Home » meaning

Living through the Barbarism

Perhaps this is an odd title—Living through the Barbarism—but it seems that ours is an age of unthinking strife. As a Lyceum Member asks: What is work and what is its purpose? This is something I have been thinking about a lot recently but also as a follow up to our conversation on Private Property [discussed on 11 October 2023]. It seems like most people do not see any purpose in the work that they do. This I believe is a broader societal problem about the value we hold toward our own lives and the lives of others. We no longer really seek the Good but instead seek what is most expedient and lucrative. We work, it seems, so that we can make a company bigger and bigger, whether it be in market share, notability, number of employees, etc. Whether these companies themselves seek any good is never really considered, however.

What Makes Something Work?

“Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life”—this statement contains multitudes, and most of them, I would submit, are lies. The first is the literal sense of the conjunction: as though operations undertaken for the sake of a beloved object entail no labor, no toil, no struggle, no difficulty—not only with the accomplishment of the task but with one’s own motivation to carry it out.

The second and implicit lie is that work is something per se hateful or unfortunate. In other words: do we regard work as a necessary evil, only? Is work itself something we do simply because we must? Is there no good to working itself, and only a good to the product of work?

More fundamentally we must ask, therefore, is the question of what makes something to be “work” in the first place? What is “work”?

What is the End of Work?

Closely related to this question: why do we work? As just mentioned, there exists an obvious answer: we work to produce something, be it a car, a toy, a report, or, in an extended sense, money—so that we can buy food, and clothes, and shelter, and provide for a family, so that we can… what? Continue going to work? Teach our children to work? Buy better and better luxury items with or through which we seek pleasures? Retire in comfort and enjoy our “Golden Years”?

Can there be a life without work? In a sense, yes. There are quite a few whose lives entail no servility: that is, demands of labor for ends not one’s own, in exchange for which one receives some supposedly proportional material benefit. Often these persons—anecdotally, from my own experience and from the accounts of literature and the like—appear not only spoiled and out-of-touch with the realities of the world but, even more tellingly, deeply dissatisfied with their own lives. Might it be that work is not merely a necessary evil… but something that ought to be integral to living well?

I would argue so. But I believe the modern structure of work has made this rather difficult to realize. Perhaps recapturing some distinctions about different ways in which work may be performed can be helpful.

How can we make Work Better?

A Pew Survey conducted earlier this year—with the caveat that such surveys may be misrepresentative in many ways* (consider the skewing by age)—reported that only a very slightly majority (51%) of Americans find their jobs “highly satisfying”. I suspect that both the word “highly” and the percentage are inaccurate. I also suspect that many who do report a satisfaction with their job (and note how much higher it is among those who are paid well!) are satisfied with its outcomes (like being paid)… and not with the work itself.

So how, let us ask, can we make work better? Join us this Wednesday (6 December 2023) to discuss! Links below:

Philosophical Happy Hour

« »

Come join us for drinks (adult or otherwise) and a meaningful conversation. Open to the public! Held every Wednesday from 5:45–7:15pm ET.

*E.g., while the methodology of randomization is fair, the self-selective nature of those responding to the survey cannot be controlled by those conducting the poll.

On Worldviews and Ideologies

“Ideology” is a distinctly modern word that helps us to discern a distinctly modern phenomenon.

Whenever we have a world picture, an essential decision occurs concerning beings as a whole.  The being of beings is sought and found int eh representendess of beings.  Where, however, beings are not interpreted in this way, the world, too, cannot come into the picture – there can be no world picture.  That beings acquire being in and through representedness makes the age in which this occurs a new age, distinct from its predecessors.

Yeah, well… you know, that’s just like… uh… your opinion, man.

-Mark Shiffman, What is Ideology? | -Martin Heidegger, Die Zeit des Weltbildes | -The Dude, Big Lebowski

Understanding the World(view)

What do we mean by the common term “worldview”?  Our English word originates from the German Weltanschauung (from Welt, meaning “world”, and Anschauung, “view”, “perception”, or even “perspective”).  Often, the term is used as though it needs no explanation: “That’s your worldview”, “My worldview is…”, “The Roman worldview” or “The Catholic worldview”, etc.  But the German philosophical traditions from which the notion arose, and through which it develops, course in diverse and confusing ways.  Kant, Humboldt, Hegel, Husserl, Jaspers, Heidegger, and many others all spoke meaningfully about the world, about worldviews, and/or about the “world-picture”.

In a similar vein, Karl Marx developed (in a departure from its origins in the late eighteenth-century French thinker, Antoine Destrutt de Tracy) a notion of the “ideology” that shapes thinking to this day in a similar fashion.  In Marx’s bending of ideology, it was put forward as a “set of ideas whose purpose is to legitimate a set of social and economic relations, and which originates from those same relations.”[1]  As the twentieth-century Italian Marxist Gramsci furthered this interpretation, ideologies were not only echoes of our economically-shaped consciousness, but themselves a real battleground for social and political struggle.  Thus, ideology is understood as “a set of ideas justifying a power agenda and helping it to obtain cultural sway by dominating the minds of those who can be brought to accept it”.[2]

Thus, the contemporary notion of “ideology” is narrower than that of “worldview”, which comprises a sense of the whole, whereas the ideology concerns itself only with what fits inside the “idea”.

