Friday, February 02, 2007

Is One One or More Than One?

If you can even understand that question, you're already ahead of me. I pose it more as an introduction to a distinction between Plato and Aristotle that will ultimately affect how we view the difference between, say, Maximus the Confessor and Gregory of Palamas, in their account of the nature of God.

For Plato (and later, the Neoplatonists, whose vocabulary so thoroughly permeates the Fathers), naming is not the conventional matter that we tend to think it is. We look at a word like "snow", and we note that it has a certain meaning because of the way that it's used, but we could just as easily associate any other set of phonemes with that use. We could, for example, say "niege" to refer to snow, or "Schnee", or "geblorgenstoff". Since the name is merely conventional, all we need to do is to teach it to people, and it will mean what we want it to mean. Plato, by contrast, wrote an entire philosophical dialogue, the Cratylus, in which he argues that there is a certain natural necessity to names. "Snow" can only properly mean snow if it is the appropriate name for that thing, and it can only be the appropriate name for that thing if it manages, somehow, to represent the thing that it names. Representation is left rather vague, but it is clear that it is not merely conventional: there are, apparently, objective criteria regarding what can count as a good representation.

Plato's reason for taking this stand is because he thinks that names refer, rigidly, to entities that exist independently of the way in which we experience the world. I may experience snow as one sort of stuff, but my experience of it may be quite different from the experience of snow that is had by a little old lady from Naples, Florida. The two of us could talk about "snow", of course, but there would never be any guarantee that we have identical mental content when we refer to the stuff named by "snow". But for Plato, there is something that causes snow to be snow, something that causes two equal numbers to be equal, something that causes a human being to be a human being. In short, anything that is anything--and on Plato's account everything is something, is caused to be the thing it is by other things that are separate from it. I am caused to be a human being by Humanness Itself; two equal numbers are caused to be equal by The Equal Itself. The Equal Itself exists separately and independently of any particular things of which equality may be truly predicated. In fact, it could be the case that there are no two things anywhere in the universe that are equal, and the Equal Itself would still exist; there could be no human beings anywhere, and the Human Itself would still exist. Because Plato wanted to promote a kind of philosophical discourse in which understanding of these causal entities formed the basis of philosophical wisdom, he also promoted a use of language that was realist and naturalist in its attitude towards reference. It is not a commonly held view today, but it makes a certain amount of sense. Well, if you lean far enough towards Platonism.

A feature possessed by every such causal entity (The Equal Itself, Humanness Itself, etc.) is metaphysical unity. That is, each of these entities is one thing, and none of them can be "decomposed" into component entities. Although it is a controversial view, some folks claim that in the earlier stages of working out this theory of causal entities Plato held that entities such as The Human Itself could not be understood to be an amalgam of other entities such as Animal Itself + Rational Itself + Bipedality Itself, even though what "human" seems to mean to Plato is something along the lines of "rational bipedal animal". Plato appears to change his mind about this, because in a dialogue called Sophist he explicitly says that all entities, including these causal entities, have a share of what he calls the megistê genê, the greatest or most important kinds. Among the megistê genê are the causal entities Being Itself and One Itself. These are important entities since anything that is anything clearly has Being Itself as one of its causes, and if the thing is a metaphysical unity then it must also have the One Itself as one of its causes. But what about Being Itself and the One Itself? Well, since the One Itself clearly is, it must have Being Itself as one of its causes. And since Being Itself is a metaphysical unity, it must have the One Itself as one of its causes. In short, the two entities have a mutual causal relationship.

It could be that "cause" is not the best word for this relationship, even though Plato clearly intended to posit these entities to explain why it is that things are the kinds of things they are. He himself uses the word methexis to denote the relationship that exists between these "causal" entities and the particular things that they cause. Methexis is often translated as "participation", but that is rather unfortunate, since it means little to most people, and what it does mean to the few who specialize in Plato is hopelessly vague. A better translation, in my view, though no less vague, is "having a share in." It may not be clear what is meant when someone says "Socrates has a share in Humanness Itself" as a way of saying "Socrates is a human", but it at least has the virtue of being a more literal translation of methexis, which is a compound of the preposition meta (along with, in combination with), and hexis (a having, or being-in-a-certain-state).

