The essence-existence distinction was a central issue in metaphysical disputes among post-Avicennian thinkers in the Islamic world. One group argued that what a thing is is different from that it is only conceptually. A rival view would have it that the distinction between essence and existence is real. The purpose of this article is to analyze the philosophical core of the dispute, by isolating the main arguments and their metaphysical foundations. I will study four central issues of the essence-existence debate: (1) the argument that existence is distinct from essence because one can conceive of an essence without knowing whether it exists; (2) the argument that if existence were really distinct from essence, existence would itself have to exist, leading to an infinite regress; (3) the question of whether God is responsible for the existence of essences only or also for their essential content (this relates to the problem of the ontological status of the non-existent); (4) the problem of whether essences are prior to existence.
See e.g. Maxwell J. Cresswell“Essence and Existence in Plato and Aristotle,” in Theoria37 (1971): 91–113 and Kevin Corrigan “Essence and Existence in the Enneads” in The Cambridge Companion to Plotinus ed. by Lloyd Gerson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press1996) 105–29.
WisnovskyAvicenna’s Metaphysics in Context153; idem “Essence and Existence in the Eleventh- and Twelfth-Century Islamic East (Mašriq): A Sketch” in The Arabic Hebrew and Latin Receptions of Avicenna’s Metaphysics ed. by Dag N. Hasse and Amos Bertolacci (Berlin: De Gruyter 2012) 27–50 at 30–1.
Wisnovsky“Essence and Existence” and Heidrun Eichner, “Essence and Existence. Thirteenth-Century Perspectives in Arabic-Islamic Philosophy and Theology,”The Arabic Hebrew and Latin Receptions of Avicenna’s Metaphysicsed. by Dag N. Hasse and Amos Bertolacci (Berlin: De Gruyter 2012) 123–52.
E.g. ŠahrastānīNihāya p. 158ll. 2–6; Rāzī Maṭālib p. 291 ll. 7–8; Āmidī Abkār al-afkār p. 260 ll. 5–6; Šahrazūrī Šaǧara p. 214 ll. 20–2. Note that the equivocity of existence is sometimes mentioned as primarily applying to God’s case as opposed to everything else’s case. Yet it was interpreted in a wider way as applying to everything as one can see clearly in Šahrazūrī and Šahrastānī. In my forthcoming paper “The Metaphysics of Muḥammad b. ʿAbd al-Karīm al-Šahrastānī (d. 1153): Aḥwāl and Universals” in Islamic Philosophy from the 12th to 14th Century ed. by Abdelkader al-Ghouz I have shown how this doxographical tradition may have emerged from the debate over aḥwāl in which the Ašʿarites mainly stood for nominalist positions. See also Fedor Benevich “The Classical Ashʿari Theory of Aḥwāl. Juwaynī and His Opponents” Journal of Islamic Studies 27 2 (2016): 136–75.
AbharīMuntahā p. 280ll. 19–21; Taḥrīr al-dalāʾil p. 118 ll. 1–3; ll. 9–15 (is very close to Kātībī Ğamīʿ al-daqāʾiq 147–8). The same conclusion is drawn from the argument in Abharī Talḫīṣ al-ḥaqāʾiq fol. 89v ll. 15–9. Cf. Šahrazūrī Šaǧara p. 216 ll. 1–3 uses the argument in order to show that traditional Ašʿarite theory of total identity of essence and existence is wrong because the argument proves that they are distinct at least mentally. Cf. also Ṭūsī Taǧrīd al-iʿtiqād p. 63 ll. 8–9 and Ḥillī Kašf al-murād p. 8 ll. 5–9 where the argument is accepted but taken only to establish the conceptual essence-existence distinction. See ibid. p. 10 ll. 10–15.
RāzīMabāḥiṯ p. 115ll. 12–3 cf. idem Mulaḫḫaṣ fol. 76r ll. 9–11; Kātibī Munaṣṣaṣ fol. 92r ll. 32–7. Rāzī (Arbaʿīn p. 87 ll. 5–7) produced another argument. There Rāzī turns the argument around: in the mind mental existence necessarily attaches to a conceived essence in the extramental world—extramental existence hence neither of them is necessary for essence. One could respond that this rather shows that any of them is necessary for essence.
