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Knowing essentials.

We often use phrases like, "knowing the essence of a thing" or "getting to the essence of a thing," but such expressions may be misleading and may provoke unfortunate epistemological problems. They suggest that we somehow extract an essence from the thing and make it, like a new thing, the target of our knowledge. They suggest a kind of vision, acquisition, or possession of the essence itself. If we have such a picture in mind when we speak of knowing an essence, many problems ensue that make us skeptical about ever having such knowledge. We begin to ask how we manage to extract this essence, what sort of intuition or vision is involved, whether the grasp of the essence is sudden or gradual, how the essence exists and how it is related to the things that have it. The problem with the picture is that the essence seems to be taken as a rather substantial object in its own right, a new object toward which we turn, something that we can pull out from other objects, from the individuals that contain the essence. The picture makes us formulate the philosophical problem of essences in the wrong way.

To avoid these difficulties, it would be helpful to do two things: first, to speak of "knowing essentials" instead of knowing an essence, and, second, to study the phenomenon of knowing essentials in a more concrete and less formal way.


Let us begin with an example. Something is going wrong with my car. It seems occasionally to go soft when I try to accelerate; it seems not to engage smoothly when I try to go forward. I know nothing about automotive engineering, so I try putting some additive into the gas tank (I had just heard an advertisement for that product), I check the tire pressure, I lift the hood and look around at the motor. I finally bring the car to a mechanic, who checks the transmission oil, finds bits of shiny metal in it, and tells me that the transmission is worn out and needs to be replaced. He knows the essentials of the situation, I do not; instead of knowing essentials, I am immersed in accidentals, even though I do not recognize them as such. What is "in itself " in this situation appears to the mechanic but not to me. Let us look more carefully at this example.

The first thing to notice is that the crucial distinction is not between knowing the essentials and being totally ignorant of the thing in question; the crucial distinction is between knowing essentials and being lost in accidentals. The alternative to knowing essentials is not sheer ignorance, but a special kind of familiarity with the object in question: a familiarity in which we can recognize the object but come short of grasping it in regard to what it is in itself. Thus, it would not be appropriate to say that Julius Caesar failed to know the essentials of the automobile; he did not know the automobile at all, and neither its essentials nor its accidentals appeared to him. The distinction did not arise in his regard. Only if one is acquainted with something can one be lost in its accidentals and fail to get to the essentials. The distinction between the essential and the accidental, and between their respective manifestations, is made only within a setting or a genus with which we are acquainted.

Also, we should not think that there are essentials only for discrete substances, such as trees, horses, and human beings. There are also essentials for things like dangerous situations (in which the courageous person is best able to appraise them), bodily health, political campaigns (President Bush seemed to miss the essentials of the 1992 American presidential campaign), academic lectures, gasoline stations, firearms, lyrical poetry, drama, and the writing of history. Furthermore, we cannot provide the essentials of something simply by formulating a catalogue of features belonging to the thing; the essentials are not mere items to be listed. Sometimes they cannot even be fully expressed in words, not even by someone who is capable of distinguishing between the essential and the accidental in practice. A grasp of essentials is sometimes best expressed by what a person does rather than by what he says, although some verbal expression would almost always be a normal accompaniment of what is being done.

What we have been calling the essentials is what Aristotle calls ta kath' hauta, that which things are "according to themselves," while the accidentals are what he calls ta sumbebekota, that which things are "by coincidence," that which they only "happen" to be. In Latin we speak of what things are per se and what they are per accidens. However we may phrase it, it is the distinction between essentials and accidentals that is the main point, not the sheer grasp of essentials. We could not receive the per se just by itself, without playing it off against the per accidens. Whenever Aristotle speaks of something as being kath' hauto, he implies that it is precisely not kata sumbebekos.

Thus, in our involvement with things, we begin with an issue, with something given and identifiable, something with which we are acquainted: this curious animal, this bodily condition (aches and fever), this puzzling political situation, this recalcitrant automobile. The issue is the matrix, the genus. It is already differentiated from the whole of things. We act and we speak in regard to the issue, and as we do so, the essentials differentiate themselves for us from the accidentals. What is relevant differentiates itself from what is irrelevant. In the case of an inadequate response, in the case of a person who is not up to the issue, the distinction between the relevant and the irrelevant does not come through. Such a person is caught up, say, with the fact that the animal is cuddly, and he does not see that this characteristic does not matter (since what we want is an animal that will guard the house); or the person gets caught up with the showmanship and does not see that he is losing votes. Both the competent and the incompetent persons are actively engaged with the issue, but the mist of the accidental is too thick for the incompetent person to penetrate. Aspects that are alien to the issue and irrelevant to it are taken as essential: personal feelings or interests, say, are allowed to smother deliberations about policy, and the essentials of the policy issue are not allowed to sort themselves out.

