Friday, October 13, 2023

The Technological Society and Its Presence

Tower of Babel - Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Technology is the great revolving door of Hope.

It could be argued that the characteristic of man that most distinguishes him from the rest of the animal kingdom is his capacity for technique, to build up a corpus of know-how and to put it to work. Where there exists the earliest evidence of human society there is likewise to be found artefacts of tools and of things made by tools, of technique. That techniques of agriculture, husbandry, textiles, pottery, medicine, and architecture have served to mitigate the vicissitudes of Nature, to carve out a more stable existence in which families and communities could prosper is undeniable.

In this context human progress can be thought of as the development of technique, the means to extend one’s power, to create more stability, more security for oneself. Yet, after several millennia of technical progress can we say that humanity is more stable or secure? At what point does the effort to create stability overreach, paradoxically degenerating into an accelerating loss of control? When does the servant that is technique transform itself into the master that is technology, the progressive liberator mutate into the coercive oppressor, the hope of man’s salvation descend into the imminent threat of our very extinction?


Civilisation as Tipping Point

Though man can expand his power by wielding technique, he also can easily have his agency stripped when technique is applied to him. This is the origin and essential function of civilization: the pacification and instrumental use of the individual by means of technique. Whereas in a primitive society Nature is a means for the ends of man, in a civilised society man is transformed into a means for the ends of the city. This is by and large an involuntary process. The city is established through militant conquest and economic coercion, based on recognition of and submission to authority. Furthermore, the city is maintained through the rule of law, a code of conduct whose purpose is to control human behaviour.

What civilization offers in exchange for the surrender of psychological independence and material autonomy is the promise of security. To be a citizen is to be passive and dependent on a system that assures basic physical needs will be accessible with minimal effort. Personally, the individual citizen is helpless to secure those needs for himself. Only by identifying with and supporting the collective goals of the city can the citizen exercise power, if only vicariously. So primitive man who lives authentically, literally “doing for himself”, is objectified by automation, a “self-thinking” system of imposed order as codified in law and statute. 

Mass Psychosis

To form a truly mass society requires an expansion of technique from mere physical coercion to complete psychological domination. Curbing the individual’s will to exercise his power is critical and can be described as the three “keys” of redirection, suppression, and elimination. Redirection is a way of reorienting pursuits and goals from that of the individual, family, or tribe towards that of the collective where one can identify with its striving and accomplishments.

A secondary form of redirection is providing access to proxy activities, non-vital interests that allow the pursuit of and achievement of artificial goals with some degree of independence. In both cases the principal resource for redirecting the masses is socialisation through public education. Thirteen to twenty or more years of public education is likewise an effective tool of instilling mass altruism, to pressure the individual to place the goals and interests of society, the “greater good”, above their own or that of their family.

These mechanisms largely succeed in compelling most individuals to heavily regulate their own desires and resulting behaviours but not without deleterious consequences. Just because material deprivation produces misery, it does not follow that abundance engenders happiness. Human contentment is primarily psychological. Therefore, when the individual will to exercise his power is obstructed, a plethora of mental pathologies begin to manifest including anxiety, depression, self-loathing, resentment, fetishes, etc. Those so afflicted, children included, are viewed as victims of a disease category to which a corresponding pharmaceutical remedy, with or without psychological therapy, is typically provided to suppress the will. When our tolerance for such coercion is exceeded, the cohesion of mass society is imperiled. Technology plays a vital role in expanding the individual’s tolerance for coercion thereby inviting technology’s continual augmentation.

Even so, there are those for which redirection and suppression are insufficient tools for curbing their will. They simply will not or cannot fully socialise. There are many techniques for eliminating such nonconformity from a mass society. Almost every function of individual human life is now subject to automation: food, clothes, shelter, medicine, education, governance, transportation to name a few whereas bureaucratic and legal codification make behaviours disruptive to these systems illegal. Mass societies have established very sophisticated institutions of judgement and incarceration to remove nonconformity from daily civilised life. Advanced techniques in genetic modification hold the promise of eliminating such tendencies in utero.

Our Plutonian World

It is not just man’s psychological state that is severely destabilised by mass society. Technology has likewise proven to be an unfolding ecological disaster, the greatest existential threat to life on earth. Our technology has far outpaced our common sense. Modern man has employed vastly improved means to a increasingly dead end. Such applied science is immensely powerful. However, humans have proven themselves just as incapable of wielding it as they are capable of generating such power. So, although science is not an inherent evil, in a technological society it inevitably becomes an inescapable, manifest evil. Humanity’s former threats were natural. Although technology partially or temporarily mitigates these, in exchange it inundates us with pollution, radiation, and environmental devastation that are both imposed and inescapable.

So it is that the sum total of man’s collective energies is now directed towards extracting all the wealth of the earth, buried deep underground, with great suffering raising it to the surface so as to reform his existence as a Hell on Earth. In the frenzy, individuality is thereby destroyed, supplanted by two antagonistic groups: those who seek to hoard and conserve against those determined to consume with reckless abandon. This is nothing other than the fourth circle of Hell as described by Dante.