Constraining the World

But are these really different?  If the “world” is encompassed in the “view”, or its meaning restrained to what can be viewed—or, given in a picture—do we not thereby restrict the being of the world?  Let us take, for instance, the “American worldview” as experienced in the 1950s.  Fresh off the victory of World War II, and confronted by tensions with the growing power of the USSR, the American worldview was truly a “view of the world”, as a stage upon which conflict with the Soviets was to be won or lost.  The American represented freedom, justice, prosperity, and faith; the Soviet oppression, abuse, poverty, and godlessness.  One held to the dignity of the individual and the family; the other Procrustean conformity to the collective.

How much of the real world was omitted through such myopic lenses?

Or consider the idea of a “Catholic worldview”—a claim today so vague as to be all-but-meaningless.  Why?  Should there not be a common, underlying view through which all Catholics view the world?  Perhaps, yes; but the very notion of a “Catholic worldview” seems more and more to be coopted into one or another ideological claim: that of care for the poor and marginalized, the “open arms”; or one of returning to tradition, beauty, and “rigid” codes of behavior.  What causes this divergence?  The lenses appear to be narrowing—letting in less and less light as each day passes.

Realism and the World

Central to most claims touting the advance of a “worldview”, “world-picture”, or “ideology” one finds, I believe, either an inherent skepticism or a deliberate agnosticism about humans’ common possession of the ability to know what truly, really is, independent of the mind.  No wonder the world ends up constrained!

Doubtless there is much more to be said—so come say it!  Join us for our Philosophical Happy Hour this Wednesday (11/8/2023) from 5:45–7:15pm ET.

Philosophical Happy Hour

« »

Come join us for drinks (adult or otherwise) and a meaningful conversation. Open to the public! Held every Wednesday from 5:45–7:15pm ET.

[1] Shiffman 2023: What is Ideology? 10.

[2] Ibid.  Cf. Zizek 1989: Sublime Object of Ideology, 49-51.

Announcing: Trivium 2024

Education in the liberal arts has been neglected in modernity and, when not ignored, derided by the forces of ultramodern thought.  The consequences of this dereliction are evident: even those who wish to know often know less than they would like and cannot express themselves as well as they ought.  Fortunately, we can retrieve the ancient traditions of these arts—rooted in the logical works of Aristotle, studies of Latin and Greek, in the rhetorician’s art taught by Cicero and Quintilian, in discoveries of grammar be they syntactic or semantic—not only as a sequence of distinct studies but as providing a coherent and united doctrine. 

This retrieval, however, is not a mere repetition of antiquity, but a living application of its lessons to our own lives.  Through participating in the genuine inquiries of our Trivium program, students will gain a deeper knowledge and understanding of Grammar, discover precision and confidence in the coherence of their thinking through Logic, and hone the perspicuity with which they view language in Rhetoric.  Each of these arts is taught across two distinct courses, with an additional pairing of advanced studies offered to demonstrate their broader importance.

In 2024, we will be teaching the first three courses in the sequence: Grammar I: Foundations, Logic I: Basics of Argumentation, and Rhetoric I: Discovery of Arguments.  (The second sequence will be offered in 2025; dates for advanced courses are TBD).  Access to full participation in the Trivium program—along with Foundations courses in Latin and Greek—is included in every level of enrollment.  Additionally, Columbanus Fellows will take the full two-year sequence, and study Latin and/or Greek for no cost. Additionally, all members receive access to our enormous library of resources (including hundreds of philosophy lectures) and will join a community of like-minded inquirers.

Enroll or Apply today.

On the Meanings of “Object”, “Objective”, and “Objectivity”

The word “language” often suffers a confusion in use because of a partial equivocation in signification.  Sometimes, we use it to signify the species-specifically human capacity to express semantic depth pertaining to a being known as independent of our cognitive activity; in other words, we use the word “language” to indicate our ability for signifying things as they are in themselves and not merely as they considered by reference to our pragmatic considerations.  To disambiguate the partial equivocation, we can call this the “linguistic capacity”.  Other times, however, when we speak about “language”, we signify a specific system of signs used for carrying out this linguistic capacity.  We can call such systems “languages” or “specific languages”.