The distinction between the essential and the accidental can display itself only to a dative who is able to receive it, just as the "middle" in a situation calling for action can display itself, by distinguishing itself from the excess and defect, only to an agent and a dative who has the virtue required by the situation.(1) The per se and the per accidens belong to the being of things, but they also display themselves, and the display calls for an appropriate audience. There is a spoudaios for recognizing the essentials of a thing, just as there is a virtuous agent for sizing up a situation calling for action. Philosophically, we should not speak about the essential and the accidental as though they just belonged to things and had nothing to do with display. Being always involves display, and our philosophical task is to speak about the display proper to the matter at hand, which in this case is the distinction that emerges between the essential and the accidental.

When we get involved in philosophical arguments about whether or not there are essences in things, the speakers who wish to deny the being of essences will very often claim that the meanings of words are all relative to human societies, that there are no transcultural universals that are given as the same to everyone, that there are no natures or essences in things, there are only things as they are differently understood by different people. In response, the speakers who wish to claim that there are essences will argue that there are indeed cultural invariants, that some features are the same everywhere, that, say, the differences between men and animals, or between responsible and nonresponsible conduct, are recognized by everyone. The controversy continues. Such a way of approaching the problem of essences is too abstract and it leads nowhere. Rather than ask whether there are certain natures that are recognized everywhere as the same, it would be better to ask whether we can really deny that we see a difference between a person who is lost in accidentals and one who gets the point, who sees what is relevant, who is able to grasp the essentials of a certain situation or speech. To take a rather simple example, the very ability to get the point of a joke is an example of a grasp of essentials. No philosopher could deny that there is a difference between someone who does and someone who does not get the point of a situation or a speech, and this very phenomenon, this distinction, is the most concrete illustration of the recognition of essentials. To miss the point of a situation or a speech is to be lost in accidentals. Could anyone really say there is no difference between someone who is totally at a loss in regard, say, to a disabled automobile, and someone who knows how to set about doing something about it?

The person who can thoughtfully set about doing something about this disabled automobile would also know what to do in another situation when another car is disabled in another way. Hence, there is something universal about his knowledge; but the primary emergence of the essential is not in its universality but in the differentiation, in a concrete case, between the accidental and the essential. Thus, to prove that there are essences, it is not necessary to trot out examples of transcultural universals, of features that belong to certain things always and everywhere; it is enough to look to a concrete instance and to see a difference between one person who gets to the core of an issue and another who cannot do so. The difference in the persons, between the knower and the one who is nonplussed, reflects a difference in what is manifested. Something has appeared to the one who knows, and failed to appear to the one who cannot cope, and that something is the essence, the point of the thing, situation, speech, or issue.

To deal with essences philosophically, therefore, we must deal not with a new kind of object that we are supposed to grasp, but with a distinction between the accidental and the essential, and with the dative for that distinction. We as philosophers begin to speak about essences only after the distinction between the essential and the accidental has manifested itself to prephilosophical agents and knowers. Essences are not things that appear only to philosophers; they differentiate themselves for those people who are experienced and insightful in regard to the issue in question. Philosophy comes only afterward and it draws our attention to what has already appeared. It reflects on a disclosure that has already occurred.


Let us return to the controversy between nature and convention, to the question whether there really are essences in things or only diverse cultural appreciations of them. We have said that the question about essences can be best treated philosophically by analyzing the distinction between a person who gets the point of a situation or thing and one who does not. The examples we have given so far may seem insufficient, however. We have spoken about things like automobiles, political campaigns, dangerous situations, and even jokes; but such things are highly conventional. They have been made or arranged by men, and to get to the essentials of such things could still be compatible with a kind of cultural relativism. If a person were able to recognize, in practice and in speech, the essentials of, say, Chinese mandarin formalities, his ability would merely show that he is a clever mandarin. It would show that he has mastered a convention, but not that he has grasped the natural essentials of a being. Even a relativist could admit that there are essential and accidental dimensions within human conventions and human products. Such human things have essentials precisely because we have put them there; we have stipulated that certain things are to be considered essential. The person who recognizes the essential and the accidental would, in this relativistic view, merely be responding to the intelligence that had been embodied by some other human being in the custom or the product and not to an intelligibility in the thing itself. The same would be true of the joke: the intelligence of the listener is challenged not by any natural necessity but by the intelligence of the one who formulated the joke. The cultural relativist could acknowledge conventional essences without being forced to concede that there are natural essences.

