Concreteness, Corporeality & Responsibility

English makes it easy to refer to a whole group of things as if it were a substantial entity in its own right, whether or not it really is. It then allows us to assign such things as motives, plans, and behavior to that merely notional entity. Thus, e.g., “Baseball been very very good to me;” “The Wehrmacht has taken Paris;” “Godless Communism killed 100 million.”[1]

It’s handy. But difficulty can ensue when we take our shorthand references to such groups as if they indicated something concretely real. The game of baseball can’t do anything, nor can the Wehrmacht, or Communism. Clemente was treated well by actual people involved in baseball, Paris was taken by German soldiers, and the victims of the Communist holocaust were destroyed by real men and women. It’s a category error to blame or credit merely notional entities. AN Whitehead called it the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness. It arises when we treat ideas as if they were actual and concrete. Concrete entities do all inherit ideas from their past, embody them, and propose them to the future. But without a concrete entity to do the inheriting, embodying, and proposing, nothing happens with the ideas. Ideas don’t have themselves.

Ideas are indeed causes, to be sure; the final, formal and material causes of events are all ideas, in the final analysis. But the inputs to an event are not yet the event. Only agents can respond to the ideas that are their factors. It behooves us then to remember to assign responsibility to natural persons, rather than to movements or schools, to philosophies or merely legal persons.

Notwithstanding all that, it is interesting that there are some such group identifications that truly do refer to really subsistent actualities: e.g., a human body, the Church, and so forth. The bee hive, the man of war, the termite mound, the ant hill, the plant, and the fungus may too all fall under this category. All are collectives, but all are collected in and as members of a single concrete entity, that stamps its character upon all its subsidiary occasions – whether or not they realize it. Such collective entities – Whitehead calls them nexūs – are all bodies. They have corporeal existence in their own right, gaining and losing members from one moment to the next.

Most interesting of all is that such bodies are not perhaps best thought of as material “stuff.” They are not solids, the same all the way through. They are, rather, distributed, occurring wherever and whenever their members occur. Thus the body of a human person is arrayed over a large volume of space and time, in which there are many emptinesses, many gaps. Corporeal bodies in our cosmos are of course mostly empty space. This is to say that their loci of concrete actuality are dispersed across a large and merely geometrical extensive continuum – “merely,” because mostly inactual. But more than that, the embodiment of the human person can be distributed between this world and another.

When we think of embodiment this way, it can be easier to understand the Body of the Lord, which is mystical, spread across Earth and Heaven, and ex hypothesi all worlds whatever. Wherever his members are, there he is; wherever his elements are, there he is. At the same time, he is embodied in Jesus of Nazareth, who has hair, and eats, and can run or smile.

There is no contradiction between the material embodiment of the Logos in Jesus and his mystical embodiment in the Church, in the bodies of believers, and in the bread and wine of the Eucharist.

Is there then any reason that would prevent him from having many such bodies as he has in Jesus, of whatever type? Or, is there any reason why he could not be actual in and as an angel – Michael or Melchizedek – at the same time that he is actual in Jesus, and in a congregation of two men huddled in prayer, and wherever he is called down to material corporeality by such congregations and their priests? I can’t think of one.

[1] Or, “English makes it easy …”

24 thoughts on “Concreteness, Corporeality & Responsibility

  1. Pingback: Concreteness, Corporeality & Responsibility | Reaction Times

  2. Wehrmacht was not some idea but an actual concrete entity, an entity as concrete as the American nation.

    Or would you fall back on methodological individualism and say that only individuals are real.
    And then you lose the family and the nation.
    And gain what?

    • “The Wehrmacht does not exist, but only individual men and women” and “The Wehrmacht is a concrete actuality just like you and me, with feelings, intentions, thoughts, and so forth,” do not exhaust all the possibilities. If they did, then the terms “corporation,” “association,” “league,” “group,” “tribe,” “alliance,” “organization,” “team,” “guild,” and so forth would all be vacuous. There would be no terms that really referred to human groupings; rather, all human groupings would be concrete individuals.

      Is the Wehrmacht indeed a concrete person, as you suggest? Was it then entirely put to death for its war crimes during WWII, so that all of its members were exterminated, to the last man and woman? Or were only some of the members of the Wehrmacht exterminated, and most held blameless for those crimes? What about Germany? Did we exterminate the German nation, in whole and in part, for what a single SS guard did in a concentration camp?

      I would not fall back on methodological individualism and say that only individuals are real. The post says as much. Go back and read it again, and perhaps you will see where I talk about nexūs and mystical bodies and so forth.

