The Principles of Philosophy and the Method of Realism | Summary of Article 1 [What is Philosophy?]

The Principles of Philosophy and the Method of Realism (Usul-i falsafeh va ravesh-i ri’alism) is one of ‘Allāmah Ṭabāṭabā’ī’s most important works. It is a result of several private discussion circles organized by ‘Allāmah himself where numerous scholars from different backgrounds would attend. In total, the work is a collection of 14 different articles that ‘Allāmah would initially write out himself and then present it to the students, subsequently opening up discussions on pertinent matters. Later, an extensive commentary was written on each of these articles by Shahīd Muṭahharī and the work was published.

The book can be divided into two general categories. The first section concerns epistemology and consists of six articles:

1) What is philosophy, 2) Philosophy and Sophistry; 3) Knowledge and Perception; 4) Value of Knowledge; 5) Multiplicity; 6) Mentally Posited Perception (al-idrākāt al-i’tibārīyyah)

The second section concerns the philosophy of existence, and consists of the following articles:

7) Reality and Existence of Things, 8) Necessity and Contingency, 9) Cause and Effect, 10) Potentiality and Actuality, 11) Pre-Eternity and Createdness, 12) Unity and Multiplicity, 13) Quiddity, Substance and Accidents, 14) God and Related Matters

Interestingly the Arabic translation of this work and Shahīd Sadr’s work Falsaftuna were written in the same year, and both of works were writing and addressing the materialists – Dialectical Marxists.

What follows below are summary notes I’ve made from lessons given on the work for the first article and its commentary, titled What is Philosophy? God willing, summaries of subsequent articles will also be published once they are edited. This is not a translation of the actual text.1

In the first article, ‘Allāmah is not attempting to define philosophy per say like it is traditionally done at the beginning of every subject. Instead, he is trying to establish the mere fact that philosophy exists as a subject and that it enjoys its own independence.

His main argument for the necessity for philosophy is that it is an innate (fiṭrī) need. That is to say, humans have an innate need to understand the world they are living in, particularly when they realize that not all realities are of the same nature. In the most general sense, humans perceive three types of existents:

  1. Actual Realities (ḥaqā’iq) – these are existents that have instances in extramental reality.
  2. Constructs (i’tibārīyāt) – these are existents that do not have an extramental reality, rather the intellect creates and superimposes an instance for them in the external world. Consider the concepts of “soldiers” and an “army”. What you have in the external world are individual soldiers, but the intellect abstracts the concept of “army” from these soldiers and superimposes its existence in the external world, even though truly there is no such thing as an “army” in the external world. There are only individual soldiers.
  3. Estimations (wahmīyāt) – these existents have no instances in extramental reality and neither does the intellect superimpose an instance for them through constructs.

In philosophy, we are essentially trying to differentiate between these three perceptions – especially between actual and constructed realities. Hence, one of the purposes then of philosophy is to establish the subject-matter for other reflective sciences that discuss actual realities, such as medicine and theology. This was the general meaning of philosophy before the European Middle Ages. During the Middle Ages, the Europeans brought in certain constructed sciences – like grammar and language – under the domain of philosophy as well. However, by the 18th and 19th century, two distinct schools began to develop:

1) Positivism: The positivists argued that what one calls philosophy is nothing but a way of thinking, so if someone wants to discuss bodies they should discuss them in medicine, if someone wants to discuss chemicals then they should discuss them in chemistry and so on. This resulted in the differentiation and specialization of the different sciences. What ultimately remained were some universal propositions that would historically have been used in logical syllogism and did not originate through induction – hence they could not be tested via experimentation. These were classified as metaphysical propositions.

When the positivists separated metaphysics from the rest of the sciences, they then attacked the former from two aspects. Firstly, they argued that logical syllogism is useless since it does not give us anything new since the conclusion is already in the premises, and since metaphysical propositions were based on logical syllogism, it devalued these propositions. They essentially attacked the methodology of philosophy. Secondly, they attacked the subject-matter of philosophy and said that any proposition which could not be tested is not a proposition to begin with, it has no meaning, it is not true or false and it has no practical consequences.

The above claims are a part of what ‘Allāmah is going to respond to in this first article. He wants to demonstrate that philosophy actually exists as a valid science and that it is meaningful.

2) Dialectic Materialists (Marxists): They accepted philosophy and had no issues with it, but they claimed that philosophy and natural science are two sides of the same coin. They said philosophy is the study of the conclusions that one arrives at in other sciences, especially the natural sciences. For example, chemistry gives us a conclusion, biology gives us a conclusion and physics gives us a conclusion. The task of philosophy is to asses all the conclusions from the physical/natural sciences collectively.

In other words, their claim was that philosophical universal conclusions technically originate from the particular conclusions of the other sciences. They also claimed that philosophy studies the connections between all these sciences and how they are networked together. Finally, they claimed that philosophy investigates the methodologies of different sciences.