Then the question is: if there is a point to a joke, is there not also something like a point to natural things? Is there not something like a point to a tree or a spider or a cat? Is there not something to be known as what the tree or the spider or the cat is in itself ? Are there not people who can grasp better than others the point of the tree and the spider and the cat? Such people are not just those who have had more experience with such things, even though sufficient experience is a necessary condition for what we are getting at; they must also have what we call insight or intelligence, the ability to get the point of the thing, to see the thing as one and as a whole, to shake out its parts, and to see its parts in relation to the whole and its activity. Aristotle would call the point of a thing its energeia or its ergon, its being-at-work, its manner of most actively being itself and displaying itself for what it is in itself, and we can serve as datives for such a display if we are up to the thing in question, in both our experience and our insight. Things display a logos, the ability to be a whole articulated into parts; it is not only human convention and making and language that introduce such wholes and articulations.

It is true, however, that natural wholes are displayed to us in the thick of human custom, making, and culture. There is therefore a ticklish interaction between the conventional and the natural. There may be a point to a cat, but if people in one society consider some cats to share in divine powers, and if people in another society use cats extensively for their own purposes, say in medical research or for food, the essentials of the cat in itself will be blended almost inextricably with what the beliefs and purposes of such people bring to the animal.

The point is that we never have sheer nature without convention, or sheer convention without nature; the two are always tangled. Nature is displayed to us only as refracted through custom, and custom always mixes with the natural. The interweaving of the two is what makes it so apparently plausible to say that there is no nature but only convention. But the deepest insights in a cultural tradition are those that tease out the difference between nature and convention, those that make it clear that in projecting a necessity that is very much colored by the style in which we live, we are also overhearing something that has to be the way it is presented as being. Without this touch of natural necessity the conventional achievement - the joke, the legend, the epic, the ritual formality - would lack importance and depth. It is hard to disentangle the natural from the conventional, but it is only the inexperienced and those who cannot manage the issue intellectually who cannot do so. There are those who cannot make the distinction in particular cases, but the fact that they cannot make it does not mean that it is not there. To grasp the distinction is not a matter of extracting an essence pure and simple, but of getting a sense of the source of the necessity, of glimpsing what is essential because we say it will be so, and what is essential because that is the way things have to be. Sagacity is the ability to achieve this distinction as a matter of course.

Let us, for example, consider jokes. Jokes about parents-in-law, about the boss at work, about dogs and cats, about various professions, all clearly engage social conventions, but they also disclose something about the nature of the things involved in them: familial relationships, human subordination, animal cunning, human foibles. The story about the French grammarian Bonheurs provides an example.(2) As Bonheurs lay dying, at the close of a long lifetime spent in the study of language and in the prescription of correct usage, he looked around at those who were gathered about his bed and he said: "I am about to - or I am going to - die; either expression is used." The story engages convention because not all cultures have grammarians, nor do all people die in bed; but it also engages nature by bringing out something about human death as such, about human persistence and pedantry, about the painful and the comic. One would have to be rather simpleminded to see no refraction of nature in such an episode, and it is precisely this refraction that makes the story to be more than an anecdote.

What is true of the joke is also true of more substantial expressions of the nature of things. Shakespeare's plays may be set in Venice, Denmark, Scotland, or Verona, and they may reflect the conventions of Elizabethan England, but human nature and the natures of things are certainly refracted in them. When working out our tax forms, we may try to grasp the essentials of this or that rule or deduction, but through it all we may also glimpse something of what social and political life are, for better or worse. It is never a matter of having the culture here and the nature there, but of distinguishing the two within a context, and of distinguishing the essential and the accidental in regard to each. It is a matter of achieving two different distinctions: between the natural and the conventional, and between the essential and the accidental, and of seeing how all four elements work together in the concrete.

