An Incommunicable Given, Pt. 1
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“In their activities lower natures intend perpetual existence; for the act of every lower
nature is being ordered towards generation, whose end is to conserve the perpetual existence of the species. Therefore nature doesn’t intend that “this individual” be a final end, but to conserve the species in it. And this the nature possesses if it works in the power (virtuality) of God, which is the first root of all that is perpetual. (…) But resurrection is not ordered towards perpetuation of the species; the former is, namely, perpetuated by generation. Consequently, it is ordered towards the perpetual being of the individual. But not only in respect of the soul; indeed, this the soul has possessed even before the resurrection. Therefore it is ordered towards everlasting unity of body and soul. Hence, the resurrected man will possess an everlasting life.
The soul and the body, as it seems, follow the different order in the first generation of man and his resurrection; for in the first generation the creation of a soul follows the generation of a body (…) The first life, given to man in birth, is conditioned by the state of the corruptible body and man is being deprived of it in death. On the contrary, life bestowed in resurrection will be everlasting, conditioned by the state of incorruptible soul.” Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles., quoted from Croatian translation. In available online edition in English, see: Ch. 82 “That men will rise immortal”, 6 – 7.
The notion of person, as it is being understood today – be it as a synonym for the individual human being, or be it in the sense of the conceptual foundation of that “minimum of morality” we call legislation and law – is customarily taken as “a given” in the way St. Thomas Aquinas would probably have hard time understanding.
For the sake of the present discussion we’ll reduce it to two benchmark meanings:
In the original modern qualification of the term, “a given” is the object of experience and/or thought disclosing itself to the conscious subject. Even if the subject becomes an object to itself, the split between the two remains present, so we are talking about “objectifying” of the subject in the act of self-reflection; the assumption being that the original mediation between two poles is the final frontier of all existence.
Even if there is a God, He would have to somehow be caught up in its dialectics, and if we are to think about Him, then we would be obliged to use these parameters, apparently disclosed to us by the phenomena themselves.
The other, less abstract, yet intimately congenial meaning is that “a given” means something passed on by history, whether because our ancestors invented it or whether it “evolved” out of the primary state of “natural man”. In this sense, we are dealing with a qualified, “historical” given.
On the contrary, for the medieval Doctor the unspoken – and hence rarely noted – understanding was that “a given” has one essential sense, absent in both of the above defined meanings.
For him, namely, understanding something as “a given” always, to a various degree, means understanding something as “a revealed given”.
Before arguing the point let us note that understanding “a given” as having been revealed also implies certain duality at the heart of all knowledge.
In virtue of the simplest logical structure of the notion, revelation is the disclosure of something previously unknown to someone, by someone else; in the simplest metaphysical sense, however, this means that the Creator reveals Himself to be the origin of all creature with all implications stemming thereof, one of them being that the distance between the Creator and the creature is incommensurable and as such it is due solely to Him to surmount it on behalf of the creature, never the other way around.
This is clearly not a dialectical duality of the subject and object, and it cannot be reduced to it in any conceivable manner, because, whereas the incommensurability of the Creator and the creature is what qualifies “a given”, the precise opposite, i.e. the commensurability of the subject and object is what qualifies the dialectical understanding of ‘a given’.
Correspondingly, from the traditional standpoint, neither is the personhood ‘a given’, in the sense of the self conscious subject, nor is a historical ‘given’ something that just by happenstance came down from the past to rest in our hands, or it evolved from the potential matrix that was present in the initial act of self reflection.
Namely, the relation of the subject and object is by its very nature a product of spontaneous act: once the subject is posited, the object necessarily follows, and vice versa.
For something like this, conscious subject doesn’t need anything outside of the contingent world, save the initial recognition of its absolute other – the object – which is both determined by it and determining it, depending on the context.
This necessity is best understood as being automatic, in the original sense of the word, where αὐτόματον denotes “that which occurs of itself”, i.e. without intrinsic purpose; in Aristotle’s Physics this mode of act is juxtaposed against the original and substantial notion of physis which always intends ends and whose workings can consequently be comprehended in the causal form:
“Therefore, that which is the cause in itself is determinable, whereas the accidental cause is undeterminable, because the one can be a subject of infinite number of accidental occurrences; so when (…) among the beings coming to pass ‘for the sakes of something’ (οὗ ἕνεκα – in Aristotle’s terminology this is an expression denoting the final cause, KT), something of this sort occurs, then it is said that it occurred according to αὐτόματον or according to happenstance (τύχη)”. Aristotle Physics, 196 b 25 – 35.
