The “House divided speech” and the impossibility of some compromises

Lincoln’s claim that the issue of slavery made America “a house divided” was politically toxic, and Douglass never let him forget it. Douglass hammered him with the quotation over and over again, and it played no small part in Lincoln losing the election.

Lincoln’s claim was absolutely remarkable. The immediate sense was that slavery admitted of no possible compromise, for compromise only postponed the moment when one side would get everything it wanted,  and the other would get nothing. Immense sub-groups of the nation would have to abandon beliefs that they considered absolutely nonnegotiable, and live in a nation where these beliefs would be given no place at the table. Why say this? One answer would be to note that is, in fact, what did happen. Whatever else one says, Lincoln did turn out to guess the right result – which needs to be balanced against his playing such a large role in the result itself. Still, no reasonable person could think that Lincoln did everything that was required to make our nation “all one thing, and not another” – since this took many actions that he did not intend, and others that happened only after his death.

The most profound reason why Lincoln thought that there could be no compromise on slavery was simply that the only process by which the compromise could be executed could not be used to compromise on slavery. The issue was principally whether the institution would be allowed to expand, and any expansion required a governing body to be indifferent to whether slavery was wrong. As Douglass put it, the members of the other states, and the Federal Government itself, had to be indifferent to whether slavery was voted up or down in, say, Kansas. But  Lincoln put it, there’s simply no way that you can consistently hold that a.) slavery is wrong and b.) you don’t care if slavery is voted up or down. One can sometimes tolerate evils where they already exist, but the expansion of slavery demanded more, and, in Lincoln’s mind, it demanded a moral impossibility.

There is, however, a less profound but more subtle reason why compromise on slavery was impossible. The American character simply doesn’t allow for it. We can sin against the belief  in human equality, but we can never eradicate the belief. There are all sorts of benefits to living in an Aristocracy, but Americans will never be able to enjoy any of them. There are all sorts of reasons to hold that nature makes a  superior class of men that are destined to benevolently manage an inferior class, and  all sorts of perfectly happy, well-adjusted, and even just regimes hold this. But Americans can no more live in a nation like this than Italians could live in a nation where everyone was punctual and spoke with their hands gently at their sides.  Jefferson went too far in saying that “the world is awakening to the realization that some men are not born with saddles on their backs”- it was really only his nation that awoke to that, and in fact it was precisely in their awakening to this that they became a nation. This is exactly what we try to symbolize and celebrate every year with all those fireworks. We simply can’t see various strata of persons, some of which are best ruled as subjects to be well-disposed by others. We admit of precisely two political/ ontological classes: there are persons, who are our equals in one way or another; and there are non-persons or things, which can be harvested happily and sold at Wal-Mart. A being called “a slave”, however, demands a third category. Other nations have such a category. We don’t and never will, and all attempts to construct such categories can only postpone the inevitable.

Visualizing the unity in the two divisions of being

Following Aristotle, St. Thomas says that being admits of two divisions: one into substance and accident; another into act and potency, and as St. Thomas develops the second one, being principally means esse. St. Thomas gives no reason for this duality of being, or any way to understand the relation between the two meanings, which leaves the reader wondering if metaphysics isn’t simply arbitrarily dualistic – but I am aware of no good account of how one can understand the unity of being resolving both to substance and to esse.  One way to understand this is to consider that the concept ens or being (taken as a participle) is indifferent to being a subject or a predicate. If we consider it as a subject, being is principally the individual, whole and subsistent of itself- that is, substance. If we consider it as a predicate, being is principally the most communicable and formal- that is, esse (as opposed to some potency or lesser act).

Once we see this division in ens, we then have to figure out the unity of the term. Presumably, the first unity of the term would be revealed in truth that being is being. If we take each of these terms in the principal meaning that it has as subject and predicate, however, it is not a mere tautology asserting the identity of something with itself, but a statement that only can be true if God exists, for it means what is individual, one and complete in itself is its own act of existing. Seen in this way, the creature is a certain participation or nothingness. Thinking of ourselves, in comparison to the unqualified sense of “being is being” we can only say “being is being to some extent” or “being is not being.”

