A continuation of yesterday’s essay on the nature of the philosophical act. Written over 60 years ago, but still relevant to asking the big questions in a world where the capacity to see the laws of material being seems to make us incapable of seeing the ethical message contained in that being. Let’s remind ourselves what the philosophical act is all about…
So, then: whoever philosophizes, takes a step beyond the work-a-day world and its daily routine.
The meaning of taking such a step is determined less by where it starts from as by where it leads to. We must ask a further question: just where is the philosopher going when he transcends the world of work? Clearly, he steps over a boundary: what kind of region lies on the other side of this boundary? And what is the relationship of the place where the philosophical act happens, to the world that is transcended and left behind by this same philosophical act? Is that the “authentic” world, and the world of work the “inauthentic”? Is it the “whole” as opposed to the “part”? Is it the “true reality” as opposed to a mere shadow world of appearances?
No matter how such questions could be answered in detail, in any case, both regions, the world of work and the “other realm,” where the philosophical act takes place in its transcending of the working world — both regions belong to the world of man, which clearly has a complex structure.
Therefore, our next question is, “What is the nature of the world of man?” — a question that cannot be answered if the human being is ignored. In order to give a clear answer at this point, we must begin again, and start as it were from the very bottom.
It is in the nature of a living thing to have a world: to exist and live in the world, in “its” world. To live means to be “in” a world. But is not a stone also “in” a world? Is not everything that exists “in” a world? If we keep to the lifeless stone, is it not with and beside other things in the world? Now, “with,” “beside,” and “in” are prepositions, words of relationship; but the stone does not really have a relationship with the world “in” which it is, nor to the other things “beside” which and “with” which it lives. Relationship, in the true sense, joins the inside with the outside; relationship can only exist where there is an “inside,” a dynamic center, from which all operation has its source and to which all that is received, all that is experienced, is brought.
The “internal” (only in this qualitative sense: the “inside” of a rock would refer only to the spatial location of parts) — the “internal” is the ability to have a real relationship, a relation to the external; to have an “inside,” means ability to be related, and to enter into relationship. And “world”? A world means the same thing, but considered as a whole field of relationships. Only a being that has an ability to enter into relationships, only being with an “inside,” has a “world”; only such a being can exist in the midst of a field of relations.
There is a distinctly different kind of proximity that obtains in the relationships of pebbles, which lie together in a heap somewhere beside the roadway and are “related” in that way, and, on the other hand, in the relationship of a plant to the nutrients which it finds in the vicinity of its roots. Here we see not merely physical proximity as an objective fact, but genuine relationship (in the original, active meaning of relationship): the nutrients are integrated into the orbit of the plant’s life — by way of the real internality of the plant, through its power to be related, and to enter into relationship. And all this — all that can be taken in by the relating-power of that plant — all this makes up the field of relationships, or the world, of that plant. The plant has a world, but not the pebble.
This, then, is the first point: “world” is a field of relations. To have a world means to be in the midst of, and to be the bearer of, a field of relations. The second point is, the higher the level of the inwardness or, that is to say, the more comprehensive and penetrative the ability to enter into relations, so the wider and deeper are the dimensions of the field of relations that belongs to that being; to put it differently: the higher a being stands in the hierarchy of reality, the wider and more profound is the standing of its world.
The lowest world is that of the plant, which does not reach beyond what it touches in its own vicinity. The higher-ranking, spatially wider realm of the animal corresponds to its greater ability to enter into relationships. The relation-ability of the animal is greater, insofar as the animal has sense-perception. To perceive something is quite extraordinary, compared with what the plant can do: it is a completely new mode of entering into relationship with one’s environment.
But not everything that an animal, as such, can perceive (because it has ears to hear and eyes to see) really belongs to the world of such an animal: it is not true that all the visible things in the environment of an animal with vision are in fact seen, or even can be seen. For “environment” as such, the perceivable environment, is still not a “world.” That was the typical belief, until the environmental researches of the biologist Jakob von Uexküll; until that time, as Uexküll puts it, “it was generally held, that all eye-equipped animals could see the same things.” But Uexküll discovery was that, on the contrary, “the environments of animals are not at all the whole expanse of nature, but resemble a narrow, furnished apartment.” For example, one could well imagine that a crow could see a grasshopper (a very desirable object for a crow) whenever the grasshopper came across its path, or to be more precise, whenever in came into view of its eyes. But that is not the case! Instead, to cite Uexkull, “the crow is completely incapable of seeing a grasshopper sitting still… we would first assume that the form of a resting grasshopper would be very well known to a crow, but because of the blade of grass in the way cannot be made out as a unit, just as we have difficulty seeing an image hidden in a picture-puzzle. Only when it jumps does its form ‘release’ itself from the neighboring shapes — or so we would think. But after further investigation, it can be shown that the crow does not even recognize the form of a resting grasshopper, but is only prepared to sense moving things. This would explain the ‘playing dead’ behavior of many insects. Since their resting-form does not at all appear in the sense-world of their predators, they escape that world completely and securely simply by lying still, and cannot be found, even if they are actively sought.”
