Mental Existence, View of Shabah, and Corroboration with Extra-Mental Reality

Written for the module: Islamic Philosophy, taken at The Islamic College for a MA in Islamic Studies with professor Latimah Parvin Peerwani. Originally submitted on 1st October, 2017.

Every day humans encounter innumerable entities via the five senses.   How these entities are perceived by the human mind is a discussion both empiricists and metaphysicians have had, and while empiricists have attempted to reduce the phenomenon to merely the physical brain, Muslim philosophers Metaphysicians have however, established that the quiddities of entities in external reality are perceived by the immaterial mind hence, it is distinguished as a different existence, termed mental existence (al-wujūd al-dhihni). Yet the issue of what constitutes the very essence of these mental existences, how they exist, and what guarantee’s their corroboration with what was observed in external reality has been a discussion that Muslim philosophers have attempted to address over many centuries. As far as most Muslim philosophers are concerned, the phenomenon of mental existences is evident. Nevertheless, significant differences of opinion exist pertaining their nature, each consequently yielding different implications and inferences. The paper at hand investigates some of the responses given by Muslim philosophers for a crucial issue that arises when one accepts the notion of mental existence. It then presents a brief commentary on Mullā Ṣadrā’s solution to the issue, followed by a critique of his argument as found in the works of contemporary philosophers, and simultaneously strengthening a solution known as resemblance (shabaḥ).

Various Explanations

The phenomenon of mental existence itself has hardly been brought into question by Muslim philosophers. As humans interact with their surroundings, they begin to perceive reality via the five senses, recall them by memory, and even separate accidental attributes into simple general concepts; subsequently each of the individual accidental attributes can be conceived of their own. To illustrate the aforementioned point, consider the following scenario: When an individual uses their faculty of sight to perceive fire in extra-mental reality (al-wujūd al-khāriji), they conceptualize that fire, while the burning effects of the fire do not accompany that conception. The act of conceptualizing takes place in what we have already referred to as the mind, distinguished from the physical brain. The accidental attributes of the fire such as heat and colour can also be separated by the mind and then conceived of on their own. It is precisely these quiddities that exist in the mind which Muslim philosophers termed as mental existence. They were of the view that mental existences exist without a doubt, however, the nature of their existence and how accurate of a depiction they were for the extra-mental world was a discussion they spent much time contemplating.

Nevertheless, numerous arguments have been put forth to prove the existence of mental existences. One of these arguments is as follows: humans are able to conceive of realities in their purest and simplest forms, even though such simplicities and particularities do not exist in extra-mental reality (Rizvi, 2009, p.82). Thus, such simple and universal concepts must exist elsewhere and that elsewhere is to be the mind. While, the aforementioned arguments as well as other arguments have been critiqued for their deficiencies, perhaps the strongest argument for the existence of mental existence remains to be our knowledge of non-existent concepts. Non-existent concepts can be contingent, like unicorns or centaurs, or rational impossibilities, such as an instance of a law of non-contradiction, and while neither exist in extra-mental reality, one is still able to conceptualize them and categorize them as a distinguished existence. Some Peripatetics further added to this argument by emphasizing the fact that we assent to propositions in which we make use of non-existent concepts (Bahmanyār, 1375 SH, p.489). The premise behind the latter argument is as follows: every assent in a proposition is subsequent to the conception of its terms, and since a non-existent entity does not exist in extra-mental reality, it therefore must exist elsewhere before one can assent to it.

The fundamental problem of mental existence for Muslim philosophers however, was not whether such a phenomenon existed or not, but rather was answering questions pertaining to ontological transpiration associated with the quiddity of a thing existing outside the mind as it comes to exist in the mind. Merely suggesting that things in our surrounding are sensed by us and their quiddities are then turned into conceptions is an over-simplification of the issue at hand, and does not address some crucial implications that may follow. If the presumption is that quiddities of things are transferred to the mind exactly as they are with all their essential and accidental attributes, and thus knowledge with regards to those things is reflected accurately in the mind, then it indicates that the genera of these quiddities which is substance (jawhar) is also transferred to the mind. Simultaneously, a mental existence itself is considered a poion or psychic quality of the soul (kayf nafsāni) (Fazlur Rahman, p.216), raising the question pertaining to whether a mental existence can be a substance and a quality at the same time, while both these categories are mutually exclusive (Ṭabatabā’ī, 2003, p.23).

It was the quest to address this issue that brought upon different explanations by philosophers, with often differing implications. Murtaḍā Muṭahhari, in accordance with the views of Ṭabatabā’ī and Ṣadrā, claims that in order to correctly understand the phenomenon of mental existence there are five premises that must be recognized to resolve the challenge at hand (1387 SH, vol. 5, p.228-229). Firstly, while encountering an entity, one must admit that something comes to the mind. Some philosophers claim that Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzi rejected this premise, subsequently rejecting the concept of mental existence altogether – though there is much debate over this attribution to al-Rāzi (Dhabīhi and Pāshāyī, 1391 SH). The second premise is: accepting that which comes to exist in one’s mind is one entity and not two separate existents. We find Faḍil Qūshji rejecting this premise in his attempt to resolve the aforementioned issue, by claiming that two separate things come to exist in the mind, one being a substance and the other a quality.

