Preexistence and the Aristotelian Defense of Avicennian Ontology

Without spending too much time rehearsing Rahman's defense of Avicenna against the reading of those who take Avicenna to have made of 'existence' an accident, it should be noted that it is a very Aristotelian defense of Avicenna. In brief, this defense has the effect of reducing Avicenna's claims about essences and existences to claims about Aristotelian ousiai—the substantial existents of Aristotle's ontology.7 In effect, Rahman and others argue that Avicenna does not mean by 'existence' an Aristotelian accident, and his notion of Being instead follows along what might be described as properly Aristotelian, categorical lines on which substances—and not 'essences' 'pre-existing' those substances—are the loci of 'existence.' As such, we might say that Avicenna is not guilty of error on this defense, to the extent that he is, in fact, struggling to engage in a purely Aristotelian method of analysis.

In effect, we might put the Aristotelian defense of Avicenna in the matter of 'existence' as an accident as follows: Avicenna is defended by showing that his is not, in fact, guilty of committing himself to 'pre-existent' essences, a basic philosophical error which would result from the confused assumption that 'existence' were actually an Aristotelian accident. Succinctly stated, since an Aristotelian 'accident' is precisely 'said of substances, if 'existence' were construed as an 'accident,' that would entail the philosophically confused claim that there is—exists, presumably—some substance to which 'existence' may be added. In effect, this would speak circularly of an existent which is the subject of existence! Or, put in other words, such a view would commit one to the philosophically confused notion of a 'pre-existent' essence—something which, as the subject for existence, must not yet exist, but which must already exist if it is to be able to play the role of subject to start with! The suggestion of a 'pre-existent essence,' then, goes hand in hand with the erroneous suggestion that existence is an Aristotelian accident, and as such, the defense of Avicenna by Rahman and others who point out that Avicenna did not literally mean to make of existence an accident is a defense which denies the presence in Avicenna of a crude—and philosophically flawed—commitment to 'pre-existent essences.'8

Given this defense, it might seem to follow that 'pre-existent' essences can play no role in Avicenna if we are to save him from philosophical error. For, as a true Aristotelian, how could such a notion possibly occupy a home in his thought? Yet while I agree that existence is not for Avicenna an Aristotelian accident, I do not think that 'preexistence' falls by the wayside in a proper exposition of Avicenna's treatment of ontology. For, once we become sensitive to his employment of Neoplatonic Methodology, we will find an important function to the invocation of the seemingly crude image of 'pre-existing essences.'

Consider first, along these lines, Ivry's suggestion of such 'pre-existing essences' in Avicenna. In developing a suggestion that Avicenna (as well as Maimonides), can be interpreted as having held more Neoplatonic ontologies than such scholars as Rahman and Altmann have granted them, Ivry suggests that:

...[Avicenna's] assertion that "quiddity before existence has no existence," may be no more than a tautology concerning existence as normally construed, repeating the distinction to which attention has been drawn between quiddity, or essence, and existence. Of course quiddities do not exist before they exist. Yet this does not preclude the possibility that quiddities may have some sort of subsistence, or reality, apart from their actual "existence," and beyond the mere potential which Aristotle allows. If possible existents cannot receive anything from God but actual existence, their essential natures remain unaccounted for. They cannot come from nothing on their own, haphazardly, and the Necessary Existent [i.e., God] cannot create them in their particular natures. Rather, on this reading, the possible existents would be real in their own way, independently of the Necessary Existent, although dependent existentially upon it (Ivry 1992, 148).

The 'pre-existence' of essences is here suggested to be a kind of subsistence which is 'fainter' or 'weaker' than regular substantial existence. However, as I hope will become clear, the approach I advocate is significantly different. In finding a home for 'preexisting' essences in Avicenna's thought, I do not mean to saddle him with 'faintly' subsisting essences. For, if something 'subsists' as a 'thing' in its own right (which presumably is the case for the essences in Ivry's above account), then it is quite unclear, philosophically speaking, how that 'subsistence' differs from 'existence': Presumably, if a 'thing' subsists, then it also exists (as opposed, to say, an Aristotelian accident which might be said to 'exist' in a different way from substantial existents). In the analysis which I provide, I hope, rather, to address 'pre-existence' in such a way that does not commit Avicenna to a new ontological grade of subsistence, but that, invoking a Neoplatonic moment of analysis 'according to cause,' represents instead a method of analysis which helps the analyst focus on the analysandum in a particularly useful way for his ultimately Neoplatonic goal of 'Return.'

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