Philosophical Skeleton Keys: Only the Actual Is Apprehensible

This one is so simple, I’m shocked it took me so long to get it. But it eliminates ab initio a whole raft of perplexing conundra; not least, the puzzle of self-reference: of how it is that we can apprehend ourselves.

The basic idea is that we can only apprehend what is, and is therefore definite: definitely itself, and not some other thing. To the extent that a thing has not yet finished becoming, and thus become forever fixed in its character, it is not yet in fact out there for us to apprehend. It is invisible to us, and to all others, because, being as yet indefinite, it has as yet no definite character that we might grasp and evaluate. It just isn’t yet finished becoming. And until it is finished becoming, it isn’t yet anything in particular. It isn’t itself. It isn’t.

Until it is, and is therefore definitely itself and not something different, it cannot act qua itself. It cannot have any effect. We cannot be affected by it. We cannot feel it.

What this means is that all our apprehensions are of things that are definite. They are of things that are, in other words, past. This goes even for our apprehensions of our selves. When I am aware of heat, I am simply aware of heat, arising from somewhere in my environment – which is to say, in the field of past events that, as definite, have definite characters, one of which seems to be heat.

When on the other hand I am aware of my awareness of heat, I am aware of the awareness of a previous moment of my life. So when I think, “I am sad,” what is really happening is that I am aware that I have in recent moments felt sad. The sadness of the last few sad moments feels sad to me right now. I feel the feelings of past moments, and the feeling of those feelings feels like those feelings felt to those moments.

All the paradoxes of self-reference are prevented by this Skeleton Key. When I feel myself, what is actually happening is that I am feeling previous moments of my life; I am feeling how I have felt.

Excursus: Our freedom lies in our power to decide whether or not to feel the same way about a given thing as we have formerly done. E.g.: I have felt sad about my mother’s death. Is that altogether appropriate? Yes, to be sure. Is it appropriate to feel *nothing but* that sadness? Perhaps not quite; for, upon reflection, I am convinced that she is not altogether dead, but somewhere waits for me; that, indeed, she may now already be happier than ever she had been in life, and looks forward herself to our eventual reunion – in so short a time, as these things are reckoned sub specie aeternitatis – with rejoicing, as if I were already knocking at her door. As indeed I may be; who knows? So perhaps I should rejoice, as well as feeling sad. So perhaps I shall indeed rejoice.

In that moment of transcending my former unalloyed grief, I nevertheless feel the grief. Indeed, if anything, I somehow feel it more intensely than before I alloyed it with transcendent hope and gladness. Tragedy transcended is all the more tragic; for the tragedy arises in the first place, and unnecessarily (albeit relentlessly) from a poor constrained subscendent and therefore inadequate purview – from a limitation upon our sight that is in the last analysis self-imposed. *That’s* the tragedy. Saw we aright, we’d see we were already all together again, without strain or conflict or disharmony; and that would end all strain, conflict and disharmony, other than as enjoyed the way that we enjoy any ultimately harmless, fun thrill. There would we see then Oedipus, Antigone, and over yonder Lear and Hamlet, all of them happy, rejoicing, eager as if they were ire Henry at Agincourt greeting and urging and ennobling his fraternal thanes with his overflowing confidence – literally, his “together faithfulness.”

But we cannot yet quite see. So we weep, as indeed Henry, having utterly triumphed, wept at the cruel and utterly futile stupid evil murder of all his mere sweet harmless boys.

Victory does not unmake the pain that made it, or that it occasioned or procured.

Sorry: that thread took me a bit further into the maze than I expected it would. Back now to the main topic.

Other difficulties, too, are prevented by this Skeleton Key. We can know only what is past, and definite. So we cannot know what is happening right now, as we are happening; for, what is happening as we do has not yet finished happening, and is not therefore yet definite. It is not actual, and so not actually out there to be apprehended by us. It does not yet actually exist. It only, still, potentially exists, or at most virtually exists.

