Half, Whole, or Just Disjointed?
Is the state of gaining knowledge a synonym for being live? A comment I hear from time to time is “You talk quite a bit about “living” and “everyday living”. Isn’t philosophy or the study of philosophy just … living?” Another comment asks how I can discuss religion as if one size fits all. Both are great questions.
Aristotle considered philosophy not a study of the parts of reality but a study of reality itself. For example, the parts of reality might be the study of math or music, politics or history. Reality is the existence and properties of things, their changes, causalities, and possibilities; reality is about the time and space of the here and now. He called this “first philosophy” metaphysics as previously discussed based upon the Greek words “meta” meaning beyond and “physica” meaning physical.
The question implies that we gain knowledge just by being alive, by … being. Those struggling to find food and shelter in the aftermath of earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, etc. often find themselves in a struggling state of being. We learn a great deal from such survivors and marvel at their tenacity and resiliency. Certainly they are giving life their every bit of effort. By doing so, are they also gaining knowledge? Those participating in riots or who create mass shootings are also putting energy and effort into their behavior but do we really think they are “learning” just by their doing? Perhaps a better question is what are we learning in the aftermath of such events? We must gain knowledge if we are to prevent them from becoming as commonplace as they currently are.
Aristotle maintained that there are five “predictables”, five common ways that we discuss a subject or object. We can define the object very specifically [Aristotle referred to this as the species] or we can discuss it in general terms [the genus]. We can notate what distinguishes it from other objects [the differentia], what makes it unique or special [propia], or we can discuss it by discussing things that are not like it [accidentals]. Philosophy instructor Dr. Maxwell Taylor illustrates Aristotle’s Predictables with one of my most favorite musical instruments and shapes – the lowly triangle. For instance, a triangle is specifically a three-sided figure or in general terms, a shape. It is different from other shapes by its number of sides and its properties are varied in that the sides can be of differing lengths. Perhaps the easiest way to describe a triangle is by comparing it to shapes it is not like, starting with the fact that it is not a rectangle, square, diamond, or rhombus.
The definition of something is that which makes it what it is. Aristotle called this “horos” which means definition. Porphyry called it “eidos” which means forms and Boethius called it “species” to imply an object’s specific essence. Both the survivors in Nepal and the protestors in Baltimore are living but their manner of form of living is very different. Still, both groups are living and that fact would be classified under the “genus”, that part of the two groups that, although very different, they share in common.
The genus is the general things found in common with other things that are otherwise different. Perhaps an easier illustration or analogy is that flowers would be the genus and roses, daffodils, tulips, and lilies would be the species. Not all species are the same, however. Some roses are climbing vines while others are bushes. Some flowers have specific number of petals while others have fewer or greater number of petals. This would be the differentia.
Things can become a bit involved, however, when we start discussing the “propia” or properties of an object. The general population in Nepal is not accustomed to great wealth or lavish luxuries but the current conditions in which they are living are very different from those of some of the protestors in Baltimore, residents of the area who also live in abject poverty and sometimes deplorable conditions. The destruction of businesses in Baltimore will leave some of the area’s residents homeless, although not homeless like the survivors in Nepal.
It is easier to use our analogy of the triangle; the properties are easier to explain. We’ve already mentioned that a triangle’s form or definition is a three-sided object. The genus would be that it is a shape. The differentia or differences between triangles is determined by the angles within the three-sided shape. Where the three lines of a triangle meet, angles are formed. Those angles differentiate one triangle from another. The specific angles are the properties of the triangle and there are six different types of triangles but do not make the object any more or less a triangle.
As I have noted before, triangles are one of my most favorite shapes and also musical instruments. The tone of the instrument can be affected by the type of metal used which affects the number of vibrations, the number of overtones and the sound that reaches your ears. The type of beater or mallet used also affects the tone as does the manner in which the triangle is hung or held. Most musical triangles are equilateral triangles, having three equal sides, although they come in varying shapes. Almost all musical triangles have the same basic pitch and skill in playing is determined by physical dexterity in handled in the beater as well as knowledge of acoustics. None of those things change the type of triangle being played or its general properties or its basic definition.
In addition to the equilateral triangle with three equal sides, there are five other types of triangles. An acute triangle is one with an angle less than ninety degrees. A right triangle, fittingly enough, contains a right angle or an angle of exactly ninety degrees while an obtuse triangle has an angle greater than ninety degrees but less than one hundred and eighty degrees. An isosceles triangle has two sides which are equal while a scalene triangle has no sides of equal length. These are all properties of a triangle but there is still yet another way we might describe or refer to a triangle.
Imagine if you will a page of triangles. The can be of varying types and sizes, some alike while others are different colors. I might ask you how many are isosceles triangles or how many are acute triangles. Either one of those questions would be answered by using something specific to the triangle or its classifications. What if I asked how many were black triangles or red or yellow? That response has nothing whatsoever to do with any specific aspect of the triangle but rather its color. Other things have those same colors – a box of crayons, a row of pants or sweaters, or even the flag of the state of Maryland, a flag proudly displayed on the law enforcement vehicles burned and overturned by the protestors in Baltimore. The fact that same of the triangles were red, black, or yellow has nothing to do with the definition of a triangle; it is simply another or accidental part of their description.
How can we apply these “Predictables” in our own philosophy of being, in our own living? Certainly all of mankind shares some things in commons. First of all, we are all mammals… but so are cows and dogs and cats. Man is known as “homo sapiens” or “wise being”. We have two genders present at birth, although that is being challenged in both life and the court systems around the world. We also have different ethnicities and races, often noted with adjectives denoting one’s skin color. Some use these latter descriptive types to denote value or worth or even potential. In some countries, cows are more revered than women; people are discriminated against or profiles based upon their skin color or even eye shape.
The study of philosophy gives us an argument for being. With it, hopefully, we can learn that existence is living and living means potential. A triangle is no less a triangle simply because it has three equal sides or no equal sides. A green triangle is just as much a triangle as a red triangle. Lives matter – black, brown, red, or white. You may consider someone damaged or different but it does not change the fact that they are alive, they have value, they matter. Each and every human being, as with all life, deserves respect. What may seem out of place to you fits perfectly for someone else.
The value of living is reason enough for us to give it our very best efforts, to give all of mankind our very best efforts. Aristotle noted: “The value of life depends upon awareness and the power of contemplation rather than upon mere survival.”