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Sadr al-Din al-Shirazi and Baruch Spinoza :

An Epistemological and Ontological Comparison

By:David Dakake

The following paper is an attempt to compare some of the ideas and methods of the 17th c. European "Jewish"
philosopher Baruch Spinoza and the 16/17th c. Persian Muslim philosopher/mystic Sadr al-Din al-Shirazi. Both men,
whether consciously or unconsciously, produced intellectual edifices that detached their particular forms of philosophical
speculation from the traditional Aristotelian/Ptolemaic notions of cosmology.1 This intellectual feat, which Spinoza
accomplished at the very time when that traditional cosmological schema was being trounced under the weight of
Galileo's observations, had been established many years earlier in Persia by Sadr al-Din, reacting against Islamic
peripatetic cosmology, with no awareness of the scientific challenges that were being brought to bear in Europe at that
time. The methods, however, by which these two philosophers accomplished this same task differed in most dramatic
fashion and exemplify certain general trends in the history of philosophy that distinguish Western philosophy from
Islamic philosophy to this day. Put quite simply, the philosophical divergence here between "East" and "West" centers
around the role of reason. In the case of Western philosophy, from the late Medieval period on, there was an ever
increasing concern with the use of reason and logic as the means to "do" philosophy.2 Whereas in the Islamic world,
there was a trend in, what some might claim, is the very opposite direction, that is to say, an ever increasing concern
with both scripture (i.e. - the Qur'an) and the experience of the unveiling (kashf) of pure being as "supra-rational"
foundations for philosophical speculation. The first half of our paper shall examine the work of Spinoza and Sadr al-Din
within this epistemological context, attempting to illustrate their categories of knowledge and the role these various
categories play in the determination of their respective philosophies. The second half of our paper shall deal with the
issue of how, on the basis of their radically divergent epistemological views, each created a distinct ontology and
cosmology which divorced itself from the Aristotelian/Ptolemaic world view.

I. Epistemology

In this section we shall examine the various forms of knowledge according to Spinoza and Sadr al-Din and their role in
doing philosophy. Both men accept a general tripartite division of the categories of knowledge. For Spinoza we can
speak of three stages of knowledge: the stage of imagination - "cognition of the first kind", the stage of ratiocination -
"cognition of the second kind" and the stage of intuition - "cognition of the third kind". These correspond, in a sense, to
the major epistemological categories of Sadrian philosophy, namely, revelation (way), rational demonstration (burhan)
and gnosis ('irfan)3. The correspondence between the two middle categories of ratiocination and rational demonstration
is clear enough as they both deal with the use of logic and reason. We analyze these categories and the particular roles
they are assigned by Spinoza and Sadr al-Din in the section entitled "On Reason and the Origins of Philosophy". The
relation between the categories of imagination and revelation is perhaps less clear, and we will attempt to explain this,
as well as the functions these ideas have (or do not have) in the philosophies of Spinoza and Sadr al-Din, within the

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section of our essay entitled "Revelation, Prophecy and Scripture". As regards the final categories of intuition and
gnosis, it is really impossible, as we shall see, to detach the discussion of the origins of philosophy from the idea of
gnosis when speaking in Sadrian terms. Therefore, to a large extent, we have dealt with the topic of gnosis in the first
section of our paper. This has left the section "On Intuition" for (1) our explanation of Spinoza's doctrine of intuition
and for (2) the comparison of that doctrine with Sadr al-Din's ideas of gnosis.

On Reason and the Origins of Philosophy

In the realm of philosophical methodology it is clear that Spinoza and Sadr al-Din differ and perhaps the most immediate
example of this is to be found in the epistemological starting points of their texts. For the sake of this comparison we
have chosen to examine Spinoza's Ethics, being as it is his seminal work, and al-ikmat al-'arshiyyah (The Wisdom of
the Throne) of Sadr al-Din, which although not known as his greatest expository work (a designation which we should
reserve for the voluminous al-Asfar al-arba'ah) was nonetheless written at the end of his life as an highly concentrated
summary of his views4 for his very advanced students. al-ikmat al-'arshiyyah deals often, in a few paragraphs or pages,
with philosophical discussions that are hundreds of pages long in the Asfar, and as James Morris has said:

The Wisdom of the Throne... represents a final and extreme level of compression... it is the one book, more than any
other, in which Sadra simply says what he really means.5

Therefore, it makes more sense to deal with Mulla Sadra's work, al-ikmat al-'arshiyyah here, owing (1) to the size
of the present essay and (2) to the fact that Sadr al-Din himself saw this work as a kind of synopsis of his own

Let us first take note of the very titles used by our two philosophers and what they imply for their respective
philosophical enterprises. The complete title of Spinoza's work is the Ethics: Proved in Geometrical Order. Here we
encounter an important distinction between the perspective of Spinoza and that of Sadr al-Din and his Wisdom of the

For Spinoza the methodological starting point of philosophy is a form of reasoning, a mathematical/geometric reasoning
to be precise. This is so because Spinoza saw in the order of geometry the means by which to overcome what is, from
his point of view, perhaps the greatest impediment to true philosophy, namely a kind of personal prejudice whereby man
interprets the nature of things according to imagined relationships based upon his own likes and dislikes.6 Spinoza
describes these "imaginings" in the Ethics as follows:

For as we have said, they [common men] think all things were made for them and call their natures good or bad, healthy
or rotten..., according as they are affected by them. E.g., if motion, which the nerves receive by means of the eyes from
the objects before us, is conducive of health, those objects by which it is caused are called beautiful; if it is not then the
objects are called ugly... And such things as affect the ear are called noises, and form discord or harmony, the last of
which has delighted men to madness. So that they believe that harmony delights God. Nor have there been wanting
philosophers who assert that the movements of the heavenly spheres compose harmony. All of which sufficiently shows
that each one judges concerning things according to the disposition of his own mind, or rather takes for things that which

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is really the modifications of his imagination.7 [emphasis mine].

