Remembering Margaret Cavendish

Margaret Cavendish (née Lucas), Duchess of Newcastle

Margaret Lucas Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, was a rare and singular intelligence, a memorable and outrageous personality, and a prolific thinker and writer. Born on an unknown date in 1623, she was not given much of a formal education beyond the basics of reading and writing. As is so often the case for such independent and active minds, she obtained a higher education on her own. She sought out the company and conversation of learned people, including her brother John, a lawyer, scholar, and founding member of the Royal Society, and otherwise gobbled up learning wherever she could find it.

She married William Cavendish, Marquis and then Duke of Newcastle upon Tyne, in the spring of 1645. Though he was thirty years her senior, they had much in common, including a deep love of literature. Like Margaret, he was an unusual and independent personality, and he encouraged her in her intellectual pursuits, helping her to get her works published when she ran into obstacles doing it on her own. She wrote in a wide variety of genres, including philosophy, poetry, and plays; she wrote essays, a utopia, a biography of her husband, and an autobiography. She hung out with Thomas Hobbes, Kenelm Digby, René Descartes, Marin Mersenne and Pierre Gassendi at her husband’s salons; unfortunately, they would not engage her in serious conversation. So, she engaged with their ideas on her own within her philosophical writings. She designed her own outrageous clothing, was reputed to sprinkle her speech with obscenities, and as far as she could, did as she liked. However much it was due to her connections or to her own accomplishments, she was the first woman to attend a meeting of the Royal Society. Though she was so much younger than her husband, she died two years before him on December 15, 1673, at age fifty. William outlived her by two years, proud of his ‘Mad Madge’ to the end.

Learn more about this amazing woman at:

Biography of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle upon Tyne (c. 1623-1673) ~ for the Manuscripts and Special Collections pages of the University of Nottingham website

Duchess of Newcastle Margaret Cavendish ~  at the Poetry Foundation

“Mad Madge” – Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle ~ by Lauren Gilbert for English Historical Fiction Authors blog

Mad Madge: Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, Royalist, Writer and Romantic ~ Min Wild’s review of Katie Whitaker’s biography for the Independent

Margaret Cavendish (1623—1673) ~ by Eugene Marshall for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy 

Margaret Lucas Cavendish ~ by David Cumming for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Christine de Pizan’s Song of Joan of Arc: A Defense of a Political Heroine

Jeanne d’Arc by Albert Lynch, engraving from Figaro Illustre magazine, 1903, public domain

This is a paper I recently submitted for one of my classes at the University of Edinburgh. I was very glad for the opportunity to bring Joan into my studies here!

~~~~~~

Song of Joan of Arc (Ditié de Jehanne d’Arc) is the medieval Italian-French writer Christine de Pizan’s paean to the teenage visionary who led the French army to stunning victories in the Hundred Years War against the English and their French allies. Prior to Song, from about 1399 to 1429, de Pizan authored forty-one works of poetry, prose, and praise and earned her own living doing it, the first European woman to do so.[1] Many of her works are called proto-feminist not because she advocated changing the social and political roles of women, but because she used her pen so often to defend the moral and intellectual worth of women against misogynist literary attacks, notably Jean de Meun’s The Romance of the Rose and Matheolus’ Lamentations.[2] Nadia Margolis describes de Pizan’s magnum opus The Book of the City of Ladies as ‘the first recorded history of women by a woman author, …one of the first deliberate, systematic refutations of male assertions of women’s inferiority ever written.’[3]

De Pizan draws on her canon for her Song of Joan. She marshals her characterizations of great female heroes and saviors of the past from her prolific body of work in celebration of this amazing heroine of her own time. She draws on the Bible and the classics for her Song as well. Nor does de Pizan stop with great women: a mythic and historic, Biblical and Greek array of great male and female figures march triumphantly before Joan in Song. Written in 1429, the year of de Pizan’s death and two years before Joan’s execution by fire, it’s the last of her works. This epic poem is not only a hagiography nor even, as we’ll see, is it interspersed with mere patriotic digs at the English foe and their allies. Like so many of her works, it’s also a defense, not of all women in this case, but of one particular woman. Specifically, it’s a defense of Joan against politically motivated attacks on her personal and religious character. Thus, I argue, de Pizan’s Song is a political work as well.

