187 - Return to Sender: Mullā Ṣadrā on Motion and Knowledge

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Mullā Ṣadrā proposes that all things are like sharks: in constant motion.



Further Reading

• M.A. Haq, “Mullā Ṣadrā’s Concept of Substantial Motion,” Islamic Studies 11 (1972), 79-91.

• I. Kalin, Knowledge in Later Islamic Philosophy: Mullā Ṣadrā on Existence, Intellect and Intuition (New York: 2010).

• M. Rustom, The Triumph of Mercy: Philosophy and Scripture in Mullā Ṣadrā (Albany: 2012).


Ahmed on 11 August 2014

Lol, so this isn't a family

Lol, so this isn't a family podcast then, I infer? Or is the matter more shark-grey than black and white?

Eli K.P. William on 18 April 2015

Two questions about mysticisim

Dear Peter, I must have a soft spot for mysticism as I found Mula Sadra's ontological and epistemological system as you described it incredibly beautiful and am totally sold on your idea that he is not merely borrowing the ideas of old thinkers but synthesizing it into something novel and exceedingly compelling.
Two questions:
1) What is the connection between Mula Sadra and Indian philosophy? I know that reincarnation, existential flux, and so on are prefigured in Platonism, Pythagoreanism, and Heraclitus, but I detect a strong flavor of Buddhism here. I remember you said the evidence is against an Indian influence on Plotinus despite his purportedly visiting India, but the analogies in this case seem too blatantly obvious and at this stage in history there just has to be an connection.
2) Has anyone ever written about the similarity between Mula Sadra's epistemology and Martin Buber's I an Thou? A possible paper idea for you if it hasn't been noted already (though I guess you don't read Persian).


In reply to by Eli K.P. William

Peter Adamson on 18 April 2015


Yes, he's pretty great isn't he? I am actually learning Persian at the moment and in fact a lot of Sadra is in Arabic - I think I'd be more likely to work seriously on him than Buber, to be honest! But I don't know whether anyone has explored that possible similarity, there has been quiet a bit of comparative work on Sadra though (I am not really a fan of this sort of thing). I saw only stray comments when reading up on Sadra about his connection to Indian traditions and it seems that the direction of ideas was more Persia to India than vice-versa. But of course one of his major sources is Suhrawardi who claimed to be drawing on Indian sages. So there may well be more to discover there.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Eli K.P. William on 19 April 2015

Sadra part deux

I know what you mean about comparative essays sometimes. I certainly wouldn't want to write it (even if I had the scholarly background to pull it off, that is).
Fascinating to think of Persia influencing Indian philosophy. Thanks!

In reply to by Eli K.P. William

Bahram Abedi on 11 January 2020

Mulla Sadra.

Facinating discussions. I would like to share few points.

The Mullasadra's partial philosophy system ( partial since it has not covered all the 5 topics of a full philosophy system) on " Change In Essence that Avisina calls Mahiyat) is arguing that Essence Changes too. Masheiyoon, eg Avisina argue that essence ( Mahiyat) is the smalest constituent of the matter that exhibits the property of the whole. And that it does not change. Mulla argues that that changes too ( mutation?)!

He has written these arguments in a series of Essays called Asfar اسفار ( meaning  Jurneys ) and is in Arabic.

India and Persia are old nations and have been in constant contact for milenia. Obviously they have influenced each other phylisophic thoughts, Astrnomy, Science and theology. So it is not strange for India being influenced by Persian Philosophic thoughts .. and V. VS.

yunus on 22 May 2015

irrational numbers

I was wondering what these great thinkers from the past would say today with all the modern eqiment we developed in the 21st centruary, turning out to proof them right in some cases and give them more room to develope further thoughts! 

In quantum physics, a quantum fluctuation (or quantum vacuum fluctuation or vacuum fluctuation) is the temporary change in the amount of energy in a point in space, as explained in Werner Heisenberg's uncertainty principle.(Wikipedia).

Which is quite the same as Mulla Sadra pointed out in his theory and the blurry reality as Werners Heisenbergers uncertainty principle. 

The Imaginary body theory sound abit like the phantom limb experience of body parts which are amputated but still real and felt in the imaginary mind of the individual.  

Rex M Bradshaw on 14 October 2017

Critique of Aristotelianism

I don't get Mulla Sadra's critique of the Aristotelian understanding of substance and change, at least as presented here. Isn't the classical Aristotelian position not that substances are absolutely immutable, but rather that their nature dictates what change they undergo under certain conditions? So liquid water has an innate potential to become ice, and the embryo has an innate potential to become an adult human. But liquid water will never become an adult human, because it lacks that substantial potency. Surely I am missing something?

