Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Notes on the Notion of Identity


1. Identity comes from a medieval Latin abstract noun, which denotes the quality of selfsameness. Identitas is the relation each thing has to itself.

2. Today when we talk about “identity”, we usually mean the selfsameness of persons, and there are a number of presuppositions that go into the grammar that governs our use of the word.

3. A rigorous delineation of these presuppositions would take the form of an archaeology of modern ethical thought: we would look at Kant, Kierkegaard, Mill, the rest. Others have done this work before — this is a great mercy, because it excuses us from the need to run through lengthy expositions and narratives, and leaves us free to isolate the principles.

4. The fundamental moral principle of identity is ancient. Its most famous expression is taken from the Delphic Oracle: Γνῶθι Σεαυτόν, know thyself. The commandment leaves unstated the promised benefit of self-knowledge, but there are so many different benefits that follow from it, one can fill in the gap as one pleases.

5. No matter how one describes the benefits of self-knowledge, what is assumed is that there is something to be known, and that the nature of that thing is crucially important. The old humanists believed that what was to be known was humanity as such, by which all other things are measured. The Pyrrhonists believed that in coming to know our own ignorance, we would achieve peace in the impossibility of knowledge. For the Stoics, it was the difference between one’s inner freedom and the determinism of the outer world. And so on.

6. For the modern grammar of identity, the “what” of identity is a hypostasis we call “the self”. The grammar of identity today is a personalist grammar, in particular it is an essentialist personalism. What does that mean?

7. We know from Boethius that a person is an individual substance of rational nature. Today we associate personhood with conscious individuals (setting aside all the qualifications and disputes). Personalism is a kind of ethical atomism. Atomism is a kind of metaphysical materialism. Therefore we need to start with materialism.

8. Since “matter” is defined as that out of which things are made, i.e. the component parts of things, “materialism” is a broad name for any method of analysis which attempts to reduce things to their common parts. Atomism is a particular species of materialism, in which the reduction terminates in the identification of a species of discrete, indivisible singular things.

9. Personalism is an ethical atomism. This truth is profound and can produce several layers of insight. For our purposes we will stop at the fact that for a personalist the fundamental unit of moral analysis is the conscious individual. Every moral analysis is in terms of individual persons, and no moral analysis is possible on an interpersonal or sub-personal basis, without returning in some way to the individual person.

10. There are many possible varieties of personalism, but when we speak of identity today, the personalism that comes into play is an essentialist personalism. I.e. a personalism in which what gives identity to these ethical atoms is not their distinctness as separate instances of a common species (e.g. humanity), but an essential “what-ness” determined on the level of the individual.

11. The “what-ness” or essence of individual identity is not thought to necessarily distinguish one from every other person, but to establish a personal kind, the perfection of which one is then called to live out.

12. In fact the great paradox of the elevation of Identity to a prime moral principle is that while it seems on the one hand to promise the liberation of the individual from the impositions of a general moral code, in fact because the personhood invoked by our “identity” discourse is an essentialist personhood, we end up being called to discover and participate in a narrow type of self. Just when one expects moralism to have vanished, it reappears in the form of an ethics of authenticity.

13. Authenticity is based on the idea that one’s self ought to be the origin of one’s behavior, which means that if the self and the manner of life are inconsistent, there is a moral failure. The existentialists call this variously “despair” or “bad faith” or simply “inauthenticity”. To thine own self be true, oh Laertes.

14. The unacknowledged problem faced by all of us as we attempt to discover our selves, is that the self is not easily interrogated. We who place such a high premium on obedience to the Pythia’s command are totally inept at obeying it. Instead we turn to the mysticism of inner inclinations, romanticism about emotions and appetites, and we baptize those inner voices which speak most frequently and clearly to us as our “true selves”.

15. The pressure is tremendous, though. One dare not resist the call of the self, lest one fall into a state of inauthenticity. What shame would follow from this fundamental dishonesty!

