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, Baruch Spinoza!

Portrait of Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677), ca. 1665, by an unknown artist

Baruch Spinoza was born on November 24, 1632, in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. He was the son of Michael and Hannah Spinoza, Portuguese Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity, then imprisoned and tortured by the Inquisition, then fled to relatively tolerant Amsterdam. The Spinozas became successful and respected members of Amsterdam’s Jewish community.

Their son Baruch (also called by his Latinized name Benedicto, also meaning ‘blessed’), was a precocious and brilliant boy who became an intellectually rigorous, curious, and free-thinking man. He wrote prodigiously, profoundly, and often obscurely while earning a humble living as a scientific instrument lens-grinder. He was excommunicated for his unorthodox beliefs (rather surprising still given the relative broad-mindedness of that synagogue), shunned and condemned by his fellow Jews and by Christians alike, and lived the rest of his too-short life in near-solitude, though in rich correspondence with a wide circle of friends and intellectuals.

His idea of God as a unified substance which, in some sense, can be understood as being the same as Nature or the Universe itself, is still widely beloved (the great physicist Albert Einstein and eloquent, outspoken atheist Christopher Hitchens, for example, were among his biggest fans), hated, and debated widely, especially insofar as it can be difficult to grasp the exact nature of Spinoza’s metaphysical and ethical ideas. Spinoza refused to repudiate his ideas despite the intense social pressure he had to deal with for the rest of his life. But however much his correspondents argued, cajoled, threatened with hellfire, or otherwise tried to convince him to abandon his beliefs, Spinoza responded with firmness, constancy, thoroughness, and courtesy.

Learn more about the integrious Baruch Spinoza at:

Baruch Spinoza ~ by Steven Nadler for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Baruch Spinoza (1632 – 1677) ~ in the Jewish Virtual Library

Benedict De Spinoza (1632—1677) ~ by Blake D. Dutton for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Betraying Spinoza ~ Rebecca Goldstein on her book Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity

Benedict de Spinoza: Dutch-Jewish Philosopher ~ by Richard H. Popkin for the Encyclopædia Britannica

From Baruch to Benedicto! (Spinoza pt. 1) and Spinoza Part 2 ~ by Stephen West for Philosophize This! podcast

God Intoxicated Man – The Life and Times of Benedict Spinoza ~ by Michael Goldfarb for the BBC’s Sunday Feature

Spinoza ~ Melvin Bragg discusses Spinoza’s life and thought with Jonathan Rée, Sarah Hutton, and John Cottingham for In Our Time

The Heretic Jew ~ by Harold Bloom, book review of Rebecca Goldstein’s Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity for The New York Times

The Writings of Spinoza ~ at Internet Sacred Text Archive

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!

Enlightenment Scotland: Adam Smith’s Grave at Canongate Kirkyard

Canongate Kirk on the Royal Mile, Edinburgh, Scotland

Here in Edinburgh, where I’ve returned to University to earn my Master’s degree, I love to visit sites and monuments associated with the Enlightenment. As a lover of philosophy, the rich intellectual history of this city first brought me here: I followed (and still do) in the footsteps of David Hume for my first traveling philosophy/history of ideas series for O.P. I think it’s high time I share more of my explorations with you!

I’ll start with my visit yesterday afternoon to the great moral philosopher and economist Adam Smith‘s grave in Canongate Kirkyard on the Royal Mile. The lovely Kirk of the Canongate was built form 1688-1691, and is quite different in style than the other buildings on the Royal Mile. The graveyard behind it, however, is very like many others to be found behind kirks all over and around this great city, and includes the gravesites of many great Scots.

Canongate Kirkyard on the Royal Mile with Adam Smith’s grave center-left, Edinburgh, Scotland

Adam Smith’s grave in Canongate Kirkyard on the Royal Mile, Edinburgh, Scotland. Many of Adam Smith’s moral and political theories, and his ideas on trade and economics, were developed from the ideas of his great friend and mentor David Hume.