As the introductory stanzas give way to the main topics of the Song, de Pizan calls on God to help her tell her story well and truthfully.[4] This is reminiscent of the openings of ancient Greek works such as Homer’s Odyssey[5] and Hesiod’s Theogony[6], in which they call on the Muses to do the same. De Pizan draws this classical theme throughout her Song, calling on the ancients as well to help demonstrate the type and significance of Joan’s heroism. This device serves to underscore Joan’s monumental role in history as well as to make the God-ordained nature of her mission more believable: after all, God has called on people to do great things many times before. De Pizan portrays Joan as the fitting culmination for her own time of the great lineage of heroes and saviors from the Bible and the classics. And not only is Joan like them, she is superior to them: “She frees France from its enemies, …not even Hector – Nor Achilles could withstand her.”[7] In stanza XXIII, Joan is a Moses, leading her people out of subjugation.[8] In stanza XXV, Joan is a Joshua, a conqueror. In stanza XXVII, Joan is a Gideon, a simple shepherd called by God to be a warrior. But these were men, de Pizan points out, and Joan was a young girl. Not only did she perform brave and marvelous feats, she did so without the naturally greater physical strength of grown men.[9] Because this rendered her task more difficult, her feats were all the greater.

And de Pizan has no shortage of great female heroines to associate with Joan. Some of these associations are named: Judith, Esther, and Deborah. The exploits of these great heroines of the Bible would have been widely known to her Christian audience: Judith cuts off the head of the general Holofernes before he can destroy her city; Esther risks her life to reveal a plot that would have led her husband-king to destroy her people; and the prophet and judge Deborah arranges a battle to free her people, then cements the victory by hammering a tent pin into the enemy general’s head as he rests in defeat. Some of the women de Pizan associates with Joan, however, are not identified by name. Nevertheless, many of these latter associations would have been readily identifiable for the educated reader and especially for readers of de Pizan’s earlier work since they were drawn from the classics. For example, in stanza XIV, De Pizan attributes Joan’s military success to her intelligence as well as God’s help: “Once it was lost but now it is yours – …And all due to – the intelligence of the Maid who, thanks – to God, most expertly played her part.”[10] In earlier works, such as Letter of Othea to Hector and The Book of the City of Ladies, de Pizan lauds Minerva and Pallas Athena, two aspects of the same Greek goddess. Minerva is associated with war, as the wise woman who invents armor and iron weapons; Pallas is associated with wisdom and knowledge generally. As the wise warrior woman extraordinaire, Joan is Minerva-Pallas, personified.

The clearest and most-repeated association I find between Joan and an unnamed great woman is with the Virgin Mary. In one stanza, de Pizan praises Joan as both virgin and a moral mother “You are virgin, very young, – To whom God grants the strength and power – To be both woman and champion, – Who offers France the gentle breast, – the food of peace…”[11] Later on, de Pizan continues the Marian theme: “Aha!! What honor for the female – Sex! God shows how he loves it, – …By one woman [the nobles and realm] were fortified, No men could do this deed….”[12] If these parallels aren’t clear enough, de Pizan portrays Joan as the vessel through which salvation comes (to France) and through which the king comes to rule his kingdom (Charles’ coronation at Reims). And just as it was in Nazareth, God could have saved France any way he chose, and he chose to save both through women.

