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Thursday, January 05, 2023


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1-3 are fine. as for 4, it's a big mistake. in fact, that's the Latin Avicenna, not the real McCoy.

For the real deal, the essence in itself is not to be thought of as a third, non-existing mind-independent item. Instead, what the Arabic/Persian Avicenna means when he says that the essence in itself is neither F nor not-F is that neither F nor not-F is part of the quidditative content of the essence.

“In sum, there are two ways for an Avicennian essence or nature to exist: either in things outside the mind, or else in the mind, and one way for an essence to be (not exist), […].”

For the Persian/Arabic Avicenna, being (wujūd) is spoken of in two senses: that something is (= what he calls ‘affirmative existence’) and what something is (= what he calls ‘proper existence’, which is the same as quiddity/essence). He does not recognize “a way for an essence to be” (apart from (affirmative) existence) that is not identical to just being essence/quiddity. So, the single “way to be” (you spoke of) is not some sort of being that essences have (in the way they have (affirmative) existence (in the mind or outside the mind); rather, it is just what they are i.e., it is identical to being an essence/quiddity.

" It follows from (4) that essentia as pure possibility is no longer internally tied to esse as etymology would suggest inasmuch as essences in themselves are what they are whether or not they exist in either of the two modes in which they exist. "

I see this seem framework in Kant's discussion of modalities in CPR in the section on the Postulates: "The categories of modality possess this peculiarity, that they do not in the least determine the object, or enlarge the conception to which they are annexed as predicates, but only express its relation to the faculty of cognition. Though my conception of a thing is in itself complete, I am still entitled to ask whether the object of it is merely possible, or whether it is also real, or, if the latter, whether it is also necessary." The Critique of Pure Reason, trans J. M. D. Meiklejohn, digital e-book, 2018, page 148-149.

If you take "conception" here as equivalent to essences, then Kant is envisioning something that transcends and is prior to whether it is possible or actual. There is only a small leap from this notion to the idea that essence is pure possibility that can be realized in the world as possible or as actual as the "accident" of existence may dictate. This view of essences was seconded by Kierkegaard, who seemed in his post-Kantian moments to regard all essences as hypothetical possibilities.

But I don't think either of these positions corresponds to Avicenna, because on my reading neither elevated essences as possibilities to some prior ontological status. For myself, the notion of essences as pure possibilities prior to and somehow dictating any and all future possibilities and actualities of things in the world seems to confuse things. Essences is a name for certain qualities of the actual world and hence derivative of that world. Make them prior to actuality and you have to invent another name for the qualities of actuality - and then come up with a distinction or criteria to differentiate the two. The latter move seems problematic to me.


There are some interesting connections between Avicenna and Kant. I refer you to a deep and difficult article by Cornelio Fabro entitled "The Transcendentality of Ens-Esse and the Ground of Metaphysics." It is reprinted in his Selected Works, vol. I. Fabro asks whether Kant is an Avicennian on p. 153.

Found it, thanks!

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