The Tool of Tools and the Form of Forms (final version)

Vintage working tools on wooden background.

The so-called “logical” works of Aristotle have been grouped together under the title “Organon” (tool, organ) since his first major editor assembled them in the 1st century B.C.  It seems Andronicus of Rhodes employed this label to suggest that Aristotle considered the study of logic to be the great propadeutic, the unavoidable preparatory instrument one must first learn to use before embarking upon the real world studied by physics, psychology, metaphysics, ethics and the like. Although a significant measure of truth has been granted to this claim, a couple of questions have always troubled its articulation.

One is that the philosopher dedicates so very much time to this supposedly subsidiary instrument. The “Analytics,” his work treating of logical inference proper, is so extensive it came to be divided into two quite large (and quite difficult) works. If you group the other texts of the Organon (the Categories, On Interpretation, the Topics and the Sophistical Refutations – not to mention the Rhetoric and the Poetics, which Arab Aristotelians included, not without reason) together with the Analytics, you have material for a couple of years study, at the very least. Is all this just about a tool?

The second question is even more perplexing. If the Stagirite considered these logical works to be so intrinsically instrumental to his vast philosophical project, why, when we survey his physical, psychological, metaphysical and ethical/political treatises – and even his incomplete Poetics – do we find nary a reference to them?  If we are busily building the edifice of philosophy with our hammer, saw, screw driver, pliers and all the other tools of a well-stocked toolbox, shouldn’t we catch sight – at least on occasion – of their active and indispensable role in producing the structure? (“Hand me a hammer.”  “Now I need the pliers.” etc.) We don’t, and one wonders why.

Some have suggested – rather lamely, in my opinion – that since we only have a fourth, or even just a fifth of all Aristotle wrote, maybe he did make these cross-references in the works that have been lost. However, the best conjectures about those missing works is that they consisted of numerous early dialogues and piles of notes on his incessant zoological researches. His substantive treatises, as imperfect as they sometimes are, seem to have been preserved because they constitute the lion’s share of his mature thought. I find a better answer in the very book which discusses the nature of the intellect (nous), that is, the very faculty that employs logical procedure to begin with. I suggest this text explains the inspiration of the title “Organon,” on the one hand, but also gives us insight into why it receives such protracted attention at first and then seems to be almost forgotten in the remaining treatises about the “real world.”

When Aristotle famously defines man as a rational animal, we do well to remember the amplitude of the adjective in Greek: logikon, meaning that we are animals that produce logoi, i.e. discourses. We don’t bark or squeak like some fellow animals (at least not in our finer moments) but we speak, and when we speak we utter various sorts of discourses. Within the womb of the very first concept we generate – that of being (the most universal, the most fecund but as such the least specific of all concepts) – we produce logoi. These, in turn, go on to specify beings (in the plural), and do so by both signifying ideas and feelings in our souls, and also persons and ideas outside of us in the world. Such discourses are mostly approximate in terms of their inferential power (formulated in what Aristotle will call enthymemes, that is, arguments with implicit components). Thereafter, however, may come the dialectical, poetical and sometimes scientific discourses as well. Now, since we evidently perform all these acts, we logically must have the power to do so. That power, or faculty, is quite simply what we call the nous (which we can translate as intellect, mind, reason or intelligence).

hands

In the De Anima (“On the Soul”), where Aristotle studies psychology – the science of “souls” in all their forms, powers and acts – he arrives at a curious statement in the third book when discussing nous. He compares it to the hand, for the hand is that by which we “handle” just about everything, as the nous is that by which we think about everything. Like the mouth and the mind, the hand is designed with a constitutional openness – but that openness only exists in order to close. As our mouth opens to speak, but (hopefully!) soon closes to listen; or opens to eat, and then (again, hopefully) closes to chew and swallow, our mind seems to show the same pattern. It opens, but only in order to then bite down, as it were, on knowledge.

Aristotle is intrigued by this analogy between the mind and the hand. The latter is naturally open and in this way remains poised to grasp virtually any tool that is presented to it. It is relevant here that in our European languages the words we typically use to bespeak understanding and intellectual activity are “manual”; that is, we “grasp” something; we “comprehend” something (from prehendere, in Latin, meaning to grasp). In German the analogous words are ergreifenerfassen (both originally meaning to take something into one’s hand). In a sense the hand is the body’s principal tool, but due to its extraordinary versatility, its radical openness and ability to assume a large number of configurations (picking up an apple, turning a screwdriver, wielding a hammer, pushing and pulling a saw, gesticulating, and so on), it would be better, Aristotle suggests, to call it the “tool of tools.”tools-tool-hand-construction-23602042

His point is this: the intellect seems to do in an immaterial way what the hand does in a material way. The mind too “grasps” something; it too is in the service, as it were, of the “tools” it wields (concepts, judgments, arguments, hypotheses, etc.). However, the versatility and adaptability of the material hand is still limited by its very materiality. Although it is indicative, a “sign” of our rational nature (along with the face, as Aristotle asserts), it still cannot do everything. Nonetheless, it goes quite far, as it can gesticulate eloquently (a talent supremely developed by the Italians), but even in its first “logical” gesture – that of an infant spontaneously pointing to something outside of it – it also “points interiorly” to the power of the mind behind it, which is unmistakably “indicated” by that naturally extended index finger.