This selective milieu, then, to which the animal is completely suited, but in which the animal is also enclosed (so much so that the boundary cannot be crossed — since “not even if it looks for something” — even if equipped with an excellent searching-organ, could it find something that does not correspond to the selective principle of this partial world); this selective reality, determined and bounded by the biological life-purpose of the individual or the species, is called an “environment” [Umwelt] by Uexküll (in distinction from a “surrounding” [Umgebung], and in distinction also, as we will later see, from a “world” [Welt]). The field of relations of the animal is not its “surroundings,” nor the “world,” but is its “environment,” in this special sense: a world from which something has been left out, a selected milieu, to which its dweller is at once perfectly suited — and confined.
Someone will perhaps ask at this point, what has this to do with our theme, “What is it to philosophize?” Now the connection is not as distant or indirect as it may seem. We last inquired about the world of the human being, and this was the immediate interest in Uexküll concept of environment — namely, that our human world “can in no way claim to be more real than the sense-world of the animal” (so he says); that, consequently, the human being is in principle confined to his world in the same way as the animal; that is, to a biologically selected partial environment, and that man cannot perceive anything that lies outside this environment, “not even if it was actively sought” (no more, then, than the crow could find the resting grasshopper). One might well ask how a being so enclosed in its own environment, so closed in on itself, could be able to perform scientific research on the nature of environments.
But we don’t want to engage in controversy on this point; rather, we can leave the point aside and ask another question instead, since our attention is directed to man and the human world to which he belongs: what is the relating-power of the human being? What is its nature? What power does it have? We said that the perceptive-ability of the animal, when compared with what is in plants, is a more far-reaching way of relating to things. Would not, then, the peculiarly human manner of knowing — for ages past, termed a spiritual or intellective knowing — in fact be another, further mode of putting-oneself-into-relation, a mode which transcends in principle anything which can be realized in the plant and animal worlds?
And further, would this fundamentally different kind of relating power go together with a different field of relations, i.e., a world of fundamentally different dimensions? The answer to such questions can be found in the Western philosophical tradition, which has understood and even defined spiritual knowing as the power to place oneself into relation with the sum-total of existing things. And this is not meant as only one characteristic among others, but as the very essence and definition of the power. By its nature, spirit (or intellection) is not so much distinguished by its immateriality, as by something more primary: its ability to be in relation to the totality of being.
“Spirit” means a relating power that is so far-reaching and comprehensive, that the field of relations to which it corresponds, transcends in principle the very boundaries of its surroundings. It is the nature of spirit to have as its field of relations not just “surroundings” [Umwelt] but a “world” [Welt]. It is of the nature of the spiritual being to go past the immediate surroundings and to go beyond both its “confinement” and its “close fit” to those surroundings (and of course herein is revealed both the freedom and danger to which the spiritual being is naturally heir).
In Aristotle’s treatise on the soul, the De Anima,[De Anima III, 8 (431b)] we can read the following: “Now, in order to sum up everything said up until this point about the soul, we can say again that, the soul, basically, is all that exists.” This sentence became a constant point of reference for the anthropology of the High Middle Ages: anima est quodammodo omnia [“The soul, in a certain way, is all things”. “In a certain way”: that is to say, the soul is “all” insofar as it sets itself in relation to the whole of existence through knowing (and “to know” means to become identical with the known reality -- although we cannot go into any further detail about this as yet).
As Thomas says in the treatise De Veritate (“On Truth”), the spiritual soul is essentially structured “to encounter all being” (convenire cum omni ente[Quaestiones disputatae de veritate I, 1]), to put itself into relation with everything that has being. “Every other being possesses only a partial participation in being,” whereas the being endowed with spirit “can grasp being as a whole.” [Summa contra gentiles III, 112] As long as there is spirit, “it is possible for the completeness of all being to be present in a single nature.”[Quaestiones disputatue de veritate III, 2] And this is also the position of the Western tradition: to have spirit [Geist], to be a spirit, to be spiritual — all this means to be in the middle of the sum total of reality, to be in relation with the totality of being, to be vis-à-vis de l’univers. The spirit does not live in “a” world, or in “its” world, but in the world: world in the sense of “everything seen and unseen” (omnia visibilia et invisibilia).
