An Introduction to Philosophy for Deacons: Issue #13

(The following are the written notes/texts of four, three hour, online session presentations given in the months of February through May in A.D. 2018.  A similar set of presentations was given to a previous group some years earlier.  The group consisted of diaconal aspirants, spouses, and diocesan officials of the Diocese of Pueblo in Colorado, United States.  The fifteen articles found here will include thirteen specific philosophical issues, covered in those four online sessions.)

Let us now turn to Issue #13:  Essence and the Rejection of Essence

A distinguishing feature of moderate realism is the belief that things are real and that each thing has its own essence, its own nature.

With modernity, beginning around A.D. 1250, we see a growing disbelief in, and disregard for the reality of essences or natures.

A distinguishing feature of modern science, in contrast to the open ended considerations of philosophy, is the strict limit science places on what it considers.

Modern science limits itself to causality, the relationship of cause and effect, the belief that all that can be known about things are their external causes.  By contrast, the natural philosophy of classical science and the belief of Roman Catholic philosophy, is that the essences of things are made up of four internal causes referred to as material, formal, efficient, and final.  This doctrine of moderate realism and natural philosophy is called causation.

Being only interested in external causes, modern science has no interest in discussing the essences or natures of things.  And, in fact, when you talk with real scientists who have no bones to pick with religion and philosophy, you will notice they almost never use the words essence and nature.

A second rejection of essences or natures involves the social and political and philosophical attitude referred to as historicism.

Historicism is quite prevalent in how most people think and talk today.  Historicism states that things don’t really have essences or natures.  The truth which one can discern regarding the things with which one interacts is not found by discovering the internal causes which make up their essence or nature.  Rather, historicism asserts that any truth, if we can call it truth; any truth which can be known about any given thing can only be known when the story, the history, of that thing is fully played out and known.

In the words of George Wilhelm Frederic Hegel, whose writings, according to Hannah Arendt, are nothing but a philosophy of history; according to Hegel, “the owl of Minerva spreads her wings only with the falling of dusk”.

The owl of Minerva in Greek mythology was the symbol of knowledge and wisdom.  Dusk represents the end of the story; the history, of some thing one considers.  Only when the story of that thing is ended, can we really know what that thing is about.  Only then does the owl of wisdom spread its wings.

We live in an age in which people have real doubts about whether or not things have actual essences, which are valuable to know.  The people to which we preach have real doubts about whether or not we can actually know things as they are in themselves.

One important manifestation of this modern doubt in the existence of essences, and doubt in our ability to known things as they are in themselves, involves issues related to human rights; the natural rights possessed by persons.

In Roman Catholic social science, the word rights refers to those things which persons need to attain those goals which are uniquely human.  In order to become free, to be creative, to be happy, to attain eternal life; persons must have certain things; things such as food, shelter, education, health care, freedom, family.  Persons’ rights to these things are called natural.  These rights are called natural because they are related to those goals which are part of human nature.

We can only know what the goals of human nature are, if we can discern and display what human nature is; the essence of human kind.  If there is confusion about what human nature is, or if there is doubt that we can identify essences; it necessarily follows that we cannot identify the natural rights of persons.  

In order to correctly identify the natural rights of persons, we must first clearly understand human nature.  In order to understand human nature, we must be certain that things in general, and persons in particular, have essences or natures which can be discerned and displayed.

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