Growth of Symbols

Every specific language is composed of words, which are signifiers by convention.  That is, there is no necessary correlation between the sounds I make with my mouth or the letters I write on the page and the objects that these words constituted through sound or writing (or any other means) are intended to signify.  Thus, two distinct words can signify one and the same thing, as “dog” in English and “Hund” in German both signify the same species of animal.  But the sound “snargglish” might just as well signify that very same species—that of dogs—and by a kind of stipulation, I can say that that is what “snargglish” signifies.  If enough other people start using “snargglish” in this way, the signification changes from being by stipulation (what I have attempted to authoritatively impose) to being by custom (where no one needs to know that I have imposed it).  Customary significations tend to become stuck in the minds of those who use them; thus, if I started using the word “dog” to signify a pile of leaves, there would be both confusion and resistance, for this does not hold as a custom in the minds of others, even if it holds this way in my own.  Nevertheless, the meanings of words—the objects they are used to signify—do change, grow, become clearer, shift, gradually dim, or fall into obscurity, and so on and on, depending on how they are customarily used.

That said (and by saying it we have broached the topic of semiotics) while the signification ascribed to any particular word belongs to it by convention, the specific languages we use are languages at all—that is, they are instances of our linguistic capacity—insofar as the words constituting the language immediately and proximately signify the concepts of our minds.  While the words of the specific language are conventional, the significations belonging to the concepts are not.  A longstanding tendency to conflate words with concepts obscures this truth.  But the simple fact that we have multiple languages whereby words composed of different sounds, letters, or even entirely different writing systems nevertheless convey the same ideas shows that the concept and the word are not one and the same.

It is an important point which we cannot elaborate upon here (but which has been well-discussed many other places) that our concepts themselves, too, function as signs: that all thought is through signs.

Sometimes, therefore, the ways in which we as societies and cultures affect changes in our words as used allow us to better signify and explain the significations of our concepts.  “Symbols”, Charles Peirce said—and words are the preeminent kind of symbol—“grow”.[1]  The conventional words across many languages for “sign”, for instance, have grown considerably as symbols since the early use in ancient Greece (which, in Greek rather than English, was “semeion”, used initially to signify the symptoms of a medical condition).  This will be the topic of another post.  But we can likely think of many other words which have grown over the course of history: “community”, for one, or “truth”; “Catholic” or “Christian”, “American” or “Russian”, “education” or “rhetoric”, and so on and on; that is, a growth which is not necessarily an increase of the term’s comprehension (including more particulars under it, that is), but perhaps a deepening, strengthening, or clarification of its meaning.

“Objective” Meaning

Other times, however, the changes of a word’s usage result in a concept being signified poorly, or perhaps even no longer being signified at all, such that the concept experiences a societal atrophy.  Or other changes, stemming from a lack of careful philosophical reflection on how terms are used or a blending of languages, a mix-up in translation, a mix-up in intellectual traditions, might result in a confusion not only of their verbal signifiers but of their concepts, too.

A little of each kind of confusion has happened with the word “objective”.  Here, we have to note that “objective” has two other forms commonly used today: namely “object” and “objectivity”.  Both “object” and “objective”, have an equivocal use as well, for both are used at times to signify a goal or aim, as in describing a “mission objective” or in the sentence, “She has always been the object of his affections.”  This is closely related to the grammatical use, where we talk about direct and indirect objects of verbs.  In contemporary discourse generally, however, the terms object, objectivity, and objective all alike have a common signification of pertaining to reality as cognition-independent.  Thus, the term “object” is commonly used as a synonym for “thing”; “objectivity” is used to signify an absence of vested interest in the outcome of a situation; and “objective” is used to reference things as they are “factually”, “scientifically”, or independent of any “subjective” interpretation or opinion.

Many people can be observed striving to demonstrate their “objectivity” in disputed matters, just as they are seen jockeying to prove their claims as “objectively true”—mostly by some reliance upon a scientific method of experimentation and statistical verification.  When it is said that we are treating another human being as a “mere object”, this indicates a diminution of their status from “person” to a “thing for use”—which (mis)use constitutes another albeit closely-related issue, since there is a depreciated sense of the aforementioned equivocal meaning of “object” as pertaining to a goal or aim in such a use.

However: none of these words in their contemporary usages signifies the same concept that the word “object” originally signified; or as it was in Latin, in which specific language the word originated, “obiectum”.  This Latin word, “obiectum”, was composed from two parts: a preposition, ob– meaning “against”, and iactum, a perfect passive participial form of the verb “iacere”, meaning “to throw”.  Thus, the “obiectum” was “that which was thrown against”.  Thrown against what?  As understood by the Latin Scholastic philosophers, the obiectum was thrown against some power or faculty belonging to a subject; that is, to be an object, for philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, John Poinsot—and many others—was something precisely and only insofar as it was in relation to some power, and most especially a cognitive power.  Noticeably, there is a remnant of this understanding in the equivocal meaning of the term “object” as pertaining to a goal or an aim.  But this is a very weak remnant compared to the full force of the original sense.  For being in relation to a power can occur in different ways which I will not go into here, for the sake of brevity, except to say that that potential relativity of objects-to-powers is far more complex than simply between an agent and its goal or aim.

