Johns Hopkins University
Lamenting that many contemporary scholars shrink from the Big Questions of life, in Fides et Ratio the Pope exhorts us to respond to these questions' call with fresh energy and imagination. Few Big Questions have fallen into greater neglect and yet await our exploration with greater promise than that of the social bond at the core of reality. The social bond bears upon virtually every question we have considered in this meeting. It lies at the center of the nature of God, the nature of man, and their connection to one another.
A failure to embrace the profoundly social nature of God and man is a main cause of the crisis in philosophy that the encyclical addresses. The eclecticism, historicism, modernism, scientism, pragmatism, nihilism and postmodernism against which John Paul warns us, all spring from a denial of community across cultures and through time. Even if the fundamental principle of sociation is not yet central to Western Christian philosophy and theology, all the more, then, it invites our creative exploration. The encyclical urges us not just to reinvigorate what we have inherited, but with a passion for ultimate truth to take the search into new realms. (2)
Theology, philosophy and social science all stand to contribute richly to our knowledge of the social bond, though just as the Pope would have it, theology takes the lead. Its sublime truths - the Trinity, the Incarnation, our Redemption, the Resurrection, we as the Body of Christ, the timeless communal solidarity of the Holy Mass --- these stir us to contemplate sociation at the heart of our knowledge of God. Nor can we enter into such key philosophical concerns as the nature of the moral order, individuality, personal identity and responsibility, freedom, conscience and the will if we focus on the isolated individual.(3) The isolated individual does not exist. How can we penetrate the nature of faith, hope and love - all, exercised in union with others - without a thorough understanding of corporate solidarity and the individual's part-whole relationship to it? What can be the meaning of suffering without community? What is teleology? Ecclesiology? Law? -- which St. Thomas insists is first and foremost for "the multitude," not the individual. And his crucial concept that through the "telic arc" many virtues and sins are to be seen primarily in terms of their effects upon "the common good"?(4)
The Church, with her birth in the upper room, her early roots in little communities of faith that gave the martyrs courage -- the Church with her great flowering in medieval Europe whose genius was the corporation(5) -- the Church can only be understood in light of sociation. Consider the sacraments: baptism, confirmation, reconciliation, the banquet of friends in the Eucharist, matrimony, Holy Orders and even the last rites - all, quintessentially social.
Let us then turn to the social bond at the foundation of experiential truth and goodness.
Addressing itself to Fides et Ratio's exhortation that philosophers restore metaphysics to our overall culture(6) - even what one might call popular culture - our discussion here focusses on phenomena generally pervasive throughout a society. While it addresses questions about the vitality of professional philosophy and theology, the paper primarily deals with laymen's "metaphysics" and what underpins it. In no way, however, should this be taken to refer only to educated laymen.
But the paper focusses on the social dimension of realist metaphysics for two reasons that are more important: because it considers realism as essentially affirming relational wholes, relational truths, rather than primarily breaking up unities, and because the paper proposes that the support as well as the threats to realist metaphysics are to be found in a thinker's and a culture's social foundations, not just in philosophical argumentation.
Notwithstanding John Paul's acknowledgment of our social nature, his discussion of metaphysics takes the individual to be the unit of thought, action and hence of scholarly analysis, a perspective characteristic of virtually all Western philosophy.(7) To complement that emphasis, this paper explores the enterprise of metaphysical thought as usually if not always taking place within the context of a social group or influenced by social experience. We consider the processes of metaphysical reflection as ultimately comprising complex combinative rather than reductionist dynamics, processes that mirror the unity inside social bonds. The paper suggests that all important objects of metaphysical speculation have in this sense an irreducibly social nature. These objects may elude the analyst who sees the world only through the lens of individualism. In response to one of the final challenges the Pope presents to philosophers, we ask what a culture friendly to and indeed positively oriented to realist metaphysics looks like, and what are the social conditions that foster it. Perhaps our exploration will help Catholic philosophers and theologians recognize how starkly individualistic - hence nominalist - much of their discourse seems, despite their occasional nod to social ties.
In this light, then, how do we define realist metaphysics? Here we see realist metaphysics to be constructed upon three interdependent foundations. These foundations partly overlap with those that John Paul emphasizes as the most salient aspects of metaphysics, aspects that our culture most desperately needs restored. This paper's three pillars of realist metaphysics are:
- First, a general affirmation of reason: the belief that nature is intelligible to man's mind, which itself is active in figuring out nature; and hence that nature, life and society have meaning, which we can partly discover.
- Second, the society-wide acceptance of the reality of universal, abstract forms. These forms or categories are apart from particular existence, knowledge given us by the senses, linguistic conventions, thought processes of the individual mind, or peculiarities of a single culture. While these forms do not simply comprise generalities derived from the particulars through induction, their reality is confirmed by properties that laymen perceive as they generalize from direct experience of nature -- properties such as actual, objective visibility, regularity of occurrence, hierarchical arrangement, constancy over time, interdependence, internal complexity, and boundedness.
When we refer to a society-wide belief in the reality of universal forms, we limit this to key social forms or categories. For example, such abstractions as the family, fatherhood and the Church. Whether a culture that believes in these realities is also inclined to affirm such concepts as "chair" or "dog" comprises an important question, but one beyond our speculation here. To an anthropologist, and arguably to a Thomist as well, it is more significant that people consider the family as real than that they are realists about chair or dog.
- Third, springing from the first two fundamentals, in this paper a primary component of realist metaphysics is a concern for the Great Questions that give meaning to life. We trace a connection between the nihilism of contemporary culture, its nominalism, its disinterest in the Big Questions, and the loss of social reality in modern Western society. This third dimension of realist metaphysics rejects that we as a species and as concrete human groups are mere accidents overwhelmed by the universe, a position directly related to overemphasis on individuality at the expense of our social nature. To the contrary, we are confidant that life has meaning when and because we are members of transcendent social bonds. The professional or lay metaphysician is impelled by a desire for not solitary but collective answers to these questions because they affect us all and every generation. The Big Questions derive their bigness from their social weight.
