Lights of the world.

Light has the indeterminite, general meaning of that which makes something known. A light of the world, then, makes the world known. The first light of the world is animals, for through animals the universe knows itself according to its appearence; i.e. exteriorily. Man is the second light of the world, for he makes the inner nature of things known, and he even makes the creator known, but only as a term or cause of the natural world, and in this sense he is only known exteriorily. Christ is the final light of the world, for through him the inner life of God is known to the world. Just as sense knowledge stands to intellectual knowledge of God, so too does intellectual knowledge stand to th eknowledge granted through revelation. In the fullness of human intellect according to human power, God is known as unknown and as a negation of creatures; in the fullness of human intellect according to the divine aid, God is known in his interior life.

Jottings

-Man is an immortal, timeless being that lives immersed in the changeable and temporal. A sign of this is how we continually speak about how things “are” when in fact they are more typified by a complete lack of determination; we speak of genera, classes and types of things- and these universals never come to be or pass away, even though all things within them pass away.

-Once, after some awful experience (it was really only complaint, but…) I thought “If I had only thought about Christ this whole time I would have been happy. All that time was wasted”

-Translators are not traitors- there is no malice. Translation is a sadder affair: like being a cook who can offer someone the meat but not the sauce. Vergil or Catullus in translation? Baby- back ribs cooked dry in a frying pan.

Two ways to take the axiom “whether you deny philosophy or not…”

Aristotle usually gets the credit for first noticing that whether one denies philosophy or not, they must philosophize. The first way of understanding the axiom is as showing a certain necessity of philosophy: we can’t call it useless without using it; we can’t call it pointless without conceding its points; we can’t claim it’s unknowable except in virtue of having some idea of what we’re talking about. When we take the axiom in this way, we are inclined to see everyone as a certain philosopher, or at least capax philosophiae– disposed to philosophy.

But an old thomist pointed out to me that there is a darker side to the axiom: after all, it begins by saying “whether you deny philosophy…”. In other words it says that the denial of philosophy is a sort of philosophy. The axiom forces us to divide the very thing we call philosophy into two camps of thinkers: the philosophers and the anti-philosophers. This is, of course, the sort of positive value judgment that makes all modern people break out into hives- regardless of who and what they value.

Hives or not, though, the force of the axiom still haunts us. We can politely refuse to acknowledge any thinker as an anti-philosopher, but this in itself constitutes a philosophical opinion. This kind of polite refusal, which can persent itself as a kind of prudence or charity or some other angel of light is in fact one of the more insipid perversions of charity, and it deserves to be pulled at the root.

Another note on the cogito

Here’s how I read the cogito argument in the Meditations: Descartes is looking for something certain, and he understands certainty to be what does not admit the slightest doubt. He then turns to his own doubt, which he sees as an instance of his own thought, which he sees as an activity of his own existence. All the way through, Descartes is speaking about the same experience, in other words, the very same inner crisis of his doubt is seen first as “my doubt”, then as “my thought”, then as “mine”. The bones of the argument are:

What admits of no doubt is certain
My own existence admits of no doubt.
therefore, etc.

The argument is perfectly true, but it is the next step that is the critical one: what kind of argument is it? Specifically, what is the nature of the middle term: “admits of no doubt”? Anyone can admit that what admits of no doubt is certain, but is something certain because it admits of no doubt? Does Descartes intend for us to see him as giving the proper cause of why his own existence is certain, or is he merely involved in a kind of dialectical process that is manifesting why “my existence is certain” is in fact something known in itself (most things that are known in themselves, or self evident, require a certain amount of dialectic to see; for “the self evident” is known to all in the sense of being immediately known to those who know what the terms mean).

The argument boils down to this: what does the word certainty mean? Certainty does not mean everything that is true about certainty just as “man” doesn’t mean everything that is true about man- otherwise the word man would mean “sometimes skilled at playing Backgammon” or “eater of ice cream”. We simply don’t experience certainty as a kind of lack or emptiness, namely the lack of doubt. (it’s hard to even understand what “lack of doubt” means, properly speaking, for doubt itself is kind of emptiness or falling short, so what could it mean to “lack a lack” or “fall short of a falling short”? All this only opens the door for meaningless chatter and infinite regress: can we lack the lacking of lack, too? How about falling short of the falling short of falling short, and so ad infinitum?)

In other words, if one takes the cogito argument as a demonstration in the proper sense of the term: i.e. as giving a cause, then the argument is simply false. Read most charitably, then, Descartes is simply trying to manifest something that is known in itself by a certain dialectical movement. But we also need to note this: to deny that the argument is demonstrative also amounts to a denial of the primacy of doubt, it would solve the problem of doubt in a elegant and simple manner to say that doubt presupposes certainty, just as any privation is only understood in relation to the positive state. Doubt about anything presupposes certainty about something.

