Aristotle, Calvinism, David Hume, empiricism, History, metaphysics, personality, religion, science, teleology, Thomas Aquinas, transcendence
Fragment 140, word count: 1,077.
Before the scientific Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the world as a whole was perceived as a living Being, personified. The innermost reality of all existence was sensed as an expressive voice, creative personality, willful teleology. ‘Teleology’ means ‘purpose’, ‘reason’ or ‘a poise within the anticipatory ideation of agency’. It is a striving toward a specific not-yet or non-actuality, the essence of creation. However, that conception of teleological personality was structured weirdly, as bimodal, with a divine version and a strictly subordinate human version. There was a recognized sameness of transcendence between human and divine personality since both produce coherent utterances and acts expressive of ideation in the forms of caring, knowledge, and intention, unlike inanimate nature. This bimodal personality informs the religious view of the purpose and meaning of life and existence. (In Aristotle’s minority opinion there is yet another version of teleology, final cause, a minimalist bundle of impulses in every individual object, not so dissimilar from his stripped down conception of divine personality in celestial spheres. Aristotle’s instances of final cause are so minimal that they seem almost mechanical, lacking spontaneity. Remarkably, those object essences were incorporated into the Christian conception of nature through the work of Thomas Aquinas.) The point is: for by far most of human cultural history the foundational and clearest kind of existence conceived was the living of vectors of ideality, the teleological vectors of caring we call personalities, known primarily in everyone’s personal experience of caring and of familiar interactions with other beings who express caring. Caring is an ideality at the heart of the transcendence of personality. Things matter to personalities as caring beings. The conditions of our living within a variable world are important to us. Without caring personalities nothing has any importance, nothing matters.
So, considering the question “What should we make of the existence of personality (teleology)?”; we note that what religion makes of it is the creative source of everything, recognizing teleology as transcendently alive, creative, caring, and expressive, but most truly at home at some dimly imagined cosmic horizon, part of a weird denigration of human personality by comparison, making individual human consciousness a frail echo of a cosmic master situated as divine judge and tester of all, a model of sovereignty as absolute ownership over everything less powerful. That patriarchal conception of teleology inspired and sanctified very rigid, restricted, exploitative, and repressively hierarchical top-down societies, dedicated to the culture of violet masculinity, and determined to remain essentially static for eternity, supposedly to persuade the cosmic teleology to tilt benign. Such are the foundations of our current dystopian patriarchies. These societies are not echoes of divine nature but expressions of misconceptions and superstitions developed into enduring cultures, the most extreme fears and fantasies institutionalized and culturally enforced.
The scientific Enlightenment pitched a new idea of fundamental reality, arguably the most important event in history, ridding humankind from oppressive superstitious dread and leaping beyond previous physical limitations through a deeper engagement with nature. It did this by abandoning personification in a transition to an inertial/ entropic conception of events, nothing less than the complete elimination of teleology from the thought of reality. What science makes of teleology, then, is nothing, proposing to interpret all apparent instances of teleology as mechanical structures, pre-set responses triggered by random stimuli. Note that this amounted to an even worse denigration of individual human personality than the weird bimodal religious conception. Materialist science claims the elimination of metaphysics since any idea of transcendence is excluded. However, science presents its ultimate mystery of space/ time/ mass/ energy, Nature, as a distinctly sovereign transcendence, omnipotent and predestining events forever in an extreme version of Calvinism. The novelty is that the scientific mystery is a dead thing, inertial and entropic, with no trace of reason, a world that, in the absence of teleological persons, absolutely doesn’t matter. As such, the scientific revolution was the cultural expression of a metaphysical speculation which unfortunately served exactly the same sanctifying function for existing patriarchal political structures as the weird idea of divine personality.
Empiricism’s Evasion of Metaphysics
An attack, widely considered persuasive, on the idea of personalities as coherent and fundamental realities is David Hume’s empiricist survey of his experience. Like the self for which Hume (no stranger to Calvinism) searched his subjectivity in vain, language competence is also nowhere to be discovered in the “bundle of impressions” that Hume identified. Introspection of the kind described by Hume reveals nothing like a sophisticated linguistic competence, elaborated over a long period of social interactions, but such competence is certainly and crucially present in the whole framework of adult orientation from which any individual makes sense of immediate sensations which arrive and pass as Hume described. Hume was skeptical of the continuity (and so the existence) of a subject, a personality, but linguistic competence does not flit in and out of an individual’s subjectivity like an atomic impression of red. It endures and is built upon, learned and reinvented over a lengthy and complex experience involving the creative arc of developmental continuity of an enduring personality making and integrating insights. Linguistic competence is also very personal, expressing a reading history, for example, as well as regional peculiarities of dialect. (Individual voices exist independently of language and always apply pressure on language-culture to suit their particular ideas of expression, clearly accomplished in the case of William Shakespeare.) Linguistic competence is a complex elaboration of an individual’s orientation in a life in the world, importantly different from a bundle of sensory atoms or impressionistic imprints.
General acceptance of the scientific metaphysics did not eliminate dystopian patriarchal societies devoted to war, but merely put stronger energies, more massively destructive weapons, into the hands of their controlling minorities. Those factions gained new entitlement as instruments of omnipotent nature, above reproach since morality and empathy do not apply to people as mechanistic structures. The root problem in both metaphysical speculations considered here, religion and science, is the perverse denigration of ordinary human personality. As untidy as it might be, the only hope for release from the straight jacket of superstitious dread and the straight jacket of nihilism in the face of all-predetermining Nature is a recognition of two coexisting mysteries: brute uncaring nature and, within it, a vast multitude of localized individually caring personalities of the ordinary kind, transcendent vectors of ideality, creative fountains of novel teleological ideas for their future in the world.
Copyright © 2019 Sandy MacDonald.