In my last post, I told you the story of my current desire to understand philosopher D.C. Schindler’s metaphysical work. With this post, I start in to the venture. I begin by reflecting on what it is to be a thing. This matter always makes me laugh, and makes me mirthful about being philosophical: even the lowliest thing—a thing!—is philosophically intriguing! That should make philosophers out of us!
We all know what it is to wonder at a thing. As Captain von Trapp sings to Maria in the musical: “For here you are, standing there, loving me—whether or not you should…” This is to wonder at a thing. But so is my response (as yours would be) to the opening of the night blooming cereus blossom, which I described earlier. But it doesn’t take obvious exceptionality for a thing to be a thing. It takes—it is—the thing’s particularity. “Cabbages, songs, stars and oceans,” as Colin Gunton writes.
The idea of a thing is not so much a thesis of David Schindler’s, in Love and the Postmodern Predicament,1 so much as it is a working assumption for him. But in my search for integration in his work, it presents itself preliminarily. Things, it turns out, are themselves integrations, transcending and transforming unities of parts to which they can in no way be reduced. As unities they are also pregnant with excessive depth and possibility. We long for integration as simply as part of our understanding of and desire for things. I’m not talking of idolatry or consumerism here! To be human is to desire to connect with things—to encounter and commune with the real. And we long to be integrated ourselves as things.
Thinking about things permeates the story of Western philosophy. Aristotle (around 300 BC) asks the question, what does it mean to be a thing? A thing, he famously says, is not primarily or exclusively its material or parts. Though things can be made of material, things cannot be reduced to material. Aristotle is not a materialist. My stock example is of all the kinds of plates a generously apportioned kitchen has. Yes, the material is important—china, ceramic, plastic, paper—but obviously it isn’t the material which makes a plate a plate. A thing is its form or essence (its essential characteristics and capacities), its nature, as it is expressed in this particular material, effected by this agent, for this purpose. Its essence is “what a thing is.”
But my unschooled modernist grasp has generally cast this form or essence as inherently general. The essential characteristics of a thing are generalities: my ability to spell, a cactus’s prickly surface, a car’s being a Chevy or a VW. Items belong to species, which belong to genera, and so on up the hierarchy of generalities. Nor have I been alone in this penchant, as far as I can tell.
However, Schindler renders a thing’s form the particular thing that the thing is. He contrasts his account of knowledge as “personal presence” to “the modern fragmentation that arises from a view of truth as the correctness of information.”2 He explains: “In contrast to data or information, the principal ‘vehicle’ of intelligibility in classical philosophy is form.”3 “The form is not only what answers to the question what a particular thing is, but it is also what makes the thing be that “what,” that particular thing.”4 To identify something is to name its form. The form “is the whole itself the basic meaning that gathers up all of the features and parts and sets them, as it were, in their proper place in relation to each other. The object of our knowledge, for the classical mind, is the form, and this is the integrating reference point for everything else, all the disparate features, qualities, and indeed information and the like.”Ibid.–Fragmentation. The integrating reference point. I note these characterizations of his.
Schindler continues: “There is a wholeness to form; it represents, as Plato recognized, a kind of discrete simplicity. As a simple whole, the form of a thing is greater than the sum of its parts. [Here Schindler references Michael Polanyi.] In order to get the whole, in other words, it is not enough to collect all of the ‘bits’ of a thing, and then add them together [as per the information model of epistemology which he joins covenant epistemology in challenging]. It is not enough to talk about the parts and their organization, though this point is often missed: because organization is possible only in reference to a unity that transcend the parts. Form is not, in other words, a function of the organization of parts, but rather organization is a function of the form. The form of a thing is absolute in itself in the sense of being irreducible to anything else. …The form presents a unity that transcends its material parts…”5
Schindler describes the modernity-forming reaction of modernity, which was to reject this transcending unity as occult and useless, standing in the way of pragmatic mastery of “nature.”6 His ringing challenge: “We answer: what is ‘added’ is the presence of the whole as such, which may not seem to matter if we are interested only in the useful information that can be extracted (i.e., data that can be transferred to separate contexts), but it matters a great deal if we wish to retain an understanding of knowledge as intimate contact with reality. It matters if reality matters.”7
The form, then, the essence or what-is of a thing, is not general, although of course it is generalizable in an array of respects. It is the unity that is the thing itself. And as a unity, it is fundamentally, metaphysically, irreducible to its parts, material or functional or otherwise.