RāzīMabāḥiṯ p. 115ll. 8–10. On the mental existence in Rāzī’s thought see Heidrun Eichner “ ‘Knowledge by presence’ Apperception and the Mind-Body Relationship: Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī and al-Suhrawardī as Representatives and Precursors of a Thirteenth-Century Discussion” in In the Age of Averroes. Arabic Philosophy in the Sixth/Twelfth Century ed. by Peter Adamson (London: The Warburg Institute 2011) 117–40.
SuhrawardīḤikmat al-išrāq p. 46(§ 57); idem Talwīḥāt p. 193 ll. 10–3; ʿIzz al-Dawla Ibn Kammūna Šarḥ al-Talwīḥāt ed. by Naǧafqulī Ḥabībī (Tehran: Markaz-i pažūhašī-yi mīrāṯ maktūb 2008) vol. 2 p. 102 ll. 17–20; Šahrazūrī Šaǧara p. 216 ll. 9–15. The argument was already known to Rāzī (Nihāyat al-ʿuqūl p. 359 ll. 1–2; Mabāḥiṯ p. 115 ll. 15–7) who rejected it on the basis of his theory that existence cannot be predicated of existence.
BaġdādīMuʿtabar pp. 63l. 14–64 l. 14. On should not be confused by Abū l-Barakāt’s use of the idea that some notions differ conceptually while being one extramentally. Though this is reminiscent of Ḫayyām’s position on essence and existence Abū l-Barakāt is instead talking about the relation between existence and ‘being existent’ not essence and existence. Abū l-Barakāt has a quite idiosyncratic theory about the existence which is distinct from essence: he roughly holds that it is God. On this see my forthcoming “The Necessary Existent.”
AbharīKašf al-ḥaqāʾiq p. 109ll. 18–9. His “Baġdādian” solution could be derived from Rāzī since both make similar claims. Abharī also mentions the argument in another pro-Rāzian treatise Tanzīl al-afkār however there he offers simply a blunt denial that any infinite regress arises.
ĞuwaynīŠāmil124–6; Šahrastānī Nihāyat al-aqdām p. 151 ll. 1–10. In fact both distinguish between different Muʿtazilite views on the relationship between maʿdūm and šayʾ but directly address only the position that identifies the two. That is why I call this a ‘supposed Muʿtazilite teaching’ since it would be an overstatement to ascribe it to all Muʿtazilites. I will not however add this qualification in what follows.
RāzīArbaʿīn p. 91ll. 5–7; p. 95 ll. 11–23; Ibn Kammūna Šarḥ al-Talwīḥāt pp. 16 l. 15–17 l. 7; Ḥillī Kašf al-murād p. 17 ll. 1–18. On Muʿtazilite arguments for the reality of the non-existent and post-Avicennian solutions to them see my forthcoming “The Reality of the Non-Existent Object of Thought: The Possible The Impossible and Mental Existence in Islamic Philosophy (11–13th c.)” Oxford Studies in Medieval Philosophy 5 (2018).
ŠahrastānīNihāyat al-aqdām pp. 155l. 4–156 l. 13. At ibid. pp. 162 l. 7–163 l. 2 he anachronistically accuses the Muʿtazilites of taking over the philosophers’ essence-existence distinction on the basis of the doubt argument in order to establish their maʿdūm-šayʾ theory.
RāzīMuḥaṣṣal p. 59ll. 2–16. I intentionally translate ḏāt in all cases as essence here although for the Muʿtazilite doctrine the expression ‘self’ might be more fitting given that Rāzī understands ḏāt as essence everywhere when paralleling it to Avicenna’s theory.
RāzīMuḥaṣṣal p. 55ll. 5–7. Samarqandī Ṣaḥāʾif p. 87 ll. 1–4 and p. 90 ll. 5–8 also accepts the parallel. One should remember that Rāzī rejects the essence-existence distinction in Muḥaṣṣal. Cf. Burhān al-Dīn al-Nasafī Šarḥ al-Asās ed. by Gholamreza Dadkhah et al. (California: Mazda Publishers 2015) p. 269 ll. 5–8 who uses the essential independence to prove the essence-existence distinction.
ŠahrastānīNihāyat al-aqdām p. 161ll. 1–7 and ibid. p. 146 ll. 1–3. On muḫaṣṣiṣ see Herbert A. Davidson Proofs for Eternity Creation and the Existence of God in Medieval Islamic and Jewish Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press 1987) 154–212 Harry Wolfson The Philosophy of Kalām (Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1976) 434–44; and Frank Griffel Al-Ghazālī’s Philosophical Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2009) 170.