The hoarders and wasters - Gustave Doré

Revolution, Reformation, Reification

Our bureaucratic, industrial, technological society is irreformable. I would go a step further by claiming that it is now impossible for us to revolt against it. Our servile relation to the State, the multinational corporation, to artificial intelligence is sublime, one of reverential awe before unspeakable power. Under the encroaching shadow of total technological domination, man is awestruck, hoping for mercy whilst prostrating himself before technological progress in an act of fealty and faith.

Furthermore, revolutions are founded upon the burning passions of hope and hatred whereas reformations are cobbled together with their pathetic shadows of resignation and apathy. A reform movement will update certain codes or replace certain men in power whilst a revolutionary one seeks to overthrow the system of power itself. Reform dominates as almost all men desire to maintain power. There has never been a successful revolution against civilisation, only a series of reformations that have augmented it into the global technological society that now exists.

So, a defensive posture is assumed with regards to our technological society, for what remedy can there possibly be for the blunders of technology but further investments in technology? It engenders an unfounded optimism where humanity willingly chooses to maintain hope, faith, and belief in the very systems one should mistrust, challenge, and resist.

Humanity thus appears trapped, shackled to the Technology Society and its enduring Presence, presence being an experience of time that is neither wholly present nor future, rather the idea that the present reality will extend in time, things will not really change but instead reify, become even more of the same, intractable, unchangeable, eternal. A claustrophobia in time rather than space.


The Technological Society and Its Absence

Lethe - the river of forgetfulness
Our technological society is a work of endarkening.

Only by obscuring the past can you possibly imagine that you are heading into a bright future. We exist in this society that aches and strives to forget; such periods are always later looked upon as Dark Ages. What we loosely call Western culture, what is now in fact a global technological society, is no culture at all. It is a monstrous, mechanical thing, tied to no place, antithetical to life.

For primitive man, reason and rationality are just tools in service to a higher purpose. For the enlightened man, the industrial man, the technological man reason is his Alpha and rationality his Omega. They constitute the limits of his world. Yet, it is impossible to fully construct ourselves in the image that our reason posits we should be. Totalitarianism fails internally let alone from the outside. The self rebels as we are primarily willful creatures so that any attempt to construct a wholly rational society inevitably disintegrates into chaos. Cities, nations, corporations, they are all an affront to the natural order; we’re incapable of making them sustainable.

Mankind has become demented, in the literal sense that in his fixation on reason and technology he’s forgetting everything of real importance. The alternative is by no means an eutopia; nevertheless, it may be just possible for mankind to heal, to fill the gaping void that will be left by the technological society’s inevitable absence. An opportunity to quiet the intellect and listen attentively to the soul, to the will…to remember.


Contributed by Patrick Webb


Tuesday, May 23, 2023

The Matter of Gothic

Winchester Cathedral
This essay intends to complete a tripartite overview of the underlying principles of Gothic architecture. The first, The Spirit of Gothic, contemplated various aspects of its beauty and sublimity, the animating principle that draws us in and leaves us in awe. This was followed by The Form of Gothic, exploring the organising principle that makes the Gothic so uniquely identifiable. However, what remains to articulate is the generating principle, a consideration of the material, the very stuff the Gothic is made of. First and foremost, Gothic is an architecture of self-supporting masonry, typically stone. Nevertheless, other materials such as timber, metal, and glass have their secondary application. As construction and articulation ought to vary with the material employed we'll explore how all of these take the best advantage of their respective physical properties in turn.


Freiburg Minster
Gothic is above all an architecture conceived and articulated in stone, taking full advantage of its properties, most notably its incredible compressive strength, density and weight. In elevation, buttressed walls with large openings are in fact stronger than solid ones and the buttresses diminish in projection corresponding to their height. Flying buttresses are the greatest visual example of this, revealing in their construction the lines of force, as the gravitational thrust of the roof is directed through the masonry to the foundations and earth below.

Amiens Cathedral
In the interior of the monumental great cathedrals, further support for the ceiling is provided from clustered piers which are composed of multiple colonnettes rather than an colossal column so as to maintain an human proportion with the increase of scale. Ribs spring from the caps of the colonnettes as well as the corbels integrated into the buttressed walls, meeting at a boss acting as a keystone at the centres of the pointed groin vaulting. The spandrels between the ribs can be made of a thin layer of stone to complete the ceiling as they support no structural load. A combination of all of these methods permit the walls to be pushed higher even while being opened up.

Spires and pinnacles are similarly composed at different scales. The tower and turret respectively are square in plan and each is covered with a pyramid structure to shelter it from the elements. Spires serve a religious function, towers for the ringing of bells whereas the more diminutive pinnacles add critical weight to further stabalise the buttresses precisely where it is required.

Burgos Cathedral


Notre Dame de Paris

As one might expect, carpentry played a major role even in the predominantly masonry construction of Gothic architecture. Aside from the supportive role of such equipment as scaffolding, workbenches, and various tools an indispensable use of timber framing was to build the centering for arches and vaults, acting as temporary supports until the masonry was completed. A permanent application of timber framing is the hidden thought highly complex structural support for the roof that protects the vulnerable stone ceilings from the elements. 