The conclusion of their position was that philosophy was an ever-changing subject since it was dependent on the conclusions of the natural sciences. In other words, the natural sciences were always changing, so was philosophy. Hence, they were called dialectical. This is contrary to what is understood in Islamic philosophy, which is, that it enables us to arrive at universally true conclusions that are not subject to change.

‘Allāmah Ṭabāṭabā’ī, Shahīd Muṭahharī and Shahīd Ṣadr all respond to the Dialectics in their own way. Part of what they say is that we do not agree with the Greeks and the early Muslim philosophers who understood philosophy to be any subject that studies Actual Realities in a reflective manner. They also did not agree with the definition given during the European Middle Ages. Instead, they said philosophy is the study of absolute existence, its accidental attributes, its effects and its rules. In essence, the topic of discussion was narrowed down to pure existence. ‘Allāmah says no matter what else you decide to study and investigate, whether it is from the Actual Realities (like body in medicine), or Constructed (like a word in grammar), or Estimated, one must presume and take for granted (aṣl mawḍū’) that there is an existent (mawjūd). It is this existent that we intend on studying in philosophy.

As per this specific definition, philosophy becomes the mother of all sciences. Since philosophy is the mother of all sciences, the existence of all other sciences is established through it. It is similar to the relationship theology has with jurisprudence, since only after theological discussions and conclusions can jurisprudence come into existence.

Unfortunately, in the West, the trajectory led them to become vehemently anti-philosophy, but ‘Allāmah, Shahīd Muṭahharī and Shahīd Ṣadr are trying to argue for the usefulness of philosophy. These scholars do not outright deny that natural sciences do not help philosophy,2 but rather they only help in developing a form (ṣūrah) of your premises. Given all this, ‘Allāmah and Shahīd Muṭahharī mention three main conclusions:

1. Philosophy exists, it is not an estimation or a delusion as the Positivists think. There is an innate need in humans to differentiate between the different types of perceptions they have and there is also a need to establish the subject-matter of other sciences.

2. Philosophy is independent of other sciences, unlike what the Marxists think. Not only is it independent and there is no interference between it and any other sciences, rather it is a preliminary to other sciences. There is not one single matter and issue of philosophical discussion that is discussed in another science. Yes, the subject-matter can be the same in different sciences, only discussed from different perspectives, but the issue cannot be the same. This, of course, opens up a question for us: What is the difference between the different sciences based on? Is it based on something Actual or Constructed? Those who say the difference is based on something Actual are themselves divided into three camps:

  1. The subject-matter of the science
  2. The methodology – rational, grammatical, textual, inductive etc.
  3. The purpose – for example, the purpose of Logic is to prevent mistakes in one’s thought process

‘Allāmah says the difference is based on the subject matter. The subject-matter of philosophy is absolute existence, while other sciences restrict this existence to a certain aspect. For example, medicine also studies existence but from the perspective of it being a material body.

It appears that ‘Allāmah and Sh. Muṭahharī were aware of the Marxist critique who said Islamic philosophy is stagnant, it does not change, that the same conclusions you arrived at a 1000 years ago, are the very same conclusions you arrive at today – minus a few additions and subtractions. ‘Allamah will respond to this in Article 4 – where he will discuss the meaning of evolution or perfection of knowledge and perfection of reality – but to put it in brief, the reason for this is that philosophy is based on axioms (badīhīyyāt), but other sciences are based on presumptions, reflective propositions (naẓariyyat) and experimentation which are always open to change. Philosophy only changes in cases where the minor premise (ṣughta) is a non-philosophical premise and that minor-premise happens to change. Therefore, we do not say philosophy changes, rather the minor-premise changes.

3. Every science needs philosophy – but philosophy is not in need of them.

Someone may say why does it really matter – when I study medicine, I am not concerned with knowing all these details of existence, I am studying existence from a very different perspective and that is from the perspective that it is a material body. Even if we were to say this material body does not really exist, I will simply be pragmatic about it and go with it regardless. Even if someone does say this, there is still one need that every science will always have and that is the ability to generalize and universalize their conclusions. Philosophy in its general meaning (which includes epistemology) will give them the justification to do this generalization.

4. No other science can critique it. For example, in medicine someone may say we studied the idea of perception and determined how the brain works, there is nothing metaphysical about it. Philosophy can come and say it is far more complicated than that and it most definitely is metaphysical. Science cannot say that is not true, we saw with our own eyes how perception is working. Philosophy will simply reply back by saying the existent you are dealing with is a material existent, hence you cannot make a judgement regarding an immaterial existence – whereas our existent is more general and we can make a judgement for both material and immaterial existents.

In conclusion, ‘Allamah’s method in this whole discussion has been the following:

Existence of philosophy –> Independence of philosophy –> Need of philosophy –> No other science can critique it


  1. As far as I have heard, apparently the work is currently being translated.
  2. See for example Shaykh Miṣbāḥ’s discussion in his work Philosophical Instructions.

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