Some of de Pizan’s hagiographic characterizations of Joan do not relate to her virtues as a woman, such as those which reflect her earlier works such as City of Ladies and Letter of Othea, or as a savior, such as those which compare her to Old Testament and mythic heroines and heroes. It appears, rather, that they relate to her superiority over her foes. Angus J. Kennedy and Kenneth Varty, in the interpretive essay which accompanies their publication and translations of Song, identify the strong anti-English sentiment found throughout the work.[13] As they point out, de Pizan characterizes the English and their allies as evil, wicked, traitors, and before Joan and her army’s power, helpless as dead dogs.[14] De Pizan also uses the term l’Englecherie, which Kennedy and Varty describe as a pejorative term for the English in that place and time.[15]

Yet this patriotic poem goes beyond ‘heaping scorn’[16] on her foes. De Pizan offers a defense of Joan’s character by offering descriptions of her virtues and intentions that contradict the negative characterizations of her spread by the English and their French allies, the Burgundians. We have a contemporary record of these in the transcripts of her trial in Rouen. Joan was captured on May 23rd, 1430 at Compiègne, and after lengthy negotiations, was handed over to an ecclesiastical court in exchange for 10,000 livres.[17] Despite her being subjected to a purportedly religious trial, she was not, as was customary in those kinds of cases, kept in a religious prison looked after by nuns. Rather, she was kept in an English military prison, chained to a wall, with male guards inside and outside her cell.[18]

The trail at Rouen was widely understood to be both a character and a literal assassination carried out by means of a show trial,[19] carried out with elaborate procedure to make it seem as impartial as possible.[20] Her judges, led by Pierre Cauchon, a French judge in the pay of the English, set out to prove Joan was so depraved, morally and religiously, that she could not have been sent by God. The opening statement of the trial reads: “The reputation of this woman had already gone forth into many parts: how, wholly forgetful of womanly honesty, and having thrown off the bonds of shame, careless of all the modesty of womankind, she wore with an astonishing and monstrous brazenness, immodest garments belonging to the male sex…”.[21] The issue of men’s clothing, which Joan habitually worse since going to war, was a major theme throughout the trial. It was used as evidence not only of her immodesty but her heresy as well, since the Bible forbids women to wear men’s clothing[22]. The judges did not address the fact that imprisoning her in a cell with male guards exposed her to the continual threat of sexual assault and rape[23]; Joan may have found it expedient to wear men’s clothing to preserve her virginity[24], a status which these judges were so intent to undermine. After many sessions of testimony and questioning, twelve formal Articles of Accusation were drawn up and read aloud. One accuses her of staying in a house “with unguarded women” where soldiers liked to hang around[25]. Another accuses her of “having intimate relations” with Captain Robert de Baudricourt and promising to bear him one pope, one emperor, and one king[26].

In defense of Joan’s moral purity, De Pizan refers specifically to Joan’s virginity no less than 13 times in her Song, besides numerous allusions throughout to Joan’s generally virtuous character. De Pizan might have used this description to describe any great woman since de Pizan considers virginity as sacred a designation for women as any Christian of her time[27].

But aside from the sometimes rather startling charges pertaining to her sexual behavior, the imputations of witchcraft and heresy were more serious. The opening statement continues, “her presumptuousness had grown until she was not afraid to perform, to speak, and to disseminate many things contrary to the Catholic faith and hurtful to the articles of the orthodox belief. And by so doing, as well in our diocese as in several other districts of this kingdom, she was said to be guilty of no inconsiderable offenses[28].” Her judges expand on this theme in another statement read over a month later at the first public session[29].

De Pizan goes well beyond defending Joan as personally pious: she presents Joan as a defender of the Christian faith itself. De Pizan writes that not only will Joan defend the faith, but “The Christian faith and Holy Church, – Will both be set to rights through her…”[30] This was one of the passages which alerted me to the political elements in Song. The Hundred Year’s War and de Pizan’s Song long predate England’s schism with the Catholic Church; it so happened that the Pope bestowed the title ‘Defender of the Faith’ nearly one hundred years later on the English monarch Henry VIII before Henry broke England’s ties to the Catholic Church[31]. There were no particular reasons to charge England with being at odds with the Christian faith except as far as they refused to lay down their arms before Joan. Still, even if Joan were on God’s side in the quarrel between the French and the English, this wouldn’t imply that Joan was defender of the Christian faith at large. What, then, explains de Pizan’s remarks here?