That mind, the nous, as an immaterial power, is able – unlike the material hand – to be entirely versatile and adaptable in relation to the formalities it grasps. In a sense, it can do everything. The hand still has a fixed form (palm, thumb and four fingers); the nous has not only no material configuration at all, but its immaterial “form” – its natural specification, its function par excellence – is precisely to have no form. It can accept, “become” all forms because by nature it possesses none. Analogous to clay that is formless so that it can be formed into any shape one chooses, the intellect is formless so that it can receive any knowable form with which it is confronted. It is open by nature. This leads to the title of my essay. As a hand which is open to all tools Aristotle calls the “tool of tools,” a “form” that is open to all forms should be called the “form of forms.”

It is this radically open nature of the nous that brings Aristotle to affirm – in one of his more famous and surprising statements – that the intellectual soul is, in a certain sense, all existing things. Anything and everything that is now, or that ever was, or that ever could be is in principle knowable by an intellect whose very object is, quite simply, being (that which, in any and every way can be considered to be). Some medieval philosophers called the “spirit” (the intellectual “part”, or center of the soul) the anima animae, the “soul of the soul.” But that same soul of the rational animal not only besouls the matter of the body, it is itself in turn besouled by its spiritual core. This “animation” means that it is open to, and quite literally alive to all being,  capax universi (“capable of everything,” in the somewhat over-the-top words of Thomas Aquinas). Through it, the soul “becomes all things” in the sense that its immaterial form permits it to be in-formed by any and all reality within its experience. It can become, intentionally (i.e., in an immaterial mode of being that signifies, that thus “tends toward” a reality beyond it) what the things known are in reality (i.e., in the extra-mental world of things).

All this explains why logical studies are considered instrumental, not just in the sense that you need a certain proficiency in them in order to think coherently in the sciences of the real, but also because they study the very intellectual “hand” of the human soul. The Greek word Aristotle uses to say “tool of tools” is the very word the tradition has employed to refer to logic: organon. The hand is the “organon of organons.”  The mind, in turn, is the “idea of ideas, or the form of forms.” From applying, analogically, the notion of organon (tool) to that of the “form” of the intellect (its eidon), the further step of calling logical studies a tool is a short one.

That intellectual organ exists only in order to reach out to reality. Its reach is so complex, so rich with articulations (not unlike, and yet so much more than the fingers of a hand), and the discourses it produces so multi-faceted in the ways in which thought can be logikon (“logical”), Aristotle delves deeply and extensively into its world, exploring how it works, and why. He does this by “taking it apart” (the root meaning of the word “analysis”; thus, his name for logic: “analytics”). This is the reason he spends so much time with this study, because it is so interesting in itself and so revealing of the way in which nous works.

But there is more. The absence of any conspicuous reference back to the logical works in his theoretical or practical scientific treatises is, in fact, evidence of the truly “instrumental” nature of logic. It highlights how this very special instrument – this tool that rises and soars as astronomically as does the hurled bone in that iconic scene in 2001: Space Odyssey – lives in the immaterial world of knowing. The concepts, the judgments, the syllogisms and all the rest of our intentional cognitive software – unlike the wooden and metallic density of a carpenter’s tools – are intentional realities, existing only in and of the mind. The scholastics called them “second intentions,” insofar as they refer not directly to the realities beyond them (as do “first intentions,” with which we directly interact with extra-mental being), but rather to the ways in which beings exist in the mind, once they are known, and only insofar as they are known.

Now, to the extent we are thinking coherently, and allowing the realities we encounter in sensation to enter into and temper our cognitive faculties, these “second intentions” have a tendency to function invisibly. They are transparent to the realities to which they provide access, like the lenses in a pair of glasses, or the pane of glass in your living room window. You look through them and not at them. It is only when the lenses crack, or a rock sails through your window pane, or when things simply get dirty, that you pay any attention to the glass. Likewise, it is only when thinking goes awry, or becomes uncertain of itself, that we need to reach for the toolbox of logic. In the same way, we only call the carpenter who built the house to come back for an additional visit when the house needs repairs. As it turns out, Aristotle’s substantive treatises about reality are rarely in need of such repairs.

Arist

Spiritual, but not religious? (revised)

spiritualityreligions

A common refrain heard today from those reluctant to succumb entirely to secularism and atheism, and intent on keeping a door open to transcendence, but who are still wary of corrupt and calcified religious institutions, is: “I am a spiritual person, but not religious”. When queried on the content of their spirituality – one can hardly make the claim without an approximate frame of conviction – they will reply with some version of the following. 1) I believe in “some higher force” – call it God if you like; 2) we are all somehow one, and I wish to stay in tune with this oneness – call it love if you like; 3) I have found ways to commune with the higher force – call it prayer or meditation if you like; 4) all religions are basically the same, and the spirituality I have found constitutes their inner reality; the rest is just window-dressing. In short, they quite reasonably conclude that once you’ve bared the banana, you might as well throw away the peel. This sounds very convincing on the face of it.