In Latin antiquity, therefore, “subjective” and “objective” were not opposites as meaning “what belongs to the opinion of an individual mind” and “what is true regardless of what any individual person thinks”, respectively (and as commonly used today), but were a correlative pair: the obiectum was “thrown against” the cognitive faculties or powers of the subiectum, and it was by the faculties of the subject that the thing was an object at all.  That is to say, that everything having existence is a subject, but only subjects with psyches, with cognitive powers, can have objects, properly speaking.  Or to put it otherwise, ontologically speaking, everything is in itself subjective and becomes objective only by relation to a cognitive agent.

Lost Meaning

The shift of the words’ use to our contemporary meaning is, frankly, a little funny to think about: for now they are used to convey the precise opposite of what they originally were intended to signify.  But it is only a little funny, because this opposition constitutes not only an inversion of the terms, but, in fact a loss of the original meaning.  Moreover, the rise of the new meanings has had two profoundly negative consequences.

First, the idea of “objective” knowledge or of “objective truth” badly mangles the meaning of “truth”.  Truth—the revelation of what is and the subsequent adequation of thought and thing—unfolds through interpretive means.  That is, the “adequation” is not a simple 1-to-1 ratio of matching something in your mind to something in the world but requires effort; it requires us to inquire into what really is, since very often we are mistaken in taking a mere appear for an essential reality.  Our concepts, which are the means through which the adequation occurs, are not dropped into our heads as perfect, precise means, but must be worked out through various operations—and it is never the case that we get the full, unblemished, absolute truth about the objects those concepts signify.  Our concepts are never perfect signs.  They may be sufficient, adequate, and accurate; but never perfect.  Our intellects are so weak, as Thomas Aquinas says, that we can never perfectly know the essence of even a single fly.

Second, the original concept signified by obiectum, the intelligible “thing” precisely as it is in relation to a cognitive power, is not sufficiently signified by any other term or succinct phrase of the English language.  Indeed, even the word “thing” misnames what an obiectum is.  There occurs a certain parallel in the German word Gegenstand, but their language, too, has suffered a similar confusion.  And it is difficult to make known just how incredibly important the concept signified by obiectum is when the misuse has become stuck in the minds of the many.  That is: the objects of our thoughts are not always the same as the things themselves.  Our concepts may present to us objects which differ from the things they include, either by being more limited than those things (which is almost always the case in at least one regard) or by including in their signification to us certain aspects which are outside those things themselves (which also occurs almost always).  To give brief examples, I saw a picture the other day of the “dumpy tree frog”.  Both my concept—signifying the kind of creature, the essence of such frogs—and my percept or mental image—composed from particular experiences of such tree frogs—are extremely thin; I have one picture in mind, and almost no specific knowledge about the frog beyond what I know about all frogs, and even that isn’t very rich knowledge.  Thus the frog as an object of my cognitive action is much less than the frog as a thing.

On the other hand, in seeing any bulbous, dumpy-looking frog, because of the cultural exposure I have had in my life, I immediately think of the frog not just as an animal, but as one that sits on lily pads, hops around small ponds, perhaps retrieves a golden ball, and gets kissed by princesses—the first two being things that follow from its nature, but which are nevertheless relational, and the last two being fictional relations.  Since I know they are fictional, I’m not deceived, but a young child might be.  Regardless, they certainly signify something more than the frog itself.

Something very similar to this relational conceptualization happens, however, in most of our experiences.  Certainly, it happens in every experience of culturally-shaped socialization.  That is, every object we encounter which has something in it that does not belong to it strictly on account of its own nature is an object expanded beyond the boundaries of what is presented by the thing in itself: for instance, friends, lovers, teachers, judges, police officers, and so on.  There might be a basis for their being such objects—as some people make better friends than others because of how they are in themselves—but being such an object entails something more than that basis.  The mug on my desk is my mug—on my desk.  But neither desk nor mug has any property in it which makes it mine.  It receives this designation only by an objective relation: what we call extrinsic denominations, which may be more or less fitting, but which fittingness depends upon a myriad of factors irreducible to the mind-independent realities themselves.

Conclusion: The Need for Semiotics

In conclusion: it is important to distinguish between our “linguistic capacity” and our “languages” so as better to grasp the nature of concepts and the means of their signification.  Language never exists in a fixed reality—“rigid designators” being, as John Deely once wrote, “no more than an intellectual bureaucrat’s dream”—but always shifts and alters over time, through use.  The conventional nature of our languages and their symbols allows us to improve our signification—but also to lose our concepts.  Such lacunae can be destructive to understanding: not only in that we misinterpret the works of the historical past but in that we misunderstand the reality which we inhabit.  For instance, the very real presence and effect of extrinsic denominations cannot be coherently understood without a robust distinction between “mind-independent things” and “mind-dependent objectivities”.  Simultaneously, the notion of “objective truth” results in “truth” being misappropriated as something entirely impossible.

Deep and consistent reflection upon the function of our signs—not only in general but in the particular languages we use—proves necessary to ensuring our conceptual coherence and clarity.

[1] c.1895: CP.2.302.