The English and their allies certainly did not see themselves as enemies of God or the true faith[32]. They saw themselves as rightful heirs to the throne of France; indeed, as a result of the habit of monarchs creating alliances by marrying their children off to one another only to have these heirs to the crown die off in inconvenient succession, the English monarch did have a real claim to the French throne[33]. It was not in the English interests for their claim to be invalidated as against the will of God. It was in their interests to demonstrate that Joan was not on God’s side. If she had a reputation as indecent, immodest, unwomanly, or a woman of loose morals with a penchant for soldiers, that would weaken Joan’s reputation for holiness. It was even more in their interests that Joan be perceived as a witch, a heretic, or both: if this could be demonstrated, then Joan’s claim to be sent by God could not[34]. Therefore, de Pizan mounts a strong defense of Joan’s godliness, claiming her not only as a pious Christian but as a defender of the faith itself. But the role as a defender of the faith doesn’t seem necessary to add to Joan’s already impressive resume of Christian greatness in Song except as an additional qualifier, a sort of icing on the cake. But de Pizan goes even beyond that: “Yet destroying the English invader – is not, indeed, her primary concern. – For her calling is in preserving – the Faith….”[35]

Once again, we can ask: what impels de Pizan to make the claim that Joan’s primary concern is defending the Christian faith, on behalf of the impressive warrior-saint for whom she’s already claimed so much? When de Pizan mounts her defense of Joan, she could not have known that Joan would be tried by an ecclesiastical court that would seek to officially undermine Joan’ claim that she was doing the will of God on behalf of France. But while de Pizan wrote her Song, Joan was on trial in the court of public opinion. Both trials were political trials, each side out to win the public’s support for their legitimacy to rule. God had chosen a side in this political contest, and Joan said that was France. Therefore, de Pizan added, Joan, as God’s chosen champion of God’s chosen France, was also the champion of the faith itself. In Song, de Pizan places France, France’s king, Joan, God, and the Christian faith itself on one side, the English and their allies on the other. There was only one side, therefore, that the faithful could join, and that was Joan’s. The faithful was transformed, in Song, to the political.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

[1] Redfern, Jenny. “Christine de Pisan and The Treasure of the City of Ladies: A Medieval Rhetorician and Her Rhetoric” in Reclaiming Rhetorica: Women and in the Rhetorical Tradition, ed. Lunsford, Andrea. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995, p. 74

[2] De Pizan, Christine. Letter of Othea to Hector (1399-1400). Trans., ed., and interpretive essay by Jane Chance. 1997, pp. 8, 14

[3] Margolis, Nadia. “A Feminist-Historical Citadel: Christine de Pizan’s Book of the City of Ladies.” Feminist Moments: Reading Feminist Texts. Ed. Katherine Smits and Susan Bruce.: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016. 11–18. Bloomsbury Collections. Accessed 28 Nov. 2017 at http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781474237970.ch-002, paragraph 1

[4] De Pizan, Christine. Ditié de Jehanne d’Arc (1429). Ed. and trans. by Angus J. Kennedy and Kenneth Varty. Oxford: Society for the Study of Mediaeval Languages and Literature, 1977, pp. 41-42

[5] Homer, Odyssey. Perseus Digital Library, Tufts University. Accessed 6 December 2017 at http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0136, v. 1-10

[6] Hesiod, Theogony. Perseus Digital Library, Tufts University. Accessed 6 December 2017 at www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0130, v. 1-5, 20-25

[7] De Pizan, The Song of Joan of Arc. Trans. by Leah Shopkow. Retrieved 20 November 2017 from www.indiana.edu/~dmdhist/joan.htm, stanza XXXVI

[8] Margolis writes that De Pizan sees herself in this role in the City of Ladies as well: ‘First, it echoes the Old Testament (2 Kings 17: 7) in comparing women constrained by misogyny to the Jews enslaved by Pharaoh, thereby likening Christine to Moses (Exod 1; Deut 34). Just as Moses was chosen to lead the Israelites to freedom, so Christine was chosen to lead women to better destinies.’ – paragraph 6

[9] Song, all translations, stanza XXVII

[10] De Pizan, The Song of Joan of Arc. Trans. by Ben D. Kennedy. Retrieved 20 November 2017 from www.maidofheaven.com/joanofarc_song_pisan_contents.asp. Leah Shopkow translates the phrase to ‘wise Joan’, but the Middle French dictionary I consult translates the adjective sensible as closer in meaning to ‘intelligent.’ As Shopkow notes, in some places she sacrifices a little accuracy for overall coherence and poetic rhythm. See the introduction to her translation at www.indiana.edu/~dmdhist/joan.htm

[11] Song, trans. Shopkow, stanza XXIV

[12] Song, trans. Shopkow, stanza XXXIV

