Sirr fi’l-idrak

Allamah Hilli (d. circa 1325) was an important Shi’i philosopher-theologian. He was a student (a critical and perceptive one) of the renowned ‘ustad al-bashar’ (teacher of mankind), the Avicennian philosopher Nasir al-Din Tusi (d. 1274).

Hilli wrote a lot, pretty much covering the entire range of the intellectual (‘aqli) and transmitted (naqli) sciences of his day. From the former category, there’s this one work called Al-Asrar al-khafiyya fi’l-‘Ulum al-‘aqliyya (Hidden Mysteries in the Intellectual Sciences).  The book deals with topics and issues that span the traditional philosophical curriculum, which consisted of Logic, Natural Philosophy, and Metaphysics. The contents of the work are divided in a four-fold way; first, into funun (arts, sing. fann), e.g., logic. Second, each fann is divided into various maqalat (articles, sing. maqala), e.g., ‘on propositions and their properties’. Third, each maqala is divided into several mabahith (inquiries, sing. bahth), e.g., ‘the division of propositions’. And fourth, each bahth contains sections entitled asrar (mysteries or secrets, sing. sirr). The sirr section concerns a subtle but important issue over which there’s disagreement among the learned.

Here I want to look at a part of one such sirr, and the debate surrounding it. It comes from the first inquiry (bahth) of the sixth maqala from the third fann – which is on metaphysical matters (ilahiyyat, pp. 553-554)). The bahth is entitled ‘on ascertaining (tahqiq) the truth about perception (idrak)’. The ‘mystery’ or ‘secret’ in question concerns what the nature of perception is.

The analysis that follows is divided into three parts. In the first part, I consider Hilli’s presentation and justification of what I call the Aristo-Avicennian (A-A) account of perception. In part two, I consider an objection that Hilli raises to that general account, with a response he offers on behalf of the A-A view, and his criticism of that response. Finally, in the third part, I weigh in on the issue by providing my own criticism of Hilli’s criticism.


Hilli states that the most widely held account of perception is one on which:

(…) التعقل إنما يكون بحصول صورة المعقول (…)

That is, to cognize something is for the form of that thing to occur (husul) or exist in you. This is the Aristo-Avicennian view. Importantly, Hilli himself endorses A-A, saying – “و هذا حقّ”. (He qualifies that endorsement in two ways though, both of which are standardly Avicennian: 1) there’s only husul of a form if the object-known is different (mughayir) from the knower. This implies there’s no husul of a form in cases of self-perception/knowing. Qualification 2) is that this A-A account of perception is only true, he states, “في غير واجب الوجود” i.e., for every knower except the Necessary, (i.e., God)).

The argument for the A-A account.

Hilli then offers an argument for A-A, which ultimately goes back to the shaykh himself. The ma’lum, Hilli states, is either:

(1) real (thabit), or
(2) not

By thabit, what is meant is the opposite of absolute nonexistence, total nothingness. We can restate the division by saying that either the ma’lum is:

(1)* something, or
(2)* nothing

Hilli then rules out option (2). That option is false because:

. قد يحكم عليها بالأحكام الثبوتية (…)

He says nothing further. But the thought in the matn is: for some predicate F, if F is a real predicate or property, and if F is said of or characterizes x, then x itself is real in some sense. In other words, x is not totally nothing. (Here, cf., Al-Shifa’; Ilahiyyat I.5, where the shaykh justifies this premise. Hilli is drawing on that discussion).

So, if option (2) is false, then (1) is the case. Hilli continues by noting that if the ma’lum is real, i.e., not totally nothing, then either:

(1.1) it’s real “في الخارج”e., ‘out there’, or
(1.2) not

He then rules out (1.1), offering the following reason:

 .قد نتصوّر ما لا ثبوت له في الخارج (…)

It seems uncontentious that we have cognition of, say, various fictional entities – like e.g., a unicorn. Or, say, various false theories – like e.g., phlogiston. Surely (لا بد), if asked about them, you’d know what such things are, as is evidenced by the fact that you’d – insofar as you understand the question – conceive them and explain them to the questioner. And yet, surely enough, such items don’t have existence ‘out there’.

Hilli then concludes: if not (1.1), then (1.2), which is the conclusion sought (matlub). So the ma’lum – the thing that we know – is something real but it doesn’t exist ‘out there’ in the world. We know it by having its form occur in us – which is just the A-A view.


Having explained the A-A view and having considered the argument for it, I now turn to the objection Hilli raises against that argument, the response he offers on behalf of its defenders, and his criticism of that response.

An objection to the A-A account.

Througout the course of the entire sirr, Hilli raises several objections to the Aristo-Avicennian view of perception. Most – in fact all – of them come, I’m pretty sure, from Fakhr al-Din Razi – that most perceptive detractor of the shaykh. Here, I only consider one such objection. Excitingly, the response, on behalf of the A-A camp that Hilli offers offers to it belongs to Nasir al-Din Tusi – that most perceptive defender of the shaykh.

