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Informal Introduction to the Philosophy of Xavier Zubiri

Thomas B. Fowler
President, Xavier Zubiri Foundation of North America

Are you ever moved by a piece of music, or transfixed in front of a great work of art, or left in awe by a magnificent poem? Did you not believe at that moment that some great truth is being conveyed to you? When you read a great work of literature, do you not talk about Hamlet and Lear and Don Quijote as if they were real persons? When you study mathematics, is there not a time when the beauty and power of the subject struck you, and you wondered about the reality of the objects you studied? And what of your everyday experience of life: touching and seeing and hearing….Do they not convey an overwhelming experience of the reality of the world: people, places, things, events, one which must ultimately be the basis for explanation, not something explained away? Do you not sense the self-guaranteeing characteristic of your perception of reality at some level? Is not your experience of other people similar: are they not real in a fundamental, non-compromisable way? But at the same time, don't you think that science tells us something real about the world as well?

Books Aristotle said that philosophy begins with wonder, and if you have wondered about any of these things, you will find Xavier Zubiri and his philosophy to be immediately appealing and approachable. Zubiri takes the foregoing aspects of human experience as the imprescindable raw materials for philosophy, and builds a solid edifice with them and with modern science, all the while in dialog with the history of philosophy so as to extract from past thought what is most valuable. The goal is to create a new way of understanding the world and man-always the goal of serious philosophy-which is rigorous, thorough, and comprehensive, but at the same time believable and integrated with our most basic experiences.

How we understand

Zubiri long pondered the great philosophical questions, and as befits serious philosopher, he did not adopt a "motto"; but had he done so, it would undoubtedly have been his friend Einstein's keen observation: "The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them". Zubiri believes that previous philosophers have gone astray because they started to construct elaborate theories about human understanding, things of the world, and so forth, without first looking very hard at and trying to describe and understand the most basic aspects of human experience. This has led to bizarre theories which even their creators admit they do not believe. Start at the beginning, Zubiri says, and you will see that human understanding is divided into three modes or phases. These three modes or phases unfold logically if not chronologically as follows:

These three modes of human understanding or 'intellective knowing', as Zubiri terms it, deserve further explanation. Of the three, primordial apprehension is the most important; it is the product of our somatic structures, and it puts us into direct contact with reality. Thus it comprises the foundation for all other knowledge. Zubiri's point of departure for describing primordial apprehension is the immediacy and sense of direct contact with reality that we experience in our perception of the world; the things we perceive: colors, sounds, sights, are real in an extremely fundamental sense that cannot be overridden by subsequent reasoning or analysis. In other words there is associated with perception an overwhelming impression of its veracity, a type of "guarantee" which accompanies it. Implied here are two logically separate but operationally inseparable aspects of perception: first, what the apprehension is of, e.g. something green, and second, its self-guaranteeing characteristic of reality. Zubiri terms these content and formality of reality, respectively. They form a tight unity, characterized by an intrinsic moment of otherness; and together they install us, however modestly, in reality.

The impressions given in primordial apprehension need to be sorted, understood, named, and related to other, usually prior impressions. For example, if a piece of green paper is apprehended in primordial apprehension, one has indeed apprehended green; but knowing that it is green requires knowledge of colors and a comparison of this newly apprehended color with known colors and their names from prior apprehensions. And the same is true with regard to paper. This mode of intellection, based on primordial apprehension, is a second or derivative mode termed 'logos'. Thus knowing, in the logos stage of intellection, is primarily concerned with relating what a thing, apprehended as real in primordial intellection, is called as a thing, and what it is in relation to other things. As Zubiri puts it, the logos is what enables us to know what a thing, apprehended as real in sentient intellection, is in reality (a technical term, meaning what something is in relation to one's other knowledge).

The third level of intellection, ratio or reason-with the broad acceptation of explanation-encompasses far more than what is usually associated with this word in English-speaking countries, viz. discursive knowledge. In particular, knowledge is not just science and mathematics (important though they are); there are other modes of knowledge, for example poetic knowledge and religious knowledge, which fall under the scope of reason as Zubiri understands it. Correlatively, there are realities which are not things in the sense of objects of science; for example, there is the reality of the person. In Zubiri's words, reason is "measurant intellection of the real in depth", which means that reason seeks to know the real in a very probing, insightful way. There are three moments of reason to be distinguished: (1) intellection in depth, e.g., electromagnetic theory is intellection in depth of color; a poem or song may be intellection in depth of someone's emotions; and a great painting can be intellection in depth of a religious doctrine or of the beauty of nature. (2) Its character as measuring, in the most general sense, akin to the notion of measure in advanced mathematics. This may be, but is not necessarily quantitative; certainly a play can "take the measure of" a person or experience. (3) Reason as intellectus quaerens-which means that reason, with its dynamic, directional, and provisional structure, is only able to conquer things in a provisional manner. But provisional in the sense that our intellection cannot conquer all of reality, or all of any given thing; reality is too rich for our finite minds. 'Provisional' does not imply skepticism; it only means that we go on seeking the fullness of truth about reality which we shall never obtain, but of which pieces are delivered to us by science, art, music, literature, architecture, and all of the "higher" forms of knowledge.

