The Principles of Philosophy and the Method of Realism | Summary of Article 2 [Philosophy and Sophistry]

Before a summary of the second article in The Principles of Philosophy and the Method of Realism (Usul-i falsafeh va ravesh-i ri’alism) titled Philosophy and Sophistry, a brief overview of three groups is important to note:

1) The Sophists: They have existed since 5th century BC, much before the likes of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. They had a habit of coming up with questions about the world, for example, whether it is fixed or in motion, and were known for their skills in disputation (jadal). The purpose of disputation was not to arrive at reality and truth. Since they would engage in a lot of disputation, this eventually led to the creation of many schools of philosophy who would attempt to respond to these questions in various ways. Numerous schools of philosophy were formed as a result and this was normal since these discussions were not very clear at the time. Within the multiple groups, a group of scholars came to say we create reality and what we say is true or false. These groups of scholars were actually known as philosophers and what they were essentially saying is that there is no true and real knowledge

Protagoras (d. 411 BC) and Gorgias (d. 375 BC) were two influential sophists. Gorgias would say there are there degrees of sophistry:

  1. There is no reality = Skepticism
  2. There is no way to reach reality = Relativism
  3. There is no way to share your knowledge of reality = Hermeneutics

In response to this, Socrates put forth his philosophy and also called himself a lover of wisdom (philosopher). He attacked the Sophists and questioned how they could call themselves philosophers given their denial of reality. Aristotle eventually came and organized these teachings and systemized them. He did this to differentiate between reality and fallacies and all of this was a response to the Sophists.

A third group of philosophers would say we only deny the possibility of knowledge. They said they are not Sophists since they do not deny reality, but we are not philosophers like Aristotle either since we cannot say there is a reality – these people were skeptics.1 They would say senses make mistakes and they also attacked Aristotle’s syllogism by saying we doubt the very principles of syllogism themselves.

2) The Idealists: The word idea comes from sight and seeing. The Dialectical Materialists would use this term a lot and would say Aristotle was also an Idealist – but they committed a fallacy here since the meaning of “Ideas” changed over time. Aristotle believed in Ideas but would say our senses are connected to material things in the external world, but your knowledge is not connected to them since the external world is material and ceases to exist. He says since a person’s soul is prior to their body, then when senses connect to the material world, the soul was already connected to the universals of that instance and when the body connects to these entities, the soul is reminded of that which it saw in its universal form. The universal has an existence and it also has instances in external reality. In other words, Aristotle believed in external reality, hence he cannot be called an Idealist in the sense we are going to be speaking about and the way the Dialectics attributed to him.

Idealism in our discussion means that there is no external reality, there is nothing outside of our mind. All you have is an idea or an image in the mind. This is why ‘Allāmah puts Idealism equal to sophistry and Philosophy equal to existence.

Two influential Idealists were George Berkely (d. 1753) and Arthur Schopenhauer (d. 1860). The latter believed one’s will is what has real existence. Berkeley, on the other hand, was a materialist and later became one of the biggest proponents of Idealism. He was severely against Descartes. He would say, for something to “exist” means for something to be perceived (to have a taṣawwur) or something that perceives (the nafs). He denied the existence of substance (jawhar) and even matter (mādah) because you cannot physically see it, rather all you can see are the conceptions of the apparent things (i.e. accidental attributes). Despite this, he would not call himself a Sophist since he would say he does not deny reality and existence, rather that his definition of existence differs.

Despite this, Berkeley still wondered about what makes these conceptions come to mind. He had no solution to this except saying God. In essence he believed in a perceiver, a perceived entity, and God.

3) The Realist: The concept of realism itself has different possible meanings:

– One meaning is that there is an external reality as opposed to sophistry and idealism.

– A second meaning is in opposition to Nominalism which questions the existence of universals (in external and mental reality). Another group of Nominalists said that universals exist, but not independently, rather dependently (wujūb ṭāb’ī / wujūd ma’ al-fard).2 Realists like Aristotle said universals exist and they exist independently.

– A third meaning of Realism is reality as depicted in non-fiction literature, as opposed to fictional literature which uses imaginary and made-up concepts.

Summary of Article 2

With the very brief overview given above, we will see how ‘Allāmah Ṭabāṭabā’ī attempts to prove existence and realism. This second article is divided into three parts:

1) Proving Realism, 2) Refutation of Idealism, and 3) A Reinterpretation of Realism and Idealism

1) Proving Realism

‘Allāmah Ṭabāṭabā’ī’s main argument to prove reality is that it is fiṭrī. By fiṭrī he does not mean innate knowledge which accompanies you when you are born. What ‘Allāmah means by fiṭrī is that it is axiomatic (badīhī), such that no one disagrees on the fact that external reality is there. If it exists, then that means philosophy exists.