16. And so we end up enslaved: to the quest for the self, to our base appetites, which we mistake for the voice of our inner truth, to socially constructed types of identity into which we pigeonhole ourselves.

17. The most remarkable thing about principles of identity is that one can see all the characteristic features of classical virtue ethics tucked away within them. Inauthenticity, the failure to live out the type of self one “truly” is, is a great shame, is dishonesty…

18. The problem is ultimately reducible to a misidentification of the nature of a person. Where do persons receive their natures? From their species. The species is not a type of self or an individual identity. For all of us, it’s quite easy to identify: our species is humanity.

19. Because we are materialists about the visible world, we tend to be gnostics about our inner lives. Man is a rational animal. An animal is just a complex bunch of gears and springs. But gears and springs are not selves. To be a self is therefore not about one’s species: it is radically interior and incommunicable. Etc.

20. But because the human mind has a virtually ineradicable habit of intellectual first principles, it tends to look for the nature of whatever it fixes on. If the self is a thing, the self has a form, a nature, and if it has a form, it has a form that can be perfected or defective or shared.

21. For our personalists, the basic human quest is still a quest for virtue and excellence and happiness, but the problem is that these things are sought relative to a nature constructed by the mind, a nature that is essentially unintelligible (and therefore amorphous, formless, unreal)—a fictitious nature.

22. And yet if we replace this fictitious nature of selfhood with the genuine identity of humans—humanity—things fall into place quite readily. How?

23. Inauthenticity, the failure to be true to one’s nature, is indeed a shameful thing. It is dishonest, because in classical terminology honestas is nothing other than the rectitude of the will and proper order of the passions in accord with the true perfection of one’s nature. As Thomas says, the honest man possesses a certain claritas, a luminosity of soul, which makes him beautiful.

24. What gives the soul clarity? In crystals, clarity comes from the purity of the substance (the absence of anything foreign to or contrary to the order of the whole), and from the collective alignment of all the parts in the proper order. Clarity in human nature comes from the alignment of everything in us: all our powers, passions, appetites, our emotions, ideas, and interests, in the service of the perfection of what we are, our human nature. To be an honest man, to possess clarity of soul, is to be free from all impurity and contrary inclination, to know the good clearly and to desire it totally, so that in every act one tends perfectly toward it.

25. The notion of claritas brings us back to Delphi. Who is it that knows himself? Who obeys the oracle’s command? We know what things are by seeing them, and the best instances of a species show us by their perfection everything it is to be that kind of thing.  

26.  And so we conclude: The one who knows himself truly is the one capable of self-knowledge, the one whose various inclinations and ideas are so aligned with his human nature and whose desires so accord with the good of that nature, that his own life becomes crystalline, achieves the claritas necessary for humanity to shine through him, to be revealed in whatever he does, so that he can see himself as what he is, and everyone else, beholding him, can say “That is a virtuous and honest man.”


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Some addenda:

A.  Notice that by substituting a socially constructed "identity" or "identity type" for the reality of human nature, we more or less guarantee that the quest for honesty ordinarily productive of the virtue of temperance produces instead all the vices directly contrary to temperance.

B.  The honest man knows himself because he is an exemplum of human perfection, and also because in his purity he is particularly suited to recognize the truth about things.  Both in the act of knowing and in the object of knowledge there is a real superiority of intelligibility.

C.  The extreme proponents of the ethics of authenticity generally compound their personalist essentialism with voluntarism, so that the self is not merely discovered but created by an act of radical recognition of the groundlessness of one's identity.  Existentialist personalism of this sort is so practically unintelligible that it remains irrelevant, except as another fog bank we can dive into in the struggle to "find ourselves".

D.  One wonders how long the delusion of identity types can be sustained.  The cynic can point at them and ask cui bono?  Because the expression and cultivation of the self normally takes place in the consumption of particular types of goods, there is a strong interest in various mainstream and niche markets to encourage the ethics of authenticity, because it gives a moral imperative to consumer behavior.  