Another interesting interplay of essentials on two levels occurs in painting. Painting, unless it is purely abstract, involves a representation of some theme: a human figure, a pastoral scene, a pitcher and some pieces of fruit. There are essentials that belong to the theme as such; the point of a face, a tree, a bunch of grapes, must be maintained. However, blended with these thematic necessities, there are also compositional necessities in the painting: colors, lines, and shapes have to be balanced. These compositional essentials sometimes override the thematic ones, and the top of a table in a Cezanne still life may be tilted at such an angle that the apples on it could not possibly keep from rolling off, or a human figure may have proportions that could not possibly occur in a real body. Such thematic impossibilities are accepted, however, because the composition of the painting demands them as adjustments to the theme. The artist is not only representing but also composing. We would not get the point of the painting if we took it merely on its thematic terms ("Why does he make people look like that?" "Why does he make the bottle bulge out that way?"). We have to see that the compositional terms override the thematic, and then we get the point of the painting as a whole. Similar tensions between the thematic and the compositional occur in ballet, poetry, and fiction.

It is one thing to recognize something essential; the statesman, the expert, the insightful agent does that. It is another thing to try to formulate the essential as such, to bring out in words what things are in themselves and what they have to be. Such an effort of formulation is a philosophical activity. As such, it is reflective and parasitic. It assumes that those who are good at the issue in question have done their work and brought out the essentials; the philosopher comes afterward and tries to pull together, clarify, and clean up what has been brought out. Aristotle's Politics, for example, presupposes the fact that political life has already been led, perhaps in a somewhat confused way, and it tries to formulate in more precise terms what such a life is. His Rhetoric assumes that people have tried to persuade one another through speeches, and it tries to formulate what goes on when they do so. There can be argument and struggle within such philosophical discussion. Hobbes, in his political writings, gives us a formulation of political life radically different from that proposed by Aristotle. We from our point of view, in our present study of what it is to know essentials, need not take sides in the controversy between Aristotle and Hobbes, but we can point out what the controversy is about: both writers are trying to distill the essentials of political life and to state what political life is "in itself " as opposed to what it happens to be. In trying to get to the essentials, they are also trying to get to the nature of political life as opposed to the various cultural forms it takes on, even though the nature is never realized except in one or another of these forms.


There is another distinction that we must examine in our discussion of what it is to know essentials. We have been working with the contrast between the essential and the accidental. We have insisted that the essential is always played off against the accidental, the per se against the per accidens, the kath' auto against the kata sumbebekos. This distinction manifests itself to people who are both experienced and insightful regarding a given issue.

A different distinction is often made between what we could call the thing in itself, or the thing as it is determined by science, and the thing as it merely appears to us. This modern distinction, between true, scientific reality and mere appearance, is not the same as the ancient distinction between what a thing is "in itself " (kat' auto) and what it is "for us" (pros hemas). In the ancient distinction, the "in itself" could also become "for us" if we were to become the appropriate datives for the thing in question. For example, the goal of ethical education, according to Aristotle, is to bring it about that the good in itself should become good for us, and also that the pleasant in itself should become pleasant for us. In the modern understanding, however, in the Cartesian-Kantian tradition, there is a strong separation between the what the thing is and how the thing appears: the phenomenal is only phenomenal, and the thing in itself is only the object of scientific thinking, not the object of our direct, impressional experience. The thing is that which is thought, not that which is perceived; the phenomenal is that which is given only to perception, not to thought. To adapt terminology introduced by Wilfrid Sellars, the "scientific image" and the "manifest image" of the world are radically distinguished from one another.(3) This distinction between the objective world of science and the subjective world of ordinary experience has become embedded in the general opinion of the West. It accounts for, among other things, our tendency to prefer the results of sociological surveys or opinion polls to the moral judgments of people, and for the bias toward cultural relativism among our intellectual elites.

How is the distinction between the thing in itself and the mere appearance to be related to the distinction between the essential and the accidental? It is important for us to face this issue, because the widespread acceptance of the split between how things "really" are and how they "only" seem to be constitutes perhaps the greatest impediment to the understanding of what it is to grasp the essentials of things. The modern split between the real and the apparent is related to the modern rejection of the forms of things, the denial that the world is articulated into natural kinds. Only if beings have forms can some features be presented as essential and others as accidental. The recognition of essentials is precisely the recognition of what a particular kind of being is in itself. In our discussion of essentials we must, therefore, examine the contrast between the thing in itself and the mere phenomenon.

The merely phenomenal is external and accidental to the things themselves. Phenomena, in the modern understanding, are simply the impressions things make on us, and such impacts are accidental and contingent to the things; the impacts show how we are affected by things and how we react to them, but they do not show how the things themselves are. Thus, if we accept this modern distinction, we become deprived of the setting in which the classical distinction between the essential and the accidental can take place. The essential and the accidental, instead of being perpetually played off against one another in an "open forum," are consigned to two different domains; the phenomenal is sheer accidentality and the real is sheer necessity, reached only through the rigorous procedures of natural science and its mathematics. The ancient interplay of essential and accidental becomes lost from view. It no longer seems possible for us to ask how the essential can differentiate itself, in a context and in regard to definite issues, from the accidental. The phenomenal is shunted off into the psychological or the cultural, into the relative, while the thing itself is considered to be the purely objective and scientific.

