139 - By the Time I Get to Phoenix: Avicenna on Existence

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Avicenna revolutionizes metaphysics with groundbreaking ideas about necessity and contingency, and his new distinction between essence and existence.



Further Reading

A. Bäck, “Avicenna’s Conception of the Modalities,” Vivarium 30 (1992), 217-55.

• D.L. Black, “Avicenna on the Ontological and Epistemic Status of Fictional Beings.” Documenti e studi sulla tradizione filosofica medievale 8 (1997), 425-53.

• D.L. Black, “Mental Existence in Thomas Aquinas and Avicenna.” Mediaeval Studies 61 (1999), 45–79.

• T.-A. Druart, “Shay’ or Res as Concomitant of ‘Being’ in Avicenna,” Documenti e Studi sulla Tradizione Filsofica Medievale 12 (2001), 125-42.

• A.M. Goichon, La distinction de l’essence et l’existence d’après ibn Sina (Avicenne) (Paris: 1937).

• O. Lizzini, “Wujūd-Mawjūd/Existence-Existent in Avicenna: a Key Ontological Notion of Arabic Philosophy,” Quaestio 3 (2003), 11-38.

• F. Rahman, “Essence and Existence in Avicenna,” Mediaeval and Renaissance Studies 4 (1958), 1-16.

• R. Wisnovsky, “Notes on Avicenna’s Concept of Thingness (shay’iyya),” Arabic Sciences and Philosophy 10 (2000), 181-221.


S. Matthew Stolte on 28 July 2013

Phoenix as Mythical Bird

I am curious. Is it certain that Avicenna regards the phoenix as a fictional bird?
According to one interpretation of Aquinas’s use of the phoenix example, Aquinas may have believed it to be a non-fictional bird.
Klima makes that suggestion in this document http://faculty.fordham.edu/klima/FILES/Kenny.pdf
And again in this one: http://faculty.fordham.edu/klima/Aquinas/Aquinas-vs-Buridan.pdf

As I understood the suggestion the first time I heard it, a non-fictional phoenix is metaphysically interesting because the phoenix exists at some times and not at others. (I’m going from memory of a conversation, so take it for what it is worth.)

Now, there are a couple possibilities. One is that Klima’s suggestion is wrong. Another is that even though he might be right about Aquinas, Avicenna knew that there was no phoenix. That would be an interesting thing to know.

There is one article I wish I could read by Prof. Druart:
“Avicennan troubles: The Mysteries of the Heptagonal House and of the Phoenix” Tópicos, Tópicos: revista de Filosofía, ISSN 0188-6649, Nº. 42, 2012 , pages 51-74.

But my university’s library won’t give me online access to it, and I’m out of the country without easy access to a physical library.

In reply to by S. Matthew Stolte

Peter Adamson on 28 July 2013

The Phoenix

Right, this is an interesting issue. I think it's pretty clear Avicenna thinks there is no such thing as a phoenix though I couldn't quote you the text on it just at the moment; I will look to see if I have a copy of Druart's article.

Just to clarify one thing: the phoenix was usually mentioned (already by the ancient commentators) not because it is fictional or because it exists sometimes but not always. Rather, it is interesting because there is only ever one of them at a time. Thus we have a species with only one member -- weird (though there are other cases, e.g. the sun and the moon). As it happens I've written a paper about this issue (I mean, about species with only one member) but it is not out yet.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

S. Matthew Stolte on 28 July 2013

The Phoenix

Thank you for the correction. That is interesting.

Some compatibl… on 29 July 2013


Thanks so much for this! I've only listened to around 2/3 of your entire podcast, but this is one of the best episodes yet.

Ken on 29 July 2013

So the question is...

First I want to say that this was one of your best episodes on this period yet (I really am tempted to want to buy Avicenna's Metaphysics but money is tight). I did have a very serious question and it is this...would Avicenna have been a fan of the book/movie 'Harry Potter and The Order Of The Phoenix'? How about the Dark Phoenix Saga from the X-Men? (I could do this all day.) Can't wait for the next episode and Avicenna's take on the ontological argument.

In reply to by Ken

Peter Adamson on 30 July 2013

Avicenna on comic books

I assume he'd be more of a DC Comics fan, since they have the original Flying Man.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Aelton Leonard… on 27 January 2017

Avicenna's flying man or Nietzsche's Superman

Original flying man? I always thought that Superman was an obvious Nietzschean comics book character. Though I assume DC Comics took it all wrong when baptised him as Clark "Kant".

Bistra on 30 January 2014

Is Avicenna really to be

Is Avicenna really to be granted the introduction of the distinction essence/existence?

