Definition as grasping, Part II

When we considered definition as a grasp in the above ways, it helps to liken it to how the hand grasps something. When we consider a grasp as a kind of touch, however, it helps to distinguish it from how the hand grasps something. At first glance, this need to distinguish the touch of the hand from the touch of the mind might seem strange or irrelevant. Why don’t we just ignore the sense of grasp meaning “touch” when we consider how definition grasps something? Again, do we speak correctly if we say that definition “touches” something? We must speak of grasp as a touch, however, because we are forced by the word itself. If we move the word “grasp” to have a meaning for both the hand and the mind, then we have already moved a sort of touch to have a meaning for both the hand and the mind. We simply need to grasp the sense.  

 

When the hand touches something two surfaces touch. Surfaces touch because their material parts touch exteriorly. Although a definition has parts, we must see them at once as different from material parts. To take only one essential difference, the defined parts of a thing must be said of the thing, but the material parts must never be said of the thing: we say Socrates is two-footed, but never that Socrates is his feet. Definition, therefore, touches the thing defined in an essentially immaterial way. This is obviously not to say that the thing defined is immaterial; but rather that to touch something by definition is an activity that flows from an immaterial principle, i.e. an immaterial beginning. We will say more later about the importance of seeing definition as an immaterial grasp, but we pause here only to consider the importance that one’s whole philosophy is right: notice how an error in Metaphysics, which is the last science that we should learn, leads unavoidably to an error in Logic, which is the first science that we should learn. Said another way, Metaphysics judges materialism, and Logic judges definitions- and yet a materialism of any sort makes it impossible to grasp very basic things in Logic.

 

Again, when the hand grasps something two surfaces touch exteriorly. But as we said above, definition is a perfect grasp of something, and a perfect grasp of something cannot be called a grasp of its exterior, for touching on its surface is more like a superficial or sophistical understanding. Definition, therefore, touches the defined thing in the sense that it gets to what is innermost and most intimate in the defined thing. Definition takes this idea of intimacy from an intimacy it learned first from the hands (a mother’s hand, for example) but it leaves aside the idea of the exteriority of the touch.

 

Notice the paradox in definition touching on something. On the one hand, touch gives the most rudimentary and imperfect knowledge, and on the other hand, it is proper to speak of definition as getting to what is innermost and most intimate in things. This is perhaps only a paradox when we consider it too abstractly, for in our concrete experience we find nothing strange in the fact that we are touched most deeply by something that in fact touches us only on the surface. We grasp a deeper and more causal reason, however, when we look at the nature of touch itself. Touch is the most basic sense because it directly preserves existence, for it makes us aware of the need to eat and seek shelter.  Man, however, can experience his existence as what is most foundational to him, and therefore as a certain fount from which all other realities spring. Touch first makes us seek lower things and merely exterior things, but later names what affects us most interiorly; just as man first understands his existence as nothing but the need for food and possessions, and later understands it as what is most interior and intimate.  

   

     

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