Discussing Certitude and Intuition

A Lyceum Member writes, proposing a Philosophical Happy Hour topic: What is certitude? What role do signs play in achieving certitude? What role do signs play in intuition? Can I be certain about my mother’s love – is it intuited through signs, or through some other means?

The notions of certitude and intuition have played an important role in modern philosophy for centuries. But what are they? While they are subject to dispute and revision (say, this Wednesday, 10/4!) it should be helpful to offer provisional definitions. We may identify certitude as a firm conviction in the truth of the proposition which admits no doubt under current circumstances. Intuition, on the other hand, may be defined as an immediate and non-discursive grasp of some truth. Intuition, very often, is held to extend primarily if not exclusively to objects beyond the sensible. This

Semiotics contra Modernity

René Descartes puts certitude at the center of his noetic revolution: the method of skeptical doubt rejects anything which cannot be situated on indubitable grounds, and thus the justification of any claim to knowledge requires that it be grasped with certitude. Attempting to combat this skepticism, Locke and other self-professed empiricists attempted to demonstrate how sense perception gives rise to true knowledge. But because many apparent objects and experiences in even our banal, daily lives defy reduction to the strictly sensible, the notion of intuition outlined above gains greater prominence.

As C.S. Peirce explains this notion of the intuitive:

[intuition] is a cognition not determined by a previous cognition of the same object, and therefore so determined by something out of the consciousness… Intuition here will be nearly the same as “premise not itself a conclusion”; the only difference being that premises and conclusions are judgments whereas an intuition may, as far as its definition states, be any kind of cognition whatever. But just as a conclusion (good or bad) is determined in the mind of the reasoner by its premise, so cognitions not judgments may be determined by previous cognitions; and a cognition not so determined, and therefore determined directly by the transcendental object, is to be termed an intuition.

1868: “Questions Concerning Certain Faculties Claimed for Man”.

But just such a cognition, Peirce goes on to argue, cannot exist: that is, every apparent intuitive grasp of some truth is, in fact, an unrecognized process of semiosis, the use of signs. Does there remain a role for intuition in our noetic theory? What happens to the notion of certitude?

Join us!

We’ll tackle these (and any related topics) this Wednesday (4 October 2023) from 5:45 until 7:15 pm ET. Use the links below!

Philosophical Happy Hour

« »

Come join us for drinks (adult or otherwise) and a meaningful conversation. Open to the public! Held every Wednesday from 5:45–7:15pm ET.

A Philosophical Inquiry into Facts

What is a fact? The English word, used so commonly throughout the modern world, comes from its Latin cognate, factum: an event, occurrence, a deed, an achievement. But since the mid-17th century, under the auspices of the Enlightenment’s so-called “empiricism”, the word has been taken to be a “reality” known as independent of observation. The fact is Absolute. Facts, therefore, are discovered by and studied within “science”. They are “objective”. They are “verifiable”. That water at sea level boils at 212° Fahrenheit; that Columbus arrived in the New World in 1492; that Chicago is west of New York: most people regard these as facts.

Other claims may be disputed, such as that Jesus Christ rose from the dead; or that Domingo de Soto was the first to introduce the distinction between formal and instrumental signs. These disputes hinge upon the evidence: given the right data, it is thought, we could decide definitively one way or another. Other claims are not disputed as to their factuality, but regarded as irresoluble to facts. For instance, the claim that socialism is evil, or that capitalism drives moral flaw; that Aquinas was a better philosopher than Wittgenstein, or that a particular pope has undermined the Catholic faith.

Pseudo-Philosophical Presuppositions

This bifurcation into what is or is not a fact, however, presupposes much. Arguments often appeal to facts (or “evidence”). Arguments structured through or upon factual bases typically appear stronger. Contrariwise, if someone lacks a factual basis for his argument, others will regard that argument as “subjective”, a matter of opinion, and therefore as weak. To give an example, consider the claim that socialism is evil. The commonest way to defend this claim consists in examining facts about the Soviet Union. We advance the argument by pointing to the number of people killed, or the churches destroyed. We look at the facts of the Gulag. The Soviets themselves did all they could to hide these facts from much of the world.

Curiously enough, however, the Soviets (at least those making the decisions), despite their efforts to hide the facts did not seem overly troubled by them. Indeed: commonly, “facts” seem themselves always embedded in social contexts of interpretation. Bruno Latour has argued that what we regard as “facts” are not mind-independent truths discovered through science but socially-constructed fictions premised upon some observation. That is: circumstances and instruments, as well as often-tacit social agreements, contextualize every purported discovery of “fact”.

Discussing the Philosophical Reality of “Facts”

Yet the idea of the “fact”, despite such challenges, remains powerful in our contemporary social imaginary. Facts, as oft-repeated by a certain fast-talking pundit, do not care about your feelings.

But, we have to ask—we ought to ask—is there even really such a thing as a “fact”? What makes something to be a fact? How do we discover them, share them, interpret them? Can we gain “factual knowledge” without interpretation?

