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Self-Awareness in Islamic Philosophy: Avicenna and Beyond

  • Book Title:
 Self Awareness In Islamic Philosophy Avicenna And Beyond
  • Book Author:
Avicenna, Jari Kaukua
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The Western world revolves around the self. A sure sign of this is the proliferation of various neologisms in, for instance, folk psychological, alternative therapeutic or economic parlance. We are all familiar with various self-help programmes, self-counselling sessions, prospects of self-development, self-transcendence or self-realization, the conscientious consumer’s need of occasional self-compassion, and the rational economic man’s guiding principle of self-interest.

This general cultural trend has its parallels in philosophy and various other disciplines in the humanities and the social sciences. For the past decades, self-consciousness or self-awareness has been a constant concern of philosophers of mind, with the fact of first-personal, self-aware qualitative experience presenting arguably the most obstinate obstacle for the naturalist explanation of all and everything.

Questions of perceived and constructed identity, or identities, have generated a thriving academic industry, with no recession in the foreseeable future. Indeed, modernity and post-modernity are often defined precisely by means of the novel notions of selfhood or individual identity (or the dissolution thereof) to which these epochs are alleged witnesses.

As a result of the sustained interest in selfhood, the term ‘self’, as well as the related psychological terms such as ‘self-awareness’ or ‘self-consciousness’, is a nodal point of both complementary and conflicting intuitions, interests and convictions. It is therefore not a surprise that the term is extremely ambiguous, and that there are in fact a number of more or less distinct concepts of self; a recent enumeration of variants in the philosophical scene alone finds no less than thirty-two different epithets used to characterize the self((Strawson 2009, 18)).

These concepts range from extremely narrow notions of subjectivity as a structural feature of all experience to consider-ably more complex concepts of the self as a narrative or socially constructed entity; some are motivated by epistemological interests while others emerge from research in genetic psychology, sociology or anthropology.

On the other hand, extended cases have been made for the thesis that a coherent naturalistic ontology can do without anything like the self, which at best is an arguably useful psychological or cultural fiction, but more often a hopelessly entangled web of linguistic and conceptual confusions ((Cf. Kenny 1988 and 1999; Dennett 1991; Olson 1998; Metzinger 2003 and 2011)).

Such heated activity about the self-places the historian of ideas, particularly one working with a period and cultural context far removed from our own, face to face with a set of thorny questions. These arise first of all from the ambiguity of the term ‘self’ and the corresponding vagueness of the concept of self. Which of the many alternative selves are we investigating?


What type of self-awareness are we scanning the historical material for? Are we describing the development of a psychological entity, writing the history of an epistemic question or an ethical dilemma, or telling the story of a conceptual fiction? Other questions seem even more serious: is it not rather suspect to set out straightforwardly to study the history of a topic so loaded with contemporary interest?

Even if we were able to dispel the ambiguity about the self, why should we suppose that thinkers in a period and cultural context distant from ours were interested in it in the first place? Indeed, if interest in the self is constitutive to modernity, should we rather not assume that any sustained discussion about it is unlikely to have taken place before that particular epoch?


Worries of this sort are by no means exclusive to conscientious historians. Spurred by the ghosts of colonial history, the sociological and anthropological theses of the unimaginable variety of human intellectual and social life have penetrated our cultural consciousness and made us particularly sensitive to the diverse values, beliefs, convictions and experiences that people in different cultural contexts can hold and recognize.

Indeed, this conviction of the variability of human being is pivotal to the post-modern idea that human selves or identities are constructed out of elements, many of which are not determined by our species but are rather open to all sorts of active interference by ourselves or by various forces in the cultural and social contexts of our lives. As tantalizing as it may initially seem to study an ancient Greek thinker’s or a seventeenth-century Iranian philosopher’s respective theories of the self, the first question to ask is why we can legitimately expect him even to recognize the entity.

In the following, my intention is not to start from any particular contemporary concept of the self or self-awareness. For this reason, it would be topsy-turvy to start off by describing the focus of our investigation

in specific terms. Rather, I will begin by reconstructing a particular way of describing and conceiving of the self and self-awareness that emerges explicitly for the first time in Islamic philosophy in the psychological writings of Avicenna (d. 1037).

Having laid this basis, I will proceed to study the development of this particular description and concept, as well as that of the arguments applied in its articulation, in the thought of Avicenna’s most illustrious successors, down to the revisionist philosophical system of Mullā ·Sadrā (d. 1635/6) in the seventeenth century CE. The point is to start from the way in which our authors describe, organize and classify their experience, asking why they chose to pay attention to this particular aspect of human experience, and what role the concept and the phenom-enon of self-awareness played in their thought.


To anticipate the story this approach will yield, it is illuminating to make a heuristic distinction between the phenomenology and the meta-physics of the self and self-awareness.

To borrow Galen Strawson’s succinct demarcation, ‘Metaphysics … is the general study of how things are or can be or must be. It’s a matter for scientists and mathematicians as well as philosophers, and I take it to include physics as an evolving part. Phenomenology is the study of a particular part of how things are or can be or must be. It’s the general study of the character of experience in all its sensory and cognitive richness ((Strawson 2009, 1)).’

Thus, the metaphysics of the self (or self-awareness) concerns the question of what sort of entity (or event, state or capacity) it is in reality, whether such things as selves really exist in the first place, and if so, whether they are anything like they initially seem to be.

In contemporary terms, the paradigmatic question to ask is whether our naturalistic framework of explanation needs such entities as selves at all, or whether we can explain them away by reductive recourse to something more foundational.

But even if we adopt a reductionist metaphysical stance towards the self, we need not deny its persistence on the level of phenomenology.

If it is an undeniable fact that people are aware of themselves in some sense, and if this is all we mean by their having selves, then the phenomenological level is a matter of discussion of how to describe the phenomenon. We can make positive assertions about the phenomenon without committing either to realism about a corresponding thing or to the denial thereof; in Strawson’s words, there can be self-experiences on the phenomenological level (perhaps even consensus about

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