The Relationship Between Logic and Grammar from abū Nasr al-Farabi’s Point Of View

Document Type : Scientific-research


Assistant Professor of Iranian Institute of Philosophy, Group of Ibn Sina Studies, Tehran, Iran.



After the translation of logical and philosophical works of Greeks  in To Arabic, in the Islamic society, a serious conflict occurred between logic and Arabic grammar. The grammarians considered logic to be useless and irrelevant to their culture, and the logicians considered language just as a tool to convey the statements in the field of thought, and by the criteria of logic. This controversy is mainly represented within the famous debate between Abū Bishr Mattā ibn Yūnus and Abu Sa`īd Al-Sīrāfī, in which  one (Mattā) emphasizes the instrumentality of Arabic syntax, and denies its functionality in guidance and correctness of thought; while the other (al-Sirāfī) emphasizes the obsoleteness of logic and sufficiency of Arabic syntax to ensure the accuracy of thought. In this conflict, Farabi (as a logician) took a third position, despite logicians such as Ahmad ibn al-Tayyib al-Sarakhsī, Yaḥyá ibn ʿAdī and Abū Sulaymān Muhammad Sijistānī. In the usual linguistic discussions of the Islamic society, he adopted a new perspective by taking philosophical-linguistic issues relating to pre-Islamic period into account. Afterward he would find different answers to the problems that had arisen. He believed in a kind of “science of language" ("Elm al-Lesān") common among all languages of all societies, which due to this commonality, would be considered equivalent to logic, and perhaps a part of that. Therefore, logic and grammar were considered to have the same component, which is common among all languages. According to Farabi, ideally all special grammars in setting their partial rules, should follow the rules of this component, because in all societies the words of the language should be able to imitate  the meanings and the beings, and these logical rules can guarantee the imitation of relationships between meanings and categories that are derived from their beings in the Universe. Farabi's emphasis on the commonality of this kind of linguistic rules could be an evidence of his agreement on some sort of a universal grammar in which, the rules of utterances construction - specially the rules of construction of derivative words- plays the main role. Here is the evidence of Farabi's attention toward ancient traditions of linguistics, especially the ones influenced by Dionysius Thrax, Markus Terentius Varro and Priscianus Caesariensis. Dionysius Thrax wrote the first concise grammar of the Greek language influenced by Aristotelian thought. Varro  Brings to light two significant distinctions within the rules of language, which had never been considered before: one is the distinction between morphology (rules of word construction) and syntax (rules of phrase construction); and the other is the distinction between morphological changes and derivational changes in the words, as well as the distinction between their features and rules. Also Priscianus is one of the first linguists whom in order to adapt the Latin grammar to the Greek grammar, considered the Aristotelian logic and categorization to be the criteria of the rules of the language structures. The act of taking the rules of the Greek language, as a pattern for the Latin language rules reveals that he considered common general aspects among different  grammars. Farabi's statement on the newfound problem of the relation - or better to say, the opposition - of grammar and logic, which due to the cultural and religious condition specified to the Islamic world, was proposed for the first time in the history of linguistics; he introduces rules equivalent to logic rules, for construction of the words in all languages grammar. These rules are common among all languages, and they guarantee the words imitation of implied meanings. Farabi's understanding of the characteristics of these signified meanings, which themselves were derived from the beings of the external world, was based on a philosophical perspective toward the world and the beings; and he believed that among all different language rules, the rules of derivation have the greatest capacity ​​to signify the beings, in the same way that they are understood in philosophy. Al-Farabi in different parts of his works especially in the book of letters makes extensive use of the rules of three types of word structure, i.e. the words "possessive primitive words", "non-possessive primitive words" and "derivative words": For naming different levels of knowledge (including knowledge consisting of/ knowledge of referable and perceptible like white (abyadh); and an abstract and imperceptible independent knowledge like whiteness (bayādh) in all languages, the structure of words signifying to categories (including both substantial species and genuses, accidental species and genuses) in all languages; and also the characteristics of the word signifying to the most important philosophical concept in All languages ​​(of course, except Arabic language), which exactly imitates the characteristics of this concept in philosophy. Considering these linguistic opinions of Farabi, furthermore the history of linguistics after this era, we could truly consider Farabi beliefs on the unity of modes of being, modes of undrestanding and modes of signification, as well as a belief in an universal grammar prior to the  Modists (the believers in speculative grammar); a Linguistic approach in the late Middle Ages, mostly influenced by Priscianus in the history of thoughts, which continued to the contemporary period.