Not all Gothic carpentry work is temporary or hidden from view. Elements such as doors, pulpits, and screens are typically made of wood. In domestic architecture the use of highly ornamental barge boards are used to protect the gable ends of buildings from water intrusion whereas in small churches, collegiate, and civic architecture it is more common to encounter splendid timber ceilings that look entirely differently than stone owing to the high tensile strength of wood as a material.

St Agnes Church, Cawston

Metal and Glass

Aside from the masons and timber framers, perhaps the next most important craft of Gothic architecture is plumbing, referring to the craftsmen who work with plumbum, or lead. Lead was used extensively as a means of protection from water intrusion including gutters and downspouts, flashing, and especially the incredibly durable lead roofs, some of which have lasted for centuries with minimal maintenance. 

Ely Cathedral

Wrought iron is another metal that finds extensive uses for hinges and other types of door and window hardware. It likewise features prominently in screens and stairs, the combination of strength and malleability of iron as a material allowing almost unrestricted ornamental expression.

"Love" by Philip Webb
Of course Gothic architecture is intimately associated with the light that its construction permitted to penetrate the building. Gothic windows, with their thousands of panes be they clear, stained, or coloured is a signature feature of the style. I'll leave you with an humble example, one of my favourites from a little Red House in Bexleyheath.

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Thursday, May 18, 2023

The Classical versus the Gothic

L’église Saint-Eustache, Paris
The typical narrative regarding the origins of Gothic architecture is that it was an evolution of the Romanesque, itself a debased form of Roman Classicism. There is undoubtedly a measure of truth to this description as we can readily verify that much detailed Classical architectural understanding was lost during the Early Mediæval period whilst a measure of knowledge of means and methods did indeed pass through the Romanesque into the Gothic era. That being admitted, what is often overlooked or at least not fully accredited is the incredible architectural innovation of the Gothic period.

Despite a few interesting attempts to merge them towards the end of the period, Gothic architecture was decidedly not a derivative variant of the Classical at all as it was founded on entirely unique principles that the following quick comparison will well illustrate.

Adaptation vs. Innovation

The monumental Classical* as we've come to best know it proceeds from the Renaissance essentially having adapted two forms: the Roman basilica and the Roman temple, the respective seats of temporal and eternal power (although such civic architecture as theatres, colossae, triumphal arches, etc. have contributed their minor influences). Initially, it was the basilica form that was Christianised in the Constantinian, late Roman Empire period for the seats of the bisphoric, in many cases constructing new prominent churches whose bishop physically occupied the tribunal-converted-to-altar, wielding much of the temporal power formerly pertaining to the magistrates, a secular architecture consisting of a large rectangular nave and side aisles adapted to religious, Christian use.

By far the most adapted Roman form during and subsequent to the Renaissance was the Roman temple. A few notable temples were refashioned and dedicated to Christian use already in antiquity. However, Christian religious service differed considerably from that of the pagan Romans whose interiors were reserved for the exclusive use of the priests. Interiors were comparatively small and devoid of light, thus being of ill use for a congregation and Christian services. Nevertheless, by modifying a basilica plan with a temple façade this modified Roman temple/basilica hybrid became the dominant building type for ecclesiastical, civic, university, and eventually commercial architecture.

La Maison Carrée, Nimes

By contrast, the Gothic was not an adapted architecture of Roman types. Many parish churches and especially cathedrals were almost exclusively laid out according to a cruciform plan. Likewise, the chapels, ambulatories, and choirs typical of these houses of worship were bespoke, the function of these spaces integral to the floor plan from which the walls and roof would unfold so that the elevations were adapted to the function of the cathedral, not the other way around as was typical of Neoclassical architecture. The same general principle permeated the design of collegiate, civic, and the manor houses of the Gothic period. 

Wood vs. Stone

Although lost to antiquity, the origin of Classical architecture is almost assuredly timber and earth. Due to the fugitive nature of the materials, none of the ancient buildings of the Greeks and Etruscans, (from which the Romans derived much of their own architecture), remain to us. What does remain are many of the later stone temples that emulate expressively the original joists, rafters and other construction components in stone. A common feature is the pseudoperipteral pilastres or engaged columns of many Neoclassical monumental buildings that serve no structural purpose whatsoever. This was a characteristic dating back to Roman architecture such as the 1st century La Maison Carrée pictured above. Romans did make efforts through the use of arches and vaults to take advantage of the inherent property of stone that it is very strong in compression.

However, Gothic buildings for the elevations originated as a construction that fully took advantage of the compressive strength of stone. The characteristic pointed and lancet arches are far more effective for distributing lateral forces to the ground and taking pressure off the supporting walls. Groin vaulting based on the same principles directed all gravitational force along the length of the ribs in compression through columns directly to the ground. Combined with a system of buttresses and pinnacles Gothic architecture was able to reach unfathomable elevations and open up the interior as the walls had only to support their own weight. Gothic represents the very nadir of monolithic stone masonry.

