Is the concept of existence univocal? – part I

In chap.1.2., of the Bidayat al-Hikmah, the Sadrian philosopher Allameh Tabataba’i sets out to prove, by means of three barahin (demonstrations), that the concept of existence is ishtirak ma’nawi i.e., predicated of different existents in a single sense. Here I’ll only give an analysis of the first proof that he adduces for his conclusion. I’ll take up  his other two arguments in the next two series of posts, God-willing.

The first demonstrative argument according to Allameh hinges on the nature of division:

A proof [that the concept of existence is univocal] is that we divide existence into its different categories, such as the existence of the Necessary Being (wujud al-wajib) and the existence of the contingent being (wujud al-mumkin). The existence of the contingent is divided into that of substance (wujud al-jawhar) and that of accident (wujud al-aradh). The existence of substance and the existence of accident are again divided into their various kinds. It is evident that the validity of a division depends on the unity of what is being divided and on its presence in all its divisions.

Cast in syllogistic form, Allameh’s argument it seems to me would look like this:

Major: for a division to be valid, the term divided has to be univocal. Minor: existence can be validly divided i.e., into necessary, contingent, etc. Conclusion: therefore, existence is a univocal predicate.

Let the minor premise be granted, for it seems evident and straightforward. But what is the exact purport of the major? I have formulated it in those terms because Allameh writes that “the validity of a division depends on the unity of what is being divided and on its presence in all its divisions” and, presumably, I take it, by the terms ‘unity’ and ‘presence’ he just means univocity. If that is the case, Allameh is then saying that the term divided must be present in i.e., predicated of, the parts into which it is divided univocally or in the exact same sense. But why? Because otherwise, he implicitly seems to suggest, there would be no bases for the division – for the dividing terms will then be unrelated both to each other and the whole of which they’re parts i.e., the term which they are dividing. Consequently, the division, if the term divided is not related at all to one or more of its parts – which for Allameh just means not applied univocally to them – will be invalid.

To concretize this abstract point, here are examples of both an (1) invalid and a (2) valid division that Allameh may have had in mind: (1) the division of ‘animal’ into ‘man’ and ‘stone’. The reason this division is invalid is because ‘animality’ does not apply to ‘stone’ in any way or sense whatsoever i.e., neither in the sense in which it applies to ‘man’ nor a different one. And here’s an example of a (2) valid division: the division of ‘animal’ into ‘man’ and ‘horse’. The term ‘animality’ is present in man and horse in the exact same sense i.e., univocally; for a man is said to be an animal just as much as a horse is. So the division is valid.

Allameh with this argument wants to show that the same is the case with the term ‘existence’ when it is divided as well. That is, it must apply to its divisions (i.e., necessary, contingent, etc) univocally. If not, then existence cannot be validly divided into them. And were this true, it would in turn undermine many other philosophical commitments, e.g., a proof of God’s existence, that  both Allameh and his interlocutors may share. Also, whatever the divisions of existence are divided into, existence, as well as the proximate genus of which the second divisions (i.e., substance and accident) are parts, must also apply to them univocally.  To recap all the above then, simply put, in any division whatsoever, if it is to be a valid division, the term divided must be present in its parts in the exact same sense.

Having said all that, here are some questions and concerns that one might raise  contra Allameh’s argument. First, does dividing ‘existence’ mean treating it as some sort of a genus, which it is not (as per what is said in chap. 1.1)? Perhaps Allameh would hold that (the concept of ) existence may not fall under any genus, but it itself can be a genus, under which things fall? But this problematic for other reasons; cf. Aristotle’s argument against why being/existence cannot be a genus in the Metaphysics, Bk.III, chap.3, 998b15-35.

Second, and more importantly I think, is the major premise of Allameh’s argument i.e., that in order for a division to be valid the term divided must univocally be said of its parts, necessary i.e., necessarily true? One can plausibly argue in the negative by recourse to (what are technically called) analogical terms, if there are such things – and it seems that there are; for they seem not require the truth of that premise. For example, following what the First Teacher says in Bk.IV, chap.2 of the Metaphysics, suppose the division of the term ‘healthy’ into ‘animal’ and ‘food’ or (to use my example) the division of the term ‘good’ into ‘man’ ‘song’ and ‘day’. It seems that such a division is valid, even though the terms divided aren’t predicated of their parts univocally but rather analogically i.e., in different but nevertheless closely related senses. Given that, the major premise then, due to analogical terms, is not, it seems, necessarily true. Accordingly, the argument as a whole then cannot be demonstrative of its conclusion; for, although it no doubt rules out the concept of existence as being equivocal i.e., predicated in completely discrete senses, it does not rule it out as being analogical.

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3 thoughts on “Is the concept of existence univocal? – part I

  1. Salam Alaykom,

    Given that Allameh believes in the gradeability of existence, would he also not concede that it is not univocal in all senses? The being I predicate to myself, is not the same as the being I predicate to God, so in God there is something analogous to what I call being in myself. Given also that the the effect must be present in the cause formally or eminently, God is the highest most perfect being, i.e He is existence, so He has the perfection of my being and all perfections of being.

    But that at the the lowest level of being, (if there is such a thing) there is a level of being that is present in all things that are said to have being, so it is in that sense that it is univocal, because all beings would have that level of being and this is what we mean when we say X exists and Y exists.

    These are my thoughts on the matter, what do you think?

    1. w’salam,

      yes, i think you’re right. there does seem to be a tension in holding (a) that existence is graded and (b) that the concept of existence is univocal. i’ve written somewhere else that one possible problem this view generates is that if the concept of existence does not correspond to existence as it is externally – that is to say, if existence externally is analogical and the concept of existence is univocal, then it becomes very difficult to make true judgments about the existential status of objects.

  2. Salam Alaykom Sir,

    The concept of gradation is known as tashkik al wujud. When we come to universal concepts, we see that some are completely univocal (mutawati’) such that there is no variation in the concept when applied to individuals.

    Other concepts, however are mushakak (ambigious). There are several examples we can give for this. The whiteness of snow for example is greater than the whiteness of paper, even though we still predicate whiteness to both.

    A more frequently used example would be that of light. The light of sunlight is greater in its intensity than that of a candle but both are still light. We can still predicate light to both in a way that is not completely univocal and also not completely analogical.
    So as for God, when we say He has being, and I have being, to use the improper analogy, of the sun and the candle, it is like predicating light to the sun and light to the candle.

    So what Allameh is trying to show I believe is not the univocality in its strictest sense, but what it is known as Al Mafhum Al Mushakak.

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