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Musings on Extrinsic Formal Causality and Practical Signs

This is not quite how I envisioned this first blog post turning out… Originally, I had considered writing something on the issue of the political common good, focusing on the plurality of common goods in relation to the political exercise of social justice in its original and true sense (namely, the right ordering of various goods within a social whole).  Oh well… That will be my next posting.

I am in the midst of working on a monograph devoted to a topic dear to my heart, concerned with (broadly speaking) the being of culture, exposited in line with a rigorous Thomistic metaphysic.  I am at a point of writing where I need to discuss the topic of extrinsic formal causality.  Therefore, I thought it might be helpful to write a blog post that teases out some of the ideas that will eventually enter into that particular chapter of my work.

The Platonic and Neo-Platonic universe is one that is dominated by the notion of extrinsic formal causality.  According to a kind of somewhat pedestrian, “kitchen table” Platonism, which philosophy professors often teach their undergraduate students, the world would be a kind of imitation of the transcend realm of the Forms or Ideas.  However, as any astute reader of Plato himself knows, many seeds for Aristotle’s own thought are found all throughout the written expression of the master’s thought, from which he drank for so many years.  Thus, in the Timaeus, we find the need to posit (by way of myth) a “receptacle” into which the form would be reflected (thus inserting material causality into the Platonic metaphysic), as well as the famous “Craftsman” (or “Demiurge”), who looks at the Forms and places them into the matter-receptacle(s), thereby making mutable copies of the immutable ideal realities (thus inserting efficient causality into the metaphysic).  Although Neo-Platonism would more clearly articulate the role of a kind of cosmic teleology, with all things going forth from the One and magnetized to return thereto (to the degree that this is possible), Plato’s conception of the Idea of the Good no doubt is the seed for such reflection on universal metaphysical gravitation.  (Think of how powerfully such teleology is expressed in Aristotle’s own account of the particular causality exercised by the First Cause when he discusses this not in the Physics but, rather, in the Metaphysics.)

But, with all of that being said, the most powerful of causes that operates on the Platonic and Neo-Platonic mind is extrinsic formal causality: the “really real” is to be found in the Ideas, with everything else being a copy thereof.  Thus, the world is full of copies and images, derivative realities whose intelligibility points to an external source upon whose model they were fashioned.  The Christian mind would readily develop this Platonic insight into the philosophical-theological metaphysics of the “Divine Ideas.”

It is, however, all too tempting for Christian philosophers to rush to the heights like this.  It comes from a laudable and pious sentiment.  But, the bright light of theological concern can tend to bleach out the importance of more quotidian realities.  Thus, among scholastics, one will most often speak of the “artistic idea” by which an artist fashions his or her work.  But such discussions are a kind of quick scaffolding for the sake of accomplishing the real construction: just enough elaboration so that one can then move on to the “truly important topic” concerning the Divine Ideas, the artistic exemplars of all created beings.

However, let us consider phenomena that are far more down to earth.  As I sit here typing, I see all sorts of things in my office.  A mug of coffee sits at my right.  Pens sit next to papers.  Slightly behind me, alongside the wall, there is a piano with a music book open, instructing me on the harmonization of a Bach chorale.

The last example is instructive (and, of course, purposely chosen).  Note the verb in the final clause: the book is instructing me.  Obviously, the sense of this verb is not the same as when it is used in its proper sense, referring to the activity of a teacher in relation to his or her students.  The act of instruction involves a kind of efficient causality.  But, for all that, is the transfer a mere metaphorical rhapsody?  No, for the most essential aspect of teaching is the act of presenting ideas before the mind of another, the “presentation of the object” to be known.  And this is something that the music text does to the person who has eyes to see.

Let us presume that I have never seen this harmonization of the “Darmstadt” melody before.  As someone who can somewhat plunk away at a piano, I have the agentive capacity to interpret music so as to then “transfer” its “message” to the tips of my fingers.  But, I cannot so transfer the “Darmstadt” melody until I know it.  In other words, my playing this melody depends, for its very being, upon the details intelligibly arranged on the paper.  And what is dependence in being?  It is a relationship of effect to cause.  My performance of this melody today must be “formed” by the message of the music pages.  My agency receives its form from outside of me—it is influenced by a causality that is, at once, extrinsic and formal.

