Avicenna and Essentialism

By El-Bizri, Nader | The Review of Metaphysics, June 2001 | Go to article overview

Avicenna and Essentialism


El-Bizri, Nader, The Review of Metaphysics


I

THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN ESSENCE AND EXISTENCE has been taken to be central to Avicenna's metaphysics and ontology of being. Due to the influence that this distinction had on Thomism, and to a lesser extent on Maimonides's work, some Medievalists and Orientalists took Avicenna's distinction between essence and existence to be characterized by essentialism. A.-M. Goichon's books Lexique de la Langue Philosophique d'Ibn Sina, Vocabulaires Compares d'Aristote et d'Ibn Sina, and La Philosophie d'Avicenne et son Influence en Europe (1) (along with her interpretation of the Avicennian essence/existence distinction) all offer a great contribution to the translation and understanding of Avicenna's works. However the interpretive reception of Goichon's works has had a strong influence on subsequent Medievalists as well as Orientalist scholars. This impact on scholars, along with the stress on Avicenna's influence on Thomism, has led in some instances to an exaggerated stress on the centrality of the essence/existence distinction in Avicenna's metaphysics. This state of affairs has eventually overshadowed other important aspects of Avicenna's ontology of being and of his metaphysical and logical analysis of being in terms of the modalities of necessity, contingency, and impossibility. The examination of Avicenna's metaphysics under the spell of all of these factors leads to an intellectually discomforting position that construes his ontology as essentialism. Consequently this leads to the interpretation of his work as being that of a metaphysician who subordinates existence to essence. Such interpretation has been even adopted by experts on Avicenna's work within the Western scholarship as well as among some Arabists. For instance, some scholars stress that Averroes (Ibn Rushd) and Mulla Sadra are the metaphysicians of existence, while taking Avicenna to be the metaphysician of essence. John Caputo, a leading interpreter of Heidegger's thought, makes extensive references to the work of the Thomist scholar Etienne Gilson in the context of examining Aquinas's adoption of the Avicennian distinction between essence and existence. Caputo's discussion of the essence/existence distinction adopts the standpoint that Gilson reflects in the reading of Avicenna's metaphysics as being the starting point of a longstanding essentialist tradition that culminates with Hegel's Science of Logic. This line of argumentation already supplies Caputo with sufficient arguments that enable him readily to stamp Avicenna's metaphysics with Heidegger's critique of the metaphysical tradition. Caputo based himself on what the Thomist scholar Gilson offers in this regard, particularly in taking Aquinas's metaphysics to be the metaphysics of esse. Gilson's position may itself be questioned on the ground that its interpretation of Avicenna has been pervaded by Thomist inclinations; this is the case, given that Gilson and other scholars construe Avicenna's metaphysics as being essentially the metaphysics of essence. Based on this, Caputo accepts the claim that Avicenna's ontology is essentialist. (2) Such readings lead to the conclusion that Avicenna subordinates existence to essence and consequently that his ontology is characterized by what Heidegger takes to be a mark of the oblivion of being. The question that ought to be raised in this regard is whether the position of secondary scholarly sources is accurate. This is the case, given that some of the scholars, who propagate the claim that Avicenna is an essentialist, are after all scholars who have not consulted or studied the primary sources. Rather, they primarily rely on secondary sources that mediate Avicenna's metaphysics through the Thomist scholarship and Latin translations. This is clearly the case with Gilson's consideration of Avicenna's corpus, which is addressed from the standpoint of Latin renderings of Avicenna's texts rather than consulting the original Arabic or Persian texts. Having said that, the issue becomes more complicated in the light of considering Arabist or Medievalist scholars who do consult the primary Arabic sources, yet still hold that Avicenna is an essentialist.

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