Ibn Taymiyyah's Criticism of Aristotelian Logic, On Logical Definition


With regard to definitions, Ibn Taymiyyah directs  his criticism to two propositions: the negative ( al-maqÉm al-salabÊ ) and the affirmative ( al-maqÉm al-ÊjÉ). The word negativeimplies that any method other than the propositions  created by  logicians cannot attain the concept.  The wordaffirmativemeans that propositions alone permits them to attain the concept.  The same distinction between negative and affirmative applies to the syllogism.[1]
a) The negative proposition that “no concept can be formed except by means of definition”   (inna al-taÎawwur al-maÏlËb lÉ yunÉlu illa bi al-hadd) is refuted by Ibn Taymiyyah in sixteen arguments.[2]  However, only five of the most  important criticisms will be discussed here;  the rest will be mentioned in brief.
First, a definition is only the statement made by the definer about the quiddity (mÉhiyyah) [3] of the defined object. The knowledge of definition occurs after the knowledge of the defined object. If the definer knows the defined object without the definition, then  the principle of the philosophers that something cannot be obtained except by definition is invalid.  If the definer knew the defined object after having known the previously made definition, it would then result in a vicious circle (dawr) and endless chain (tasalsul) in the reasoning process.[4]
Second, a definition is undefendable because philosophers can never define something that is  agreed upon by all.  Every definition they make is  claimed as true by some and refuted by others. If reality cannot be discerned except by definition, then none of those philosophers has really discovered any reality, since any definition they have made is disputable.[5] Moreover, there is no permanent definition in any human knowledge. Even the well-known definition of a  human being (al-insÉn)  as a the speaking animal has been challenged by  eminent scholars. Grammarians, scholars of UsËl al-Fiqhphilosophers, mutakallimËn and others have different and conflicting definitions. So, Ibn Taymiyyah concludes that if the concept of things were bounded by making ‘definitions, human beings would never understand the concept of anything.[6]
Third, according to the logicians, correct definitions are a combination of genus (jins) and differentia (faÎl), but entities  that  do not  have structure and are not classified under ‘genus’ have no definition.  Reason (al-aql) is among these non-structural realities and is therefore not defined. However, Ibn Taymiyyah holds that  logicians  have their own  concept of intellect (al-uqËl) and of  some entities which have no structure. This means that they themselves affirm that to obtain the concept without recourse to definition is possible, in which case they contradict their own theory. In addition scholars in many branches of knowledge have major concepts that are not based on genus and class.[7]  Therefore, definition is not needed.  
Fourth, God gives man external as well as internal sense perceptions such as taste, colour and air, or internal feelings such as hunger, love, hate, pleasure or  sadness, by which he perceives realities.  None of these methods of perception needs definition. Ibn Taymiyyah is doubtful that  mere verbal definition can comprehend the reality of a particular thing.  Although man can describe reality, it does not mean that we have to use definition. The reality of honey, for example, can be perceived and tasted without the need of definition, whereas one who has never tasted honey cannot grasp the reality of such a substance through definition. He may be given some description of honey through comparison with another substance like sugar, but this comparison is analogical and not  a definition.[8]  So, Ibn Taymiyyah inferred that whatever cannot be known through the senses can be known through analogies but not through definition.
Fifth, the definition of a thing consists of several terms, each of which indicates a definite meaning. Unless a man knows the terms and their meaning beforehand, understanding the definition itself is impossible for him. The knowledge of the term that indicates the meaning is preceded by the conception of meaning (taÎawwur al-manÉ). For example, anyone who does not know the concepts of water, sky, earth, father or mother cannot know what the terms indicate. Here Ibn Taymiyyah makes a distinction between conception (taÎwÊr) and differentiation (tamyÊz). He holds that definition is useful for differentiation and not for conception.[9]
The other arguments that Ibn Taymiyyah employs in refuting the negative proposition relate to contradictions in the procedure of making definitions and the conflict between Aristotles analysis of the mental process of perception and our experience of that process.  The point that Ibn Taymiyyah discusses minutely concerns the philosophers’ concept  of  the basic structure of reality - which is the defined object in a definition - such as genus, differentia and species including the division of their qualities.[10] Although he does not question the basic validity of this division, he states that it is nothing more than the intellectualisation of reality. If they affirm that it is a fixed description of the real world, it is wrong, because intellectual perception is relative and conditional. For this he argues that the conception in the mind is true only if it directly and exactly corresponds to the factual being of an object, because the conception in the mind is not something permanent in the object described. Therefore, to obtain the true conception in the mind, one should differentiate the essential from the accidental by a permanent  quality (waÎf thÉbit).