Is it possible to give a scientific explanation of a sign?

Say you have some X that can signify one thing or another, or even nothing at all. It follows that it can’t explain why it signifies one thing or another, or even anything at all. But this is the same as saying that X can’t explain the existence of signs. When I say X “can signify one thing or another” I mean something very broad: like (in contemporary terms) “there is a possible world in which X could mean something other than it does, or even nothing at all”, or (in common speech) “it is possible for this to signify something else, or even nothing at all”.

Yet it’s clear from experience that anything observable is an X. The letter “a” means something completely different in Latin, French and English, and nothing at all in other languages; the word “rosebud” means one thing in a lexicon and another very different thing in Citizen Kane; the action of lighting a cigar means nothing in everyday life but it can signify “John Dillinger is leaving the theater”. Even natural signs share in this: smoke can signify both fire and “Troy has fallen”.

If this is the case, nothing we now popularly call science would suffice to explain the existence of signs as signs, since any reduction to an observable reality is of no value as such, and absent this we don’t have anything that we would now call science. Thus, any proper study of signification would have to analyze its subject by reducing it to unobservables. If you follow and accept this argument, you have already started doing such a science.


This morning I dreamed I saw a new scene from The Breakfast Club. Like the movie, all of them were sitting around and speaking in one way or another about how they should respond to what they had done. After everyone had spoken, one of them stood up, and said in a moment of true self- realization said “You know, the only parts of us that aren’t self-absorbed and boring are scary and fascist.”

The Modern problem as a denial of categorical relation

There are widespread beliefs that a.) William of Ockham was a Nominalist and b.) The school of Ockham consisted in a denial of universals. One doesn’t need to get very far into the lit to figure out that both beliefs are false: “Nominalism” was a term invented by those who wanted to discredit a school and which Ockham never self-applied; and Ockham himself insists that there are veritable universals in the human mind. One is tempted to let Ockham off the hook in the celebrated controversy of the objectivity of thought, but in fact all that we have done is forgotten the original reason why the Ockhamist school was blamed for denying objectivity: its denial of categorical relations. All of the same lit that absolves Ockham of Nominalism and denial of universals confirms that he denied the real relations outside of  the mind, and that everyone in his school held to this. But this is what the Thomists who fought against Ockham objected to, and they saw in his denial of real relations a denial of the objectivity of thought. As John of St. Thomas says:

[H]ow does the understanding form pure respects, if it has only absolute things or relations secundum dici as the pattern on which to form them? Relations formed by the understanding therefore will be mere figments, because they do not have in the order of being independent of cognition pure and true relations on whose pattern they are formed.

A note first: a relation secundum dici is something that is properly in the category of substance, quantity,  quality, action or passion, but which is spoken of and understood with a certain relation to another. Man has an essential relation to society- even qua man- but man is not a relation, but a substance; a number has a relation to a unit, but a number is not a relation but a quantity, etc. In other words, if there were only relations secundum dici all relations would reduce to a category other than relation. Considered objectively and entitatively, therefore, all being would either be 1.) a subject, or 2.) something whose whole reality was being in a subject. For St. Thomas and the Thomists, there is a third possibility: there is an accident whose very existence is to be to another. The whole reality of this accident is not its being in a subject (this belongs to it only as an accident) but in its being towards another. Indeed, this “being to another” is exactly what is formal to it.