Main Subjects

Abed Shukri B. (1991), Aristotelian Logic and the Arabic Language in Alfarabi, Albany, State University of New York.
Abed. Sh. (1383) Language. Tr. Neda Ahkavan. in Seyyed Hosein Nasr & Oliver Limon (eds.) The History of Islamic Philosophy. Hikmat. Tehran (in Persian)
Al-Tawḥīdī. Abū Ḥayyān (1425), Book of Enjoyment and Bonhomie. (Al-Imtāʿ wa al-Mu’ānasa). Ed. Gharid yousof sheikh mohammad & iman yousof sheikh mohammad. Dar al-kitab al-arabi (in Arabic)
Afīfī. Z. (1997), Philosophy Of Language in al-Farabi. Dar Ghoba, Cairo. (in Arabic)
Azarnush. A. (1386), Araabic historiy and culture. Samt, Tehran. (in Persian)
Endress. Gerhard (1977), The Debate between Arabic Grammer and Greek Logic in Classical Islamic Thought. Journal for the History of Arabic Science. Vol.1. No.2. Nov.1977. 339-351. (in Arabic)
Al-Fārābi, Abū Nasr (1381), Science statistics (Iḥṣāʾ al-ʿulūm), Tr. Hossein Khadivjam, Elmi Farhangi, Tehran (in Persian)
ـــــــــــــــــــــ (1408), Al-Farabi's logic. (Al-Manteghīyāt li al-Fārābi). Ed. Mohammad Taghi Daneshpajhuh. Marashi Najafi Library. Qom (in Arabic)
ــــــــــــــــــــ (1970), The Book of Letter. ( Kitāb al-urūf  ). Ed.  Muhsin Mahdi. Beirut: Dar al-Mashriq. (In Arabic)
ــــــــــــــــــــ (2005) . Science statistics (Iḥṣāʾ al-ʿulūm) Ed. Osman Amin. Dar Biblion. Paris. (in Arabic)
Germann Nadja (2015-2016), “Imitation – Ambiguity – Discourse: Some Remarks on al-Farabi's Philosophy of Language”, in Mélanges de l'Université Saint-Joseph,  No 66, 135-166.
ـــــــــــــــــــــ (1397), Logos without Words? al-Fārābiī on the relation of language and thought. Tr. Zahra Donyaei. Seminar on Logic in Islamic Thought. Tehran. Research Institute of Humanities and Cultural Studies. (in Persian)
Mojtabaei. F. (1383), Indian syntax and Arabic syntax. Karnameh. Tehran (in Persian)
Robins R.H. (1370), A Short History of Linguistic. Tr. Ali Mohammad Haghshenas. Nashr-e Markaz (in Persian)
Seuren. Pieter A. M. (1392), A History of Linguistics. Tr. Ali Mohammad Haghshenas. Samt. Tehran (in Persian)
Shahidi. F. (1400), The Relationship Between Utterances and Meanings From al-Farabi’s Point Of View Considering The Usage Of “Primitive” and “Derivative” Names In The Expressing Of Philosophical Meanings,Tehran University, Vol.19. No. 3610.22059/JOP.2021.315377.1006575 Philosophy.  (in Persian)
Thrax Dionysius (1874), “The Grammer, tr. Thomas Davidson”, The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, October, 1874, Vol. 8, No. 4, 326-339.
Versteegh. K. (1391), History of Study of Muslem Linguists. Tr. Zahra Abolhasani. Samt, Tehran. (in Persian)
Yaḥyá ibn ʿAdī. Abū Zakarīyā (1988), Explaining the separation between the two industries of philosophical logic and Arabic grammar. In A collection of Yahya bin Adi's philosophical articles. Ed. Sobhan Khalifat. The University of Jordan. Oman. (in Arabic)
Zimmermann F.W. (1981), Al-Farabi's Commentary and Short Treatise on Aristotle's De Interpretation, trans. With an intr. And notes, London, Oxford University for the British Academy.