Cologne Cathedral

Horizontal vs. Vertical

L' église Saint-Gervais

The Parthenon is undoubtedly the example par excellence of Classical architecture. Despite the fact that its cella is surrounded with a forest of vertical Doric columns the comparatively low width to height ratio, the low pitched roof, and large entablature establish it to the eye as a predominantly horizontal architecture. This is characteristic of Classical architecture in general. There are only a couple of design moves that can be utilised to give it a more vertical character and they come with aesthetic consequences. The first of these is superposition, hierarchically stacking one order of architecture over another, typically from the Tuscan or Doric ascending to the Corinthian order. The difficulty is always the same, each order is terminated with an entablature, reasserting the horizontal appearance of the building even for façades that are overall very vertical in their orientation.

In the Gothic, even for rather low buildings such as dormitories for monasteries and abbeys the vertical character of the design is maintained, restricting the entablatures, string courses, and drip moulds to an appropriate size needed to protect the façade from erosion. Likewise the true sources of structural support such as the buttresses and pinnacles are enriched and celebrated rather than standardised or hidden.

Mosteiro Da Batalha

Magnification vs. Multiplication

St Mel's Cathedral, Longford
Alternative tools for Neoclassical monumental verticality are colossal orders of architecture and towers. Because the Classical orders strictly adhere to a fixed proportional relationship of the various elements, creating tall colonnades and porticoes is a simple matter of magnifying those elements. Towers for Neoclassical buildings always present a challenge. Either they are placed in front of the building or are placed further back, over the crossing.

Gothic structures on the other hand maintain the human scale for even very large and high piers by subdividing them with colonettes either in compound or clustered arrangement. These are placed so as to align with and receive the thrust of the ribs holding up the vaults. Gothic towers may be found either over the crossing or at one side or more often in pairs flanking the façade. Unless left uncompleted, Gothic towers are always intended to receive a spire.

There are many other differing details that could be elaborated upon such as the rather low pitch of Classical roofs compared to the typical steepness of Gothic roofs, the tendency for large constructive elements in monumental Classical structures in contrast to the composition of Gothic buildings from smaller ones, the proportionally smaller windows in Classical buildings in comparision to Gothic examples which are almost always splayed inside and out. The point is not to pit these incredible traditions against each other, rather to recognise that they have different origins and are perhaps best suited to certain climates and for their own purposes.

*I use the term 'Neoclassical' to architecture in the Classical styles including and proceeding from its revival in the Renaissance

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

The Longleaf Laureate of Loneliness

There are only two appropriate themes for poetry worthy of the name: tragedy and love. Of these two, tragedy is the more noble; however, its characteristic sense of loss can be overwhelming, so that an admixture of love can contribute a redemptive quality that grants tragedy the right to ascend from mere despair to something we may actually wish to recall, a dreamlike nostalgia, a bruise we must rub, extracting some small measure of pleasure from all our injury and hurt. 

Singer-songwriter Abigail Dowd is that kind of poet. When she sings of a beautiful day outside, she hasn't forgotten the shadows that remain within; the metaphorical imagery of reaching for the light and retreating to the darkness pervade her lyrics. Does one emerge to shine like a diamond, or retreat into the shadows to be left alone like a miner in the dark? No easy answers are forthcoming; it's left ambiguous as to which is preferable. 

In One Moment at a Time she initially comforts us that, "we are all one, together in this life" but it rings hollow, fails to convince as she continues on to describe a moment of complete existential crisis where there is a lack of place from the past, meaning in the present, and purpose for the future, where we are bound in and to time, leaving the listener with the impression that perhaps indeed, upon a good hard look, we are after all alone in this life.

Similarly Apple Trees offers an initial hope that love forms the greatest of bonds with the power to dispel the loneliness. Yet, its double edge is revealed as we're soon reminded that it likewise holds the risk of an even greater loss, that the warmth love provides can turn into a frigidity of solitude that can taint or even repaint the past, can make one question if that love was a mere illusion, a parlor trick of a desperate longing, that one was in fact alone all along.

Yet somehow there is a strong thread of redemption woven throughout her stories. That even in the depths of loneliness, the sympathy expressed in poetic verse recommends to us that perhaps we are not entirely alone after all, that someone understands, at the very least Abigail understands. Moreover, despite all the lament of loneliness there is a concurrent theme of the need for freedom, to strike out on one's own, to voluntarily take up the lonesome road. I think this is a sentiment quite familiar to all artists. Great art is made in solitary confinement, one has need to be alone with one's thoughts and feelings, to cradle that solitude in one's loving embrace, to seek higher ground from the flood of noise that threatens to carry away the monuments of human culture, the poetic foundation of language itself, the river of Lethe that would wash away any and everything worthy of remembrance in this world.


Contributed by Patrick Webb

Saturday, April 8, 2023

Beauty is an Apokalypsis


The revelation both emerges and is perceived by a poetic frame of consciousness.