[13] Ibid., p. 13

[14] Song, trans. Shopkow, stanzas XXIII, XXIV, XXXIV, XLV, and XXXIII, respectively

[15] Song, Kennedy and Varty, p 87

[16] Ibid., p. 13

[17] The Trial of Jeanne D’Arc. Trans. By W. P. Barrett. Originally published New York: Gotham House, Inc., 1932. From Medieval Sourcebook, Fordham University. Accessed 29 November 2017 at https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/joanofarc-trial.asp, p. x

[18] Ibid., p. x

[19] Michelet, J. Joan of Arc: Or, The Maid of Orleans: From Michelet’s History of France. New York: Stanford & Delisser, 1858. Accessed 28 November 2017 from https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=nyp.33433071375152, pp. 115-116; Robins, P. R. “Discerning Voices in the Trial of Joan of Arc and ‘The Book of Margery Kempe’.” Fifteenth-Century Studies 38, 2013, pp. 177, 187-188

[20] Robins, p. 183

[21] Ibid., p. 2

[22] Bible, King James Version. [online], Accessed 29 November 2017 at: www.bible.com/en-GB/bible, Deuteronomy 22:5

[23] On at least one occasion, though she was in chains, Joan successfully fought off a rape attempt: Michelet, p. 207-208

[24] Men’s clothing was somewhat time-consuming to remove: hose and chausses were laced to a belt and/or the upper garments to hold them in place – Houston, Mary G. Medieval Costume in England and France: The 13th, 14th and 15th Centuries. (1939). New York: Dover, 1996, p. 53, 80-81. Joan’s ability to fight off her would-be rapist may have been aided by her protective covering of laced-together, difficult-to-remove clothing

[25] Trial, Article XIII, p. 154

[26] Ibid., Article XI, p. 159

[27] De Pizan, Christine, The Book of the City of Ladies (1405). Trans. and intro. Brown-Grant, Rosalind. London, Penguin Books, 1999, p. xix, xxiii

[28] Trial, p. 2-3

[29] Ibid., p 34, 36 ‘Since she was appearing in judgment before us we began to explain… how many of her actions, not in our diocese alone but in many other regions also, had injured the orthodox faith, and how common report of them had spread through all the realms of Christendom…. Therefore, considering the public rumor and common report and also certain information already mentioned, after mature consultation with men learned in canon and civil law, we decreed that the said Jeanne should be summoned and cited by letter to answer the interrogations in matters of faith and other points truthfully according to law and reason….’

[30] Song, trans. Shopkow, Stanza XLII

[31] ‘Defender of the Faith’. Ed.s, Encyclopædia Britannica, 2011. Accessed 29 November, 2017 at http://www.britannica.com/topic/defender-of-the-faith

[32] Robins, p. 177

[33] Vale, M. G. A. The Origins of the Hundred Years War: The Angevin Legacy, 1250-1340. Oxford: Clarendon, 1996, pp. 227, 266

[34] Trial, p. xi, Robins, p 177

[35] Song, trans. Kennedy, stanza XLV

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New Podcast Episode: Fort Robinson, Nebraska, in Search of Crazy Horse

Portrait of Crazy Horse, Tasunke Witko in Lakota, fresco on the interior wall of Wounded Knee museum, Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Fort Robinson, Nebraska, July 26th, 2017

I wake up at Fort Robinson, just a little ways east of the village of Harrison in northwest Nebraska. I drove here last night from Wounded Knee, which takes about one hour and forty-five minutes. I camped out in the backseat of the car, where I continue to keep my sleeping bag, camp pad, and coats ready to make a cozy nest, in a parking lot behind one of the museum’s lodges. It’s a soft pinkish-blue morning, a little warm with a cool breeze blowing. It rained a little last night and everything feels fresh and clean, except me. I’ll soon find a place to wash my face, brush my teeth, and change into clean clothes. But right now, all I want to do is stretch my legs, drink my little thermos of coffee, and go out exploring in this calm and lovely early summer morning.

I drive the car around the fort, getting a good look at the layout and buildings until I find what I seek: a historical marker near apparent early fort buildings from the eighteenth century… Read the written version here

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OP Recommends: The Best Philosophy Books of 2017, Recommended by Nigel Warburton at Fivebooks

A view of Edinburgh Central Library’s Reading Room

Now that my papers are done and I have five weeks or so to choose my own reading, I’m heading to Edinburgh’s beautiful Central Library to pick up some books I’ve been itching to get into. One of them was already on my list: Dennis Rasmussen’s The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship That Shaped Modern Thought (one of my goals for the year is to learn as much about Scotland’s intellectual history as I can while I’m here). Nigel Warburton has made a list of his five favorite philosophy books of 2017, and Massimo Pigliucci’s book is among them. These are two excellent philosophers in the public square I’ve been following for a long time, and their philosophy podcasts are among my favorites.

