The Unity of What We Can Know:


Mulla Sadra, Precursor to Edmund Husserl, Jorge Borges, Kafka, Zeno, Robert Browning, Soren Kierkegaard, Karl Jaspers …


Kathleen M. Haney

“But if philosophical faith and faith in revelation can meet, without coinciding, I want to try whatever thoughts may help this chance along.”[1]

Mulla Sadra, whose thought we honor at this conference, stands in a line of philosophers that begins with the Ancient Greeks and Zoroaster, through Plato, Aristotle and the neo-Platonists.  Many works have explored the influences that earlier thinkers had on Mulla Sadra; others have displayed his originality.  Few of either sort are available to readers in the West.  Yet, our intellectual heritage shares common roots in the Græco/ Judeo/Islamic/Christian heritage, especially in our cultivation in Avicenna, our common intellectual ancestor.  I hope to participate in the dialogue between Islam and the West by describing some territory that Mulla Sadra’s philosophy shares with Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology and Jorge Luis Borges’s Magical Realism. Borges’s idea that a writer creates his own precursors, those who have gone before and sparked insights that he can recognize. To read these three writers on a vector, leaves the tapestry that they weave together open for phenomenological description.

To the many Westerners who recognize Husserl as the latest seminal thinker in the tradition, seeing how Mulla Sadra’s thought shares significant themes with Husserl’s will provide a segue into Mulla Sadra’s philosophy.  To the Islamic philosophers, I shall be emphasizing some of Mulla Sadra’s thought at the expense of a more complete rendition of his philosophical and theological project.  My aims include introducing phenomenology through drawing the likeness between two great figures in their respective traditions.  I shall conclude my paper with only a hint of what I take to be the larger and more imperative task — to recuperate the philosophic tradition that includes Islam as well as the West.


The twentieth-century Argentine writer, Jorge Luis Borges, articulated the approach to reading and writing I shall be using.  Borges taught his critics “the first principle of poetic influence — that each writer creates his own precursors.”[2]  When a writer creates his precursors, he sees his own uniqueness figured in earlier writers, and his readers, having read him, read his precursors differently. He thus influences the understanding of his precursors, creating (or recreating) them in light of his own work.  Since in creating precursors he creates his literary identity, the writer establishes a category that throws new light upon his type.  For instance, when Borges chooses Kafka as one of his precursors, we are not surprised.  Borges, magical realist, Latin American neo-Baroque writer, resonates with Kafka’s sense of incomprehensibility before the Law.  Kafka becomes for Borges almost the symbol of this issue.  Whenever it comes up, it is Kafka who is given as example. To thank Kafka for the experience of the Absurd and the confusion that follows minimizes the depth and power of the Absurd as well as individualizing it.

Borges famously considers Kafka as a precursor in a disparate line that includes Zeno, Leon Bloy, Soren Kierkegaard and Robert Browning and Lord Dunsany.  (Borges 1964 a, 106-108).  Borges claims a literary heritage from such other writers as Han Yu, Spinoza, the author of the Book of Job, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, as well.  These influences result in the re-readings of the earlier writers. The Logos of the works shifts as we place texts in new relations in an alternative logic.

Borges does not miss the irregularity of the groupings he compiles.  Indeed, he immediately recognizes a principle of literary interpretation in the liberty he has taken.  “If I am not mistaken, the heterogeneous selections I have mentioned resemble Kafka’s work: if I am not mistaken, not all of them resemble each other, and this fact is the significant one.  Kafka’s idiosyncrasy, in greater or lesser degree, is present in each of these writings, but if Kafka had not written we would not perceive it; that is to say, it would not exist.” (Borges 1981, 243). Kafka’s type of idiosyncrasy is Borges’s own.  Thus, Borges’s strategy yields an interpretation enriched by a line of precursors, which obscure idiosyncrasies in favor of common themes.