Our discussion proposes a close connection between each of these three key dimensions of realist metaphysics, on the one hand, and a particular type of social organization on the other, the same type underpinning all three metaphysical preoccupations. In elaborating how these components of realist metaphysics are contingent upon social organization, we will begin with the second dimension, epistemological realism. After that we will turn to realist metaphysics' third dimension, showing the link between a concern for life's Big Questions and particular social configurations. Only then, after exploring the social ground beneath these two pillars of realist metaphysics, can we return at the end of the essay to why the first one, the affirmation of reason itself, is also in large part contingent upon social organization.
Secular anthropology may be of assistance
In considering the reality of the social bond as the foundation for realist metaphysics, theology and philosophy can count on assistance from secular anthropology. It is as a social and cultural anthropologist that I offer these contributions to our Thomistic Institute. Having no training in philosophy, I request you to correct my misuse of concepts in your disciplines that you understand in fulness and with technical precision. In this same vein, I invite you into the nuances of selected terms and concepts which, though familiar to you as laypersons, may have special meanings in my discipline.
The first of these is the term "social." It may be worth your while to consider seeing the central truths of our faith and their various philosophical and moral ramifications in light of this anthropological concept as distinct from the concept of "love," which is more familiar to your disciplines. Both "social" and "love" connote affective inclination, but by pointing to society the former opens us onto less subjective ground. In its broadest sense "social" entails less exercise of the will, if any at all. A person is born into society and can never get away from it, not having to choose to develop and maintain it as with love. Then too, "love" suggests the subject-object dualism which "social" does not.
While it is understandable that most philosophical writing defines culture mainly as ideas, in this analysis we will emphasize concrete social structures, observable patterns of behavior, as an essential aspect of culture. Here "social" refers to a group bond larger than a dyad (larger than, for instance, a friendship between two people -- or, as in the psalms, the humble petitioner and his Lord).(8) Within the broad genre of the social union, we are concerned with the social group, and within that class with corporate groups as exemplified by the corporate family. "Corporate" refers to incorporation through social and moral bonds, not legal incorporation: that is, with internally generated cohesion, not externally governed. Father Pinckaers' exposition of this distinction - both in his talk yesterday and in his monumental history of ethics - has no equal.(9)
Now let us elucidate how each of the three dimensions of realist metaphysics requires that the corporate group is the pervasive building block of society, especially the corporate family.
The social foundation of realist metaphysics: an hypothesis
We open our exposition with this hypothesis: that realist metaphysics is not likely to be restored to a position of prominence within Western culture - perhaps not even within Christian philosophy - without a restoration of the transgenerational and translocal corporate family, fundamentally because a belief in the reality of metaphysical forms is directly connected to the social experience and objective, society-wide "truth" of transcendent, morally-bound groups, whose paradigm is such a family.
The traditional concept of nature which Father Ashley so powerfully elaborates in his work, uniting man with God metaphysically, depends on the irreducibility of the transgenerational, no-exit corporate family. Unless the family as an unseen, timeless reality is as immutable, as given, as the sun or the Alps - neither constructed nor possible to de-construct - it is improbable that a society will put forth and be open to serious metaphysical affirmation in any of its three dimensions outlined above. Ordinary people believe in the objective reality of essential forms and of invisible things like nature and God when they live in a non-contrived social order --- when the primary units in their social landscape have an existence and authority not dependent upon a reference point in the political order, not requiring fundamental concessions from enacted law. When such primary building blocks have social substance, then God, abstract forms and the great metaphysical questions can be real, and metaphysics' confidence in reason seems reasonable.
Father Pinckaers comes close to my proposal when he indicates the connection between nominalism in the realm of philosophy, and in society the transformation of the "natural" social bond into humanly constructed aggregations, created and maintained instrumentally out of individual self interest, and validated in terms of convention or contract.(10) While it is true that most societies in which we find a basic set of pervasive and immutable social forms, beginning with the family and others modeled on it, have not produced professional metaphysicians, the people in these societies are solid realists, they take with high seriousness the encyclical's Great Questions of human life, and they have no doubt about the efficacy of logic, reasoning and common sense. Probably the corporate family as a social reality is a necessary but not sufficient social condition for realist metaphysical thought.(11)
This hypothesis is likely to have unpalatable ramifications for philosophers, ramifications which make it akin to some of the errors discussed in the encyclical.(12) I hope that these difficulties will open us to fruitful exchange, because this paper intends to assert an argument of general import, and to employ a method of analysis that has broad, not idiosyncratic application. While it does not endorse social or cultural determinism, it does urge theologians and philosophers to turn their attention in a more systematic way to the social aspects of God's nature, ours, and our relationship to Him, as being central to Roman Catholic Christianity. Further, the paper finds substantive parallels between what we might call the structure of philosophy's truths and approaches, on the one hand, and social organization on the other. More particularly, it suggests correlations between realist metaphysics and observable patterns of sociation in a society whose predominant organizational principle is the morally bound Great Vertical Order.
Let us turn, then, to the social foundation that underpins each of the three key dimensions of realist metaphysics, beginning with epistemological realism.
1. Metaphysics' epistemological realism: The corporate family as its precondition
Asking how the corporate family's pervasiveness in a culture plays an indispensable role in fostering epistemological realism throughout that society, we find much of our answer in the definition and description of the corporate family. What is it? I doubt that the corporate family any longer exists in Western society, and in some places has not for many generations. Father Ashley cites the ancient Jewish idea that a living community has a "corporate personality" from which its members derive their life, and to which they contribute in such a way that its very existence depends on them. St. Paul reminded the Christian community, which he called "the body of Christ," that "if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one ... is honored, all the members share its joy."(13) Since its birth the Church has served as a paradigm of the timeless, morally-bound family -- and, we may add, a model and protector of corporate social groups in general. In one way or another she herself manifests virtually all the properties that concern us in them.(14)
In what sense is the corporate family's form "real" in those societies that take it to be so? In the following elaboration of its essential properties, it may help us to take the terms "natural" and "real" as interchangeable: Within these societies, the thing I am about to describe is natural and real.
