Intelligibility in the World of Experience

Written by on December 6th, 2013. Subject: Philosophy. Filed in Epistemology, about Ontology Maritain

|||Maritain, Jacques, and Bernard E. Doering. Untrammeled Approaches. Notre Dame, Ind: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997.|||

Lady Philosophy By virtue of its internal logic, such [an ultimately univocist] conception would imply a kind of emanationist position (the ultimate term of the secret tendency, stronger than the philosopher himself, of every univocist philosophy toward monism). p.83.

Let us begin with what might appear to be a rather startling statement: There are many paths to pantheism, among which I include pure empiricism. Now, this is likely to be a shock to my readers. Certainly, Spinoza’s one substance and many modes is a clear type of pantheism, and the Hegelian Geist that is thrust into history surely is a type of pantheism that is quite moving—philosophical pun intended. Still, to say that that empiricism is a sort of crypto-pantheism is likely quite strange to one who uses the term “empiricism” in its semi-colloquial meaning, “An epistemology that reduces everything to sense experience.” Still, I maintain this to be the case, and will take you, my reader, on a brief reflection on this topic.

My thoughts on this matter were actually first brought out when considering a section of Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange’s Le Réalisme du Principe de Finalité1. However, the metaphysical apparatus involved in that text requires detailed discussion in order to treat the overall insight in a fair manner. Instead of a long article, I would like to keep our comments focused—though I do hope some day to speak of the integral relationship between act and potency, analogy, and the inexorable logic that quickly and easily can lead one to bow before the Urgrund that is really prime matter. Let us set that aside for now, merely remembering what Aquinas said of dear David of Dinant, who made the same error: stultissme dixit—he spoke most foolishly.2

I would like to take as my point of departure what Henry Veatch found to be rather shocking in Quine’s Method of Logic: “Physical objects are known to us only as parts of a systematic conceptual structure which, taken as a whole (my [i.e. Veatch’s] italics), impinges at its edges upon experience....Our statements about external reality face the tribunal of sense experience not individually but as a corporate body.”3 The resolution of concepts proposed by Quine is such that individual objects are only isolable within the horizon of an entire framework of concepts—“only as parts of a systematic conceptual structure.” Now, for an Aristotelian, there is a sense that a formal whole gives intelligibility and activity to its parts—the human arm is only such as part of a functioning human whole. Still, within the overall framework of an Aristotelian analysis of “physical objects,” there are substantial wholes that are cores of intelligibility that can be isolated. We might say that we only come to know a tree by noticing how it interacts with its environment. Nevertheless, we do not say that the tree is defined by its environment. Formally, a tree is defined as set of real potentialities and activities—the environment is not so much a part of the definition as it is an existential correlate to the activities. In any case, one most definitely needn’t have a definition of the whole structure of reality to understand the notion of a given substantial whole.

Quine’s remarks at first likely seem sane and perhaps even anodyne, as though to say, “Our whole body of observations must cohere into a single picture of reality.” Certainly this is the normal way that we proceed with a number of judgments, following a sort of simple-man’s coherentism in order to verify our factual statements. Still, this does troublingly reduce the subject of our predications to “the world,” which is the only “coherent whole.” That is, it is the only substantial source of intelligibility. Everything else is an accident that is understandable vis-à-vis that one substantial core (or, better and more truly—world) of intelligibility. Veatch makes an observation that might be lost on contemporary readers in comparing this to the idealism of F.H. Bradley (of Cambridge in the late 19th / early 20th century), for whom reality (as a whole) was the subject of judgment.4 Still, at work in a nominalist-empiricist scheme is something akin to this sort of idealism, which is—I argue—a covert form of pantheism.

I would merely note the tendency in a remark made by Hobbes very early in the Leviathan: “Concerning the Thoughts of man, I will consider them first Singly, and afterwards in Trayne, or dependence upon one another. Singly, they are every one a Representation or Appearance, of some quality, or other Accident of a body without us.”5 Note in particular: “Of some quality, or other Accident.” The analysis never gets any further than this, and while special consideration must be given to the peculiarities of Hobbes’ thought, the Kantian ding an sich is already present in these early forms of modern epistemology. As soon as substance and accident aren’t seen in correlation, you end up with an unknown thing-in-itself upon which are plastered a congeries of accidents. However, if all the things in themselves are unknown, you soon must posit—ala Kant, in the final analysis—that substance itself is a fundamental category of cognition. We might structure things as subjects / substances, but ontology will no longer hold that there is a substantial nature that is revealed through common and proper accidents. A world full of unknowns is ultimately a single unknown world.

This might seem like a polemical remark, but I must insist that the élan of such reasoning leads to a swirling set of predications of accidents that are at best “glued” to the unnamed particulars about which I spoke in my last article. If reality is ultimately comprised of a set of absolute, characterless Xs to which are attached extrinsic predicates, it is not impossible that all Xs will become themselves part of the mythical products of what Quine has elsewhere called a “swollen ontology.”6 As he states at greater length, “These myths are on the same footing with physical objects and gods, neither better nor worse except for differences in the degree to which they expedite our dealings with sense experience.”7

When we say this, we must ask, “If they are mythical constructions, then what are they in reality?” We might say, “I know not. They are the unknown.” However, if this decision limits us to stating that we can only have a periphery of sense experience, which is always structured in some way, the world remains a grand whole that is the term of all definitions. We ask, “How do I know that this is ‘material?’” The only answer that can be given is, “It coheres with the body of knowledge that I have of the world.” I will call this thing “matter”—with J.S. Mill—“the permanent possibility of sensation.”8 However, let us remember—with a light-hearted smile—that is just one of the myths that have arisen from the Urgund of “reality as a whole.”

This is, of course, to claim that the subject of all predication and intelligibility is the world of experience itself. In one shade, this is a form of idealism, but it is not wholly unrelated to pantheism, for all qualities and accidents thus are predicable only of a single whole. We find likewise that this whole is completely unknowable, completely undetermined. Such would be the same as stating that reality is what the Medievals called “prime matter.” This would put us into a position that is more similar to that of David of Dinant than we should wish to admit in polite company. Were we to hold a position like this, I could only say, “Stultissime diximus.”

About Matthew Minerd

Matthew Minerd Matthew Minerd, PhL is a PhD student at The Catholic University of America. His research and reading interests are the history of the Thomistic Tradition, 20th Century French Thomism, and sundry topics metaphysical and ethical.

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  1. See in particular, Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, Le Réalisme du Principe de Finalité (Paris: Desclée De Brouwer, 1932), 212-225. 

  2. See Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I, q.3 a.8: “Sed tertius error fuit David de Dinando, qui stultissime posuit Deum esse materiam primam.” 

  3. Henry Veatch, Realism and Nominalism Revisited (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University, 1954), 68n40. 

  4. ibid., 68-69n40. 

  5. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Richard Tuck, Rev. Student ed. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University, 1999), 1.1(p.13) 

  6. Willard Van Orman Quine, “Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” The Philosophical Review, Vol. 60, No. 1 (Jan. 1951), 42. 

  7. Ibid. 

  8. John Stuart Mill, An Examination of Sir William Hamilton’s Philosophy and of The Principal Philosophical Questions Discussed in his Writings, ed. J.M. Robson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979), 177-187.