The elements of Suhrawardi’s philosophical epistemology

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A. Introduction
it is difficult to identify Suhrawardi’s epistemology with any particular epistemological paradigm (i.e. empiricism, rationalism, etc). While Suhrawardi argues that ultimately one can attain certainty only through the knowledge which is attained by illumination, he does not discard the possibility of attaining knowledge through other modes of cognition.

B. The elements of Suhrawardi’s philosophical epistemology
Suhrawardi’s philosophical epistemology is made up of the following three elements.
1. Definition
2. Sense perception
3. Innate Ideas

To summarize Suhrawardi’s view on the shortcomings of the above means of cognition, the following can be said: Suhrawardi maintains that definition is problematic because it has to define not only the essentials of an existent being as Aristotle indicates, but all its attributes and accidents as well.

This is necessary since they are as much a part of a thing as the so-called essentials are and defining all of them is impossible. Suhrawardi attributes this problem to the following reason: All definition inevitably lead to those a priori concepts which themselves are in no need of being defined, if this were not the case there would result an infinite succession.

Contrary to the less significant place that definition has in Suhrawardi’s philosophical epistemology, sense perception is much more significant. This is partly because most things that cannot be defined can be known through the senses. It is for this reason that he says: “Thus, knowing and recognizing of some items becomes a task of the senses.

Sense perception, Suhrawardi’s tells us, us able to distinguish between the simple and compound entities. Despite this ability, our senses cannot escape the same problem that definition faced. That is, when faced with a compound entity, they can come to know it by its simple constituents, but how do we know the simple elements? It is at this point that either there has to be an axiomatic principle in terms of which a simple thing can be known or we again have the problem of knowledge one thing through another ad infinitum. On this Suhrawardi states: There is nothing more apparent than what can be sensed… Since all our knowledge comes from the senses, therefore, all that is senses is innate and cannot be defined.

C. Innate ideas, by sense perceptions and knowledge by definition
Finally, there are the innate ideas that Suhrawardi considers to be necessary in order to connect the other two elements of his philosophical epistemology. The existence of innate ideas provides the necessary link between Suhrawardi’s view of knowledge by definition and sense perception which enables him to offer a coherent and consistent theory of knowledge. The nature of these ideas and their structure, be it Kantian or Platonic, remains somewhat unclear in Suhrawardi’s philosophical writings, what is clear is that for Suhrawardi they have a limited role and function.

D. Ishraq (Illumination) as the basis of epistemology
Suhrawardi’s concept of philosophical epistemology, therefore, is based on the idea that while different modes of cognition and schools of epistemology are useful in some domains, ultimately certainty come through illumination, which is the type of knowledge that is attained without mediation. In the beginning of the Hikmat al-ishraq Suhrawardi summarizes his vies towards his theory of “knowledge by presence.” He states:

As we observe the sensible world, through which we gain certainty of their states of affairs, we then base a thorough and precise science on this basis (math, astronomy). By analogy, we observe certain things in the spiritual domain and then use them as a foundation upon which other things can be based. He whose path and method is other than this will not benefit from this and soon will be plunged into doubt.

What Suhrawardi has clearly been trying to argue for is that philosophy in general and epistemology in particular have to have an ishraq foundation. In Suhrawardi’s epistemology, light becomes the substance of knowledge and knowledge the substance of light.

If there be anything that needs no definition or explanation, it has to be obvious by nature, and there is nothing more obvious and clear than light. Thus, there is nothing that needs no definition except light.

Having argued for the limited role of conventional modes of cognition, what has not been answered yet knowledge as such is possible. What is it that makes knowing and cognition feasible? We can now proceed to consider Suhrawardi’s answer to these questions, known as the theory of knowledge by presence.

Sources

suhrawardi and illumination school

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