Avicenna is subject to a variety of well-known criticisms, perhaps most famously that he made of existence an accident.2 Rahman and others have, I think convincingly, argued that in fact, Avicenna does not literally treat existence as an accident.3 However, there seems to remain in both Avicenna and Aquinas scholarship the residual sense that—even if he did not literally mean to make of existence an accident—Avicenna does resort to invoking a misleading 'essence+existence' image, if you will.4 As such, the critic points to, if not an actual philosophical error, then at the very least Avicenna's misleading invocation of existence 'happening to' or 'being added to' essence as reflecting something crude, or flawed, in his thinking. Avicenna's analysis, then, is regarded as somewhat clumsy, and is seen as revealing a struggle on his part with the complex issues of ontology. This struggle, we are told by this version of the history of philosophy, is surmounted only once we reach Aquinas' much subtler 'essence/existence' analysis which, in more accurately treating esse in terms of existing substances—and not 'preexisting' essences—better expresses the ontology of esse as the act of substance.5,6
In the current chapter, I seek primarily to challenge this version of the history of philosophy not by arguing (as Rahman and others have already done) that Avicenna is not guilty of philosophical error in adverting, as he does, to his 'essence+esse' account, but by arguing further that in fact Avicenna's analysis—in invoking the imagery of existence 'happening' to essence—does not represent unfortunate clumsiness on his behalf, (representing, as seems to be the implication in much of the literature, a failure on his part to align his ideas with the more 'elegant' ontological framework of Aquinas), but represents, instead, a decided attempt on his part to best satisfy what I will call the "Neoplatonic Methodology." The Neoplatonic Methodology, as we will see, views the goal of all endeavors—and, in this case, ontology—as ultimately aiming to facilitate a reorientation of the practitioner's soul, itself in way of effecting a Neoplatonic 'Return' for that practitioner. As such, my intent is to go a step further than Rahman's defense of Avicenna. As I will argue, it is not only that Avicenna does not commit himself to anything philosophically suspect (as Rahman has shown), but that, furthermore, his ontological approach—in its very invocation of 'pre-existent essences' having esse 'added' to them—is an invocation on Avicenna's behalf of figurative language and its consequent imagery in a way best suited—as we will see—to effect a certain altered state in the analyst himself, as a first step towards his own Neoplatonic Return.
To explicate the Neoplatonic Methodology, I will call upon ideas in Plotinus, Plato and Proclus in which the goals of engaging in dialectic, +astronomy and arithmetic are this very 're-orientation'—or Return—of the practitioner's own soul. To ground the likelihood of such a methodology in Avicenna in general, I turn briefly to both his theory of prophecy and poetics (as part of his "Western" analytic treatment of Return), as well as his employment of the 'visionary recital' (as part of his more "Eastern" treatment of Return), and, showing in these cases the importance which is given to Imagination, I thus ground in Avicenna both the importance of Return, as well as the specific tactic of using language to evoke those images which will best effect that Return. I then suggest that Avicenna's ontology in particular be treated along these lines as aiming to effect Return by using 'essentialist' language. Furthermore, to help make clear why the 'essence+ esse' language is so well suited to effect that Return, I employ Proclus' own tripartite analysis 'according to cause,' 'according to subsistence' and 'according to participation,' showing, in effect, how both Avicenna's and Proclus' language may—in the invocation of hierarchical imagery of Remaining, Procession and Reversion—be seen as aiming to best impress upon the soul the truth of 'self as effect.'
In effect, I propose that we understand the extent to which Avicenna's analysis invokes existence 'added to' essences as the extent to which he is best seen not as thinking 'inelegantly,' but as consciously submitting to, and enacting, this Neoplatonic Methodology. Towards the end of the chapter, I will also briefly suggest why, on this account, Avicenna's 'essentialist' language is better suited to his purposes than Aquinas' own ontological terms.
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