Participatory Spirituality for the 21st Century
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.
Very interesting, inf. Especially with highly subjective qualifiers like beautiful, I suppose it just makes sense to make these sorts of distinctions. Thank you.
I'd be a little careful with this, Nicole. This is the sort of move made by Galileo, Locke, Descartes: distinguishing between the 'seems' of subjective states and the 'is' of objective (measurable) ones, which (in Wilber's analysis) led eventually to the dissociation of the value spheres (and the demotion or sidelining of the subjective).
Very interesting, inf. Especially with highly subjective qualifiers like beautiful, I suppose it just makes sense to make these sorts of distinctions. Thank you.
And non- or post-causal thinking (you've used both words) still references causal, so is merely causal thinking in negative guise ... ? I anticipate that you will contest this, which is actually why I make this (linguistic) point: the name 'post'-metaphysical, because it includes the prefix 'post,' doesn't render it necessarily the negative iteration of that which it includes in its name.
In my reading of the sentence by Infimitas you quoted, I see it as a challenge the use of 'is' when it is taken or intended to be a copula relating or equating 'things,' but not necessarily a recommendation to drop the use of 'is' altogether (such a move would, after all, presuppose an 'essence of is').
Something I was thinking about this morning after I first read Infimitas' post: one of the 'casualties' of a challenge to 'essence' is 'causality.' This is something Nagarjuna discovered: causality is used as a tool to deconstruct things-in-themselves (revealing their contingency, their dependent co-origination), but such deconstruction applies to 'causality' as well. The 'is' of thing-in-itself-like identity is dissolved by causal analysis, but with the dissolution of 'causality' as well, we could say 'is' returns in the form of an open (and mysterious, acausal) suchness.
In my reading of the sentence by Infimitas you [Thomas] quoted, I see it as a challenge the use of 'is' when it is taken or intended to be a copula relating or equating 'things,' but not necessarily a recommendation to drop the use of 'is' altogether ...
I’ve said before several times that I think we can still use the “is of identity” in some cases, but never really explained it properly. I’ll try to say what I meant now...
I find it hard to talk about these sorts of things without quoting Wittgenstein sooner or later, so I’ll get it off my chest right at the start. I’m sure you know the beetle-in-a-box parable, but I’ll paraphrase it here just in case you or anyone else needs a refresher.
Imagine there are 11 people – ten sitting in a circle, each with a matchbox, and one referee standing in the middle. When that referee says go, the first person has to open their box and say what’s inside. Then the second person has to do the same, then the third person, and so on.
The ref says “go!” and they start. The first person says “beetle”, and so does the second... and the third and the fourth, etc. – they all say the same thing. Btw, the game is set up in such a way that no one can see inside anyone else’s box. So, are they all referring to the same thing or different things?
The boxes can be understood as an analogy for minds. When you say, “beetle” I don’t know whether you have the same “picture” (to use Wittgenstein’s term – we might prefer “referent”) in your mind as mine. I’ve heard some philosophers suggest that Wittgenstein is attacking the idea of communication, but I think he is just arguing against representationalism. We do communicate, but he suggests language works as a tool, not by mysteriously beaming referents telepathically from mind to mind.
I like Quine’s analysis of this. He used the example of a field linguist visiting a heretofore unknown tribe and trying to learn the language. His guide points to a rabbit and says gavajai. So we have our first word: gavajai means rabbit, right? Well, not necessarily. Gavajai could mean animal. Say the linguist points to a wolf and says gavajai and the native signals confusion or disagreement, or laughs, etc. (It used to trouble me that the linguist would first have to understand their body language, but a lot of our basic communicative mumbles and facial features, etc—what Thomas Reid called “natural language”—is probably enough to get us started.) Then we know it probably doesn’t mean animal in general. But maybe it means small animal? So the linguist points to a cat and says gavajai. Again, the native laughs...
This process continues, each time the linguist presumably getting closer to the native’s meaning. But the linguist can never be 100% sure of what gavajai means, he just eventually gets to the point where he uses the word in conversation without any obvious difficulties ensuing. At this point, to borrow a Wittgenstinian term, we can say that he is playing the same language game as the natives. He hasn’t completely “fixed the ontology of meaning”, to use a horrendous, philosophical term; he’s just got to the point where he’s reasonably sure he’s communicating okay. I think that’s all we can ever do.
Note this suggests a non-bivalent attitude towards truth. The linguist can’t say that he considers his understanding of gavajai either 0% accurate or 100% accurate, but always somewhere in-between. I don’t think we need to worry about “seems” sounding like some sort of Cartesian separation of subjective from objective, as we learn to use the tool of language in the world. There is no subjective-objective correlation at work, just inter-suobective play, all the way up. To me, “seems” just entails a probabilistic attitude towards truth and communication, and in any case, context usually makes what is meant (relatively) clear.
So I can probably get away with saying “George is not a bachelor” with friends, with whom I have some confidence that they are playing the same game as me. But with strangers, who may be homophobic or just ultra-conservative, etc, I might want to play it safe and just avoid the “is of identity” in that context altogether. Exactly where the line occurs between danger and safety... well, I don’t have an algorithm for it; we just have to decide subjectively – when it seems appropriate. I’ve only applied this language template strictly in the last few posts as to illustrate my suggestions, and to avoid sounding like a hypocrite, but normally I just don’t bother as it feels like too much work. (I feel inspired enough to stick with it now though. We’ll see how long that lasts.)
Also, bear in mind that even if I say “I do not consider George a bachelor”, while I may have avoided the “is of identity”, there is still an implicit reference to “George” and “bachelor”, etc. This does not have to suggest that these words imply totally rigid essences, but it does assume sort of a minimal shared understanding. In this sense, we never completely escape the dangers of miscommunication or the ambiguities of language. On an older version of this forum, a former member once told me that Derrida said we can never truly escape metaphysics. At the time, I didn’t really get it, but now I realise that language necessarily implies assumptions of meaning. Minimising essentialist language doesn’t completely free us from metaphysics, then, but hopefully it will at least help reduce bad metaphysics.
Yes, certainly, some 'finition' of the word - some qualification and differentiation-from -- is involved, but is such differentiation on the same plane, at the same 'octave,' or not? You are implying, it seems to me, that post-metaphysics is a same-octave movement as the perspective which it is critiquing ("still in thinging modality"). How do you 'hold' the 'post-' that you have affixed to causal in a number of your posts? What does that mean for you?
You appear to be using metaphysics here as 'beyond physical,' where 'physical' corresponds with 'thing,' which is not the meaning of the 'metaphysics' of postmetaphysics. If 'beyond' in 'metaphysical' is taken to refer to some formless realm 'outside' of or alongside or underlying the physical realm (I don't think this is primarily what you are saying), that is metaphysical in the sense that postmetaphysics critiques (not because postmetaphysics rejects 'spiritual realities' and only embraces the physical realm, but rather because this view still trades in thing-thinking, where physical and non-physical are held in symmetric-polar form and where one or the other may be embraced and the other rejected, as we find, for instance, in materialism or idealism). But if 'metaphysical' points to a way of looking in which representationalist thing-thinking is transcended, that is what is meant (here at IPS, or at least by me!) by postmetaphysical. :-)
If this is indeed what you mean, yes, I'll buy that T-shirt and wear it proudly.