Xavier Zubiri's Critique of Classical Philosophy
Thomas B. Fowler
'Classical philosophy' may be loosely defined as the set of beliefs, assumptions, and analyses of experience, together with the intellectual edifice erected upon them, worked out by Ancient Greek philosophers, especially Aristotle, and further developed by Medieval and post-Medieval thinkers, foremost among them Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, and Francisco Suarez. The tradition has continued to our own day, in the persons of Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson, among others. Extending over a period of 2500 years, classical philosophy has undergone many changes; but some basic underlying ideas and ways of viewing the world have remained remarkably constant. It is these which are the subject of the present study.
In the course of developing his own philosophy, Xavier Zubiri (1898-1983) has thoroughly and incisively analyzed much of classical philosophy. Zubiri ultimately parts company with Aristotle and classical philosophy because he believes that despite its successes and insights, it suffers from fundamental errors with respect to both point of departure and the answers given to certain critical questions. In many cases, these errors have been set into high relief by developments in modern science; in others, they have been made visible by the critique of philosophers not in the classical tradition.
Zubiri's analysis of the errors of classical philosophy may be grouped into three broad areas:
(1) Structure of human intellection.
(2) Confusion of reality and being, the "Entification of reality".
(3) Subsuming of intellection under logos, the "Logification of intellection".
(4) Nature and function of definition.
(5) The notion of truth.
(1) Inconsistency with modern science.
(2) Disagreement with empirical facts.
(3) Failure to reach legitimate goals.
(4) Foundations and nature of mathematics.
(1) The division of philosophy.
(2) Ability of unaided mind to penetrate secrets of nature.
(3) Structural complexity of reality.
(4) Hierarchical nature of reality.
(5) The canon of reality.
The first category is the subject of this paper.
Principle Conceptual Errors of Classical Philosophy
(1) Structure of human intellection
For Zubiri, perception of reality begins with the sensing process; but in contrast to Hume and classical philosophy, Zubiri does not believe that there is duality of sensing and apprehension. What we have, rather, is a fully integrated process that immerses us in reality:
Direct apprehension of reality through sensible impression is a process which is intrinsic to our somatic structures as human beings. It is, indeed, the most important characteristic of our apprehension, and the foundation of all subsequent knowledge, including all rational knowledge. This impressive apprehension of reality is an act of what Zubiri terms the sentient intelligence (as opposed to earlier conceptions of it, which he refers to as sensible intelligence):
This fully integrated nature of the sensing and intellection aspects of perception implies that the Scholastic maxim nihil est in intellectus quod prius non fuerit in sensu nisi ipse intellectus is radically false. (3)
(2) Confusion of reality and being; the "entification of reality"
Zubiri criticizes all earlier philosophy (not just classical philosophy) for sloppy thinking in regard to being and reality. For him, reality is sensed, and it is de suyo. Reality is formality, not being; but it is possible to articulate the relations between the two. Being is sensed in an oblique manner when reality is sensed. Zubiri comments,
This approach leads inexorably to a certain view of reality and being:
Zubiri clarifies his position vis à vis classical philosophy by pointing out that in classical philosophy, substantial being was identified with reality, the esse real. This Zubiri terms the 'entification of reality'.
This confusion results in the failure of classical philosophy to fully come to grips with being and reality. Zubiri argues that Aristotle's notion of ens (to Ôn) never went beyond the stage of a not-so-clear analogy of eighteen meanings. Given this situation, the Medieval philosophers thought that no unitary concept of ens was possible. They identified reality and existence, and then understood existence to be an act of an existing thing (St. Thomas) or a mode of the thing (Scotus). Zubiri argues:
Thus for Zubiri, the idea of ens is wrong at the deepest level, that of the conceptualizing intelligence. Something real is ens only as actuality in a world. Where does that leave the history of philosophy?
Finally, this thing-centered approach leads to notion of being according to the categories, into which many things don't fit: energy, entropy, forces of nature.
(3) Logification of intellection
Moreover, the being of the affirmed was identified with the being of predication, with the copulative 'is'. This, which he believes to be wrong as well, he terms the 'logification of intellection':
From Zubiri's standpoint, however, the situation is entirely different:
This logification has led to quite erroneous ideas about reason. According to Zubiri, they are three: reason as organ of evidence about being, of speculative dialectic, and of total organization of experience. He remarks:
For Zubiri, in other words, the classical paradigm of rational knowledge as the ultimate basis for all knowledge, and accordingly that which must ground our knowledge, is completely wrong.
(4) Nature and function of definition
Essence is indeed one of the most profound subjects of human thought, and has exercised many of the greatest minds from antiquity to the present day. The central place of essence in human speculation inevitably means that in an age of science, its nature and relationship to the scientifically revealed world will become critically important. Do scientific discoveries about the nature of things bear on essence?
