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Taking the universal viewpoint: a descriptive approach.

Today, in an epoch of the proclamation of radical incommunicability between ethnic groups, between the sexes, and between individuals sunk in the privacy of their own gratifications, supported by a theoretical rejection of principles or universals of any sort, I want to explore the possibility of "taking the universal viewpoint" and thus finding a way out of a situation of radical cultural disintegration without succumbing to one or the other mode of intellectual imperialism, theological or otherwise. I will attempt to do so by attending to what, I would claim, is the most obvious and showing what is implicit in recognizing that. In focusing our attention, let us attempt to set aside for the time being everything we might think we know from other sources, science included: bracket temporarily all theories, all dogmas, all preferences, all commitments other than that of paying attention to what presents itself to careful attention here and now. Nothing should intrude except the evidence present to us, since, I would claim, that evidence is presupposed in appealing to these other factors, including arguments for the "theory-ladenness" of evidence.(1)

Besides this more general framework of concern, however, we should keep in mind the direct presence of the written page both I and my readers have in each of our sensory fields, though differently located spatially and temporally. Further, since it is most likely that each of us is reading a different reproduction of the same text -- I on the computer screen, the readers on paper -- we should keep in mind the differentiation between the sentences which are the same and their spatio-temporal sensory instantiations which are different in each case. Further still, since I might also read the paper to an audience, keep in mind the differentiation between the sameness of the sentence in the difference of sensory medium, visual and audile. We will return to that later.


Let us begin within those two frames -- that of the general cultural situation today and that of the status of the vehicle of delivery of this essay -- and attend to the simple, trivial, and seemingly uncontroversial recognition that something is. Of any entity we consider, the most obvious and yet the least articulated thing we can say about it is that "It is." "It is" can be said of an indeterminate number of instances of whatever sort, including the visible marks on this page or the sounds of my voice as I utter "It is" to myself or to my interlocutors. "It is" is an eidos, a universal, a one-over-many, capable of being applied to an indeterminate number of instances. Further, "It is" exhibits my recognition that whatever "it" might be, it stands outside of not-being-at-all. Yet simultaneously we recognize that it is an object of awareness, so that there is an essential distinction between awareness and its objects. "Being" can be said of whatever "it" we might consider, including oneself as considering it. "Being" is an eidos or universal, object of reflective awareness; but it is also more than an eidos, including as it does all instances of being, eidetic and individual, and everything about them. We quickly see then that there are at least six eide which show themselves as sharing in being and as involved in the most universal and indeterminate consideration which forms the framework for any consideration: the eide of being, of instance, of object of awareness, of awareness itself and, at another reflective level, of eidos itself and of individual. They articulate what is implicit in our beginning with the simple "It is"; they articulate being.

An eidos, in addition to its distinction from and relation to its instances, involves a distinction between its universal mode and its content. As eide all eide are the same in their universal mode but differ in content. The instances of eide are either other eide -- as we have shown thus far -- or ultimate individuals, functioning spatio-temporal unities. As an eidos, each is identical in content in all its individual instances but different in its universal mode. Each eidos contains other eide within itself, namely those which define it; some eide -- several of the ones we are watching unfold here -- contain all other eide within themselves.

Being is a one which contains within itself many, a same which includes difference, an "is" which contains an "is not." Being is an encompassing one, and each eidos is a one over and among many within that oneness. Each of the six eide are self-identical, other than the others and both same and different with respect to their ultimate individual instances, though an participate in being. Being other, each is not any of the others. Further, the notions of sameness and difference are each both the same as themselves and different from each other, so that sameness shares in difference and difference in sameness. Our inventory of implicit forms thus also includes, in addition to the eide of being, of instance, of object of awareness, of awareness itself and, at another reflective level, of eidos itself and of individual, the eide of nonbeing, of unity and multiplicity, and of sameness and difference, so that we have now eleven eide.

