Meaning and definition: Skepticism and semantics in twelfth-century Arabic Philosophy

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Abstract

The theory of essential definitions is a fundamental anti-sceptic element of the Aristotelian-Avicennian epistemology. In this theory, when we distinguish the genus and the specific differentia of a given essence we thereby acquire a scientific understanding of it. The aim of this article is to analyse systematically the sceptical reasons, arguments and conclusions against real definitions of three major authorities of twelfth-century Arabic philosophy: Faḫr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, Šihāb al-Dīn al-Suhrawardī and Abū l-Barakāt al-Baġdādī. I focus on showing how their refutation of our capacity to provide essential definitions of things is rooted in their semantic theory: we only know things under certain descriptions which are identical to the meanings of the words that we use to refer to them, yet these descriptions do not capture the essences of things in themselves. The best result one can achieve with Aristotelian-Avicennian scientific definitions is a “nominal definition”. With this, Rāzī, Suhrawardī and Abū l-Barakāt will put some serious epistemic limitations on our capacity to attain scientific knowledge of things, at least as Aristotle and Avicenna would have it.
Original languageEnglish
JournalTheoria
Early online date6 Oct 2020
DOIs
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 6 Oct 2020

Keywords

  • meaning
  • semantics
  • definition
  • essence

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