Saturday, January 24, 2009

Topological Thomism PART ONE: The Error of Place


With a brevity and precision that I have grown accustomed to expect from this commentator, the terrain of the so-called 'problem of universals' has recently been mapped out ---this time however, for the purpose of an introduction to a precautionary note regarding what might be called the 'non-phantasmic' character of intellection:

"The problem of universals is usually explained as a problem of where a universal is. We are told there are three options: the universal is in the thing, or not; and if not, it is either only in the mind, or it is outside of it."

Reiterations of this sort have the advantage not only of succinctly circumscribing a presupposition that has long since donned the mantle of self-evidence. Much more than this, such reiterations circumscribe it for the first time as something self-evident, as something which has in advance been granted, as something presupposed. For those engrossed in philosophy as a problemgeschichte, this presupposed terrain of the 'problem of universals' is as unworthy of our attention as the ground beneath our feet. To offer such a 'problem-historian' a map of this terrain would be for the first time to awaken in him an explicit appreciation of bedrock assumptions on which he stands, thereby simultaneously offering him the opportunity to consider how it is that things are not otherwise. But this turning, which does not so much turn one away from as it does turn one toward the place in which they seem to be quite at home is of an even more unique sort when it turns one's thoughts toward the possibility that the very concept of place itself may be wholly unsuited for the kind of thinking which is called "universal". As the commentator goes on to say:
"The debate is caused by a trick of the imagination. When talking about the universal, we clandestinely create a ghost that we imagine in three vague places. We imagine a vague man, a vague object and a space in between, and then imagine this ghost as either being in the man, in the thing, or somewhere outside of both. We can dress up this ghost story with all the philosophical jargon we want, but it will only take us farther and farther away from experience. We are imagining the intelligible as some third, ghostly thing that must link the knower and the known. Where does this thing come from? It is nowhere in experience. It exists only in the imaginary world we construct for ourselves to discuss the problem of universals."

The problem, then, lies latent in the supposedly self-evident question as to where a universal is to be properly situated, since to consider a universal with respect to place is to consider a universal precisely not qua universal, but rather qua individual; and while it is true that universals can be considered as individuals in so far as they differ from other universals, it is nevertheless true that the individuation required of something to which place properly belongs is an individuation whose principle is (ultimately prime, not secondary) matter. (The reason for this is itself based upon Aristotle's definition of τόπος as given in his Physics which we will not consider at the moment.) Now, if a universal is known precisely by way of abstraction from matter, then to consider it with respect to something by definition contingent upon matter, namely, "place", is to fail to consider it as such at all. It is for this reason that, as the above commentator emphasizes, we are led to consider the universal as something like a ghost, for a "ghost" in this sense fails to attain to that of which it is a ghost. The ghost of a man gives us something which we can designate as that very man, and yet it is precisely not him. In the ghost of a man, the man himself has eluded us. The ghost is not no one, but neither is it someone; it is only a trace of someone. Furthermore, when we ask the question of universals in terms of their "whereabouts" the "ghost" is a strange compensation for the unsuitability of the terms of our question: the ghost does not inhabit any place, but only haunts it, hovering over the place, as it were. It is there, but only as the suggestion that it is not there.
But what is responsible for this misunderstanding which, instead of understanding the universal as a grasp of what makes something real, quidditas, imagines it to be a mere "fleeting vapor of reality", a mere phantom? The commentator tells us: "The debate is caused by a trick of the imagination"; the phantom is a phantasm, a production of the faculy of imagination. But why do we merely imagine when we are attempting to engage in intellection? Why do we fall into the habit of asking the question "where" ? Presumably, the answer relies on the old Aristotelian adage turned scholastic maxim that "those things which are most knowable to us are least knowable in themselves, and those things which are least knowable to us are most knowable in themselves." In other words, we first know material individuals, and for us they are most knowable, but only because there is not much to know in them, since qua material individual they are not intelligible at all.
Even before Aristotle, didn't Plato, the first to witness 'the universal' as such ---at least the first to do so and "live to tell the tale", didn't he already have something like this in mind when he had inscribed over the very entrance to his acedemy the imperative: ᾿Αγεωμέτρητος μειδεὶς εἰσίτω!, i.e., that no one un-geometrical be admitted, or in other words, that one must know geometry before passing through these gates. Plato wasn't here talking about the mere capacity to practice geometry correctly, he was talking about the knowledge of geometrical things, of the "geometricals". I can draw a dot and call it a point, but I don't speak with geometrical knowledge regarding this point unless I also know that the dot is precisely not the point. The point, unlike the dot, has no shape, has no borders, and has no place, even though it is known as the end of a line. To offer an image of the point is to miss the point. But the genuine geometer knows precisely what he is missing. The dot, like the ghost, is a place marker for something which has no place. For our purposes here we need not consider the problematic fact that the point is in some way both individual (for not only can there be many points but there is also the universal "point" which is recognized in each of them) as well as possessed of a place (for this is precisely what differentiates one point from another). Indeed, geometry stood only as a prerequisite to a proper vision of the εἶδος, and ipso facto its peculiar vestigial dependence on place and individuation are to be expected --otherwise how could it be a threshold, that is, a place only in passing, for that which is properly without a place?
Granted then, that if the 'universal' is to be properly understood, then it cannot be imagined, why is it that the imagination's trick, its "clandestine creation of a ghost", happens to aim at placing the universal? Why are we not rather inclined to imagine the quality (e.g. the color), or the quantity (e.g. the size) of this 'ghost'? Again, we do not ask "When is the universal?" but only "Where is the universal"? What priviledges our prejudice of place? Is there something essential in this mistake? At the risk of falling into the same error, we must ask: whence does such a question as "Where?" spring?

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