Al-Fārābi’s Kitāb al-Ḥurūf and his Analysis of the Senses of Being

Menn, Stephen. “Al-Fārābi’s Kitāb al-Ḥurūf and his Analysis of the Senses of Being.” Arabic Sciences and Philosophy, vol. 18, pp. 59-97.

Overview: An admirable effort by a leading professor of Greek philosophy to drum up interest in Alfarabi in his field. It attempts to explain some very difficult, and hitherto rarely examined, discussions of being in the Book of Letters.


Al-Fārābī, in the Kitāb al-Ḥurūf, is apparently the first person to maintain that existence, in one of its senses, is a second-order concept [ma‘qūl thānī]. As he interprets Metaphysics Δ7, ‘‘being” [mawjūd] has two meanings, second-order ‘‘being as truth” (including existence as well as propositional truth), and first-order ‘‘being as divided into the categories.” The paronymous form of the Arabic word ‘‘mawjūd” suggests that things exist through some existence [wujūd] distinct from their essences: for al-Kindī, God is such a wujūd of all things. Against this, al-Fārābī argues that existence as divided into the categories is real but identical with the essence of the existing thing, and that existence as truth is extrinsic to the essence but non-real (being merely the fact that some concept is instantiated). The Ḥurūf tries to reconstruct the logical syntax of syncategorematic or transcendental concepts such as being, which are often expressed in misleading grammatical forms. Al-Fārābī thinks that Greek more appropriately expressed many such concepts, including being, by particles rather than nouns or verbs; he takes Metaphysics Δ to be discussing the meanings of such particles (comparable to the logical constants of an ideal language), and he takes these concepts to demarcate the domain of metaphysics. This explains how al-Fārābī’s title can mean both ‘‘Book of Particles” and ‘‘Aristotle’s Metaphysics.”