Spirit, or intellection, and the sum-total of reality: these are interchangeable terms, that correspond to one another. You cannot “have” the one without the other. An attempt to do just this (we mention only it in passing) — to grant the human being superiority to his surroundings, to say that man has “world” (Weld) (and not merely “environment” [Umwelt]), without speaking of man’s spiritual nature, or rather (what is more extreme), to maintain that this fact (that man has “world” and not only “environment”) has nothing whatever to do with this “other” fact, that the human being is equipped with intellection or spirit — this attempt has been made by Arnold Gehlen in a very comprehensive book which has received a great deal of attention: Man: His Nature and Place in the World.
In opposition to Uexküll, Gehlen rightly says that the human being is not closed within an environment but is free of his surroundings and open to the world; and yet, Gehlen goes on to say, this difference between the animal as environmentally limited and the human being as open to the world-as-a-whole does not depend “on the characteristic of. . . spirit.” Instead, this very power to “have the world” is spirit. Spirit by definition is ability to comprehend the world.
For the older philosophy — that is, for Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Thomas — the connection of the two terms “spirit” (or “intellection” [Geist) and “world” (in the sense of total-relatedness) is so intimately and profoundly anchored in both directions that not only is it true to say that “spirit is relatedness to the sum total of existing beings”; for the earlier philosophers, the other truth, asserting that all things are essentially in relation to spirit, is just as valid, and in a very precise sense, which we do not dare to formulate in words as yet. For not only is it the property of the spirit that its field of relations includes the sum total of existing things; rather, it is also the property of existing things that they lie within the field of relations of the spirit. And to go further: for the older philosophy, it is all the same to say that “things have being” as to say that “things lie in the field of relations of the spirit, are related to spirit,” whereby is meant, of course, no mere “free-floating” spirituality in some abstract sense but rather personal spirit, a relating power that is well grounded, but then again, not only God, but the created, finite, human spirit as well. For the old ontology, it belonged to the nature of existing things to be within the field, within the reach of the spiritual soul; “to have being” means the same as “to lie within the field of relations of the spiritual soul”; both statements refer to one and the same situation. This and nothing else is the meaning of the old doctrine which has become so removed from us:
“All being is true” (omne ens est verum), and the other doctrine with the same meaning: “being” and “true” are convertible expressions. For what does “true” mean, in the sense of “the truth of things”? To say that something is true is to say that it is understood and intelligible, both for the absolute spirit as well as for the non-absolute spirit. I need to ask for your patience in simply accepting this for the moment, since it is not possible to justify these things in any detail at this point.
“Intelligibility” is nothing other than being related to a spirit that has understanding. So when the old philosophy states that it belongs to the nature of existing things, that they are intelligible and are understood, there could not be any being which is not known and knowable (since all being is true); when it is the said that the concepts “being” on the one hand, and “intelligibility” on the other, are convertible, so that the one could stand in the other’s place, so that it is the same for me to say that “things have existence” as to say that “things are known and intelligible”; in saying this the old philosophy also taught that it lies in the nature of things to be related to the mind (and this -- the concept of the “truth of things” -- is what matters in the context of our present inquiry). To summarize, then, what we have been saying: the world that is related to the spiritual being is the sum-total of existing things; this is so much the case that this set of relations belongs as well to the nature of spirit; the spirit is the power of comprehending the totality of being, as it belongs to the nature of existing beings themselves: “to be” means “to be related to spirit.”
What stands revealed to us, then, is a series of “worlds”: at the lowest, the world of plants, already locally limited to the surroundings they touch. Beyond this is the realm of the animals; and finally, transcending all these partial worlds, is the world related to spirit, the world as the totality of being. And to this ranking of worlds and fields-of-relations correspond, as we have seen, the ranking of the powers that relate: the more comprehensive the power, the more highly dimensioned is the corresponding field of relations, or “world.”
Now a third structural element is to be added to this twofold structure. For the stronger power of relating corresponds to a higher degree of inwardness; the power to relate is greater to the same degree as the bearer of that relation has “inwardness”; the lowest power of relating not only corresponds to the lowest form of being in the world but also to the lowest grade of “inwardness,” whereas the spirit, which directs its relating-power to the sum total of being, must likewise have a corresponding inwardness. The more comprehensive the power of relating oneself to the world of objective being, so the more deeply anchored must be the “ballast” in the inwardness of the subject. And when a distinctively different level of “world” is reached, namely, the orientation toward the whole, there too can be found the highest stage of being-established in one’s inwardness, which is proper to the spirit.