Canongate Kirk on the Royal Mile, Edinburgh, Scotland

List of famous people buried at Canongate Kirkyard on the Royal Mile, Edinburgh, Scotland

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When I Help You, I Also Help Myself: On Being a Cosmopolitan, by Massimo Pigliucci

Kunyu Quantu, or Map of the World, 1674 by Ferdinand Verbiest. At the Hunterian Museum, University of Glasgow

One of the axioms of modern morality is that there is an inevitable tension between altruism and selfishness. The more you focus your attention, energy and resources toward your own benefit, the less ‘of course’ you can do for others. As a result, we all strive to find some balance between these two opposing demands, often ending up far short of our ideal, and feeling guilty about it. (Well, some of us feel guilty, at any rate.)

But what if this is in fact a false dichotomy? What if we adopted a different framework, according to which helping ourselves helps humanity at large, and conversely, helping others helps us as well? This is the basic idea behind cosmopolitanism, literally being a citizen of the world, which originated in Ancient Greece and was further developed in Rome. Turns out, ancient Greco-Roman philosophy still has a thing or two to teach us moderns.

The term ‘cosmopolitan’ was associated with the ancient Cynic philosophers, named after a word that didn’t have the modern connotation at all, but rather indicated a group of radicals devoted to challenging society’s norms by living simply, owning no property or housing. One of the schools of Hellenistic philosophy influenced by the Cynics was that of the much more mainstream Stoics (who lived in actual houses, and some – like the Roman Senator Seneca – were even rich). The Stoics developed the idea of cosmopolitanism into a general philosophy that guided their everyday thoughts and actions. As Epictetus, the slave-turned-philosopher of second-century Rome, put it in Discourses: ‘Do as Socrates did, never replying to the question of where he was from with: “I am Athenian,” or “I am from Corinth,” but always: “I am a citizen of the world.”’ This strikes me as something we ought to remember, internalise, and practise – especially in these times of fear-mongering, xenophobia, Brexit, Trumpism, and nationalistic tribalism.

The Stoic idea was simple and elegant: all humans inhabit the same big city, indeed we are so interconnected and interdependent that we are really an extended family, and we ought to act accordingly, for our own sake. The Stoic philosopher Hierocles came up with the image of a number of concentric circles of concern: at the centre of the smaller, inner circle, is you. Right outside is the circle of your family. Outside that is the one comprising your friends. The next circle over is that of your fellow citizens (ie, in the literal sense of those inhabiting the same city), then that of your countrymen, and finally humanity at large.

A modern philosopher such as Peter Singer talks of expanding the circles, meaning that we should aim at enlarging our concerns to encompass more and more people, thus overcoming our natural selfishness. Hierocles, in contrast, thought that we should aim at contracting the circles, bringing other people closer to us because we realise that they are our own kin. The closer we get them to us, the more the self/other dichotomy dissolves, and the more our interests align with those of our community. Indeed, Hierocles went so far as to instruct his students to address strangers as ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ (or, depending on their age, as ‘uncles’ and ‘aunts’), in an early form of cognitive therapy aiming at restructuring the very way we think about others – and consequently the way we act toward them.

In his Meditations, the emperor Marcus Aurelius, also a Stoic, summarised the idea of cosmopolitanism and our duty to others in the form of a logical sequence: ‘If the intellectual part is common to all men, so is reason, in respect of which we are rational beings: if this is so, common also is the reason that commands us what to do, and what not to do; if this is so, there is a common law also; if this is so, we are fellow-citizens; if this is so, we are members of some political community.’

This is what the Stoics captured in one of their fundamental slogans: ‘Live according to nature.’ It doesn’t mean that we should go around naked, hugging trees in the forest, but rather that we should examine human nature and live according to it. And human nature is fundamentally that of a social being capable of reason. (Notice that I said capable of reason, some of us employ such capacity more often or more keenly than others…) It follows that living according to, or in harmony with, nature, means doing our part to use reason to improve society. Whenever we do so, we at the same time make things better for us (because social beings thrive in a functional and just society) as well as for others. Which means that the modern self/other dichotomy is far too simplistic, and in fact misleading, because it artificially pits the interests of the individual against those of society. Of course, there will always be specific cases where we have to choose between the immediate interests of, say, our children and those of strangers. But keeping in mind that in the long run our children will thrive in a flourishing society helps to shift our way of thinking from treating life as a zero-sum game to seeing it as a cooperative one.

