In my last post, I focused on what we might call the “objective” side of λόγος, that is the meanings of the word that have to do with the arrangement of elements into structured wholes “out there” in real objects in the real world. In this post, I would like to focus on the “subjective” side of λόγος, that is the meanings of the word that have to do with rational consciousness. Philosophers frequently refer to the objective side of λόγος by talking about the “intelligibility” of structures or patters that we find in the world, there to be discovered. Conversely, we frequently refer to the subjective side of λόγος by talking about the “intelligence” of rational beings who go around doing the discovering. Understanding the distinction between intelligibility and intelligence and especially the causal interaction between the two will prove essential for understanding the Christian Platonic tradition.

We have seen in the last post that λόγος can mean “arranged structure,” “ratio,” or “organizational principle,” all referring to structured objects throughout the world. But it can also refer to “reason” or “mind,” referring to that mental ability in us that is capable of going out into the world and grasping those “arranged structures” that are there to be discovered. Hence λόγος (in us) is the faculty of being receptive to λόγος (in the world). We can try to dimly capture the possibilities for wordplay by translating the λόγος in us as “intelligence” and the λόγος in things as “intelligibility.”1

One of the basic intuitions driving the family of world-views that we might broadly call “Platonic” or “realist” is the conviction that the intelligible structures in objects are really there whether or not they are observed by any subjective intelligence. For example, the structural relations that hold between the eyes, hands, lips, and hair of the icon that we considered last time would remain exactly as they are should we all turn off the lights, walk out of the room, and close the door. We can leave to one side for the moment the question whether God remains as a kind of inevitable super-observer in such thought experiments. The basic point holds: The structural coherence of the icon exists in the icon to be discovered by our intelligence rather than something that is merely projected onto the elements by the human mind. The alternative view—that the meaningful structural relations exist only in the eye of the beholder—we might broadly call “subjectivism.”

Admittedly, the icon example admits of a possible confusion because it is a human artifact. It was originally created by an intelligent, rational being, and hence, we know that the coherent structure of the elements was purposefully constructed. Seeing this should help us avoid a potentially disastrous trap: when we say that some intelligence originally caused the intelligibility of the icon, we mean this in the sense of efficient causality. Now that the icon has been made, its meaningful structure now exists independently of the iconographer similar to the way that a child, once born, exists independently of the parents—even though the child owes all his DNA to the DNA of his parents. This causal relationship is very different from what the subjectivist means when he says that the intelligibility of the icon is caused by our intelligence. In the subjectivist sense, the meaningful structure of the elements only exists in the act of some subject coming along to look at it. The intelligibility of the icon is projected onto it by the gazing intelligence. The direction of causality is exactly reversed in the realist or Platonic way of understanding things: the intelligibility of the icon is what it is, independent of any observer. When the observing subject comes along, the intelligibility of the icon causes understanding in the mind of the observer. The observer receives this understanding as a gift from outside.

There are many, many arguments on both sides of this question, and this is not the place to go into them.2 Really, the question strikes so close to the root of all our experience—and hence all our possible evidence—that finding premises that a thoroughgoing subjectivist will accept is near impossible. Fortunately, I rarely encounter a thoroughgoing subjectivist. Most people with a skeptical or reductionist disposition are selective about their subjectivism. They want to say that the intelligible structure of the icon or the beauty of a sunset is projected by the human mind, but they will rarely say that the internal structure of a water molecule is projected.

But the structure of a water molecule is a λόγος in just the sense that we described in the last post. The molecule consists of multiple definite elements: two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. And these elements themselves consist of definite elements: protons, neutrons, and electrons. Further. These elements do not exist as a mere aggregate, jumbled together in any old way. Instead, they exist in relation to one another in definite meaningful ways. All the causal physical properties of water flow from from this definite set of elements and the definite, structured relationships that these elements have toward one another. This is the λόγος of water, at least the physical side of its λόγος—there may be more to the story. I rarely find a skeptic so thoroughgoing that he is willing to say that this structure and these causal properties do not exist independently of the human mind, that they suddenly spring into being when we, so to speak, walk in and turn the light on.

In such cases the causal direction is much less controversial and much easier to see: the λόγος of the water (in the sense of its objective, intelligible structure) causes the discovery in the λόγος of the scientist (in the sense of his rational intelligence). Pre-existing intelligibility (λόγος) gives rise to understanding in the observing intelligence (λόγος).

This clarification of terms should help us now to see what ancient philosophers, whether Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, or Christian, meant when they described man as “rational” (λογικός). They meant more than that he could work through syllogisms. Man is rational because he possesses λόγος, a special power of receptivity to the meaningful order of things, ultimately to the meaningful order of all things taken together, a special power of receptivity to the meaningful order of the Cosmos.

  1. A third family of meanings for λόγος we might call “linguistic” and arises from the interaction of the subjective and objective poles. Hence λόγος can also mean “word,” “definition,” “meaning,” or “account.” Really, this dimension of the word is the more ancient etymologically, but beware of relying too heavily upon etymology when understanding the philosophical meanings of terms.↩︎

  2. Instead, I will point the interested reader toward the first essay in CS Lewis’s Abolition of Man and the realist phenomenology of Dietrich von Hildebrand.↩︎