Thus both of these comprise the nature of spirit: not only the relation to the “whole” of the world and “reality,” but also the highest power of living-with-oneself, of being in oneself, of independence, of autonomy -- which is exactly what has always been the “person,” or “personality” in the Western tradition: to have a world, to be related to the totality of existing things -- that can occur only in a being that is “established in itself”: not a “what,” but a “who” -- an “I,” a person.
But now it is time to look back over the path we have taken and return to the questions from which we began. There were two questions, one more immediate, the other more remote. The first was, “What kind of world is the world of man?” and the second was, “What does it mean to philosophize?”
Before we begin again with our formal discussion, a brief remark is in order about the structure of the world that is related to the spirit. It is not, of course, by a greater spatial compass that the world that is spirit-related differs from the world that is related to the non-spiritual (a point that was not addressed when I distinguished “environment” from “world”). It is not only the sum-total of things; but it is also the “nature of the things,” with which the world related to the spirit is constituted. The reason why the animal lives in a partial world is because the nature of things is hidden from it. And it is only because the spirit is able to attain to the essence of things that it has the ability to understand the totality of things.
This connection was made by the old doctrine of being, whereby “the universe,” as well as the nature of things, is “universal.” Thomas says, “Because the intellectual [or spiritual] soul is able to grasp universals, it has a capacity for the infinite.”[Summa Theologiae L Q, 76, a. 5, ad 4um] Whoever attains to an understanding of the universal whole essence of things is thereby able to win a perspective from which the totality of being, of all existing things, are present and ascertainable; in intellectual understanding, an “outpost” is reached, or can be reached, whence the whole landscape of the universe can be taken in. We have reached a context into which we can take only a brief glimpse but which will also lead us into the very center of a philosophical understanding of being, knowing, and spirit.
But now, let us return to the questions which we set out to answer. The first step to take is to the more immediate question, “What kind of world is the world of man?” Is the world of man the world that is related to the spirit? The answer would have to be that man’s world is the whole reality, in the midst of which the human being lives, face-to-face with the entirety of existing things — vis-à-vis de 1’univers — but only insofar as man is spirit. But man is not pure spirit; he is a finite spirit so that both the nature of things and the totality of things are not given in the perfection of a total understanding, but only in “expectation” or “hope.”
But first, let us consider the fact that man is not pure spirit. This statement, of course, could be spoken in a variety of tones. Not seldom, it is said with a feeling of regret, an accentuation that is usually understood as something specifically Christian, by both Christians and non- Christians alike. The sentence can also be said in such a way as to imply that “certainly, man is not pure spirit,” but that the “true human being” is nevertheless the intellectual soul.
Now these. doctrines have no basis in the classical tradition of the West. Thomas Aquinas used a very pointed formula on this matter which is not as well known as it should be. The objection he raises is the following: “The goal of the human being is to attain complete likeness to God. But the soul when separated from the body which is immaterial would be more like God than the soul with the body. And therefore the souls will be separated from their bodies in their final state.” This is the objection, that the real human being is the soul, dressed out in all the tempting glamour of theological argumentation.
And how does Thomas reply to the objection? “The soul that is united to the body is more like God than the soul that has been separated from its body because the former more perfectly possesses its own nature.” [Quaestiones disputatae de potentia Dei 5, 10, ad 5] This is no easily digested statement, considering how it implies not only that the human being is bodily, but that the soul itself is also bodily.
If this is the case, if man essentially is “not only spirit,” if man is not in virtue of a denial, or on the basis of a departure from his authentic being, but really and in a positive sense a being in whom the various realms of plant-, animal-, and spiritual beings are bound into a unity — then man lives essentially, not exclusively, in the face of the totality of things, the whole universe of beings. Rather, his field of relations is an overlapping of “world” and “environment,” and necessarily so, in correspondence to human nature. Because man is not purely spirit, he cannot only live “under the stars,” not only vis-à-vis de l’univers; instead, he needs a roof over his head, he needs the trusted neighborhood of daily reality, the sensuously concrete world, he needs to “fit in” with his customary surroundings — in a word: a truly human life also needs to have an “environment” (Umwelt), as distinct from a “world.”
But at the same time, it pertains to the nature of body/soul being that man is, that the spirit shapes and penetrates the vegetative and sense-perceived regions in which he exists. So much so, that the act of eating by a human being is something different from that of the animal (even apart from the fact that the human realm includes the “meal,” something thoroughly spiritual!). The spiritual soul so profoundly influences all the other regions that even when the human being “vegetates,” this is only possible because of the spirit (neither the plant nor the animal “vegetates”). Consequently, this very non-human phenomenon, this self-inclusion of man in the environment (and that means, in that selective world determined solely by life’s immediate needs), even this confinement is possible only on the basis of a spiritual confinement. On the contrary, to be human is: to know things beyond the “roof” of the stars, to go beyond the trusted enclosures of the normal, customary day-to-day reality of the whole of existing things, to go beyond the “environment” to the “world” in which that environment is enclosed.
