Wednesday, May 12, 2010

What Constitutes an Entity? Saul I

I've been surprised by the difficulty I'm encountering in trying to transition to a more formal discussion of Saul's ideas, and I think I just figured out why. John Ralston Saul, to his credit, writes his book in a way that follows his own sense of things: He himself is frustrated by recipeic approaches to living, so doesn't want his ideas to be construed as just another recipe; and he succeeds. Following Saul through the forests of our Humannness is pleasurable as he lets you see things yourself, and lets you develop your own felt sense of things. But I can't reprint the book here, so I think I have to provide some "handles" to better grasp his world view. And hopefully, you'll read the book yourself, because you'll be engaged in a worthwhile dialog with him; it's that kind of book.

To get at a possible handle, let me ask you, "what constitutes an entity"?

Referring back to the grizzly bear of a couple of posts back, and we ask what constitutes one, we would point primarily to biological stuff and habitat stuff. How about an entity like the United States of America, what constitutes this? Why the constitution of course. But wait- the "Constitution" is merely a document made of vellum. On this vellum however, are written a set of Ideas; so it's actually a set of ideas that constitute the USA: change the set of Ideas, and you constitute a different country- right? So now, what constitutes the entity we call Human Being? would we point to biological stuff? ideation stuff? Or is there some other stuff? Yes; yes; and yes. What I'm referring to here as the "other stuff," which we could consider as fundamentally constituting Human Being, Saul calls Qualities. And the quality we are most familiar with in our culture is Reason. In other words, we easily note that the one quality which distinguishes the human animal from all other species, is the quality of Reason.

We don't usually give much thought to this distinction, that's been in place since the Enlightenment: Saul however does. Not so much on whether or not animals can think or not, but on whether or not Reason should be considered as our sole quality that constitutes Human Being. As I asked in my last post for instance, "what about Imagination?" Is Imagination merely a subset of Reason, or is Imagination another Quality that serves a constituting role as much as Reason does? Saul, in answering such a question, doesn't limit his list to two Qualities however. No- he comes up with six! six qualities that constitute our very humanness, and he lists them thusly in alphabetical order: Common Sense, Ethics (Ethicality if this were a word), Imagination, Intuition, Memory, and finally Reason.

If I may paraphrase him, Saul asks, what qualities constitutes the Humanness of Human Being? and answers with his list of six- which exist together equally (as opposed to existing in hierarchy) in a dynamic tension together. Reason is removed from a throne and takes its place with our other qualities which are each just as vital in constituting our Humanness.

Two things He'd want you to know about his list: First, the list is not conclusive; he's not out to make another recipe, another system, another vehicle of sorts that takes us out of living and puts us into a management of forms. Secondly, he derives this particular list of Qualities from all the past attempts by thinkers who sought to consider the qualities that constitute humanness; Saul's list is a distilled representation of them.

A third thing Saul would want us to know about, is his use of the word Quality. And I think this is pretty cool: While we share in things we could call characteristics, or talents, or traits, the distribution of them depend on each individual person existing in their particular time and place. Qualities on the other hand, transcend individuality, and are there to be participated in by any Human Being. We could say that characteristics play a role in constituting an Individual. It is our Qualities though that constitute our very Humanness.

And I'll end here with another part of the question I asked earlier: What does it take for a bear to be more bear? and contrast that with the question, "What does it take for Human Being to become more Human? And of course, ask these in the context of the question, "What constitutes an entity?"


  1. Have just come across this blog which interests me considerably. In answer to the question, I would say that bears can't go much farther than where they are while remaining bears. Is this true of humans? This is very much an open question. "Man is something to be overcome" said (I think) Nietzsche. If this is true, humans will give rise to an entity which will go farther than they can : this is pretty well my feeling. The human experiment has not been a complete failure but it has run out of steam : its value is to give rise to something which will go far beyond it. But this entity will not despise the humble creature which enabled it to exist : it will recognize humankind as a pioneer. What will this new creature be? Who knows? It will either emerge from a biological entity able to evade humanity's pitfalls, or from an artificial entity able to take on biological features. Some of this is explored in my unfinished SF novel "The Web of Aoullnnia", see galada

  2. Galada, I'm so glad to meet you! I just read your essay entitled "Two Cultures" and thoroughly enjoyed your thinking of science and culture there.

    As to your comment here, sometimes I think of Humanness as a level of order of which human being is called to fulfill; if we fail at it, will it take another species to fulfill it?

    On the other hand, I pose the question, "whats the difference between Heaven and Democracy?" and I answer, "in heaven there'll be more adult supervision."

    So barring a new species, will our fulfilling Humanness rely on remedial environments? I hope not. As I get to know people participating on the blog here, I'm getting the deep sense that there's momentum building toward deeper human maturity and creativity. So I have hope.

    Thank's for joining Galada, Mike.

    P.S. Here we usually go by first names- I don't know if Galada is your "blog handle" or not, but feel free to use the name you wish.

  3. Galada, Mike,
    These are the ones i like in "Two Cultures":
    - "On reflection I decided that, when you get to the bottom of things, both science and mathematics and art (religion also) are responses to the human condition, in particular its unsatisfactory aspects"

    - "All this, of course, was hardly new to the poets : though they did not know anything about entropy and the 2nd Law of Thermo-dynamics, they sensed what was going on acutely enough"

    On Taoism. I know very little. To put it concisely (and thus probably very bluntly) if we think about our deepest insight at any given point in time and nothing else, we can learn to clear our mind, which opens up the door, the window, and the third eye to our full capacities. I think this is also the linchpin to further levels of awareness...

    (maybe, in the long(er) run, we will awaken with no memory at a higher level within Gaia. Just a speculation there, but sometimes it's hard to remember how exactly we perceived the world as kids. the only thing i remember is that i really wanted to remember that i wasn't as happy as adults thought kids are and that's describing a process 'within' a Homo Sapien understanding of myself. No wonder most babies come out crying :)).