Join us this evening to discuss facts—and philosophy!

Philosophical Happy Hour

« »

Come join us for drinks (adult or otherwise) and a meaningful conversation. Open to the public! Held every Wednesday from 5:45–7:15pm ET.

On Architecture and Order

What is architecture? How can we define it? As a human art, it seems that we cannot conceive of what it is fully or properly without efficient and final causes: certainly it is by human beings, and somehow for human beings. But for human beings to do… what? What benefit does the architect render human beings in the production of his buildings? It seems that we need a good definition—a more precise definition—if we are to say whether the products of architecture are good or bad themselves.

Integral to architecture conception seems the broader notion of order. The work of the architect, that is, seems nothing if not the making of what has order. But where, and in what, does order germinate? Allow here a quotation of the architect and design theorist Christopher Alexander (4 October 1935—2022 March 17):

Excerpts from The Nature of Order:

The activity we call building creates the physical order of the world, constantly, unendingly, day after day. In the last five millennia, human beings have created millions upon millions of cubic yards of building, and millions of buildings, house, roads, and cities—entire worlds. Our world is dominated by the order we create.

But although we are responsible for the creation of order on this enormous scale, we hardly even know what the word “order” means. Our present idea of “order” is obscure. Although the word is often used informally by artists and biologists and physicians—usually to stand for some deep regularity we cannot quite define—we need a better understanding of the deep geometric reality of order. If we are honest we must admit we hardly even know what kind of phenomenon it is. Yet we build the world, producing its order, day by day. Thus we go on, willy-nilly creating order int he world, without knowing what it is, why we are doing it, what its significance might be.

In the 20th century we have passed through a unique period, one in which architecture as a discipline has been in a state that is almost unimaginably bad. Sometimes I think of it as a mass psychosis of unprecedented dimension, in which the people of earth—in large numbers and in almost all contemporary societies—have created a form of architecture which is against life, insane, image-ridden, hollow. The ugliness which has been created in the cities of the world, and the banality and pretentiousness of many 20th-century buildings, streets, and parking lots have overwhelmed the earth. Much of this construction is caused by developers, hosing authorities, owners of hotels, motels, airport authorities. In that sense architects might be considered blameless, since in some degree the ugliness of what has been created is caused by new relations between time, money, labor, and materials and by a set of conditions in which the real thing—authentic architecture that has deep feeling and true worth—is almost impossible.

But architects are not blameless. For the most part, architects have stood by, content to play their role s part of the 20th-century machine. They gild the lily of commercial development with pretentiousness. Many architects have raised the designer-conscious fashion of building to new levels, have invented absurd ways of thinking about architecture, have altogether poisoned the earth with an abundance of terrible and senseless designs which have few redeeming features.

I believe that we have in us a residue of a world-picture which is essentially mechanical in nature—what we might call the mechanist-rationalist world-picture. Whether or not we believe that we are subscribing to this picture, whether or not we are aware of the impact of its residue in us, even when we consider ourselves moved by spiritual or ecological concerns, most of us are still—I believe—to a greater or lesser extent in the grip of some residue of this mechanical world-picture. Like an infection, it has entered us, it affects our actions, it affects our morals, it affects our sense of beauty. It controls the way we think when we try to make buildings and—in my view—it has made the making of beautiful buildings all but impossible.

Selections from Christopher Alexander 1980–2002: The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe, Book One: The Phenomenon of Life.

This topic—the nature of architecture—cannot in fact be divorced from the question of the human soul, and, specifically, its development of habits. We live in a built-environment. The built-environment informs our perceptual behavior: how our eyes and ears are attuned, how we relate to the phenomena of places, distances; echoes and reverberations, how we are enveloped by air, by sound and silence, by light and shadow. Buildings envelope us every day, from waking to sleeping. We practice our daily behaviors at home or in offices, in coffee shops and grocery stores. Our religious cathexis depends in no small measure on the structure of our houses of worship. The weight of law finds its reflection in the gravitas of the courtroom and the houses of legislation.

Do we think enough about how these buildings come to be—and whether they are fitting to our being?

Philosophical Happy Hour

Interior from Havana, Cuba, free public domain CC0 image.

If you’d like to join us for a discussion of architecture and order in the built-environment, we would be happy to have you! Our happy hours are held (almost) every Wednesday from 5:45–7:15pm ET and are (almost always) open to the public. You can join the weekly mailing list by using the contact form here, or join directly by using the link on the right side of the screen here.

“The deepest and most important teaching of Classical Architecture concerns the human soul: before any other work it is necessary to forge your own soul, making it a temple of virtue and knowledge. Those who do not know how to build themselves, will never be able to build anything beautiful and noble.” 

Vitruvian man, from the edition of De Architectura of Giovan Battista Caporali, 1536

How and Why We Study Logic

Excerpted from the lectures given to the Lyceum Institute Trivium: Art of Logic Course.

