Michael Sebastian Noble-Avicenna & Fakhr Al-Din al-Razi: On Imagination

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Avicenna-miniature, original artwork by Michel Bakni.


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is an excerpts from Fakhr al-Din al-Razi’s ‘Hidden Secret’ (al-Sirr al-Maktüm), in the exciting ground-breaking study of Michael-Sebastian Noble, ‘Philosophising the Occult, Avicennan Psychology and the ‘Hidden Secret’ of Fakhr al-Din al-Razi’, De Gruyter-2021. Here Michael Sebastian Noble draws also from Avicenna, a.k.a. Ibn Sina, treatise, ‘al-Isharat wa’l-tanbihat’, vol. 2, page 652. Note: Avicenna and Fakhr al-Din al-Razi’s quotations in Michael-Sebastian Noble’s translation are in italic. The rest is his scholarly apparatus and exegesis.


The traces in which the human subject receives from the celestial soul, whether during sleep or in the waking state, must be translated by the imagination into particular forms which are imprinted in the common sense if they are to be witnessed as sensory experiences. Therefore, the activity of the imagination to a large extent determines the degree to which the human soul can derive insight and benefit from what was in origin a pure celestial form.

Avicenna provides a fuller description of the autonomous activity of the imagination in the twentieth chapter of ‘al-Isharat’ 10. Its innate constitution (ji-billa) is to move unceasingly from one cognitive object to another on the principle of similarity or antithesis between the former and the latter. He explains:

Such is the innate constitution of the imaginative faculty that it imitates (inna al-quwwa al-mutakhayyila jubilat muhakiyatan) whichever perceptual or temperamental configuration dominates it, moving swiftly from one thing to its like or to its opposite-in short, to what ever causally derives from it (bi’l-jumla ila huwa minhu bi-sabab). Without a doubt, the specification (i.e., of cognitive objects generated by the imagination) has particular causes (asbab ju’ziyya), though we might not discern them concretely. If the imagination faculty did not have such an innate constitution, then we would not possess that on which we can rely (nasta’inu bihi) with respect to: Cognitive motion (intiqalat al-fikr) that seeks to generate the middle term of syllogisms (mustantijan li’l-hudud al-wusta) and whatever serves their function, and the recollection of things which have been forgotten; and other benefits. Every input (kull sanih) to this faculty stimulates it either into motion or being placed under control (tudbat). This control is occasioned either by the power of the soul’s resistance to input; or by the intensity of the clarity of the form that is engraved in the imagination such that it is received in a way that is immensely lucid and sharply represented-this deters its distraction and vacillation, and holds the imagination still, such that what appears in it is as powerful as that which the external senses convey.”

Avicenna is here describing a process of free imaginative association of ideas or images, which he calls ‘muhakat’. Thus, when a certain image or idea is present to the imagination, it generates a second within a presumably limited range of images or ideas that are either similar or antithetical to the original cognitive object. A third is then generated from the second, a fourth from the third, and so on, for however long the process lasts. Between each objects of imaginative cognition and that which precedes it is a relationship either of similarity or antithesis. Two factors determine this process of imaginative association: the original cognitive input datum-or what he terms ‘perceptual configuration’ (hay’a idrakiyya)-received by the imagination; and the ‘temperamental configuration’, or humoral balance that characterise the pneumatic substrate in which the imaginative faculty operates. However, Avicenna refrains from more detailed theorising on what determines whether a generated image is similar or antithetical to the preceding image from which it is produced.

This activity of imaginative association springs from the spontaneous nature (ghariza) of the ‘mutaşarrifa’ which is thus disposed in order to allow the cognitive process to hit on the middle terms of syllogisms and to recollect things stored in the memory. In fact, this process is essential to cogitation, the construction of syllogisms, and thus to the practice of science. The ‘movements’ of this activity never cease unless impeded by one of two obstacles. As Razi explains:

One is when the rational soul dominates it, impeding it from its movements, and disciplining it. The second is when the forms which are engraved (munaqqasha) in it are powerful and clear: then by reason of their clarity and power, they prevent the imaginative faculty from moving away from them to other forms: this is due to what you already know from his (Avicenna) explanation that bodily powers have no awareness (shu’ur) of dimly perceptible objects (al-mudrakat al-da’ifa) when they are perceiving powerful perceptible objects (al-mudrakat al-qawiyya).

Having expounded on his idea of imaginative and cognitive association, Avicenna describes how this cognitive process might affect the degree to which a ‘spiritual trace’ (athar ruhani) , which occurs to the human souls, might be accurately retained. He envisages three general grades of intensity, each comprising varying degrees. The first grade comprises traces which are so weak that they leave no enduring impression. The second comprises those which are sufficiently strong as to stir the imagination which, however, continues in its movement to generate new images, by way of association, such that only the imagination’s associated images, rather than the original trace, are retained. And the third grade comprises those traces of such intensity and power that they are clearly imprinted in the imagination and stored in the memory undistorted by the confusion of associated images.

Although the purity of the original spiritual trace from the celestial souls is vitiated in the second of these grades, its original state can be recovered or reconstituted from the distortions of the imagination’s associated images by means of interpretation (ta’wil or ta’bir). Avicenna says that a number of considerations would inform the hermeneutics of this process including those relating to the personal disposition of the recipient, time and custom. Unfortunately, he does not elaborate further-nor, for that matter, does Razi.

Ibn Sina, a.k.a. Avicenna. Modern illustration from the Everett Library


Source: Michael-Sebastian Noble’s ‘Philosophising the Occult’-Avicennan psychology and the ‘Hidden Secret’ of Fakhr Al-Din Al-Razi.’, De Gruyter-2021. Web Link: 🌿 More about Ibn Sina:
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