Happenstance and automaton differ in the sense that the former has to do with acts involving deliberation, i.e. personal agency, whereas automaton occurs in the course of the purposeful natural process as an act extrinsic to its purpose. Hence it is very important not to confuse these terms with each other, as well as with the metaphysical use of the term “accident” (σῠμβεβηκός), denoting anything extrinsic to an original act of some determined substance, while in some way qualifying it, which is equivocal depending on the context. For example, the fact that I am a man can be discerned from me acting as the man acts or emanating the energies proper to being ‘man’, whereas the fact that I have dark eyes or am educated is accidental to me being a man. This does not mean that these qualities are insubstantial in themselves, but only that they’re not proper acts of the substance in question, i.e. that they cannot be traced back to it as their first origin.
The automaton is an accident participating in the purpose in a negative way or, in other words, it is an instance of the deficiency of purpose.
Let us illustrate.
If we take into focus St. Thomas’ example of intended perpetuity of the generation of species, inherent to the purpose of nature, the pure automaton would be every instance when this intention fails for no other discernable reason then that it failed; so, although all generation intends birth of offspring, there are instances when this purpose is not met due to circumstances, that is: through accidents that cannot be grasped by knowing the purpose of generation.
Therefore, the intention of generation – and this means generation in the most eminent sense – can in no way be comprehended as automatic or spontaneous process. It is indeed ‘a given’ but the one whose end is not discernable from itself, because its original cause is not ‘a given’ of experience that could be discovered by penetrating the inner structure of the process.
Above all, this means that automaton is not a discernable cause and as such it cannot really be understood as one.
In the traditional sense the causality is understood as a relationship of the origin and the originated, where one is, to a various degrees, comprehensible from the other. If automaton does not originate in a given nature, it cannot really be grasped through its act, but only stated as a fact extrinsic to it. The only way it can come from the act of the given nature is by way of deficiency which is the negative qualification of all things existing in some kind of dependency on matter; therefore, unnatural things occur by automaton when natural act, or natural energy, has been impeded by something more powerful in a particular, contingent, instance.
This, however, does not take anything from the teleology of nature, because what originates in nature is perpetuated by participating in the higher energy of the supernatural Origin, whose existence can be discerned in demonstrable fashion as both the exemplar and the fulfillment of the perpetuity – something that is everlasting not only potentially, but actually.
Provided that natural generation cannot be understood as being automatic in the above described sense – quite the contrary – its intention has to originate in something else; if the intention would be self contained and nature had no origin, then it would, at the same instant, end up being deficient because there would be no actual purpose to it, save for the potential to perpetuate its act into infinity.
Namely, it is obvious that the purpose of generation is offspring, but what is the purpose of the offspring? If the offspring has no other purpose then to generate another offspring, this is really not an end but an infinite automaton that can have no inherent purpose, because the purpose implies the terminus of the process and not the actual infinity of it, and, as a whole, it must ontologically precede its parts because the end of the process is the exemplar qualifying all stages to be passed through to fulfill its form.
The end-less perpetuation of the species can be put forward as an alternative, but there is really no purpose to it, save to assume that it is caused by automatic rotation of the generative cycle.
And this, in itself, is a hypothesis transcending experience, jumping head first into the realm of metaphysics, because mind cannot comprehend ends in such way, save by attempting to project the creative principle into infinite, potential, future and observe the process as a dynamic, spontaneous, dialectics directed towards it.
It may be appropriate to note here how vacuous in this context is the popular remedy for grief in the form of sentimental rationalization of death, especially the death of a child.
Supposedly, nature is a subsistent cause with nothing outside it, but, at the same time, it has to meet emotional needs of humans and whenever it fails to deliver, one has to subdue the anger and grief by dissolving meaninglessness of death into “great scheme of things”; great, namely, only in the sense of something incommensurable to our finite powers, not to our finite minds.
So the finite mind employs an infinite repertoire of tricks to come to terms with the fact that the god of natural selection, in the course of his infinite automatic act, somehow had better things to do at the moment than save the mere individual who, by happenstance, means a lot to someone.
One is sometimes astonished just how powerful emotional saccharine can be in dulling the incommensurable grief over something that cannot really be made meaningful in the context of the generative nature taken in itself, because what is lost is far more than something natural.
What is lost is something personal.
And forced analogy between natural and personal, where person is being analogically founded in the biological or even purely logical individual reduces grief either to sentimentality or indifference that can sometimes become downright diabolic.