In its merely “natural” being, the book of chorales is of use for starting a bonfire.  If civilization were to collapse, and if all modern Western music notation were to be forgotten, these properties would remain.  But, to the eyes of cognitional human agents, with a certain cultural and habituated ability to actualize the intelligibility that has been placed in these signs, the book is a window on the soul of a particular kind of music.  It pulls the musician into its orbit and expresses an intelligibility that is there in the paper—but in alio modo esse, according to another manner of existence.  It provides the “measure”, the right proportioning (at least in general terms), for my music playing.

And if one has eyes to see, one will realize that even blank paper itself also exercises this sort of causality.  In a literate culture in which writing upon paper is a possibility, a blank piece of paper is seen for the artifact that it is.  It is a practical sign of a kind of activity.  When viewed within the particular cultural context of sign interpretation, it is a kind of invitation to activity, it specifies a kind of activity: qua paper, this is something to be written on.  Sure, it can specify other activities too: make paper airplane from this, or cut out shapes from this, etc.  But the point remains, insofar as it brings into our minds the possibility of a practical activity—that is, insofar as this artifact is part of the relation-complex that leads my mind beyond the paper to a given kind of activity—the paper, precisely in this relational structure, becomes a sign, a practical sign.

We are surrounded by practical signs directing our action—they are everywhere.  They perfuse the world.  And although this kind of causality is exercised most clearly in human agency, where choice intervenes so as to constitute new forms of intelligibility, there is a real sense in which such extrinsic formal causality perfuses lower forms of activity as well.  When several trees interact with their environment so as to “communicate” with each other through their root systems, the various fungi and elements that take part in these processes have intelligibility as part of a kind of organic communication system only if one takes into consideration the life pattern of the trees in question.  In other words, the intelligibility of this system of activity, precisely as a unified system of activity, derives its intelligibility from the particular organic capacities of the plant life in question.  Even here, there is a kind of “extrinsic information” which gives an intelligibility that is not merely present in the uncoordinated activity of the parts of this now-active plant communication system.

But, I have gone on too long already.  I merely wanted to tease about on this topic to get a feeling for where the mind might go when writing on it.  Hopefully, though, this musing begins to get you thinking.  You’ll never look at the world the same again: the edge of the road is a practical sign (exercising extrinsic formal causality) telling you not to drive over it; the dashes between lanes indicate to you a kind of legal driving pattern; a driveway is an invitation to drive there and not on a lawn; a door handle is an invitation to turn and open a door; and in just the right context, a steep and open snowy hill begs you to ski down it.             

Extrinsic formal causality is everywhere, for the world is perfused with signs, both speculative and practical.  Let him who has eyes to see see.

⚘ The Semiosis of Boethius’s Prosimetric Style in “De consolatione philosophiae” | Wesley C. Yu

On 24 September 2022 at 2pm ET (see event times around the world here and join the live Q&A here) Wesley Chihyung Yu will present on “The Semiosi of Boethius’s Prosimetric Style in De consolatione philosophiae“. Wesley Chihyung Yu is Associate Professor of English at Mount Holyoke College. His interdisciplinary research on medieval poetics concentrates on literature’s relationship to the medieval language arts. Yu has focused in particular on rhetoric and logic, through which he considers medieval poetry’s place within the scope of intellectual history. He has written on early treatments of allegory and on literary uses of argumentation in the Middle Ages. Aside from teaching regular courses on medieval literary genres and authors, he writes and teaches on medieval perception and epistemology, poetic traditions, and reasoning in Old and Middle English literature.

Join the live Q&A here.

2022 International Open Seminar on Semiotics (IO2S) | Website

This collaborative international open scientific initiative and celebration is jointly organized by the Institute for Philosophical Studies of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities of the University of Coimbra, the Lyceum Institute, the Deely Project, Saint Vincent College, the Iranian Society for Phenomenology at the Iranian Political Science Association, the International Association for Semiotics of Space and Time, the Institute for Scientific Information on Social Sciences of the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Semiotic Society of America, the American Maritain Association, the International Association for Semiotic Studies, the International Society for Biosemiotic Studies and the Mansarda Acesa with the support of the FCT – Foundation for Science and Technology, I.P., of the Ministry of Science, Technology and Higher Education of the Government of Portugal under the UID/FIL/00010/2020 project.

New Book – Linguistic Signification

Dr. Kemple has–at long last–finished his Linguistic Signification: A Classical and Semiotic Course in Grammar & Composition. Comprising twenty-six chapters and four appendices, this text is the work of two years concerted effort, but roughly a decade of thinking closely about the nature and function of language, particularly in light of the doctrine of signs–that is, semiotics. It is available in either paperback or hardcover from Amazon, or as a PDF to all Lyceum Institute members.