Now as changing from implicit to explicit, the notion of being undergoes development before the awareness of each of us who are following it. This entails another kind of "not being": not the simple otherness of the various eide we have shown thus far to be implicit in the notion of being, nor the internal otherness in relation to each other of the traits of each eidos, but the not-being of antecedent and consequent states. Furthermore, what is involved here is not simple succession but development, articulation moving toward completion, from relatively empty to relatively fun vis-a-vis awareness -- hence a teleological change. We might recall that the notion of being, which contains these eide within itself, also sets itself off from absolute nonbeing, so that, even prior to the development we are following, to be at all is to be other than absolute not-being. So we have a number of senses of nonbeing operative: absolute nonbeing, the nonbeing of otherness between and within each entity and the nonbeing involved in temporal antecedence and consequence (not-yet-being and no-longer-being).

As the first individual instance of "It is," I will take my own awareness of it. The reader is invited thereby to focus upon the same considerations with respect to his or her "I" as reader. I, as conscious entity here and now, am an ultimate individual instance of awareness which, like any "it," is an instance of being. Indeed, I am also an instance of the eidos "I" and an instance of instance. Awareness is an eidetic instance; I am an ultimate individual instance of the eide being, awareness, instance, individual, and I, which entail one and many, sameness and difference, and development which, in turn, entails antecedence and consequence.

The notion of instance, itself an eidos, is in its content either an ultimate spatio-temporal individual or a universal. The eidos "individual" here signifies space-time occupancy, located within a determinate segment of space-time, the same in content but different in mode of existence from its eide, and both same and different with regard to its own past and future. Space-time occupancy entails being one of an indefinite plurality of like instances of eide. Abstraction from that plurality yields the eidos, though abstraction is itself possible because space-time as a whole is anticipated in the field of awareness able to attend to the eide, for an eidos is what is recognizable as repeatable any time and any place the proper conditions for its instantiation are met.

Occupants of space and time are both spread out in three dimensions and separate from, though in some ways also continuous with, other such objects. Each of the three dimensions in relation to the others yields two opposite directions: for humans they are above and below, in front and in back, to the right and to the left. For other bodies on the earth which do not have the frontal orientation humans have, above and below are present by reason of resting upon the earth, and the opposing sides in the other two directions are without special orientational names. Each dimension is given as spread indeterminately about a given body. As occupying these dimensions, each individual is composed of a multiplicity which contains a mode of otherness that allows that multiplicity both to come together and to come apart. Instantiating the eidetic as a spatio-temporal individual sets each individual within an essentially mutable matrix. Space-time occupants are thus in some way or another always other than they have been and other than they will be -- actually in two senses: in an absolute sense as not having been and as aimed toward no longer being the individuals they are, and in a relative sense as no longer being, while they are, what they were and as not yet being what they will be. Within the latter context, they are nonetheless both in some respect identical and in other respects nonidentical with themselves throughout that span. Within the former context, there are, antecedent and consequent to their origination and end, the elements which will enter or have entered into their composition. The eidos "time," linked to the essential transience of spatially extended individuals, exhibits the character of past, present, and future -- of the no longer, the now, and the not yet, with the past and the future spread indeterminately "backwards" and "forwards" for our awareness -- and this before any theory of time such as those offered by Aristotle, Newton, or Heidegger.

All of this sets the invariant frame for the field of awareness and, I would claim, applies indubitably to all we might consider, including differences of worldview, differences of interpretation, and even the self-contradictory nominalist or deconstructionist efforts to displace the invariant and thus universal. All of this involves further articulations of content as we advance into it. We are able to carry on this articulation by an on-going reflection upon what we have already seen, both on the side of the object of awareness and on the side of awareness itself, so that the content has not been added from without but unfolded from within and is implicit in any affirmation we might make.

