The Ontological Spectres: Substance or Den?

Democritus of Abdera “The Happy Philosopher”

“I am thinking, therefore I exist.” We’ve all heard of this statement in school, but for the most part no one mentions another paragraph both after and before this statement which is reiterated several times in Rene Descartes Discourse of Method, etc.:

Next I examined attentively what I was. I saw that while I could pretend that I had no body and that there was no world and no place for me to be in, I could not for all that pretend that I did not exist. I saw on the contrary that from the mere fact that I thought of doubting the truth of other things, it followed quite evidently and certainly that I existed; whereas if I had merely ceased thinking, even if everything else I had ever imagined had been true, I should have had no reason to believe that I existed. From this I knew I was a substance whose whole essence or nature is simply to think, and which does not require any place, or depend on any material thing, in order to exist. Accordingly this ‘I’ – that is, the soul by which I am what I am – is entirely distinct from the body, and indeed is easier to know than the body, and would not fail to be whatever it is, even if the body did not exist.1

The dualism is central and obvious, yet what is not is this notion of substance and essence (or nature), etc. The notion of thinking substance as equated with the “I” which is the “soul” or the “I am what I am” distinct from the body is very much a Platonic distinction that Plato himself would have nodded and welcomed.

I’m not saying anything new here, just taking notes again on this tradition of the Theory of Forms or substantial formalism that has seeped into almost every aspect of philosophy down the ages. One can see it played out very much in Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz. But what is substance that Descartes offers as the organizing power of the soul to shape that which “I am what I am” as he says so certainly in dogmatic fashion?

Again we should return to the ancients for a first hint of what substance is and how it came to be so insidiously integrated and ubiquitous within philosophical speculation as to almost become invisible and accepted without doubt. As with other things we can start with Aristotle as our test case. In his Metaphysic he will inform us that substance is that which persists through change. (Yet, we should beware of exactly what Aristotle mean by his Greek term “ousia”, which most scholars will agree does not mean the individual are particular thing, animate or inanimate, but is rather concerned with the notion of primary being (or fundamental entity, or basic thing).2) One needs to beware of the differing readings between the Categories and the Metaphysic in his view of substance, too. In the Categories he seems to have viewed substance as situated primarily in things or entities themselves, and that their essences were secondary. While in the Metaphysic he would take up Plato’s notions of Form and stipulate that it is forms that are primary beings not actual entities or things.

Moving from a concept of the concrete particular then back to an abstract universal is part of this transformation in Aristotle’s thinking. I’ll not go into the quandaries and misapplied logic and fallacies this led in his thinking. I’m more concerned with the notion of substance itself, rather than the detailed logic of his portrayal and the unfounded linguistic twists that would lead him into logical errors. This is all part of history for the scholar to tread in minute detail.

In Locke and Descartes we will find a minimal or bare form of substance theory. Locke will tell us (as quoted by Rosenkrantz):

Not imagining how these simple ideas can subsist by themselves, we accustom ourselves to suppose some substratum wherein they do subsist and from which they do result, which therefore we call substance.3

Descartes will tell us:

Substance. This term applies to every thing in which whatever we perceive immediately resides, as in a subject, or to every thing by means of which whatever we perceive exists…. The only idea we have of a substance itself, in the strict sense, is that it is the thing in which whatever we perceive…exists, either formally or eminently.4

We do not have immediate knowledge of substances, as I have noted elsewhere. We know them only by perceiving certain forms or attributes which must inhere in something if they are to exist; and we call the thing in which they inhere a “substance.”5

Both Locke and Descartes depend on this notion of indirect access to substance/substratum through their forms. This is the tradition of substantial formalism at the heart of my own questioning at the moment. Before one can critique this tradition one must truly understand it. I must admit to following the opposite traditions of Democritus and his followers up an to such as Slavoj Zizek’s ‘dialectical materialism’ based on Democritus’s notion of the non-substantial Void or Den, etc. This pitting of the Permenides vs. Democritus traditions is a viable pursuit and one I’m opting for in future works.  As Rosenkrantz tells us:

The great philosophers of the past, of course, were profoundly interested in the concept of an individual substance. Aristotle, for instance, believed that individual substances were the basic or primary existents, as did Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, and Berkeley. Kant went so far as to maintain that human beings cannot conceive of a reality devoid of substances. All of these philosophers (and many others) spent much time and effort trying to clarify the concept of an individual substance.(ibid. Preface)

Yet, the other tradition of Democritus and his followers get little attention except in dismissal and opposition. Not much being said of the Void, Nothingness, and the non-substantial pre-ontological levels, etc. Against Zeno a pupil of Parmenides, Democritus ( a student of Leucippus ) would offer contra the Eleatic absolute denial of non-being, the notion that non-being exists as emptiness: ‘what-is’ (to den) is the plenum of atoms, while ‘what-is-not’ (to meden) is the emptiness of void (kenon). Emptiness can explain natural phenomena and physical plurality; what-is-not is in existence spatially as the fundamental prerequisite of physical motion. As Zizek will tell it in his chapter on Parmenides in Less Than Nothing:

Democritus arrives at den by leaving out only me and thus creating a totally artificial word den. Den is thus not nothing without “no,” not a thing, but an othing, a something but still within the domain of nothing, like an ontological living dead, a spectral nothing-appearing-as-something.6

He continues saying

Predictably, the Eleatic Melissus, in his critique of Democritus, dismissed den with the scathing remark that “far from being a necessary existent, [it] is not even a word.” In a way, he is right: we need a non-word to designate something that, precisely, does not yet exist (as a thing)— den lies outside the scope of the unity of logos and being. Democritean atomism is thus the first materialist answer to Eleatic idealism: Eleatics argue from the logical impossibility of the void to the impossibility of motion; Democritean atomists seem to reason in reverse, deducing from the fact that motion exists the necessity that the void (empty space) exists. The ultimate divide between idealism and materialism does not concern the materiality of existence (“ only material things really exist”), but the “existence” of nothingness/ the void: the fundamental axiom of materialism is that the void/ nothingness is (the only ultimate) real, i.e ., there is an indistinction of being and the void. If, for Parmenides, only being is, for Democritus, nothing is as much as being.(ibid. KL 1537-44)

 Therein lies the crux in our current dilemmas facing contemporary philosophy: substance or den? Being or nothing? Or both? How to proceed? I see no way around Democritus. One must confront this nothing that is. One realizes that Being arises out of ‘den’ nothing. Time, change, process, becoming, etc. motion: arise out of this emptiness that is.

1. Descartes, René (1985-05-20). The Philosophical Writings of Descartes: 1 (Kindle Locations 2840-2846). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.
2. Rosenkrantz, ary S. (2002-02-07). Substance: Its Nature and Existence (Problems of Philosophy) (p. 193). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
3. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 2 vols, revised ed., ed. John Yolton (New York: Dutton, 1965), vol. 1, chap. 23, p. 245.
4. The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch, 2 vols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 2:114.
5. ibid., p. 15
6. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 1509-1512). Norton. Kindle Edition.

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