Looks like I have four more books to add to my list; better get to it!

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Welcome to the Podcast Edition of Ordinary Philosophy!

Amy Cools listening to podcast on a hike in Joaquinn Miller Regional Park, Oakland, CA, Oct 15, 2016, square

Podcasts: the perfect hiking accompaniment! Amy Cools listens to one on a hike in Joaquin Miller Regional Park, Oakland, CA, Oct 15, 2016

My first podcast episode was published three years ago today!

Ordinary Philosophy

Hello dear readers, and welcome to the
podcast version of Ordinary Philosophy!

You can listen to the podcast here, on Google Play, or subscribe in iTunes.

Like many of you, I’m a big fan of podcasts, mostly because my life is very busy. One day in the future, I hope to have a lot more time to do each task one at a time, to really be present, as they say, as I wash the dishes, straighten the house, do the laundry, and perform all those other tasks that take up time, but not much thought.

But at this time in my life, between my day jobs, my creative projects, and spending time with friends and family (which I don’t do enough of these days, sadly), I don’t have enough time to keep up the world of ideas as nearly much as I’d like to by sitting down…

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Which is More Fundamental: Processes or Things? by Celso Vieira

Glass Half Full or Half Empty by Sealle, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Metaphysics is the attempt to understand how existence works by examining the building blocks of reality, the distinctions between mental and physical entities, and the fundamental questions of being and reality. But metaphysics is not only an arcane branch of philosophy: human beings use metaphysical assumptions to navigate the world. Assumptions about what exists and what is fundamental exert a powerful influence on our lives. Indeed, the less aware we are of our metaphysical assumptions, the more we are subject to them.

Western metaphysics tends to rely on the paradigm of substances. We often see the world as a world of things, composed of atomic molecules, natural kinds, galaxies. Objects are the paradigmatic mode of existence, the basic building blocks of the Universe. What exists exists as an object. That is to say, things are of a certain kind, they have some specific qualities and well-defined spatial and temporal limits. For instance: Fido is my dog, he is grey, and was born one year ago. (It’s worth noting that such a simple statement will give rise to a litany of metaphysical disputes within substance metaphysics: realists believe that universals, such as the natural kind ‘dogs’, exist while nominalists believe them to be only intellectual abstractions.)

Though substance metaphysics seems to undergird Western ‘common sense’, I think it is wrong. To see this, consider the cliché about the glass of water: is it half-empty or half-full? The question assumes a static arrangement of things serving as a basis for either an optimistic or a pessimistic interpretation. One can engage in interminable disputes about the correct description of the physical set-up, or about the legitimacy of the psychological evaluations. But what if the isolated frame ‘a glass of water’ fails to give the relevant information? Anyone would prefer an emptier glass that is getting full to a fuller one getting empty. Any analysis lacking information about change misses the point, which is just what substance metaphysics is missing. Process philosophers, meanwhile, think we should go beyond looking at the world as a set of static unrelated items, and instead examine the processes that make up the world. Processes, not objects, are fundamental.

The pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus provides the most famous image of process metaphysics. ‘It is not possible,’ he says, ‘to step twice into the same river’ – because existence depends on change; the river you step into a second time is changed from the river you stepped into originally (and you have changed in the interval, too). And while substance philosophers will tend to search for the smallest constituent objects in order to locate reality’s most fundamental building blocks, process philosophers think this is insufficient. So do modern physicists. Electrons are now understood as bundles of energy in a field, and quantum vacuum fluctuations prove that there are fields without bundles but no bundles without fields. Things seem to be reducible to processes – and not the reverse. (As the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead put it, we should think about ‘occurrences’ instead of ‘things’.)

Change poses a recurring problem for substance metaphysics. Universals have traditionally been a popular way to circumvent it. These static entities are difficult to define precisely, but can be thought of as ‘hyper-things’ that are instantiated in many different particular things. A universal is the thing that particulars have in common, such as types, kinds and relations. Universals are essentially different from particulars: Aristotle, for instance, argued that particulars – such as Fido my dog – are subject to generation and corruption, while species – the universal – are eternal. This particular example provides another instance in which science seems to favour process metaphysics. Thanks to the theory of evolution, the Aristotelian view that species are unchanging and eternal was proven wrong. Species evolve. They change. Dogs, after all, evolved from wolves to constitute a whole different kind. Once again, we’re better off using the paradigm of change rather than substance.