Even the distinction between confusion and insight becomes lost from view. According to the modern viewpoint we are describing, knowledge of the objective world is reached by a scientific method, by a procedure that can be followed and evaluated by anyone who is willing to learn it. Thus Descartes makes a point of saying that reason is distributed equally among men, and that no one's reason is very much better than anyone else's; he also claims that the method he introduces can be followed by anybody.(4) Whoever learns and follows the technique will come to the same results, and each step of the method is simple and easy to learn. Such methods allow us to reach beyond the phenomena and to get to the things themselves. They are our best way for getting at the truth. Intelligence then consists not in recognizing essentials, but in being able to devise clever experiments and formulate useful hypotheses. Intelligence is inventive rather than insightful. We articulate the method rather than the thing. In the classical viewpoint, however, procedures and techniques do not provide us with the ability to distinguish between the essential and the accidental. The grasp of essentials does not result from a method that anyone can follow. There is no method or criterion to which we can appeal outside of the insight into essentials itself


Our reference to the insight into essentials, and our claim that such insight is unique and irreducible, may make it seem that we are appealing to some sort of mysterious intuition. This is not the case, and one way of responding to such a suspicion, one way of confirming our claim that we can in fact attain the essentials of things, is to turn to the various errors that are possible in the attainment of essentials. Mistakes do occur when we think we have gotten to something essential. We may fall to achieve an insight, and we may think we have an insight when we do not. The fact that we can recognize such failures or errors indicates that there is such a thing as true insight: the illusory shows up for us precisely as not being the genuine. To shore up our understanding of insight into essentials, therefore, we will distinguish the major kinds of mistakes that are possible in regard to knowing essentials. By analyzing the ways in which we can go wrong, we will help show that insight does exist, that it is not based on an appeal to inexplicable intuitions.

(1) At the extreme, complete unfamiliarity with the issue at hand precludes any possibility of insight into essentials. Such deficiency, as we have said earlier, ought not even to be considered as error or ignorance regarding essentials, because it does not allow the question of essentials to arise at all; Julius Caesar, as we remarked, cannot be said to have been ignorant of the essentials of the automobile or to have been mistaken about them.

(2) Once granted familiarity with the thing in question, we must develop sufficient experience of it to permit an emergence of the essentials. If we rush to judgment despite in experience, we run the risk of falling into error through haste. We know enough to recognize the object, but not enough to discriminate what really counts in it. A brief visit to a foreign country, for example, would hardly be enough to support insight into the point of the local customs.

(3) Once granted familiarity and sufficient experience, we still need the intellectual ability to discriminate between the essential and the coincidental. Not everyone can speak and act with awareness of this difference; many people cannot extricate themselves from the mist of the accidental. They never get to the point and cannot get the point. Mere association replaces thoughtfulness, what "they" say replaces one's own responsible speech. The source of failure in this case is not haste but debility. Averroes refers to this kind of failing when he criticizes thinkers who try to examine issues that are beyond their intellectual powers.'

(4) Once granted familiarity, experience, and ability, we can still fail through distortions introduced through passion or interest. Let us call this distorting factor emotive bias. We may be capable in principle of knowing what is essential in the issue at hand, but our personal involvement in it slants the appearance. We make it seem to be something other than it really is: our friendship with certain persons may blind us to wrongs they might have done, so we judge the essentials of their actions in a distorted way; our interest in a promotion may make us deny the talents and achievements of our competitors, and we may make ourselves incapable of getting the true point of what they are doing. The accidentalities of our interests are imposed upon the thing in question as though they were essential to it; the thing itself is not allowed to stand forth. In some cases of emotive bias, our reason is quite completely overcome and things do appear to us falsely; we become spoiled datives. Often enough, however, our own reason is able to let the truth emerge, but because of our emotion or interest we may not want to acknowledge it, and in such cases we may act and speak mendaciously.

(5) Stiff another form of distortion is introduced by what we could call cultural bias, in which it is not our personal emotions or interests that cloud the issue but the conventions under which we live. We are not able to allow the natural essentials to come forward; our intelligence is only capable of operating with the customs that have shaped us. We are not able to appreciate that some other way of doing things could manifest the same nature that we refract in our way, and we cannot imagine that our way of doing things could ever be deficient, ever fail in presenting the essentials of the thing. Such bias does exist, but it can also be recognized as such by those who can let the essentials of things differentiate themselves from their conventional tone.