When Borges sees himself in the mid-nineteenth century American Puritan writer, Nathaniel Hawthorne, we pause.  Then we reflect that Hawthorne tried to squeeze the universe into New England, as Borges tried to do in Buenos Aires.  The easy label of Puritan now no longer fits Hawthorne, who becomes counter-provincial, counter-Puritan.  We can see that his work aimed at the destruction of legalistic religion as Borges’s neo-Baroque magical realism aimed at the destruction of the truncated modern sense of rationality. Borges creates an alternative tradition by means of what he calls his new technique of reading, “deliberate anachronism and erroneous attribution.”  Thus, he can proudly proclaim, “Our patrimony is the universe.”  [3]

Unlike our usual sense of influence, which extends only in one direction as rivers flow to the sea, Borges’s notion of the creation of his precursors is a mode of self-discovery that leads to an additional dimension of his understanding of both the discovered and the discoverer.  When the writer chooses a precursor he becomes revitalized by the interpretation, as does the precursor. Identifying precursors in this Borgesian sense sheds new light on the writers, while the reader expands his nexus of associations so that all are enriched. We may want to illustrate this for ourselves logically in the space of convergence in the Venn diagram or geometrically in carpets

Mulla Sadra and Husserl

I have no reason to believe that Husserl was at all familiar with Mulla Sadra’s writings.  Nevertheless, if we immediately recognize that the creation of precursors is a mode of discovery, we may uncover kindred spirits.  Although a precursor writes before and leaves a legacy of fallow ground for receiving the seeds that its successors plant, more to Borges’s point, a precursor blazes a path through previously unmarked or  forgotten territory.  Like land and other holdings, though, a precursor is changed by the intentions of the heirs. 

Borges’s reader recognizes that he co-constitutes the meaning of the originary works, amplified by new thematic unities. Borges’s choice of precursors implies that the disparate group that he identified instructed him, whilst he informed their texts.  This mutual influence is precluded in the works of Husserl, but not in the readers of these works. Discussion of the thought of Mulla Sadra and Edmund Husserl together extends Borges’s principle of interpretation.  If a writer is read well according to the light of the precursors he creates for himself, might we propose to create Borges, et al. as Mulla Sadra’s precursors?  When we also suggest Mulla Sadra as a precursor of Edmund Husserl, we turn a theory of the development of the literary artist as reader into an interpretative strategy.

How can Husserl enter into dialogue with Mulla Sadra? We chose Husserl as a precursor for Mulla Sadra, not he for himself. Since we have no evidence that Husserl read Mulla Sadra, the question of direct influence must go before Mulla Sadra who could be more legitimately spoken of as a precursor if he and Husserl were to share a common intellectual ancestor.  Such a linear development, which comprises the history of philosophy as typically practiced in the West, seeks for immediate influence in an earlier school of philosophy within the philosophic tradition. If we consider Husserl’s influences, we must renew the philosophical tradition embedded in his study of Franz Brentano’s reading of St. Thomas Aquinas.  Avicenna, St. Thomas’s own predecessor, introduced him not only to Aristotle but also to Plato, Plotinus, Al Farabi and the Koran with its allusions to the Torah and the New Testament.  If philosophy as a tradition sums up its history, we can see how Husserl’s study of Brentano included his study of Avicenna and all the thought that influenced him, whether its origins were philosophical or theological.

Franz Brentano started Husserl along a journey that gathered a disparate group of precursors within the historical procession of philosophy.  Brentano’s thought was informed by the Scholastic tradition, including St. Thomas.  St. Thomas had read Avicenna, as well as St. Augustine. Aquinas’s Plato and neo-Platonism comes from both these sources. St. Augustine, who had been trained in rhetoric in Rome, is credited in Latin philosophical history with Christianizing Greek philosophy. Avicenna had not read Augustine. The religious dimension of the former’s system strove to incorporate and understanding the truths of the Koran. Avicenna’s own Platonism was also a version of neo-Platonism, filtered through the revelation from the Prophet.  When St. Thomas read Avicenna, the Aristotle he was introduced to included the wrongly attributed Theology, in fact a Neo-Platonic, non-Aristotelian work. Mulla Sadra is informed by this historical mistake, too. I shall not argue that Husserl develops an emanationist metaphysics, rather I make the more modest claim that philosophy is well understood as a conversation, in which later ones influence the voices of earlier participants. Each brings his own intellectual ancestors as well as his own original or synthetic contributions.

Our modified application of Borges’s strategy of reading, with specified revisions, suggests a unity in the history of philosophy.  The theme of intentionality, say, is a theme of Mulla Sadra’s that we can see, if we are looking for it. Mulla Sadra continues a philosophical tradition by developing the seeds of ideas present incipiently in Avicenna and passed on in Islamic thought. Mulla Sadra and Husserl both pick up common themes in what went before in order to engage the next thought.  Mulla Sadra continues Avicenna’s thought as do St. Thomas and the later Scholastics, even Brentano and Husserl.  Husserl has other influences as well, such as the British Empiricists, especially David Hume and his successor, the critical philosopher, Emmanuel Kant.