We witness a wide spectrum of variations on this today, from the simplest, personal option of steering clear of organized religion and fostering one’s own private spirituality, with open-ended tenets of belief, and some reluctance to discuss its details or preach it from the rooftops (“it’s private,” after all), to publicly trumpeted universalist claims. We hear so often of those who say they have isolated the perennial truth and mystical minimum of it all, and who welcome those of any or no faith to participate in week-end retreats and workshops – or to read the books that vehicle the message – and thus gain their own access to some variety of spiritual experience. All this is usually packaged in techniques borrowed from various traditions (usually Eastern), or made to order by unlikely collaborations between ancient practices and modern neuroscience. The buffet on offer is quite extensive, but the usual inner message is the same: the isolation of the essential and the marginalization and relativization of the secondary. Some gurus may recommend adherence to an outer religious tradition of one sort or the other, but almost always as a mere cultural adjunct (one “skillful means” among others, called upaya in the Buddhist tradition); what is important is that the underlying essence be grasped, and that all religious institutions and forms are seen, in the final analysis, to be ancillary and ultimately dispensable.

Again, all this sounds unobjectionable. But there are problems. First, I will ask if this scheme of things is operative in other areas of life and culture. And if not, why should religion be different? I mean, does this scheme of essence and adjunct function anywhere else in our experience? Let us start first with the body. What do I absolutely need in order to live? Head and trunk pretty much suffice, and even the head’s eyes and ears are not strictly speaking imperative for survival. Limbs and higher senses can be dispensed with and a living, breathing organism will be left behind. Even those in a coma are still alive. And although such cases exist and we do our best to help them cope and continue to value their human dignity, no one will pretend that it is desirable to, so to speak, “get down to essentials” in our corporal existence. We instinctively know that that which does not belong necessarily to the body’s essence, does belong to its integrity. And we also sense that the latter exists for the sake of the former. Our limbs serve the seat of our vital organs (trunk and head) and not vice versa.

Next, in a somewhat different register, let us consider our bodily needs for food, clothing, shelter, fuel and transportation. The ‘essential’ here would be for material goods to simply circulate among us, providing everyone with what they need, when they need it and in a proportion that would allow others to also share equitably in the wealth. Utopian dreams of whatever stripe – fascist or communist, or even unbridled capitalist – offer wistful gazes at such a Shangri-La. However, adults among us will sigh and admit that history has shown, again and again, that we cannot keep those goods circulating over the long haul without some sort of currency, market system, varieties of shops, banks and even, regretfully, a degree of governmental control. In the political order, too, the ‘essential’ would be for us to live in harmony, arm-in-arm, doors unlocked, resolving all community questions through cheery referenda (with unanimous approval effortlessly forthcoming) – in short, a Pleasantville of insipid smiles. Again, we wrinkle our brow and admit that apart from a very few, short-lived communal experiments, we only get close to peace and prosperity through the agency of some variety of sovereign power, some degree of bureaucracy, and at least a few soldiers and policemen into the bargain. They may not be needed in the earthly paradises we dream of, but all the paradises hitherto rehearsed on earth have swiftly turned into nightmares. Our best shot is to minimize inevitable evils through our clumsy, fallible institutions–updating and reforming them as often as needed.

I think the reader can see where I’m going with this. As our limbs and higher senses emerge from our embryonic organism, serve and protect it, and lead it on its more promising adventures; and as economic institutions emerge from our need for goods and then, in turn, serve that need; and as political institutions emerge from our need for peace and order and then, in turn, serve that need; why would the relationship between spirituality and religion be any different? Both economic and political institutions, being living realities, grow; and what grows, can overgrow, and will need periodic pruning and reform to stay true to its original purpose. The great religions all began with great spirituality, someone’s singular encounter with transcendent reality (I am leaving for another post the question of what part of spiritual reality that might be, and why religions are so different), and this engendered a complex human reaction in the form of wisdom traditions and belief systems for the mind; moral guidelines for the will; and ritual and liturgy for our bodies. The institutions generated by an original spirituality will grow, and, like other institutions, at times overgrow, and also need pruning and reform.

In summary, spirituality is precisely what religion is all about, and religion, at its best, is the natural outgrowth and prolongation of tested spirituality, and serves to protect and guide it. Its institutions can be as bland and boring as financial transactions in economics, and congressional debates in political life, but without them, the goods stop flowing, public order breaks down, and the flame of spirituality soon blows out. Spirituality without religion may occasionally work for the few, but never for all; and even for those few, it will work only for a while, and sooner rather than later will lose its form. Alone, it will never build a civilization. And religion – for all of its excesses and corruptions – has not just been a prerequisite of civilization; it has been its only demonstrable cause.