AbharīKašf al-ḥaqāʾiq p. 111ll. 3–6 cf. Ḥillī Asrār p. 416 ll. 1–2. Rāzī Muḥaṣṣal p. 56 ll. 5–10 and Mabāḥiṯ p. 136 ll. 6–14 (accepted later in Samarqandī Ṣaḥāʾif pp. 87 l. 9–88 l. 2) had another similar argument: since individuation is accidental and through the matter while neither of these is possible in non-existence it is impossible in non-existence. Abharī could have got his premise from the same reasoning.
ŠahrastānīNihāyat al-aqdām p. 160ll. 14–7; Rāzī Muḥaṣṣal p. 56 ll. 3–4 (cf. Arbaʿīn p. 98 ll. 4–11 or ibid. pp. 99 l. 22–100 l. 5); Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī Talḫīs al-Muḥaṣṣal ed. by ʿAbdallāh al-Nūrānī (Tehran Institute of Islamic Studies McGill Tehran Branch and Tehran University 1980) p. 77 ll. 13–8; idem al-Nafy wa-l-iṯbāt ed. by Muḥammad T. Dānišpāžūh Maǧalla-yi dāniškada-yi adabiyyāt wa ʿulūm-i insānī 3 (1975): p. 22 ll. 1–16; Ḥillī Kašf al-murād p. 15 ll. 15–24. Cf. also among the Išrāqīs Suhrawardī Talwīḥāt p. 176 ll. 16–7; Ibn Kammūna Šarḥ al-Talwīḥāt pp. 17 l. 10–18 l. 5; Šahrazūrī Šaǧara 39.
Ibn KammūnaŠarḥ al-Talwīḥāt pp. 106l. 6–107 l. 6; al-Ğadīd fī l-ḥikma p. 82 ll. 18–10; idem al-Maṭālib al-muhimma ed. by Ḥusayn Sayyid Mūsawī Ḫiradnāma-yi Ṣadrā 32 (2003): p. 81 l. 8; Šahrazūrī Šarḥ Ḥikmat al-išrāq p. 185 ll. 8–18; Šaǧara pp. 220 l. 12–221 l. 5.
RāzīMuḥaṣṣal60–4. On aḥwāl see e.g. Richard M. Frank Beings and their Attributes (Albany: State University of New York Press 1978); Jan Thiele “Abū Hāshim al-Jubbāʾī’s (d. 321/933) Theory of ‘States’ (aḥwāl) and its Adaptation by Ashʿarite Theologians” in Oxford Handbook of Islamic Theology ed. by Sabine Schmidtke (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2016) 364–83 and Benevich “Juwaynī and His Opponents.”
AbharīMuntahā p. 281ll. 17–22. Here his argument is close in form to the substance-or-accident argument in Suharwardī’s variant of the priority problem. Cf. Talḫīṣ al-ḥaqāʾiq fol. 98v ll. 19–21 and Taḥrīr al-dalāʾil p. 117 ll. 6–16 where the argument rather follows the Rāzian variant.
ḤillīKašf al-murād p. 9l. 21–10 l. 16 on Ṭūsī Taǧrīd al-iʿtiqād p. 63 ll. 10–1; Ḥillī Taslīk al-nafs p. 29 ll. 11–2; and Abharī al-Šukūk 146–7. Ḥillī adds that existence is added to essence in nafs al-amr which agrees with Abharī Maṭāliʿ fol. 41v l. 20. Nafs al-amr is a sophisticated doctrine that cannot be addressed in this study. But in any case their saying this does not require an extramental essence-existence distinction.
Cf. ḪayyāmRisālat al-ḍiyāʾ al-ʿaqlī p. 64ll. 9–12 who claims that the abstracted essences do not exist in the extramental world. I find it particularly striking how similar the position of one of the first conceptualists (Ḫayyām) and that of one of the last ones (Ṭūsī) are.
Wisnovsky“Essence and Existence”28–9. I would also disagree that the conceptualists argued against the Bahšamizing Sunnis as suggested by Wisnovsky because Ğuwaynī actually agreed that every ḏāt is identical to its existence although he accepted the metaphysical reality of the entities called aḥwāl in general.