The objection assumes that every case of perception is a case of knowing, and goes as follows:

The form or ma’lum in the mind that’s assumed to be “غير ثابت في الخارج”, does it or does it not correspond (mutabiqa) to what’s ‘out there’? If it does, it follows that there is something ‘out there’ to which it corresponds. In that case, perception is more plausibly a relation that obtains (al-izafa al-waqi’a) between the perceiver and the object-perceived that’s out there. And hence, perception, contra A-A, does not

 .إحتياج إلى صورة ذهنية (…)

And if no mental form is needed, then A-A is defeated.

If, however, the form (in the mind) does not correspond to what’s ‘out there’ – well, that’s a case of ignorance, not knowledge/perception. In other words, it would then be a case of not knowing as opposed to knowing. (Here, cf., Razi’s Sharh al-Isharat, pp. 235-236, on which Hilli is drawing). In sum, this horn of the Razian objection states: the A-A proponent says she knows an item x which doesn’t exist out there. But, since knowledge requires correspondence, and there’s nothing out there to which x corresponds, she doesn’t, it turns out, really know x. Hence, as a general account of perception/knowing, the A-A fails.

An A-A response to the objection.

Hilli then offers the rejoinder of “one of the verifiers” (بعض المحققين), which states that:

x doesn’t known/is ignorant (jahl) iff:

1) there’s a form in x
2) the form is judged to correspond (to what’s out there), and
3) the form doesn’t correspond (to what’s out there)

x knows/has knowledge (‘ilm) iff:

(1) there’s a form in x
(2) the form is judged to correspond, and
(3) the form does correspond

Presumably, the thought is: in the case at hand, i.e., of the nonexistent item that we know, condition 2) isn’t satisfied. So perception of it is then not a case of ignorance (jahl).

Hilli’s critique of the A-A response.

What’s wrong with this response according to Hilli? That perception of it is then also not a case of knowing, and so a case of neither! He rightly points out that on this view, ‘knowing’ and ‘not-knowing’ will only follow upon a judgement (hukm) of correspondence or its absence (عدمها). But there’s no judgment of correspondence (nor its absence) here, though presumably there is a perception/knowing. And so the form (in x) will neither be known nor not-known – due to, again, the dependence of those states on the correspondence or its absence. In other words, the form in x will not be characterizable as either perceived or not-perceived. And hence, no perception has even taken place. And hence, perception can’t be the husul of a form in the knower.


Criticism of Hilli’s critique.

I say: Razi’s objection, as well as Hilli’s critique of Tusi’s response, equivocates on two senses of ‘knowing’ (and so two senses of not-knowing or ignorance).

There’s knowing as tasawwur (conception) and knowing as tasdiq (assent). The former is just to understand a certain meaning (ma’na), i.e., some semantic content – e.g., a chair, or red chair. This is a knowing of sorts, and so a perception broadly construed, and is the sort the A-A argument concerns. It does not involve judgment that something is the case. The latter type of knowing – tasdiq – involves, along with a conception, a judgment that something is the case – e.g., that the chair is red. And it is only at this level that correspondence comes into play; in fact, the judgment just is the judgment of correspondence. If the correspondence holds, the judgment is true, and vice versa; and if not, it’s false, and vice versa.

Go back now to Razi and Hilli. The second horn of Razi’s objection stated there that if the mental form doesn’t correspond, that’s a case of not-knowing, i.e., ignorance, not knowledge. Hilli’s criticism of Tusi’s response stated that if knowing (knowledge) and not-knowing (ignorance) depend on a correspondence and its absence, then the nonexistent will neither be known nor not-known, and so perception in general can’t be what the A-A view states it is.

In the light of the distinction between tasawwur and tasdiq, the response to both Razi and Hilli is to note that at most, what they can conclude is that if, in the case of Razi, the form doesn’t correspond, then that’s a case of not-knowing at the level of tasdiq. And if, in the case of Hilli, knowing depends on judgment, then that’s the case only at the level of tasdiq. But it doesn’t follow, contra Razi, that that’s a case of not knowing or ignorance, full stop. For example, just because I don’t know whether the chair is red (= tasdiq), it doesn’t follow that I don’t know or understand ‘red chair’ (= tasawwur). Nor does it follow, contra Hilli, that the form in x is not characterizable as perceived (or not perceived), full stop.

In sum, the A-A argument, as well as Tusi’s response, are only talking about tasawwur. But Razi’s and Hilli’s critiques equivocate between knowing qua tasawwur and knowing qua tasdiq, and so their arguments are either inconclusive or fallacious. And hence, the A-A account of perception in general still stands.


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