In reply to by Rex M Bradshaw

Peter Adamson on 14 October 2017

Sadra's critique

The idea is that substantial forms are not absolutely demarcating class-terms - like, either you are a human or a not-human so it is like an "on off switch". Rather, these forms are themselves susceptible to degrees of intensity and changes within that intensity, which Aristotelians would not have wanted to admit for substantial forms, only for accidents like heat or color. Also it would seem that the "edges" of these forms are blurry, so that one thing can change continuously into a substance of a different type. Does that help?

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Rex M Bradshaw on 14 October 2017

That makes sense; I suppose

That makes sense; I suppose it's more that I don't see why his arguments for it--or these examples, at least--would be convincing to a classical Aristotelian. But perhaps I just need to read Mulla Sadra (he's on my list).

Side-question. Will you manage to fit in Ioane Petrisi or the Georgian Athonite philosophical translators anywhere? I've been wondering how you'll handle some of those philosophers who turn up in odd corners of the world.

In reply to by Rex M Bradshaw

Peter Adamson on 15 October 2017


Yup, they're on my list. I probably won't say a lot about them but I plan to cover them when I point out that eastern Christian ("Byzantine") philosophy is more than just Greek texts being written in Constantinople, so I will discuss them alongside the Syriac tradition.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Rex M Bradshaw on 15 October 2017


Glad to hear it. I lived in Georgia for a couple years. There seems to have been a vibrant Georgian philosophical school in the Middle Ages (heavily influenced by Christian Neoplatonism), but there's not much scholarship in English as yet.

In reply to by Rex M Bradshaw

Ben Embley on 25 June 2018

Analogy with chemistry

Rex, I understand what you mean regarding the argument against Aristotle. I also don't see why the examples are convincing, or even worth nothing, for an Aristotelian. Aristotelians believe in substantial changes. They call them generation and corruption. What they don't believe is that these processes are happening so constantly that we cannot identify any real substances.

As presented here, it sounds like Mulla Sadra would go up to a chemist and say, "There are chemical reactions. Thus there are no stable elements and compounds. All are changing always." The chemist, like the Aristotelian, would be perplexed: "I know there are chemical reactions. Why does that mean there are no elements and compounds stable for any time before they react?"

I am interested to read Mulla Sadra himself and for himself, too, but certainly if this is a critique of Aristotle, it's not particularly on point...

In reply to by Ben Embley

Peter Adamson on 26 June 2018

Sadra on change

Yes, I have to say that I have a lot of sympathy with your response there. It may be that there is a difference between the chemist's response and the Aristotelian's response, because the chemist is not pointing to everyday substances like animals as paradigm instances of stable being, but to rather more abstruse entites like, say, molecules. Given that his opponent is really an Aristotelian, I think he can make some headway (if not get all the way to the total flux theory he wants) by pointing out that substances, just as much as accidents, are susceptible to degrees and to change. The example of an animal being formed as an embryo and maturing is a nice one for him since that certainly does look like a case where a paradigm substance (on the Aristotelian view) comes to be gradually, not all at once. I am not sure whether he could use this sort of strategy against your chemist though.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Ryan W on 7 August 2019

RE: Sadra on Change

I'm much more sympathetic to Sadra's view, and it seems to me that it has some interesting connections both forward and backward. Looking backward, I think Sadra's points about change through time can be bolstered by bringing in Plato's notion of "change" as the compresence of opposites. Although Plato normally discusses this using examples of "accidents" (eg. largeness and smallness, hardness and softness, beauty and ugliness, etc.), I think the point can be adapted to apply to "substantial forms" as well. As soon as we define "human being" as "rational mortal animal" for example, we run into people in persistent vegetative states on the one side, and apes that have been taught to use a bit of basic language on the other. I think these kinds of problems are widespread in the attempt to specify "natural kinds". No sooner do we think we've drawn a border that can clearly distinguish A from B, then we start discovering cases that are both A and B, but not completely either. Once we combine this with the phenomenon noted in the episode, that even the sharkiest shark there is was once half a shark (when it was an embryo) and may be half a shark again (given that the point of death is hard to pin down in many cases), substantial grounding points for firm empirical knowledge begin to appear very difficult to pin down. Looking forward, a lot of this line of thinking can be found to match up with key aspects of a lot of 20th century thought, whether the study of "vagueness" in analytic philosophy, or Derrida's deconstruction and Deleuze's "transcendental empiricism" on the continent.