Spinoza calls this imaginative form of "knowing" "cognition of the first kind", and we shall have more to say about this
form of cognition in the next section of our essay. We only mention it here in order to identify the "problem", as it is
seen by Spinoza, that it might be contrasted with his "cure". For Spinoza, the cure, the means for overcoming this
impediment of imagination to clear thinking in philosophy, is by way of appeal to what he calls "cognition of the second
kind", and he defines this cognition as reason itself, saying, [As far as] We have adequate ideas of the properties of
things... I shall call this reason and knowledge of the second kind.8

This form of reasoned cognition is "adequate", as Spinoza puts it, meaning that it is without the personal "baggage" of
imagination noted above, and thus he says, "It ... perceive[s] things truly, namely, as they are in themselves."9
Therefore, reason is the essential means to possession of true ideas, ideas which are adequate to their objects. But it
should also be understood that reason is not monolithic for Spinoza. It has within itself aspects, a lower aspect
corresponding to the forms of practical reasoning associated with religion and scripture, and a higher aspect which is
mathematical reasoning, associated with the source of true philosophy.10 Since in this section we are not analyzing the
issue of religion and scripture but rather the origins of philosophy, it is to this mathematical form of the "cognition of the
second kind" that we shall now turn.

The appeal to mathematical reasoning in philosophy is clearly established by Spinoza not only in the title of the Ethics
to be "proved in geometrical order, but also within the text itself. This is clear from his discussion of philosophers who
base their ideas on the same irrational and imagined relationships noted earlier. He says:

It is easier for them... to affirm the insoluble character of this and similar problems [of teleology]... and retain their
present innate state of ignorance, than to pull down the whole construction and think out a new one. And so they hold it
as a fixed principle that the judgements of the gods surpass by far the grasp of the human mind: a principle, which in
itself would have been sufficient to keep truth away from the human race forever; had not mathematics... pointed out...
another standard of truth.11 [emphasis mine].

Here we see clear reference to the rational method of mathematics as the means by which the ignorance of imagination
may be overcome. It is interesting to note how some have interpreted this reference by Spinoza to a mathematical
philosophy and particularly his use of the word "geometrical" in the title of his Ethics, to be the influence of Descartes
and even a kind of homage to him.12 In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. For instance, the italicized phrase in
the above quotation is drawn, word for word, by Spinoza from Descartes,13 and as Leon Roth has commented, far from
being a tribute to Descartes, this citation is to be seen as "a most vivid protest against his authority".14 Prof. Stuart
Hampshire confirms this analysis when he says:

Spinoza had steeped himself in Descartes' philosophy... But at a very early stage, and even before he wrote his
exposition of it, he had rejected its conclusions... having discovered in Descartes' thought what seemed to him radical
incoherences... Descartes seemed to have stopped in developing his own doctrines to their logical conclusions...
[Whereas] Spinoza made the distinction between Intellect and Imagination, between pure logical thinking and confused

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associations of ideas, one of the foundations of his system; [Spinoza] unlike Descartes, throughout applied the distinction
rigorously and accepted every consequence of it.15

In fact, for Spinoza, Descartes was one of those philosophers whose thinking had been warped by his imagination
because of his unwillingness to subject his philosophy completely to the rigors of a mathematical reasoning. Therefore,
far from being a kind of homage to Descartes, the Ethics: Proved in Geometric Order was to actually be a system of
thought that would not be subject to the negative theologizing tendencies, sentimentality and imagination Spinoza found to
be present in Cartesian philosophy.

This attempt to "de-imaginalize" philosophical speculation by subjecting it completely to a kind of mathematical, logical
rigor is even to be found in the formal structures used by Spinoza to construct the Ethics. One thinks here of Spinoza's
division of his text, and of the philosophical enterprise in general, into "definitions", "axioms", "propositions", "scholia",
"corollaries" and finally "proofs", all of these terms corresponding to the study of geometry. Therefore, Spinoza's
project was to create a mathematical philosophy, both in its ideas and methods, by removing, what we might call, its
"baggage" of imagination. He hoped to construct a view of reality relying solely upon what the human mind could know
within itself, namely mathematical reasoning, and this reasoning was for Spinoza the true origin of philosophy.

If it was Spinoza's goal to formulate a philosophy which would be based completely upon a mathematical/geometric
reasoning, it was the endeavor of Sadr al-Din to use reason and logic within philosophy as one particular kind of "tool",
as one kind of means to express certain "flashes" or experiences of truth that ultimately transcend purely rational
expression or logical analysis.16 This is evident from the preface of al-ikmat al-'arshiyyah itself, where Sadr al-Din
expresses the purpose in his writing of the text. He says, I have mentioned these insights as a beacon (tabsarah) to
inquiring travelers (along the spiritual path) and as a reminder to all brothers in the true faith...17

It is interesting that Sadr al-Din should begin in this way, using the word tabsarah or "beacon" to describe the intent of
his work. What does this tell us about how Sadr al-Din views philosophy in general? It tells us that for him the
philosophical project is to be as a "beacon". It is to be only an indication of a place to which one wants to arrive. It is
not, in itself, an end point. It is not, in itself, methodologically complete. Like a beacon, it does not tell us necessarily
about the actual place we are going; it only indicates where that place is to be found. This is the role of philosophy for
Sadr al-Din. It is not able, in itself, to bring enlightenment or truth, but only to allude to that truth which is ultimately
found in an experience of the "Real". For Sadr al-Din the origin of philosophy then is not in a method of logical thinking
as it is for Spinoza, for the best that logic can do is "indicate". In fact, that is the best that any kind of philosophy can do
for him. Therefore, the origin of philosophy must be sought elsewhere than in methods of reasoning, and that elsewhere
is in an experience or vision of the Real or Reality which Sadr al-Din speaks of a inshira al-sadr, that is the "expansion
of the breast".