But now, we have unwittingly taken a step closer to answering our original question: What is it to philosophize? Philosophy means just this: to experience that the nearby world, determined by the immediate demands of life, can be shaken, or indeed, must be shaken, over and over again, by the unsettling call of the “world,” or by the total reality that mirrors back the eternal natures of things. To philosophize (we have already asked, What empowers the philosophical act to transcend the working-world?) — to philosophize means to take a step outside of the work-a-day world into the vis-à-vis de l’univers. It is a step which leads to a kind of “homeless”-ness: the stars are no roof over the head. It is a step, however, that constantly keeps open its own retreat, for the human being cannot live long in this way.
He who seriously intends to wander finally and definitively outside the world of the Thracian maiden is wandering outside the realm of human reality. What Thomas said about the vita contemplativa applies here also: it is really something more than human (non proprie humana, sect superhumana). [Quaestio disputata de virtutibus cardinalibus I] Of course, man himself is something more than human: man transcends man himself for the sake of the eternal, Pascal said; an easy definition does not go far enough to reach the human being.
But instead of developing these considerations, which may lead us too near to babbling nonsense, let us return to the question, “What does it mean to philosophize?” and attempt another approach to it, in more concrete fashion, and on the basis established by the foregoing. How does the philosophical question different from the non-philosophical question? To philosophize means, we said, to direct one’s view toward the totality of the world. So is that a philosophical question (and that alone) which has for its explicit and formal theme this sum-total of all existing things? No! What is peculiar and distinctive about a philosophical question is that it cannot be posed, considered, or answered (so far at least as an answer is possible), without “God and the World” also coming into consideration, that is, the whole of what exists.
Once again, let us speak quite concretely. The question, “What are we doing, here and now?” can clearly be intended in various ways. It can be meant philosophically. Let us attempt it, then. The question can be asked in such a way as to anticipate a technical-organizational answer. “What is happening now?” “Well, a lecture is being delivered during the Bonn Week of Higher Education.”
That is a straightforward, informative sentence, standing there in a clearly lit world — or rather, “environment.” It is an answer spoken with one’s attention directed to what is immediately at hand. But the question could also be meant in another sense so that the questioner would not be content with the answer just now given. “What are we doing right now?” One person is speaking; others are listening to what he is saying, and the listeners “understand” what is being said; approximately the same process is taking place within the minds of the many listeners: the statements are grasped, thought about, weighed, accepted, denied, or accepted with some hesitation, and then integrated with each person’s own fabric of thought. This question expects an answer coming from the special sciences; it can be meant so as to call on the psychology of sense perception, cognition, learning, mental states, and so on, and these sciences would provide the adequate answer.
An answer of this kind, then, would exist in a world of higher and deeper dimensions than the first answer, with its merely organizational interest. But the answers of the special sciences have still not reached the horizon of total reality; this answer could be given without having to speak at the same time of “God and the World.” But if the question, “What are we doing right now?” were meant as a philosophical question, such an exclusion would not be possible; for if the question is meant philosophically, then the question is about the nature of knowing, of truth, or even of the nature of teaching itself.
What, in the last analysis, is it “to teach”? Now someone will come along and say, “A man cannot really teach; just as when someone is healed from illness, it is not the doctor who has healed him, but nature, whose healing powers the doctor has, perhaps, allowed to operate.” Someone else will come up and say, “It is God who really teaches, within, on the occasion of human teaching.” Then Socrates will stand up and say that the teacher only makes it possible for the one who learns “to acquire knowledge from himself” through reminiscence; “there is no learning, only recollection.”[ Plato, Meno 85; 81] And still another one will say, “All human beings are confronted by the same reality; the teacher points it out, and the learner, or the listener, sees for himself.”
What are we doing here? What kind of phenomenon is taking place? Is it something of a socially organized nature, a part of a lecture series? Is it something that can be analyzed and researched in terms of psychological science? Is it something taking place between God and the World?
This, then, is what is peculiar and distinctive about a philosophical question, that something comes to the fore in it, touching the very nature of the soul: to “come together with every being” (convenire cum omni ente) — with everything that exists. You cannot ask and think philosophically without allowing the totality of existing things to come into play: God and the World.