What mother ever justified the death of her child by referring to the higher purpose of the perpetuation of species, without her grief being essentially nothing but a cosmic exercise in grandstanding, quite congenial with only seemingly opposite cold detachment of the pathologist?
How can it be that “every evil is for some good” when that little good being snatched away was more intimate to one’s heart than anything in the visible universe?
Perhaps, it all happened in order that beautiful flowers can spring from the child’s grave?
Or that the generation of maggots can be saved from starvation?
Or that genius pathologist can cut up the cadaver and find out what made it perish in order to save the future children?
Or that child’s photo, as is the custom nowadays, can grace the virtual space of social networks where compassionate souls can post sympathetic messages?
If quality of metaphysics could truly be judged by its fruits, then this amount of bullshit would be quite a damning evidence for the scrutinized party.
Unfortunately, as reading the causes from their effects is far out of vogue today, we won’t be able to enjoy this luxury and we’ll have to proceed with the analysis.
As Aquinas’ passage shows, the individual is not perpetuated by natural generation. Now we must explicate what is implicit in the term ‘individual’ that also has profoundly different meaning today.
If we consider the individual in the sense of the dialectical opposite of the species, then we are taking the standpoint diametrically opposed to the one St. Thomas holds. In that sense individual would be a spontaneous offspring of the process of generation, qualified above all else by the perpetuation of the species, where it is a sort of the embodied potentiality which, after it serves its purpose, dissolves back into totality from which it sprang.
For Aquinas, however, this is obviously not the case; but why this is so is anything but obvious.
Person is ‘a given’ of a sort that cannot be comprehend in any conceivable way without relying, not only on the intellectual principle of revelation, where revelation is taken as the guideline for intellect in the form of demonstrable facts such as the primacy of energy over potentiality or the purpose over automaton. On the contrary, it is the point in which the Revelation has to be taken as exactly what it is – the Word of God made flesh to abide among men.
However, before we proceed to the heart of the matter, let us explicate some more unspoken, yet highly relevant assumptions.
As St. Thomas points out, the incorruptible nature of the soul, while being a revealed “given” itself, is not such in the direct and eminent sense; before the incarnation of the Word, it was discovered by the “divine spark of reason” that is, by virtue of intellect guided by the higher light it reflects.
Intellect is able to acquire the knowledge of the immortality of immaterial beings by having a notion of immaterial that is not derived from what is material, in a negative way, i.e. by merely taking particular things and relieving them of their matter in synthetic imagination. Although human knowledge relies on the senses in temporal sequence, in the ontological order the first knowable is not a particular being but the universal one, because it is omnipresent in all genera, species and individuals; it cannot be thought of as generated, because in every particular genus, from mineral to spiritual beings, the universal being is present and without it the intellect can know nothing; before grasping what qualifies every genera of being as genera, i.e. what both unites and differentiates them from each other, there is ‘a given’ fact that they are singular beings and, at the same instance, that each one of them is universally qualified as being. What makes this fact a revealed ‘given’ is that it is in no way spontaneous – no single being actually forces us to perceive it and, if the eternal Being is not present in universal being in some way, the mind can plausibly ascribe ens commune to a product of its own synthetic imagination.
No one summed this up better than Immanuel Kant in the foreword to the 2. edition of his Kritik der Reinen Vernunft:
“Until now the assumption was that all our knowledge has to be directed towards objects; but all attempts in trying to determine something about them a priori, by use of concepts, have crumbled under this assumption. So let us for once attempt (…) to assume that objects have to be directed towards our knowledge. Now, this fits better with the sought for possibility of knowing something of them a priori, which knowledge should determine something about the objects before they are being given. It is same here as with Kopernik’s initial idea, when he attempted to see whether he’ll be more successful if he assumes that the observer is moving and that the stars, on the contrary, are at rest, because the explanations of stellar movements up to that moment were not satisfactory, i.e. while he assumed that the whole stellar world is revolving around the observer. In metaphysics the similar thing can be attempted, regarding the intuition of the object. If the intuition was to be directed by the quality of the object, then I cannot see how one can know anything a priori about the intuition. But if the object – as the object of senses – is being directed by the quality of our power of intuition, then I can acquire quite accurate mental representation of this possibility.” 
