Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Philosophical Act, Chapter II

I forgot about the Leisure discussion when I cut off blogging for Advent. OK, I'll just blog for the discussion. Maybe Advent is a good time to meditate on the realm beyond the quotidian and the commonplace, the world of practicalities.

I'm on Chapter II of Part 2, The Philosophical Act.

Let me start with a rock, as Pieper does. A rock has no "interior". An interior is what relates the thing to what is around it. A plant has a kind of interior because it is nourished by sun, water, soil, etc. A rock can be spatially, incidentally related to its surroundings and it spatially, incidentally has an inner aspect but it doesn't draw things into itself as living things do. For this reason, a plant is in relation to its world in a way a rock isn't.

"Relationship, in the true sense, joins the inside with the outside; relationship can only exist where there is an "inside", a dynamic center, from which all operation has its source and to which all that is received, all that is experienced, is brought."

An animal has more things that relate to what's around it than a plant does. An animal has sense-perception -- in Aristotlean language, it has a sentient soul.

"To perceive something is quite extraordinary, compared with what the plant can do; it is a completely new mode of entering into relationship with one's environment."

This means that the animal relates to what's around it in a deeper way than does the plant. But yet the animal is limited to what Pieper calls (apparently using German terminology of natural philosophy) an "Umwelt" -- environment. Take a crow. From what he says, a crow can only see a grasshopper when it (the grasshopper) is moving. Within the reality of how things are, it (the crow) is severely limited in its perceptions. When the grasshopper holds still, the crow is not aware of it -- not just not seeing it for the moment, but not aware of it. The grasshopper is gone from the crow's Umwelt.

In the German usage, from what I gather, "Umgebung" means surroundings... what's actually out there, what you could call objective reality, perhaps (I'm not altogether sure, but that's what I gather). An animal is not aware of everything out there -- it perceives a subset of things, and this is its "environment" -- Umwelt:

A world from which something has been left out, a selected milieu, to which its dweller is at once perfectly suited -- and confined.

As humans, we are animals. But are we only animals? Some say yes, and say that we have an Umwelt, an environment. We are limited in sense-perception. There are things out there in the surroundings that we don't perceive, not directly at least.

Pieper doesn't necessarily seem to disagree with this entirely. He says we do have an Umwelt, which is our quotidian, work-oriented, sensory world. But contrary to what a materialist would have to say, Pieper holds that we do not MERELY have an Umwelt, as the crow does, or the dolphin, or the ant. We can step outside our environment -- we can look at it, as it were, as upon a landscape, from a perspective. He remarks that the fact that we can step outside our Umwelt, and in fact almost can't avoid doing so, shows that we are more than purely biochemical organisms limited to our sensory field of perceptions.

In fact, though Pieper goes into it only briefly, to say we humans are limited to an environment defined by our biological nature is almost to stand outside it in order to say that we are solely inside it, which is an impossibility. It's what CS Lewis called a Philosophical Crusher. It seems to refute itself. The very thing that shows we are not perfectly confined to our Umwelt, like the crow, is that we may actually say that we are. The crow would never say, or think, or conceive that. The question -- the wonder about how things are or might be -- would never concern the crow.

This is why Pieper says that we, beholding the stars, don't behold them as a ceiling. Our minds can incorporate them in some respect, and even grasp their nature in some part. While I was reading this I kept thinking about the time I showed my husband a blog where the author had posted one of those pictures of a nebula -- the blogger used it as basis for some comment about how puny and insignificant the earth and all its inhabitants were in comparison. I was showing it to Kevin because it made me sad that a teenager would use something as stunningly beautiful as a nebula to make a nihilistic point like that. But then my husband said something to the effect of "no, the author is greater than the entire nebula because he can make a (wrong) observation like that which in effect encompasses the nebula and contains it inside his mind". He said it better, more concisely, but you get the point. The nebula is absolutely and forever incapable of apprehending us in any way, even if it chanced to engulf us spatially, whereas we are capable of perceiving and in some way understanding the nebula, even at a vastly far remove.

