Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

History of Western Metaphysics and Political Thought, Pt. 1: Introduction to the Intertwining of Language and Metaphysics

Contemporary political and sociological thought often speak about community, public good, the body politic (corps politique) scientifically as though these collective entities were living organisms. Politicians describe the nation-state, the family unit, and the geopolitical world as sick or healthy. Environmentalists rightly or wrongly describe the geological Earth as biologically suffering and even dying (as a mother in the Gaia theory). Sociologists (for example, Durkheim in his study Suicide) attempt to relate the behavior of individuals with the nature of the society whom he or she is part of. Even the average person would say in one way or another that as citizens of a country we imagine ourselves as “members” of this greater whole, this corps social et politique.

While we discuss “groups” and “members” without hesitation in a seemingly scientific manner, these collective terms have a specifically historical origin and a subsequent theological history of development and conceptual working-out. As such, in order to understand our contemporary political problems and conceptualizations, we must better understand the history of the “metaphysics” underlying current discourses, in particular the origins and different usages of the metaphor body-politic across Western theology and political theory.

Contemporary political theory is almost synonymous with the idea that individuals possess rights and responsibilities in relation to the community. Much of the debate in political theory, on the other hands, lies in specifying these communal ties to the individuals. Libertarians lean towards defending the individual and their rights, and Communitarians lean towards understanding the individual as communally-constructed and as such ethically- and politically-obliged and responsible to the community. (As my blog entry on Bukowski attempts to show, we can’t simply assume naively that we are “communal or social beings,” because the nihilist-cynic critiques and ultimately rejects this “communal spirit” which we so intuitively assume.)

Arguably in biology we often speak of “animal societies” and “biological communities,” but we need to distinguish in our discourse between what classifies as a structural coupling (of entities with their biological body, with other entities and with their environments) and what classifies as a way of explaining in terms of organic metaphors what it means for an individual to be in or part of a society. Biologically, our bodies act as a kind of unified plurality of systems and subsystems (see Varela). But politically, describing the state as a body is employing a (historical and metaphysical) metaphor as justification and as explanation. In this instance (society as a body), we are taking quite literally (society is body) what would be considered in the philosophy of language as metaphoric (the body is like a body). While few intellectuals and thinkers would come out and claim directly that “society is an organism” (sociobiology is perhaps an exception that thinks of individual animals, such as bees and ants, as undistinguished parts of a unique supraorganism), we cannot deny the presence of organic metaphor, which considers society as (or as like) a living body or organism, in contemporary political and social discourse.

Contemporary political thinkers, like thinkers from antiquity and the medieval era, are confronted by the problem of how individuals relate to their society (or should relate, because there is an implicit requirement to think these questions in ethical terms). When there is civil unrest or even a civil war, the question looms large, because a response must be provided in order that those separated individuals reunite and rejoin the society as a whole. Implicitly and passively we are part of a society, but how can this unification of individual to society be justified? Or to put this idea another way, how does the individual’s particular heterogeneity**homogeny (difference, dissimilarity, variety, diversity) be corresponded with society’s supposed (unity, similarity, unifying)? These are difficult questions. Even today we lack the answers—on the practical and the theoretical levels.

As individuals, we are biologically separate entities who are cared for and brought up by a community. As socially-embedded through the act of care, the family can be justified as relations and relationships that maintain the upkeep of its young. In Evolutionary Theory, the care and upkeep of the young are justified as being beneficial to the survival of our collective genetic code. In any case, these questions on the biological nature and political role (or purpose) of the “self” and “community” will have to wait for another time.

Politics is part of a much larger cultural phenomena dealing with understanding our place in the world. We explore and understand our world as practical, experiential, language beings. In this way, language (partially) determines our perception of the other beings and other things around us in our world. Consequently, our language and our use of language shape our situation in the world—practical-political, theoretical-cultural, etc. Often our very claims in political discourse imply a certain network of concepts and usages. For example, political theorists, politicians, and everyday people use terms like public assistance or social security, which leads us and connects to other words like “group,” “society,” “community,” “public,” “social,” etc. All these fundamental and historically-situated words tie into a history of conceptualizations, of concepts situating things and beings. Our political conceptions and conceptualizations must always be interpreted and used across a history of interpretations and usages. Phenomenologically-speaking, our language horizons are always, already determining our understandings and our experiences around us. Political thought is no different and must as such recognize its formulations across these conceptualizing histories of metaphysics and theology.

In holding a dialectical tension, the very use of this term member indicates the ambiguity and lack of clarity in how we distinguish or fail to distinguish between a physiological and biological body and our attachment (our membership!) to the community. As we will see in greater detail in the next blog entries, the idea of a society as being (like) a body dates from one of Aesop’s fables. “The Stomach and the Body” retells how certain body organs (like the hands and mouth) thought the stomach was useless and lazy and so these organs stopped functioning for and bringing food to the stomach. While the moral of this fable reflects a simple biological fact about the necessity of the body’s parts to “serve” the body, what is important for us and for political thought is the reappropriation of this fable in a particular political context by Menenius Agrippa. In his speech to the then-revolting commoners, Agrippa evokes Aesop’s fable as showing how human society is like a body and, as such, every part must respect the whole. Equally important is the use of this body-member metaphor in the writings of St. Paul and the concept of Christ’s Mystical Body.

These two sources of the body-member metaphor in the political tradition and the religious or theological tradition are radically combined with Constantine’s decision to legalize Christianity in 313 and iwht Theodosius’s decision in 391 to make it the official religion of the Roman Empire. Throughout this time, marked by its first Ecumenical Council at Nicaea, Christianity increases orthodoxy and becomes more institutionalized. Later as the Roman Empire collapsed, the Church took on new political and cultural roles. While arguably there has always been an overlapping of politics and religion (or ideological belief) in advanced societies, this moment in history is markedly important because for the next 1700 years Christianity will remain one of the most dominant intellectual and cultural currents in Europe and eventually beyond.

Consequently, Western thought will be worked out primarily in relation and in the terms of the Christian faith. Today’s contemporary debates about public good, social security or immigration still think and speak with these same notions, which are and were conceptually tied to Christianity. Leaving aside entirely a phenomenology, which would explore the very experience of our personal lived body and the possibility of a collective corporeal experience in community, let us focus our thoughts on the metaphysical baggage that our contemporary political and sociological language still carries from Catholic and Protestant theology. This intertwining of metaphysics and language throughout the Western traditions remains crucial to all levels of thought but especially for contemporary political theory and politics in general.