“What more can be said about logic?”  I am acutely aware, as I pen these words that I pen them not to be read (even if someone other than myself might and does indeed read them), but to be spoken; to be given in a lecture, that is—a lecture for the Lyceum Institute, a lecture belonging to a course, and a course belonging to a holistic study of all three arts constituting the Trivium.  Though logic may be studied on its own, both as an art and as science, its greatest fruit comes when studied integrally with the other arts of the Trivium.  This sentiment—or rather, the mixed sentiments of hope, humility, and no small amount of trepidation, since I am myself well aware of my woeful inadequacy as a teacher, especially of logic—this sentiment finds itself grounded by the well-wrought intellectual insights of far wiser men: men such as R.E. Houser, John Deely, and John Poinsot, all of whom I consider my own teachers in this most difficult of subjects.  My failings, however, are not a reflection of their abilities: for I have learned logic through their printed works, rather than in-person instruction, and thus have not benefitted from direct correction.

The purpose of these lectures, indeed, is not to say anything new or novel about logic at all.  That does not mean there is nothing new to be said about logic, only that I am not here intending to say it.  Rather, these lectures aim—as is more broadly the goal of this course as a whole and of our first course of study of the Trivium in the Lyceum Institute—these lectures aim at displaying and explicating the art for a living audience.  They form part of a multi-party dialogue: between myself, as the instructor, and you, as the audience; between us, as a class, and the texts, which we read; and between the shared knowledge we gain and the knowledge we yet seek.  Between instructor and audience, there is formed a whole; between that whole, the class, and the texts, there is formed a second whole, that shared knowledge.  But knowledge, always and invariably, prompts new questions, an inquiry beyond itself.  These lectures are merely my own contribution… and rather a minor contribution, at that, in the grand scheme of this dialogue.

Our world—by which I mean not merely the physical environment of earth (though inclusive of it) but rather, more primarily, the specifically human environment of linguistically-perfused culture—suffers a problem of meaning.  I have addressed this problem in many other places.  We may redress this problem of meaning, however, only through language, and only if we conceive of language in the right way: not merely as an abstract system of arbitrarily-stipulated symbolic communications, ordered principally toward pragmatic ends and for the sake of manipulating that world to our ends (such manipulative bearing being one of, if not the, principal causes of our meaning problem), but rather as the way in which the true meaning of things comes to light in the first place.  For developing a facility with language so-conceived, we must study all three arts of the Trivium.  In the Art of Logic, in particular, we attend specifically to the illative relation, whereby we discover how language leads thinking through inference to truths not immediately evident—to truths obscured by malfeasant rhetoric or the will-to-power, to truths hidden by those who wish only to bend the world to their wills, instead of standing themselves humbly open to the real.

Sign up for the Lyceum Institute and join us in the study of Logic this Spring! Lectures begin 1 May 2023 and discussions on 8 May 2023. All members are welcome to take the Art of Logic course, at every level of enrollment.

On Definition and Language

“Nothing properly signifies itself.”

To signify: this is to convey something other, to something other. Signification thereby contrasts with representation by their respective extensions, which can be either “other-representation” or “self-representation”. When you see a portrait, this represents something other than itself, namely, the person portrayed. When you see that person herself, her visible being represents her very self. The good portrait accurately captures something of what is found in the self-representation. We measure portraits by their iconic sameness with their objects.

By contrast, when we read or hear words, an iconic sameness does not enter into their fittingness of other-representation. The word “sadness”, whether spoken or written, has nothing within its own being that corresponds to the emotion which it signifies. How then, does it signify that emotion? Some—deconstructionists—have opined that all such signification consists essentially in a willful imposition of the individual speaker; such that any auditor can willfully impose to the contrary. Were this true, it would be a disaster for human beings, for all solid meaning would disappear from our use of language. Definitions would be always ephemeral, always fragile. Thankfully, we do not need to fear the deconstructionists. We can, in fact, meaningfully define words. But we have to recognize that these definitions, though meaningful, are not absolute, nor do they possess an absolute fixity.

The Structure of Definition

John Poinsot—or John of St. Thomas—gives a definition of definition itself in his elementary logical texts. Here, I will ask some indulgence, for this is dry… but it also gives much-wanted precision. He writes:

Definition is “a linguistic expression explaining the nature of a thing or the signification of a term”. As for instance, if I say: “The human being is a rational animal”, I explain the nature of the human being, which is not explicated in the term “human”. And if I say: “White is having whiteness”, I do not explain the nature of “white”, but the signification of the noun, because this is the same as if I were to say: “‘White’ is a verbal signification of that which has whiteness”. The definition corresponds with the defined as its object, with which it is itself converted.

1631: Cursus Philosophicus, Artis Logicae Prima Pars, Summulae Lib.2, c.3 (R.I.19a 6–18): “Definitio est « oratio naturam rei aut termini significationem exponens ». Sicut cum dico: « Homo est animal rationale », naturam hominis epxlico, quae in illo termino ‘homo’ non explicabatur. Et cum dico: « Album est habens albedinem », non explico naturam albi, sed significationem nominis, quia idem est ac si dicam: « Album est vox significans id, quod habet albedinem ». Definitioni correspondet definitum tamquam obiectum eius, quod cum ipsa convertitur.”

