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Transcendence, Logic and Identity

by Trevor Curnow

What follows is an attempt to work through some ideas which come out of the notion of transcendence. In the course of this enterprise, some speculative conclusions will emerge regarding logic and the problem of identity. There will also be some observations touching on aspects of the history of philosophy. It is surprising where an investigation of transcendence may lead. If the ideas I have set out sketchily below are of some use, they will be worth developing more thoroughly. If they are of no use, they may be consigned to the scrapheap of history.

The very notion of transcendence indicates that there is something which transcends, the transcendent, and something which is transcended. In order for the idea of transcendence to make sense, there must be some identifiable difference between the transcendent and the transcended. At the heart of transcendence there is therefore a structure which holds two different things together in a particular kind of relationship. Consequently, it is possible to characterise different forms of transcendence by identifying the two elements between which they hold. The following are some obvious examples taken from the history of philosophy. In each case, the transcended appears before the transcendent: becoming/being; multiplicity/unity; temporality/eternity; apparent/real; mortality/immortality; sensible/intelligible. One way of interpreting each pair is to see the second term as overcoming the limitations of the first. This is in keeping with the Latin origins of ‘transcendence’ in transcendere, to go beyond, to climb over. Each transcendent goes beyond a specific transcended.

Three points may now be made, which should become clearer as the argument progresses. First, each of the terms put together into pairs above may bethought of as indicating a particular type of world. The world of multiplicity is different from the world of unity. Or, to express the matter psychologically rather than ontologically, the experience of the world as multiform is different from the experience of the world as a unity. Secondly, different worlds may have different logics. The rules of multiplicity are different from those of unity. Thirdly, the transcendent of one pair may form the transcended of another.

It should be apparent from what has been said that there is no one single world which can be designated the transcendent. There are as many transcendents as transcendeds. However, it is possible to combine ‘simple’ transcendent worlds to form ‘complex’ ones. For example, it would be possible to postulate a complex transcendent world characterised in terms of being-unity-eternity, which stood in a transcendent relationship to becoming, multiplicity and temporality. However, there is a serious danger to be recognised here. If different worlds have different logics, then it may not be possible to combine them in a coherent fashion. To take the given example, it is only if the logics of being, unity and eternity are compatible that a being-unity-eternity world seems possible. This point seems to me highly significant, and to strike at the heart of many of the problems which arise concerning transcendence. Within the history of western philosophy, these problems arise at least as early as Plato.

The whole motivation behind Plato’s Theory of Forms seems to have been the search for a stable foundation for knowledge. Heraclitus observed that the world revealed to him by his senses was constantly ch anging. For Plato, this world, the ‘sensible’ world, was therefore inadequate as a foundation, and he rejected it in favour of the ‘intelligible’ world, the world of the Forms, from which all change has been excluded. For Plato the stable is the static, being not becoming. The Forms therefore have a fixed identity. If it is not possible to step into the same sensible river twice, there is nevertheless, for Plato, the assurance that there is an intelligible river which never changes. In the intelligible world, everything most definitely is what it is, and not another thing. On the basis of such a stability is erected the structure of a logic which operates in terms of a strict either/or. Such a logic is possible precisely because identity is not problematic.

However, there is another strain in Plato’s Theory of Forms which pulls in an opposite direction. This concerns his notion of the One. This factor may be most simply explained (although not necessarily correctly) by the influence on Plato of the thought of Parmenides. The effect of this influence was to lead Plato to try and reconcile the Forms with an overall picture of unity. Two obvious strategies present themselves in this regard. The first is to make the intelligible world itself the transcended half of a multiplicity/unity structure of transcendence. This has the disadvantage (in the context of the search for the foundations of knowledge) of making the intelligible world of the Forms no longer ultimate. The second option is to postulate a complex transcendent world, characterised as intelligible-unity. However, the logic of the world of unity cannot be either/or, since the logic of either/or is based on multiplicity. Consequently, it is not at all apparent how the logic of the intelligible world can be combined coherently with the logic of unity. Hence something of a dilemma emerges. Either way, the epistemological value of the Forms is undermined. The Forms are either not ultimate, or else they are the supposed occupants of a world which is not coherent.