In reply to by Bistra

Peter Adamson on 31 January 2014


Funny you should ask, I have just written an episode (it will come along in a few months) about the later debate in the Islamic world over that very issue. Pretty much everyone agrees it is a meaningful distinction, but critics (especially Suhrawardi) say that it is only a mental distinction, i.e. only one we make conceptually without any real distinction in things that corresponds to this. So, stay tuned!

Hoom on 25 June 2016

"Necessary through another"

Given the way "necessary through another" is defined, does "necessary through another" simply equals "existing" and "impossible through another" simply equal "not existing"? 

In reply to by Hoom

Peter Adamson on 25 June 2016


That's almost right, but "existing" would include the necessary through itself (i.e. God), not only the necessary through another, so they are not actually the same.

But leaving that aside, even though the phrases are (almost) the same in terms of the objects to which they refer, they have different meanings. So philosophers would call this an extensional/intensional difference; for instance, "host of the history of philosophy podcast" refers to the same thing as "professor of late ancient and Arabic philosophy in Munich" (i.e. me) - they have the same "extension" - but the two phrases don't have the same meaning or "intension".

Wei on 12 April 2018

English Avicenna

Is there an available english translation of Avicenna's healing, or at least the sections relevant to logic and metaphysics? I know that BYU Press have published a stellar English-Arabic version of the volume on physics. As you mentioned, Remarks and Admonitions is a very elusive and difficult read (I have Inati's translation which is a bit dated) and I'm looking for something that will make for easier bedtime reading.

In reply to by Wei

Peter Adamson on 13 April 2018

English Avicenna

The same BYU series does also have the Metaphysics section of the Healing, translated by Marmura - not easy reading but worth the effort! They did not do the logic though.

The translator of the Physics, Jon McGinnis, and the late David Reisman also included a lot of Avicenna in their Hackett collection "Classical Arabic Philosophy" so you could check that out too.

Jordan on 2 December 2021


I love hearing this stuff, because - and I'm not claiming to be Avicenna since I didn't write it down, wasn't comparing any previous texts, didn't create a whole theoretical framework - this is stuff I used to think about when I was bored in class in high school! 

Like when we learned about probability of dice rolls in math. Sure, the probability of rolling any particular number (to an impartial observer, assuming a 100% fair die) is 1 in 6. But if you knew the exact situation down to the molecules (which, according to my religious school, God does), if you could somehow memorize the way the throwing muscles worked and the angle at which the die was thrown and the texture of the grain of the wood and the direction the dice would spin - if you had complete knowledge of the universe as it is, you could mentally simulate the die roll. The odds of getting a specific number wouldn't be 1 in 6, they would be 1! Extrapolating that, nothing in the universe is actually random. It only appears random if you have an incomplete amount of information. 

Basically, I thought then (and still sort of think) that the sea battle doesn't matter so much. If the sea battle will be won, then it will always have been won and it will necessarily be won. We just don't know it yet because we don't know all that information about the sea waves and the ship's planks and the way the men are going to act.

Bringing it around to humans, I also think about how people with amnesia (the type where you can't create new long-term memories of the present) will respond the exact same way if given the same stimulus, day in and day out. It's not because they lack free will. It's because they choose (via free will, if you want to say so) to respond a certain way to a certain situation, so if the situation is the same (including their lack of memory of the situation having happened), their response won't change.

But this was also back when I was staring at the clock constantly in math class, discovered the stopped-clock illusion, and decided that sensory info was pretty bogus. I also remember asking my mom (when I was much younger) if we could prove that other people weren't all robots pretending to be human, didn't get a satisfactory answer, and am still sort of stuck in solipsism. Anything I talk about here is a grain of salt with a ton of asterisks, like, ok, PRETENDING we know for sure that we aren't brain in jars, PRETENDING we know that time exists in the way we experience it, PRETENDING I understand the info as it seems to be presented... But starting any conversation with disclaimers will derail the conversation. I like when anyone is willing to kinda take off the mask and talk frankly before we go back to pretending that anything in the universe makes a lick of sense. 

In reply to by Jordan

Peter Adamson on 3 December 2021

Free will

One thing to watch out for here is to keep separate the questions "do we know what is going to happen?" and "are different events genuinely possible?" As you imply here, determinism could be true without our having any ability to foresee what will happen, and if God doesn't exist (or God has no foreknowledge) then maybe no one can or does know what will happen. But it would still matter that determinism is true, since we would all be walking around with massively false beliefs, namely that things might go differently (or have gone differently) than they in fact do.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Jordan on 7 December 2021

Thanks for this response too…

Thanks for this response too. Even if we all say "the world would look so different if __ hadn't happened," we all still live in a world where __ happened. That can't be changed now. I think it's another linguistic trip-up - like events are "fixed" because we can't experience multiple timelines at once. There's only one sequence of events that will ever happen. That doesn't mean that we can't change the future - it is our actions right now that are creating that future. If I toss a ball in the air, it's not determinism (I don't think?) to say that it will fall down again - it's just cause and effect. Because we can't have perfect knowledge about every near-infinite cause, the future looks uncertain - like if you were looking at my hand, but didn't know that I had tossed a ball, you'd be surprised when a ball suddenly landed in it. From your perspective, there were two events (no ball, yes ball) that were both genuinely possible. But because I knew about the ball, there was only one possibility (yes ball).