Zubiri's insight is that while human intelligence is not fundamentally flawed, and therefore is capable of truth, it is fundamentally limited, in ways not realized prior to this century because the pretensions of what he terms 'rational knowledge' were not recognized. In general, 'rational knowledge' was identified with some combination of philosophy and science, often combined with some form of reductionism (e.g., all experience and all of reality can be explained by science). Always there was the belief that somehow everything is capable of rational explanation. In no case was this ambitious program ever carried out, and in general it was only sketched as a project; but the belief was propagated with religious ferver. Alas, the bottom fell out in the 20th century, when even science was forced to come to grips with fundamental uncertainties. In Zubiri's view, far from this being a catastrophe, it was most liberating to the human mind, because it freed us from slavish adherence to excessively rational explanations that are inadequate to capture all of human experience, and at the same time opened other areas of knowledge as capable of delivering reality to us as well: history, literature, theology, art, and so forth. Correlatively, there are realities which are not things in the sense of objects of science; for example, there is the reality of the person. These multiple ways of understanding reality reflect its ultimate "openness", as opposed to the view held in previous philosophies which implied that reality is "closed" and hence fully capturable, usually by science.

Essence: what makes something what it is

Lamp The reader may be familiar with some famous notions from the history of philosophy, such as essence and causality, and be wondering about how they fit in with Zubiri's thought. Let us begin with essence, which may be traced back to Aristotle (possibly further). Why are cats different from dogs, and people from roses, and cows from houses? Aristotle too wondered about this, and believed that in view of the evident breakdown of things into such distinct classes, there must be something which makes each thing be what it is, and which, in a sense, made it to be what it is when it was created. In view of these functions, Aristotle referred to that mysterious item with an unusual but descriptive expression in Greek: to ti en einai, which became quod quid erat esse in the Latin of the Middle Ages, and which may be translated as what it was to be [the thing]. We generally use the term essence today. Aristotle and the medieval philosophers sought to capture essence in a particular type of definition involving genus and species; the most famous example, of course, is "Man is a rational animal".

Zubiri believes that Aristotle was really onto something with his original approach; there is something about cats which makes them to be cats, and sets them off from other animals and other things. But Zubiri thinks that Aristotle blew it when he tried to force essence into the genus and species definition mold: it just won't fit; reality is too complex. Furthermore, few if any other definitions of essence were ever produced, and there are evident shortcomings even in that for man. For starters, it really doesn't explain how man came to have two arms, two legs, what his emotional life is about, why he dies, and a host of other questions. What reason do we have to think that the essence of anything can be captured in a brief formula? Despite the intuitive need for it, essence got a bad name because in the end, Aristotle's definition-based version didn't really explain anything.

So Zubiri rethought the notion, and by returning to its deepest roots, came up with something which is intuitively satisfying, yet has explanatory power. Essence is "...the basic, constitutive system of all the notes [characteristics] which are necessary and sufficient for a substantive reality to be what it is." For Zubiri, it is the interrelationship of the notes making up essence which is important; each constitutive note is present by virtue of its place in constituting the whole. The notes are mutually dependent, and often lose their individual identity in the constituted system. Every reality is thus a systematic unity. This general discussion is in agreement with the modern scientific concept of things as dynamic systems, in which the interrelationship of the components makes the thing what it is, with its own behavior, different than that of its constituents and often obscuring them.

In light of Zubiri's discussion, it is apparent that old concepts of essence are not congruent with modern-day knowledge, in particular science, because they are what may be termed "flat", i.e., they assume that there is an absolute character of everything that can be captured by some act of the mind, usually unaided, on the basis of which we then "know" the thing. The primary example, of course, is the classical definition in terms of genus and species, as in "man is a rational animal", which we discussed above. Zubiri points out that all such concepts of essence are inadequate because they fail to capture its key physical property, that of structural complexity, from which emerge all of a thing's properties or notes, including its dynamics. (The word 'physical' should be understood in the broadest, etymological sense: nature; do not become bogged down with the unsustainable Cartesian duality of thinking things and extended things. Zubiri is not a reductionist or a materialist, both of which notions he explicitly rejects.) Behavior, such as we now understand it, from biological evolution to chaos, is of an entirely different, more subtle order than that envisioned by the creators of the old concepts of essence; and it involves layers of structure which point to a far richer and more complex reality than those concepts are capable of expressing. Indeed, it is unclear that essences can be adequately expressed at all in normal language.

