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Volume 9, Issue 4: Non Est

Poetic Worlds

Douglas Jones

Does the world around us come to us already divided into parts and wholes, or does the human mind cut it up? This may at first seem like an odd, speculative question, but in truth the answers to it have driven Western philosophy and culture, including poetry.

So is the world pre-cut or man-cut? Let's take a few steps back. The question which first raises this question is really a question about knowledge. When we look at the world, we are confronted with a world of particular objects-individual trees, toads, and tacos. Most agree on that, but how can we talk about such individual things and learn something about them, if they each are completely distinct and unique? If each thing is totally unique - nothing shared in common with other things - then we would have to refer to them by proper names alone. That tree looking thing is Fred. That "tree" is Jack. That "tree" is #4356. That "tree" is Rover. We wouldn't be able to say things like "Trees have bark" or even "Some trees have needles." We couldn't use general terms like "trees" or "needles" at all. Instead of "That tree has needles," we would have to say something like "That Fred thing has a Joe thing and a Ken thing and a Janet thing . . . " or That #4356 has a #5a and a #6z and a #9v and a. . . ."
Even these examples involve more generalities than would be permissible if everything was entirely unique, but as they stand, they would make science and communication and poetry impossible, or at least extremely annoying. Everyone important agrees that knowledge can't happen, if everything is entirely unique. Knowledge can only work if individual things are connected in some way, if they share some features. Knowledge requires all the parts to fit into wholes. If they don't, we can only use proper names, no general terms at all. So again, is the world pre-cut or man-cut? Does it already have wholes and species, or do humans create them?
Ancient Greek philosophers as mildly different as Plato and Aristotle took the first option - the world is pre-cut. They held that the world of particulars is really connected by means of things called the Ideas, the Forms, or universals. These Forms aren't particular things; they are general things that connect the parts together. Moreover, these Forms are not visible or changeable, but they are very knowable. Our little minds, say the Greeks, can grasp a hold of simple, unchangeable, universal things, but we don't do well on an endless list of proper names. Instead of giving unique names to each thing, we can truly say that thing there is a tree, that is, it shares or takes part in the universal treeness, and those needles share the common property of needleness, and so on.
Well, this answer to the initial question held the field for about a millennium, until Christian thinkers in the medieval period noticed that it conflicted with a Christian view of the world. That's a story for the next issue. Suffice it to say that after the medieval period, a view known as nominalism came to play, and it took over for the second millennium. The shortest summary of the history of philosophy, then, is this: the Greeks (emphasis on unity) dominated the first millennium, and the nominalists (emphasis on particulars) dominated the second, with medieval Christian philosophers fomenting the shift between the two.
The nominalists, a mix of good and bad guys, agreed in rejecting Greek Forms. The more extreme nominalists, though, answered the "pre-cut or man-cut" question in a decidedly different manner. If, as they said, there are no Greek Forms that cut the world up before we get there, then the human mind must do the cutting. The nominalists agreed with the Greeks that knowledge still required something to unite particulars. So the only other apparent option was to say that the mind creates these unities, these wholes, these species, these general concepts. John Locke (1632-1704) was a nominalist in this vein: "it is plain that our distinct species are nothing but distinct complex ideas . . . . [T]he ranking of things into species is done by us according to the ideas we have of them." Simply put, Locke defends the view that the world is largely man-cut, not pre-cut. Now Locke was a rather mild nominalist, holding that there might be universals deep inside things, but we can't know them, so they are no help to knowledge. Later nominalists abandoned such mysticism, and ran with the claim that the human mind constructs reality. They are not naturally there. The world is man-made. Culture is a construct. This later nominalism spread over several centuries and thinkers, and, with some controversy, we now call it postmodernism.
Neither Greek nor the nominalist approach to this question is acceptable within a Christian framework. The Greek desire for unity ends in simple pantheism, and the nominalistic desire for plurality ends in radical subjectivism. These are quick oversimplifications, but they are not unfounded.
A Christian approach which avoids both Hellenism and nominalism has yet to be developed in detail, but we should expect it to grow from the doctrines of the Trinity and creation. In short, the persons of the Triune God supply the unity only hoped for in the Forms, and a truly created world provides a God-cut, mind-independent world. A Christian framework would allow not only for knowledge but specifically poetry - a poetry that avoids both the nominalistic constructivism of romanticism and the pale abstractions of the Greeks. It gives us ponds and persons and pies which are united and richly pre-cut quite apart from us, but they are real, grippable, bitable individuals. What more could we ask?

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