Husserl locates modern Western philosophers within a bankrupt tradition. He read modern philosophy through the intermediary of Kant, accepting his epistemological emphasis on the subject without accepting any inevitable relativistic consequences.  Thinking his way through modern philosophy led Husserl to his famed new beginning for philosophic science in the method of phenomenological reduction. Husserl’s analysis of naïve idealism as well as its counterpart, naïve realism disclosed the impossible paradoxes in the foundations of the thought of the moderns.  Empiricism leads to psychologism in Hume as rationalism dissolves into competing systems, Leibniz and Spinoza being the most shocking examples.  Kant’s philosophy, even his Categorical Imperative, suffers from a deadly relativism that precludes objectivity in the strong sense that the world gives itself to us in our daily life or in the sense of the logos given in intuition. 

Mulla Sadra shares Husserl’s insistence on self-evident intuition, as guarantor of philosophy. Although both thinkers recognize the effect of the subject on what he can know, neither will settle for one-sided analysis that ineluctably degenerates into a pernicious subjectivism. Husserl aimed for a rational philosophy, exorcised of unexamined presuppositions. Husserl’s method of phenomenological reduction holds in abeyance the basic presuppositions of much of modern and ancient philosophy. For Husserl, the most contaminating of presuppositions is the ready assumption that the world exists independently of consciousness. The phenomenologist suspends or withholds existence claims in favor of the consciousness that is the transcendentally necessary condition for such claims. Thus, consciousness is epistemologically prior to its objects. Consciousness and being are equivalent, Husserl believes. All that exists for the I indubitably is its own intentional consciousness, engaged in making spiritual products, its cultural and personal meanings. For Mulla Sadra, the imaginative power that Husserl understands as the transcendental ego can exist as the soul, with or without the physical body.  The soul chisels itself in its acts and habits. Insofar as the soul actualizes ideal forms or essences and can make objects of its own knowledge, essences are products of the soul, although not exclusively its own. Their philosophizing makes space for possibilities and actualities that transcend the presumed metaphysics of naturalism that characterizes the modern period in Western philosophy.

The phenomenologist, through the method of phenomenological reduction, gains access to Brentano’s resuscitation of the medieval doctrine of intentionality, which allows Continental philosophy in the West to revive the tradition that was disrupted by the mistakes of the modern period, while capitalizing on its great discovery, the significance of the subject for its intellectual products. For Husserl, the effect of the retrieval is to think through the doctrine of intentionality to consciousness that is always conscious of (this or that, the hat or the breeze or the idea of triangularity, say).  Consciousness for Husserl is always the consciousness of a given subject, as it was for Kant, but Husserl’s conscious subject can claim objectivity, through intersubjective verification, i.e. shared meanings, which may have their origin in subjective acts, but nevertheless result in shared experience that can be distinguished from hallucinations or dreams.

Philosophy as a closed or solipsistic system of thought remains as unattractive to Husserl as it is to Emmanuel Levinas, Soren Kierkegaard and Mulla Sadra.  For Husserl, philosophy is the “infinite task” that the search for truth demands.  These thinkers recognize that the dialectic between experience and expression necessitates continual efforts at self-evident verification. Whereas fundamentalisms, no less than rationalism, positivism, idealism and scientism, rest on the assumption of the truth of a metaphysics of naturalism, Mulla Sadra and Husserl refuse to limit the domain of truth to that of nature or of physics. Both Mulla Sadra and Husserl challenge the modern starting point for philosophy, as they must, since if all real being is natural being, there can be no space for the discoveries of metaphysics. There can be no possibility for Transcendence.  All being must be immanent being.  Yet, both thinkers reason that genuine philosophizing cannot ignore our experiences of transcendence, in self-evident intuitions of presence.  Overcoming the prejudice of naturalism and materialism, according to the dictates of phenomenological method, involves suspending belief in the independent existence of the world that we ordinarily assume, to show its relation to Being and to reflection.  Husserl famously “reduces” all experience to phenomenal experience.  In Ideas I, Husserl removes the chains of naturalism from Being so that its meanings can be awakened in the phenomenologist.

