Dorothy Sayers, Metaphysician

In the course of three paragraphs in her The Mind of the Maker, Dorothy Sayers manages to connect a number of these I’ve been thinking and posting about here recently: how sub-creation changes everything, the non-existence of non-existing possibles, and how non-being is not a correlate but the creation of Being:

What I want to suggest is that Being (simply by being) creates Not-Being… So that though, in the absence of Being, it would be meaningless to say that to say that Not-Being precedes Being; yet, in the presence of Being that proposition becomes both significant and true, because Being has made it so. Or, to use the most familiar of all metaphors, “before” light, there was neither light nor darkness; darkness is not darkness until light has made the concept of darkness possible. Darkness cannot say: “I precede the coming light,” but there is a sense in which light can say, “Darkness preceded me.”

Shakespeare writes Hamlet. That act of creation enriches the world with a new category of Being, namely: Hamlet. But simultaneously it enriches the world with a new category of Not-Being, namely: Not-Hamlet. Everything other than Hamlet, to the farthest bounds of the universe, acquires in addition to its former characteristics, the characteristic of being Not-Hamlet; the whole of the past immediately and automatically becomes Not-Hamlet.

Now, in a sense, it is true to say that the past was Not-Hamlet before Hamlet was created or thought-of; it is true, but it is meaningless, since apart from Hamlet there is no meaning that we can possibly attach to the term Not-Hamlet. Doubtless there is an event, X, in the future, by reference to which we may say that we are at present in a category of Not-X, but until X occurs, the category of Not-X is without reality. Only X can give reality to Not-X; that is to say, Not-Being depends for its reality upon Being. In this way we may faintly see how the creation of Time may be said automatically to create a time when Time was not, and how the Being of God can be said to create a Not-Being that is not God. (The Mind of the Maker 101)

Advertisements

Stoicism’s Linguistic Turn

Yesterday I posted on the psycho-physical monism of the Stoics and the resulting, less substantive, more relational ontology it entailed.  It is this view of things as having their existence wholly determined by their divinely fated place within the causal nexus of the psycho-physical universe that is mirrored in the Stoics’ philosophy of language.[1] On the Stoics modified semantic triangle, what provides the meaning behind our words or statements are, again, not eternal “ideas” (as per Plato), nor even intellectual “thoughts” (as per Aristotle), but what the Stoics called lekta, a term whose meaning is difficult to ascertain, but which has been various described as the semantic content, the intellectual intention, or a mental linguistic utterance of the things that we verbally say or write. As such, the Stoics seems to have viewed the lekta as an intermediate or hybrid reality between words and pure thought and which as such do not properly “exist” so much as they “subsist” as intramental states of mind and what, because of their materialistic monism amounts to the same thing, “an operational modification by the human material body.”[2] On this “de-psychologized semantics,” as Umberto Eco has described it, the Stoic lekton represents not an ontologically distinct thought or idea, but an indefinite “position within a [semantic] system, the result of an abstract segmentation of the noetic field, a cultural unit…”[3] We rely upon other words, in other words, to largely determine the meaning of our words, a Stoic insight that Eco hails as an unprecedented discovery of “the provisional and unstable nature of the sign-function” and which Milbank commends as “a theory which tends to identify thought with language.”[4] Thus, just as the being and identity of things for the Stoics is a function of their ordained position and role within the divine pyscho-physical causal web that is the existing universe, so the meanings of words is a consequence of their position within the semantic web that is a given system of language.[5] This leads to a further consequence of the substitution of the Stoic lekton in the place of the Platonic and Aristotelian idea, namely a shift from viewing linguistic meaning in terms of a hierarchical and linear model of dictionary-like denotation and semantic “equivalence,” to a more indeterminate model of connotative association and semantic “inference.” As Milbank puts it, the Stoic lekton, “as an ‘incorporeal’ sign of something else, always connotes other elements in a moving continuum, rather than denotes extra-linguistic onta… the Stoic conception of meaning [is not one of] equivalence (of sense and object) but rather as a fated connotative or inferential ‘tension.’”[6] To bring this discussion at last to bear on the issues of primary concern in this book, the doctrine of the lekton helped the Stoics avoid the error Derrida, for example, attributes to the Platonic tradition, namely (in Milbank’s words) the “delusion that there are ideas or things present to us before and outside the signifying system.”[7] Or in more modal terms, in contrast to the semantic possibilism (as we might term it) of the Platonic and Aristotelian semantic triangle, according to which it is a prior realm of fixed, abstract thought or eternal ideas that supplies the possibility of the meaningfulness of words and things, the Stoic lekton implies a semantic actualism according to which the meaning of a word depends on all the other words there are and hence which are available to be connoted within a given linguistic or semantic system.