Process metaphysics leads to a re-evaluation of other important philosophical notions. Consider identity. To explain why things change without losing their identity, substance philosophers need to posit some underlying core – an essence –that remains the same throughout change. It is not easy to pin down what this core might be, as the paradox of Theseus’ ship illustrates. A ship goes on a long voyage and requires significant repairs: new planks to replace the old, fresh oars to replace the decayed, and so on, until, by the time the ship returns to port, there is not one single piece that belonged to the ship when it departed. Is this the same ship, even though materially it is completely different? For substance philosophers, this is something of a paradox; for process philosophers, this is a necessary part of identity. Of course it is the same ship. Identity ceases to be a static equivalence of a thing with itself. After all, without the repairs, the ship would have lost its functionality. Instead, as the German philosopher Nicholas Rescher argues in Ideas in Process (2009), identity just is a programmatic development. That is, the identity of a process is the structural identity of its programme. Other things being equal, every puppy will turn out to be a dog. (This programme need not be thought of as deterministic. The interactions between processes, Rescher argues, open room for variations.)

Processes are not the mere intervals between two different states of affairs or two objects, as the paradox of the heap exemplifies: take a heap of sand and remove one grain. It remains a heap; one grain doesn’t make a difference. But if you repeat the subtraction enough times, eventually there will be just one grain. Clearly, this isn’t a heap. Where did it become a non-heap? By looking at the process, and not the end-states of affairs, you’ll realise the impossibility of pinpointing the boundary between heap and non-heap. (Similarly, no individual was the exact turning point between wolves and dogs.) At the very least, this gives us a warning about the unnoticed abstraction operating on our division of natural kinds. Process philosophers such as Henri Bergson stop at this negative conclusion, believing that processes cannot be known but only experienced. Regardless, as the Danish philosopher Johanna Seibt notes, it might just be the case that focusing on the process requires a whole new perspective.

Looking at the world as a manifold of interconnected processes has scientific and philosophical advantages, but there are more prosaic benefits too. Process philosophy invites us to look at longer stretches of time, blurred boundaries and connected relations. Identity as a programmatic – but not deterministic – process welcomes innovation through small, recurring changes. Under these metaphysical assumptions, a meaningful life is less about finding your ‘real’ self than expanding its boundaries. Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

~ Celso Vieira has a PhD in philosophy from the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Brazil. He lives in Belo Horizonte where he started the first Brazilian chapter of the effective altruist group The Life You Can Save. (Bio credit: Aeon)

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Happy Birthday, Mark Twain!

Mark Twain and ‘clothes make the man’ quote, at Mark Twain Birthplace State Historic Site, Florida, Missouri

As I work frantically on organizing my thoughts and assembling my notes for my three final semester papers (all due in a little over a week, gulp!), I can chuckle amid the stress when I think of Mark Twain’s quote ‘I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.’ In fact, he had a rib-tickling, snarky, or sarcastic witticism for just about any occasion.

But there’s so much more to Twain than his one-liners and his incredible body of work. This summer, on my way to Scotland to continue my university education, I crossed (and crisscrossed) the United States between Oakland and Chicago. My journey included following in the footsteps of the young Samuel Clemens, as he was named upon his birth on November 30, 1835, in Florida, Missouri. I have lots of notes and photos but alas, I haven’t been able to write up those parts of my journey in time to commemorate his birthday today. But I’ve found a way to work him into my studies in intellectual history here at the University of Edinburgh (I delivered a presentation on his work on Joan of Arc for one of my classes) and have gotten some additional reading done. I’ll turn the notes for that oral presentation into a written piece for Ordinary Philosophy as well as write up my travel pieces as soon as I can after turning in my papers, please stay tuned!

In this meantime, here’s the link to a bio of Twain by Thomas V. Quirk for Encyclopædia Britannica (my favorite online general encyclopedia) and to the webpage for Ken Burn’s excellent Twain documentary. And a shirtless (or shall I say, birthday suit?) photo of Twain captioned with a quote which I came across on one of my stops following his early life. Enjoy!

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!