I don't think what I'm saying is what most people would disagree about (excepting alternate universe theory), but I might just not be saying it the right way. I think saying events are predetermined is true-ish, but it implies a heck of a lot (like saying that it doesn't matter whether I toss the ball because I'm predetermined to have a ball fall into my hand in the next couple seconds, which is just nonsense) that is less obvious. 

I might just be talking in circles though.

Murat E. on 7 September 2022

Avicenna on infinity and free-will

Is Avicenna’s belief in the impossibility of beings that never exist ultimately an extension of his belief in the eternity of the universe? In other words, does he simply view the state of something never having existed in the infinite past as proof of their impossibility, since every remote possibility will eventually materialize on an infinite time-span? Hypothetically, if Avicenna’s metaphysics assumed a temporally finite universe, would he have granted that certain things that have never existed are still possible? If not, I am frankly quite puzzled by his conclusions on the subject, as it seems intuitively obvious that certain things that have never existed (such as a trapeze artist, ghost-writing member of the Adamson family) could have nevertheless existed; that is, unless he deterministically believes that everything that did not happen was not possible to begin with. On that note, is it a form of determinism that prevents Avicenna from acknowledging the existence of possibilities that never materialize?

In reply to by Murat E.

Peter Adamson on 8 September 2022

Avicenna on existence

No, I don't think it comes directly from his commitment to eternity. Rather the key thing is his theory of mental existence: when he says that everything exists, he doesn't mean that everything exists concretely, like outside the mind in the actual world. Some things only exist mentally, like my trapeze artist sister. So his idea is that everything will at least exist mentally, if not concretely. It's not so clear whether this doctrine is meant to apply to types of things (sisters, or even just humans) or particulars (this particular sister who plies her trade on the flying trapeze etc). I tend to think the former, since we are talking about essences having existence and I guess there is no essence of "woman who is Peter Adamson's sister, is a trapeze artist, etc." But this is the key move, I think.

M. E. on 9 September 2022

Impossibility of the phoenix

Why, then, does Avicenna believe that essences with no material existence (such as phoenixes) are impossible to begin with? Is Avicenna simply a generalized determinist who believes that the essences of all material things represent all essences that can materially exist?

In reply to by M. E.

Peter Adamson on 9 September 2022


Actually I think he gives the example of a phoenix as something that could exist, but doesn't, except mentally (like his famous 6 sided house). But some apparently possible essences were in the tradition considered impossible, like centaurs for instance, because horse and human are incompatible essences or whatever. Anyway the main thing is that Avicenna definitely did not think that all possible essences exist concretely, some exist only mentally.

Colin on 10 January 2023

Isn't Impossibility impossible?

Perhaps I'm overthinking this (is that possible in philosophy?) But Avecinna's position on things being impossible because God so formulated the world to make them impossible has a bit of a loophole for him. 

God formulated the world to not make the Phoenix exist. But - He COULD have, right? Indeed, having the power to create anything he must have conceived the idea of the Phoenix, considered it, and then decided against it. But He did conceive of it, in one way or another and it remains in His power to make it a physical reality. So how can anything actually be impossible if we grant God the power to formulate the world and explicitly decide what the world contains?

Maybe he or you or someone has an answer in future episodes but I had to pause a moment and think this out. 

In reply to by Colin

Peter Adamson on 10 January 2023


Yes good point. The first thing to bear in mind here is that for Avicenna some things that don't exist concretely, like in reality outside the mind, do exist in the mind. So when he says that everything possible exists he can just mean "exists, that is, either in the mind or outside it." But still I think you're right that he wants to say that the world doesn't just fail to contain phoenixes by mistake or by chance or by an arbitrary choice - his God makes no arbitrary choices. Thus we are forced to say either that the phoenix is not actually possible, though it seems so - this would be clearer in the case of a centaur, say, since it is both human and horse which would be contradictory for Avicenna - or say that though the phoenix is possible in principle it is better that the world not contain it, so it is impossible that it exist within that context. It's quite a problem in Avicenna's system actually.

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