I hold that one should begin with the continuity of existence through mental, imagery and external worlds from which the mind abstracts the same quiddity, not vice versa.

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The problem of the interaction between subject and object in the process of cognition is a crucial issue in a theory of knowledge. Cognition, a unique window on the objective world, has captured the attention and motivated research and debate by scholars in a wide variety of fields over millennia. In all discussions regarding the phenomenon of knowledge, one question has always been raised no matter what the approach, method or focus of inquiry employed. For Kant, the distinction between nomenon and phenomenon and the determination of categories were major concerns. For the psychology of sensation and perception, the search continues for scientific methods to settle the extent to which an individual vis ą vis the environment effects the content, as well as the form, of sensory perception. In the tradition of Islamic philosophy, discussion revolves around the relation between ‘ālim and ma‘lūm (knower and known). The question, expressed more precisely is: How much of what we know can be credited to objective reality per se, and how much is the creation, influence, or interference, of our mental power? It might also be asked how much and in what ways this influence alters the reality of the object of our cognitive system.

Cognition is the result of a relation between the subject and object of knowledge. The importance of this proviso led such philosophers as Abu al-Hassan al-Basrī al-Ash‘arī (871-934) and Fakhr al-Dīn Rāzī (1147-1209) to reduce knowledge to this "relation" an instance of the category of al-idāfah — leaving no room for any other element in determining its nature and definition. (1) This relation was too obvious to be ignored or denied by their opponents such as Nasīr al-Dīn Tūsī, (2) though they rejected such reductionism. Here I will not enter into the debate over the definition of knowledge and whether it is a mere relation, or a quality for the subject — as Abū ‘Alī Sīnā expresses it in some of his writings (3) — or, as Suhrawardi (4) has it, a manifestation identical to light. The purpose of this essay is an inquiry into the way Mullā Sadrā (5) interprets the nature and role of the subject-object relation in the process of cognition.

The notion of knowledge presupposes at least two elements: a subject capable of knowing, and an object that can possibly be known. The first presupposition entails, on the one hand, that not all beings are able to participate in such a relation in order to acquire knowledge. It requires some conditions on the part of the subject as one element in this process. Mullā Sadrā follows the majority of, if not all, Muslim philosophers in considering immateriality (tajarrud) a necessary conditon. On the other hand, it posits that the subject is not enough for knowledge. It is a necessary condition but not a sufficient one. It requires another element, an object, before knowledge occurs. The same conditions and implications (6) apply to the object as well.

None of these presumptions precludes the possibility of an individual entity becoming the object of its own knowledge. In such cases, the subject becomes known to itself, but still the duality of the elements of knowledge is preserved, though with certain considerations. Furthermore, an entity can engage in such a relation with itself, if and only if it possesses the qualities and conditions of both elements, viz. knowability and the ability to know. This knowledge can happen in two forms: knowledge by presence (al-‘ilm al-hudūrī) and knowledge by representation (al-‘ilm al-husūlī). (7)

Knowledge by Presence

Today the division of knowledge into hudūrī and husūlī is an accepted reality in Islamic philosophy. While there are disagreements on the scope of knowledge by presence, (8) all nevertheless consider its object to be either the subject per se or one of its existential affairs (shu’ūn) or associates which is immediately present before it. To attain this kind of knowledge, no mediation is needed; rather, it is enough for the subject to possess the conditions of both elements of knowledge.

This feature, distinguishing knowledge by presence from knowledge by representation, on the one hand, robs it of its transferability. Knowledge resulting from the presence of an object to a subject is a personal knowledge based on personal connection. Other subjects have to engage in the same personal relation, should they want to have the same kind of knowledge. There is no procedure by which knowledge by presence may be taught or learned. Transmission of knowledge is only possible if the subject benefits from an inter-subjective medium in order to connect to the object. Such an intermediary is attainable by everybody, making it possible to relate to the object and possibly arrive at the same knowledge. This medium, called representation, is peculiar to knowledge by representation.

The unity of subject and object in the case of knowledge by presence, on the other hand, guarantees its epistemological value. As Muhammad Husayn Tabātabā’ī (9) has explained, the absence of an intermediary eliminates the possibility of distortion. Falsehood is possible only when there is an intermediary between the apprehender and what is apprehended, as it is probable that the intermediary will not agree with the reality it conveys. Mahdi Hā’irī (10) refers to this same feature of knowledge by presence when he speaks of "its freedom from the dualism of truth and falsehood." This may explain why Mullā Sadrā (11) considers knowledge by presence as the most complete type of knowledge, if not the only real one.