A significant difference between Plato and Aristotle is that, while Plato insists that any given name may only denote a single, causal entity and, hence, have only one meaning, Aristotle maintains that it is much simpler to admit that many words are equivocal. To give you an idea of what Aristotle is getting at, consider the word "good". For Plato, "good" is the proper name of the causal entity that causes any particular thing that is good in any respect to be good in the respect in which it is good. So, for example, we may say "Socrates was a good man", "This is a good wine", and "Rest and relaxation are good", and Plato would insist that the one word, "good", as differently as it is used in each setting, ultimately means the same thing in each case. The difficulty is to figure out what it means, if it must mean the same thing in each of these very different cases. The word, in short, is univocal, according to Plato, because, as we said above, it is a rigid designator of a certain causal entity which is simple and non-decomposable. But Aristotle held that we may simplify things immensely by allowing that the word "good" means different things in different contexts. That is, it picks out something quite different when said of a man, like Socrates, or of a wine, or of a certain activity such as relaxing. In other words, what it is for Socrates to be a good man is something different from what it is to be a good wine, and we cannot reduce the two things to one thing.

Although Plato and Aristotle have very similar metaphysics in many respects, this is a rather famous point of departure between them. On Aristotle's view, Plato's metaphysics is needlessly complicated and otiose, while his own system has a salutary perspicacity that cuts the Gordian Knot of entangled meanings and references. Well, I'm sure we all feel that way about our metaphysics, so who can blame him? But consider the entity called the One Itself. For Plato, the One Itself must, of course, be one simple thing, unqualified by anything else. The One is One, as it were (even though there is that difficulty in the Sophist of saying that the One Is, but we will come back to that in another post). Aristotle, in Book 10 of his Metaphysics, holds that the word "one" has many meanings, and although there is a certain family resemblance to those meanings they are clearly different enough for Aristotle to maintain that the word is just plain multivocal, not univocal. The One, it seems, is actually Many. For example, a television set is "one thing" even though it is made up of many parts; a marble is "one thing" pretty much because it has no parts; a biological species is "one thing" because it has a single nature.

What about God? Is God a metaphysical unity in the sense that he is simple, that is, non-decomposable into constituents of any kind, including properties? Or is he, as Christians are prone to say, Three-in-One and One-in-Three (and what, after all, would that mean)? After reviewing the metaphysical stances of Plato and Aristotle one may be tempted to say that the answer to this question will depend upon one's metaphysics. The Fathers, as I remarked above, tended to use the linguistic machinery of the Neoplatonists (though they were not, obviously, Neoplatonists themselves, either in intent or in the content of what they said). This means that their metaphysical language is closer to Plato's than to Aristotle's. It is only with the "rediscovery" of Aristotle in the West in the 13th century that we find Aristotelian metaphysics cropping up and growing in importance, principally in Western theology. But they were theologians, not philosophers, and their use of philosophical terminology and concepts is amazingly sloppy for folks who were working very hard to clarify things. Perhaps the worst case of sloppiness (worst in the sense of causing the most trouble later on) is the confusion of the concepts "being", "essence", and "inherence". It's only fair to point out that there's a fair amount of confusion among these things in Plato as well, but it's not as bad as it gets later on and anyway whatever confusion there is in Plato is usually due not to his own lack of clarity but to the fact that he wrote his philosophy in the form of literary dialogues that were principally intended to be used pedagogically.

Anything that is has an essence, including God. God is also said to have properties. These properties are called "energies" in the Fathers, and a rather interesting question arises about how to understand the following claims:

1. God is One (that is, God is a metaphysical unity).
2. God is God (that is, God "has?/is?" an essence).
3. God has energies (that is, God "has?/is?" properties).

In particular, (1) appears to conflict in some way with (3), at least if one is a Platonist. If you assert that God is one in the sense of being identical to either his essence or his energies, there appears to be a conflict with both (2) and (3), since these assertions are cast in the form of predications, which suggests that they consist of a subject and a predicate, which would only be meaningful if the subject and the predicate were distinct. The situation is famously made much worse by the doctrine of the Trinity, which I discussed in an earlier post. For now, I will merely point out that we are clearly on very slippery metaphysical ground here, and are in dire need of specialized senses of "identity" and "unity" and "oneness" in order to make any progress. As we will see, this mess works itself out in very different ways in Maximus the Confessor and Gregory of Palamas. Maximus is much the earlier writer and it may be fair to credit him with a better sense of the metaphysics, but that is not at all a clear call. I will explore their views in upcoming posts.

1 comment:

Mike L said...


I'm waiting for those subsequent posts.

In the meantime, I wonder what you think of Bradshaw's Aristotle East and West.