What Kant proposes here is that the real, both intuitive and demonstrable, knowledge, that is to say the knowledge of ‘a given’, is possible in the scientific sense only if the forms of intuition in which we initially grasp objects are what constitutes those objects in the first place; if we were to believe that the necessary and universal determinations of things – such as ens commune – are in things themselves and that our knowledge is formed upon them, then our mind gets entangled in contradictions: the pure concepts are being erroneously understood as determinations of things themselves because they get detached from the reality of phenomena, i.e. from the mode in which things appear to us.
So, as Kant sees it, the mind poses propositions like “the world is eternal and has no beginning in time” and “the world is not eternal and has a beginning in time” and then proceeds to prove both of them to be true, which indicates that they refer to no real content because both statements give formally correct conclusions that are nevertheless contradictory and as such, in his view, can refer to no real object of knowledge.
And, to a certain extent, he is quite right.
Beings perceived by senses cannot provide any certainty by themselves and the mind that is nevertheless able to acquire certainty, as evidenced to Kant by the very existence of modern science, must assume that things and their determinations are somehow ‘given’, the only question being: “by what?” not “by whom?”
Kant assumes that ‘a given’ is valid only insofar as it stands justified before the judgment (gericht) of the pure mind in it’s a priori use, i.e. before any experience is present.
Since there’s nothing in objects that can provide certainty and universality of the laws of nature, it must be that a priori determinations of ‘a given’ which mind finds in itself are somehow the universal form originated in the spontaneous activity of the subject, whereas traditional metaphysics is simply “a natural malady of the pure mind”, perpetually goading it into attempts to step over its own bounds reflecting the spontaneous dialectics of subject and object into pure thinking; this thinking, however, has all the formal correctness but no reality, therefore it is unreal knowledge.
Being, from this standpoint, is not a “real predicate”, i.e. it is just a word that cannot denote anything real, because it is not determining any particular genera, species or individual and, most importantly, has absolutely no relation to the conditions of sense intuition and spontaneous conceptualization that gives it comprehensible form; it is a pure regulative notion the mind applies to experience as a potential logical circumference of the world, but nothing more than pure tautology, always correct but never true.
Many critics of Kant in particular and modern metaphysics in general fail to see that Kant is quite consequent to his own intellectual choice; the choice, we might add, that is a quite adequate one provided it was made in modernity for the modernity. For although he was able to maintain the illusion that his insights are based upon intuitive, reflexive fact developed into elaborate demonstration of the nature of interplay of the mind and phenomena, in reality what he did was to make a certain leap of faith.
In this respect, his very language betrays him. As much as he attempted to detach his transcendental idealism from any assumptions – which is a true meaning of his notion of a priori – he couldn’t escape the fact that the mind is always dealing with an assumption of ‘a given’.
Here is how, in the words of Jan Aertsen, traditional metaphysics sees this ‘given’:
“Being is that on the basis of which things are capable of being known by an intellect, it is the prerequisite condition for every intelligible object, for something is intelligible insofar as it has being. That being is the first known and is for Thomas at the same time a fundamental statement on the relation between man and reality.”
The reason why Kant would find this unacceptable is not the reason of knowledge but rather the one of the will. The ens commune is not such as it is because it is there to provide us with something we expect from it, such as Newtonian physics that served as Kant’s ideal of science, but it is what it is because it has been created as such; It is ‘a given’ in the sense that cannot be causally explained by explicating its raison d’être into system of knowledge that would provide us with the clear explanation of how senses disclose universal being to make our subjective knowledge ontologically real; it is ‘a given’ because someone ‘gave it’ and it doesn’t suffer being explicated into anything, but all knowledge is being explicated into it, no matter what needs human beings imagine to have as their birthright.
It is very important to formulate this in such quite personal terms, because, no matter what amount of cool detachment modern philosopher might propose, the fact of the matter is that notions of modern metaphysics are neither intuitive nor demonstrative proofs of his “assumption-free” standpoint; they are decisions upon perspective he takes on given facts. Kant couldn’t accept that intellectual principles are founded outside of the intellect itself, because it contradicts his vision of the history of science, not of the nature of truth. While he wouldn’t deny that principle of non-contradiction is true, he denies that it is the principle that is given to intellect through its primordial unity with universal being. The fact that all knowledge comes from the senses while it originates in something that is in no way perceivable by senses means that human being can never have any kind of power over it and that ‘a given’ is to be understood as its ultimate limit: while we can in the course of our existence benefit from an ability of the divine spark of reason by being able to explicate everything into what is implicit to all, we cannot nevertheless by our own power cause it to be nor understand the act that brought it into existence.
Therefore, we cannot think without being created to think.