In 1453, towards the East, a disaster befell Christianity, really humanity at large. Meanwhile in the West a Renaissance was occurring. But a rebirth of what?

We call it Humanism

That’s not an inaccurate name because in fact it was a rejection of revelation, of the wisdom and works of God as uncovered, revealed to man in favour of man placing himself as the centrepiece of an immanent paradise.

Humanism’s initial focus was on Beauty, the animating principle of the world, that which draws, attracts, motivates. It took the transcendental Beauty of nature and fashioned it into artefacts of man producing undeniable results, great cities, eternal cities even…or so we like to think. A rejection of the Holy Spirit in favour of the Zeitgeist, the Spirit of the Age, the Spirit of Man.

Enlightened Truth and an Awakening to the Good

There would be progress. The transcendental Truth of revelation would be supplanted by immanent Truth. Man would find his own way led by his own lights, humanity enlightened by the brilliance of a thousand sons but not sons of God. They would come to know a new Truth but has that Truth set us free?

Such an Enlightenment was just a precondition. The purpose of light is to awaken, to awaken to the Good. And who has become the arbiter of what is Good? Man seeks to become his own father, the centrepiece of his own divine garden, the very tree or source of the knowledge of good and evil. This is our present circumstance. The Good, the True, the Beautiful as determined by man, immanent in the world. However, allow me to digress, concluding with the subject of Beauty.

The Divine Revelation

The very architecture of this former cathedral, now mosque is what we call Beautiful. The iconography that is filling it up is yet a further act of Beautification. Not because it is particularly Beautiful in and of itself. I think it can scarcely compete with a weed, a dandelion outside that we might carelessly trample underfoot. No, it is because it points towards a greater reality, that which is irreducible in human experience, that which forms the basis of our definitions and to which none of our definitions are applicable. 

Beauty is but the Truth of the Good spoken to humanity in our native tongue. Beauty is a revelation. Beauty is the gift of God.


Contributed by Patrick Webb

Saturday, April 24, 2021

The Status of the Traditional Craftsman

By any conceivable measure, low. Often young people who are trying to figure out their life will ask me if traditional craft might be a viable path for them. My response is basically as follows: if social status is important to your sense of identity, don't walk away from pursuing and never look back. 

There are a few diminished, crumbling legacy infrastructures in place for learning craft sporadically limping along around the globe. Nowadays these typically function as half way houses for wayward youths. However, for most folks pursuing a life as a traditional craftsman there is no support, it's by and large a self-directed process. Obviously, there is very little in the way of a traditional craft culture remaining in the modern, industrialised world. This was certainly my experience in learning traditional plasterwork. Years of experimentation, trips at great expense to the UK, France, Italy, Morocco to try an pick up dribs and drabs of knowledge from folks who are struggling for their own existence and only half-willing to tolerate your presence. Why should they share anything with you, their hard earned pearls before swine? Not exactly a recipe for the next Michelangelo.

Then there is the architectural side of things. Once again, plan on doing the heavy lifting yourself, pouring over old out-of-print books, learning the geometry inside and out that gives form to your material. Don't count on any support from the architectural establishment or academia. There is an hierarchy in place and you'll always be at the bottom of it. It's not personal, actually you're not thought of in terms of an individual at all. One must understand that a traditional craftsman is not a professional. They're literally unentitled. Most lack an university education and if they do well, it's even worse. Fools. What a waste. So it's now standard practise that craftsmen are expected to sign non-disclosure agreements having the work of their hands be the intellectual property of others whilst the professionals get to appropriate and display said "work" as their own.

Yes, I've heard the arguments that some craftsmen earn a better living than some college educated folks. First, this is mostly bollocks. Typically one can work for low to mediocre wages for a semi-industrialised craft business. True enough, the owner of that business, who more likely than not knows nothing about the craft, never getting his hands dirty, might be making good money and getting awards, praise, and respect. The craftman doing the work? Not so much. Alternatively, the independent path of "the man in the van" isn't better off. He either has to have the entire infrastructure of a large business to function (insurances, incorporation, licensing, accountants, etc.) or he is by legal definition a criminal living an off-the-books, black market life.

So if you're a young person that is really into craft but social status is also very important to you I would suggest you pursue a path of being a traditional architect, preservation technologist, or if you're entrepreneurial, ambitious, and have access to capital maybe even buy a craft-like business in the manufacturing industry. You can make some good money and will have an identity in society that is respectable while fulfilling your craft fetish. Win win. However, if you're very good at math, dexterous, anti-social, value your independence, not giving two shits about what other people think then perhaps you can join the counter-culture, throw your life away into the decades-long process of mastering a traditional craft. Heaven knows there are plenty of spaces open.