The probing activity of science, through sketching of possibilities and use of experiment, is the principal route to knowledge of essences. Zubiri's concept of essence is thus much more profound, but also much more difficult to achieve, than earlier conceptions of it. Essence cannot be sought in metaphysical analysis of the predicates attributed to a thing, as Aristotle thought (i.e., it is not an armchair exercise), but must be sought in the analysis of its structures and characteristics, and the function they fulfill in the overall system which the thing represents.

Causality or functionality?

The notion of causality also deserves some attention, since it has been a pivotal concept throughout the history of philosophy. Aristotle made causality one of the cornerstones of his philosophy, and it has been used ever since to ground various types of inferences such as our knowledge of reality and the existence of God. The notion of cause involves what we may term the productive influence of one thing upon another. The general idea is fairly clear from everyday experience: "The hot water caused the burn"; "The car caused the accident"; "The invasion caused the war". Zubiri agrees that we speak and reason this way, but argues that cause is not the proper word to use, because in the vast majority of cases, what we are dealing with is a functional relationship rather than true causality. What is the difference? A functional relationship relates several phenomena in a describable way, without any implication of causality. For example, water at a certain temperature reacts in a particular way with skin. Did the hot water cause the burn? Perhaps someone set the water heater too high, or turned on the hot water spigot by mistake, or forgot to wear protective clothing, or was in the wrong room, or…you get the general idea: the causal nexus is too complicated to unravel. We can never directly perceive the productive influence of one thing upon another; rather, we can perceive and describe the functional relationships, and they are what we refer to when we typically speak of causes. Nor is this a problem, because Zubiri (unlike Hume) does not rely upon causally-based chains of reasoning to put us into contact with reality; as we saw above, we are already installed, however modestly, in reality. It does however mean that causal inference cannot be used as a basis for metaphysical demonstrations, such as the existence of God (not that such proofs ever did much good anyway; who would pray to an unmoved mover-the whole idea is ridiculous!). Do causes ever have a role to play? They do, and a supremely important one, but only in the one area where we can perceive them: the realm of the human person. To this subject we turn next.

Human reality and how it is different

Naturally, we like to think of ourselves as different; but in what way? A higher form of life? Like other animals, but more intelligent? For Zubiri, the difference is far more radical: a person is a different kind of reality. The justification for this notion is based on all of Zubiri's other philosophy:

An intellection much more difficult than that of quantum physics was needed in order to understand that the real can be real and still not be a thing. Such, for example, is the case of person. Then not only was the field of real things broadened, but that which we might term 'the modes of reality' were also broadened. Being a thing is only one of those modes; being a person is another. Thus not only has the catalog of real things been changed, i.e., not only has a reality beyond the field reality been discovered, but the character of reality itself as a measure has changed, because a person is something different from a stone or a tree not just by virtue of his properties, but by his mode of reality...

As a consequence, his role in the universe is different; and between persons (and only between them) there is a strict causality, which in turn implies a moral obligation. This causality is not a simple application of classical notions of causality to persons, but something irreducible to the causality of classical metaphysics, and still less reducible to the concept of a scientific law. This is what Zubiri refers to as personal causality. "And however repugnant it may be to natural science, there is...a causality between persons which is not given in the realm of nature."

Elaborating on this point, Zubiri notes that there are innumerable interpersonal relations which do not fit into the mold of the traditional four causes (material, formal, efficient, final):

When I am with a friend or a person whom I love, the influence of friendship or tenderness does not reduce to mere psycho-physical causation. It is not just an influence of what the friend is, but of the friend by virtue of him being who he is.

Zubiri notes that physical causality is exercised through means such as force, pressure, and attraction; whereas in personal causality, it is through friendship, companionship, love, and support, for example. This personal causality is the basis for morality and the moral dimension of the human person. The moral dimension of man is a "physical" dimension (as well as a spiritual dimension), in the sense that it represents a real, physical "appropriation" by each person of specific possibilities for his life. Morality, in the sense of values, the good, and obligations, is possible only through the foundation of this physical dimension.

Man's access to God

If traditional metaphysical proofs of the existence of God are out, are there any routes available? Before we answer this question, Zubiri feels that we must do something akin to what we did in the case of our perception of reality: we must step back and reexamine the whole explanatory paradigm and its assumptions. Traditionally, theologians have approached God in a conceptual fashion, in which He is what Zubiri terms a "reality-object" more or less like you and me and rocks and other things of our experience, albeit it of some higher degree. Given this approach, all effort is inexorably concentrated on establishing ways of "demonstrating" God's existence. The main problem with such a paradigm is that it produces proofs which (1) fail to convince because they rely upon abstract metaphysical arguments with premises that are themselves difficult to establish; and (2) the God whose existence they purportedly demonstrate is far removed from the personal God of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition and quite incapable of serving as the basis of a religion.