The origins of the dilemma clearly lie with the attempt being made to reconcile the Forms and the One within a single structure. So why does Plato try to do this? I would tentatively suggest that Plato may be operating, consciously or unconsciously, with the notion that there is a single transcendent. If there is a single transcendent, then the transcendent which transcends multiplicity (unity) and the transcendent which transcends the sensible (the ntelligible) must be fitted together. The way out of this dilemma is to recognise the complex nature of transcendence.

With that, I will move on to Aristotle for the next stage in the historical development. It is important to realise at the outset that there is an important difference between how Plato and Aristotle view logic. Plato’s logic of either/or is rooted in the intelligible world, where things stand still and identity is not a problem. Since the intelligible world transcends the sensible world, Plato’s logic may be regarded as a transcendental logic. Aristotle, however, takes this logic and applies it to the sensible world, taking a dim view of the intelligible world. The principle of non-contradiction, the heart of either/or logic, comes out in Aristotle as the assertion that something cannot both be and not be (some particular thing) at the same time. Aristotle is therefore taking a principle which Plato sees as holding good in the eternal world and applying it to the temporal world, introducing a temporal element into it as he does so. Not surprisingly, however, problems emerge when the logic of being-eternity is brought to bear on the world of becoming-temporality.

These problems are neatly encapsulated in the ‘Ship of Theseus’ puzzle. When the planks of a ship are replaced one by one, until not a single original plank remains, do we end up with the same ship or not? If not, when does it become different? The problem of identity is further complicated by the fact that the planks which have been taken out could be used to construct a second identical ship!

The answer to the problem is both impossible and simple. It is impossible for the logic of either/or, the logic of being, to provide an answer to a problem about becoming. We cannot transpose a logic from one world to another and expect it to work automatically. The logic of either/or is derived from a world of fixed identities. It is scarcely surprising if it begins to struggle when it is applied to a world where change is a constant fact of life. The world of becoming needs a logic of becoming.

In fact, the foundation for such a logic may be found in the work of Aristotle himself. It is scarcely surprising that a botanist should want to say not only that the seed is not the plant, but also that the seed may becomemay become the plant. The notion of potentiality as developed by Aristotle short circuits the strictures of either/or, and recognises the existence of intrinsic relations over time. It is not accidental that the seed becomes a particular kind of plant, rather than just any kind of plant. Potentiality provides the basis for a logic of becoming which rejects the tyranny of either-the-same-or-different. What the notion of potentiality does is to point towards a different conception of identity.

Unfortunately, this side of Aristotle’s thought has been relatively neglected in favour of the either/or approach. However, the attempts of Hegel and Marx and their successors to develop some form of dialectical logic are highly significant in this context. Nevertheless, generally speaking the history of philosophy has preferred to force a changing world into static moulds.

So where does all that leave things? While I would readily acknowledge that what has gone before is speculative, I would put the following ideas forward for consideration. First, that Platonists have tended to think in terms of a single transcendent world, and that this has been the source of many inconsistencies and confusions. Secondly, that Aristotelians have tended to see logic as monolithic, to the detriment of the notion of potentiality, and that this has led to many misapplications of the logic of either/or. Thirdly, that identity in the world of becoming cannot be the same as identity in the world of being, and that the recognition of this fact may shed some new light on a number of philosophical problems.

© Trevor Curnow 1995

Trevor Curnow teaches philosophy at the University College of St. Martin and the Adult College, both in Lancaster.

Plato’s Theory of Forms

According to Plato, we can never have absolute knowledge (episteme) of the tilings we experience with our senses, such as horses, chairs or mountains, but only doxa or belief. After all, such tilings are constantly changing/moving/ageing at a varying rates, and anyway, how much can we rely on the accuracy of our senses?

Plato argued that each horse that we see or hear is an imperfect copy of an eternal, unchanging ‘idea’ or ‘form’ of the horse, which exists in a realm beyond the senses but is accessible to the intellect, to reason. We can have perfect knowledge of these forms. Everything has a form – horses, tax-inspectors, toothbrushes, the number 7.

Even non-material concepts have forms, so there is for instance a form of ‘the good’. Philosophy, thought Plato, should be a striving after knowledge of these forms.

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