The Clarendon Building, Oxford
The Clarendon Building, Oxford
Designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor, and built in the years 1711/5, it is seen here from the entrance to the Old Bodleian Library - into which its function was absorbed in 1975

These buildings seem like a testament to substantiality. Columns, facade, iron gateway, paving, all substance; a concreteness so fundamental to our world, a world which is surely made up of 'things'. According to the Oxford dictionary a thing is an: 'actual being or entity as distinguished from a word, symbol, or idea' especially 'an inanimate material object'. This division offered by the dictionary is no passing fancy, it runs through much of western philosophy. It separates out our words and thoughts, and contrasts them with actual beings or entityies - somewhat at the cost of suggesting that our thoughts might not really partake of existence as much as those substantial buildings seen above. However, an un-contentious division is seen here between what is mental and what is not.

More contentiously another characterisation of 'things' is their radical independence: they seem to just 'get on with it' without needing human assistance. This radical independence keeps them separate from us, and let's them stay that way. In contrast facts, thoughts, words - while possibly eternal - are delicate, and easily transformed or negated. Those paving stones (the things) do not, we mostly believe, de-materialise after I pass, having slipped on their appearance, like a coat, to let me clop along them, then slipping it off again on my departure. Whereas the fact of there being 60 paving stones (if there be) seems quite tangled up with human minds, and is liable to revision at any time, by a change of perception, or conception, or indeed the passing of the mind concerned.

The two distinctions - the mental from the physical, and the independent from the dependent - easily move from being distinctions, through being differences, to become chasms; as they have for many writers most famously Descartes. Without being drawn into the arguments, one point stands out: a thing can only become a thing with the help of a thought - the flags-stones are both thought and thing. Both thought and thing are members of the same world, but not like foxes and badgers inhabiting the same woods, more like foxes and red pelts being in the same place: they relate to different questions, different views, different modes. So more generally thingness and factness depend on the context and are not separable. Without the thought a thing would be at most a mere noumena and therefore unknowable. And thoughts which have lost hold of things we call illusions: the clop clop would not automatically follow walking through the gate if it was 'merely' a set of facts. To make the clop automatically follow, Descartes was forced to invoke God's good will.

Things are central to our world. They have primacy, and provide a permanent anchor. Any explanation or explication of experience starts from that anchor and must include it, but that is not all that things are; what we discover when we investigate further is great complexity hiding in the simplest of objects.

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  • Descartes, Rene (1641) 'Meditationes de prima philosophia'. Translated: Haldane, E. S. & Ross, G. R. T. (1911) In 'The Philosophical Works of Descartes'. Cambridge. (Meditation II)

  22nd May 2015 ~ 23rd July 2015