To recapitulate a bit: the notion of being is, minimally, the notion of being outside of pure nonbeing. However, there is also a relative sense of nonbeing in the otherness of each of the eide thus far considered in their relations to each other and to their instances, and in the otherness, both internal and external as well as both spatial and temporal, involved in operative individuals. The relation between the eidos and the individual instance involves an identity of content within a difference of modality, individual in the one case and universal in the other. As all-encompassing, the notion of being includes both awareness and its objects. It includes as well all eide and every spatio-temporal individual, and it includes them in such a way as to include everything that may be discovered about all and each. It thus sets a fundamental goal of awareness as a capacity to move toward the horizon of all-encompassing awareness. We are following that direction in articulating what is implicit in our initial focus upon "It is." The notion of being poses a demand that an advance into any entity or eidetic region circumscribing types of entities be located within the never-fully-disclosed complete whole of all beings. Such an advance involves showing how the notions of sameness and difference are realized in different instances, eidetic and individual. It also raises the question of the how of the relation of awareness to the whole -- a consideration of the utmost importance for human life. Again, the one encompassing notion of being shows itself to be intrinsically many without fracturing its own unity.


Now to say all of that is to appeal to a community, to a "we" bound together by the English language. It is to rest upon a tradition available to literate members of that tradition, but also to any human beings, for any human being can come to learn to speak and read that language, to write and to translate what is said into their own native language(s). There are several ways we can go from there. One is to attend to the fact that "It is" is written, fixed in black patterns appearing on a white background; it can also be spoken, embedded in the sound patterns that succeed one another as they disappear; in addition, it can be embossed on a flat surface in Braille. In any case, it is the same "It is" appearing in the differences of spatial fixity and temporal disappearance. In this paragraph I have repeated the same expression "It is" three different times in writing, instantiating it in three different spatial locations by the temporary successive activity of typing. I recognize that the same sentence can be instantiated an indeterminate number of times and places in either media, visual or audile or, in the case of Braille, tactual. Indeed, any visual or audile or tactual pattern is indefinitely repeatable, like dimes from a mint or recordings from a studio. Yet that involves, as its flip-side, an insight into myself: in such recognition I as a reflective observer -- though at the same time an organism and a sensory observer immersed in the Now -- have escaped the Now of the immediate presence of sights and sounds and tactual sensations by anticipating the whole of space and time as the field for the possible instantiation of the eide involved in the situation that come to be represented by the sensible patterns arising by convention in a given ethnic community.

Of course, the meaning of "It is" can be realized also in sentences coming out of different linguistic traditions: Greek estin, Latin id est, French il y a, German es ist, and so forth. So the meaning transcends not only spatio-temporal instantiation, but also linguistic enculturation, though its apprehension requires both enculturated and spatio-temporally immanent sensory instantiation. Again, as recognizing that, I escape in a certain fashion not only embodiment, but also the enculturation that makes possible my linguistic articulation of the meaning.

As an instance of awareness, I address you through the medium of writing. In a sense, in addressing you I in principle also address the eidetic "you," any "you" able to read English, and, by reason of the translatability of language, actually any human being. Furthermore, I have written meaningful English sentences which, I would claim, you and I can also judge to be true, that is, which function to display what is available to any sufficiently reflective and attentive awareness. We thus have a set of distinctions and relations between the written or embossed or spoken spatio-temporal instances, the enculturated sentence, the transculturally meaningful proposition capable of being translated into a different cultural form, and the judgment or truth-claim for which I take responsibility.

However, all this is also and essentially object of thought, something manifest to awareness. Object as the manifest is contrasted with the nonmanifest, which would either be simply outside of the object in question or hidden within it. Consider as well the implicitly functioning eide we have been attempting to make explicit here and the hidden as such. The former is set within the field of awareness but prefocal; the latter is not within the field of awareness. However, even here we have to consider that in the notion of being everything is included, though not like the implicit we have been unfolding thus far. To reach toward the wholeness of each thing within the Whole, we have to uncover the hidden from outside the level of complicating eide constituting the framework of relation between awareness and its objects.