So we cannot know contemporaneities. All we can know then is what is past; what is therefore actual, and able to act upon us, to have an effect upon us, that we can then feel, so that it can push us in this direction or that.

Whatever pushes or urges us must be actual. No other sort of thing could do those jobs. No other sort of thing might act.

Whatever feels to us as though it is happening right now in the world is then actually what has just happened in the world. Its character of happening “right now” is of its happening right now *in us,* and *to us.*

What is objective is what is actual. What is subjective is the feeling we have of what is actual. We in this present moment are each a congeries and a composition of our feelings about what is actual, and cannot therefore ever again be changed. Our coming to be – our coming to be actual – is the process of that composition. Our freedom consists in our capacity to determine the final character of that composition. At which point, it will be on to the next moment and its feelings, its freedom.

Excursus: On panpsychism, all transactions between events are of this sort. There is nothing more to panpsychism than this; or, rather, all the other doctrines of panpsychism follow from this, rather trivially.

This Skeleton Key clarifies and resolves the difficulties that seem prima facie to inhere in the difference between subjective and objective. It clarifies and resolves many of the difficulties of epistemology: knowing reduces to becoming – or, rather, vice versa – but without requiring any sacrifice of what it is to know, to feel, to experience, or to value. At the same time it unifies and integrates the subjective and objective worlds. The objective world is what it is (just as we have always thought, and cannot but think); the subjective world feels what that world is like (just as we cannot but be utterly convinced that we in fact do); and, so feeling, cobbles together a new occasion of the objective world, a new actual event; which is to say, a new actual world.

This is just what we first and last take the moments of our lives to be. It agrees with what we cannot but take experience to be. We cannot but take our experience to be of what is actual. To think otherwise is to conclude that we are fundamentally mad, or that the world is fundamentally chaotic, and so no world at all, properly so called; which both amount to the same horrible intolerable impossible thing, and the opposite of what it is like to live.

Finally, this Key furnishes an account of causation as the felt transmission to new occasions of becoming of values already actually achieved by other, already actual occasions of becoming.

It’s subtle, but it’s a good one. I keep finding doors that it unlocks.

4 thoughts on “Philosophical Skeleton Keys: Only the Actual Is Apprehensible

  1. This makes that Thomist stuff about God being the Pure Actuality who actualizes all potentials difficult, if all we can apprehend is actuals, and have no idea of what potentials exist or what actuals can come from them.

  2. Pingback: Philosophical Skeleton Keys: Only the Actual Is Apprehensible | Reaction Times

  3. I think I follow. My awareness of my awareness is only that which has already been completed, i.e. actual. I can wrap my head around this by acknowledging that moment-to-moment, literally the infinitesimally smallest unit of time conceivable, happens so rapidly that the “present” is unfathomable.* Our future too is not actual by definition, and so we cannot be aware of it. Which makes this skeleton key an apparent statement of the obvious which is only obvious once someone musters the innovation to put it to words.

    Taking a stab at what Dividualist says above:

    This makes that Thomist stuff about God being the Pure Actuality who actualizes all potentials difficult, if all we can apprehend is actuals, and have no idea of what potentials exist or what actuals can come from them.

    Since God exists outside of time, and can see the actualization of us in full, I see no incoherence. We are only united with God once we are dead, God willing, and thus fully actual, our life realized. From our perch close to God, we may also be able to apprehend ourselves fully, and maybe others. Our human apprehension is limited, but the beatific vision is perfect, with all that that implies. We cannot apprehend God from here, not because God is not Actual, but because we are not actual (in full, anyway: perhaps Agency is the intersection of become with becoming, the agent stands at the intersection of what is actual and what is potential. Does Agency go away when we die?)