Stoic cosmopolitanism should not be taken to imply that the ideal human society resembles a beehive, where individuality is subsumed for the benefit of the group. On the contrary, the Stoics were keen defenders of human freedom and very much valued the independence of individual agents. But they thought that the freedom to pursue our individual goals, to flourish in our own way, is predicated on the existence of a society of similarly free individuals. And such society is possible only if we realise that our collective interests are broadly aligned. We might be from Athens or Corinth (or the United States or Mexico) as an accident of birth, but in a deeper sense we are all members of the same global polis. We would be well advised to start acting like it.Aeon counter – do not remove

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

~ Massimo Pigliucci is professor of philosophy at City College and at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His latest book is How to Be a Stoic: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Living, 2017. He lives in New York. (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!

Say What? Montaigne on Accuracy

Michel de Montaigne and the frontispiece to an early 1900’s publication of Florio’s translation of his ‘Essayes’. Below is a later one by Donald Frame

‘This man I had [stay at my house] was a simple, crude fellow–a character fit to bear true witness: for clever people observe more things and more curiously, but they interpret them; and to lend weight and conviction to their interpretation, they cannot help altering history a little. They never show you things as they are, but bend and disguise them according to the way they have seen them; and to give credence to their judgment and attract you to it, they are prone to add something to their matter, to stretch it out and amplify it. We need a man either very honest, or so simple that he has not the stuff to build up false inventions and give them plausibility; and wedded to no theory.’

– From Michel de Montaigne’s Essays: ‘Of Cannibals’

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He Died as He Lived: David Hume, Philosopher and Infidel, by Dennis Rasmussen

As the Scottish philosopher David Hume lay on his deathbed in the summer of 1776, his passing became a highly anticipated event. Few people in 18th-century Britain were as forthright in their lack of religious faith as Hume was, and his skepticism had earned him a lifetime of abuse and reproach from the pious, including a concerted effort to excommunicate him from the Church of Scotland. Now everyone wanted to know how the notorious infidel would face his end. Would he show remorse or perhaps even recant his skepticism? Would he die in a state of distress, having none of the usual consolations afforded by belief in an afterlife? In the event, Hume died as he had lived, with remarkable good humour and without religion.

The most famous depiction of Hume’s dying days, at least in our time, comes from James Boswell, who managed to contrive a visit with him on Sunday, 7 July 1776. As his account of their conversation makes plain, the purpose of Boswell’s visit was less to pay his respects to a dying man, or even to gratify a sense of morbid curiosity, than to try to fortify his own religious convictions by confirming that even Hume could not remain a sincere non-believer to the end. In this, he failed utterly.

‘Being too late for church,’ Boswell made his way to Hume’s house, where he was surprised to find him ‘placid and even cheerful … talking of different matters with a tranquility of mind and a clearness of head which few men possess at any time.’ Ever tactful, Boswell immediately brought up the subject of the afterlife, asking if there might not be a future state. Hume replied that ‘it was possible that a piece of coal put upon the fire would not burn; and he added that it was a most unreasonable fancy that we should exist for ever’. Boswell persisted, asking if he was not made uneasy by the thought of annihilation, to which Hume responded that he was no more perturbed by the idea of ceasing to exist than by the idea that he had not existed before he was born. What was more, Hume ‘said flatly that the morality of every religion was bad, and … that when he heard a man was religious, he concluded he was a rascal, though he had known some instances of very good men being religious.’

This interview might show Hume at his brashest, but in the 18th century it remained mostly confined to Boswell’s private notebooks. The most prominent and controversial public account of Hume’s final days came instead from an even more famous pen: that of Adam Smith, Hume’s closest friend. Smith composed a eulogy for Hume soon after the latter’s death in the form of a public letter to their mutual publisher, William Strahan. This letter was effectively the ‘authorised version’ of the story of Hume’s death, as it appeared (with Hume’s advance permission) as a companion piece to his short, posthumously published autobiography, My Own Life (1776).