Consider again the page upon which this writing appears as an instance of a spatio-temporal individual. It stands within the field of sensory awareness: a visible, tactual -- and also a possible olfactory, auditory, and even gustatory object. Intrinsic to the character of each of the senses is their fixation upon aspects of spatio-temporal individuals. The individuals appearing as coordinated objects of the various senses are each one spatio-temporal thing appearing through the manyness of these aspects, each having its own set of eidetic features. For example, as visual object it is colored, separated from my viewing by apparently empty space, spread out in space and separate from other things so spread out, appearing within a horizon and affording a set of perspectives. Both horizon and perspectives are relative to the position of the embodied viewer. As I move about the body or cause it to move about by manipulation, the perspectives within each sensory field cohere with the perspectives within all of them. Though all of this occurs within the privacy of my body-based perception, nonetheless what we have said of it holds for all human perceivers, and indeed for all bodily based perceivers with the same sensory equipment. Yet for the page to appear as one through the manifold appearances it affords to the different senses operating from different spatial positions in time, I as viewer must myself in some sense be one through the time of the various showings of the page in and throughout the various sensations. I myself must be the locus of retaining and synthesizing experiences through time, both at the sensory and at the eidetic levels.

The differing sensations are factually correlated with the possession of specific types of organs which are arrangements of what once were independent compounds via the process of nutrition and growth. The process of growth is a coming to stand within predetermined limits of self-sustaining processes of a functioning whole which+ constitutes the adult state of the organism capable of feeding itself, of defending itself, of reproducing and, in the higher mammals, of caring for its offspring. Organic development is a gestalting process in relation to the elements which yields a functioning whole. Parallel to, and as an instance of, the unfolding of the initial notion of being, increasingly complex ramifications of an initially relatively simple but comprehensive entity is the condition for the possibility of organs for perception coming to be. Perception is a gestalting process in relation to the sensory elements entering into a configured appearance. Such a process furnishes a desirous synesthetic-kinesthetic field as manifest material for the next level of eidetic apprehension, interpretation from the explicitly given to the implied, and choice based upon such apprehension and interpretation.

The thinker has thus first of all to be an eater; but to be such involves being oriented towards specific types of presentations, namely, those that satisfy the needs of the organism. Thus an animal has to be able to recognize features which involve the distinction between the edible and the inedible, the beneficial and the harmful, under penalty of organic dissolution. The theorist who disallows the eidetic continues to exist by reason of being able to recognize instances of the eidetic. An animal is also a reproducer, oriented via sexual desire to activities which terminate in the production of offspring and to the desire to care for them in their state of biological dependency. Only certain types of acts oriented toward specific types of bodily loci in the type of entity of the opposite sex lead to definite types of cells combining to bring about initially a relatively independent and later independent, unified, physiologically developing processive whole.

To activate such capacities, a sensorially desirous organism needs not only to register sensations but to interpret the observed motions of a member of the opposite sex as expressive of the inwardness of its own desires. It needs, as an integrally functioning whole, to see and read an integrally functioning whole. Especially in the case of encountering other humans, the gaze of the conscious other expresses its inwardness, which, unlike the sensory surface involved in expression, escapes the transparency of the observing-desiring other. That surface can be read because of past observation of its correlation with certain types of behavior as well as by reflecting upon one's own state of mind in similar circumstances.

A sensory power, whether cognitive (for example, sight) or appetitive (for example, hunger or sexual desire), is a concretely universal orientation toward the whole field of its objects, but it is activated, only by particular instances. The recognition of power entails activation by the universal orientations or types realized in individual instances which are recognized by sensory activation. This orientation we call "intellection" is of a kind oriented towards kinds or eide. Intellection renders manifest the universality implicit in possibilities of action and passivity to action.

Any entity within the field of experience can act and be acted upon; each entity is of a determinate kind which circumscribes the range of ways it can be acted upon and the ways in which it can act. This instantiation of type and delineation of correspondent possibilities linked to recognition of the repeatability and coordination of visual or audile patterns are the objective bases for language and for that developed and developing language we call science. In any case, possibility involves a set of universal orientations, active and passive, toward what is causally correlated with the type of entity instantiated. A possibility is a concrete universal. Nonconscious possibilities are actualized by individual things. The same is true for possibilities for awareness at the sensory level. However, what we call intellect is a concrete universal of a peculiar type: it is oriented, via the notion of being, toward the whole of the experienceable and the inferable and hence toward the whole of space and time. It is actualized precisely by the recognition of the concrete universality implicit in possibilities of entities and of their activities and passivities. Intellect is an absolutely universal orientation actualized by the concrete universal orientations ingredient in things.