First, the corporate family is primordial, foundational. No one can imagine its ever having been created; it has always existed. Certainly it pre-dates the state with its formal legal apparatus. Ongoing presumably forever(15) - and, like nature herself, ever emerging - it transcends the life of individual members, of generational cohorts and even of political regimes. No multi-generational memory, no human faculty or archive can contain it. As one traces back, back, back through the generations of forebears that have kept the family continuity, new branches come into view and spread out; with each generation the family expands, becoming more populous, variegated, abstract and morally compelling. Its beginning is lost in the misty past where as one recedes farther and farther even in any specific instance the family approaches a metaphysical "form" -- that is, a group which is abstract, comprehensive, universal, and certain. Each family in its particularity realizes the form by extending itself back to its misty origins.
A society composed of such families requires that every human being belong in one. Absolutely everyone, even still-born babies. Family identity is personhood. It is inconceivable that one could be human apart from his family of birth. That a person might try to change his name in order to disguise his identity in a new place, or could do so legally, is preposterous. There is no escaping membership in one's natal family - not even by death. When a member pioneers in a new land the family does not lose him but realizes its translocal potential as he establishes its beachhead on new soil. Consider, for instance, the gigantic but solidary overseas Chinese families that have their flags on five continents. Some of them count into the hundreds of thousands of members.
The reason I call these corporate groups "no-exit" is that by its very nature the moral bond is irreversible, whereas contract stipulates a temporal beginning and end. Thus the corporate family is transtemporal as well as transgeographical. Both factors make it invisible. An important property: though an integral, corporate whole, it is unseen.
The ancestors are alive and present as constituent parts of the family. But it is absurd to refer to them as a "line." Not only does the huge assemblage possess depth in time, but in social variation and semantic texture also: two more properties that it shares with the natural order. Every corporate family manifests the eccentricity, complexity and ever-changing internal movement that characterize the reality of the world as we know it: babies growing up, some dying in a day or two; tottering senility; colorful characters, deviants, bitter internal struggles, traitors -- plus heroes, scholars, poets, high officials, saints and millions of ordinary souls. Deaths and replacements here on earth - continual emergence.
The corporate family's social density is matched by its semantic complexity: multi-layered references and connotations, collective memories, stories, symbols, lies and secrets that only insiders can interpret. Lessons from the unfathomable particulars of history and that change internally over time without losing their coherence. Shame that pierces an insider's being, but only an insider's. In its internal economic, social and semantic exchanges and interdependencies, the whole exceeds the sum of its parts. Father Ashley writes that
"... as we go up the scale of more and more complex natural units, the number and interrelations of the parts increases ... [and] there is an increase in the interiority of its activities."(16)
Such cumulative personal and social texture gives the family substance, weight, and puts its densely compressed matter beyond the possibility of human tampering. The bulk is just too great, too unruly, to be deconstructed. Any efforts to do so must eventually bow to its truth.
Another hallmark of the type of group that underpins realist metaphysical thought is that despite its internal variation - or rather, because of it - this social mass is unitary. Boundary holds all this profusion together, defines it off against "others" outside, and provides the cognitive as well as behavioral enclosure for each family's unique internal organization. Virtually all important, risk-bearing exchanges take place inside the family's boundaries or those of groups consciously seen as functioning like the family.
To transmit such thick interior cross-referencing bounded off against the outside, the preferred metier of expression in such groups comprises analogy, symbol and ritual, not language "associated by law." (17) This rich particularity insures its impenetrability by non-members. The West's beloved civil society with its obsession for public transparency has no place for these social orders' private-world reality, resistant to public scrutiny. Professor E.O. Wilson has laid bare the most intricate organizational relations of ants and bees, but the corporate human family is too deeply textured for external penetration. To those in such a culture, this opacity testifies to its reality.
Embodying two further properties of social reality, these solidary families are primary actors in society, publicly recognized and objectively observable agents of autonomous action. Each makes its mark on the here and now as a patently visible, known entity. Self-governing through its own multiple authorities, it orders its affairs independently. It assumes responsibility as one body and disciplines its members on its own. Every person in society is tagged according to kinship and held accountable for group as well as individual deeds, also credited with group and other individuals' merits, even of the ancestors long gone.
The group has its members' happiness and its own well being and continuity as its sole ends. All of society recognizes this principle's reality and pre-eminence, what St. Thomas called the common good. The group's integrity cannot be reduced to social digits like roles, to explicit language, or to single-purpose utility. These irreducibilities to part-selves and partial, "flat" meanings comprise additional evidence of its social reality. No part can impose itself on the others or use the others for its purposes. Nor can insiders ever blatantly use the group for their own designs, lest the primordial rule be violated, that the group, good in itself, has only ultimate not immediate ends. Naked instrumentality constitutes a mortal offense.
These comprise the key attributes of a corporate group: foundational, given (though arbitrarily), invisible, unitary and integral, no-exit, not amenable to individual tinkering, socially and semantically dense, bounded, publicly observable and active, its existence needing no external justification. In bolstering the social union against reason's human engineering, these properties embody and hence attest to a reality beyond our making. When everyone takes this social form for granted as a rock-solid experience authorizing all similarly constructed abstract social forms, then the corporate group gives form to nature and is the seal of reality. Specks, clumpings and even material exchanges that are not housed in or sponsored by one of these mini-sovereignties don't exist ontologically. Part and parcel of realist metaphysics is recognition of the moral and semantic void beyond the corporate family's borders.
The corporate family is good
Though abstract, the corporate family is not only real, true, but it is also good. Just as all life begins in the family, so does all virtue. A corporate family is objective in the sense of being outside and larger than self, but it is never indifferent. All family members are by definition good, even if they are bad; and most non-family are neutral or suspect, even if they are good. One has to behave helpfully to family members and serve as their succor of last resort, not lie to them or cheat them. This is not due to love, duty, or concrete or emotional benefits of membership. The family is good because it is oneself. Truth governs inside. Outside, falsity is only constrained by formal Law.