[1] Colish, Mirror of Language, 11, and Milbank, Word Made Strange, 89.

[2] Ibid., 89.

[3] Eco, Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, 31.

[4] Ibid., 30, and Milbank, Word Made Strange, 90.

[5] Ibid., 26.

[6] Milbank, Word Made Strange, 89. Milbanks remarks here follow those of Andreas Graeser, who writes how “the Stoics conceived the total sum of existence in terms of a moving continuum and thus were not likely to conceive of the denotations of meaningful expressions as natural classes of extra-linguistic entities.” Graeser, “The Stoic Theory of Meaning,” 80.

[7] Ibid., 60.

Stoicism’s linguistic metaphysics

In a post from a month or so ago on “Augustine’s linguistic turn,” I wrote about the positive influence Stoicism exerted on Augustine’s philosophy of language. This and a follow-up post are an attempt to develop further, first, some relevant features of Stoic metaphysics and ontology and, following that, how their metaphysics was mirrored in their philosophy of language.

As an interpretation of the Augustinian Verbum, the Anselmian locutio represents a somewhat radical and revisionist take on this otherwise traditional creed. For in stressing the specifically linguistic side of the Augustinian Verbum, Anselm’s locutio helped resolve yet another deficiency in Augustine’s intellectual legacy, namely what John Milbank has identified as a certain “linguistic rationalism” inherited by Augustine from his classical philosophical sources and which he then bequeathed to his medieval successors. At the heart of this linguistic rationalism was the classic “semantic triangle” of word-idea-referent—words reflect ideas and ideas reflect reality—and which Milbank faults for its promotion of an “instrumentalist view of the relation of language to thought, a strict distinction between ‘sign’ and ‘thing’, and a general denial of any sort of ‘essential’ relation between sign and thing signified.”[1] Among ancient and medieval thinkers, only the Stoics saw fit to significantly revise the semantic triangle, and while Augustine derived many of his views on language from the Stoics, some of their more important contributions to the subject were insufficiently adopted and appreciated by him. The differences between their respective approaches, as we shall see, will provide us with yet another instructive perspective for evaluating the theological innovations of Anselm’s divine locutio. The first thing to note about the Stoics’ philosophy of language is its close parallel to their more general philosophy of being. According to Marcia Colish, the primary concern of Stoic metaphysics was “to overcome the dualism between mind and matter taught by other Greek philosophical schools. The Stoics achieve this goal by identifying mind and matter with each other and with God… [E]verything that acts is a body. There is a continuum between mind and body. They are completely translatable into each other; they are simply two ways of viewing the content within the continuum.”[2] What this means for the Stoics’ ontology is that they are not the transcendent, abstract, extrinsic, and ideal entities of Plato’s ideas which determine the being of things, but consistent with their doctrine of a wholly immanent and animating divine logos, “bodies themselves possess their own inner rationale for their existence, extension, and activity. It is their inner tonos [tension] which accounts for their operations…”[3] Of particular importance here is the famous Stoic doctrine of the logoi spermatikoi, or “seminal reasons,” according to which the divine logos does not govern things at a distance, but has been sewn into the material “soil” of existing things, encoding all the possibilities of not only normal processes of genesis and growth, but also exceptional and otherwise inexplicable departures from the usual course of nature as well.[4] “All things,” as Colish puts it, “are thus related to the cosmic pneuma and to each other,”[5] making for a less substantivist and possibilist, and more relational and actualist ontology according to which the possibility of what things can be and can do is determined not by an abstract ideal realm that is otherwise indifferent to its material imitations, but rather by a providential orchestration and synchronization of each particular thing with everything else that co-exists with it.


[1] Milbank, Word Made Strange, 84.

[2] Colish, Stoic Tradition, 23.

[3] Ibid., 26. See also Milbank, Word Made Strange, 89.

[4] Colish, Stoic Tradition, 32.

[5] Ibid., 27.