    *side note on the word Fathom which I think you might appreciate, since you said you were an outdoorsman/river navigator for a time. Fathom comes from an old germanic word for wingspan, meaning ‘outstretched arms’. From thence it came to mean “embrace” or, “wrap your arms around”, and by metaphor came to mean “understand” by “wrapping your arms around knowledge”. Something that is unfathomable is so big you can’t wrap your arms around it. Further still: Fathom came to be a nautical unit of measure by measuring lines of rope. A man sinking rope into the Mississippi might measure out a wingspan, and release it into the river, then measure another wingspan: a fathom of depth. Mississippi boatmen would call out nicknames for units of depth. “Deep six” was six fathoms. “Twain” was two. Samuel Clemens, in his youth, spent time as a Mississippi boatman, and probably would have heard thousands of times a day someone measuring out depth and calling out “Mark Twain!”. From there came his pseudonym!

  4. Dividualist: Scoot has the spoor of the answer to your question, and is on the hunt. Because God is eternal, at every mundane moment he is actual. So he is available for apprehension by any creaturely occasion. Creatures apprehend as yet inactual potentials in virtue of their apprehension of God; for, all possibilities are possible in the first place only in virtue of him, in whom they have their origin; so that he is the very ground of possibility. As such, he is the object of the basic, primal and fundamental apprehension of every creaturely occasion, for it is by his initial formation of them that they begin their process of becoming. Thus every creaturely occasion has some apprehension of God, howsoever dim or obscure; for, were it otherwise, they could not come to be.

    The basic, primal and fundamental apprehension of every creaturely occasion is of its own proper form in the Platonic Realm, which (as Augustine and Plotinus knew) is coterminous with the mind of God. When we look inward to what is most basic to any of our moments of life, we confront an impenetrable, unfathomable darkness, a mystery. We cannot comprehend it because we cannot extend our prehension beyond the foundation of prehension as such; cannot prehend what it is that makes prehension possible to us. That mystery at the root of us, that we feel but that is not clear to us, is the darkness plumbed and reported to us by Saint John of the Cross. It is the source of our being, and of all being.

    There is then no conflict with Thomism.

    I hope that’s clear enough.

    Scoot: I read somewhere that Buddhists – expert and systematic introspectors – have suggested that there are about 40,000 atomic occasions of experience per second of our conscious lives. The value of the Planck time – which we may take as a lower bound on the duration of a quantum of action – would suggest that there could be considerably more than that. So yes, it would be awfully easy to integrate that many infinitesimals into a smooth continuum; indeed, it would be almost impossible to do otherwise, given that the computations necessary to our integrations are performed by just such atomic quanta of action. By a fairly straightforward extension, reality in general is quantal; the world which appears so continuous to us is in fact an integration by each new moment of untold quadrillions of previous – and already actual – infinitesimal occasions.

    As to your reply to Dividualist: we can and do apprehend God, at least in part, every time we contemplate pure concepts or universals, and also at and as the very basis of our apprehension per se. Prehension belongs not to actuals, which by definition have finished becoming and are thus done with all their prehending, but to occasions that are engaged the process of becoming, and are not yet actual.

    The object of the BV is perfect, but even as perfected creatures – i.e., as being completely all that we are meant to be, namely apotheotic – we shall not be able to comprehend it. The subjective experience of the BV then, no matter how expansive it becomes (and there may be no upper limit on that expansion) will ever be partial; for, the finite cannot encompass the infinite. Nevertheless shall our partial prehension of God in the BV completely suffuse our creaturely experience, so that Christ is all in all.

    Agency is indeed at the intersection of what has already become with what is becoming, and the agent does stand at the intersection of what is actual and what is potential.

    Some agency does go away when we die. Just as you have no power to change whether you went to the store yesterday, so after death you shall have no power to change what your earthly life was ultimately about, and to whom it was ultimately dedicated. Other sorts of agency will presumably remain to you post mortem; if you are lucky enough to be in heaven, you shall presumably be able to choose what to have for dinner, e.g.


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