What do Aristotle’s theory of sense-perception, Stoic semiotics, and Tolkien’s views on fairy-stories all have in common? They each in their own way recognize the integral contribution that human beings make–whether in their acts of sense-perception, sign-making, or story-telling–in causing things to be what they are.
Our story begins with Aristotle, who explains the act of sense-perception this way:
The activity of the sensible object and that of the percipient sense is one and the same activity, and yet the distinction between their being remains. Take as illustration actual sound and actual hearing: a man may have hearing and yet not be hearing, and that which has a sound is not always sounding. But when that which can hear is actively hearing and which can sound is sounding, then the actual hearing and the actual sound are merged in one (these one might call respectively hearkening and sounding). (De anima 3.8)
According to Aristotle, for there to be an actual sound, you must have not only something “making” a sound, but you must also have an agent capable of “hearing” the sound. Without an perceiver to hear it, a sound is not a sound but merely a “potential” sound (so no, if a tree falls in the woods and there is no one to hear it, it does not make a sound–only a potential sound).
There is a related idea in the Stoic theory of signs. Umberto Eco, in his Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, writes how, for the Stoics,
in order to grasp, from a series of sensory data, the form ‘smoke’, I must already be directed by the belief that smoke is relevant to the making of further inferences. Otherwise, the smoke provided for me by the sensation remains a potential perception which I have not yet ma[d]e pertinent as smoke, but as mist, miasma, or as any exhalation which is not caused by combustion. Only if I already know the general rule which makes for ‘if smoke, then fire’ am I able to render the sensory datum meaningful, by seeing it as that smoke which can reveal fire. (33)
According to the Stoics, in other words, the physical phenomenon of smoke, by itself, is not yet a sign of fire. For smoke to signify fire, there must be a rational agent present who first visually senses the physical event of smoke, and who then interprets (though the process may be instantaneous) and so implicitly classifies what he sees as an instance of a more general type, namely of that which, when present, implies also the presence of fire. By this means, the mere visual sensation of the physical phenomenon of smoke becomes finally a legitimate perception of “smoke,” i.e., “that which signifies fire.” The important thing to note here is that it is the perceiver who makes the sign to be a sign, to be significant. As Eco puts it, it is the perceiver who “makes pertinent” the physical phenomenon as smoke rather than a mere “mist,” and the one who “render[s] the sensory datum meaningful.”
In stressing the contribution that the rational agent makes to the sign-character of things, however, the Stoics were no proto-Kantians or anticipating postmodernism. For the Stoics, according to Eco, in the absence of a person both capable of and actually interpreting an event as significant, the event itself is not a sign, but only a “potential” sign. Under this circumstance, it is not as though there would be no perceptual or signifying reality whatsoever, but rather that we would have a “potential perception,” and hence what we might call a “potential signification.” Absent an actual act of rational inference, there is still, in the physical event of smoke, all the objective ingredients for an act of signification to take place. All that is missing is the human mind, the essential catalyst necessary to ignite those objective elements, moving them from their state of being potentially significant to being actually significant.
It is a similar view, finally, that Tolkien entertains of the power of fairy-stories. As he writes in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,”
Fantasy is made out of the Primary World, but a good craftsman loves his material, and has a knowledge and feeling for clay, stone and wood which only the art of making can give. By the forging of Gram cold iron was revealed; by the making of Pegasus horses were ennobled; in the Trees of the Sun and Moon root and stock, flower and fruit are manifested in glory. (Tolkien Reader 78)
As Tolkien makes clear, sub-creation is just that–sub-creation, that is, an activity that human beings do under and in response to God’s prior act of creation. What is more, this existing reality created by God is no metaphysical wax nose, bendable at will, but has a determinate nature and order. As the above quote clearly implies, structures like iron, horses, trees, flowers, and fruit have a reality that is in one sense “independent” of what we make of them. However, much of the significance of these otherwise “independent” structures lies in their inchoate capacity to manifest themselves to us, not only in sense-perception and speech, as Aristotle and the Stoics recognized, but even more eminently for Tolkien, in our story-telling. There is a sense in which horses don’t achieve their actuality as horses for us until after at least some horses have had the chance to be a Pegasus. Nor does iron really become iron until after at least some iron has had a chance to be elevated and made into the substance of a mythical, heroic sword. Take away the human, story element, and things become mere elements. Or as Tolkien puts it in another passage, “When the fairy-tale ceased, there would be just thunder, which no human ear had yet heard” (51).