This book intends to serve one principal end: instructing students, of sufficiently mature mind, how to compose thoughtful and insightful essays in the English language. Accomplishing this rather specific end, however, requires a broad range of study: a study much broader than that comprised by a simple question of “how to write”. That is, we cannot write well unless we understand the instruments whereby writing is accomplished; or, to employ one of those instruments—the metaphor—the fruits of composition are nourished best through growing deep the roots of grammar. As we will see, this linguistic growth requires some knowledge also of logic and rhetoric: for although this book intends an introduction into the first study of the liberal arts, all three arts of the Trivium are nevertheless inseparably convergent in the flourishing of our natural human ability for linguistic signification.

We will combine some use of all the Trivium, however abecedarian our talents in these arts may still be, by the time we reach the final chapter. While we will draw upon logic and rhetoric, however, the focal study of grammar, as pursued in this book, forms not only the foundational but rather the central part of this non-trivial pursuit of the Trivium.

This aim is carried out through various readings, exercises, investigation of literature, philosophy, and more.

Trivium: Grammar – Fall 2021

Why study grammar? We might think it a basic necessity for young students–elementary students, perhaps into middle school–but of little importance by the time of high school, the competent student having gained the adequacy in composition and speech necessary to make him or herself understood to most persons in most situations. At most, an extended study of grammar seems to be for the aesthete or dilettante: not someone to be taken seriously.

Certainly, many who pride themselves on their study of the liberal arts do so out of pretension. But, in truth, a real study of the liberal arts–a study that seeks habituation in clear and deep thinking–suffers none of the pretensions which inhibit our ability to understand the world in which we live common to the typical person of today. At the foundation of such a study is grammar: for all the validity and soundness of logic, and all the persuasiveness of rhetoric, rely upon the structures of signification.

Thus, our course in grammar–which incorporates much from the paired arts of logic and rhetoric, especially as it aims also for the improvement of our abilities in composition–looks at these significative structures not merely in terms of rules, and correctness, but with an eye attuned to the reasoning which governs our linguistic systems.

The Trivium courses are available to all Lyceum Institute members. Enroll here. The Fall 2021 course begins 9/20/21!

Or see the Trivium: Grammar Page for more.

This Week [2/7-2/13]

Weekly Schedule

2/9 Tuesday – Philosophical Happy Hour (5:30-7:00pm ET). A late announcement, but we had a good time… you should have been there! Good reason to sign up, I suppose.

2/12 Friday – Open Chat (9:30-10:15am ET). Our regular Friday-morning open chat, allowing conversation between those in the West and those in the East–part of the truly international nature of the Lyceum Institute.  A good way to bring the thinking of one week to a close and launch into the next.

2/13 Saturday – Latin Class(10-11am ET).  Week four marches in!  We continue progressing through Lingua Latina Per Se Illustrata: Familia Romana and forming our habits.

2/14 Saturday – Seminar Discussion Sessions.  The 2021 Winter Seminars continue apace.  At 1:15-2:15pm ET, Metaphysics: The Discovery of Ens inquantum Ens dives into a consideration of the principles of the science and how they help us to define its boundaries. Following, at 3:00-4:00pm ET, Ethics: The Good Life takes a look at how we form habits of happiness in this life through participation in the common good.

2/15 Sunday – Open Chat Asia (4:00-5:30am ET/5:00-6:30pm GMT+8). Technically this is next week–but one of our members hosts an open chat for those on the other side of the world. A great opportunity for those living in far-removed parts of the world to meet some members and chat. Open to the public. Use the “Send Us a Message” form here (write “Open Chat Asia” in the message box) and we’ll see you on Teams!


New merch at the Lyceum Institute Shop! Semiotically-inspired:


Updates

Partnership with Reality – Reality: a Journal for Philosophical Discourse has officially become a publication of the Lyceum Institute.  This will mean many opportunities for members to publish, including our first such, a bi-monthly essay contest. 

Trivium – Module 3 of our Trivium program will be added this month, opening some fundamental considerations of the grammatical structure of language and its connection to logic.

Latin Reading Practice – In addition to our regular classes, we’re adding some sporadic reading practice sessions throughout the week to increase our confidence and familiarity with the language as a daily habit of the mind.