Word and reality

In my discussion of Edward Feser’s The Last Superstition I commented that “functional pattern” (my usual term) seems to cover the same ground as Thomistic “formal cause” and “final cause” taken together. In each case the point is to describe the thing missing in modern thought that makes it go haywire, most strikingly in connection with human affairs. If you’ve only got material and efficient cause, or atoms and the void, you can’t talk about how things work (functional pattern) or what they’re about (final cause). You’re not going to get anywhere.

An advantage of my term, I think, is that it sounds more modern and scientific, so people are more likely to understand the thought it represents. The more the merrier, though: a posting by James Matthew Wilson at Front Porch Republic suggests still another term, “story.”

He begins:

Here is something for you that no one will dispute: all complaints about modernity, including those that fit under the rubric of “conservative,” are arguments about stories. Much more than mere competing narratives that attempt to describe the modern world, these complaints are essentially arguments in defense of story itself.

(Later he asserts a close connection between story and Thomistic final cause, or teleology.)

The word “story” has some advantages—it connects to various artistic, literary and theological discussions—but it’s hard to keep it from sounding irremediably subjective, man-made, and manipulable. It’s true we are able to talk about things and deal with them only because they’re part of an interconnected process, which means they’re part of a story. On the other hand, a thing isn’t reducible without remainder to the processes in which it participates. So when reason deals with the thing it has to go beyond story. Or so it would seem.

Maybe in some cases—when you’re talking about God—you want to make the point that ultimate reality is personal. In that case you might want to claim that “story,” when it’s the divine story, is ultimate reality and not subjective at all. Presumably, though, the divine story has the same relation to our stories that the divine wisdom has to our wisdom: similar enough to justify use of the same word, but radically different for all that.

I’m not sure where Christopher Alexander’s “living order” fits into all this. The term works well for architecture, to my mind better than the others. “Final cause” and “functional pattern” make it sound like you’re emphasizing the relation between design and use, while “story” makes it sound like you’re talking about how the building got built. Both seem to leave out the architecture. Maybe that’s why Clive Bell was so disgusted by art that “told stories,” and like Christopher Alexander preferred vernacular (or “Primitive”) art, which tends toward the impersonal and nonrepresentational.

Alexander seems something of a Taoist, so it makes sense that his term “living order” would downplay purpose. On the other hand living systems are certainly functional, and Feser insists that you need final as well as formal cause to discuss them. And you can talk about how a visual design “works.”

Dunno how all this sorts out. What’s the connection between utility, which has to do with purpose, and beauty, which doesn’t seem to? Between story, which is temporal, and visual design, which is spatial? What if anything do Taoists think about final cause? Very likely I have to expand my conception of all these basic categories. So call this a work in progress.

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