This provides a privileged position for the intellectually endowed organic entity. Oriented toward the whole, it stands beyond the here and now of elemental, physiological, and sensing entities -- indeed, beyond its own elemental, physiological, and sensing base. Pried thus loose from the here-and-now, it is required to choose from among the possibilities provided initially by the sense powers correlated with the upsurge of physiological desire and subserving the growth, sustenance, and reproduction of the organism. Its choices presuppose ways of describing and interpreting as well as, following therefrom, ways of acting. Its relation to its offspring and to those of its own kind spatially proximate to it brings about the transfer of its patterns of description, interpretation, and choice to others, contemporary and to come. The dominant vehicle of such transfer is language, itself the primordial transferred. The sedimented result of such transferred patterns constitutes a culture. As oriented to the whole, however, each individual human is pried loose from the Now of both physiology and culture and condemned to choose. As such, the individual human has an intrinsic value and dignity, an inviolability which sets the limit to permissible encroachment by others. In its interior, its assent must be free and uncoerced, an insight it has taken millennia to recognize and to build into institutional structure.

Let us return to the beginning: "It is." It is written; it can be spoken. In each case, we have a sensory presence addressed to a reader or hearer. Even though immediately the reader or hearer may be confined to the speaker or writer, in principle it is addressed to any reader or hearer because it appeals to the universal human capacity for eidetic recognition. The spoken words pass away as they are generated; the written words remain through the flow of time. Yet each are taken from an eidetic inventory, recognized or made and recorded by an antecedent linguistic community. To get to the position of the sort of reflection we are engaged in, one must first have grown from a fertilized ovum to a perceiving, desiring, functioning adult, as well as have been raised in a linguistic community, stamped by the way the sedimented understandings and decisions of others have been factually brought to bear upon each of our concrete formations. Yet the recognition of all this involves an essential transcendence of the limitations involved in the structures recognized and thus the translatability of language.

This involves the general structure of what I call the I-Me. "Me" is in the objective case: it is all that about myself to which I can attend as an object. "I" is the center of a person, before which everything else is object. The "I" is correlate to the notion of being: referred to the whole, to everything about everything, I am pried loose from any particular thing and can reflect upon it and upon various given features of myself as "Me." There are three levels to this Me": first is genetic, the initial endowment given me by my parents; second is the cultural shaping I have received, initially mediated through my parents, but more broadly through all the influences that have impacted and continue to impact upon me from my cultural environment; third is the sedimented results of the choices I have made on the basis of those other two factors. Here and now, the "Me" I have is the concrete resultant of those three factors which provides a limited set of real possibilities for choice. The "Me" exhibits a series of zones more remote or more proximate to the "I." The genetically produced, as biological ground, is furthest. Cultural stamping lies closer and the history of past choices closer still. Closest of all is the spontaneous identification with certain lines of attraction centering in what a long tradition has called "the heart." What is in my heart defines what is closest to me, what attracts me without even having to reflect upon it. However, as pried loose from everything determinate by reason of being by nature indeterminately oriented toward the whole, I am perpetually condemned to choose, to assess even my own heart and to shape the given "Me" as the concrete artist's material into a meaningful whole.

However, one must also have in one's heart the motivation to carry on the inquiry we are undertaking and the lived distance, provided by discipline and sedimented into habitual dispositions to act, from the immediacy of appetite and thoughtless proclivity evoked by culture and sustained by a history of personal choices. The immediate occasion for the current inquiry is a concern about the skepticism introduced by nominalism and deconstructionism regarding our ability to apprehend eide -- that is, to rise above the privacy of our own sensations and feelings and the limitations of our ethnicity in order to be the locus of the apprehension of universal principles of order implicit in sensation and in organic existence -- indeed, in the very character of spatio-temporal existence itself.

The emergence of sensations correlated with organic need occurs within certain thresholds within which those relational aspects of things emerge out of the darkness of their total being to confront us as needy and thus desirous sensors. Yet we are referred beyond the sensory circle to what for sensation itself is a dark encompassing, but which, for an awareness oriented toward being, is the source of all understanding. We are referred to the full being of what appears through the limited, subject-dependent, and hence culturally mediated way in which that appearance happens. Hence the need for developing techniques of inferring what lies beyond the immediately sensed, for interpreting what is given.