It should be noted that we transcend our cultural viewpoint not by just being exposed to other cultures and customs. Such exposure may serve as an occasion for getting beyond our own background, but the true transcendence is not the introduction of the distinction between my culture and another: it is the introduction of the distinction between my convention and the natural, and the distinction may be made even without exposure to another culture. It may arise when we sense a deficiency in the way our culture refracts something essential, or it may arise simply because we are able to grasp the distinction, to see that the thing we legitimately do in our way could in principle be done in some other way without ceasing to be respected for what it is.

The fact that we can recognize various ways in which we fail to grasp essentials - through haste, intellectual debility, emotive bias, and cultural bias - is an indication that we can also recognize situations in which these deviations do not occur, in which we succeed in getting the point of a thing.


To close our study of essentials and their display, we will recapitulate some of the things we have said and add a few final details.

(1) To get to essentials is to get the point of a thing. Consider, for example, getting the point of a boat. We get the point of a boat when we see it floating as a boat should float. Everything falls in place for us around the boat when such insight happens: the water, the materials the boat is made of, the motion of the boat, the possibility of steering it, being a passenger in the boat, and so on. All the parts are seen concretely in relation to the whole. Furthermore, we get the point of a boat not when we just see the thing we call a boat, but when we see the boat "at work," when we see it floating and moving and keeping the things in it intact, and when its being at work is registered for us. We get the point of things when we see them in action. Still furthermore, we get the point of a thing best of all not when we just see the thing in action, but when we see it working at its best. An effective boat in action shows the essentials of a boat better than a decrepit, leaky, unsteerable one. Deficient instances are not without possibilities, however, it is possible for an intelligent viewer or agent to get the point of a boat even from a poor example. His intelligence can make it possible for him to see "the best boat" even in the flimsy one. That is what intelligence, the ability to have insight into the essentials of things, is. Because intelligence can see the best even in the deficient, it is possible for art to bring out the best potentials of nature.

What is true of a boat and its essentials is also true of political society, human action, families, industries, stores, and schools. It is also true of sequoia trees, ivy, azaleas, dogs, cats, giant pandas, lemmings, cows, and deer. It is also true of dangerous situations, meals, theatrical performances, jobs, and bodily health. Everything has a per se and per accidens, and getting the point of the thing or situation or activity is grasping its essentials. We must demystify the insight into essentials; such insight is not a rare and exalted process, but something we do all the time, and the colloquial phrase "getting the point" serves well to turn our attention toward the way essentials are disclosed to us both in our everyday and in our more important moments. The demystification is not intended to make the grasp of essentials seem unimportant; there is nothing more important than appreciating what is essential and what is accidental, especially in weighty matters (such as the liturgy of the Church, familial relationships, education, or questions of human life and death). The demystification is meant to help us see that getting to essentials is not an arcane activity that only philosophers or scholars are involved in, something that needs an artificial vocabulary to be expressed; the grasp of essentials happens all the time, and it is essential to the human condition in all its variegated possibilities. Only because we can get the point of issues can we also fail to do so and hence mess up a situation; only because we can get the point can we introduce art to modify nature; only because we can get the point of things can we also be distressed in situations in which we can do nothing to help ourselves. These and other aspects of the human condition are only possible because we can and do let the distinction between the essential and the accidental emerge.

(2) Another advantage in using the colloquial expression, "getting the point," instead of more solemn philosophical terms like "the intuition of essences," is the fact that this expression makes us look to the concrete, particular situation and not to an abstract essence or an abstract definition. The primary and governing way in which we intuit essentials is not by grasping universal definitions but by discriminating, in the thick of a situation, what this has to be, what it cannot be, and what it could not not be. We get the point of a boat most vividly when we see the boat in action; we get the point of human illness when we are involved in someone's sickness; we get the point of danger when we face a dangerous predicament.(6) To use Aristotelian terminology, we get the most vivid presentation of a form, an eidos, when we experience the individual substance, the ousia and the tode ti, in a revealing situation. The strongest presence of the form is not given to us when we formulate the abstract definition of the thing in question, but when we, seeing the thing in action, get the point of the thing. Once we have made these concrete insights, we can go on to abstract definition, and then the definitions will mean something to us; they win not be given only in words, as they would be if we began with the abstraction. It is best to move from the individual substance to the definition, from the particular to the general, but even in the particular the form is given to us when we get the point of the thing, when the essentials are differentiated from the accidentals. Philosophical treatments of essence tend to stay with the general and the abstract, which is the mode of being that an essence takes on when we talk about it, usually in the absence of the thing itself. The original presence of the essence, however, is in the "this here," the tode, which reveals to us its what," its ti, what it must be as opposed to what it just happens to be but could possibly not be.