Zubiri greatly broadened and deepened our understanding of essence, both in the logical as well as the physical sense. He reviews old concepts of essence, and rejects them all as insufficient, before proposing his own, founded upon the notion of system:
For Zubiri, it is the interrelationship of the notes making up essence which is important; each constitutive note is present by virtue of its place in constituting the whole. The notes are mutually dependent, and often lose their individual identity in the constituted system. (13)Every reality is thus a systematic unity. (14)This general discussion is in agreement with the modern scientific concept of things as dynamic systems, in which the interrelationship of the components makes the thing what it is, with its own behavior, different than that of its constituents and often obscuring them.
In light of Zubiri's discussion, it is apparent that classical concepts of essence are not congruent with science because they are what I term "flat", i.e., they assume that there is an absolute character of everything that can be captured by some act of the mind, usually unaided, on the basis of which we then "know" the thing. The primary example, of course, is the classical definition in terms of genus and species, with the example, "man is a rational animal", though Hegel and Husserl immediately come to mind as well. Zubiri correctly points out that all such concepts of essence are inadequate because they do not capture its key physical property, that of structure, the de suyo, from which emerge all of its properties or notes, including its dynamics, the dar de sí. This is more along the lines of Aristotle's tÕ t... Ïn enai, but without the logical connotations which it ultimately assumed. Clearly, behavior such as we now understand, from biological evolution to chaos, is of an entirely different order than that envisioned by the creators of the old concepts of essence; and it involves layers of structure which point to a far richer and more complex reality than those concepts are capable of expressing. Indeed, it is unclear that essences can be adequately expressed at all in normal language.
The probing activity of science, through sketching of possibilities and use of experiment, may be the principal route to knowledge of essences, even though essence appears logically in primordial apprehension. Zubiri's concept of essence is thus much more profound, but also much more difficult to achieve, than earlier conceptions of it. He notes,
(5) The notion of truth and its relationship to reality
The classical notion of truth is or involves some agreement between thought and thingsZubiri terms it 'dual truth'. Zubiri does not wish to reject this notion, only to reject it as the fundamental meaning of 'truth'. The major problem with the classical idea is that it does not provide a reliable path for us to go beyond our perceptions; there is, so to speak, and unbridgeable gap between the world of sense perception and that of real things. But for Zubiri, this problem is a pseudo-problem because it is based on an incorrect analysis of our fundamental act of perception and on a derivative notion of truth. The correct analysis of perception is that of Zubiri's sentient intellection, according to which we do directly perceive reality in primordial apprehension; this is real truth and not subject to error; error can only arise when we seek to go beyond primordial apprehension via rational processes. Zubiri notes,
Truth is often conceived as agreement of thought with things. This may be the case in some areas, such as the judicial system; but it is inadequate in general. For example, we wish to speak of the truth of art or literature. Moreover, once one agrees that language is limited in what it can express, unless one generalizes the notion of truth, it too becomes extremely limited. Zubiri comments:
With respect to error, Zubiri observes that
With this background, it is natural that in Zubiri truth will have a different meaning than in classical (or any other) philosophy. The priority of reality is paramount; for Zubiri, truth is intellective actualization of the real qua intellective, in the sense that a thing is really that in accordance with which it has been actualized.
(1) Xavier Zubiri, Inteligencia y realidad, (First volume of trilogy, Inteligencia sentiente), Madrid: Alianza Editorial/Sociedad de Estudios y Publicaciones, 1980, p. 82-83. (Hereafter, IRE; unless otherwise indicated, all translations of Zubiri are by the author).
(2) IRE, p. 257.
(3) IRE, p. 104.
(4) IRE, p. 224.
(5) IRE, p. 224-225.
(6) Xavier Zubiri, El Hombre Y Dios, Madrid: Alianza Editorial/Sociedad de Estudios y Publicaciones, 1984, p. 131. (Hereafter, HD; translation by Mr. Joaquin Redondo.
(7) IRE p. 226.
(8) IRE, p. 227-228.
(9) IRE, p. 151
(10) IRE, p. 151
(11) IRE, p. 523
(12) Xavier Zubiri, Estructura Dinámica de la Realidad, Madrid: Alianza Editorial/Sociedad de Estudios y Publicaciones, 1989, p. 35. (Hereafter, ED).
(13) Xavier Zubiri, Sobre la Esencia, Madrid: Alianza Editorial/Sociedad de Estudios y Publicaciones, 1985, p. 144. (translation of A.R. Caponigri; Hereafter, SE). p. 144.
(14) SE, p. 266.
(15) SE, p. 177.
(16) IRE, p. 234-235.
(17) HD, p. 214.
(18) IRE, p. 236.