And we cannot have scientific metaphysics in the modern sense, where scientific means systematic.
But this also means that there is a purpose to thinking that is not something we choose and which doesn’t spring automatically from the relationship of the subject and object, but exists as the congenial terminus of the energies of mind and being. The drive to establish the first principles that require no assumptions is, in the light of such mentality, really incomprehensible because the first principles are evident by themselves in the light of their origin.
Let us note in passing that this is what was traditionally understood as thinking being subordinated to faith, not, as the good deal of contemporary scientists of religious bent would like it to be, that is: a primitive attempt at reconciliation of modern natural sciences with religious beliefs. The subordination was traditionally an act that stems from the nature of the science itself where the science is understood as a personal mental state that resolves itself into its original causes.
Science of universal being is more like habitual excellence its practitioner acquires, than body of knowledge, because knowledge acquired by resolving every given being into its principle is an open ended, not systematic, knowledge.
The proof of universal being emanates from the act of resolving everything into it, therefore it’s a causal, demonstrative proof.
Namely, all thought is an afterthought because we think before we think that we think.
And this a priori act of intellect is an intuitive content of the demonstration because it clearly shows to a thinking person that his knowledge a priori is endowed with reality – that it has being. If it weren’t so, then it would be possible to think nothing and, indeed, the a priori act of knowledge would be precisely thinking of nothing because our knowledge would then not be founded in the previous knowledge – that is, in the being of knowledge – but in the spontaneous act springing from nothing.
The congeniality of intellect and being is therefore necessary for the intellect to exist, because, clearly nothing which doesn’t possess being can be rightly said to exist. The ability to resolve the implicit knowledge into previous knowledge, all the way down to the first principles of logic and ontology is distinctively unified with the act of the universal being itself, because it resolves itself into its own previous being, i.e. its first cause and Origin, which made it ‘a given’ in the first place.
The subject/object split is impossible here, because the identity or, in more appropriate wording, distinct unity/unified distinction between knowledge and being cannot be broken save in imagination; moreover, the identity is not a product of spontaneous act, because there is nothing automatic in it; both the act of being and the act of knowledge terminate in one thing and are consequently both same and different in virtue of the power of that end, without which the being could not be known and the knowledge could not be real.
In this way we come to see what being ‘a given’ entails.
On the one hand it makes us realize that there is nothing in this world, as Kant correctly noted, that could be ‘a giver’ but also that, as Kant didn’t realize, there’s also nothing in us that can ‘give’ us this world.
In reality both originally unified acts of thinking and being are being resolved into that which is a priori before them and therefore have created their unity.
This, however, is rather to be referred to as ‘who’ than ‘what’ because there’s a one not entirely obvious quality at work here.
This quality is an understanding of person specific for Christian Revelation, which conditions, even as an unwanted luggage, the very language of modernity as already somewhat hinted at in Kant.
And, as we’ll try to show in the following, it is in fact a horizon that even an age that is being rallied against it cannot erase with its humanist sponge, because both the origin of its morality and its laws, no matter how eroded they have become, still radiates in its midst.
The point when the true nature of person got revealed as ‘a given’, we claim, was not an actualization of the already present possibility of knowledge that the intellect could have acquired by itself, but it was the unique historical event of incarnation, death and resurrection of God.
The peculiar quality of this drama, and not the great tradition of palaios logos of the ancients, gave us the notion of person we unwittingly use today, even those of us who with deadpan seriousness put it on the level of the belief in the existence of “flying spaghetti monster”, unaware that, by virtue of their thinking before thinking that they think, they are in fact to a certain extent deliberately denouncing their own Origin with an adolescent abandon; abandon which, one might add in the light of the nature of the life of intellect, can hide its own quite diabolical quality only for so long.
But this moves our discussion to a quite different level.
 Note that in medieval thought the term intention does not imply subjectivity, but refers to ontological quality. As Jan Aertsen in his Medieval Philosophy and Transcendentals: The Case of Thomas Aquinas. (E.J. Brill: New York, Leiden, Koln: 1996) explains: “The term intentio would become a standard phrase in the thirteenth-century discussion of the transcendentals. Umberto Eco interprets the expression secundum intentionem as “with respect to the intentionality of the percipient”. But this interpretation is incorrect. The term intentio has no subjectivistic connotations at all within the context of discussions of the transcendentals. (…) As such, it has the same meaning as ratio, the translation of the Greek logos.”, pg. 28-29.
 Aertsen, pg. 80
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