Two accounts of Physics

Everyone from Thales to Einstein agrees that the fundamental science that studies the natural world as natural is called physics, and they agree that this science studies mobile things as mobile. There are two approaches to this science: one that distinguishes motion and rest as contraries, and another that identifes uniform motion and rest as states. The first of these is evident, but the second needs a short explanation: a “state” appears to be a condition which, if it happens to the measurer and the mobile, makes the measurement of motion impossible. For example, we could never measure a difference between a mobile we were on that was resting, and a mobile we were on that was moving perfectly uniformily.

If we distinguish motion an rest as contraries, the most distinctive trait of motion becomes its lack of determination. This is evident from the terms: for if we oppose motion and rest, then no mobile can be in a determinite place, for then it would be resting in it. The case would be similar for any other kind of motion. Also required for this motion is the ability on the part of the mobile to change: a car might drive from here to there, but it can’t drive from here to the color green- the motion does not have that kind of potency: hence we call such a scenario absurd, or, more to the point “impossible“.

If we identify motion and rest as states, we lose this idea of indetermination, and so we have no need to see motion as a kind of lack. We also see no need to attribute potency or possibility essentially to the mobile. This second kind of physics, then will see no need for the ideas of act, potency, and privation in an account of motion, and so will see no need for them in explaining nature either. It is obviously not wrong to do this any more than it is for any other science to not pay attention to what is outside its subject manner. But the science does err if it claims that it is the only possible account of nature.

Cogito, ergo sum vivens II

We experience our own life: we can know ourselves moving our hands, looking places, satisfying desires, feeling our heart beat. No one doubts that properly human actions are for the sake of something, but how are these actions executed at all? Only by the use of our organs as tools: hands, eyes, belly, neurons. Our life is both through these tools, and in them.

One sense of “the struggle for existence” UPDATED

Natural things can struggle for existence in a way that artificial things cannot. If I carve a sculpture of a man out of a potato and plant it in the ground, what grows is not another sculpture, but another potato. Natural things have something within themselves that struggles to exist against any impediment that happens to be thrown in the way.

This struggle means different things for different natures. On the lowest level of nature, struggle means only preserving the nature by an interior principle, with no involvement or activity of a self. In all living things, however, there is some self- activity, at least in the execution of the action (what eats? That particular plant or animal… What heals itself? again, that particular plant or animal). Living things also have a self activity that they do, not in virtue of their particularity, but as members of a species: reproduction. In all of these activities, there is a source within that struggles against any obstacle put in the way. Nature, however, exists prior to the struggle, and could exist without it. Nature, in other words, only struggles per accidens.

Cogito, ergo sum vivens

I think therefore I am. By the same experience, and with the same certainty, I think therefore I am alive: because for me to exist means to be alive.

The scandal of Christianity

Christianity is a scandal because it claims to be rational, for whatever is true is an end of reason, and Christianity claims to be true. There is no scandal in claiming that all men are fallen in a merely mythological sense, or in claiming that some man is a divine redeemer in a merely “meaningful way”, or that there are are three divine persons in one nature according to some “deeper religious truth”. The scandal only comes when you insist that these things are rational: that the Trinity, Incarnation, and fall are, well, facts.

Nature, in itself, is neither particular or universal.

A fly lands on my window. “A fly” clearly has one meaning, but I can mean both this particular thing, as particular, or I can mean what sort of thing the individual is. The exact same meaning can be subject and predicate, particular or universal. This allows for four possible meanings: a universal subject “A fly is an insect” (where the subject applies to all); a particular subject “A fly landed on my window” (where the subject is taken as indicating this particular one); a universal predicate “The horsefly is a kind of fly”; particular predicate “I just killed a fly” (where we mean this particular one).

These are all examples of the old observation that nature, taken in itself, was neither particular or universal (our account of what “a fly” means cannot be explicitly tied to the particular or the universal). It was the denial of this idea (admittedly paradoxical when expressed abstractly and without examples) which was the first principle of nominalism. The nominalist would protest- reasonably enough- that the individual was all that exists. This led to an assertion of existence for the individual as opposed to the universal. Whereas before the very same thing was neither explaicitly a principle of the thing known, as known, (i.e. a universal) nor the thing known, as thing (which was understood to only exist as a particular) on the supposition of nominalism, the thing known as thing (the objective) was- or at least had to be- explicitly determined to the particular, as opposed to the thing known as known (the subjective). This constituted an irreducible dualism from which the philosophy that is distinctively modern has never been able to escape. Even the philosophy that calls itself “realist” is just another articulation of this fundamental nominalist principle, for realism means to be certain of the existence of an “external object” that is understood to stand opposed to the subject.

« Older entries Newer entries »