Although Sadr al-Din is living at the same time as the rise of the "modern" world view (in the West), his own
philosophical categories, in terms of the macrocosm and the microcosm, are still what might be termed "Medieval". This
is to say, for Sadr al-Din the seat of knowledge, and by extension the origin of true philosophy, is not to be identified
with the head, the brain, the mind, or, as we have seen with Spinoza, even a particular faculty of the mind such as the

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rational faculty. It is identified with the heart which resides within the breast. This idea of a kind of "heart knowledge"
was, of course, prevalent in the West in Medieval times but later gradually dropped out of fashion in the Renaissance
and the Modern period. The Romantic movement is the one notable exception here, but its influence did not last in terms
of the question of knowledge and a more mechanistic and scientistic view of man, as well as the cosmos, eventually won the
day in the West.

The philosophical progression, however, from the Medieval to the Modern world view did not take place within the
Islamic intellectual tradition in the same manner. In fact, it went in the complete opposite direction. The great interest in
reason and logic, based on the Aristotelian model, that we see in the earlier philosophers of Islam, such as al-Farabi and
Ibn Sina, was much diminished in later Islamic philosophy which became more "illuminationist" and gnostic in its
orientation. The result of this being that Sadr al-Din, writing in the mid-17th century, still speaks in "Medieval" terms.
He still speaks of the "opening of the breast" as the origin of true knowledge and the starting point of philosophy. This is
evident from the very first words of the text of al-ikmat al-'arshiyyah in which Sadr al-Din says:

Praise be to God, who placed us among those whose heart He opened to Islam so that he might follow a light from his
Lord; who caused us to be among His servants, to whom He has given mercy from Him, and knowledge from His
presence, those whom He guided with certainty... And who gave them a tongue to speak truthfully to those who should
come after!18

Some might object that there is no explicit reference here to a kind of gnosis, i.e. "visions" or experiences of the "Real",
as being the origin of Sadr al-Din's thought, only a statement about the opening of his heart to Islam, which could be
taken simply as a figure-of-speech for accepting the religion of Islam, without implying the acquisition of some type of
transcendent or mysterious "heart knowledge". In order to answer such an objection to the mystical origin of Sadr
al-Din's philosophy we must first address ourselves to another section of al-ikmat al-'arshiyyah's prologue. Here
Sadr al-Din says:

These are the words of... Muhammad al-Shirazi, called Sadr al-Din... This is a treatise in which I shall mention some
of the divine matters and sacred insights with which God illuminated my heart from the world of Mercy and Light.
These are insights which the thoughts of the multitude have never grasped... They are not to be acquired through the
presentation of the (narrowly rationalistic) investigators, nor by any amount of study with professors (of purely
formal learning). 19

If the reference here to the illumination of the heart is not sufficient to convince us that Sadr al-Din in speaking about a
kind of inward visionary experience of the truth which was granted to him through God's mercy and light, there is yet
further argument which can be brought to bear on this issue that mystical insight is indeed the source of his philosophy.
These arguments are to be found in the denials that he makes at the end of the quotation.

Sadr al-Din claims that the insights of which he speaks in al-ikmat al-'arshiyyah cannot be obtained through the
presentations of "the investigators" or by "study with professors". The second of these two terms refers to situations of
formalized learning, and this much is obvious from the word mu'allimin (professors), a term commonly used in classical

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Arabic to refer to teachers in university or madrasah. Therefore, the insights of Sadr al-Din are not to be obtained by
rote or the study of texts and lectures. This already suggests that these insights originate from an extra (or supra)-
conceptual source, that is to say some type of experience which is not of a purely mental order. As for the first term,
"investigators," this too presents us with evidence - negative evidence though it may be - that corroborates our thesis.
We would, however, slightly modify Professor Morris' translation of the word baithin (investigators) before we
proceed, for although this Arabic term does come from the root b--th which means "to investigate", it also means "to
discuss". The term used here, baithin, would then mean "those who are given only to discussion and debate" of
philosophical ideas without those ideas ever penetrating into their being. This is most likely why Morris adds the
parenthetic phrase "narrowly rationalistic" to his translation of baithin. The baithin are those who argue in the
philosophical sense, presenting arguments and counter-arguments. They debate without end, but they do not "become".
They do not experience insights but only skate on the surface of ideas of a never - ending bath (discussion).

This analysis suggests that Sadr al-Din does not see either the origin of his insights or the means by which others might
truly acquire them to be found in "book learning" or some type of mental acrobatics. It is clear that he feels that they are
to be acquired from a kind of experiential, not purely conceptual, form of learning. But what form of experiential
learning is he alluding to here? For that answer we must return to the first quotation on page 8 in which Sadr al-Din tells us that his
knowledge has come "from His [God's] presence".

The phrase used by Sadr al-Din, "knowledge from His presence" ('ilm min ladunnihi), is another way of stating a central
metaphysical idea in Islamic philosophy, that is the idea of what is called "presential knowledge" ('ilm uri)20.
This form of knowing derives from an existential or ontological "nearness" to that which is known. Like forms of
sensual knowing it transcends distinctions of subject and object, knowing and being, concept and existent.21 However,
'ilm uri does not actually refer to sensual knowledge. Although sensual knowing brings with it a level of
immediacy and comprehension of its "object" which is qualitatively comparable to the presential experience,
nonetheless presential knowing in Islamic philosophy refers to an ineffable spiritual union and not to sensual "union"
which must still subsist through the intermediary of earthly bodies. Presential knowledge has no intermediary because it
is what it "knows". It is this knowledge which Sadr al-Din says, in the above quotation, was bestowed upon him bringing
certainty and he adds "... a tongue to speak truthfully to those who should come after", a clear reference to his
philosophical exposition in the text of al-ikmat al-'arshiyyah itself.