Mulla Sadra’s figure of the reduction is a hermeneutical discussion that dislodges the ordinary referent from its position of privilege, since he holds that language serves as a vector to point to various kinds of being.  Literal language provides a vehicle for the expression of analogies and allusions.  Mulla Sadra knew the function and dignity of the knower, which Husserl learned from Emmanuel Kant.  Mulla Sadra also recognized that “knower” does not fully describe the human person.  As Husserl and Edith Stein, Husserl’s first assistant, would show, lived bodily experience founds the human being’s communal life.  The life of the community will always include beliefs that are not necessary, but specific to the group or perhaps the individual.  Suspension of belief in reality as constructed by and in its particularity according to its culture provides an occasion for opening the borders of transcendence.  For both Mulla Sadra and Husserl, the dominant culture of their time impedes the soul’s journey towards the universal, towards essences, towards the Truth that brings quiet peace.

Both philosophers believed that they lived in a time of historical crisis.  Both hoped to influence a radical shift in the arche that conditioned their cultures.  The philosopher in rational self-responsibility fulfills his role as a functionary of humankind in his struggle for reason, as Husserl puts it.  Modern science, despite its claims of objectivity, cannot transgress the boundary of its materialistic assumptions.  Mulla Sadra holds that the philosopher must see all humanity included in a comprehensive version of the journey towards what Edith Stein will later call “perfected humanity.”  “Realization” of each person occurs in the struggle and pain entailed by seeking transcendence in his search for the Truth.  Mulla Sadra’s efforts to renew the attitudes of dogmatic religion mirrored Husserl’s attempts to criticize the pseudo-certainty and lack of foundations of modern science.  Just as religion can stifle the presence of God, science and technology as surrogate religion do so, too.  May we of different cultures and religions come to hear the call to Transcendence beyond prevailing materialism and legalism as we, functionaries of humankind all, speak with each other.

The Rosetta Stone, the Touchstone? Reading Mulla Sadra and Husserl in Tandem


After reading Mulla Sadra, we may listen when Husserl refers to the phenomenological reduction as a spiritual “conversion.”  The theme that philosophy is a pathway on the journey of the soul also underlies Mulla Sadra’s work.  Plato had earlier pointed out that the product of philosophy was the soul of the philosopher.  Plato had also shown that the telos of the rational soul was “beyond Being.”  Knowing, being and doing intersect in the imaginative realm, although they are first experienced in the straightforward fashion Husserl will designate as “the natural world attitude.”  To Avicenna, to whom both Mulla Sadra and Husserl are related as we have seen, philosophy is the process of fulfilling the telos of the rational soul.  Husserl identifies the aim of philosophy as “rigorous science” in 1907 and as “perfected humanity” at the end of his life.[4]  The soul’s growth in knowledge of the objects of its transcendental consciousness is its being in its becoming.

Husserl discovered his method of transcendental phenomenological reduction as a systematic means for loosening the grip of the world of passing phenomena in favor of the dawning of eidetic analyses penetrating ever more deeply into the source of Truth.  As Husserl will critique science for its implicit metaphysics of naturalism, Mulla Sadra’s reading of Avicenna would include psychic and spiritual realities, as well as physical being. They, and Borges as well, all see that it is not reasonable to suppose that physical being, which presents an aspect of reality, exhausts it.  Through the offices of the phenomenological reduction, “physical being” includes the realm of being studied by the modern natural sciences, structured for Husserl hierarchically as Mulla Sadra suggests.

The space for doing metaphysics requires a gestalt revolution that results from the recognition that the boundaries of physical may be permeable. Mulla Sadra’s mental existence and Husserl’s meanings can be intended without necessarily committing to existential correlates. The products of consciousness are nonetheless “spiritual being,” whether they exist or subsist. Such being is uncovered as the realm disclosed in the transcendental phenomenological reduction in Husserl and is analogous to Mulla Sadra’s imaginative sphere.  The natural world, for the philosopher indifferent to existence, remains faithful to laws, but the laws are now those laws that govern the imagination.  As the great Indian phenomenologist, J.N. Mohanty, sagely observed, “Phenomenology obviates the need for facts.”  Borges’s precursor G.K. Chesterton observes that these are the logics that survive even in “Efland.”  If Jack is the son of a shoemaker, Jack’s father is a shoemaker.  Cinderella’s elder stepsisters cannot be younger than she.  Trees can, however, bear golden apples.  The wonder is that trees give apples, at all.