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

The Problem of Universals


Abraham Janssens - Heraclitus
Our consideration thus far of the philosophical conceptions of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness have taken us from Ancient and Classical Greece, through the period of the Roman Empire, culminating in the triumph of Christianity in the Middle Ages with significant intellectual contributions along the way from Judaic and Islamic thought. Among the many approaches to philosophy there existed a widespread commitment to the idea that in spite of an apparent world of constant change, a closer examination reveals that the universe reflected order and purpose which might even be accessible to human reason. The search for an underlying unity and permanence came to dominate the aims of Western philosophy. This essay serves as a of summation of what we have heretofore discussed by considering a philosophical difficulty that became insurmountable towards the close of the Medieval period: the Problem of Universals. The attempted reconciliation by the Greeks of order and chaos, form and matter, the one and the many was fraught with challenges from the very beginning. The incorporation of Greek philosophy into Christianity offered solutions to some problems yet raised further difficulties. Ultimately, the uneasy synthesis tightly woven over the course of two millennia began to loosen and unravel in the 14th century, making way for a very different, scientific world view to supplant the vision of a purposeful universe.

Forms and Universals

Leonidas Drosis - Plato
The early Greek philosopher Heraclitus observed that though the material world was in an apparent state of constant strife, closer examination revealed that this was subsumed under a greater uniting intelligence he called the Logos. Alternatively, his near contemporary Parmenides held real being as a static and unchanging One while describing the world of sense as mere illusion. In response, Plato's great intellectual synthesis of earlier Greek philosophy resulted in his theory of the Forms: eternal, stable objects of the intuitive intelligence, the ideal as real being. Plato offered a hypothesis that man is animated by a rational soul that enjoyed a prior existence in the realm of the Forms and that his intellect properly directed empowers him to recognise the Forms in which sensible material things participate such as absolute truth, beauty, goodness, and other moral and aesthetic "transcendentals". Plato later extended his Forms to sensible qualities and particular objects so that the red of a rose might be said to imitate the Form of "redness" or dear old Socrates might participate in the Form of "man". What distinguished Plato's Forms from their temporal manifestations in sensible things was their incorporeal, eternal, completely independent reality that was fixed as perfect exemplars, never to change or perish.

Nevertheless, how does our material world result from a realm of transcendent, unchanging Forms? It's one thing to furnish an explanation for the patterns that we seem to recognise in nature but the Forms as described don't actually do anything. Plato's theory lacked an efficient cause of how material things came to resemble them. For this he resorted to a creation story of how a god-like being he called the Demiurge applied the order inherent in the Forms to pre-exisitng matter, at least to the extent that matter would imperfectly receive them. Yet such a myth is obviously a stand in for an unsolved difficulty in Plato's theory. Keenly aware of the problem, Plato's long time student Aristotle strove to reformulate his master's theory. 

Aristotle placed more emphasis than Plato on what Aristotle called the Physics: the study of our material world of sensible particulars subject to movement and change. However, he likewise profoundly addressed and critiqued Plato's theory of Forms in his pursuit of the Metaphysics: the study of unchanging substances that are insensible and eternal. Unlike Plato, Aristotle contended that we have no innate knowledge of transcendental Forms from a previous existence. Neither would Aristotle hold that things of this world imitate or participate in Forms located in some incorporeal realm; rather, they're right here with us, tied up in all of matter. In what he defined as a species, what we recognise is similarity across many individuals. This likeness is explained as due to our apprehension that there is a form that organises each species into what he calls the substantial form. Whereas the substantial form is essential to the species (that which enables us to define it), Aristotle accounts for subtle differences among the individuals of a species by non-essential, accidental forms such as size (quantity) and color (quality). 

Aristotle had an empirical leaning; he held that our entryway to knowledge of the world necessarily must begin in sense experience. Nevertheless, Aristotle contended that sense could never on its own lead to apprehension of the forms in things. Rather, it is our faculty of intellect that can reflect on the similarities we see across many particular things and abstract out of them an unchanging, organising principle. This intellectual abstraction of the form takes place only in the mind whereas the form itself remains "immanent", that is to say it never exists apart from the substance it informs. The abstracted form recoginised by the intellect Aristotle calls a Universal. Although we're obligated to abstract Universals from particular things, it is really the Universals, the formal aspect of existence that informs all of matter, generating the world of sense. However, are all of these Universals really there, tied up with the matter of particular substances? How can we be sure they're just not concepts we've made up in our head? And what of truth, beauty, goodness, and other of Plato's transcendental Forms which seem by Aristotle to be more descriptive of rational relations rather than pertaining to sensible substances?

The Neoplatonic and Christian Syntheses

To synthesise means quite literally to "place together" which is precisely what began to occur over time with Plato's theory of Forms and Aristotle's theory of Universals. One such notable philosophical synthesiser was Plotinus who presented a concept of God as a complete Unity, the One, and Source that transcends all contingent being of which we have experience. As such he claimed that there is no basis for abstraction from experience in which to form a concept of God. What appear at first as positive descriptions are nothing more than negations: God is invisible (not visible), infinite (not finite), immobile (not moving), incomprehensible (not understandable). Sure, we can say that God is The Good; however, not as a quality like things of our experience might possess, rather a necessary aspect of His essence. Yet again, that transcends our experience so to say that God is The Good is to say that we don't fully understand what He is and must resort to analogies.

