The ideal audience for this blog will not wish to read this post. This is for my more problematic readers.
Of course, seeing that this blog is about four days old, I am taking some poetic license when I use the terms reader or audience.
My ideal audience, those who will get the most out of these posts, are those contemplative readers who bring little philosophical baggage with them. Particularly, they are people who are not all that concerned with the philosophic history which attends a theory of forms (what is often referred to as the problem of universals).
Surprisingly, I am not all too concerned with such a history myself. Platonists no doubt scoff knowingly here; Aristotelians raise sententious eyebrows, and nomanalists shake their heads in disbelief that there are still flat-earthers out there like myself.
If all this sounds like gobbledygook to you, feel free to skip this post. Read on at your own risk. Today’s post is for those who ask the following:
Why a theory of forms?
I propose to briefly and insufficiently answer this question in four parts:
- Things share in sameness
- Sameness is not just something the observer imposes
- God’s creative speech is formal
- I am not proposing a thorough going theory of forms
1. Things share in sameness
When we look around us, we recognize similarity. We see two trees, diverse and yet sharing in similarity (visible and analogical similarity). we see them in a similar way that we see family relations. We see another person and recognize them as such, as an other who is somehow the same.
While we certainly refine and perfect this ability as we mature, it is not something that is merely a social custom. We do not just learn to call other human beings human, but instead have something in common with one another, and that something sets us apart from other things. We call others and ourselves human, homme, hombre, etc., because there is a reality we share and consequently we find a name for it.
This differential recognition is part of the structure of our language, but even more deeply, our sensing, our thinking, and our very being. This will be addressed in the second series in on this blog (Arithmetic Cognition).
2. Sameness is not just something the observer creates
As was said above, we do not arbitrarily stuff certain things into certain groups, though we do have the ability to do this. Consider these groupings:
A. Spoons B. Knives C. Forks
A. Spoons, knives, forks B. hats, shirts, shoes C. sun, lamp, flashlights
A. cats, t-shirts, ink B. Knives, blocks, rain C. Trains, seasons, trees
A. Cats B.trees C. dogs
A. Animals B. Mammals C. Whales
These different kinds of groups will help us talk about what it means to be a group, to think about the reality of kinds. Kinds is another way to talk about forms or universals (something common to a class). Are kinds something that we make up, or is their a shared reality for certain classes?
Grouping III represents the power of the mind to group. We are capable of placing anything into sets. This displays the ability of the mind to separate and distinguish. Grouping III does not depend on the natural formal sameness of its members. However, in order to be grouped they must all be something (objects, concepts, words…) While this capability is deeply significant to how we think, it is not yet demonstrating that there exists natural sameness.
Grouping III is arbitrary and abstract. It is possible because we have abstracted from the particularity of each thing. One thinks of each object in Grouping III merely as an object. Thus such a grouping ignores what is recognized in natural and particular kinds.
It is most of all in Grouping IV that natural sameness is represented. All cats are cats, all trees tress, and dogs dogs. Well, duh!
But some would say that such classification is merely the work of human language, merely the imposition of the human mind upon different things. There is no such thing as cats, but certain animals which are very similar, and so we call them cats. Or from an evolutionary standpoint, it is an accident which produced the fact of cat, not some eternal form.
Let’s address this issue. While there are borderline cases (wolves and dogs; fish and whales; moths and bees) it seems that this is not something that we impose upon nature. There is already sameness out there, even if that sameness isn’t some eternal form. In other words, we can so classify things, because the world bares the structure of “same and other”, and not in a vague and abstract sense, but in particular. And each particular creature (ignoring the Weekly World News) seems to beget, in the process of reproduction, a like creature
When I group cats (Grouping IV), I am considering the appearance and nature of cats. I am looking at the things themselves and yet seeing something common). There is a special sameness they share that is part of their very being and particularity.
When I group a spoon, a cat, and a helmet (unless their is some accidental pattern I have missed, or some imposed pattern, such as: a list of Brandon’s favorite objects) I refer not to their look, but merely to the fact that they are.
This is really all that is meant by form, a nature which gives a thing its thingness. A cat would neither be, nor be a cat without some nature. But a single cat cannot possess cat any more than any other cat. There is a reality which exists, if not independent of particular cats, than throughout. And this reality is not simply their similarity but a nature, a look which they share, even as they are quite different (Siamese, Lion, Manx, etc.). Thus our knowing a cat is caught up in knowing ‘cat’.
This knowledge is not merely a cognitive abstraction, but a word which stands in living relation to the creatures and also to those who know the creatures. I will say more about this thing in the next section.
Grouping V is a bit more complicated. Is a term like mammal or animal a real form. After all, I do not see a mammal or animal that is generalized and walking about. I only see particularized kinds. While animal may not be a governing form, in the sense that the form of animal creates the form mammal which then creates cats, it is still a real distinction, possible only in the study of things and not in the abstraction of mind alone.
The question comes up, to what extent is the form of cat separate from instances of cats. This is the parting of Aristotle and Plato. This blog will not answer that question. Though the next section will address it.
Let’s look at one final example. Grouping II is interesting because they are not the same creaturely form and yet they share a certain look or species. They are not the same essential form in terms of their inner structure, but in terms of purpose or function. A shoe does not have the look of a hat or shirt, and yet it does share an invisible look: they all cover! They are all clothing.
So it seems there are different kinds of looks: natural species; purpose; composition, shared characteristics… In certain cases we merely see family resemblance, in others we recognize something shared in a different way. We recognize the structure of same and other in a vast, if not infinite array.