Unity within such a no-exit social bond comes from all the members having an internally-embraced identity - usually to a group one has not deliberately joined but rather has been assigned to by society (for example, by infant baptism).(18) Contrary to Lockean theory of contract, members inside traditional morally-bound social unions - including outcast groups - take these groups to be good simply because, finding themselves assigned to them, they embrace their socially imposed identity. Each insider perceives himself to be an interchangeable exemplar of the more inclusive and abstract levels of the social whole. This intense identification can take place even when it brings avoidable opprobrium or death.(19)
Utilitarian or psychological factors to which contemporary social science attributes the self's identification with a group, such as depending on others for need satisfaction, recognizing a common fate with other members, sharing the same attitudes and values with them, enjoying proximity or frequent social contact with them -- these do not constitute the most fundamental conditions for pride in a group, mutual acceptance, intense moral cohesion and sacrifice. Rather, profound social attachment can be naturally elicited by mere external designation.(20) The will does not have the first move. Nature does. It arbitrarily creates social bonds, and people accept its fiat not only as being real, but also as being good.
2. Realist metaphysics' concern for the Big Questions of Life: The Great Vertical Order as its precondition
Realist metaphysics comprises more than the affirmation and study of the abstract forms of reality. As Fides et Ratio asserts, it also lifts up our vision to the ultimate truths and values of life. The two tasks are connected, because the comprehensive social forms above our quotidian experience give to the world innate universal significance, which we love and want to enter into. Like epistemological realism, this second dimension of realist metaphysics -- a society-wide concern, even among ordinary laymen, for the Big Questions of life -- also depends upon the corporate family. To grasp how this social form influences whether or not a culture is concerned about transcendent goodness and the Big Questions, we return to an aspect of the corporate family that we mentioned above, its layered internal organization.
Recall that as one traces farther and farther back through the generations, the small, concrete and vulnerable living family takes on the qualities of an increasingly more comprehensive, permanent and immovable overall form whose certainty is anchored in the distant past. The here-and-now corporate family is part of a vast, multi-leveled Great Vertical Order whose form is shared by many other groups in society, all modeled (often consciously) on it. Thus, just as the corporate family comprises nuclear or extended families nested in lineages, which are then nested in clans - and on up - so too, the Church comprises unitary parishes nested in dioceses within archdioceses. Kinship is not the only principle out of which Great Vertical Orders evolve. Other frequently found ones include Great Vertical Orders based on religious or temple membership, mother language, ancestral place of origin, and even sonship within an ancient, hoary educational order which through its intensely moral labors has made fully human persons of the generations of the young entrusted to it, brothers one and all. These Great Orders, too, unite the living and the dead.
Each person belongs to several Great Vertical Orders, or more. A proliferation of such internested orders fills out society, giving it plural systems of authority. Though resembling each other in form, the Great Vertical orders are autonomous, each having its own hierarchical governance and semantic codes. People in societies organized on this basis can easily articulate and map out the Great Vertical Orders' regularities. Organization in gradients is essential to the character of all transcendent, no-exit, morally-bound corporate groups. Social scale is built up gradually, each level expressing an increase in membership size, hence of substantive social variety and social abstraction. The greater the internal variation, the greater the potential for interdependencies exclusively within the Great Vertical Order.(21)
Within each Great Vertical Order the levels do not overlap in content, but rather the lower groups are contained in those above them. Each individual part and each group at every level embody the essential qualities of the overarching universal form, because step by step the lowest level is in touch with and can reach the highest -- indeed, is contained within it. Through such structured ascendency, each Great Vertical Order carries its members, personally, up to the highest, most comprehensive good. The small and the great are connected, giving the particular and the individual entry into the transcendent, his Unity and Good.
Depending on circumstances and personal inclination, a member of a Great Vertical Order can and will identify with any level of social abstraction, all the way up or down. Each part carries a complete set of the entire group's cultural DNA and a positive orientation toward the whole, enabling the members to act in concert on basic matters with but minimum explicit communication. These qualities give the whole an accordion-like flexibility and adaptability without depending on external coordination -- again, manifesting in visible joint action, reality's telltale sign of unitary complexity. This multi-leveled unity resists reductionism and dualism: every level is simultaneously true and good.
The Great Vertical Order's boundaries have profound epistemological ramifications. Truth is socially situated without contradicting its abstract universality. It flows freely up, down and laterally within the overall boundaries, but only information of little value crosses into general public circulation outside. Thinking is always readjusting itself to adapt to or bring itself in line with social reality, being.(22) Complex truth is confined within the bounded domain because so are intention and complex meaning. Meaning requires contrast, the contrast provided by boundary off against the external void. No potential can be actualized outside the self-referential family, because there are no meaningful things out there. This internal truth-domain and its complement, the external void of mistrust and suspicion, are not founded on sentiment; rather, they are empirically upheld in everyday experience.
Thus, echoing one of the encyclical's main themes, reason is autonomous, but can only reach significant truth when operating within the domain of faith. Authority, like truth, is only active within the Great Vertical Order. The truth-seeker wants authority's collaboration, its guidance and intervention. Authority does not only pass truth downward, as from teacher to pupil or master craftsman to apprentice; particularly in the thrust of action, but by no means exclusively then, subordinates may possess greater authority than their superiors. When this happens the principle of hierarchy still governs. As the basis of order it has not been replaced by function, neither equality nor utility being compatible with truth.
The Great Vertical Order's building blocks are not static. To the contrary, such society is constantly aware of movement. On a case-by-case, situational basis individuals have to affirm one of their particular memberships, which is where the virtue of prudence comes in. Then too, families in time father new ones, becoming lineages, then later on becoming clans, and so forth, eventually taking on the qualities of a prototypical form. Thus the lower levels are continually in motion. Fresh challenges that arise call forth new units at the particular level, nudging older forms into increased stability as they recede "upward" to where all collectivities eventually converge in unity.(23) Crucial to the order's emergent nature, if a person is to understand a thing he must understand what has gone before -- the ancestors are an active part of the present.
Freed by their time-transcendent reality, the lower orders comprise living, intensely interacting fields ever changing and, in the overall, expanding. Since the Great Vertical Order's truth domain always refers back to its interior resources, and since it authorizes meaning and truth internally, it constitutes an on-going order of potentiality -- but only as long as a contrast is maintained between it and the outside. If boundedness is denied, there can be no autonomous reason that the Pope so ardently defends.