The western philosophical tradition says something that sounds very bold, almost arrogant. It was written by Aristotle:

"the soul is in a way all existing things;
He goes on to say:

for existing things are either sensible or thinkable, and knowledge is in a way what is knowable, and sensation is in a way what is sensible."
Aquinas comments on it this way:

"True" expresses the correspondence of being to the knowing power, for all knowing is produced by an assimilation of the knower to the thing known, so that assimilation is said to be the cause of knowledge.
Our human souls are capable of more than sense-perception,:

"spirit is relatedness to the sum total of existing beings"

So, says Pieper, spirit --intellection -- the sum-total of reality -- those are interchangeable terms. You can't have one without the other. Our dwelling in the "Welt", the world proper to man, rather than simply the "Umwelt", the basic environment, comes from our spiritual, intellectual nature that can grasp reality at least in potentiality. In some ways we can relate to --form some true idea of --- all that exists, all being.

Truth, as Aquinas says, is convertible with being.

As good has the nature of what is desirable, so truth is related to knowledge. Now everything, in as far as it has being, so far is it knowable. Wherefore it is said in De Anima iii that "the soul is in some manner all things," through the senses and the intellect. And therefore, as good is convertible with being, so is the true. But as good adds to being the notion of desirable, so the true adds relation to the intellect.
Is this a statement of faith, in a sense? he is saying that everything that is, is knowable, though we may not personally know it. It does seem like a giant premise to accept, for the post-Cartesian modern world. Probably a scientist (I see it in Asimov's writings) might say that "truth" is not a good word to use in regard to an explanation about the world because it may later be found that the explanation is partly erroneous. To Aristotle and Aquinas as I understand it, this would have nothing to do with the point, because as Aristotle says:
" The true and the false reside not in things, but in the intellect."
So things in the world out there ARE, and we think or speak of them truly or falsely.

To get back to the crow and the grasshopper, I kept thinking that the crow, if it could talk, might claim that what it sees is all there is; that the grasshopper doesn't exist when it's not moving.

But it's sort of the point that the crow does not talk and would not say such a thing. If it did, it would be doing philosophy, though badly, perhaps.

Even then, it would still be limited in that it wouldn't be trying to find out the nature of things in its attempt to perceive how things are -- its interest in the grasshopper would be, as CS Lewis says of the Witch in The Magician's Nephew "dreadfully practical." (This is its nature, which is fine; it's only a shame for humans to be reductionally practical because they can be more than that).

It's also the point that humans are very aware that they are ignorant about some things and limited in perception in others. Even as spirits, Pieper points out, we are finite and contingent.

But man is not pure spirit; he is a finite spirit so that both the nature of things and the totality of things are not given in the perfection of a total understanding, but only in "expectation" or "hope"
Now, finally, if we grant that humans are in possession of a body and a spirit, does it follow that the spirit is the "real" part of us, as some would say? That we are souls in a machine, basically? Pieper says that Western tradition would say no. Since our nature is to be a composite of body and soul, we can't be what we are without an acknowledgement that our body is part of what is essential about us.

Aquinas writes:

"The soul that is united to the body is more like God than the soul that has been separated from its body because the former more perfectly possesses its own nature."
And Pieper comments that this means that the human is:
"really and in a positive sense a being in whom the various realms of plant, animal, and spiritual beings are bound into a unity"
Consequently, the human being needs (I love this phrase!)

a neighborhood of daily reality
He can't simply walk above the stars, at risk of falling into the well, to the derision of the Thracian maiden.

The implication is that
"the spirit shapes and penetrates the vegetative and sense-perceived regions in which he exists. So much so, that the act of eating by a human being is something different from that of the animal
Everything human becomes different because it is informed with the spiritual. Pieper says that humans have meals, while animals simply eat. Everything is like that.

This is why the Umwelt-- our work-a-day, quotidian, practical environment-- is crucially important, as the intersection of the present moment with all that is. And that's why it's not sufficient in itself.

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