Nor does it seem to me that Aristotle has a very convincing response to these concerns. From my own knowledge of Aristotle's works, it seems that he mostly dismisses concerns about vagueness by simply stating that concepts are good enough if they hold "always or for the most part". In terms of grounding empirical science and common sense engagement with the world, Aristotle's response seems to me sufficient for practical purposes. Our concepts about sharks, imprecise though they may be, are sufficient to allow scientists to study them, and the rest of us to know to stay away from them. But especially given the high standards Aristotle suggests in other contexts for "knowledge", it seems to me that our concepts about sharks and humans and other natural things don't clear the bar. I think Derrida and Deleuze are right that the concrete difference of actual things always eludes our attempts to pin them down with intellectual concepts.

I also don't think introducing concepts from chemistry really helps much. This is firstly because if we could find clearly definable facts about atomic/subatomic entities, it seems that this would provide us with something substantial to grasp, but only at the cost of validating Democritean skepticism. Ordinary objects like animals and plants aren't "invalidated" as real objects or objects of knowledge just because they are (in this hypothesis) composed of atoms, but if Sadra's argument applies to all macroscopic reality, and can only be evaded by speaking of the entities investigated in chemistry, it seems that a division is being introduced between the "really real" (or at least really knowable) world of atoms and molecules, and the apparent world of dogs and flowers, which we only describe by means of somewhat arbitrary concepts that we know don't really apply strictly to the things "out there". But in any case, at least since the introduction of quantum physics, things at that small scale now seem, if anything, much less substantial and knowable than the objects of our everyday experience. Whatever the instability of our concepts about sharks, we can at least say that they really are where they are and moving at a certain speed, whether we're looking or not, that they actually are physical bodies rather than waves, etc.

What I'm unclear on is how (for Sadra) the forms fit into all this. For Plato, this failure of physical reality to embody forms completely just goes to show that true reality is the forms, whereas physical things only "partake" of reality to some degree. But that sort of line seems to be in some tension with Sadra's stress on "the primacy of existence". I'm a little unclear on how the forms fit in with the theme of substantial motion from Sadra's point of view.

In reply to by Ryan W

Peter Adamson on 9 August 2019

Tashkik and vagueness

Thanks, that's a really nice comment which gets at some of the reasons to be sympathetic to Sadra. Re. your last point, I don't think Sadra really has Forms in the Platonic sense: there is only God as pure being or existence and then the different created substances participate in Being to greater or lesser degrees. So on my understanding at least "forms" would be as blurry and subject to tashkik (modulation) and motion as everything else.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Emily on 10 August 2019

Being In Time and Flux

An old friend introduced me to Heidegger's concept of Being several years ago. I jumped to liken Being to God, but my friend disagreed, and we were unable to come to a mutually satisfying definition/characterization of Being.

Yesterday, I came across the following quote from Existence and Being; it seems somewhat reminiscent of Sadra's philosophy:

"Metaphysics thinks about beings as beings. Whenever the question is asked what beings are, beings as such are in sight. Metaphysical representation owes this sight to the light of Being. The light itself, i.e., that which such thinking experiences as light, does not come within the range of metaphysical thinking; for - metaphysics always represents beings only as beings. Within this perspective, metaphysical thinking does, of course, inquire about the being which is the source and originator of this light. But the light itself is considered sufficiently illuminated as soon as we recognise that we look through it whenever we look at beings.

In whatever manner beings are interpreted - whether as spirit, after the fashion of spiritualism; or as matter and force, after the fashion of materialism; or as becoming and life, or idea, will, substance, subject, or energeia; or as the eternal recurrence of the same event - every time, beings as beings appear in the light of Being. Wherever metaphysics represents beings, Being has entered into the light. Being has arrived in a state of unconcealedness. But whether and how Being itself involves such unconcealedness, whether and how it manifests itself in, and as, metaphysics, remains obscure. Being in its revelatory essence, i.e., in its truth, is not recalled..."

Do you think Heidegger's concept of Being resonates, at least in part, with Sadra's thinking?

In reply to by Emily

Peter Adamson on 10 August 2019

Heidegger and Sadra

Well to be honest I am very far from being an expert on Heidegger, but at least anecdotally I can tell you that there is quite a lot written on resonances between Heidegger and Sadra, in Western languages too but I believe that this is also a comparison that has been explored quite a bit by Iranian intellectuals. So I think there is definitely something to the suggestion!

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