In these posts I am inviting you into my philosophical reflection about integration, the absence of which we feel palpably in our fragmented world. My hope is for us to understand it more deeply, and to be ourselves reintegrated in the process.
At this point in this extended inquiry I am reflecting on one of philosopher D.C. Schindler’s several recent books, Love and the Postmodern Predicament: Rediscovering the Real in Beauty, Goodness, and Truth.1 I am seeing that while an integrative epistemology is crucial, an integrative metaphysics is crucial as well. Schindler claims that the latter provides the fundamental context for the former.
Last time I raised the foundational matter of things. Everything is a thing. A thing, in being a thing, is an irreducible whole or unity. It is not first an organization of its parts without being a thing whose parts are so organized. It is not first meaningless material components to which it can be reduced. So a particular thing, in itself, all by itself, is an integrative whole. Even if you and I are mostly made of water, mostly six or so chemical elements, the fact is that we are a thing that is irreducible to those elements. This is the very thing that makes our lowly composition so wonderfully cool. Schindler presupposes this preliminary understanding throughout his work2.
Schindler in this book seeks to challenge the debilitating fragmentation of modernity with the one thing he believes will be effective: a classical Christian metaphysics. Nothing less than who we are as humans and how we relate to the world is at stake—and these are in dire straits. The evident crisis in contemporary existence, he writes, is “a loss of a sense of reality, which inevitably entails as its counterpart a dissolution of self.” (vii) So we can follow his guidance to an understanding of reality, and an encounter with it, that is fundamentally integrative.
To begin with, Aristotle averred that “all men by nature desire to know.” Schindler notes that the evidence Aristotle provides to support this claim is the obvious delight we take in seeing things. I’m sure he has something like beholding the night-blooming cereus unfold its fragrant, majestic blossom in the present dark of a summer night. Schindler’s own example here is of touching a silky yellow fabric. To my personal delight, Schindler says that in knowing, as in sense experience, we make contact with reality.(That this was not obvious to me early on in my life, calling for a philosophical quest and a dissertation to revise my outlook, displays the very debilitating effects of modernity that Schindler is challenging.3)
I note the phrases he employs to describe contact with reality: direct encounter with things, coming face-to-face with things that are “other.” Our desire to know is a desire for intimacy with the real. And this is fundamentally what it means to be human: humans are “ordered to communion with reality.” (3)
It is just this contact with reality which modernity has attacked (and so my personal quest was right on!): it strives to “buffer this encounter. Modern culture is largely a conspiracy to protect us from the real.” (2) Schindler offers several cultural examples; but I need only recall my own early perception of perception to confirm that it strives “to isolatethese experiences, to make them meresensations and precisely notgateways to the real.” One may have the sensations without any contact at all, “and so without genuine involvement or responsibility for implications.” This grants free rein to our control, as we “keep reality at bay.” This is indeed the very epistemic disintegration which Polanyian epistemology addresses and which begins to point to recovering the real.
Enter beauty, goodness and truth. These “transcendentals,” as Schindler’s subtitle indicates, anchor his argument in this book. Beauty, goodness and truth, first, characterize special forms of our encounter with reality. In beauty, reality—the other—first presents itself to us, awakening our desire and our intellect. Our delight just is registering our experience of beauty. Our delight is our response to reality’s contacting us. We respond—in goodness and in truth. In goodness we give ourselves freely to pursue involvement with the other. In truth, we “become what we know”—we identify ourselves with the thing, taking it into ourselves.
Our delighted response to beauty signals, as Schindler will argue later on, that reality’s manifestation actually attunes us to respond. It must do so—else we fail to be readied. That initial, essential, attuning, is what Schindler will identify as love. As a result, love, he will argue, is the permeating tenor of our two-fold response of goodness and truth. We love to know, as we love in goodness, because love is our initial attunement to reality, brought about by reality’s own generous self-revelation in beauty.
Call to mind again the wondrous blossom of the night-blooming cereus—or the ungainly plant itself. In the heart of what it is, it is beautiful, good and true. It manifests itself to me in beauty. It gives itself in grace and abundance; in the delight it induces it attunes me to love it. I respond in giving myself to it, and to seek its intrinsic meaning. Its essential form is the intrinsic meaning of its being, its truth.