This is what intrigues me. The simple unity of a thing, the thing that it is, is irreducible to its parts. This exactly challenges modernity reduction of everything to its parts. Modernity’s characteristic reductionism, an obvious source of our fragmentation, and an obvious source of anti-reality in our lives, is itself self-defeating: to reduce a thing to its parts is to deny the thing even as one utilizes it to make sense of what one is doing. Dissecting a frog, for example, only makes sense if one begins with the reality that it is a frog that one is dissecting. The elements which make up our human bodies of dust are not us merely. Such reductivism (even though it is impossible!) actually renders the dust meaningless. But as humans we aredust: the fact that I am a human actually makes that dust significant! But I am significant as the thing that that I am. To be is to be one, a unity, inherently irreducible to any plurality of components that comprise it.
My night-blooming cereus bloom is a particular thing. It’s thinginess is irreducible to its cells. In fact, cells are irreducible to their components, too. As a philosopher developing a freshly innovative epistemology of subsidiary-focal integration, Michael Polanyi stressed that the integrative pattern is logically irreducible to the subsidiary parts. Fresh insight requires a logical leap. He speculated that reality has a parallel structure of irreducibility. It’s evident in any machine, he showed: the rules of the machine’s performance (say, my little Honda Civic) occupy a level irreducible to the laws of physics which apply to its materials. Polanyi understood that irreducibility of being was a critically important challenge to the prevailing winds of modern thought which he felt undermine science. He was putting his finger on this matter of the thing, I believe.
Medieval philosophy centered on the important “problem of universals” (as universal is another word for essence): are these universals objective realities? William of Ockham’s and others’ saying “no!” to this can be seen as the dawn of modernity. Typically we think of these generalities as concepts, and thus on the mental side of knowing. The modernist outlook is characterized by the penchant to reduce all beyond our minds to insignificant pieces devoid of meaning, and to anchor all significance in the subject’s active designation. We moderns are tempted to say, that collection of elements is a frog because I so designate it. I contribute the form. (Thank you, Immanuel Kant.) No wonder, as Schindler says, to deny the irreducible, form-unity as a reality is to deny reality and to disconnect ourselves from its presence. A key thesis of his in this book is that modernity is characterized by a disturbing disconnection from reality, and a loss of ourselves in the process.8 It is to deny our central desire as humans (as per my account of the good life) to desire to know, to encounter and commune with the real. Small wonder that we struggle with fragmentation. We deny to ourselves both our desire and the reality that would commune with and integrate us.
St. Thomas Aquinas saw that it takes a Christian doctrine of creation to complete Aristotelianism. An acorn is a thing. But what accounts for things? What makes a thing come to be, when it might not be? It takes a Creator. This leads to the inference that Christians of all people should be exuberant about things. As Episcopal priest and cook Robert Farrar Capon avers: “One real thing is closer to God than all the diagrams of the world.”9 This pronouncement concludes his memorable “man-onion event,” in which he coaches his readers in sitting with an onion for an hour. (!) He has begun it by saying: “You will note, to begin with, that the onion is a thing, a being, just as you are. Savor that for a moment.”10
Indeed, we shall! I believe we’ll find the effort personally integrative as well.
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, 2017).|
|2.||↑||Schindler, Love and the Pomo Predicament, 75.|
|3.||↑||Ibid. In a footnote Schindler qualifies the word, “vehicle”: “the classical view does not see knowledge as something primarily transmitted.”|
|6.||↑||I place this word in quotes, because modernity in doing so is setting out to disavow nature—i.e., that reality has any intrinsically essential forms.|
|9.||↑||Robert Farrar Capon, The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovitch, 1969), 21.|