a more general follow-up

April 10, 2010

Now that I’m home, there’s time for a more general follow-up to Adrian Ivakhiv’s latest thought-provoking post (the same one described below).

If anything characterizes my philosophical position, it is a firm opposition to the prevailing trend to think that individual objects are something epiphenomenal, generated by relations if not outright by human perception/praxis. I have few allies in this opposition, but I’m unable to renounce it.

Almost everyone short of Berkeley is grudgingly willing to admit some sort of real outside its current formatting, but this leads them to deny it any form at all. It must be “pre-individual,” or “inconsistent,” or “virtual,” etc. By contrast, I defend what Suárez and Leibniz defended under the name of substantial forms. This means forms in the things themselves, rather than forms added by some perceiver or some relational partner. (It’s all over Leibniz, and Suárez, always the clearest and most encyclopedic of the Scholastics, handles it in the parts of the Disputationes that covers formal causation, which is available in English translation.) However, my model of objects is a lot weirder than the Medieval/Leibnizian notion of substantial forms, for reasons already familiar to readers of my books and articles.

I see no way to get from a pre-individual, pre-articulate real to anything other than outright monism. In my position, both the phenomenal world and the real world are quantized rather than continuous (though I make room for the continuum in the phenomenal world, which I define as the interior of an object, but let’s leave that for another time).

How can the continuous and the discrete fit together in the same philosophy? It’s one of the central problems of philosophy (as well as mathematics and the longstanding gulf in physics between relativity and quantum theory).

And I wanted to say something about two places where this plays out in the history of philosophy: Aristotle and Bergson. I’ve been drafting the table of contents of a book on this topic, though there are a couple of others to finish first.

In one sense, Aristotle and Bergson look like polar opposites on this question. Aristotle is the champion of chunky substances and discrete natural kinds, whereas Bergson looks like the thinker of continuous flux. The paradox is that both of them try to think both things at once.

Let’s look at Bergson first. Most of the time he looks like the philosopher of a continuous real, the heir of Heraclitean flux. And yet, one of the great insights of Time and Free Will is precisely the opposite insight. Namely, a pin-prick and a harder pin-prick do not just differ quantitatively, but qualitatively. They are discrete realities, not merely a stronger and weaker form of each other. The harder pin-prick brings different nervous complexes into play, might generate tears or shouts that were missing in the first case, and so forth.

Now look at Aristotle, who apparently starts from the opposite supposition of a world of discrete substances. But when you read the Physics, the main point of it is that time, number, space, motion, and change cannot be built out of discrete states. They are continua. Anything continuous is potentially divisible into any number of individual units you please. Zeno is wrong, Aristotle says, because the supposed infinite number of steps between me and the door is not actually infinite; it’s merely potentially so, by the labor of the mind. But the same does not follow for substances. I cannot potentially carve my classroom into 3 students, 17 students, or 3,450 students. There is a specific number of actual individual students there.

There are differences between them even on these points, of course (Bergson recognizes nothing like Aristotelian substances). But they really face the same paradox. And neither of them solves it.

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