However, we realize that there were philosophers who denied external existence, so how can be axiomatic? He says, at the end of the day they live in accordance with reality, they do not eat from their ears and do not hear from their eyes, this is because external reality exists, and that existence has laws and they are forced to behave in accordance with those laws. They grew up believing this, and they did not doubt this axiomatic knowledge when they were growing up. In fact, even after they became Idealists, deep down they were still Realists because they believe there is someone out there to whom they are responding to and discussing with and so on.

When we look at the four different descriptions of Idealism, we will see there are flaws with each of them:

1) Those that say there is no reality at all: we say, who is saying this negative proposition? This proposition itself is a thought and it exists.

2) Those that say we do not have knowledge of reality: this is a little less extreme than the previous proposition, but the problem is the use of “we” which means they at the very least knowledge of their own existence.

3) Those that say there is no external reality outside of our thoughts: like what Berkeley says.

4) Those that say we do not have knowledge of external reality outside of our thoughts: this is what became a popular view.

‘Allāmah points out that all of these individuals are essentially denying knowledge of external reality, not reality itself. Furthermore, ‘Allāmah acknowledges we have no evidence to logically demonstrate external reality since it is axiomatic and in fact even trying to prove it will presume it exists, to begin with (just like if one tries to logically demonstrate the law of non-contradiction).

Interestingly, Sh. Muṭahharī has critiqued Descartes on his famous statement I think, therefore I am, by saying that this proposition relies on the law of non-contradiction. Without this law can still doubt whether you are thinking or not or, whether you exist or not, or whether there is a relationship between the premise and the consequent or not.

2) Refuting Idealism

Before we mention the critiques of Idealists, we have to say that the fact that an Idealist entered into this discussion with us means they have already defeated themselves by confessing to a reality. They have accepted the reality of our existence, the reality of our words, their implications, sentences, argumentation and so on. This is an admonition for Idealists, not an argument.

Critique 1

There are many critiques made by Idealists, but ‘Allāmah mentions only a few. Some of those critiques and responses will come in articles 3 and 4. As for this first critique, ‘Allāmah does not mention this, but if you pay close attention, you will realize that this is originally Hume’s argument. He would say, think about the farthest thing possible in your mind, the skies or the deepest part of the earth – what will happen? Nothing, you will not arrive anywhere, the most you can say is that such a thing exists – but where does it exist? In your mind. This is nothing but a thought, and you do not see anything except your thoughts, and it is your thoughts that exist. This is the fourth definition of Idealism we mentioned above.

‘Allāmah says:

1) This is at the very least a confession to one’s own existence and the existence of one’s thoughts.

2) The person thinks that an external existent needs to come into the mind physically for it to be considered reality; they are assuming that correspondence cannot happen with existents unless they come to the mind (essentially they have confused knowledge by presence with acquired knowledge). The problem is, who has made the claim that for something to be considered knowledge of external reality, the external reality itself has to come to the mind? We are saying that the conception in our mind is an image of what is in external reality, not external reality itself.

3) What we get is knowledge of reality, not reality itself. However, but this knowledge has the essential quality of uncovering and conveying what is in external reality and it is accompanied by an assent – or else it would not be called knowledge.

A lengthy discussion on the 2nd and 3rd response given by ‘Allāmah will come in articles 3 and 4.

Critique 2

Senses do not give you anything of value. You look at the sun and think it is the size of a coin, but later you realize it is huge, or you see a man from far and you see him tiny, but later you see him large. Every single day your senses are giving you different and contradictory information. All of our senses err. In fact, even our intellect errs, so how can one know external reality? Either by senses or by the intellect, and both make errors, so how can you prove it?

‘Allāmah responds:

1) No one made the claim that the intellect or senses do not make mistakes – that was the reason why Aristotle even systematized logic. We are not talking about whether they make mistakes and whether the form of what is in external reality is correct or not, rather we are talking about whether there is something or not, to begin with. The reason why this critique ends up making this fallacy is because existence is axiomatic, and they cannot escape it.

2) Your very critique presumes there is existence – or else how can you make an assertion that something was correct, and something is wrong.

3) If the errors of the intellect and the senses are to such an extent, then why do the Idealists act according to their conclusions in their day to day lives? This is because based on their intuition they know that there is something in external reality which the senses and intellect have perceived, and therefore they act in accordance with it.

Critique 3

‘Allāmah does not mention this critique in the second article, but we will say it here. Berkeley says, knowledge uncovers external reality and this is an essential property of knowledge. If this uncovering is essential, then how can it eventually change and you arrive at the conclusion that it was not in accordance with reality (in cases where you make a mistake). If you say that it does not uncover reality, then that means there is no knowledge or assent, and that there are only concepts in the mind. The response to this will come in articles 4 and 5.

The general response to this critique as given by the philosophers and scholars of legal theory is that assent has two qualities: 1) Uncovering (kasfh) and 2) Correspondence – these are two different stages. The former is essential, not the latter. The details of this will come later.