We are now in a position to understand the full meaning of the title al-ikmat al-'arshiyyah (The Wisdom of the
Throne). Sadr al-Din uses this title because the book is to be an exposition of a knowledge or "wisdom" derived from
an experience of a transcendent reality. This much is clear from our discussion above concerning the source of Sadr
al-Din's insights. But it is also important that the specifically mentions the idea of the "Throne" in the title. He is
referring here to a particular level of Islamic cosmology, that is the Throne of God22. This image is drawn by Sadr
al-Din from the Qur'an itself, which speak of God's presence upon His Throne. The Throne then refers to that level of
the metacosm which is the "place" of the presence of the Divine Reality. But the Throne is not only metacosmic, it is
also microcosmic and identified with the heart of man, following upon the famous words of the Prophet of Islam, "The
heart of the believer is the throne of The Merciful One" (qalb al-mu'min 'arsh al-raman). The Throne is at once the
empyrean, beyond corporeality, and at the same time it is the noetic heart or innermost reality of man.23 For Sadr al-Din,

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it is in the experience of this unitive realm of the "Throne", where subject and object, knower and know consciousness
and Being are one, that the philosophy originates which he calls "Wisdom" (ikmah).

The basic epistemological distinction between Spinoza and Sadr al-Din as to the true origins of philosophy are now
apparently clear. For Spinoza that origin is a method or faculty of geometric reasoning carried to its ultimate
conclusions, which he calls the "second kind of cognition". Whereas for Sadr al-Din, that origin is a "faculty" which
transcends rational analysis, a unitive experience beyond "I and Thou" in which the function of logic and reasoning is
limited at best. However, if we wish to be exacting in our analysis of the perspectives of these two philosophers, it
should be noted that not only do their ideas as to the usefulness of reason in philosophy differ but so too do their very
definitions of "reason". Therefore, our contrast here between their respective valuations of reason should not be seen as
absolute but also must be judged from within their particular philosophical systems. The life of pure reason for Spinoza
ultimately belongs to God alone, whereas for Sadr al-Din the essence of God can never be "comprehended" through the
formation of reason because of the dualistic manner in which he defines reason. For Sadr al-Din reason is a purely
human category, and therefore does not belong to God. God does not know through reason. God knows through His own
being which is the very being of those things He knows.24 Whereas for Spinoza reason is actually a form of participation
in the life Divine because God himself is supremely reasonable,25 and in this sense God is "accessible" through rational
methods.26 This ultimately leaves us with two very distinct definitions of reason and thereby two very distinct roles for
reason in philosophy.

Revelation, Prophecy and Scripture

These differing definitions as to just what is reason (i.e. - divine or purely human), and its value in doing philosophy
also translate into differing views among our two philosophers as to the nature and validity of revelation, scripture and
prophecy in the philosophical enterprise. Since reason is for Spinoza that which makes the Divine accessible to man, his
general attitude toward the issue of scripture is negative, for scripture is not pure mathematical reasoning. It is a form of
practical reasoning, i.e. - a form of politics, and though practical reasoning does have a view towards God, it is
nevertheless laden with contextual limitations imagination and superstition. For Spinoza scripture is, in fact, necessitated
by the lack of reason amongst the "masses",27 that is to say, by the need to put the truths of pure reason, which were
understood intuitively by the prophets, into a language that could be comprehended by the "common folk". In this way
scriptural revelation makes use of a language of imagination which incorrectly, though necessarily, personalizes the
Divine without regard for the universal laws of reason. The result of this is that for Spinoza, scripture and prophecy do
not really have a role to play in pure philosophy. Whereas for Sadr al-Din scripture and prophecy are a double source
for true philosophy because they transcend what can be known through human reason alone and speak to that unitive
experience of the Truth, the very channel of which is revelation.

Perhaps the clearest indication of the function that revelation plays in the development of Sadr al-Din's philosophy can
be seen by returning to the first quotation on page 8. The initial words of the quote are a prayer to God in thanks for
what he has received from Him of knowledge and truth. The text then continues from there:

And may His praise be upon Muhammad, the best of those who were given wisdom (ikmah) and conclusive

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judgement (khiab), and upon his Family, who gained the most ample portion and largest share in the inheritance of
prophethood and wisdom-upon all of them the blessings of the Truly Real, the Most High!28

This quotation speaks to the function of prophecy in philosophy, and in it Sadr al-Din identifies the knowledge given to
the Prophet of Islam and his family with the very same term as he has entitled the text of al-ikmat al-'arshiyyah, that
is to say, with the term "wisdom" or ikmah. Still later in the text he speaks directly to this relationship between
philosophy, prophecy and revelation in discussing the source of his philosophical insights. Here he says,

Indeed these insights are like glowing embers lit at the Lamp-niche of Prophecy and Sainthood, drawn forth from the
sources of the Book [the Qur'an] and Prophetic Tradition.29

Such a statement needs little in the way of explanation to establish our point.

Finally, we can note in terms of methodology, that Sadr al-Din uses scripture as both justification and inspiration for
most of the ideas and arguments presented in al-ikmat al-'arshiyyah. Rarely do we encounter an entire page in the
text which does not quote a verse from the Qur'an and often multiple quotations are to be found. All this suggests that for
Sadr al-Din it is impossible to speak of his philosophy outside of a context of prophecy, scripture and revelation.