Notice that, if one denies the reality for this third sort of being, then all being is either subject X or something wholly existing to subject X. The sort of existence that is now called “intentional” is simply impossible. All reality either is a subject or points inward to its subject, and so we are left utterly befuddled how one would get to an object, or how any of our concepts or signs could refer to an object. All this sort of existence clearly points outward to another. Note carefully- and this is absolutely critical- signs need not be in the category of relation. This is why John of St. Thomas does not say that the signs or concepts are relations but that they are formed on the pattern of relation. But when we recognize the reality of categorical relation, the “problem of objectivity” becomes a non-sequitur, for it simply is not the case that all reality is exhausted either by subjects (like a mind) or things that wholly point inwards to that subject as modifications of it. Once we recognize the reality of relation as something we could use as a pattern to form a concept, asking how a mind gets to an object is like asking how a father gets to a son. Some reality is simply to another- and we do not invent this reality ad hoc to explain knowledge, rather we come to the problem of knowledge knowing that there is more to reality than a subject and its modifications.

Thus, while Ockham is not a Nominalist, nor does he deny that the mind has true universals, we Thomists still argue that his teaching on relations, if followed to its logical conclusion,  leads directly (and almost immediately) to the celebrated modern problem of objectivity, and ultimately to the post-modern denial of the possibility of any non-arbitrary connection between signs and concepts on the one hand and reality on the other.

When we notice the significance of Ockham denying categorical relations, we see more clearly why he is the father of the via moderna. After all, the soul of modern thought is not so much an explicit teaching on universals, but a struggling with the “problem of objectivity”. For we Thomists, this problem is not a pseudo-problem, or a “Cartesian turn” that caught everyone unaware with a deadly objection, or a mental illness that needs to get purged by backgammon, kicking a stone. Most of all, it’s not a problem that we explain away by saying that the objectivity of thought is just obvious or proved by some mysterious intuition of objectivity. Rather, the problem of objectivity is simply the inevitable consequence of the (usually tacit) belief that all that exists is either a subject, or something whose whole being is a modification of that subject. Sad anther way, it is a consequence of the (usually unproven) denial of the reality of categorical relations.

On Apocalypse scenarios

A recent post by Jeff Culbreath at “What’s Wrong with the World” spoke to a theme which, I trust, everyone has seen a few times:

Respectable (and not-so-respectable) pundits have been predicting a worldwide economic collapse for the better part of three years now. The advice of these “doomsday investors” to their wealthy clients amounts to this: buy rural property, preferably a self-sufficient farm, somewhere far away from the big cities; and stockpile essential supplies, especially gold, guns and ammunition. It’s an old idea that is becoming mainstream.

Arturo Vasquez responded sharply:

There is something uniquely American about these disaster porn type fantasies about the collapse of civilization. Sort of like saying: “well, now is my chance to live how I want to, without the interference of the gummint!” I think Mr. Culbreath does knock that sentiment down a couple of notches towards reality, but the fact that people make an industry out of it (and make movies about it) says a lot about our culture. The truth is, we have so much, and are afraid of losing it. But fear makes people do all sorts of stupid things.

I was living in Argentina when their currency devalued in 2002 and the presidency changed hands a couple of times. Maybe they are more used to that stuff down there, but in spite of what the media made of all of it, cats didn’t begin to marry dogs, it didn’t start to rain frogs, and life continued on pretty much as usual. The more realistic scenario in this country is that we become more like a Third World country: the rich get richer, and so forth. Heck, the upper class of Sao Paulo, Brazil, can’t even drive down the street for fear of kidnapping, and they fly home in helicopters.

While such social stratification is far from desirable, it is also far from societal collapse. All the talk of building a wall on the border with Mexico will soon be accompanied by a quieter movement to build walls within to keep the growing lower class out. Maybe that is my own “nightmare scenario”, but it has already happened in many parts of the world, so why not here?