(3) Our present reflections on the grasp of essentials is an attempt to recover the ancient understanding of essences, the understanding expressed by Plato and Aristotle. It is an attempt to get beyond the epistemology of modernity, with its contrast between the scientific object and the mere appearance, and to restore an understanding that allows the mind to accept essentials from the world, to recognize forms, when it distinguishes such essentials from accidentals. Our task is not an epistemological one: we are not concerned with proving that we do in fact reach the essentials of things. Rather, the task is phenomenological, to show how the essentials manifest themselves, how they distinguish themselves from the accidental.

However, we do not want simply to return to the ancient understanding, to opt for the ancients against the modems. We wish to recover the ancient in the context of the modern, which means that we recover it anew, with a new hermeneutical slant. The new element that we introduce is an explicit concern with the manifestation of the essence. Plato and Aristotle were concerned with pointing out that we do indeed grasp essentials or forms, that we do have a knowledge that is not just the perception of individuals. The rejection of forms and essences by modernity forces us to do more than to merely restate Plato and Aristotle; we must also show how the essence manifests itself, and it is our claim that this manifestation occurs when the essential distinguishes itself from the accidental. We provide a phenomenological description as an appropriate demonstration," as a showing that is meant to counter the claim that we only have subjective viewpoints, never a grasp of what the thing necessarily is in itself.

One of the things that keeps us from philosophically recognizing that there is such a thing as the grasp of essentials is unclarity about the being of the accidental. We tend to overlook the fact that the accidental does truly exist. It is a weak being, it is close to nothing, as Aristotle says, but it does exist.(7) In particular, the accidental is not merely an illusion. We would tend to take it as a mere illusion if we were to be trapped by the distinction between the thing in itself and the mere phenomenon; we would then tend to see the accidental as just the way we happen to take things or just the way things happen to seem to us. If we escape the grip of this modem distinction, however, we can come to recognize that the accidental is a true way of being; in fact, there are billions of accidentals in any situation or any thing. As Henry James has Madame Grandoni, in The Princess Casamassima, declare, "The world's full of accidents."" The accidentals truly are and truly present themselves; we can take notice of them, and when we recognize them as accidental we see that the point of their being is that there is no point, that it would be futile to try to find a necessity in the accidental conjunction that is given to us.(9)

(4) There is a difference between explicitly stating something essential and not stating it but acting or speaking in the light of the essential. Most of the time we do not, and do not need to, formulate the required essential; the way we act and speak indicates that the essential has been recognized. A good auto mechanic may not be able to state the essentials of the automobile, but what he does is done with respect to them. Another person may act and speak in such a way that it is clear that something essential is missing: he acts and speaks as in a haze.

At other times and in other situations, the essential itself may need to come to the fore: we are talking about someone, trying to figure out his behavior, and someone says, "George is a dogmatic man." Everything falls in place around this statement of the eidos. AU the phenomena, all the facts, receive their explanation, their "why." The statement, "George is a dogmatic man," does not merely express one more fact about George; it expresses what George is in himself and why his behavior is the way it is.(10) The essential itself has come to light, it is no longer something unspoken in the light of which other things make sense. To be able to state the essential in such a way is a rare ability and it is somewhat philosophical. Stating the essential is best done in a few words; if the insightful speaker takes too long to say something, the accidentals will usually crowd out the point of the thing.

Philosophical writing (and speaking) succeeds in stating the point of things and bad philosophical writing wanders in the mist of the accidental. Bad philosophical writing is not so much incorrect as slack. Nothing happens in it. Words abound, but no point is made. It is hard to criticize inept philosophical prose precisely because it has no point at which the criticism can strike; the critic has to bring the position to a point, he has to bring to distinctness the essentials that the original writer or speaker failed to condense, and only then can he comment on it. Vagueness, more than error, is the characteristic failure that makes poor philosophy to be what it is."

