Having and lacking, pt. 1

For whatever reason, I still remember looking on as a guy challenged an old Dominican who had just said (as a throw-off example) that sickness was the absence of health. “Why not argue that health is the privation of sickness!” The Dominican had no answer, but this is not to say he was unprepared. One can’t be held responsible for preparing responses to crazy questions, and privations are ways of falling short of achieving some goal or fulfillment. If this sounds like a description of health to you, you haven’t been sick much. On the other hand, the objection does point to a problem in the privation account. So long as we just trade in synonyms, like “lack” or “absence”, then there is some sense to speaking of the healthy man lacking sickness. Taken in this way, “privation” and “possession/having” give rise to a homogenous dualism- there is in fact no more reason to call one “the privation” except by fiat. But doesn’t this count as another refutation? It would amount to the claim that there is no difference in things between failure and success.

Still, the dualism of having and privation describes a whole view of the world, though it is not clear how we would characterize it: it amounts to a dualism so far as it sees having as equal to lacking, while at the same time it is a monism so far as it makes the opposition between them not a feature of things but simply a fiat. The things themselves are, apparently, some higher mode of being that divides into having and privation. The very principle of contradiction only expresses relative opposition. “Is” or “is not” are opinion all the way down. The difference between them just depends on what you want to do. But at this point it is not clear how we are saying anything about the world, or how we even could say anything about it.

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12 Comments

  1. MikeFlynn said,

    October 27, 2011 at 1:16 pm

    I’ve always figured it was that one can be conceived without the other. Thus: death is a privation of life because while we can conceive of life without death, the concept of death without life makes no sense. The same is true of sickness without health. It makes no sense because a sickness is *defined* in relation to health. This is not the same as to say “Socrates is always sick.” We’re talking about sickness, not Socrates.

    • October 27, 2011 at 4:49 pm

      I think the conceivability is a sign of act in Aristotle’s sense, which is a multi-headed idea that he had to make himself in order to deal with problems like this. What I want to develop this post into is the reason for the unity of act – the transcendental unity of being, good, what actualizes mind, perfection etc. “Act” is in some ways an attempt to get at the unity of these things.

  2. Faruk Ahmet said,

    October 27, 2011 at 4:34 pm

    On a possibly interesting sidenote, if the question was solely a linguistic one, or at least a linguistic one in the sense a “mould theory” (like Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) would take it to be, it could be very intriguing to analyze it from the point of view of a language other than English. In my native tongue, Turkish, for instance, you don’t say “I have the flu”, but you say “I am the flu” instead. Sickness, so it follows, is not about having something or lacking it, but being or not-being in a certain state (of body and mind). “Flu” is not something you get, but something you become —a new being, a synthesis of you and the virus, if you will. From that perspective, you could declare the Dominican and his challenger both wrong—or rather, their points irrelevant.

    Or it is just that I am way past my bedtime and am blathering.

    • October 27, 2011 at 4:46 pm

      Good point – I think the various languages force us into a notion like Aristotle’s “act’, which is indefinable, but includes the notions of not only having some positive thing, but also being, and even operating. I’m sure another language might speak of how one is “making the flu”, that is, seeing it in light of the “act” as operation or activity.

      • MikeFlynn said,

        October 27, 2011 at 4:51 pm

        How would it have been said in Latin?

      • October 27, 2011 at 5:04 pm

        I poked around at Perseus for a awhile and found Cicero saying languenti stomacho esse “to be with a sick stomach”. I’d want more opinions on this, however.

  3. October 27, 2011 at 5:07 pm

    The word to focus on is “morbus” – I knew I found it when I saw Cornelius Gellius define morbus est habitus cujusque corporis contra naturam, qui usum ejus facit deteriorem The entry for it is here, and it gives pretty much every verb that works with it. I liked the ring of morbo affectum esse or “be be affected by sickness”, which seems like the most precise way to put the reality in question.

    I’m not exactly speaking to the point, though, am I?

  4. Kristor said,

    October 28, 2011 at 1:28 pm

    So illness is a reiterated defective act.

  5. DNW said,

    November 4, 2011 at 7:58 am

    “If this sounds like a description of health to you, you haven’t been sick much. On the other hand, the objection does point to a problem in the privation account. So long as we just trade in synonyms, like “lack” or “absence”, then there is some sense to speaking of the healthy man lacking sickness. Taken in this way, “privation” and “possession/having” give rise to a homogenous dualism- there is in fact no more reason to call one “the privation” except by fiat. But doesn’t this count as another refutation? It would amount to the claim that there is no difference in things between failure and success.”

    I haven’t been sick much. So maybe that is why I don’t understand the “anti-position” framing.

    But in biological terms, isn’t the homeostasis theory still taught? My biology texts in college still referred to the concept.

    Therefore to be thrown off kilter by the action of an invasive organism, seems to be a deprivation clearly enough.

    What is the logic behind considering the non-presence of an invasive influenza virus as a privation?

    It seems the notion of monism would have to be expanded (if the image of that isn’t too comical) to the extent of abolishing the notion of a system’s integrity completely, in order to make this conceptual leap plausible.

    But if you do that you are abolishing things.

    Or maybe I am missing the point.

    DNW

  6. MikeFlynn said,

    November 4, 2011 at 2:54 pm

    I’m thinking, too, that “sickness” may be too generic. When we look at each sickness, matters are more clear. Suppose you have a broken arm? A privation, surely. Suppose a streptococcus is flitting about your blood stream, upsetting the body’s biochemistry. Again, a privation. Suppose one suffers a heart attack? The heart is deprived of its normal operation. And so on.

  7. Brandon said,

    November 4, 2011 at 10:18 pm

    I think James is probably right about the main issue here, that privation differs from negation in that it already presupposes (in some way) something taken as good. Merely not having something is not a privation of it, and it is the not-having that allows the rule of double negation to apply — if sickness is not-health, health is not-not-health and thus not-sickness. Not having is purely formal, we might say. But privation involves an end, and it is the paradoxical (but not contradictory, because it’s not in the same sense) having and not-having of that end that makes the difference; it’s not having the good that is good for the thing in question, in at least a very broad sense of ‘good’. But if anyone either (1) conflates privation and mere not-having; or (2) doesn’t recognize that privation itself involves an asymmetry, due to the different ways in which having and not-having are both important; or (3) doesn’t recognize any real good; — well, then I can see how that would make the privation account of sickness, or of evil, or of anything else, rather arbitrary-looking. But this is precisely because someone looking at it from a perspective to which any of these three apply is simply not in a position to understand what the claim even means. It can be a bit difficult, though, to see how to get people out of the mazes and labyrinths each of these assumptions creates: if you don’t see their incoherence all at once, but only piecemeal, you likely won’t see it at all.

    • DNW said,

      November 5, 2011 at 10:08 am

      Brandon writes:
      “Merely not having something is not a privation of it, and it is the not-having that allows the rule of double negation to apply — if sickness is not-health, health is not-not-health and thus not-sickness. Not having is purely formal, we might say. But privation involves an end, and it is the paradoxical (but not contradictory, because it’s not in the same sense) having and not-having of that end that makes the difference; it’s not having the good that is good for the thing in question, in at least a very broad sense of ‘good”

      After I posted my comment, it occurred to me that I should return and ask if “privation” wasn’t usually taken in the sense of implying the privation of a good; and that only successive abstractions from that premise would allow one to eventually speak of “privation” per se, while remaining in some kind of meaningful context.

      But you already did just that.


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