The Great Vertical Orders' layered structuration of morally-bound corporate groups fosters concern about the Great Questions of life and yearning for completion, because the Order as a whole constantly exerts an upward pull towards the highest, the universal, the most perfect and most stable reality. For example, a nuclear family cannot separate its core identity and actualization - not to mention its resources in time of need - from its lineage, clan and higher levels of kinship. Given two immediately contiguous levels, the higher one, the more transcendent form, specifies the meaning of the lower one while the latter gives social content to the former. Such an arrangement - and remember, we are discussing actual social organization in which people live out their lives - imbues society with that ultimate meaning indicated by the most comprehensive unity at the top. One might go so far as to say that built into the social system is an ineluctable movement toward God.
Whereas Western culture sees whole-person identification with any social bond as suspect, threatening a loss of meaning for the individual, with reference to most traditional societies the opposite is true: Why would anyone prefer to be detached from such rich, dynamic relational fields that strain towards perfection? Such cultures concur with the Church, that the higher the level of group identification, the greater the inherent good. When a person adjusts the nature and content of his self-perception to conform to an ever more inclusive level, that may be nobler and more profoundly individual. It immerses one more deeply in the Big Questions of life. The higher a corporate entity is in the scale, the more enduring and real it is. In this way the social matrix of being endows abstractions with the reality of the universe.
The meaningfulness of life's Great Questions requires affect-laden comparison and contrast, both structured into the Great Vertical Order's organizational arrangement. Horizontally, all units contrast and compete with each other. In doing this they comprise one another's external environment, a demarcation that is indispensable for reality's meaning, identity, and the elaboration of its ordered interior complexity. But at the same time these competing and contrasting mini-systems are always unified, merged vertically, by the next level upward to which they necessarily belong. Thus the Great Orders constantly bathe society in affect-infused contrasts (the horizontal) and comparisons (the vertical). This environmental immediacy is intrinsic to the Great Vertical Order: the sharp proximity of a complex but structured outside. Every solidary level constitutes and forms its constituent mini-sovereignties, serving as their exterior.
A culture chock-a-block full of affect-laden contrasts and comparisons is flooded in meaningfulness, which every action invigorates. Suffused throughout with personal identity, the entire social environment and everything in it swim in significance: days of the week, plants and animals, geographical markers (even ones no outsider might notice), how objects of daily use are located in space, colors, letters of the alphabet and numbers all signify people, events, forces in the unseen world that are intermingled profusely and indiscriminately with things belonging to the material world. All relate affectively to oneself, while at the same time all point upward to unity and goodness.
Central to the social foundation of realist metaphysics, then, is the fact that in identifying himself with the corporate family, the Church or other such groups modeled on the family - each having internested levels of increasing inclusion and greater loftiness - a person is not considered to become impoverished or deprived, to submerge his core self, or to regress to a more primitive or unconscious identity. Instead, he gains in richness and meaning, in identity, goodness, engagement with reality, nearness to Truth, and in rational as well as experiential movement toward the universal form. This social order has built into it not only epistemological realism, an upward pull drawing everyone into the larger questions of life, and metaphysical range, but also some participation, for everyone, in love of the Ultimate.
3. Realist metaphysics' confidence in reason and the intelligibility of the universe:
The Great Vertical Order as its precondition
Father Ashley has given us a lucid exposition of the link between on the one hand the concept of the unity of all nature, starting with God, and confidence in reason on the other.(24) When in light of his analysis we consider how simply constructed the Great Vertical Order is, how easily its world is mapped out by ordinary people who constantly refer to its arrangements in their daily commitments, and how the entire society works on this one basic model, we can begin to appreciate the connection between its logical structure and its culture's affirmation of reason and sense that the universe is intelligible. While people in such a culture cannot predict or explain the internal details of groups other than their own, everyone has a clear picture of how society is put together, even domains within it with which they have no direct contact. Indeed, comprehension of the nature and significance of one's own corporate group constitutes the basis for understanding everything else, including the external environment.
No one, not even a billionaire or finance minister is exempt from the rationally structured framework built up of similar blocks, level by level - far from the Kafkaesque maze that contractually-constructed society comprises. The elemental properties of society (and by extension, of nature) are effortlessly grasped, even when the society is extremely complex, highly industrialized, and enjoying the latest modern technology. These elemental properties are: collective repetition of homologous and interdependent parts that are hierarchically arranged, and that endure and replicate themselves throughout time. Vertical regularity is directly related to horizontal, as all units mutually need and call each other forth.
Grounded in this intrinsically intelligible social order, the individual perceives a universe which is also logical and manifests the same regularity of basic forms. But as he looks outward onto nature, not only does he see a user-friendly landscape; because of its level-by-level proportional accessibility, this landscape invites him to act upon it, starting within those areas nearest him. His understanding of society's and nature's hierarchical order keeps the extremely complex in the distance; shows the more immediate reality to be comprehensible, hence do-able for whatever project he undertakes; manifests a rational continuum stretching between his place and where he may want to end up; and draws him into the whole through the prospect of movement upward with family and friends toward joint fulfillment. The universe is not only achievable through reason, but reason cannot resist being drawn into it, because while each higher level beyond him affirms the reality of the yet unknown and compels his involvement, the forms' sequencing precludes any unbridgeable gap between the steps to Completion. A person placed anywhere within the system has unbroken access to the vast, overarching horizon, howsoever distant the horizon may be that his vision places out there.
Yet the morally-bound social order fosters confidence in other dimensions of reason, too. While how we think about observable reality and order our knowledge of it in the social as well as the biological worlds proceed inductively, the particular and known building up incrementally into the general and toward the proximate unknown, the Great Vertical Order's social reality also structures the processes of deduction. After all, the here-and-now corporate family is the off-spring of what have become regularities seen in the more comprehensive forms. These abstract forms are not simply the products of induction, but, taking on an active life of their own, and equally true to reason, they conceive, give birth to new knowledge; herein lies their hierarchical authority. If we want to adhere to truth and goodness, we must understand and heed them, try to work within their parameters, let the emergent particulars flow from the comprehensive forms. It may be this movement from the abstract to the particular that John Paul, along with many Thomist philosophers, considers the distinctive mark of the realist metaphysics they would restore to our culture.