      • Well you talk a fine way about mystic bodies but about non-mystic bodies you do take a hard modern libertarian position.
        I did not say that Wehrmacht was a person. I said that it was an entity as concrete as the American nation. Is a family not a concrete entity? ‘Or only quarks concrete for you?

      • Read the post again, slowly, carefully, and with a charitable intent to understand what I am trying to say. If you do, you may be able to see that one of my subliminal points is that bodies as such are mystical, and that some of them are also materially implemented. I don’t take a hard modern libertarian position. You’ve got it all wrong.

        No, quarks are not the only concrete reality. Sheesh. I am getting really tired of saying this: read what I have written.

        Quarks, too, are mystical bodies. There is no contradiction between material and spiritual reality. If there were, then, spiritual reality being prior to material reality, there would be no such thing as material reality.

      • This high mystic approach personally I find unappealing and I am unsympathetic with.
        For me quarks are just entities postulated by physicists to make their sums come out right. I find nothing mystical about them.
        But others might appreciate being mystified.

  3. “to remember to assign responsibility to natural persons, rather than to movements or schools, to philosophies or merely legal persons.”

    So the hangman is responsible for hanging. He then needs to follow each trial and form his judgment as to the guilt of the criminal. And he should proceed with the hanging if and only if he agrees with the judge.

    Your off-hand remark proceeds, as usual, to destruction of all authority, the logical end of methodological individualism ran amok.

    • You exaggerate wildly. Yes, the hangman is responsible for his acts, even as agent of the state. “I was only following orders” is not a successful defense for the commission of crimes. Yes, the hangman may never, ever disengage his conscience, under any circumstances. He need not duplicate the efforts of the courts, but he must certainly satisfy himself that their judgements are reliable, and just. Otherwise he is nothing more than a machine, a mechanical feature of the gallows.

      Does this inescapable moral obligation destroy all authority? Of course not. On the contrary, true authority can only be exercised over agents able to form their own moral judgements, who have judged it proper to put themselves under some authority. If we were to disengage our consciences altogether at the first encounter with a seeming authority – never mind the decision which authority is truly authoritative, we’ll put that aside for the moment, despite the fact that there is in life no such recusal available to us – why then it wouldn’t be authority at all, but sheer unadulterated control of marionettes.

      • Well, if a hangman is going to do a very particular drastic thing of hanging a particular individual and the hanging should weigh on his conscience then his just satisfying himself in a general way that judgments of courts are generally reliable, this seems inadequate.
        Will you kill someone on this general consideration or would you require a more particular satisfaction. I am responsible for killing this particular man and I must be sure that this particular sentence was just, otherwise I may be guilty of murder.

        PS We speak of “a hanging judge” and this language implies that the responsibility for the hanging weighs on the judge and not on the hangman.
        Examples may be multiplied indefinitely. Debates about civilian bombing in WW 2. weigh responsibilities of Harris or Churchill and never on the actual bomber crew.

      • Yes. Exactly right. Moral life is terrifically dangerous. You are responsible for your acts, and for the wicked things you do, even when you believe them to be just and righteous altogether. Such a belief, honestly held, may reduce your culpability for your wicked acts, but it does not at all reduce their seriousness.

        There is absolutely no escape from this predicament.

  4. Let me remind you that the Bible says a lot about nations. The nations shall be judged, the nation of Israel was judged often, that all nations shall bow their knees.

    CS Lewis discusses too the peculiar language of Bible where we are ‘in Adam’. The sins of fathers are to be visited upon their children to the fourth generation. The bible is not very keen on methodological individualism.

  5. Zippy recently wrote:
    “Rule by particular men is inherently more resistant to tyranny than more abstracted or formalized systems of government for a whole variety of reasons. One of them is that nature insures that a bad ruler is only around for a matter of decades.

    But bad ideology can last indefinitely. Rule by demons has no expiration date.”

    Is he engaging in the fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness?

  6. Is Vishmehr’s position that individuals aren’t wholly responsible for their actions? Because if it isn’t I really don’t know what he’s railing against. Oh wait, he’s trolling.

    • Human affairs are unintelligible without due consideration of collective entities. Kristor is wrong about the hangman- who is NOT responsible for the each particular man he hangs.

  7. Perhaps it’s just nitpicking but I see a difference between Communism and Wehrmacht. Communism is an ideology but not entity. People believing in communist ideas and acting accordingly are only loosely connected. On the other hand Communist party or Communist state are organizations and so they look much more similar to Church. Why then isn’t Wehrmacht (or Communist Party) a nexus or collective entity while Church is?

