I was planning to write this post anyway, but Dr. Doran’s “Some thoughts on Us & Them” provides perfect justification, and context, for these comments. Since I was part of the same panel discussion that Dr. Doran mentions, consider this a continuation of that conversation.
Let’s begin with some Van Tillianism. A central problem (perhaps the central problem) of philosophy is “the one and the many” problem (which we’ll abbreviate TOATM). Concisely stated, the problem involves the relationship of the particulars of our empirical experience to the universals of our minds.
I most often illustrate TOATM problem using chairs. The lecture room is filled with all of these items that we call chairs. Yet, close examination will reveal that no two of them are identical; each has its own scratches, bulges, etc. And there are a whole host of items that we also call chairs that are strikingly different from those items in the lecture hall. Additionally, there are any number of items that are, in many ways, very similar to those in the lecture hall, yet we do not call them chairs. So, for instance, at a certain width, that item ceases to be a chair and becomes a bench.
Here’s the challenge: define those properties which all chairs, and nothing but chairs, have in common. You will find the task, if you take it seriously, maddening; what we do so adeptly without thought becomes painfully confusing when we turn our attention to it. Is a doll’s chair really a chair, even if no one can sit in it?
TOATM problem is at the heart of the debate between empiricism and rationalism (as epistemologies) and drives us to a discussion of the nature of reality. The empiricist, who believes that sense experience is the basis for knowledge, wants us to insist that each individual chair is real, and the true object of knowledge. The rationalist, on the other hand, insists that the true object of knowledge is more like chairness, the abstraction that makes it possible for us to categorize items. Such categorization is important, the rationalist claims, because even your idea of the one chair sitting in front of you is not something that you experience in any instant; you are convinced the chair has a back side, even if you cannot see it presently. To walk around the chair is to link experiences together is an idea, and idea that is chairness.
The empiricist, then, finds reality in the many (the chairs of the lecture hall); the rationalist, in the one (chairness).
Each position has its virtues. The empiricist (by far the most dominant viewpoint for most people today) finds the suggestion that chairness is more real than that chair absurd. And he is correct to defend the reality of that chair, in my estimation.
Unfortunately, the empiricist is left with several problems. Knowledge, if it is worth having, needs to be of something stable and universal. So, if the empiricist insists on the reality of that chair, his knowledge of that chair is truly irrelevant to the other item sitting next it (also a chair). They are fundamentally different objects, and nothing in one’s sense experience can say any different. The grouping of items is a mental, not an empirical task.
Van Til insists that a radical preference for the many over the one (of empiricism over rationalism) ultimately unravels into skepticism. Of course, the same is true for the radical rationalist: he knows chairness (the universal), but his idea is, definitionally, something he cannot experience. After all, you can’t sit on chairness.
This is TOATM problem: in order to have true knowledge, we must be able to bring the one and the many into meaningful contact with one another. (Van Til’s answer is rooted in the Trinity, but that isn’t relevant for this discussion.)
Now, all of this finally sets me up for my reply to Dr. Doran. (It’s probably a good thing that I didn’t take the mic during the panel discussion.)
Perhaps I’m misreading him, but it seems to me that Dr. Doran’s proposal leans us far too heavily on the side of the empiricist. Each item-that-might-be-a-chair is different, so to speak; each must be evaluated on its own terms. Furthermore, the boundaries between chair and bench, and between chair and recliner, and between chair and big rock, etc., are never clear: therefore, it doesn’t make sense for us to speak of chairs at all.
Please don’t misunderstand: I do agree with Dr. Doran that the labels that we have been using are increasingly inaccurate; this is precisely what the empiricist offers to the rationalist (as the rationalist has a tendency to invent categories that have no relation to the world of experience). In this regard, I am quite in agreement with his proposal. I’m merely inclined to think that his wording is such as to cast doubts on the possibility of useful labels, and that, in my estimation, is a kind of skepticism that I would want to avoid.
I am, then, arguing that we need to hold the one and the many in tension with each other. There is an us around Dr. Doran, and, as you move increasingly from him, there is a them. The fact that the line between these is not distinct does not entail that these categories fail to exist at all.