Smith’s letter contains none of the open impiety that pervades Boswell’s interview, but it does chronicle – even flaunt – the equanimity of Hume’s last days, depicting the philosopher telling jokes, playing cards, and conversing cheerfully with his friends. It also emphasises the excellence of Hume’s character; indeed, Smith concluded the letter by declaring that his unbelieving friend approached ‘as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit’.

Though relatively little known today, in the 18th century Smith’s letter caused an uproar. He later proclaimed that it ‘brought upon me 10 times more abuse than the very violent attack I had made upon the whole commercial system of Great Britain’ – meaning, of course, The Wealth of Nations (1776). Throughout his life, Smith had generally gone to great lengths to avoid revealing much about his religious beliefs – or lack thereof – and to steer clear of confrontations with the devout, but his claim that an avowed skeptic such as Hume was a model of wisdom and virtue ‘gave very great offence’ and ‘shocked every sober Christian’ (as a contemporary commented).

Boswell himself deemed Smith’s letter a piece of ‘daring effrontery’ and an example of the ‘poisonous productions with which this age is infested’. Accordingly, he beseeched Samuel Johnson to ‘step forth’ to ‘knock Hume’s and Smith’s heads together, and make vain and ostentatious infidelity exceedingly ridiculous. Would it not,’ he pleaded, ‘be worth your while to crush such noxious weeds in the moral garden?’

Nor did the controversy subside quickly. Nearly a century later, one prolific author of religious tomes, John Lowrie, was still sufficiently incensed by Smith’s letter to proclaim that he knew ‘no more lamentable evidence of the weakness and folly of irreligion and infidelity’ in ‘all the range of English literature’.

In the 18th century, the idea that it was possible for a skeptic to die well, without undue hopes or fears, clearly haunted many people, including Boswell, who tried to call on Hume twice more after their 7 July conversation in order to press him further, but was turned away. Today, of course, non-believers are still regarded with suspicion and even hatred in some circles, but many die every day with little notice or comment about their lack of faith. It takes a particularly audacious and outspoken form of non-belief – more akin to the Hume of Boswell’s private interview than to the Hume of Smith’s public letter – to arouse much in the way of shock or resentment, of the kind that attended the death of Christopher Hitchens some years ago. (Indeed, there were a number of comparisons drawn between Hitchens and Hume at the time.) The fact that in the 18th century Smith endured vigorous and lasting abuse for merely reporting his friend’s calm and courageous end offers a stark reminder of just how far we have come in this regard.Aeon counter – do not remove

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

~ Dennis Rasmussen is an associate professor in the department of political science at Tufts University in Massachusetts. He is the author of The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship That Shaped Modern Thought (2017). (Bio credit: Aeon)

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

O.P. Recommends: The Relentless Honesty of Ludwig Wittgenstein, by Ian Ground

Drawing of Ludwig Wittgenstein by Christiaan Tonnism, Pencil on board 1985, Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons

Ian Ground writes:

‘If you ask philosophers – those in the English speaking analytic tradition anyway – who is the most important philosopher of the twentieth century, they will most likely name Ludwig Wittgenstein. But the chances are that if you ask them exactly why he was so important, they will be unable to tell you. Moreover, in their own philosophical practice it will be rare, certainly these days, that they mention him or his work. Indeed, they may very fluently introduce positions, against which Wittgenstein launched powerful arguments: the very arguments which, by general agreement, make him such an important philosopher. Contemporary philosophers don’t argue with Wittgenstein. Rather they bypass him. Wittgenstein has a deeply ambivalent status – he has authority, but not influence.

For the more general reader, Wittgenstein’s status in contemporary philosophy will be puzzling. The general view is that Wittgenstein is surely the very model of a great philosopher. The perception is that he is difficult, obscure and intense, severe and mystical, charismatic and strange, driven and tragic, with his charisma and difficulty bound up with his character and his life. Wittgenstein saw philosophy not just as a vocation, but as a way of life he had to lead. This is perhaps why writers and artists have found him an object of fascination and inspiration. He is the subject of novels, poetry, plays, painting, music, sculpture and films. In the arts and the culture generally, Wittgenstein seems to be what a philosopher ought to be

Read more of this excellent piece in The Times Literary Supplementpart of a TLS series about great thinkers and their ideas called Footnotes to Plato

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