Monday, December 02, 2013

Essence and Existence

"His true Penelope was Flaubert."

Thomas Presskorn raises an important point in his comment to my last post. I had cited Flaubert's "power is essentially stupid" and constructed its pangrammatical analogy as "knowledge is essentially cruel". But "essence" also has a supplement, namely, "existence". So, for example, when Russell says that "the essential business of language is to assert and deny facts", we supplement this, not by challenging this narrow specification of the essence of language, but by adding an existential "business", namely, to enjoin and denounce acts. This is what Thomas is reminding us of.

Charitably, he attributes the oversight to an imprecision in Flaubert's formula, not my analogy. It's a plausible excuse, since essence is to knowledge what existence is to power, and power could therefore be said not to have an essential nature at all, only its inexorably existential culture. But he might also have said that my sense of the supplement was off. Simply by carrying out the substitutions, I could have come up with "knowledge is existentially cruel", and this would actually be a better solution than to censure Flaubert (whose precision is presumably absolute!).

Consider: stupidity is also "essentially" on the knowledge side, not the power side, of the pangrammatical divide. And there is, in fact, nothing wrong with constructing statements across the divide (which is wholly, indeed purely, imaginary). The trick is to construct the supplement symmetrically. To recap, then, we'd have:

power is essentially stupid
knowledge is existentially cruel

The mistake was mine, not Flaubert's. One way to interpret all this is to say that when power pretends to have an essence it is being stupid. This happens when the tyrant invokes God as the source of his power, for example. But knowledge is cruel when it makes existential assumptions, which, perhaps, happens when the genius denies God as the aim of his knowing.

Like I say, pangrammatical analogies are only as true as their originals, and these in turn only ever as true as aphorism can be. We're just following out the consequences. I'd like to take this moment, also, to remind us that existence is to essence as inspiration is to extance. This is because power is to breathing what knowledge is to standing.

1 comment:

Presskorn said...

This is one of the rare occasions, where I can grant your point by saying: Yes, you were wrong...

(And Flaubert was right).