Ibn Taymiyyahs criticisms of negative propositions of definitions, stated  above,  indicate that he attempts in all possible ways  to reject the theory of the necessity of using definition in acquiring all knowledge, although he justifies its use for other purposes. Ibn Taymiyyahs refutation of the logiciansclaim that there is no means of attaining knowledge other  than definition may be justifiable,  but his own claim that definition is totally irrelevant seems  exaggerated, since there are many scholars who may use definition in their inquiries.
b) The affirmative proposition of the logician that   “definition leads to the concept of things” (inna al-hadd yufÊdu al-ilm bi al-taÎawwurÉt ) is refuted by Ibn Taymiyyah in nine arguments which basically consist of two kinds: the first part is directed towards the affirmative proposition, while the second  part is directed towards the elements of definition (al-hadd).  However, on this occasion only his major arguments representing the two parts,  will be mentioned.
First, if the conception of the object defined is achieved by  definition, then   it is obtained before one has known the correctness of the definition, since knowledge of the correctness of the definition is not attained except after one has known the object defined.  Ibn Taymiyyah is also sceptical as to whether the definer  can  give proof on the correctness of the definition if the listener cannot know the object defined by definition.[11]  Moreover, he asserts  that conceiving the object defined by the definition is impossible without  knowledge of the veracity (Îidq) of the definer and we cannot  know the veracity of the definer  simply by the definition. Therefore, the definition will not lead us to the object defined.
The point that Ibn Taymiyyah cannot justify in his search for religious truth is that while logicians accept the statement of a single individual in the case of logical argument, they refuse to accept the words of a single individual (khabar al-wÉhid)  in the case of religious traditions (al-umËr al-sam‘iyyah).
Second, logicians  establish  that “what provides the concept of reality is the complete definition” (al-mufÊd li taÎwÊr al-haqÊqah huwa al-hadd al-tÉmm).  This complete definition consists of essences and not accidents. The core of this argument is the distinction between the essential and the accidental. The essential to them is something within the quiddity (mÉhiyyah), and the accidental is beyond the quiddity.[12] 
Criticising this concept, Ibn Taymiyyah infers that this is fundamentally based on two invalid principles, namely, the differentiation  between the quiddity(al-mahiyyah) and ‘its existence(wujËdihÉ ),  and what is essential (al-dhÉtÊ  lahÉ ) and what is necessary (al-lÉzim lahÉ)  concomitant to it. However, Ibn Taymiyyah concerns about the differentiation between the quiddity and its existence, as it will relate closely to the problem of metaphysics.
Based on the above principle, the logicians hold that thequiddity(mÉhiyyah) has a permanent reality other than its own existence, subsisting outside the mind.  This, according to Ibn Taymiyyah,  is unacceptable as they  perceive a thing before it exists.  The source of their error is that they think that before its coming into existence a thing can be the object of knowledge and intention.  In fact, when we talk about the realities of these things, we actually talk about permanent realities in the mind,  not beyond the mind,  and what exists in the mind is  sometimes wider than the real existence, so that  ‘quiddity(al-mÉhiyyah) is universal (kulliyyah). Nevertheless, the affirmation that  the ‘quiddityis beyond the mind will lead to the  assumption that the realities of species, such as humanity (al-insÉniyyah) are externally permanent (thÉbitah) and the substance of the ‘quiddityis not  externally existing. If it is so this will lead to the idea of establishing  the ‘quiddityof substance (mÉhiyyÉt al-mÉddah)  separate from the external permanent concept  whereby they establish the eternity of material (al-huyËlÉ ), which  subsequently becomes the basis of their idea on  the eternity of the universe. Ibn Taymiyyah objects that  this proposition was derived from Plato and  is against the concept of unity (tawhÊd) in Islam, despite the attempt of some Muslim philosophers to reconcile it with Islam.[13]
Thus the truth according to Ibn Taymiyyah is that all things are permanent and subsistent only in the mind and not beyond the mind or in the object itself.  For him, the correct idea of differentiation is that  the ‘existence in the mind(al-wujËd al-dhihnÊ ) is a quiddity in the mind (al-mÉhiyyah  allatÊ  fÊ al-dhihnÊ ), and the quiddity of  something beyond the mind is the actuality  (ayn) of  its existence beyond the mind. In other words, the quiddity (al-mÉhiyyah) of a thing is the representation  (rasm) of that thing in the mind, and existence is what exists of that matter beyond the mind.[14]
The first part of Ibn Taymiyyahs refutation of the affirmative proposition of definition pertains mostly to the criticism about  the efficacy of definition  in providing concepts. This covers the vulnerability of the definer as the maker of a  concept, the weaknesses of the rules of logicians in defining an object and the significance of the object defined in a definition. In the second part, which concerns the concept of definition,  Ibn Taymiyyah expounds his elaboration of the concept of reality which becomes  an important part of constructing definitions.  This issue is taken seriously by Ibn Taymiyyah because it relates closely to the metaphysical problems,  which correspond to  the essence and existence of God.