Zubiri thinks that this whole approach is too anthropomorphic. God is not a "reality-object", but what he terms a "reality-ground"-something to which we must be be "re-ligated", that is, re-connected. (This is much more in line with the approach of mystical thinkers). In contrast to the demonstrative ways of proving God's existence, which are purely idealistic (i.e, based on abstract reasoning), Zubiri proposes the way of religation, ultimately based on our experience of reality. Indeed, for Zubiri we are religated to reality since it imposes itself on us, and does so as something ultimate which both impels us and makes it possible for us to "create", so to speak, our lives. It is the experience of this imposition, of this power of the real, that is the experience of the ground of reality. And it is the fundamental experience which each man possesses whether a theist, an agnostic or an atheist. These latter three diverge with respect to intellectual discernment and volition when they confront this ground.

The theist finds in his experience of the ground an experience of God, a God not transcendent "to" things, but transcendent "in" things. Accordingly, to reach God one need not abandon the world (à la Buddhism), but to enter more into it, so as to reach its ground. This, of course, does not mean to live life in the fast lane, or become a hedonist, but to experience life deeply, in what may be termed the "spiritual" sense: reflection, love of other people and service to them, doing good, and so forth. God is ultimately the ground of things (including persons), and it is in his experience of them that man has the fundamental experience of God. Since man's life is a tapestry woven from his experience with and of things, and since this experience in turn is an experience of God, it follows that each man's life is in some respects a continuous experience of God. What does this mean? That no searching is necessary? That no spiritual life is required? That anyone's God is as good as anyone else's? No; those issues only arise at a subsequent stage, one which would be impossible without this one. What it does mean is that the real God of each person is not a concept or the outcome of some reasoning process, but something much deeper: the very life of man. In making or working out his own life, in configuring his own life, each man configures (or disfigures) God in himself, because the life of man, Zubiri concludes, is always and formally an "experience of God".

For the atheist, the power of the real is still there, and as an intellection, stands in need of some ground. The atheist does two things: he considers the power of the real only as a "fact", suppressing its other dimensions (etymologically 'a-theist' means 'not theist'). In this way he chooses to live a life which is sufficient unto itself; autosufficient, as Zubiri puts it, which means a life that is what it is, and how it is, and nothing else:

…the atheist formally surrenders to his own formal reality as unique and sufficient true personal reality. And it is in this surrender to himself as true that the faith of the atheist consists. The atheist understands himself as surrendered to himself and accepts himself as such. Therefore he makes a choice; atheism is no less a choice than theism.

The salient characteristic of atheism, then, is faith in oneself-or by extension, in a social class, human knowledge, mankind, or another similar surrogate.

This leaves agnosticism. Etymologically, the word means 'not knowing'; but as the experience of the power of the real is always present to the agnostic as well as to the theist and the atheist, its intellection still requires a ground-one which the agnostic searches for diligently but does not find. In Zubiri's own words:

…agnosticism is a frustrated intellective search. It is in this frustration where unknowability and ignorance of God take on their structure, where the suspension of faith occurs. But as ignorance, as unknowability, and as frustration, agnosticism is a strict form of intellective process which rests upon a real moment of reality known intellectively as such.

So the agnostic is someone who recognizes the need to find a ground for his experience of the power of the real, but has not accomplished his goal.

Where to go from here

Hopefully this brief overview has whet your appetite to learn more about Zubiri and his philosophy. Philosophy is a difficult subject, make no mistake about it; few are the visual aids that can be brought to bear! And there are no videos! But Zubiri's works will reward careful study. Always remember that philosophy, like theology, operates at the deepest levels of our knowledge hierarchy. That means that studying philosophy is akin to living in your house while you're trying to rebuild its foundation, and perhaps make it a completely different kind of foundation! Just as every house has a foundation, whether examined or not, everyone subscribes to a philosophy, whether they are aware of it or not. For these reasons, the study of philosophy is not fast-paced; it takes time for ideas to sink in-often months or years of reflection are required. Leisure-time for contemplation and reflection-is the basis of culture; the Greek word skolé, from which our word school comes, means leisure, not education. Serious thought cannot flourish in an MTV environment.

To begin your journey, you may wish to read the formal introduction to Zubiri's philosophy on this Web site, and then review the Reading guide to determine the first Zubiri work you'd like to tackle. Sentient Intelligence is Zubiri's magnum opus, and his most important work; but you may wish to read a few of the essays in Nature, History, God as a warm-up exercise. If the subject of essence is of particular interest to you, Zubiri's On Essence may be a good place to begin. Please note that in addition to the online material of this Web site, the Information and Resources section has a page devoted to purchasing printed copies of Zubiri's works, which are of course easier to read than a computer screen.

Bon voyage!