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

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

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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's picture

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.

Peter Adamson's picture

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.

S. Matthew Stolte's picture

The Phoenix

Thank you for the correction. That is interesting.

Some compatible essence's picture


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's picture

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.

Peter Adamson's picture

Avicenna on comic books

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

Bistra's picture

Is Avicenna really to be

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

Peter Adamson's picture


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!