Saturday, March 10, 2018

360. Do objects have an essence?

I have taken the ‘absolute’ to mean two things: it is universal, applying everywhere, regardless of conditions, and it is fixed, applying forever. That is how I read Plato. For Hegel, the absolute spirit is not absolute in that sense. It is moving, in a historical process of self-realization. 

Does the universal have an essence? In my view, an essence is absolute: universal across all contexts, and fixed. An essence that varies with context, as I heard Harman claim, to me is a contradiction in terms. I do allow for some property of a thing to have salience, or to be characteristic, depending on the context. Of all the features of a thing, or manifestations of a universal, one is of particular salience at that place, context and time. It may be called essential, but only in and for that context. It also depends on whom you ask.

To connect with the idea, discussed in preceding items, that a thing is to be seen from two perspectives, of what ‘is in it’ and ‘what it is in’, especially the latter depends on context, on where it is in.   

For example, would Amsterdam, where I live, still be Amsterdam if all the main canals, seen as characteristic of the city, were filled up? That depends on whether you live on one of the canals, or are a tourist, or a film maker. In Amsterdam, the Waterloo square offers a market for second-hand goods and tourist trinkets. It is somewhat anarchic, formed by independent-minded traders, indulging in traffic of mostly soft drugs, and a certain amount of stolen goods. The municipality is now planning a revised, more orderly, clean and planned market, without consulting the traders. There is now a rebellion brewing, with people chanting that the square is now ‘losing its soul’.   

But if there is no fixed, context-independent, objective essence, how, then, to account for the phenomenon that there is continuity of identity (of a boat, a person, a city) in combination with variation of qualities across context and time? First, I think that eternal identity is too much to expect: identity is at most stable relative to the change of features or qualities that vary most with context and perspective.

I am reminded of Neurath’s story of the boat that one repairs, replacing plank by plank, while staying afloat in it. The planks are new, the boat retains its identity. Cities remain the same while having structures, streets, etc. replaced. People age, get sick, learn and forget while staying the same people. This suggests that there is a whole with replacement of parts. The whole retains its basic logic, design, or composition. This relates to the notion of ‘emergence’ mentioned before: the whole has features that the parts ‘in it’ lack. Parts may continue to contribute to that even when replaced.

To proceed, I think here of the notion of a script that I used at several places, in discussions of meaning and innovation (item 35 in this blog), as a logical, causal or sequential ordering of components called nodes. Then a restaurant retains an identity in the ordering of nodes of entry, seating, food selection, payment, eating, and exit, while a component node may change its identity, such as, say, the method of payment, which in turn has a lower level script, a subscript. Now, in the transformation into a self-service restaurant, the order of the nodes changed, with selection and payment preceding the seating and eating, and that may be seen as a change of identity.

The change of the composition of the script often requires a change in the nodes, the subscripts. Seating now includes carrying a tray of food, and the node of exit now includes the dumping of trash from the tray.   

This also yields an example of emergence: A restaurant has a legal and a fiscal identity which its components don’t have.

On no level can the activities involved be completely specified. To quote an example from Searle: the node of eating does not specify that food is to be put in your mouth, not your pocket, though doggy bags are sometimes allowed (in the US).

So, what would be the essence of  a restaurant? If it is eating, a self-service restaurant would be essentially the same as a service restaurant. And one also eats at home. Is it eating out, then? That also applies to a picnic.

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