When we examine this issue within the context of Spinoza's work, however, we are presented with a very different image
of the function of revelation, prophecy and scripture in philosophy. For Spinoza, the prophetic function is tied to
imagination, cognition of the first kind, with its generally negative connotations which we saw earlier. This is clear when
he says:

The Prophets were endowed with unusually vivid imaginations, and not with unusually perfect minds... [And] Men of
great imaginative powers are less fitted for abstract reasoning, whereas those who excel in intellect and its use keep
their imagination more restrained and controlled, holding it in subjection, so to speak lest it should usurp the place of

This quotation, which is not from the Ethics but from Spinoza's other great work, the Theologico-Political Treaties,
establishes for us his general perspective on the idea of a "prophetic philosophy". Although for Spinoza what the
prophets bring is true, for he says, "Prophecy, or revelation, is sure knowledge revealed by God to man", 31 yet this
truth is couched within an imaginative language so that it might be comprehended by those "less fitted for abstract
reasoning", meaning those unable to follow geometric reason. In fact, it is perhaps because of Spinoza's ultimate
"preference" for this geometric reasoning that we find it necessary to turn to the Theologico-Political Treatise for a
concrete answer to our inquiry about his views on prophecy and revelation in philosophy. The matter is simply not
addressed in the Ethics, and this tells us something of the role, i.e. - necessary or ultimately superfluous, which he saw
for them in philosophy. Revelation, scripture and prophecy are not unimportant, and we should not make the mistake of
thinking that Spinoza saw them as a waste of time. He certainly did not!32 But he also did not see these issues as
necessarily relevant to doing philosophy per se, the proof being that in the first section of the Ethics, where he claims,
"In these propositions I have explained the nature and properties of God...", Spinoza sees no need to make any
references whatsoever to revelation, prophecy or the scriptures. As far as he is concerned, they are irrelevant to the purely

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rational philosophical project.33

On Intuition

We have thus far spoken about the first two types of cognition in Spinoza's thought: imaginative cognition - as
displayed, for instance, in the stories of Scripture, and rational cognition - the geometric structure of which is displayed
in the Ethics of Spinoza himself. We now turn our attention to the issue of intuition or what Spinoza calls scientia
intuitiva and the cognition of the third kind. According to Spinoza, this cognition is the highest form of understanding.
He comments upon it as follows:

Besides these two kinds of knowledge [of the first and second kind] there is a third... which we shall call intuition
(scientia intuitiva). Now this kind of knowing proceeds from an adequate idea of the formal essence of certain attributes
of God to the adequate knowledge of the essence of things.34

The distinction between this intuitive form of knowing and the first or imaginative form of knowing is fairly clear
because, as we have seen, the first form of cognition, or imagination, is based upon ideas which are "inadequate" to the
objects they must represent.35 Put simply, cognition of the first kind general comprises false ideas. On the other hand,
intuitive cognition comprises "adequate knowledge of the essence of things" or true ideas. The problem comes up then,
not when we attempt to distinguish between the first and third forms of cognition, but when we attempt to distinguish
between the second and third forms of cognition because here we are confronted with the fact that Spinoza says both
these forms of knowing are "adequate".36 So in what way is the second kind of cognition distinguished and/or surpassed
by the third?

In the Ethics Spinoza provides us with an answer to this question by way of an illustration of the calculation of a
mathematical problem. He says:

I shall illustrate these three [i.e. - the first, second and third kinds of cognition by one example. Let three numbers be
given to find the fourth, which is in the same proportion to the third as the second is to the first. Tradesmen without
hesitation multiply the second by the third and divide the product by the first: either because they have not forgotten the
rule which they received from the schoolmaster without any proof, or because they have often tried it with very small
numbers, or by the conviction of the proof of Prop. 19, Book VII., of Euclid's elements, namely, the common property of
proportionals. But in very small numbers there is no need of this, for when the numbers 1, 2 ,3, are given who is there
who could not see that the fourth proportional is 6? and this is much clearer because we conclude the fourth number
from the same ratio which intuitively we see the first bears to the second.37

What this example shows us is that the third form of cognition differs from the second not in the fact that it is rational or
deductive, for both forms of cognition are as such. Where these forms of cognition differ is in the "process" that is
carried out in order to arrive at their respective types of understanding. The process of the second kind of cognition is
methodical and "drawn out", illustrated by those "tradesmen [who work]... by conviction of the proof... of Euclid".
Whereas in the third form of cognition solutions or truths are understood immediately and intuitively, as H. G.
Hubbeling says, "This [third kind of cognition]... does not need long reasoning."38 and H. F. Hallett, "... it [scientia

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intuitiva] comes not from our being convinced by reasons, but from our feeling and enjoying the thing itself".39
Therefore, the distinction here is really between what we might call understanding through "becoming" and
understanding through "being". It is to this relationship between reasoning and "becoming" or time which we will now
turn to further clarify Spinoza's distinction between the second and third kinds of cognition.

The second form of cognition is a life by way of ratio, but it is a life in which rational decisions determine actions, in
which everything is measured by the "yard-stick" of reason. On the other hand, life by way of the third form of cognition
is not something "measured" or analyzed. It is not thought about discursively, it is lived reasonably. The man who
experiences life by way of the third cognition does not "reason" because what he is intuitively reasonable, as Spinoza
says "... for when the numbers 1, 2, 3 are given... who could not see that the fourth proportional is 6?" What this means
is that the distinction between the second and third kinds of cognition is not one of "reason" versus "non-reason". It is
not that the second kind of cognition is rational and the third is not, for those who work "by the conviction of the proof...
of Euclid" (the 2nd cognition) and those who know "intuitively" (the 3rd cognition) arrive at the same answer of "6",
rather, the distinguishing issue is one of "temporal reasoning" versus "non-temporal reasoning". This is what defines the
distinction between the second and third kinds of cognition.

