21 Oct

In praise of the reality of things

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 10/21/15

Kenneth L. Schmitz on the dissolving effects of modern modes of thought

“[I]t is no secret that, since the philosophers tossed out the four causes of Aristotle in the seventeenth century, things as such have absented themselves from the mainstream of modern thought, and from respectable intellectual conversation, as though pouting over their unmerited dismissal. In modern times, things seem to have lost their substance in reality, their significance in modern scientific and intellectual discourse, and their credit in modern minds. . . .

“Would I be far wrong were I to suggest that our modern intellectual culture convinces us that we ought not to really believe in things anymore? Or at least, that our intellectual culture discourages such ‘primitive’ belief? I must explain myself. You and I handle things as we make our daily rounds, and we may respond to things with feeling and imagination as we read the poets. We do not think things, that is, with scientific or intellectual rigor. We do not let things enter into the ‘serious’ passes of our minds. . . . As evidence of this, I offer the following reflection. Initiated into modern culture, if we were asked to give a rational account of some thing such as the tree in the garden, I suspect that we would first of all describe a set of colours and shapes, its bark rough or smooth; well enough! But if we were pressed to penetrate more deeply to its ‘real constitution’ in an effort to understand the makeup of the tree and to give a rationally coherent account of it — would not the tree as a thing dissolve into a cloud of particles and processes, of cellular structures and photosyntheses? For we are taught to think that there are particles, waves, and processes governed by systemic laws, but not things.

“Is the tree, then, more than a collection? . . .”

“[I]f we persist in asking for an intellectual account of the tree in terms other than cellular structures and processes, we will have fallen — perhaps unintentionally, even unwillingly — into the pit of metaphysics, unless we have the imagination and good fortune to fall onto the pad of poetry.”

—from Kenneth L. Schmitz, The Recovery of Wonder: The New Freedom and the Asceticism of Power (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005)

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