Beauty, goodness and truth have been dismissed from a modernist account of knowledge. How so? Because a modernist account has dismissed reality; it has dismissed things, replacing contact with things with private sensations. How has this come about? And what does it mean to affirm beauty, goodness and truth as qualities of reality and of human encounter with it?
Let’s start with the latter. To affirm this triad as qualities of reality is just what it means to call them transcendentals. They are transcendental properties of all being. Things have essential defining characteristics which make them the particular things they are. But they also possess qualities that characterize them just because they are things. Things are beautiful, good and true by insofar as they exist. So these qualities connect them beyond themselves along with everything else that is. Things as things are pregnant with a meaning which references all of being. It is this wider reference which just is what it is to say that things mean.In a lovely paradox, for a thing to be itself it must also suggest its wider context.4Beauty, goodness, and truth are transcendentals because these transcend things, relating them to the totality of all there is. Schindler elsewhere designates them as “positive relational transcendentals”: to be what they are, beauty, goodness and truth, in their essence, relate beyond themselves to the other. They are “ecstatic.”5
It is not difficult to realize that the transcendentals presume a Christian understanding of being: being would have to be the originally beautiful, good, and true God, along with whatever he creates. The Christian Creator originates and anchors a beautiful, good and true creation. And this is no pious spiritual platitude, but rather bracing metaphysics.
But wherein has modernity dismissed the transcendentals? Schindler characterizes modernity’s fundamental outlook as “bourgeois metaphysics.” (15). (One might add “bourgeois epistemology” too.) “Bourgeois” refers to a fundamental principle of self-interest, the absolute exaltation of the individual. The self becomes the ultimate frame of reference for everything, and whatever meaning things have they can only have in reference to the individual. The only kind of “other” there could be would be one who is equally self-interested. For self-interested selves contractually bound to honor self-interest, non-selves (such as night-blooming cereuses) hold only pragmatic value at the mercy of the individual’s arbitrary estimate. Beautiful, good and true, and the meaning of ordinary things, pertain only to that individual’s self-serving estimate. That’s enough to wreck a night-blooming cereus; it’s enough to keep us from seeing it; it’s enough to distort ourselves away from humanness as fundamentally ordered to communion with reality. But to state it plainly: modernity preempts the delighted, contemplative beholding that inaugurates our attunement to the real. Modernity commits the sin of acedia, as philosopher Joseph Pieper defines it: it refuses to consent to being.6 Small wonder that it fragments.
There is much more to explore (of course there is, in an ecstatic reality!). But we need to see that our healing reintegration begins with the tiniest beginning step of delight. Delight in our seeing integrates us. Delight already is response to beauty, to the healing ministrations of reality itself. And in happy subversion of our modernist legacy, this baby step is well-nigh irresistible in the summer twilight beholding the unfolding bloom of a lowly night-blooming cereus.
Esther L. Meek, Ph.D., is Professor of Philosophy at Geneva College, as well as a Fujimura Institute Fellow Scholar. Her books include Contact With Reality:Michael Polanyi’s Realism and Why It Matters; A Little Manual for Knowing; Loving to Know: Introducing Covenant Epistemology, and Longing to Know: The Philosophy of Knowledge for Ordinary People.
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||D. C. Schindler, Love and the Postmodern Predicament: Rediscovering the Real in Beauty, Goodness, and Truth (Eugene, OR: Cascade Press, 2018).|
|2.||↑||Additionally, I see that it accords with Polanyi’s account of irreducible but mutually involved layers of being. A topic for another time.|
|3.||↑||Esther Lightcap Meek, Contact With Reality: Michael Polanyi’s Realism and Why It Matters (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2017).|
|4.||↑||This is the sort of thing which Peter Leithart explores in his Traces of the Trinity, as does Schindler in this Catholicity of Reason.|
|5.||↑||D.C. Schindler, The Catholicity of Reason(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013). Schindler engages these transcendentals as he exegetes and affirms the approach of Hans Urs von Balthasar (ch. 3). That reason is ecstatic—in direct challenge to modernity and even well-intended but misguided attempts at epistemic “humility”—is Schindler’s thesis in Catholicity of Reason.|
|6.||↑||Joseph Pieper, Leisure the Basis of Culture (New York: Random House, 1952), 43-51.|