Knowledge by Presence

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A. Capability of “Self” in Knowing, directly
The fundamental principle upon which Suhrawardi’s ishraqi epistemology is based is that the “self” is capable of knowing certain things directly and without mediation by virtue of its very presence Man, Suhrawardi says, can know himself only through himself, and that which is other than himself cannot used to arrive at the knowledge of the self. He offers several arguments to prove that the self the ability to know directly and without any mediation, beginning with the knowledge of the self.

The question Suhrawardi poses, how does the self know itself? It is precisely the answer to this question which constitutes the core of his ishraq epistemology, and it can be formulated as follows: There is special mode of cognition which attains knowledge directly and without mediation, thereby transcending the subject/ object distinction. This mode of cognition, which has come to be called “knowledge by presence” ( al-ilm al-huduri), is as I will demonstrate, the only plausible explanation as to how the self can know itself.

The arguments that Suhrawardi offers in support of his claim that the self only know itself by virtue of the very presence of itself are expressed by Suhrawardi through his writings in two different styles. In his Persian writings, which I have discussed in the previous chapter, this view is expressed symbolically, whereas in his other works, especially in his tetralogical works, he is more philosophical.

B. Real knowledge, as an ontological issue
The significance of the present discussion for Suhrawardi mysticism lies in the concept that true knowledge, and for that matter the foundation of knowledge, is an ontological issue (i.e. presence) as opposed to an epistemological one, Knowledge is a question that is directly related to the question of being and existence and not an abstract epistemological issue. Furthermore, Suhrawardi’s argument implies that certainty depends on the direct nature of the epistemic relationship between the subject and the object.

Mysticsm in general as reflected in the perennial tradition, Sophia perennis, and in particular in the Sufi tradition, for Suhrawardi is distinguished from other tradition of wisdom by the directness of the experience of the knower of the known. The higher the statue of the knower, ontologically speaking, the more intense and direct is the experience. Suhrawardi offers three arguments to prove that the self can only know itself through the reality of its presence.

The following three arguments:
1) Argument from “I/It” Dichotomy
2) Argument from Pre-cognitive mode of knowledge
3) Argument from attributes

C. Conclusion
Having demonstrated in the argument that the self cannot be known by anything else except itself and that it is only through the sheer presence of the reality of the self that the knowledge of the self becomes possible, Suhrawardi goes on to conclude the following:

You cannot be absent from yourself (dhatika), and from your realization of it, and since awareness is not possible through representation or super –addition, in your awareness of yourself you only need yourself which is visible to itself and not absent from itself, and nothing else. The awareness of the self itself must be by itself and cannot be absent from it such as the organs of the heart, the liver, and the brain, and all matter and material darkness and light is not implied in your awareness of yourself. You self – awareness is not an organ nor is it materiality and unless you are absent from it, you have awareness of yourself, continuously and permanently.

Two conclusions can be drawn from Suhrawardi’s theory of knowledge by presence. First and foremost is that the self can only be known by itself, and therefore, to know a thing is equivalent to gaining knowledge of an object so that the relationship between the object and self is the same as the relationship between the self and itself.

The second conclusion is that whatever is not known through the presence of the self is therefore beyond the epistemic domain of the self. Consequently, gaining certainty with regard to those objects that are beyond the epistemic domain of the self is not possible.


suhrawardi and illumination school


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