In knowledge by presence, the relation of subject to object is one of unity and identity. To use the terminology of Muslim philosophers, here we are dealing with the unity of knowledge, the knower, and the known. There is absolutely no distinction between the phenomenon of knowledge, its subject and its object. The act of knowledge stems from subject, extends to itself or its existential affairs, and this very connection is called knowledge. There is neither mediation nor duality. Unity is the key to the solidity of this type of knowledge that bars falsehood from its territory. The same solidarity between subject and object culminates in this knowledge’s untransferability, for with the transfer of such knowledge, the subject should also move to the comprehensive realm of the second subject!

Does all of this lead us to conclude the impossibility of communicating with others the content of one’s knowledge by presence? Although the answer is clearly negative, it does not need a compromise on the part of the definition or implications we have discussed so far. First of all, awareness of another person’s knowledge by presence does not insinuate participation in the same cognitive relation. Such awareness is not even followed by acknowledgment of its occurrence for the first person; its only advantage for the second person is to be informed about one’s claim to such knowledge. Secondly, and more importantly, this communication is made possible only through knowledge by representation: the knower, by using certain concepts, tries to render comprehensible what he or she has already found through knowledge by presence in the form of corresponding representations. In the next step, one translates those concepts into a dialogical language, communicating them to others. Having passed these phases, knowledge acquires the feature of transferability at the expense of loosing another property of knowledge by presence, namely impermeablity against falsehood. I would like to explain this point a little further.

Knowledge by Representation

In contrast to knowledge by presence, knowledge by representation depends on a conceptual medium. This means that the subject no longer has an immediate contact with the object; instead, it relates to, and relies on, a concept that connects it to the object. Concepts act as translators on which one has to rely in order to make cognitive contact with the objective world. Because of this very dependence on, and need for, the mediatory translator, the potentiality for falsehood emerges. It is always possible that the mediatory concepts fail to fully and correctly convey the object of knowledge. According to Mullā Sadrā, (12) one side of the relation, viz. the relation between subject and concepts, is still immune from error, for concepts are mental forms, created by a subject’s soul and comprehended through knowledge by presence. The problem, however, remains for the other side, that is, the relation of a concept to its corresponding object. Concepts are called mental forms (al-suwar al-dhihnīyah) or mental existence (al-wujūd al-dhihnī).

The problem of "mental existence," as an independent issue, is one that has recently been considered by philosophy in general and by Islamic philosophy in particular. (13) Muslim philosophers such as Fārābī (872-950) and Ibn Sīnā, and even Shaykh-i Ishrāq, did not address this problem directly, although they dealt with related topics such as the intelligibles (ma‘qūlāt), the intellect and the intelligible (al-‘aql wa al-ma‘qūl), and soul (nafs). Murtadā Mutahharī, in his excellent inquiry, (14) concludes that this notion emerged for the first time in Islamic philosophy with Fakhr al-Dīn Rāzī who discussed the notion of al-wujūd al-dhihnī in his al-Mabāhith al-Mashriqīyah. (15) It was then elaborated by Tūsī in Tajrīd al-I‘tiqād, and Sharh-u Mas’alat al-‘Ilm. (16) Thereafter, this problem was to become an intensely debated issue among Muslim philosophers and theologians such as Khifrī, Sayyid Sadr, Sadr al-Dīn Dashtakī (d. 1497), his son Mīr Ghīyāth al-Dīn Dashtakī, and Jalāl al-Dīn Dawwānī (1423-1502). The dichotomy of mental-objective existence is usually considered as one of the preliminary divisions of existence and is discussed under the rubric of existence and privation (al-wujūd wa al-‘adam). That is because these philosophers adopted the idea that knowledge or cognition consists in the presence of the object’s quiddity (māhīyyat) before the subject. In other words, a subject creates a quiddity in his or her mind by comprehending an object. (17)

Mullā Sadrā, like a majority of Muslim philosophers, affirms that there is an existence and presence for objects, other than their unveiled presence and manifest existence, which is called mental existence. The manifestations, or rather the manifestors, of this mental existence are the intellectual faculties and sensory instincts. (18) According to this theory, one and the same quiddity has, sometimes, several types of existence and manifestation, some of which are stronger than others, and the ensuing impressions of one level do not emerge from the others. (19)