E.  Additionally, because the identity of the self is plastic and amorphous, it is easily shaped by modes of speaking, and can therefore be reshaped by the transformation of stereotypes and typical associations.   Who teaches us what it is to be human, has the power to teach us the types of human, the species of identity, and to regulate the expressions of those identities by stigmatization and approbation, both direct and indirect.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Decree on the Sacrifice of the Mass

From the 22nd session of the Council of Trent
Promulgated 7 September 1562

The sacred and holy, ecumenical and general Synod of Trent--lawfully assembled in the Holy Ghost, the same Legates of the Apostolic Sec presiding therein--to the end that the ancient, complete, and in every part perfect faith and doctrine touching the great mystery of the Eucharist may be retained in the holy Catholic Church; and may, all errors and heresies being repelled, be preserved in its own purity; (the Synod) instructed by the illumination of the Holy Ghost, teaches, declares; and decrees what follows, to be preached to the faithful, on the subject of the Eucharist, considered as being a true and singular sacrifice.


And he went up from there into Bethel...

My new blog image (for marketing purposes!) is taken from a 14th century dutch bible, and is the illumination of the passage from 2 Kings 2, in which Elisha, returning from the assumption of Elijah, finds himself being mocked by a group of children, and summons bears to devour them.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Some Thoughts on Definition

1.  The word "definition" signifies the specification of the limits of a thing.  Limits make clear the unity of a thing—what it is, what it is not.

2.  We can distinguish between the definitions of things and the definitions of terms.  The definition of a thing marks out the limits of a thing.  The definition of a term marks out the limits of a term.

3.  Terms are obviously just another kind of thing.

4.  The kind of definition appropriate for a thing will depend on the manner of its existence: is it a substance, a quantity, a quality, place, time, relation, position, habit, passion, action?  In each case, what is required to mark out the limits of a thing will be different.

5.  The more a thing has being in itself, the more a the specification of its limits will tend to capture what is formally distinct about it.  Thus places and times, relations, positions, habits, passions, and actions are defined relatively and with a degree of indeterminacy.  Their determinacy comes from the substances relative to which they are defined.

6.  Terms have an accidental existence.  They exist as features of thinking and speaking agents, and as means by which the minds of those thinkers and speakers maintain a real relation to the things referenced by the terms.  To say that they have an accidental existence does not mean that they are not real, or that they cannot be spoken of without reference to any particular agent, but that it belongs to them to exist in a subject distinct from them: terms do not form an abstract set of things apart from the people who think and speak by means of them.  Insofar as they exist, terms always exist in people.

7.  What is a term, then? A term is a form abstracted from things, held in the mind, and associated with a particular verbal sign.

8.  What is a sign?  A sign is anything that directs our attention beyond itself.  Terms differ from signs in that a term does not simply direct one's attention, but is a means by which we reference a thing.  The term stands for the thing.

9.  In terms, the verbal sign directs our attention to the idea immediately, so that in practice the sign and the idea become indistinguishable.  The association between the two is formed by habit.

10.  Because in terms the idea and the sign are always joined together (except in moments of forgetfulness, when we cannot remember the word), the use of terms exists in a mutual causal relationship with natural language.  (Much more could be said about this)

11.  How do we come to possess terms?  How are they formed?  Most terms are acquired by the observation or indication of some formal aspect of things.  We notice something about things and ask "what is the word for that", we encounter a word and inquire after its meaning, or perhaps we invent a word to express some idea we have come upon by ourselves.  (Much more could be said about this as well.)

12.  It should be noted that the "things" abstracted from need not be outside the mind: they can be phantasms of the imagination, or constructed ideas based on forms already held by the mind from experience.