Theology, philosophy and the decline of the corporate family:
Social dualism as Nature is replaced by Law
In the European middle ages the reality we have reviewed in our discussion of the corporate family characterized virtually all social organization. Social reality incarnated the philosophical concept of the unity of man and God through the actual institutional build-up of "The Great Chain of Being." Through membership in even the lowest of the social levels the self could reach the all-inclusive social groupings close to God Himself, such as the universal Church and the Communion of Saints. Voluntarists and especially the Protestant Reformers abhorred this incrementalism and its gradients. To them an all powerful God distant from man was no longer governed as in the same Great Vertical Order, by the same natural laws that govern us, those we comprehend.
The dualism that the Voluntarists and Reformers articulated was not restricted to theology. The dichotomous universe they depicted found its social counterpart in the gutting out of all middle range structures extending level by level from the bottom to the top of society, to the most inclusive and abstract corporate Unity. When the autonomous medieval corporate orders were replaced by the state's new science of politics so well articulated by Machiavelli, control over others who were alien to one inserted an outsider into what had hitherto been a society modeled on the corporate family. Nature - the reality of the common good - was split in two: Ruler versus ruled, command versus obedience, reason versus the will, conscience policing the soul. The intermediate levels, previously governed by self-affirmed identity, internal authority flowing between top and bottom, and moral pressures, particularly moral interdependence, were now replaced by professionalized and centralized legal governance. Having to fill the terrible gap that the political dualism of power created, society needed force and formal Law: not only the mathematical laws of science to govern the biological and physical world, but positive legislation set free from moral bonds and generalized authority, to govern the social order.
We can now extend Father Ashley's philosophical and theological dualism(25) into the corresponding social organization that accompanied it:
- first, the dualistic view of nature found its correspondence in a dualistic society without any Great Vertical Orders, hence there were no accordion-like intermediate levels from us to God, the Ultimate Good and Truth;
- second, the decline in epistemological realism expressed the social condition in which, without these vertical gradients, God, the ultimate Truth, and the most comprehensive truths and good associated with Him were indeed out of our reach, leaving us with our own subjectivity and finite truths of our own making; and
- third, the shift from the unity of nature -- in social terms, the common good with natural law as its coordinational foundation -- to disconnected, bric-a-brac reality only made coherent by mathematics and measureable forces, found its parallel in raw politics governing through positivist Law explicitly severed from moral values.(26)
Today the corporate family, as virtually all social organizations, is but a toy of secularized political and legal will. Those who take pride in the Rule of Law as the crown of European civilization, wishing family-based societies throughout the world would soon adopt it, should ponder how it replaced natural reality with legal reality, enabling us in the West to construct and deconstruct all social forms artificially, even the most primordial ones. Father Pinckaers writes:
"...Charity forms bonds between us and God that are more supremely natural [than love of self], through direct participation in the spontaneity and wisdom of the Holy Spirit.
"These relationships are completely destroyed by nominalism. There is no longer any natural bond between human freedom and the freedom of God, but only a play of power... The essence of the first commandment is no longer love but the absolute imperative of the divine will... Charity itself can no longer form natural bonds between us and God. Any society uniting us will be basically artificial, like a contract or an alliance which depends upon the free decision of the free parties engaged. It will always be juridical in character...
"Consequently the notion of justice will be transformed. Having lost its foundation in nature, justice becomes the creature of society.(27)
Recall for a moment our analysis of the source of meaning in contrast and comparison, unity. The two dynamics complement each other. Meaning requires both, and both are integral to the Great Vertical Order. Dualism destroys both. In doing so it has diminished the status of human nature and lowered Western culture's metaphysical aspirations. Once dualism got a foothold in European culture, it attacked the dynamic foundations of reality we have described. Radical individualism precluded homologous units and their repetition in patterns, while radical equality precluded hierarchical ordering, hence contrast as well as comparison. Without natural verticality there could be no abstract forms to give significance downward. Without the elements of structured complexity there could be no meaning. When commenting on these consequences of dualism, scholars too rarely recognize the real forms' dependence on the Great Vertical Orders that attach the forms to us.
As a result of the intermediate levels being undermined, legal craftsmanship had to replace nature as the author of truth. This swamped the individual and his local groupings in the vast political universe of power and will. Absoluteness replaced proportion and relationality. Today we can hardly speak of being a part of "a society" or there being such a thing at all -- only individual decisions, choices. The postmodernists have not driven out realist metaphysicians. They only accurately record that, there being no social reality, life offers no grist for those metaphysicians' mill.
This loss of meaning does not only consist of philosophers' influential expositions of "the death of God;" nor is it simply the consequence of intellectual trends such as those the encyclical enumerates. Rather, an analysis of the concomitant disintegration of the social foundations illuminates the social, relational nature of meaninglessness, especially realism's dependence on the principles of complex social unity, exclusive and externally contrastive homogeneity of social forms, their repetition and hierarchical order. Without the forms that make possible lower level distinctions, there is nothing to give content to higher order reality. Each thing in life becomes utterly unique and trivial, the same as every other thing. Unless the lower order can give forth weighty contrasts greater than the individual - contrasts which only real forms can elucidate - the ultimate values of which Fides et Ratio speaks cannot dissolve this life's differences into unity. Without the transcendent forms and the contrasts that emanate from within the Great Vertical Order, metaphysics cannot ask the Big Questions or see the Big Picture.
Science per se need not devalue humanity, undermining its self-confidence, but when carried out within a culture of part-selves divorced from substantive, genuinely social articulation, science interprets its models of reality in the only social terms that scientists know, those of ultimately relational meaninglessness.(28) For a culture to see the forms' reality and thus be drawn to contemplate it, people - even scientists - must have social verification of that reality in their lives. The wellspring of such recognition is direct experience in the corporate social bond and in a society replete with such forms, above all the corporate family. The highest meaning in life is non-referential membership, radical identification of the self with others in the social bond at a transcendent level.