The notion of "substance" (jawhar) for instance, applies to one and the same quiddity that manifests itself in a variety of ways. Sometimes it exists as an independent and immaterial being, active and invariable, as in the case of pure intellects (al-‘uqūl al-mufāraqah). At other times it needs accompanying matter, impressed by other things, and is mobile and quiescent, like the forms of a species. It can also take on another type of existence which is weaker than both the above-mentioned types, since it is neither active nor impressed, neither constant nor mobile nor quiescent; it is then a mental form and a subjective representation. (20)

Mental existence or the presence of mental forms in the mind is above the dichotomy of substance-accident. It is a meta-category, identical with Being itself. As Nasr (21) puts it, "[t]he knowledge that the soul has of things is just like the illumination of the light of Being. This knowledge establishes the form of that which is perceived in the mind, as Being establishes and manifests the forms and quiddities of things externally."


This approach corresponds to a theory, called the principality of quiddity (asālat al-māhīyat). According to this theory, a quiddity can manifest itself in different types of being: objective or external and subjective or mental. Conforming with this scheme, the process of cognition is explained as the realization of a quiddity in the mind of a subject. Existence and being are nothing but creatures of the mental power of the knower. The objective reality consists of quiddities. They can manifest themselves in different realms, external and internal, while mental power abstracts the notion of various types of being from different manifestations of quiddities. In this way they try to bypass the dilemma surrounding the authenticity of concepts in transmitting the objective reality. If a concept, or mental form, is nothing but the same objective reality, and the only difference is its manifestation, it will fully and correctly match the object of knowledge, and will leave no doubt about its accuracy. Such an explanation is consistent with the theory of the principality of quiddity of which Mullā Sadrā was a supporter when he was a student of Mīr Muhammad Bāqir Dāmād Astarābādī, otherwise known as Muhaqqiq Dāmād (1525-1615). (22) But based on the principality of existence, which forms the cornerstone of Mullā Sadrā’s philosophy, (23) one needs another approach to the problem which is harmonious with this basic concept. Principality of existence implies that quiddity is nothing but a mental abstraction from certain beings of their outlines which border on nothingness! Such an empty mental frame does not exist outside the mental world except by virtue of some sort of intellectual consideration. Furthermore, not all mental forms are instances of quiddity, for logical as well as philosophical secondary intelligibles are not, at least directly in the case of philosophical secondary intelligibles, abstracted from objective realities, and have no corresponding object in the external world.

Mullā Sadrā, whose philosophy stands and falls with the principality of existence, cannot content himself with repeating, or even modifying, what has been said by philosophers of quiddity. He has to find another formula grounded in the principality, as well as the gradation, of existence to prove that any mental form is in fact in the same spectrum as its corresponding external object. This should explain why we abstract the same quiddity from both the objective and subjective beings, and not the other way around. Of course such an explanation should meet the challenge of those mental forms that are not congruous with external reality and are judged as false, or those mental images that have no existence outside the mental world such as the concept of "nothingness" or logical concepts and secondary intelligibles.

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(1) Cf. Fakhr al-Dīn Rāzī, Al-Mabāhith al-Mashriqīyah (Bayrūt: Dār al-Kitāb al- ‘Arabī, 1990), vol. 1, p. 450; Murtadā Mutahharī, Sharh-i Mabsūt-i Manzūmah; Darshā-yi Manzil (Tehran: Intishārāt-i Hikmat, 1984), vol. 1, pp. 273,281; S. Jalāl al-Dīn Āshtīyānī. Sharh-i Hāl wa Ārā’-i Mullā Sadrā (Tehran: Nihdat-i Zanān-i Musalmān, 1981), p. 103.

(2) Nasīr al-Dīn Tūsī, Sharh-u Mas’alat al-‘Ilm. ed. ‘Abd Allah Nūrānī. (Mashhad: Maktabat al-Jāmi‘ah, 1966), p. 26.

(3) See: Sadr al-Dīn Muhammad Shīrāzī, Al-Hikmat al-Muta‘ālīyah fī al- Asfār al-‘Aqlīyat al-Arba‘ah (Bayrūt: Dār Ihyā’ al-Turāth al-‘Arabī, 1981), vol. 3, p. 285.

(4) Ibid., p. 286; Qutb al-Dīn Shīrāzī. Sharh-u Hikmat al-Ishrāq (Tehran. Lithographed edition, 1895), p. 538.

(5) Sadr al-Dīn Muhammad Shīrāzī (1569-1640), otherwise known as Sadr al-Muta’allihīn or Mullā Sadrā.