I’m particularly bad at reading tea-leaves, and so I’m not the one to decide who has the better argument. But Arturo does a very good job at raising the question of whether apocalypse scenarios are too optimistic. When confronted by decadence, authoritarianism, and a sense that ones liberty is slipping away, it’s easy to comfort oneself with the notion- no doubt supported by plausible arguments – that the system will soon be swept away by economic and political collapse. But for one who sees the apocalypse coming, it is more horrifying to contemplate the possibility that the system might not collapse- and that ten, forty, or a hundred years from now, America will feel pretty much the same as it does now, even after a few more financial meltdowns or wars- or even after the apocalypse. Isn’t there something horrible about this? I think so- who wants to think that even an apocalypse can’t change “the system”? But I lean towards thinking that something like this horror is true – after all,  if the people have become so habitually rapacious or complacent to rapine that collapse is inevitable, they will carry these same habits with them into the world that must sprout up after the collapse. Whatever you build after you smash “the system” must be built by those who have only ever known “the system”. We think that there must be some purgative effect in starting from a clean slate, when in fact we can only give the clean slate to the very people who have just written what we wanted to erase.

Perhaps the hope that we invest in an apocalypse is not a natural hope, that is, it is not for something that nature or a political association can provide. Perhaps as soon as we are talking about real change in a natural or political context, we are not talking about something that can’t be achieved by dramatic transformations, but only by slow, plodding, frustrating, incremental ones. There is something unsatisfying about this, and which should lead us, to some extent, not to seek satisfaction in what nature or human ingenuity can provide.

The Neo-Parmenidean Analytics

Edward Feser’s Aquinas gives a wonderful summary of Frege’s objection that existence must be attributed to concepts, and not to things (pp.55-59). The proof, if stripped of its Analytic jargon (like “property”, “first and second order properties”- which are not essential to the proof) is this:

1.) A thing (call it X) either has existence or it does not.

2.) X is either an existent being, or a concept.

3.) If X is an existent being, then an existent being either has existence or it does not.

But the consequent of 3 is obviously false, especially in the case of negative existential judgments, like “Martians do not exist”; for this is the same as saying “existent Martians do not exist”. So when we say “a thing either exists or not” the “thing” is a concept. Our existential judgments, as Kant argued first, are conceptual and not existential.

Notice, O careful reader of the pre-Socratics, this is Parmenides’s objection! The only difference is claim 2: whereas Parmenides divided being and non-being, the Analytic philosophers divide being and the concept. This is perhaps unimportant, since we Thomists are more interested in claim #1 anyway. This is exactly the sort of claim that shows the importance of dividing what is said simpliciter from what is said secundum quid. Absent this distinction, we end up assuming that anything that is not a being simpliciter is simply speaking nothing, that is, that whatever fails to be a being in the primary or unqualified sense of the term must be completely non-existent. But there are obviously other options: sc. to be in some way and to not be in some way. These are exactly the sorts of distinctions that allow us to see the reality (or existence) of potency, which both the Analytic philosophers and Parmenideans are blind to.

There is some X in the real order that receives the “property” of existence (put in scare quotes since these terms have to be taken so broadly that it is questionable that they can even be used) but this X is formally, and of necessity, a potency, which is neither a being nor a non-being simpliciter, but only secundum quid, or in some way. There’s nothign special about Martians: so far as anything is considered as receptive of existence- as an X- it neither exists or does not exist simply speaking, but only in some way. Feser speaks of this as being “existentially neutral”- that is, as potential to existence. The supposed Fregean contradiction dissolves into a claim as docile as a lamb “Martians (considered as potentially existing) do not exist”. Since the potential can be both under act and not under act, there is no contradiction in supposing some things considered as potential as existing, and others as not.

What receives existence- the “X” in the original argument- is essence. Seen in this way the difficulties of the argument are best resolved by seeing the real distinction between essence and existence, such that the latter is more communicable and more verifies the sense of being. The difficulties of the argument are resolved in the realization of  the non-generic character of being, which in fact is due to the real opposition of being (taken simpliciter) and limitation.

Diverse experiences and kinds of evidence

All of St. Thomas’s five ways begin with things manifest to sense, and in this way they can be seen as a cultivation of experience.  Nevertheless, neither this experience nor its cultivation sanctify us. I don’t mean anything Barthian by this, still less am I trying to draw a line between the God of the philosophers and the God of Abraham. What I mean is that sanctification is a moral change: one becomes holy; that is, he goes from acting in one way to acting another, from not doing some things to doing them, from hating one set of things to loving them. But the change that one goes through in learning a theistic proof is not a moral change. One acquires a great good when he comes to know a theistic proof, but it is not the sort of good that makes him go from being a bad man to being a good one.