The third premise – as expounded by Muṭahhari – is that the quiddity of the thing that exists in extra-mental reality is exactly the same quiddity that comes to exist in one’s mind. Those who reject this premise are famously known to have taken on the view of resemblance. The fourth preliminary is that which comes to our mind is considered a psychic quality, which is one of the nine accidental categories. This premise was rejected by Muḥaqqiq Dawāni who claimed that philosophers have only colloquially referred to mental existences as a psychic quality, otherwise mental existences themselves are of the same category as the known object. In other words, if a known object is a substance, then the mental existence is also a substance; if it is a poson, then so is its mental existence, and if it is a poion then so is its mental existence, and so on. Finally, the fifth premise put forth by Muṭahhari is: it must be agreed that all categories, accidental or substance, are mutually exclusive. If the last premise is rejected for whatever reason, then the concern regarding a mental existence being an instance of both a substance and quality is avoided and there is no need for any justification. However, it appears that no philosopher has discredited this specific premise.

In his work Bidāyah al-Ḥikmah, Ṭabatabā’ī summarizes the defence of all those who reject any one of the aforementioned premises, and then refutes them, followed by his own defence of Mullā Ṣadrā’s explanation. In his Nihāyah al-Ḥikmah he expands on his critiques even further, and wHḥe will suffice by presenting his critique against those who he attributes the view of resemblance to (1428 AH, vol.1, p.62):

If that which is in the mind is a resemblance for an extra-mental reality, while its relationship to the entity is that of a statue to that what the statue is of, then objectivity (‘ayniyyah) will cease to exist from the perspective of quiddity, and sophistry will be its result due to all of our knowledge becoming ignorance.

Ṣadrā’s Solution

The response which has gained widespread popularity amongst most Ṣadrian philosophers in the last few centuries is that of Mullā Ṣadrā’s himself. Ṣadrā while aware of the challenge at hand, approaches the issue from an unprecedented perspective. He resorts to the notion of predication (ḥaml) itself, and argues that the fallacy being committed by earlier philosophers is rooted in their inability to make a very precise distinction between two types of predications: that of ordinary informative predications (al-ḥaml al-shā’i) and tautological predications (al-ḥaml al-awwali) (Rahman, 1975, p.217).

In the discussion of contradictions, logicians have outlined numerous conditions required for two propositions to be considered truly contradictory. These conditions include the unity of its subject, predicate, time, space, potentiality and actuality, generality and particularity, condition, and relation (Muẓaffar, 2006, p.167-168). Ṣadrā however, pioneered another condition that must be met for a true contradiction to take place, and that is the unity of the type of predication taking place in two propositions. If two propositions are exactly the same in these eight conditions, in addition to the type of predication, only then can two seemingly contradictory propositions be truly considered contradictory.

Tautological predications are propositions where the subject and predicate are considered one and the same in their very conceptualization. As an example, in the proposition: ‘Every man is a rational animal’, the predicate ‘rational animal’ is one and the same as the subject ‘man’ in its conceptualization. However, informative predications are when the subject and predicate are two separate concepts altogether, but are one and the same in their instantiation. For example, in the proposition: ‘Ali is a poet’, the subject ‘’Ali’ and the predicate ‘poet’ are two separate concepts altogether, but in their instantiation, they are one and the same.

Given this preliminary, Ṣadrā’s exposition is a brilliant new perspective to the challenge at hand and something that would gain widespread acceptance amongst post-Sadrian philosophers. His explanation is as follows: when a substance is perceived by the mind, though the term substance is predicated upon this mental existence, it is only considered a substance as a tautological predication. Man – who in extra-mental reality is a substance – is also a substance in its mental form, but only tautologically since the subject and predicate on a conceptual level in the proposition: ‘man (in its mental existent form) is a substance,’ are one and the same. However, as far as the proposition: ‘man (in its mental existent form) is a quality’ is concerned, then this is an informative predication, because the subject man – composed of a substance – is not the same on a conceptual level as a psychic quality, but they are one and the same in their instantiation.

The solution provided by Ṣadrā not only prime-facially resolves the issue, but also ensures that a mental existence is not just an approximation or resemblance of the quiddities observed in external reality, rather they are the very quiddities themselves.


In recent years, a number of philosophers have revisited the phenomenon of mental existence and have not only rejected the view of Ṣadrā, rather on the contrary even produced arguments strengthening the view of resemblance (Fayyāzi, 1386 SH; Nabawiyān, 1396 SH, vol.2, p.63; Bahārnejād, 1395 SH). One of the critiques put forth by Ṭabatabā’ī against the justification of resemblance is its resulting in sophistry. Ṭabatabā’ī does not explain what he means specifically by the usage of the term sophistry, but if sophistry means absolute scepticism and ignorance, then this is not what many proponents of the view of resemblance believed in. In other words, many proponents of the resemblance viewpoint do not say that ascribing to this view means absolutely no corroboration between our mental and external existence, and a complete breakdown of knowledge. In any case, two primary responses have been given in response to the view proposed by Ṣadrā (defended by Ṭabatabā’ī), in defence of the view of resemblance.

