Nature and Hypostasis/ Person (II)

Our idea of nature oscillates between a source and a sort of thing, and it’s not clear what sort of bridge we should make between them. We figure out natures by looking at what things do, and in this way we are looking for a source of action; at the same time we are trying to classify the thing, and so we are looking for a sort of thing. Considered in the first way, the nature of something is the heart of something – its innermost core from which everything else flows; considered in the second way, nature is an element in a classification system. Nature in the first way is that which is prior to operation, nature in the second way is that which prescinds from the individual and is other than the generic. Briefly, the division is between nature as heart and nature as essence.

Now in considering everything other than uniquely human actions, the difference between these two aspects of nature is minimal. Whether one sees Fido as barking out of some inner font of activity or as an expression of a canine essence is a barely intelligible distinction; whether one accounts for the flowering of the cherry tree in my front yard by essential principles or by some individualized interior source doesn’t seem to vary the explanation much. We can recognize a difference between the heart (which is in the hypostasis) and the essence, but it is not a remarkable or useful enough distinction to bother naming. This is not the case with human beings: person has no corresponding term in other species, nor is one necessary to describe their actions. Person marks out something different, though it is remarkably difficult to articulate what sort of difference is being indicated.  Is “person” just an honorific term, which does not indicate that something makes a person different qua hypostasis? This seems too minimalist: for if person is just a term of dignity, wouldn’t heart (meaning the center of the person) be just a term of dignity? But heart seems to be more than this. Similar problems appear to arise if we try to say that the difference is only in degree. So this is the moment where we tend to shout out “ANALOGOUS!” to solve the problem. This may be fine and even necessary, but it shows us where the explanation should start – it is not itself the explanation.

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1 Comment

  1. Kristor said,

    November 20, 2012 at 8:08 pm

    Two responses. First, my interactions with my pets indicate to me that they are indeed persons; that they are hypostases with hearts peculiarly their own, and not existing only as naked instances of some canine or feline essence, that have no inwardness. When they feel joy or love, it is not as caninity or felinity that they are feeling it, but as themselves – as Fido himself or Kitty herself – loving or enjoying.

    At least, I cannot understand their outward acts in any other way that seems to do justice to the fullness of those acts, and that, for example, justifies and grounds and makes rational my emotional responses to them. I don’t react to their misbehavior the way I do to a machine’s misbehavior. I get angry at them in a personal way, that is simply not present in my anger and frustration at my computer. I treat them as responsible agents, able to do other than they have done. Not so with the computer, however enraged I might be at it.

    Not that the need to ground my emotional responses is dispositive. But it is at least an indication; the appropriacy of my responses to my pets is not something I consciously make up, but on the contrary is natural (to my nature) in the same way as my responses to bright or dim light are not something I consciously invent or do, but come as part of the package of my body. As my physiological responses to light do actually indicate something about the nature of light that is a real aspect of its character, then, so my emotional responses to my pets might faithfully indicate something about real aspects of their characters. I react to them as persons – as prosopoi, outward presentations of the inwardness of hypostases. So that might truly indicate that they really are just that.

    Second, does it suffice for us to say of a thing that it is a person for us to say that there is something that it is like to be that thing? If there is something it is like to be Fido, does that make Fido a person? Or do we also need to add that for a hypostasis, what it is like to be that thing includes some knowledge or understanding that it is that thing? I.e., to say that Fido is a person, we might have to say not only that there is something it is like to be Fido, but that as an aspect of what it is like to be Fido, Fido must realize also that there is something it is like to be Fido. And such a realization implies an inference to some alternative ways that it might be like to be Fido. If this is so – if being a person entails, not just feeling x, but also knowing that one felt x and that one could instead feel y or z (thus, a distinction in what it is like to be a person between the bare feeling of being the person and the feeling of being the person who is feeling x, y or z) – that would give us a way of understanding what it is like to be an automatic decision engine, with voluntas.

    Can you will one thing without knowing about other things you might will? It is hard to see how, but this might be a limitation of my own perspective. Still, it seems like a stretch to call a desire for only one thing that is wholly ignorant of all the other possibilities by the name “will.” “Causal vacuity” seems like a better word for that. Try as I might, I cannot understand my cats as causal vacuities.

    Sorry for all the tortured sentences.


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