Fragments: Universalia et res

If you abolish the whole, you abolish its parts; and if you abolish any part, then that whole is abolished

—A. N. Whitehead (Process and Reality, 288).

At the risk of contradicting wiser men than I, one is tempted to just drop this issue rather than reject Whitehead’s assertion and thereby revive the ancient debate. Nevertheless, if Whitehead’s own words about all of “Western Philosophy consist[ing] in footnotes to Plato” are true, then this seems like a good cause. I hope that, by taking up Plato’s mantle, I can contribute in a modest way to rectifying the caricatured interpretation of his doctrine that we seem to have inherited and which seems to cause so much misunderstanding.

Se ha dicho que todos los hombres nacen aristotélicos o platónicos. Ello equivale a declarar que no hay debate de carácter abstracto que no sea un momento de la polémica de Aristóteles y Platón; a través de los siglos y latitudes, cambian los nombres, los dialectos, las caras, pero no los eternos antagonistas.
Jorge Luis Borges, El Aleph, “Deutsches Requiem.”

“It has been said that all men are born either Aristotelians or Platonists. That is equivalent to saying that there is no debate of an abstract nature that is not an instance of the debate between Aristotle and Plato.

Down through the centuries and latitudes, the names change, the dialects, the faces, but not the eternal antagonists.”
—Trans. Andrew Hurley, 2000.

Returning to Whitehead’s original assertion—“If you abolish the whole, you abolish its parts; and if you abolish any part, then that whole is abolished”—I feel that it is a distinctly unhelpful way to understand the relationship between part and whole that Whitehead advances. What if I pluck a sprig of rosemary—did I “abolish” that whole which is the rosemary bush, or the entire Earth’s ecosystem? Or suppose the rosemary bush dies but its corpse remains. Would one characterise this as having “abolished the whole?” It seems the answer must be “no.” Indeed, there it is.

Apropos the logical priority of the parts or the whole: to pin it down one way or the other is quite typical of our withered inheritance of Aristotelian logic. At the same time, to try to have it both ways and thus to affirm an oceanic pluralism is emotionally satisfying and politically correct, but still no closer to true understanding of the fundamental relation between part and whole than to pitch camp as a fundamentalist in either extreme. All of these assertion are errors because they attempt to relate aspects that are incommensurable…which is greater: tree-frogs or the colour purple? This question does not present a perfect analogy since the part-whole relationship is actually more interesting in some ways, since every “part” in a given context is in turn an “whole” in a different one. For instance, the Buddhist sage Nagasena provides King Milinda the example of a chariot in the famous Nāgasenabhiksusūtra from circa 150BC:

Nagasena:…So how did you come, on foot or on a horse?

King: I came on a chariot.

Nagasena: If you came on a chariot, please explain what a chariot is. Is the pole the chariot?

King: No, reverend sir.

Nagasena: Is it the wheels, or the frame, or the yoke, or any of the parts?

King: No, reverend sir.

Nagasena: Is it the combination of the parts? If we laid out the wheels and the frame and the yoke and all the parts, would that be a chariot?

King: No, reverend sir.

Nagasena: Then is it outside of this combination of parts?

King: No, reverend sir…

The interesting philosophical point is, however, that one could just as easily commence one’s apparent dissolution by analysis with any one of “the wheels…the frame…the yoke and all of the parts” and arrive at the same conclusion of basic sunyatā. Again, any eventual surprise at the discovery of “no-chariot” is the result of a pre-reflective expectation that parts and wholes are commensurate and that, therefore, an whole will appear in the same manner as any of its parts. The best entry-point to understanding this great metaphysical mystery is for the fair reader, provided he or she has made it this far, to consider the very act of reading these Latinate glyphs. Ostensibly, one has conveyed some modicum of meaning, and yet the meaning is neither contained within, nor will it be found amongst, the myriad-odd letters. How does a sequence of scratch-marks becomes a word (i.e. a meaning)? One should imagine the whole not as a thing amongst things, but rather as an organising idea that illuminates all of its relevant parts in the glow of its peculiar meaning.

One must conclude, therefore, that the whole shines into space and time when the appropriate parts organise into a mirror of sorts wherein this supersensible emanation may find reflection. Universalia super res. This is close the the Platonic position of universalia ante res, as Thomas Aquinas characterised it in the Middle Ages. Today, however, we ordinarily conceive of Plato’s Theory of Forms in a caricatured sense; as the “Dingen-an-sich,” eternally-frozen, inaccessible hypostases in a Platonic Heaven.

Aristotle, as I understand his thought, contradicted his teacher to argue for universalia in rebus because he could no longer cognise the emanating, ideal dimension of reality. For this reason, the latter appeared to Aristotle flattened onto things themselves.

Finally, Aristotelian thought was itself caricatured by the Nominalists after they elaborated a modified Aristotelianism which they had in turn inherited from the Islamic scribes, who had preserved and translated the Greek texts after the fall of Rome…but not without interpolating their own attitudes.


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