The encyclical's challenge to philosophers
In the modern, dualist social order the family continues on, hardly distinguishable as a family, in two types: first, the disembedded and unattached nuclear family, a remnant of the traditional corporate family; and second, the legally constructed or contractual family. While to Westerners these two may not seem mutually exclusive, in effect the one is sustained by socially and semantically thin moral bonds, the other by formal Law, and these two principles are irreconcilable. In lacking the corporate family's key attributes which we have outlined, these two modern kinds of family provide a useful summary of why the corporate family is essential to realist metaphysics. And they confirm that the properties of the corporate family we have reviewed are not arbitrary. Without any of these attributes the abstract, comprehensive and unitary form cannot be real, and thus cannot foster the three dimensions of realist metaphysics we have reviewed.
As for the legally-constructed family, we have already elaborated its deficiencies in our discussion of how nature was replaced by formal Law. Let us turn then, briefly, to the nuclear family which we now realize cannot meet realist metaphysics' requirements of a higher order form, particularly the form's several dimensions of transcendence, its abstraction, intricate interiority, and its ability to draw the individual's identity - and that of living society as a whole - into a higher, more comprehensive reality. It is true that the nuclear family's simplicity comprises a self-referencing interior. But most nuclear families today have no closure, making this interiority a sham. Without boundary they also lack an external environment, and therefore cannot constitute their own internal truth domains or acquire permanence. Above all, their stark simplicity precludes the key requirement of value, a combination of unity in variation, identity, and structured, substantive contrast off against complex likenesses outside. Recall that a vital aspect of the society organized on the Great Vertical Order is that it provides each family, each collective level and each autonomous order with a complex, structured external environment. Indeed, each higher level constitutes the complex environment of the subsystems within it.
A society made up of nuclear families, even healthy, intact ones not depending on law for their cohesion, comprises contrasts between individuals, but not essential contrasts between groups oriented toward patterned forms larger than the individual. In the order based on the corporate family, the primary social forms' very texture and weight, and the fact that society definitively confirms their reality in virtually every interaction in daily life, establishes being apart from thinking -- so much so that thought has to constantly adjust itself to being, recognizing the latter's upper hand. Being is given. In a society of nuclear families the shoe is on the other foot: there is no social reality - no being - apart from thought. Does this not negate the fundamental condition for realist metaphysics?
How would a Thomist theologian or philosopher knowing only a society and culture made up of nuclear families fathom the heart of the Creed, "... and became man"? Not in the same way as a theologian or philosopher embedded in real corporate families and transcendent Great Vertical Orders. How could a theologian or philosopher on this side of dualism possibly grasp what his medieval colleague understood by The Papacy, the magisterium, the priesthood descended from Melchizedek, The Dominican Order, or even St. Agnes' parish? Were our counterparts from the other side of dualism here today, what would they understand of the University of Paris? The Thomistic Institute? The company US Air that brought us here? --- even, indeed, the Notre Dame football team?
Jesus was a Jew of the ancient corporate tradition. So were the evangelists and St. Paul who tell us about him. So were Plato, Aristotle, Moses and Elijah. St. Thomas wrote from within such a social foundation. Possibly John Paul II has, as well. Now we hear them exhorting us to return our society and culture to a metaphysics finely fit to that type of social organization but utterly foreign to ours.(29)
They exhort us to imbue realism, and confidence in reason and the intelligibility of the universe, into a culture founded on legal reality's artificial paste-up jobs --- a culture that has virtually no acquaintance with a natural social reality made up of interdependent, standard parts appearing in collective patterns and hierarchies. Jesus, Thomas and John Paul exhort us to restore a concern for the Big Questions of life to a social void that evinces no natural commonalities across space and knows no traditive inheritance through time.
How can this be done? We face a vast "disconnect" between realist metaphysics' social requirements and our social order. We non-philosophers whom you our brothers are to transform are contractually-organized individuals. Ivory tower philosophy may be relatively autonomous of its social matrix, but philosophy as a cornerstone of our common good cannot be. How can you lift us up to participate in realist metaphysics' sublime vision? In his homily yesterday Father Ashley quoted the wisdom of the scholastics:
1. I wish to begin by thanking Dr. McInerny for reading a draft of this paper and offering me suggestions about it.
2. F&R section 56.
3. The idea of a concept, the very stuff of realist metaphysics, is itself intensely relational, hence by analogy social, in that it brings together in a single associational field numerous and varied attributes suggested by a term. Their meanings and connotations intermingle - truck and traffic in exchange - to comprise a whole whose parts cannot be separately distinguished without losing the overarching meaning they all participate in.
4. I owe these observations and a great part of the underpinnings of this paper to my friend and inspiration Russell Hittinger, who, however, should bear no blame for its errors.
5. This is not to suggest that social corporations do not flourish in other societies, even in state-level polities. They have done so and still do.
6. Especially F&R sections 5, 47, 56, 81, 83, 92, 99, 102, 103.
7. And, it would seem from this paper's perspective, one leading to nihilism.
8. Dyadic bonds are usually more intense than those of larger groups; their focus on direct reciprocity enjoys no dilution and fewer distractions. Hence their mutual obligations are, in a sense, more easily "enforced" internally. In a dyad each person is exclusively dependent on the other. No third party threatens to interrupt the bond with the creation of a "majority" off against one. Consider the great change that takes place in a marriage when the first child is born. Arguably, however, larger groups have thicker social and semantic cross-referencing.
9. In particular see Pinckaers, Servais, O.P., The Sources of Christian Ethics, translated by Sr. Mary Thomas Noble, O.P. (Washington, DC, Catholic University Press of America, 1995) pages 229-43, 247-53, 267-73 and elsewhere in the volume.
10. Pinckaers, pp 432-5.
11. Confucianism, the culture of corporate families par excellence, is not one known for metaphysics.
12. That there is a close connection between our experience and the order in which our minds arrange perceptions of the natural world, can hardly be doubted. Inasmuch as experience is validated by the repetition of events in an already existing mental framework, it might be said that without order we are incapable of having experience. The processes of human evolution probably have favored a brain that adapts its perceptions to the logical structure of the external world -- the most proximate, pressing and pervasive aspect of which is our social environment. But the congruence between the way we order our thoughts on the one hand (e.g., their manifesting repetition, hierarchy, interdependence, etc.) and the order that scientists perceive in nature, on the other, may suggest that the latter is a mere projection of the former, an issue beyond the scope of this paper.