(6) According to Mullā Sadrā, immateriality is an essential requisite for both the subject and object of knowledge (Sadr al-Dīn Shīrāzī, Al-Hikmat al-Muta‘ālīyah, vol. 3, p. 298). However, there are disagreements regarding the object of knowledge by presence. See for example: M. Taqī Mesbah Yazdī, "Ta‘līqat-un ‘alā Nihāyat al-Hikmah" in S. M. Husayn Tabātabā’ī, Nihāyat al-Hikmat (Tehran: Al-Zahrā’, 1984), vol. 2, p. 198.

(7) The literal translation of al-‘ilm al-husūlī, is "acquired knowledge." Since the distinctive feature of this type of knowledge -in contrast to knowledge by presence- is its dependence on mental representations, I prefer to translate it as "knowledge by representation."

(8) For example see Sadr al-Dīn Shīrāzī, Al-Hikmat al-Muta‘ālīyah, vol. 1, p. 265; S. M. Husayn Tabātabā’ī, "Tārīkh-i Hayāt wa Rawish-i Falsafī-yi Mullā Sadrā," in S. Hādī Khusrowshāhī (ed.), Barrasīhā-yi Islāmī; Majmū‘a-yi Maqālāt wa Rasā’il (Qum: Markaz-i Intishārāt-i Dār al-Tablīgh-i Islāmī, 1976), p. 305; S. Husayn Nasr, "Sadr al-Dīn Shīrāzī (Mulla Sadra)," in M. M. Sharif (ed.), A History of Muslim Philosophy (Germany: Allgäuer Heimatverlag GmbH., Kempten, 1983), vol. 1, p. 952; M. Taqī Mesbah Yazdī, Al-Manhaj al-Jadīd fī Ta‘līm al-Falsafah, trans. Muhammad ‘Abd al-Mun‘im al-Khāqānī (Qum: Mu’assasat al-Nashr al-Islāmī, 1989), vol. 1, p. 153; Mehdī Hā’irī Yazdī, The Principles of Epistemology in Islamic Philosophy; Knowledge by Presence (Albany: SUNY, 1992), p. 1.

(9) S. M. H. Tabātabā’ī, Usūl-i Falsafah wa Rawish-i Realism, with notes by Murtadā Mutahharī (Tehran: Intishārāt-i Sadrā 1989), vol. 1, p. 204.

(10) M. Hā’irī; Knowledge by Presence, pp. 45, 50.

(11) Sadr al-Dīn Shīrāzī, Al-Mabda’ wa al-Ma‘ād, ed. S. Jalāl al-Dīn Āshtīyānī (Tehran: Intishārāt-i Sadrā, 1975), p. 83.

(12) Sadr al-Dīn Shīrāzī, Mafātīh al-Ghayb (Tehran: Mu’assasah-i Mutāli‘āt wa Tahqīqāt-i Farhangī, 1984), p. 112.

(13) Cf. M. Taqī Mesbah, "Ta‘līqat-un ‘alā Nihāyat al-Hikmat," vol.1, pp. 83-84.

(14) Murtadā Mutahharī, "Wujūd-i Dhihnī," in his Maqālāt-i Falsafī, vol. 3 (Tehran: Intishārāt-i Hikmat, 1990), p. 150.

(15) Cf. Fakhr al-Dīn Rāzī, al-Mabāhith al-Mashriqīyah, vol.1, p. 41.

(16) Nasīr al-Dīn Tūsī, Sharh-u Mas’alat al-‘Ilm, ed. ‘Abd Allah Nūrānī (Mashhad: Maktabat al-Jāmi‘ah, 1966), p. 26.

(17) See: Murtadā Mutahharī, Sharh-i Mabsūt-i Manzūmah; Darshā-yi Manzil (Tehran: Intishārāt-i Hikmat, 1984), vol. 1, pp. 257-259 & 270-272.

(18) Sadr al-Dīn Shīrāzī, Al-Hikmat al-Muta‘ālīyah, vol. 1, p.263.

(19) Ibid., pp. 264-66.

(20) Ibid.,p, 264.

(21) S. H. Nasr. "Sadr al-Dīn Shīrāzī," p. 953.

(22) S. Jalāl al-Dīn Āshtīyānī, Sharh-i Hāl wa Ārā’-i Mullā Sadrā (Tehran: Nihdat-i Zanān-i Musalmān, 1981), p. 10.

(23) Sadr al-Dīn Shīrāzī, Al-Hikmat al-Muta‘ālīyah, vol. 1, p.49.

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