I have not mathematically demonstrated that sameness (or kinds) exists naturally. In fact, it is not possible. For sameness is another way of talking about nature. Nature is a starting point for philosophy, a kind of first principle without which progress cannot be made. For Aristotle, Plato, Aquinas, etc., nature was the fact (the ground of wonder) from which one could begin to think.
This section just served to suggest that sameness, and sameness of look or kind, is indeed present in nature. It is something as plain as the noses on everyone else’s faces. It is something we recognize rather than artificially impose.
Aristotle might put it this way:
3. God’s creative speech is formal
Is there really something that is a cat? Or are there only cats. Is there something that is cat, floating out there, or only instances of cats? Where and how does the form or universal exist?
A theological point of view can be helpful here. No thing, whether justice, or cats, or even the world just floats out there. Rather, everything is ordered, contained, contextualized and sustained by God. God creates by his Word, and He creates things according to their kind and calls them by name.
‘Word’ in the scriptural sense of God’s speech is not meant as empty signifier, but meaningful communication. God says “let there be light”, and there is that thing which he intends and means as light. God says let there be fishes and seas, and those things are as they are meant to be.
God creative word implies both nature (kind) and existence. There is an intentional, purposeful, and governing word which creates, delimits, and sustains the nature of everything individually and as a whole. And each consecutive and later instance of such a creature stands in relation, not only to its genetic parent (which passed the reality of its word on to it), but to God through the original act of divine speech which constituted the reality of its kind.
Now, there is an interplay between God’s Word as his very image and the creative words which are likenesses thereof, but that will be addressed in later posts.
It is enough to say here that word functions in a similar way that form does. It is that which orders and sustains each being; it is that which describes each nature and nature as a whole; it is that which gives each creature its distinctive look; it is that which we look to in order to understand nature.
This last point may be unclear. How do we look to God’s word(s) to understand nature, don’t we just look to nature? God created fish. To understand fish, don’t I just look at them? Aren’t the fish the words of God. Yes and no.
A few points:
- Each fish and all fish are a word of God
- They are ordered and collected by logos: a defining word
- yet that word is in relation to God and at the same time separate.
- each fish is not the WORD of God
- But each fish stands in relation to a single word
- We do not call a single fish ‘fish’, but more accurately ‘a fish’
- that word constitutes God’s knowledge/intension of their kind (or form)
- We cannot just look at one fish to know a fish
- We look to fish, but also to the whole in which they live (sea, world, cosmos)
- The interplay between one fish and another, between all fish and other animals, between fish and environment, and fish in the cosmos, suggests an interplay between words and other words (and finally Word)
- I cannot look at a fish or the word fish outside of context
- The very fact of the need for context suggests that I do not see fish merely by looking at them
- But what do I look to?
- I must move to something less visible, like place, intention, relationship (think of Grouping II)
- But it is not enough to merely compare
- There must be a governing order and meaning in itself
- If words just get meaning from other words, there is no meaning
- There must be a hierarchical and participatory structure of meaning if things are to mean anything
- Without such a structure there are just things, not a world or cosmos.
- But it seems that most things for the most part have a proper place and proper way of being (i.e., nature)
- Nature implies kinds (forms) and also kinds in relation to other kinds
But does this mean Platonic forms?
There need not be Platonic forms, but there needs to be some deep ordering structure which gives each thing its nature, sustains it, and puts each nature in relation to other natures.
There is a family structure to beings and this family structure is real, even if there is no family without particulars. God’s mind and purpose provide the context and individuated meaning (nature and Nature), the sustaining word and structure of each family. Thus God binds all fish together with a his word which calls them into being, and yet binds them in relation to other words as he creates an ordered whole. Finally the cosmos, the totality of creation is created in the context or Word of his very nature (the Logos or Son of God).
This structure imitates language (much like the linguistic Saussure understood it). Each word signifies a concept, but also has meaning only in the context of language as a whole.
We can think of divine speech acts as the declaration and institution of individual natures, and God himself through his Word as instituting order, purpose, place, meaning to the whole.
Thus, each kind of creature and creation is a separate sort of being, and yet each being is a reflection of God who is being-itself. (this will be unpacked in later posts). The separateness of kinds indicates an intentionality and a purposiveness of nature.
In other words, God does not create each fish as utterly separate, but within and under the family or look of fish, a form or family which he knows. Form or look (word) is the way that God looks/beholds and shapes his creation. Thus God as creator has an idea/word which binds each of the kinds together in being and knowability, and an overarching Word which binds the whole.
4. I am not proposing a thorough going theory of forms
Here is what I have not said:
- Creation is Platonic
- Forms are fully separate from creation and are far off in God’s mind
- Fish are not really fish, just images of a form
- there is a divine form for everything including chairs, laptops, C++, and bubble gum
What I have said is that there is the structure of sameness and otherness in creation, a structure which is not simply imposed from without. Rather is an aspect of God, who is Word, creating through words.
This structure of sameness and otherness is alike to the structure of language. This structure means we know things contextually and individually, and that knowing cannot merely be ‘sensing’. The kind of sameness and otherness which gives the world and objects of the world meaning is related to but also more than sensory observation. In later posts, it will hopefully become clear that such knowledge has the structure of analogy and metaphor. It will also be shown to arise out of the Trinitarian nature of God.
So while a classical problem of universals deals with problems of duplication, and what objects do or don’t have forms (universal invisible things that make them), this inquiry is beginning with the belief that their are kinds which we recognize, and those kinds are dictated by the knowledge and words of God. Whether those kinds are eternal or not, we have gone a long way if we accept the reality that kinds do indeed exist. For if we have accepted such a reality, we have accepted what has classically been understood by the term ‘nature’.
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