The notion of being occupies one pole of the bipolar structure of human nature whose other pole is organically based sensation. The notion of being is the notion of the encompassing totality. Yet initially it is an empty notion. We do not begin by knowing the whole; we rather exist as the question of being. The notion of being as the notion of the whole poses the fundamental task of bringing the organically based field of sensory appearance in relation to the full being of things and of ourselves, first by eidetic inventory whereby we locate the individually given sensum within the whole of space-time, then by interpretation which attempts to read the regularities on the sensory surface as expressive of ultimate depth, and finally by choices among the options for action made available by such understanding in order to form one's heart. The way the notion of being is given involves a whole set of eidetic structures that constitutes the enduring framework within which the differences of understanding, choosing, and interacting occur. One who begins to understand that has begun to practice a mode of reflection that catches up with the founding structure of human existence.

The relation to the whole of what is calls for the whole of what we are as divinatory of what essentially lies hidden, but which nonetheless essentially concerns us as oriented toward the full being of what is ourselves included. That full relation is a relation of what a long tradition has called "the heart." Its divination is not a matter of our cognitive and practical conquests but a matter of learning appreciative "letting be" through which beings make their claim upon us, and we are gathered into our fullness as the other to which otherness can appear as such. What we have uncovered provides the enduring framework, not only for further conquests, but also for acting out of the claim of otherness, our own as well as that of others. That, however, is another story.


The description I have given, I would claim, uncovers the major features of the invariant framework of all our experience. It puts us in a position to understand how the major questions in the history of thought came to be and allows us some measure of the adequacy of the proffered answers in terms of how they do justice to those aspects of experience we have uncovered. However, our inventory does not provide answers to questions as to the origin of that field and indeed of the universe within which it operates. It settles nothing regarding the coming into being of species, the relation between matter and form, life and matter, consciousness and life, intellect and awareness. It does not even broach the question of the ontological status of the eidos. It says nothing directly about possible immortality or the existence and properties of God. It does not settle burning questions concerning what we are to do, which options to select among the myriad possible, or the ground of the authority that might determine those selections. It says nothing of possible revelation, of religious pluralism and authority. It has no direct relation to all the technical problems of how to achieve the various goals given by nature, conditioned by culture, or selected by individuals. However, it does make us aware of the common field from which all of the above spring and in which they have to operate. And its dispassionate pursuit puts us in the position of some distance from the passions invested in living out these other quests. It teaches us to be less partisan and more understanding as regards the various competing claims involved. It creates a clearing in our mutual worlds, open to all humankind. It imposes upon us a dialogical imperative to give witness to our own, to attempt to understand and weigh the various construals of what lies hidden beneath, beyond, and encompassing the field of awareness as that to which we are all, as humans, essentially directed, and to let ourselves be measured by what emerges from that quest. Correspondence to: Department of Philosophy, University of Dallas, 1845 East Northgate Drive, Irving, TX 75062-4799. (1) Outside this note, this essay will employ no footnotes. Following Husserl, it claims to attend "to the things themselves." However, the historically informed reader will find similar insights in Plato's Theatetus and Sophist, in Aristotle's On the Soul and Metaphysics, in Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit and Science of Logic as well as in Husserl's Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology, vols. I and II, and Bernard Lonergan's Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (New York: Harper and Row, 1978) -- works which have taught us how to attend to "the things themselves." This should also help verify Heidegger's claim that phenomenology is a return to Plato and Aristotle (Prolegomena to a History of the Concept of Time [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991], 136). For a different but related approach to the themes developed in this essay, see my A Path into Metaphysics: Phenomenological, Hermeneutical and Dialogical Studies (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990). For a positioning of these considerations within a cosmological context, see my "Being and Manifestness: Philosophy, Science, and Poetry in an Evolutionary Worldview," International Philosophical Quarterly 35, no. 4 (1995): 438-47.
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Author:Wood, Robert E.
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Date:Jun 1, 1997
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