The first argument is rooted in a discussion of definitions as it exists in centuries of traditional works of Aristotelian and Neo-Platonic logic and philosophy (Bahārnejād, 1395 SH, p.7). The argument presumes that acquired knowledge being a conception or an image in the mind, is one and the same as a mental existence. In the discussion pertaining to definitions, Muslim logicians and philosophers have had somewhat of an agreement that the best and most complete conception of a thing existing in extra-mental reality – at least in theory – is through al-ḥadd al-tāmm; a definition of a quiddity compound of its proximate genus and differentia. That is to say, when one conceives an object in their mind, the most accurate conception is that which is composed of both its closest genus and differentia, otherwise the conception is not complete and does not accurately translate the depiction of the entity as it is present in extra-mental reality. As an example, for arguments sake, if one see’s a human-being in external reality which then turns into a mental existence, this mental existence will depict a realistic image of what one see’s in extra-mental reality; if the conception of human-being is composed of the genus animal and the differentia rational. While, there is much debate on what the differentia of a human-being is, if it truly were to be rational, only then would one claim to have a mental existence of a human-being that corroborates completely with reality.

This is all the while philosophers and logicians themselves have agreed to the extreme difficulty in attaining al-ḥadd al-tāmm (Amīri, 1383 SH). Given the fact that hardly any of our mental existences are composed of a proximate genus and differentia, majority of the times we have an imperfect conception of an object in extra-mental reality to begin with. At the same time, it does not in any way imply a type of sophistry where there is a complete denial of all knowledge, but rather mental existents act as mirrors for quiddities observed outside of the mind to whatever extent possible at any given time.

Another critique is one given by Ghulām Riḍa Fayyāzi, a contemporary Iranian Ṣadrian philosopher who believes that mental existents are resemblances of quiddities, not actual quiddities themselves (Nabawiyān, 1396 SH, vol.2, p.63). Fayyāzi takes on a whole different approach both vis-à-vis the discussion at hand and in his critique of Ṣadra as well. Notable for his redefinition of what a mental existence is, he, unlike many Muslim philosophers, considers acquired knowledge, which is an image or a conception, to be distinct and other than what is deemed mental existence (Nabawiyān, 1396 SH, vol.2, p.49). A mental existence for Fayyāzi merely depicts (ḥāki) and resembles that which is present in extra-mental reality (maḥki), but it is not the latter’s quiddity itself. Subsequently, acquired knowledge then depicts mental existence which from this perspective becomes a thing being depicted (maḥki).

From the aforementioned distinction, an argument is put forth as follows: If a mental existence of an object in extra-mental reality is a substance in tautological terms, and a quality in informative terms, then it should be known that the term tautological predication itself is a homonymous term. In some cases, the tautological predication is being attributed to the copula of a proposition, like if one says, ‘water is water’. In this proposition, the assent itself is a tautological one because the concept of the subject is the same as the concept of the predicate. However, in other cases we find that a subject or a predicate themselves can become conditioned to being tautological or informative. As an example, one can say ‘water (informatively) is cold’, implying that an instance of water in extra-mental reality is cold, not the concept of water as it exists in the mind.

Fayyāzi further explains his critique by presuming Ṣadrā could not have meant the first instance as that does not resolve, or even address the problem of a mental existence being both substance and a quality. However, if Ṣadrā meant the second case, that is, a mental existence of an entity is only a substance tautologically and conceptually, and an instance of a quality, then he has in fact ended up with the same view of those who claim mental existences are resemblances of extra-mental reality. The reason for that is the major premise behind Ṣadrā’s justification was that quiddities themselves are transferred into the mind, without any change nor deficiency whatsoever, such that they completely reflect extra-mental reality. However, in this case substance which forms part of an entity’s quiddity has not come into the mind, rather only its concept has come to exist.


The overly simplified discarding of the view on resemblance is based on a presupposition that quiddities are transferred to the mind without any deficiency in them while also allowing its proponents to remain true to a strict type of philosophical realism. Perhaps some philosophers were taking this as self-evident and axiomatic, however there appears no reason to take this premise for granted, and instead a philosophical argument needs to be made for it. It was also this very premise that was brought into question by those who believed mental existences to be mirror images that resemble things in extra-mental reality. Furthermore, many proponents of the latter view by no means adhered to an absolute form of scepticism or sophism, rather they believed in the acquisition of knowledge of extra-mental realities, albeit in a limited way, which by no means implies absolute ignorance or sophism. While a discussion on this key premise and presupposition would shift the focus of the debate to a more foundational matter rather than both sides presuming an agreed upon initial premise, it is nevertheless a point that would need to be addressed in order to give either critiques their proper value. Otherwise, both critiques may equally hold to be true and valid under the pretext of their own foundational premises.


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