Two hallmarks of the kind of traditional societies which are replete with corporate families are a preference to think in analogies and a tendency to consider messages conveyed in symbolic language more truthful than facts and principles. People in such societies find it reasonable that one's models of the natural world should resemble the social reality we know better than any other aspect of nature. Indeed, they would be surprised not to find that the rest of nature is not organized more or less the way we are - in families, etc.
In various of his works Durkheim deals with the connection between social organization and the way we organize our concepts in general, a question that interested him deeply. See for instance Emile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss, Primitive Classification, translated by Rodney Needham (University of Chicago Press, 1963).
13. Ashley, Benedict, O.P., Theologies of the Body (Pope John XXIII Medical-Moral Research and Educational Center, Braintree, Massachusetts, 1995) p. 510-511.
14. We rule out of our concept of "social corporation" the Western business firm and government bureaucracies because they are instrumentally (hence legally) based, rather than morally. This is not true of capitalist firms and government agencies in all cultures.
In light of our analysis here, the very existence of the Roman Catholic Church in the modern world is an anomaly. Now that the corporate family has disappeared from Western culture, the Church alone keeps alive there a model of living and viable corporate sociation. Most of the main attacks on her orthodoxy are associated with repudiation of her corporateness. But at least for now her loyal members remain imbued with the corporate structure's patterns. It is interesting to watch orthodox Catholic clergy and laymen defend the Church in these matters, as without being social scientists themselves many of them "instinctively" understand the basic principles of transcendent, no-exit, morally-bound sociation.
Although in the context of this Thomistic Institute the corporate family that we elucidate here may suggest the European middle ages, these forms are by no means exclusive to that culture. They flourish today in many parts of the world, even providing the basis for exuberant types of capitalism.
15. That any particular family endures forever is incumbent upon each generation of living members. But even if its genealogy reaches an end, with no one to keep it "alive," no particular family ever "dies." It may disappear from the human community, but not from existence.
16. Ashley, p. 308. The emphasis has been added. See his fascinating analysis of interiority and transcendence in natural processes, Chapters 7 and 8.
17. Charles Peirce's tripartite classification of signs corresponds to some of the sociological analysis presented here. See his Collected Papers, vol. 2, Elements of Logic (ed. C. Hartshorne and P. Weiss, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1932) p. 143.
18. For understanding these questions from the analytical base of social psychology I am grateful to my friend Professor John Turner. See, for instance, his Rediscovering the Social Group (Oxford University Press, 1988) pp 46 - 53.
19. Our knowledge of how we identify with groups into which we are placed without consent and without gain, often arbitrarily, owes a great debt to the French thinker Henri Tajfel.
20. Turner, p. 52
21. I am indebted to the late and extremely unusual anthropologist Roy Rappaport for helping me understand some of these ideas, both through personal correspondence and through his book Ecology, Meaning, and Religion (North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California, 1979).
22. Such boundedness of truth of course has serious liabilities, especially with regard to correcting error.
23. Darwin's explication of the open-ended dynamism and unexpected change in nature's lower levels (freedom), his confirmation of stability in levels above the species, his interest in natural classification's homologous forms, and his clarification of the real-world functions of basic morphological indicators place him directly in the epistemological tradition of the corporate family's Great Vertical Orders.
24. Ashley, pages 150, 154, 157-164, 204-205, and many other places in the text.
25. Ashley, pp 159 - 172. Father Pinckaers' discussion of the distortions of morality in the hands of legalists traces out a related dualism. See for instance, in Pinckaers, pages 230 - 234, 244 - 253, and 267 - 272.
26. In various works the late Professor Robert Nisbet has traced the coincidence of the hollowing out of the Great Vertical Orders' intermediate structures, the centralization of political power (the polarization of society), epistemological nominalism, and the release of materialism and self-centeredness from the previous tension in which they had been held by moral bonds, a tension that had previously enabled both to make highly creative contributions to European culture. Nisbet, Robert, Quest for Community, (New York, Oxford University Press, 1953) pages 80 - 191. See also his essay "State and Family" in Nisbet, Social Change (New York, Harper and Row, 1972) pages 190 - 210.
27. Pinckaers, p. 436. Underline added.
28. At the same time - and philosophers should be warned - dualism enhances universality and certainty. Without the corporate family's multi-referential epistemology, rooted in analogy and ambiguity, and without the significance and freedom that the Great Vertical Orders give to particularity, universality becomes King.
29. The Pope also calls you metaphysicians to restore in your own academic discipline confidence in reason and in the intelligibility of nature, and professional dedication to the Great Questions of life. This paper suggests that the trends in philosophy which John Paul would have you combat, maybe including analytical philosophy, probably constitute systems of ideas particularly well suited to Western culture's currently fragmented and legalized social order.
If so, how then can we explain the existence of this meeting and of the Thomist philosophers here? In terms of cultural lag? As artifacts of a dead culture? As a coming-together of refugees fed in the desert by the troglodyte Church that has somehow managed to live on in its cave? Father Sherwin urges me to extend the present analysis to a summary of the minimal social preconditions for realist metaphysics, perhaps preconditions for but a small band of survivors.
It is beyond the ability of this paper to respond to his challenging criticism. But one encouraging ethnographical note is in order: In this paper we have insisted that an entire society has to be structured on the corporate family and Great Vertical Orders if realist metaphysics is to flourish. While the overseas Chinese hardy count as metaphysicians, their hearty cultures in various non-Chinese societies in southeast Asia abound with realist lay people. In these cases the "outside" or external "environment" which we found so indispensable in our analysis comprises the non-Chinese culture in which the overseas Chinese find themselves, in some cases not structured on Great Vertical Orders. This would suggest that an enclave of realists, such as Roman Catholics in the contemporary West, may not only survive but thrive in an unstructured, alien environment -- if, that is, it can maintain strong boundaries between it and the outside. To this end the overseas Chinese enjoy numerous socio-cultural distinctions helping to maintain their boundaries, distinctions that do not separate European and American Catholics from their secular milieu.