In itself, this may not seem useful. But subsequently, Poinsot explains the conditions required for a good definition; the conditions required in order that something be defined; and finally, the divisions of definition into different kinds.

The three conditions for a good definition are: first, 1) that it proceed through genus and difference. Second, 2) that it be clearer than that which is being defined. And third, 3) that it should be neither redundant nor explain anything lesser in extension than the object defined.

The three conditions for something to be defined are: first, 1) that the object be one through itself, i.e., that it have a singular intelligible essence. Second 2), that it be universal and not include any conditions of individuality. Third, 3) that it be of a specific formal entity contained under some broader genus.

Finally, the divisions of definition fall into two categories, the second of which further subdivides into three. First, 1) there are nominal definitions. This is the kind of definition with which we are most familiar, for they are ubiquitous in our modern dictionaries. These definitions, like that given of “white” above, explain the signification of a term. Nominal definitions prove very useful: they help us to triangulate the meaning of words. And as Poinsot adds, etymology serves us greatly in producing good nominal definitions. But as he also writes, “often we are not able to explain the signification of a name except by making clear the thing itself.”

Thus, second 2), we have definitions of what things are (“quid rei”). These definitions divide into three categories: essential, descriptive, and causal. Essential definitions identify the intrinsic causal parts of a being: form and matter (also genus and species). Descriptive definitions orient toward what the essential being by identifying its proper accidents. Causal definitions specify extrinsic causal constitution: efficient and final causes.

Beyond the Structure of Definition

Merely stating the conditions and divisions of definition, however, gives us only the grounds for considering what makes definitions truly good. Many, for instance, might object to Poinsot’s conditions as being stuck in an antiquated cosmology of fixed and determinate biological species. Others might say, particularly given this apparent unfixity of the material cosmos, that our definitions never signify things, but only our ideas or concepts of them. Can we, that is, truly produce definitions that are essential? Can we have any definitions that are “real”—of things as they are in themselves? Or are all our definitions merely nominal—merely subjective?

Many today despair of being able to attain truth. The use of language appears as a pragmatic tool for communicating wants and needs, and painfully often, for manipulation of the audience. Artificial languages—those constituted by pure stipulation to signify with mathematic or programmatic precision—seem exemplary as means of such pragmatic and manipulative communication. But perhaps this despair springs not from the fallibility of our definitions, but our misunderstanding of definition itself. Perhaps, we ought to argue, a recovery of definition may be the only means to a recovery of truth.

Philosophical Happy Hour

If you would like to join us for a discussion of definitions, we would be happy to have you! Our happy hours are held (almost) every Wednesday from 5:45–7:15pm ET and are (almost always) open to the public. You can join the weekly mailing list by using the contact form here, or join directly by using the link on the right side of the screen here.

Trivium: The Art of Logic 2023

On 1 May 2023, we will begin our second Trivium course of the year: The Art of Logic. Our first discussion session will take place on 8 May 2023 at 6:00pm ET. This course is open to all enrolled Lyceum Institute members; having taken Grammar is not a prerequisite. If you would like to sign-up and take this course, enroll here. You can find out more about our approach to studying logic here.

In brief, however: is there right reasoning concerning reasoning itself? Can we reason rightly about other things if we are misled as to the nature of reasoning itself? Of course we can; but incidentally, rather than properly, and in a manner not precisely under our own control. Without having successfully undergone training in logic, we are much more likely to go awry in the formation of our beliefs—holding things untrue or unfitting to reason, that is—than otherwise. Thus, even though it is quite difficult, Thomas Aquinas rightly says that we ought to begin our learning from logic:

And for this reason it is necessary in learning to begin from logic, not because it is easier than the other sciences—indeed, it has the greatest difficulty, since it concerns second intentions—but because the other sciences depend upon it, insofar as it teaches the mode of proceeding in all the other sciences.

c.1257-59: In de trin., q.6, a.1, p.2, ad.3: “Et hac ratione oportet in addiscendo a logica incipere, non quia ipsa sit facilior ceteris scientiis, habet enim maximam difficultatem, cum sit de secundo intellectis, sed quia alia scientiae ab ipsa dependent, in quantum ipsa docet modum procedendi in omnibus scientiis.”

In our course, we will concern ourselves not only with learning to analyze propositions and syllogisms of both categorical and hypothetical structure, to parse prose writing for its logical structure (and errors therein), and to illuminate the illative relation which ties together all our reasoning, but also situate logic both historically and as it fits within the broader tradition of the Trivium.

Again, this seminar is open to all Lyceum Institute members, at every level of enrollment. Our primary (required) textbook is R.E. Houser’s Logic as a Liberal Art.