    • It’s tricky. There are all sorts and degrees of collectivity. This is why I say in the post that a man of war or an ant hill “may” fall into the category of subsistent actuality. They are certainly collectives, but it is difficult to tell whether they are agents. The same would go for nations, corporations, families, or the Wehrmacht.

      The problem is analogous in some ways to the heaping problem. When does a collation of pebbles cross the threshold into being a heap? The difference of course is that “heap” is quite clearly nothing but our shorthand: the heap of pebbles is obviously still nothing but a collation of pebbles. A man of war, by contrast, is a coordinated set of regular procedures in which many entities participate. The same could be said for the cell, or the mitochondrion. Is a mitochondrion an entity, or is it only a collation?

      Whitehead thought about this question a lot, and the criterion by which he felt it was possible to tell whether a collective was an entity in its own right, apart from its members, was that its coordination was mediated by what he called a regnant occasion: an entity distinct from any one of the members of the collation, which felt their feelings as its own, and which acted upon and for them.

      This allowed for hierarchies of entities. A protein might have a regnant occasion; so might an organelle, a cell, an organ or circuit, and so forth. If the hive itself has a mind distinct from those of its members, as the Borg does, then it is a substantive entity. But without the regnant occasion, the collective would be a society of similar entities, a brotherhood: a collection, but not a union. Whitehead thought animals are entities. He thought that plant cells are entities, but that plants are not. But he admitted that there are all sorts of collations where it is difficult to tell.

      Back then to the Wehrmacht, and the Communist Party. It seems clear to me at least that these sorts of organizations do not have regnant occasions. There is no One whose life is the life of the organization as a whole. So when they do something bad, we don’t kill all their members the way we do with a murderer, but only those members who were responsible for the evil. Thus a hangman may not pay with his life for the crimes of the men whose will he obeyed. But it depends on how many he kills, and why, does it not? Consider the lowly SS executioner at a concentration camp, hands tied behind his back and dangling by his noose.

      With the family, the tribe, the clan or nation, we move closer to some sort of Oneness. It makes sense to speak of the national will, and it is possible to have a feeling of the national spirit, and of the national mood. But I can’t say that I feel that nations are indeed unified in and by some One, whose life they are. Yet I am quite open to the possibility that I feel this way only because I live in an inchoate society.

      • So when they do something bad, we don’t kill all their members the way we do with a murderer, but only those members who were responsible for the evil.

        On the other hand, when we kill a murderer we don’t kill every cell or organ in his body. The killing prevents him from acting as a unit with certain purpose and that’s enough. The cells die just by accident – they can’t survive death of the body. But people unlike the cells usually survive abolishment of organization.

        But it depends on how many he kills, and why, does it not?

        It depends. When archduke Ferdinand was murdered it was casus belli against whole nation.

        Under what conditions does that *regnant occasion* or Oneness arise? I mean why one collation is entity and the other not. Given what you said above Wehrmacht or a political party are still quite loose collectives. Well, most of modern collectives are. Maybe that’s why they are difficult to be recognized as entities. You once wrote here that the whole is prior to parts and the parts just fill in the whole. The ancient nations and cities seem more “dense” in this sense. Their members were connected in many more ways than we are today – through religion, blood, hierarchy, customs, in this life and the next etc. And in war they also used to kill other peoples to the last one. So those people were really grown into their places in those societies. Just like cells in the body. And they probably tended to think about themselves that way. If all this matters with respect to *regnant occasion* they probably were much closer to it.

      • Just so. I too have the impression that traditional societies were much “tighter” than our modern societies.

        Perhaps the test of whether there is a unity to a collation is just this: when you kill the head, do all the members die? With a human being, the answer is yes. With a nation, no.

        The test may not quite work, though, because the head may not be corporeal, or may not be mundane. If you kill the Pope, the Church will not die, for her Head is supramundane. If you kill a King, the nation does not die. But then, ancient angelology would say that the earthly King is just an incarnation of the nation’s angel, who is her true Head, so that we should not expect the nation to die with her earthly King.

        Then again we should remember that ex hypothesi the human body does not die when we kill its head, either, because that head, too, is in the final analysis supramundane; so that it survives the execution of the earthly body, to be incarnate later in a resurrection body.

      • Yet sometimes killing a general wins a battle. Soldiers don’t die but they might stop fighting and the army is then gone. So your test could work. Even with supramundane heads – just the way of killing them would have to be different. For example, according to author of Ancient City part of the strategy of ancient armies was to invoke enemy’s deity and persuade it to leave its people. Another way was to kill all the people, destroy the land and all dwellings of their deity. Perhaps mere superstitions but not illogical from their point of view.

        I wonder if nihilism is just another such attempt. Nietzsche could not kill God and yet he declared His death and it worked quite well…


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