Mind, truth and commonality

I want to discuss a feature of ancient Greek thinking that is certainly alien to the metaphysical presuppositions of our age: namely, that mind/nous is not a faculty of our individual minds but a single, transcendent, common ground on/toward which our various intellects participate/relate. As thinkers we participate in it as much as we do our environing physical world. While each of us may hold distinct opinions about this or that, different knowers know the same thing and not just identical replicas of the same thing. Knowers live in a common (zynon) world, joined as they are to a common mind.

Think for a moment of how we might communicate the meaning of a word like “banana” to someone who doesn’t speak the language: Tarzan, let’s say. We would hold up the common object, the physical banana, pronounce the word “banana” and hope that Tarzan grasps the link between word and thing. A hard matter to accomplish, but certainly possible. Now, imagine trying to communicate the meaning of the word without the physical banana present in common between us. Try to teach Tarzan over the telephone without common access to a world of things. Now we can say “banana” to our heart’s content and never advance one iota toward communication. An ability to communicate presupposes commonality: either the commonality of objects between two people who don’t share a language or the commonality of language (which itself must originate in a common world.)

For the Greeks, the vehicle of communication, logos, is also the constitutive intelligibility that makes a thing be the thing that it is. The reason for its being is the being of its reason. The world can be understood because of its inherent logos, and it is this logos is not something imposed on the things but which can only be learned from the things themselves. The logos of the world is thus common, the zynon, which is the same to any knower, and this commonality becomes an important marker of a perspective-independent reality. Heraclitus for instance grasped the importance of the common and how the loss of the commonality of all true thought is a great offense against the truth:

For those who are awake there is one common world, but when asleep each person turns away toward a private one. — Heraclitus, 22B889

Though the logos is common, however the masses live as though they had a private understanding.                      — Heraclitus, 22B2

Not listening to me, but after listening to the logos, one does wisely in agreeing that everything is one.               — Heraclitus, 22B50

Thinking is common to all. — Heraclitus, 22B113

Heraclitus contrasts the awake/asleep and the public/private as ways of getting at the difference between the shared world of reality and the isolation of opinionated consciousness. (It is interesting that in Greek the word for “private” is the root of our word “idiot.”)

Agreement (homologia) among those who know thus becomes one of the markers of truth. It is a commonplace in Greek thinking that no two knowers will disagree about that of which they have knowledge. Of course, agreement is only a necessary, not a sufficient, criterion of the truth, but it is important to grasp the ground of this necessity. Divergences of opinion, such as we find in the Platonic dialogues, occasion a search for agreement as a stage on the way to discerning the real. The possibility of substantive agreement among two thinkers is based on the shared participation in a single logos.

Charles Sanders Perice definition of truth seems based on a similar insight concerning truth and agreement:

Truth is that concordance of an abstract statement with the ideal limit towards which endless investigation would tend to bring scientific belief, which concordance the abstract statement may possess by virtue of the confession of its inaccuracy and one-sidedness, and this confession is an essential ingredient of truth. (Peirce 1901, see Collected Papers (CP) 5.565)

(Notice that even the hypothetically most accurate, final definition of Perice cannot stand alone as true, without the “confession” of a defect inherent to abstraction as such.)

Just as there can be no truth without commonality, so the ground of community, political or otherwise, must rest on common allegiance to a common truth.

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