In the second form of cognition truth is arrived at through a plodding, geometric rationality. This rationality moves from
"definitions" to "axioms" to "propositions", etc. By this reasoning falsehood and "negative ideas" are overcome through
the gradual development and application of opposing "true ideas" obtained through rational methods. But for Spinoza,
this second form of cognition ultimately takes place within an imaginary framework. This imaginary framework is the
framework of temporality or "time".40 For Spinoza, time is itself a function of imagination, a form of inadequate
thinking, because God - the one supreme substance - is beyond the vicissitudes of time. Time is only a particular mode
in which the infinite Divine substance is perceived. Therefore, time is not absolutely real, and so what is known through
a process of time, such as methodical reasoning, cannot be absolute knowledge. For this reason, the second kind of
cognition only "approaches" or "mirrors" the Divine life. It mirrors the Divine life in its rationality, but it cannot achieve
the unitive immediacy of God's understanding because of its temporal associations. Non-temporal understanding
belongs to the third kind of cognition alone, and in this form of understanding Spinoza says we know as God knows, that
is to say, instantaneously. In fact, Spinoza's comments in the Korte Verhandeling point to this distinction between the
second and third kinds of cognition. He says:

... We also see that reasoning is not the principal thing in us, but only like a staircase by which we can climb up to
the desired place, or like a good genius which, without any falsity or deception, brings us tidings of the highest
good in order thereby to stimulate us to pursue it, and to become united with it; which union is our supreme
happiness and bliss. 41

Here, that "reasoning" which is "not the principal thing in us" is a plodding, human rationality, which like an ascending
staircase goes "one step at a time". This is a reference to the second kind of cognition, whereas that "union which is our
supreme happiness and bliss" by which man may come to know the "highest good" (which is God) is really the third
kind of cognition, whose unitive and immediate nature places it beyond methodical forms of reasoning, though not
beyond reason as such. Since this third kind of cognition is really to know what God knows, for it is union with the

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"highest good", it is what Jon Wetlesen has described as Spinoza's "instantaneous liberation", an actual participation in
the supremely intuitive and rational life of God.42

When we compare this third kind of cognition/liberation with Sadr al-Din's idea of supreme realization, which we
discussed earlier, the similarities between the two philosophers are actually far more striking than the differences. It is
clear that for both men knowledge is a form of salvation or liberation, yet not just any form of knowing, but a form of
knowing which is unitive in nature, beyond the dualities of subject and object. Although Spinoza may classify the noetic
experience of this state as the most rational form of rationality and Sadr al-Din may claim that this state ultimately
transcends any kind of rationality, these distinctions, at least in terms of the ultimate goal of human life, are really
matters of semantics, not substance. Whether we define the experience of this unitive, immediate "ultimacy" as reason
in its godly form, beyond distinctions of time and duration, or whether we define it as an ineffable "expansion of the
breast" in which the heart is one with the Divine reality, the goal of unitive knowledge is the same. The goal is to know
as God knows, i.e. - to "participate" in the life Divine, and in this regard it is difficult to find anything essentially
different in what we might call the ultimate epistemological projects of these two philosophers. In fact, where their
epistemological concerns do actually translate into what we would call "real differences" is in their respective
ontological and cosmological formations. Here the impact of their particular epistemic starting points, such as Spinoza's
attempt to philosophize completely on the basis of reason and Sadr al-Din's reliance on spiritual experiences and the
scripture of the Qur'an, greatly transform the types of cosmologies and ontologies that they propose.

II. Ontology

The ontological conceptions of Spinoza and Sadr al-Din differ due to their respective epistemic starting points, i.e.
-rationality versus Islamic mysticism. For Spinoza, as we have already had occasion to mention, there is only one true
substance and that is the Divine substance. This Divine substance is completely self-caused while everything else in
reality is simply a mode or attribute of it. Nothing else other than this one substance is completely real for nothing other
than it is completely itself. Therefore, for Spinoza all of the world is a kind of illusion. The world essentially is nothing
more than infinite combinations of particular perceptions of the one real substance, and this conclusion follows logically
from the general project of Spinoza's philosophy which was to take Aristotle to his logical limits by being rationally
exacting in the reworking of the Aristotelian definition of "substance".43 The result of this project and of Spinoza's
definition of substance was, cosmologically or ontologically speaking, to philosophize a world of illusion, to negate
reality from the cosmos by rational deduction from the very definition of substance itself. The Spinozan episteme of
strict rationality is, therefore, the source of his particular kind of ontological negation of cosmic existence.

With Sadr al-Din the issue of ontology is dealt with, not from a rationalist point of view, but from the point of view of a
kind of mystical/Qur'anic doctrine of creation. As we have mentioned, the epistemological starting point of Sadr al-Din's
thought is not "reason" but an experience, an "unveiling" of the inner nature of reality, and it is from this experience,
informed already by a background of Qur'anic ideas as to the relationship between God and the world, that he
formulates his ontological position. Sadr al-Din mentions this experiential source of his ontology in his Kitab
al-masha'ir (The Book of Metaphysical Penetrations). Here he says:

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In the earlier days I was a defender of the thesis of the principiality of quiddity and the i'tibari [mentally constructed]
nature of existence, until God provided me with guidance and permitted me to witness His demonstration. All of a
sudden my spiritual eyes were opened and I was able to see the truth of the matter was [to the] contrary... Praise be to
God who by means of the light of illumination guided me out of the darkness of the baseless idea (of the principiality of
quiddity) and established the thesis (of the principiality of existence) firmly within me, a thesis which will never change
in this world or the next. As a result (of this experience), (I now believe that) the existences are realities. While the
quiddities... have never smelt the fragrance of existence. The existences are nothing but rays of light, radiated by the
true Light which is absolutely self-subsistent Being...44