(5) The final point to be discussed is the accidental mind, the mind that constitutionally fails to get the point. What is exasperating about the accidental mind is that one never knows when or how it will go wrong; it is impossible to foresee its divagations and to guard against them, precisely because such a mind lives in the accidental mist and the accidental as such has no point. Instead of curling around the essentials of the thing and being governed by them, the accidental mind is always shooting off on tangents, tangents that take their source from coincidences and from the kind of accidentals that association, emotion, and self-interest impose. The accidental mind will not let the essentials of the thing show up. The accidental mind is marvelously unpredictable; it constantly astonishes us in the way it can invent new ways of wandering from the issue and bringing havoc into a situation. The accidental mind is complacent and thinks it is following up on promising leads; in its accidentality it is invisible to itself. It is visible for what it is only to an essential mind, to a mind that is capable of getting the point of things. It is to such an essential mind that accidental thinking and the accidental mind are so upsetting.

It is the task of reflective philosophical thinking to distinguish not only between the accidental and the essential as such, but also between the two kinds of minds that are rendered possible by these two forms of being: the accidental mind and the essential mind. In bringing all these dimensions of being and minding to light, philosophical reflection discloses both the inevitability of accidental thinking and the excellence of knowing the essentials of things. (1) Aristotle observes that there are many ways of failing in what we do, but few or only one way of being good; see Nicomachean Ethics 2.6.1106b28 - 31. Virtuous or self-controlled agents are those who can bring out the essentials of a situation calling for action, while the weak and the vicious are those who let the situation fall apart into its accidentalities. (2) See Bill Bryson, The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way (New York: Avon Books, 1990), 146. (3) See Wilfrid Sellars, "Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man," in Science, Perception, and Reality (New York: Humanities Press, 1963), 1-40. Sellars speaks of the manifest and scientific images of man, but we have applied the terms to the two ways in which the world and the things in it can be presented to us. (4) Rene Descartes, Discourse on the Method, in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 1:111-12. According to Descartes, although everyone shares in the same reason, not all use it in the proper way, hence the need for a method that all can follow. Descartes goes so far as to observe that a child can find out all there is to know about a certain sum if he follows the rules of arithmetic (p. 121). (5) See Averroes, "The Decisive Treatise Determining the Nature of the Connection between Religion and Philosophy," trans. G. F. Hourani, in Philosophy in the Middle Ages, ed. Arthur Hyman and James J. Walsh (New York: Harper and Row, 1967), 290-91, 297. (6) Something like an illness may be accidental as regards human life, but dealing courageously and patiently with the illness introduces a per se into the situation. Virtue can turn what is bodily accidental into something essential and noble on the level of human action. (7) In Metaphysics 6.2, the accidental is said to be "only, as it were, a name" (1026b13) and "something close to nonbeing" (1026b21). It is interesting that when Aristotle treats the four senses of being in Metaphysics 6.2, he discusses the accidental first. It is as though he needed the weakest kind of being, the accidental, as an extreme parameter against which he could treat the other kinds, just as he takes the brutish as an ultimate negative parameter in treating the various kinds of character in Nicomachean Ethics 7. 1. In the lexicon of Metaphysics 5, however, the accidental is treated at the end, in chapter 30. (8) Henry James, The Princess Casamassima (New York: Harper and Row, 1959), 150. (9) It is difficult to disentangle the accidentals from what belongs to a thing in itself. It is not the case that accidentals are rare, or that we can easily determine them by having the thing in question given without the accidentals. In fact, there are many accidentals that almost always accompany the thing in question; philosophy and sophistry, political rule and despotic rule, nationalism and imperialism, almost always are found together. If accidental conjunctions were very rare it would not be hard to distinguish between the accidental and the essential; anyone could do so. It may take great insight to see that two things that are constantly found together really are not joined in themselves, that they are only coincidentally joined. (10) It might seem that "being a dogmatic man" is not part of the essence of George because it is not part of the essence of man. However, as Pierre Aubenque says, it is possible that some features may become essential to certain individuals and become part of what they are. See Pierre Aubenque, Le probleme de l'etre chez Aristotle (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1962), 463-4. The example Aubenque gives is Socrates' being wise (sage). Perhaps "being a philosopher" would be a better example; being a philosopher is not merely a fact about Socrates but essential to what he is. If you knew Socrates, or if you knew George, then, when the one's being a philosopher and the other's being a dogmatic man were stated, you would seek no further explanations. The features would show up as essential to those who know the men in question. (11) See Robert Sokolowski, Husserlian Meditations: How Words Present Things (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1974), chap. 9.
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Author:Sokolowski, Robert
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Date:Jun 1, 1994
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