3) Reinterpretation of Realism and Idealism

1) Not everyone who rejects some aspects of reality is a Sophist and an Idealist. A Sophist is someone who rejects all of reality. For example, someone may only reject the existence of matter (like in modern physics), or body, or some accidental attributes, or place and time etc. but these people are not called Sophists.

2) Someone who rejects demonstrative arguments is not a Sophist or an Idealist. For example, some mystics believe the only way to reach reality is through mystical perceptions, while rational argumentation has no value. Or for example, Akhbārīs and other similar groups say knowledge is just that which is taken from Revelation, but they are not Sophists.

3) Those who accept materialism – such as the Dialectics – are essentially Idealists. In order to analyze this claim, let us look at the pillars of materialism. They say the following three things:

i) Existence is identical with matter; they are both the same thing, existence is not more general than matter, hence the soul – if there is such a thing – is also material.

ii) Matter (i.e. existence) is in continuous dynamic change. A person does not take water from the same lake twice. Existence in its very essence changes.

iii) The parts of matter constantly affect one another.

Anyone who accepts these three premises is a materialist. They then say, thought (fikr) is material and a material entity is in continuous change. In other words, your perceptions and assents are in constant change. What is the reason for this change according to the Dialectics? Two possible explanations are given:

i) When I look at something, I get an image that reflects that external reality. If external reality is in constant change, that means the image and conception I have of it is always in change. It is like a film that has multiple frames that make up a movie – there is nothing fixed, it is always in motion.

ii) There is a more precise explanation and that is what the author says in the book. They say, is it not true that thought is a part of existence? Yes, and is it not true that existence is material? Yes, thus thought is material. Is it not true that material in constant change? Yes, therefore thought is in constant change. Is it not true that parts of matter affect other parts? Yes, therefore external reality affects our thoughts and vice-versa. This is what they mean by conceptions and assents being in constant change and why all knowledge is in constant change. As per Hegel’s dialectical theory, external reality gets in contact with the brain and you get a third entity called knowledge/thought.

All of this gives us three results:

i) There is no universal nor constant in knowledge – this is the complete opposite of Aristotelian logic.

ii) There is no absolute truth. If knowledge is the result of the relationship between external reality and my brain, then no two pieces of knowledge can be the same since your brain is different than mine. This is true in the animal kingdom as a whole. This results in pure subjectivism and ‘Allāmah critiques them saying you say you are realist, but in reality, you are relativists.

iii) Classical logic is invalidated.

Observations by ‘Allāmah:

1) You say all knowledge is in change, that should mean we cannot attain any knowledge regarding the past. For example, we may say Aristotle is a student of Socrates, but then if knowledge is in constant change, that would mean tomorrow we can say Aristotle was a student of someone else. This is against the self-evident belief that historical propositions regarding events that have occurred in the past do not change.

2) Knowledge is divided into knowledge by presence and acquired knowledge – all of our knowledge regarding external reality is acquired. Acquired knowledge is a mental image, it uncovers external reality. Since it uncovers it, that means there is an external reality, and this means external reality is the cause and source of this mental image. Dialectics had said knowledge is a result of interaction between external reality and your brain which creates a third thing called knowledge. Our question is, this third entity which is also material as per them, where is its property of uncovering with respects to external reality despite you calling it acquired knowledge? In essence, you are not realist because your view implies there is no correspondence between your knowledge (which is a result of the thesis and anti-thesis) and external reality.

The Dialectics could respond by saying you are critiquing us as per your own presumptions. We have said there is no constant external reality to begin with for you to say what is this acquired knowledge uncovering. ‘Allāmah says, by offering this response, you have essentially confessed that there is absolute universal reality: you have denied the existence of absolute knowledge absolutely and this itself is an absolute. You have conceptualized and done an assent of an absolute. It does not concern what the instances of the absolute are, since the main point is to acknowledge there is an absolute.3

‘Allāmah is essentially saying that though you refer to yourselves as Realists, your ideas necessitate you falling into Idealism. This is similar to responding to those who believe the attributes of Allah (swt) are not part of His essence, that the implications of their view is polytheism.

3) We must differentiate between two types of Idealists and know how to behave with each of them appropriately. They are of two types of Idealists:

1) those who are Idealists but behave like Realists in their day to day lives, they marry, they go to work, they eat and drink etc. In their theory and analysis of the world, they are Idealists – though they are sincere in their views

2) those who are Idealists for the sole purpose of rejecting the truth of anything, especially religion


  1. These skeptics differed from skeptics who arose in later centuries in Europe.
  2. They were also called Idealists in Ancient Greek
  3. ‘Allāmah also does this in his response to contemplation being relative – by saying “contemplation” is other than “relative”, which means you have conceptualized an objective concept of “contemplation”.

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