Supporting his idea that the external existence of something is the external substance of its quiddity (mÉhiyyah),  Ibn Taymiyyah claims that this  agrees with those  thinkers who were associated with the  ahl al-sunna wa al-jamÉah.[15]   Moreover, his idea on the difference  between quiddity and existence seems to be directed at  the idea of Ibn SÊnÉ in his al-IshÉrÉt.[16]  However, it is worth mentioning that this criticism was first advanced  by Ibn Rushd in his TahÉfut al-TahÉfut.[17]  Besides, Ibn Taymiyyah also mentions the different ideas of the philosophers such as Aristotle, Pythagoras and  Plato on this issue. This implies that Ibn Taymiyyah has learnt something from his predecessor for his criticism, and that  he utilizes the ideas he deems to be sound to support his own.  It is clear that Ibn Taymiyyah has joined the philosophical debate while striving to vindicate his own beliefs.
In conclusion, Ibn Taymiyyah makes it clear that the function of a definition is the same as the function of a single name or noun (al-ism), which is the differentiation between the object defined and others. But sometimes it provides a general explanation of what is indicated in the name. This explanation varies according to the predicates (al-ÎifÉt) and is not particular to certain predicates that suit the predicated object (al-mawÎËf) So, the definition is,  in fact, the explanation of the named object and the differentiation of the object defined (al-mahdËd) from others, and not the concepts  of the object defined. Giving a name (tasmiyah) is linguistic convention (waÌ‘Ê ) that should be referred to the purpose of the named object and language. In this regard  jurists state that the definitions of  some names are known by language, others through religious law  (shar‘Ê ) and some are through custom or tradition.  Thus, reality cannot be conceived in mere words. [18]  Such a verbal expression will never be understood unless the meaning of the words contained in it is  first perceived by some other means than the words themselves. This is the reason why most definition makes the perception of realities even more difficult so that they create more confusion among the philosophers themselves.[19]



[1] Mahmud MÉdÊ, Waqfah maa al-Radd alÉ al-ManÏiqiyyÊn li-Ibn Taymiyyah, DÉr al-Dawah, Iskandariyyah, 1996, p. 49.
[2]  There are sixteen arguments in his Naqd al-ManÏiq but only eleven in his al-Radd. See al-Radd, ed.Abd al-Îamad, pp.7-14, 180; cf. Naqd al-ManÏiqp. 184ff.
[3] The term ‘quiddity is of Latin origin quidditas  the synonym of >whatness which means the real essence or nature of a thing.  See Simon Blackburn, Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, 1996, under ‘quiddity.  The synonymous term  in Arabic logic mÉhiyyah  is derived from the Arabic question mÉ  huwa  that implies the request to perceive something  in mind. Al-FÉrÉbÊ and Ibn SÊna employed  the word mÉhiyyah  to represent the meaning of essence or nature of the thing.; See al-Radd,  ed.R.Ajam, vol.I. p.85; cf.  Nicholas Rescher, Studies on The History of Arabic Logic,  p. 40.
[4] Naqd al-ManÏiq, p.184; al-Radd,  ed.Abd al-Îamad,  p. 38.
[5] Naqd al-ManÏiq, p.184, al-Radd,  ed.Abd al-Îamad,  p. 8.
[6] al-Radd, ed.Abd al-Îamad, p. 8.
[7] Ibid, p. 9.
[8] Naqd al-ManÏiq, p. 186.
[9]al-Radd, ed.R.Ajam, vol.I p. 38; MajmË‘at al-FatÉwÉ, vol.IX, p. 86.
[10] Naqd al-ManÏiq, pp. 188-189.
[11] Naqd al-ManÏiq, pp. 11, 16, 18.
[12] al-Radd, ed.R.Ajam, vol.I, pp. 82-84; MajmË‘at al-FatÉwÉ, vol. IX, p. 96. cf. Rescher, Studies in the History of  Arabic Logic, pp. 67-68.
[13] al-Radd, ed.Abd al-Îamad, pp. 64-68.
[14] al-Radd, ed.R.Ajam,  vol.I, pp. 82-86.
[15] Ibn Taymiyyah speaks of AbË Muhammad bin KullÉb, AbË al-Hasan al-AsharÊ, AbË ‘Abd Allah bin KarrÉm as the exponent of Ahl al-Sunnah wa al-JamÉah. See al-Radd, ed. R.Ajam, vol.I, p. 85.
[16] Ibn SÊnÉ,  al-IshÉrÉt, ed. SulaymÉn DunyÉ, vol.I, DÉr al-MaÉrif,  Cairo, 1960, p. 193.
[17] Ibn Rushd said:”Existence according to Ibn SÊna is an accident that is  concomitant with quiddity. In this he makes a serious  mistake. In order for something to exist, there must be proof of its existence. Otherwise there will be unlimited accidents, which is impossible. See Ibn Rushd, TahÉfut al-TahÉfut, ed. SulaymÉn DunyÉ, vol.I,  DÉr al-MaÉrif, Cairo, 1965, p. 88.
[18] al-Radd, ed.R.Ajam, vol. I,  pp. 63-64; 91-92.
[19] Naqd al-ManÏ}iq,  p. 200.

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