13.  Though every term must refer back somehow to something abstracted from things outside the mind, a particular term need not stand for anything real. It is in the power of the mind to combine the apprehended aspects of things in ways not yet apprehended.  We combine certain aspects of goats with certain aspects of men, and construct in our minds an idea, which we name "satyr".

14.  A definition specifies the limits of a thing, of what it is, but by what means?  If I draw a line around my property is that a definition?  Not exactly.  A definition employs terms to specify the limits of what it defines.  A definition expresses the form of one thing in other terms.

15.  Definitions are principles: they are attempts to grasp first of all what sort of thing is being discussed.  But they are principles not in that they found the subject of discourse, but because they are the first attempt, on which much of what follows depends.

16.  An incorrect definition will not necessarily corrupt every element of one's discourse on the subject of the definition, but it indicates error and will tend to produce errors as one goes on.  (Parvus error in principio, magnus est in fine.)

17.  If one errs in the definition, then one's grasp of the subject is wrong: the idea does not conform to the reality.  And this lack of conformity will continue to manifest itself as things proceed.

18.  So what makes a true definition?  A definition expresses the form of one thing in other terms.  This is to say that we do not define a rose by saying, "It is a rose."  We define it in terms of something else, something more general, and then proceed to distinguish it from other variants of that more general form by giving a difference specific to what is being defined.  Thus "genus" and "difference" determine a species.

19.  Definitions always take the form of a categorical judgment: "A is B."  "[Thing Defined] is [Genus] with [Difference]."  In the genus/difference predicate, the difference modifies the genus, so that the generic form stands for the substance of what is being defined, and the difference acts as an accidental form added to the genus, even though often this is not the case.

20.  Because to be a thing is to be one, in every definition of a thing, there is something which stands in for the substance of what is defined.  In other words, it is impossible to produce an adequate definition which reduces a real thing entirely to qualities.

21.  This was Berkeley's difficulty: by choosing to admit only qualities in his analysis of things, he became incapable of accounting for their substance, and was forced to reduce their unity to the one substance he could not easily deny: himself.

22.  Definitions of things seek to reduce the essence of things to terms.  Definitions of terms reduce the essences of terms to other terms.  When defining natures outside the mind, one always has the thing itself to get in the way of error; but terms in the mind are mutable and shifting: when brought into relations, they shift in order to accommodate each other.

23.  If the purpose of terms is to more readily direct the mind to forms and aspects of forms in reality, then a terminological system will be better the more it grasps different forms under different aspects.  Our lexicon of terms must be at least as diverse as the real forms we attempt to reference with them.

25.  In order to bring various terms and forms into proper relationship with each other, their distinctness must be preserved.  In order to form a true (i.e. correct) hierarchy of forms in thought, one needs to give individual forms room for dissimilitude from any primary term.  This space of dissimilitude is provided by analogy.

26.  Without analogy the only legitimate connections drawn between terms are univocal.  In this case, one tries to unify all the objects one encounters under whatever aspect can account for everything univocally.

27.  Of all the aspects of a thing, quantity abstracts most perfectly from what it is.  This is why mathematics proceeds so effectively without the use of experience.

28.  How do we define things?  We define them by what they are, what they do, what they tend to become, what they are made of, and where they come from.  But especially the first two.

29.  Each thing is united in what it is, its act.  To define a thing is to specify those features of its act which cannot be removed without the destruction of the thing—those features which preserve its unity, which give reason to the acts of all its parts.

30.  Quantity always presupposes a unity (this is because quantity is an accidental feature of things).  Quantity always presupposes a kind or form.  If someone says, "there are 43.5" this means nothing without specification of a form, or unity of kind.

31.  We observe this when we try to define a particular quantity.  What is "two"?  Russell's famous definition is "the set of all dual sets" or "The set of all sets S such that S contains two non-identical elements."  But what is an element?  And by what are these elements non-identical?  Two itself is identical in all its instances, since it is a mere quantity, and yet whatever it is by which there are two of anything seems not to be a quantity.  And if not, what is it?

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