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Ibn Khaldun’s Theories of Perception, Logic and Knowledge: An Islamic Phenomenology PDF Print E-mail

Aliah Schleifer

Ibn Khaldun’s theories about perception, logic and knowledge are clearly influenced by Aristotelian thought; however being somewhat ecclectic, he adds, synthesizes and arrives at his own perspective. In addition, however novel Ibn Khaldun’s conclusions may be, there is the underlying awareness of the Source of all knowledge: “Knowledge comes only from Allah, the Strong, the Wise.”’ His philosophy, guided by the Qur’an and the Sunnah and sparked by his own genius and capacity for speculative thought, sometimes has much in common with Scholastic Realism, and indeed might be classified as Islamic Phenomenology.

According to Ibn Khaldun, man is set apart from the lower stages of Allah’s creations by his ability to think. Through this ability and the existence of the soul, he is able to move towards the world of the angels, the essence of which is pure perception and absolute intellection. It is the world of the angels which gives the soul power of perception and motion. Just as the stages are connected upward, so they are connected downward. For example, the soul acquires sense perceptions from the body as preparation for actual intellection and acquires supernatural perceptions from the angel stage for knowledge of a timeless quality.  Some scholars have attributed Ibn Khaldun’s description of spheres of existence to Rasa’il Ikhwan As-Safa as he was most probably exposed to them via the school of Abu Al-Qasim Maslamah Al-Majriti in Cordoba. But , the seventh epistle of the Rasa’il, which deals in detail with the spheres of existence, does not contain Ibn Khaldun’s concept of upward and downward movement, rather it describes a Platonic view of the soul purifying itself to eventually merge with the Universal Soul and Intellect, through the guidance of the “legitimate Imam.”

Ibn Khaldun describes perception as a consciousness of things outside the essence of the perceiver. This is accomplished in the most basic way, through the senses, but man may additionally perceive things outside his essence through his ability to think. Like Kant, Ibn Khaldun limits man’s rational knowledge to the realm of experienced phenomena. This is compensated b r by mysticism and revelation, which open for man the door to the unknown. Man’s ability to think involves visualization, analysis and synthesis. He divides it into three degrees: the discerning intellect, the experimental intellect and the speculative intellect. The discerning intellect is used fbr man’s understanding of the world.

In this, Ibn Khaldun separates thinking and action, making use of an Aristotelian point that the beginning of action is the end of thinking, and vice versa. Thus, there is an orderly link in perceptions. Animals lack this capacity to coordinate as they do not have the ability to think, and therefore are subordinate to man. The experimental intellect helps man to deal with his fellow men and to lead them. It enables man to distinguish between good and evil, between truth and falsehood. Experience is helpful here as it serves to focus learned knowledge, but experience takes time and so tradition aids the acquisition of social knowledge: “He who is not educated by his p a n t s will be educated by time.” Ibn Khaldun’s theory of the speculative intellect is seemingly inconsistent with his previous statements, and with his statements on the limits to man’s intellectual capacity. As an isolated idea, it seems Platonic, and even Rationalistic, more in line with Ibn Rushd than Scholastic Realism. He says that the ability to think leads to hypothetical knowledge of an object beyond sense perception, which when combined with other knowledge may lead to the perception of existence, its means and causes, and that by thinking about these things, man achieves perfection in his reality and becomes pure intellect and  perceptive It should be remembered, however, that Ibn Khaldun provides man with possible intervention and assistance from the soul in order to achieve intellection in the supernatural sphere.

Looking at Ibn Khaldun’s theory on perception in another way and at the same time following through to all possible stages of man’s attainment, he says that sense perception leads to inward perception which leads to rationality. Inward perception is “common” sense. This “common” sense plus imagination, which is the sifter of sense-data input for the soul, leads to estimative power, which is the power to perceive abstract ideas. Estimative power plus memory power leads to thinking power. The memory stores all concepts, whether imagined or not. Thus, if perceptions at this level are corrupt, everything beyond them is corrupt. Thought is the process which leads to reflection and contemplation, the ultimate end of which is intellection, i.e., the state which emulates that of superior spiritual beings.’