Here we see quite clearly how the mystical episteme of Sadr al-Din's philosophy shapes his ontological perspective,
such that he claims - by way of this mystical experience - that there is something called "existence" per se. The word
translated as "existence" in the above quotation is the Arabic word "wujd", and within the context of the quote it
refers to something like the Medieval Scholastic notion of "being" or esse. Sadr al-Din's experience confirms for him the
"reality", as well as "principiality", of this "being" or "existence", and furthermore, it also confirms for him that this
"being" is graded or hierarchical, like the intensities or "rays of light" of which he speaks. Through these insights as to
the "illuminative" character of being, Sadr al-Din shapes an ontological perspective which speaks of the unity,
principiality and gradation of all being,45 from the Divine Essence to the angels to men to the dust of the earth. But for
Sadr al-Din, being is not only as we have just described it. Drawing upon Qur'anic imagery, Sadr al-Din also claims that
this "being" is something which is in constant motion (below the level of the Divine archetypes). He calls this motion
al-arakah al-jawhariyyah or the movement of substance, and he cites certain Qur'anic verses as proof texts and
illustrations of this movement in being, such as "Verily, We [God] shall inherit the earth and those who are upon it, and
to us they are (even now) returning" [19:40] and "... you see the mountains, considering them solid, but they are passing by
like the floating of clouds" [22:88].46

According to Sadr al-Din, it is through this movement in being that the realm of the Eternal is related to the world of
change47, and therefore for him, reality at the cosmic level is not only graded but is also moving, flowing and changing.
Through the motion of being the cosmos itself is shifting intensities of that reality which is none other than being
(wujd), and this idea makes for a very different cosmology from that presented in Spinoza's philosophy, in which the
cosmos is seen as "illusion", not "being".

The manner in which these cosmological perspectives differ is that for Spinoza there is no reality of "being" per se. The
cosmos is simply an infinite number of modes of the one substance, but there is no actually real "thing" we call "being"
running through these modes and their changing relationships. In fact, any such idea or "reality" would only be itself
another of the infinite modes or attributes of ultimate substance, not an ultimate ontological structure undergirding the
cosmos. But Sadr al-Din holds an opposite perspective, based upon the experience of the illumination or unveiling of
the heart and the witness provided in the Qur'an. He says that all things are "composed" of the reality of being, all things
are grades of the supreme light of the Being of God, and therefore there is a "hidden reality" which is the basis of
ontology and which underlies cosmic manifestation. Furthermore, through the idea of al-arakah al-jawhariyyah Sadr
al-Din says that this reality of being is also the source of the motions of the cosmos. Whereas for Spinoza, since by
definition substance does not act in the cosmos, it cannot be the source of its motion.

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It is interesting to note that despite these radically different views of ontology and cosmology, both men created
philosophical systems which divorced themselves from the prevalent cosmological perspectives of their day. Spinoza's
method of pure rationality had no particular regard for the generally accepted Aristotelian/Ptolemaic cosmological
schema of levels and movements of heavenly spheres. The reason being, even if these levels and movements were
actually true, they were still just modes of substance with the corresponding illusory nature of such modes. Not only
was Spinoza's philosophy able to successfully divorce itself in this manner from a dependence upon the "old"
cosmology, but it was also able to integrate the challenging developments of the "new" cosmology, of Galileo, Newton
and others, by claiming that whatever is rationally proven is, to that extent, valid and reveals a certain aspect of infinite
substance itself. In this sense, Spinoza produced a philosophy with an "open-ended" cosmological perspective, which
could both cast-off false theories and integrate new theories that could be rationally proven as scientific studies
progressed. In the case of Sadr al-Din we see a similar kind of result but by different means. Through his
mystical/Qur'anic doctrine of al-arakah al-jawhariyyah, the substantial motion of being, he freed his philosophy from
any need of the external supports of the Aristotelian/Ptolemaic cosmology. He managed this by his ontological claim
that it is in the nature of being (wujd) itself to change and flow, i. e. - that motion in the world is not due to the effects
of "heavenly spheres" upon the "sublunary region" of the cosmos but is, in fact, due to the ontological state of cosmic
manifestation itself, whose very nature is to move and change, just as it in the nature of water to be wet or light to
illumine. Therefore, through these radically different ontological and cosmological perspectives, based upon opposing
epistemologies, these two men did actually achieve a certain similar end, namely the independence of philosophy from
the Aristotelian/Ptolemaic world view. For Spinoza this was achieved through the purely rational definition of substance
itself, which enabled him to reject traditional notions of "being" or esse. Whereas for Sadr al-Din, this was achieved
through a visionary expansion of the very definition of being, such that it included motion.

In conclusion, the philosophies of Spinoza and Sadr al-Din are distinguished most clearly by their epistemological
starting points, i.e. - "reason" versus "Qur'anic/mystical vision". But despite these differences, both Spinoza and Sadr
al-Din epistemologically arrive at very similar conclusions as to the essence of knowledge itself, which is ultimately
based upon "union". On the other hand, when we turn to the subject of ontology, strangely enough, the distinct epistemes
of Spinoza and Sadr al-Din entail a common opposition to Medieval cosmology, but this common opposition actually
masks an underlying fundamental disagreement as to the very nature of cosmic reality, namely "illusion" versus "being".


1. Nasr, Seyyed Hossein, "Sadr al-Din Shirazi (Mulla Sadra)" in A History of Muslim Philosophy, Vol. II (Wiesbaden, Otto Harrassowitz,
1966), p. 959.

2. Nasr, Seyyed Hossein, Religion and the Order of Nature (New York, Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 170-171.

