I kept threatening to write about essences, but never seemed to get around to it.  I’ll now put my money where my mouth is and try to say something at least semi-intelligent...


(Btw, I was going to put this in the machine consciousness discussion because that's where the inspiration came from, but it seems too off-topic, so I've decided to make a new thread.)


An essence refers to what something “is”.  This works by having a set of essential properties or qualities, which act as necessary and sufficient conditions for it to “be” that thing.   For example, I can say of a poodle that it “is” a dog.  This implies that the essential features of “dogness” (an abstract entity, so to speak) are instantiated in that particular (concrete) poodle.  I hope I’m not over-simplifying things here.  There’s a lot more that I could say that doesn’t seem all that relevant, so I’m leaving it out.


As a result of all this, I can say that cats “are not” dogs because they do not meet the necessary and sufficient conditions of “dogness”.  Note the bivalent (0 or 1; true or false; black or white) logic at play here – either something “is” that thing or it “is not” that thing.  Robert Anton Wilson wrote strongly against this kind of “either/or” logic, rightly I think (though perhaps too aggressively at times).  In any case, even if one distrusts RAW, in my opinion Wittgenstein had already effectively demonstrated years ago that there are no essences in the sense just described, and I further suggest that, taken to its logical extreme, his point also implies that we can’t use bivalent logic to describe objects without doing metaphysics.


To illustrate his anti-essentialist ideas, Wittgenstein used the example of games.  He pointed out that there is no essential description that fits all games – no fully consistent set of necessary and sufficient conditions that applies to all games.  This results in a sort of Goldilocks paradox, where any attempt at creating an essential definition either results in a standard too permissive, that lets too many things count as games, or a standard too restrictive, not letting in things that uncontroversially count as games.  For example, if we treat the quality of using balls as a necessary condition, then games that do not use balls are excluded.  If, however, we treat using balls as a sufficient condition, then anything that involves balls counts as a game.


Instead, Wittgenstein suggested that definitions function instead more like a sort of family resemblance model.  Imagine a family that has lots of tall members.  That is, most, if not all, have this quality.  Also, most, but not all, have black hair; and most, but not all, have large noses, etc.  So some might be tall and have black hair, but a normal nose; and some might be tall and have large noses, but not black hair, and so on, for all combinations.  The family resemblance, then, consists of a set of overlapping features, with no, one necessary and sufficient definition that works for everyone.


This generalises to all “objects”.  For example, a while ago, I saw a media programme about technology featuring a journalist trying to decide where computers begin and where they end.  He phrased the question as “what is a computer?”  But if there is no “computerness” essence—no essential definition of computers—then the question makes no sense.  “Is” an iPod a computer?  What about a Smartphone?  In effect, we can only say things like, “for legal purposes, that counts as a computer” or, perhaps, “I don’t consider that a computer”.


Unfortunately, these family resemblance models—nominal essences, if I can call them that—change with time and experience, according to needs or perspective, or across cultures (or subcultures... or even from individual to individual).  Wittgenstein used the rules of tennis as an example.  There is no rule stating that one can’t throw the ball 200’ in the air in order to serve.  But if someone started doing that, a new rule banning it might come into effect very quickly.  In this way, nominal essences can change; they do not have a fixed nature.  (I’ll give a real-life example shortly.)


The situation gets worse, however.  Not only do nominal essences have a fluid and imprecise nature, but we can’t even be absolutely sure we are all using words to mean the same things.  (I believe I am saying something similar to Derrida, where we can’t be totally sure that the same signs have the same referents.)  I don’t think this problem of communication need concern us too much, but it’ll take me too long to explain that point here.  Another post, perhaps.  Anyway, that example...


Kant suggested that two words with same meaning can be used synonymously.  He called this an analytic truth.  The classic example being: “All batchelors are unmarried men”.  But if the meanings of both “bachelor” and “unmarried man” refer to fluid, imprecise nominal essences, rather than rigid and fixed essences—like Platonic ideals, equally transparent to all—then we can’t really say that bachelors “are” unmarried men.  This point was made by the philosopher W.V.O. Quine.  Rigid essences don’t exist – or, perhaps more fairly, we have no right to insist that they exist.  To say that one knows the essence of something seems like bad metaphysics – an article of faith.