As an explanation of how such a transcendent God can effect change without Himself changing, Plotinus offered the theory of emanation. He utilised the analogies of the sun giving light and heat whilst it remains unchanged or alternatively how a mirror may provide a reflected image without the source undergoing change to illustrate how the divine intelligence is like a shining forth or a reflection, the first direct emanation of God. Plotinus called this divine intelligence Nous and says that within it are contained all of the Forms as previously described by Plato. In the next stage of emanation, from Nous comes forth the World-Soul. In its higher aspect the World-Soul accepts the Forms from Nous whilst in its lower aspect it uses the Forms to animate pre-existent matter thus producing the cosmos. This Neoplatonist model preserves the Forms of Plato that exist apart in a transcendental realm, although it moves them from an independent existence into Ideas of the divine intelligence, Nous. Nevertheless, his description of the Forms is quite reminiscent of Aristotle's Universals since in our world of experience the Forms are always immanent, tied up in matter. Furthermore, in Plotinus' emanation model, matter has a more active role; the privation of Form accounts at least in part for the individual differences across an informed species.

Saint Augustine was well acquainted with the teachings of Plotinus and extended the synthesis by incorporating Neoplatonist concepts into Christian theology. Augustine eliminated the intermediary being of Nous and posited the eternal Forms as Ideas directly in the mind of God. He pointed out obstacles to the unaided human intellect's ability to abstract eternal Forms from nature as both the human mind and the world of experience were in constant states of flux. Augustine uses the metaphor of divine illumination to explain how God enlightens the human intellect so that it can exercise its capacity to see the Forms or Ideas reflected in contingent creation and more importantly to assent to eternal truths including the necessary existence of God.

The greatest synthesis of Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy (both with each other and additionally with Christian theology) must be credited to Saint Thomas Aquinas. In accord with the Platonic and Augustinian tradition, Aquinas affirms that the eternal Forms exist as exemplary Ideas in the mind of God, hence humans can come to know of the Ideas by divine illumination. However, he also asserts that the human intellect, while it does not have innate ideas from a former existence, is nevertheless made in the image of God and thus has an inherent capacity, a disposition towards rationality that can reveal at least some archetypal Ideas.

Following Aristotle, Aquinas proposed that corporeal things are a proper object of the human intellect. Such corporeal things are composed of substantial form and sensible matter. The form in things have their origin in the Ideas of God as does matter itself, form and matter coming into existence together as substance in an act of creation. The form is the Universal element, what constitutes the species, apprehended by the intellect whereas matter is apprehended by the senses, including the "common" sense that presents a unified perception to the intellect. For Aquinas, Universals certainly exist as concepts in the divine intellect, likewise being accessible by abstraction to the human mind. Nevertheless, whereas the substantial form retains this universal character in being shared across a given species, the matter component by contrast becomes designated by God, serving as the principle of individuation. As for unity, goodness, and truth, Aquinas maintained these as transcendental properties of being itself, manifest across all species and genera. Beauty, often referred to as a lost transcendental, although highly regarded by Aquinas didn't seem explicitly to make the transcendental cut.

The Medieval Breakdown

Perhaps due to Aristotle's original framing utlising species and genera, the clear outline of the problem of Universals may seem obscure. Fundamentally the question boils down to this: Is there anything in extra-mental reality that corresponds to our concepts? I think we'd like to believe that there is some basis for the commonalities that we encounter in experience beyond our minds inventing connections that are not really there. For example, when physicists and chemists explore the "genera" of atoms or choose to focus on the "species" of carbon or hydrogen, they of course don't examine each and every atom individually. They analyse a representative sample, abstracting properties from which they assume a common behaviour. Without at least a provisional acceptance of a common nature, that is to say a distributed necessity or physical determinism, empirical science would be impossible.

Nevertheless, certain problems with the conception of Universals as described by Aristotle were already recognised by the Neoplatonist philosopher Porphyry: "I shall omit to speak about genera and species, as to whether they subsist (in the nature of things) or in mere conceptions only; whether also if subsistent, they are bodies or incorporeal, and whether they are separate from, or in, sensibles, and subsist about these". The above might be restated as follows:

Are Universals merely concepts of the human mind or are they also subsistent entities, are they "real"?

Assuming they are real:

Are Universals corporeal or incorporeal?

Are Universals immanent in sensible things or are they transcendent?

Although Porphyry does a good job of outlining the problem of Universals he begs off addressing it. That task would be taken up a couple of centuries later by Boethius, an early Medieval Christian philosopher who was writing commentaries on both Aristotle and Porphyry. Boethius laid out an argument supporting that Universals were clearly concepts of the human mind yet at the same time maintain a reference to something extra-mentally. By his account, the mind can decompose or abstract form from matter conceptually although they are always found together "substantially" among individuals in nature. This would accord with Aristotle's view that Universals such as species and genera are immanent in sensible things. Moreover, the way in which Universals are conceived by the intellect are without bodies, incorporeally.