But while moral changes aren’t the same as coming to know, they do presuppose a sort of knowledge, and therefore a sort of experience and cultivation of that experience. Here again, the theistic proof is not exactly the right sort of experience. Why is this? Because moral action requires an ability to act in concrete circumstances, while the theistic proof prescinds from concrete action and its particular circumstances. But what kind of experience doesn’t prescind from the concrete, and yet shows us how to act in it? I know of only one sort of experience that can do this: personal experience- that is, our relation and common life with our parents, friends, spouses, and members of our society. This is what constitutes our education in how to act (for good or ill). Consider the difference between how you would prove the claim “This man is my father” and “My father showed me how to treat women well”. The first asks for either scientific or reliable eyewitness testimony- you get a paternity test or an affidavit from someone in a position to know who your dad is. But we give evidence for the second claim by telling a story, or enumerating concrete actions. There is also another indispensable part proving the second claim: I have to show that I actually act in a certain way, and I can only show it to someone who himself knows how to treat women. Someone could refute the second claim by showing that I am abusive to women, and I couldn’t prove the claim to someone who thought it was appropriate to beat a woman for failing to add enough salt to the potatoes.

If God is primarily concerned with our sanctification, then our primary experience of him will be personal. The experience will therefore not have the sort of abstraction from particulars that allows it to be common to many, and will not be teachable as a science is teachable. The sort of experience that empowers us to act in a moral way (or which corrupts us morally) is incommunicable, or, said another way, it is communicated by the modeling of an action to someone who responds to the action as a friend. And yet the experience is no less rational or evidential for being concrete, personalized, and incommunicable.

(Notice the primacy here is on the diversity of experience, not of evidence or even of propositions. This is empiricism.)

A fresh look at form and matter

For a fresh look at form an matter, we can consider form what is communicable to the individual, or what it has commonly with many, and matter as what can only be this then that then something else. This is close to the original idea: remember that Plato looked to forms as the unity among many. Form, at least in his most famous account of it,  is the participated or common.

Another way to look at them: form is what is common to many simultaneously; matter is what is common to many only sequentially – by being this then that then something else.

Here again, we will have to find new meanings for form when we leave the material world, but the need to take limited concepts as points of departure to understand the unlimited is the lifeblood of metaphysics.

Essence as the first limit

A concept places a limit around a thing, enclosing it (a concept is just a “grasp”- which is why we visualize concepts as Venn diagram circles). In the intellectual order, the concept is the first limit set on things, dividing them off from one another. In the real order, it is essence that corresponds to concept. Essence is thus the first ontological limitation, and  any doctrine of essence is tied up with a doctrine of the primary limitation of being.

But then in what sense does it make sense to speak of the divine essence? Only in an extended way, and here again we should approach this new meaning of essence through a new meaning of concept. Though the first sense of concept is the limited or hedged in, a second sense signifies the process by which we use this limited thing to know some other. Whereas we visualize the first thing called “concept” as an enclosed line, the second sense of concept should be visualized like the “male” symbol:  a circle with an arrow pointing to another. This is the (transcendental) analogous: when a concept becomes a principle not of knowing what is contained or enclosed, but of what is other than the contained or enclosed. The other which is known is not necessarily limited, though it is understood relative to it. Nevertheless, to speak of  “an unlimited essence” is the same as to deny that the being so described has an essence in the first sense of the term.

The limited is secondary in two ways: to what is unlimited in its own order, and what is unlimited simply. We might divide these into an intrinsic unlimited and extrinsic unlimited. Within its own order, the act of the limited as opposed to the limitation, is prior, though this act does not subsist of itself but only in the limited being; simply, we have that whose very nature is to subsist without limitation.

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