essence and existence

   Ibn Sina argued that existence (wujud) is secondary to essence (mahiyya, lit. ‘whatness’ or quiddity), because we can think about something and it need not exist. In any case, everything that exists only comes into existence because it is brought into existence by something else, with the exception of the ultimate existent, God, who is the only Necessary Existent. Many things might exist; they have essences or concepts that describe them, but unless something moves them from potential to actual existence, they will remain just ideas. So essence precedes existence. This view was disputed by Ibn Rushd, who argued that in an eternal universe anything that could exist would and indeed must exist, and the existence of a thing is not just a property added to it, but is a basic part of its meaning. Al-Suhrawardi suggested that if existence is just a property a thing has then essence or the concept would have to exist before the property was applied to it in order for it to be an essence, which leads to an infinite regress. So essence precedes existence since the latter is only an idea with no reality attached to it, whereas essence is real. This position is referred to as the primacy of essence (asalat al-mahiyya). Mulla Sadra argued against al- Suhrawardi that existence is more real than essence. This is because existence is a necessary aspect of what it is for something to exist and so there is no regress in regarding the concept as an attribute. Reality is existence, differentiated in a variety of ways, and these different ways look to us like essences. What first affects us are things that exist, and we form ideas of essences afterwards, so existence precedes essence. This position is referred to as the primacy of existence (asalat al-wujud) The debate has implications for the nature of philosophy. For Ibn Sina and al-Suhrawardi, philosophy is the study of the essences or ideas of things, while for Ibn Rushd and Mulla Sadra, philosophy is a study of existing things. Ibn Rushd criticizes the doctrine of essentialism since it implies that something has to come from elsewhere to bring it to existence, and so the universe requires an external force to activate it. An essentialist uses thought experiments in philosophy, since the imagination can rule on what ideas are possible or otherwise. But for Ibn Rushd definitions are the basis of knowledge, not our imagination, and using the latter really does not tell us much about what is possible or otherwise.
   See al-Dawani; Ibn Rushd; Ibn Sina; metaphysics; Mir Damad; Mulla Sadra; al-Razi, Fakhr al-Din; al-Suhrawardi
   Further reading: Leaman 1997; Morewedge 1982; Nasr 1989

Islamic Philosophy. . 2007.

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