In the centuries following Boethius, the problem of Universals as presented by Porphyry was not seriously addressed. The general current of philosophical thought held to a Platonic-inspired Augustinian "exaggerated" realism of Forms, that they were at once perfect Ideas in the mind of God, reflected in the creation. For centuries Christian theologians expanded upon this model, maintaining that members of a species and genera were essentially the same, creative expressions of the divine Ideas only differing by privation of form, materially, or by some accidental qualities. However, in the High Medieval period there is a renewed distribution and interest in the philosophy of Aristotle and correspondingly a reemergence of the problem of Universals in the subsequent Late Medieval period that presented conflicts with the long synthesis of Greek metaphysics with Christian theology. 

There arose at this moment a growing tension between the omniscience and omnipotence of God, between the logical necessity of the intellect and the freedom of the will. The Franciscan Duns Scotus took exception to his interpretation of Thomas Aquinas or at least certain "Thomists", seeing a two-fold problem with the assertion that matter was the basis of individuality. First, God himself was immaterial thus what was the basis for His individuality? Secondly, if individuality is tied up with matter which does not survive the dissolution of the body at death, it would appear that there is only left the universal form of the species, no individual soul that might enjoy life after death. Scotus wanted to place greater emphasis on the unlimited will of God by saying that creation was not determined or limited by the Ideas in the divine intellect, rather was wholly contingent on God's act of will. In so doing, he posited that in addition to matter and a common nature of the species there must be an individualising form, what he calls a "thisness" that is included in God's act of creation. As such, God is an individual who creates individuals that he knows directly, thus at once safeguarding God's freedom of will and the possibility of life after death according to Christian doctrine.

We finally turn our attention to William of Ockham who on the one hand followed Duns Scotus in asserting the primacy of the will of God yet entirely rejects the Greek metaphysical framework of Forms and Universals. Ockham was an incredible logician who paid considerable more attention than his predecessors in how we use language, ever mindful of the danger of subtle equivocations. Below are a few important technical terms that arise in his logic:

signification - a term that refers to something particular, definite; e.g. "man"

supposition - a term that already has its signification and "stands for" something definite in a proposition; e.g. "man is mortal"

categorematic - a term that has self standing meaning; e.g. "man"

syncategorematic - a term that stands in relation to categorematic terms; e.g. "every" man

absolute - a term that refers to something particular, definite without reference to any other thing; e.g. "man"

connotative - a term that refers to something only with reference to something else; e.g. "father" 

conventional sign - a term written, spoken or otherwise that is arbitrary; e.g. "man" (English), "homme" French

natural sign - the logical significance of the term, the meaning, the reference

first intention - a sign standing for something that is not itself a sign, has direct reference; e.g. "man is mortal"

second intention - a sign standing for something that is a sign, stands for class names e.g. "species is a subdivision of genera"

universal - a term that signifies individual things and stands for them in a proposition

Thomas Aquinas and other scholastic philosophers had held that the similarity we find among particular things is owing to the Universal forms that bind them in the creation derived from the divine Ideas in the mind of God. William of Ockham rejected this entirely insisting that there are neither universals before things (Forms/Ideas) nor are they immanent in things (Universals), rather they are only intellectual concepts that we form after the perceived similarities we make by observing things. It's only these individual things that exist in reality. Therefore, when we use universal terms they have no corresponding reference to an universal reality. Moreover, Ockham eventually arrives to the conclusion that we don't even hold universal concepts in the mind. Instead, the universal is nothing more than the very act of referring, pointing to individual things in reality. Universals are fictions in the literal sense of something "made", subjective and psychological; Universals are not things in themselves, simply the mind at work in an act of referential understanding. Ockham stresses that when we find "agreement" between our concepts and extra-mental reality we must me careful not to equivocate. Such particulars only agree in that they "resemble" not that they "share" in some universal essence. Rather than a common nature there are a number of individual natures that appear similar.

For two millennia, from the dawn of Ancient Greek philosophy through the Late Medieval period we've been discussing, the prevailing scientific approach in Western civilisation which had been grounded in a formal, teleological perspective. The basis for the order of the cosmos lay in eternal Forms as described by Plato or the divine Ideas in the intelligence of God as converted by Neoplatonists and adopted into Christianity. Likewise, due to these Forms or Ideas the universe was conceived as coherent and purposeful, literally "one turn" of the divine compass. Created things were organised by their specific Form to fulfill their proximate "telos" or end. All things in turn were woven into a greater tapestry to serve the ultimate end, God. However, Ockham's critique was the beginning of the decline of the dominance of this teleological perspective. The formal and final causal arguments were undermined of their explanatory support for how things are in reality and reduced to something akin to anthropological psychology; metaphysics amounts to little more than talking about how certain humans conceive their reality rather than reality as it is. Of Aristotle's four causes only material and efficient causes remain, opening the door for the rise of an empirical, mechanistic science of matter and motion.

The next time I pick up the series we'll be inhabiting a new frontier where philosophy has experienced a rift with theology and finds itself in tension with the emerging mechanistic science. It will be interesting to explore the morphing conceptions of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness as philosophers transition toward the modern age.


Contributed by Patrick Webb