A concrete instance of this might help to flesh it out.  Under UK law, homosexuals cannot marry.  Therefore, using Kantian logic, if we know that George “is” gay, one could say that, by definition, George “is” a bachelor.  However, relatively recently, the law was amended to allow homosexual couples to register under “civil partnerships” (a legally recognised partnership, but not technically a marriage).  So if George “joins” with his partner under a civil partnership, “is” he still a bachelor?  One person might want to answer “yes” – a conservative, say, who wants so stick literally to the old definition, because the idea of gay relationships offends his sensibilities.  But a more liberal person might not consider George a bachelor anymore because he is in a legal partnership, which, although it might not be called a marriage by law, to that person, it still counts as a marriage in spirit.


So we can say neither that George “is” a bachelor nor that he “is not” a bachelor, because either description implies that there is a “bachelor” essence we have access to.  Really, we can only say something like “some people consider George a bachelor”.  That might sound silly to some people, but there are other ways in which using the “is of identity” results in dogmatic metaphysical proclamations.  Consider Wilber’s language (paraphrasing from memory, with italics added for emphasis: “... that is beautiful. It really is.”  But if we assume that no one knows the essence of beauty, we should instead say something like, “some people consider that beautiful”.  That adds context and forces us to admit perspective – it changes beauty from an object to a suobject.  (Or considering that socio-linguistic concepts are socially constructed, an inter-suobject.)


Another example, one that RAW used a lot: light “is” a wave and “is” a particle.  Saying instead something like “In some experimental conditions, light behaves as a wave; in other conditions, it behaves as a particle” avoids invoking the idea that we know the essence of light.  I asked a physicist friend today and he agreed with me that this sort of essence-agnostic language seems more appropriate for fundamental science.  Obviously, I know relatively little of physics myself, but it seems to me that if we treat scientific theories as just models rather than literal, metaphysical truths, then we acknowledge our own role in the perception of reality.  The world ceases to consist of “things” that we view objectively, and shifts to a more confusing (but more metaphysically honest) mass of (inter-)suobjects.


That shouldn’t be taken as license to annoy people.  I recommend a charitable reading of everyday language, e.g. we can assume that “the movie was great!” means the person liked the movie.  For metaphysically sensitive topics, however (or other things, if we feel up to the task), I suggest we drop the “is of identity” altogether.

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I'm trying to keep up with Tom and Joel's discussion in the QE thread but honestly it is so filled with technical argot that it is (mostly) indecipherable to me, much like mathematical symbols. But per my last quote above this doesn't mean I'm at a lower level of overall development, just not into math and unfamiliar with specialized language in that particular context. Nevertheless, a few of Joel's statements seem to resonate with some of the ideas expressed in this thread, but I might be wrong. Here are a few excepts of Joel from that thread:

"Post-rational...continuity is already differentiated or folded through and through infinitely.... There are NO fundamental quanta. Infinite divisibility, taken outside of time, is indivisibility.... Continuity is already divided through-and-through.... Quanta are pre-Nagarjunan essences or identities."

Hrmm, re-reading my last ramble/post... well, it made sense to me when I wrote it!  I just meant that if we trace one of the possible evolutions of the concept of essence, we see that "suobject" already does a good enough job at replacing it -- I don't think we need another word.


Theurji, quoting Joel:


Quanta are pre-Nagarjunan essences or identities.


Surely we should say something like, "All our best science suggests that quanta exist as our models suggest, so we can, for all intents and purposes, treat them as true, even though we hold back from declaring them outright metaphysical truths."  I guess I always want to emphasise caution.

Joel (from QE): "Quantum Science, and science in general is still operating on the pre-rational and indeed medieval foundationalism."

Which is of course my claim in this thread, that it appears Tom is maintaining a foundationalism in the same way that Rosch does, and those Buddhist traditions she calls shentong. It's the same criticism of foundationalism by Lakoff with this term 'false reason.'

Hi Theurji,


In the scale of pre-modern metaphysics, modern metaphysics and post-modern "metaphysics", where does "pre-rational" fit in?  Science seems to me largely modern, because it seeks a foundation of self-evident axioms or principles by which it can build up knowledge.

Your anti-foundational view is foundational, yes?

You're mixing and matching terms again. Foundational in terms of metaphysics, yes. Foundational in terms of asserting the kind of metaphysics that posits an ultimate (no)thing (quantum realm, whatever) that is everything (or a totality, whatever), no.

In the scale of pre-modern metaphysics, modern metaphysics and post-modern "metaphysics", where does "pre-rational" fit in?  Science seems to me largely modern, because it seeks a foundation of self-evident axioms or principles by which it can build up knowledge.