The being of actualized possibility does not exhaust Being.  Philosophy’s task is to provide insight into the realities that its symbols convey.  To those who can see them, there are intentional vectors pointing to other ontological realities.  These realities must be experienced in the mode of transcendence.  Following the method of the reduction is for Husserl tantamount to evidencing the presence of ideal entities in acts of consciousness. Nevertheless, Husserl remains a transcendental idealist; neither he nor Mulla Sadra disparage the actuality of the shared world or the significance of the soul’s acts in the world. although, as we have seen, they both decry the reductionism that magnifies “physical” reality into all there is.  Magnifying rightly demands an attention to boundaries and passageways between foreground and horizon, between the realms of the imagination and nature. The transcendental borders the natural, but the intentional vectors point in opposite directions.

The transcendental reflection opened up by Husserl’s method of phenomenological reduction is an imaginative realm, ruled over by the law of non-contradiction. The rule of reason does not, however, limit imagination perniciously. Rather, tests and limits provoke the imagination. Imagination can evoke coimaginings to stir the soul to begin its passage. Purification requires detachment that can be provoked by texts that allow us to experience of realms of being that are not transient. 

Borges ,Mulla Sadra  and Husserl

Borges allows us to theorize tradition in a way that undoes historical progression in favor of a reversible, non-progressive structure in which we read earlier texts in light of later texts, because the later texts necessarily influence our reading of earlier ones. The latent theme of intentionality in Mulla Sadra makes him a precursor to St. Thomas Aquinas. Both read the doctrine of the Transcendentals in Avicenna.  The received interpretation of St. Thomas’s Avicenna however, emphasizes that that Avicenna delivers Aristotle to the West.  Not only does Avicenna provide a glimpse of Aristotle, but also Avicenna provides a clue for Christianizing him.  For Mulla Sadra, on the other hand, Avicenna integrates Platonism, Aristotleanism, Neo-Platonism and Islam. 

In the respective traditions that begin with Medieval Latin and Islam there are two Avicennas.  Both Avicennas can have Borges as a precursor; both Avicennas seek to serve Transcendence.  Neither Avicenna permits God to be physical or mortal.  Mulla Sadra and Husserl show that both Avicennas lead back to Transcendence and Love, from which they arise.  The beginning of the spiritual journey ends in the return to beginnings with insight into origins in consciousness and Transcendence.

Borges’s precursors evoke other universes, discovered in this universe.  Borges introduced us to the activity of reading genealogically, in pursuit of family resemblances.  Borges believes that thought lives in such continual re-construction.  Borges’s own literary production famously includes philosophic dimensions.  His fiction provides the requisite deconstructive moment, a hesitation, a doubt. Perhaps the world of the natural attitude, the realm of physical being, points to a pathway beyond its boundaries, forked paths to another, a different world.  Although Borges was arguably the most erudite man of the 20th century and we know that he was familiar with Averroes (he mentions the Persian mystics as precursors to American transcendentalism), perhaps Borges does not know Mulla Sadra.  Perhaps if he had, he would have included Mulla Sadra on the eccentric list of those writers with whom he shares an essential insight.  And, if Mulla Sadra is a recognizable precursor of Edmund Husserl, then Husserl belongs on that list, too.

To sum up, I turn to Borges’s story, “Averroes’ Search.” The plot has to do with Averroes’s attempts at reading Aristotle’s works on tragedy and comedy. Averroes fails to grasp the meaning of Aristotle’s terms, since Islamic culture has no equivalent of theatre. “I sensed that Averroes, striving to imagine a drama without ever having suspected what a theater was, was no more absurd than I, who strove to imagine Averroes with no material other than some fragments from Renan, Lane and Asin Palacios.”[5] Understanding humans from cultures other than our home culture, experiencing different categories and essences awakens possibilities of digging deeper into what can and cannot be known. So, although adapting Borges’s strategy for reading introduced many shared themes in Husserl and Mulla Sadra, the theme that matters is the journey of the soul from its origin to its return, the journey of knowledge and love.




[1] Karl Jaspers, Philosophical Faith and Revelation (PFR), Tr. E.B. Ashton (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), p.  xxvi.

[2] Borges and His Successors, p. 2.

[3] Jorge Borges, Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings, New Directions, 1964, p. 185.

[4] John J. Drummond and Lester Embree (Editors), Phenomenological Approaches to Moral Philosophy,

Kluwer, 2002,  Ullrich Melle, “Edmund Husserl: From Reason to Love,” p. 229-248.

[5] P. 110 the Aleph



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