3. Nasr, Seyyed Hossein, "Mulla Sadra: his teachings" in History of Islamic Philosophy, Part I (New York, Routledge, 1996), p.644.

13 of 16 3/16/2012 7:33 PM Bank/Comparative St...

4. Nasr, Seyyed Hossein, Sadr al-Din Shirazi and his Transcendent Theosophy (Tehran, Imperial Iranian Academy of Philosophy,
1978), p. 41.

5. Shirazi, Sadr al-Din, The Wisdom of the Throne (trans. by James Morris of al-ikmat al-'arshiyyah), Princeton University

Press, p. 55.

6. Roth, Leon, Spinoza, Descartes and Maimonides (New York, Russell and Russell, 1963). p. 43.

7. Spinoza, Baruch, Spinoza's Ethics (trans. by Andrew Boyle of the Ethica), Everyman's Library, p. 35.

8. Ibid., p. 68.

9. Ibid., p. 71.

10. Samuelson, Norbert M., An Introduction to Modern Jewish Philosophy (Albany, State University of New York Press, 1989), p.130.

11. Ethica I, app. as translated by Leon Roth in Spinoza, Descartes and Maimonides, p. 43.

12. Hampshire, Stuart, Spinoza (Baltimore, Penguin Books Ltd., 1962), p. 21.

13. Roth, Leon, Spinoza, Descartes and Maimonides, pp. 43-44.

14. Ibid., p. 44.

15. Hampshire, Stuart, Spinoza, pp. 22-23.

16. Nasr, Seyyed Hossein, Sadr al-Din Shirazi and his Transcendent Theosophy, p. 56.

17. Shirazi, Sadr al-Din, The Wisdom of the Throne, p. 91.

18. Ibid.,p. 89.

19. Ibid., pp. 90-91.

20. For a study which traces the history of this idea in the development of Islamic philosophy see Yazdi, Mehdi Ha'iri, The Principles
of Epistemology in Islamic Philosophy: Knowledge by Presence (Albany, State University of New York Press, 1992).

21. Shirazi, Sadr al-Din, The Wisdom of the Throne, p. 89, note 2.

22. Ibid., p. 61.

23. Ibid., p.61.

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24. Ibid., p. 99. Sadr al-Din says here, "Thus it is known that every thing of which something that has being may be negated is not
absolutely Simple in its essential reality. And the converse is likewise true: all that which is Simple in Its essential reality can have
nothing that has being negated of It... So now it has been established that the Simple (Being) [or God] is all existent things with

respect to their being and perfection... And by this it is established that His knowledge of all existent things is Simple Knowledge...
For all things in Him are included in His knowledge in a higher and more perfect way, since knowledge is (only) an expression for

25. Samuelson, Norbert M., An Introduction to Modern Jewish Philosophy, p. 120.

26. Donagan, Alan, Spinoza (New York, Harvester - Wheatsheaf, 1988), p. 21. Donagan says,"...natural science is theology [for

Spinoza], at least in its fundamental principles; and God's essence is accessible to the natural light of human reason."

27. Samuelson, Norbert M., An Introduction to Modern Jewish Philosophy, p. 129.

28. Shirazi, Sadr al-Din, The Wisdom of the Throne, p. 89.

29. Ibid., p. 91.

30. Spinoza, Baruch, The Chief Works of Benedict De Spinoza, vol. I (trans. by R. H. M. Elwes of the Theologico-Political Treatise),

Dover Publications Inc., p. 27.

31. Ibid., p. 13.

32. See Harris, Errol E., Spinoza's Philosophy: An Outline (London, Humanities Press, 1992), pp. 109-110, where he says of Spinoza's
attitude toward religion, "Those who cannot follow...reasoning may, nevertheless, be led to embrace its conclusions through faith

inspired by imaginative representations of God [i.e. - common religious practices and doctrines]..."

33. As Spinoza says in chapter XIII of the Theologico-Political Treatise, "... I do not wish to affirm absolutely that Scripture contains no
doctrines in the sphere of philosophy...but I go so far as to say that such doctrines are very few and very simple."

34. Spinoza, Baruch, Spinoza' Ethics (trans. by Andrew Boyle of the Ethica), Everyman's Library,p.68

35. Ibid., p. 69.

36. Ibid., p. 69.

37. Ibid., pp. 68-69.

38. Hubbeling, H. G., Spinoza's Methodology (Assen, Royal VanGorcum Ltd., 1967), p. 14.

39. Hallett, H. F., Benedict De Spinoza: The Elements of His Philosophy (London, The Athlone Press, 1957), p. 76.

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40. See Wolfson, H. A., The Philosophy of Spinoza, vol. I (New York, Meridian Books, Inc., 1960), p. 356 where he says that for
Spinoza "... time is merely a mode of thinking or, rather, of imagining."

41. As translated in Wetlesen, Jon, The Sage and The Way (Assen, Royal VanGorcum, 1979), p. 321.

42. Ibid., pp 303 - 321.

43. Samuelson, Norbert M., An Introduction to Modern Jewish Philosophy, pp. 116-117.

44. Qajar Iran: Political, Social and Cultural Change (1800 - 1925), eds. E. Bosworth and C. Hillenbrand, p. 187.

45. Nasr, seyyed Hossein, "Sadr al-Din Shirazi (Mulla Sadra)" in A History of Muslim philosophy, Vol. II (Wiesbaden, Otto
Harrassowitz, 1966), pp. 942 - 943.

46. Shirazi, Sadr al-Din, The Metaphysics of Mulla Sadra (trans. by Parviz Morewedge of the Kitab al-masha'ir), The Institute for

Cultural Studies, p. 80.

47. Ibid., p. 81.

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