Note that Joel called it pre-rational. I happen to think that foundationalism arises with dichotomous reason or 'false' reason, as L&J call it. Science is foundationalist when it too seeks the ultimate part or whole, an expression of false reason.

Recall this post? A snippet:

“Since it harbors duplicity this new ‘center’ does not so much provide a basis for knowledge as a means for understanding the limits of knowledge.”

You really don't get to redefine terms for me Tom. That I accept, anyway.

There are alternatives to foundationalism, Theurji.  Holism, for example -- the idea that beliefs and ideas hang together as a more or less consistent whole.  Quine called this pattern of mutually dependant ideas a "web of belief".  According to him, truth does not build up from one belief to the next in a linear, ladder-like fashion, with an irrefutable axiom at the bottom.  Instead, individual "facts" entail multiple beliefs, in a sort of epistemological circle.  That means absolute truth cannot be demonstrated, because any particular "truth" depends on at least a few other beliefs, and each of those depend on yet more beliefs, and so on.


In this model, then, one's most basic, cherished beliefs are not foundational; they are just relatively secure in the sense that it'd take really good evidence and/or reasoning for one to abandon them.  IMO, holism works much better for "postmetaphysics".  The early 20th century tried hard to create a consistent foundationalism in the form of logical positivism.  It failed, and holism is one of the theories that rose to replace it.

And as I see it infirmitas described pretty much what postmetaphysics asserts. Which includes an hol(on)ism, as well as being empirically grounded in the type of embodied continuity it seems Joel was referencing.
One of the sources of disagreement here is the nature of contradiction and how it is interpreted. Tom keeps finding statements to be contradictory except when he does it, his own being rationalized from some quantum wholeness that accepts contradiction as complimentarity. But again, it's in how we interpret complimentarity. Tom sees Joel's holons all the way down and up as an infinite regress, whereas Joel says that it is so only seen from a certain view that imposes a certain logic of contradiction upon it. We also see this difference in the likes of Desilet's iterability, which too is an infinite divisibility that violates Aristotle's postulate of noncontradiction while nonetheless being a 'center' of sorts (see p. 7 of this thread). Here are a few excerpts from Joel's Sorce Theory where we see something akin to L&J's false reason in the foundations of reason.

“This notion of infinitely divisible, and indeed infinitely divided continuity is perhaps better understood through Gilles Deleuze’s Leibnizian concept of 'the fold'... if we conceive of the division not as time-ordered, but as already existent in the eternal NOW... that mathematical abstraction affords us...then the a priori infinite division itself is equivalent to the order of the uncountable infinity, which is the modern mathematical continuum itself. It is in this a priori and absolute sense, then, that 'infinite division equals indivisibility.'

“Thus by taking the concept of plurality to the absolute scope of first principles (e.g. infinite division) we end up with the indivisibility of the Parmenidean 'Being-now.' This 'paradox of plurality,' Verelst shows, underlies all of Zeno’s paradoxes of motion, and thus what Zeno demonstrated is not that motion is impossible, but indivisible—every segment of apparent motion is indivisible from an immanent and transcendent, instantaneous and eternal 'Being-now.'

“Thus we find that the fundamental principle of Nondual Rationalism was introduced at the very beginnings of rationality itself, but it was originally conceived as a contradiction or paradox. And ever since the Aristotelian introduction of the principle of contradiction—inaugurating the exoteric and dualistic form of rationality to come—dualistic rationality could not codify and operationalize the nondual reality (polarity) underlying the very inception of rationality itself. And so it was conceived as an anomaly to be refuted” (132 -135).



I agree with Theurji that we risk interpreting each other uncharitably if we apply a double standard in our reasoning.  Consider my previous statement (that you agreed with), that "absolute truth cannot be demonstrated, because any particular "truth" depends on at least a few other beliefs, and each of those [beliefs] depend on yet more beliefs, and so on."  In that case, I qualified my statement; but take away my qualification and we have the seemingly self-contradictory assertion that "absolute truth cannot be demonstrated".  Taken out of context in that way, it might sound like I said that I know absolutely that absolute truth cannot be demonstrated.  Obviously though, I only mean that, given the circular nature of epistemology, we cannot demonstrate absolute truth whilst simultaneously maintaining logical consistency.  I could be wrong about that, I suppose, but I'd need a clear and concise argument to show me why -- just accusing me of a "logical contradiction" would prove nothing.

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