Volume > Issue > Minding the Gap

Minding the Gap


By James V. Schall | April 2019
James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Government at Georgetown University. Among his many books are The Order of Things, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs, The Modern Age, The Mind That Is Catholic, and, most recently, The Universe We Think In (The Catholic University of America Press) and On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius). Fr. Schall’s last lecture at Georgetown, “A Final Gladness,” can be viewed on YouTube.

“Phenomenology insists that identity and intelligibility are available in things, and that we ourselves are defined as the ones to whom such identities and intelligibilities are given. We can evidence the way things are; when we do so, we discover objects, but we also discover ourselves, precisely as the datives of disclosure, as those to whom things appear. Not only can we think the things given to us in experience; we can also understand ourselves as thinking them. Phenomenology is precisely this sort of understanding: phenomenology is reason’s self-discovery in the presence of intelligible objects.”  — Robert Sokolowski, Introduction to Phenomenology (2000)

“Mind…becomes actualized as an identity within the sequence of consciousness or presentations. Since being and its couples are what allow presentation to occur in its many pairs, being also allows consciousness and the mind to come about. Mind itself can only come to be because of sameness and otherness, presence and absence, rest and motion, taken together in being.” — Robert Sokolowski, Presence & Absence (2017)


Both the Church and civil society, for their intelligibility, depend on those among their members who think their way through the order and diversity of things. They face head-on, so to speak, the origin of mind and things, and how they relate to one another. The terminology used to accomplish this is sometimes technical, so that what is being described is accurate. Phenomenology, the study of “phenomena,” of what appears to us or is manifested to us, is itself one of these technical terms. It is associated with German philosopher Edmund Husserl (d. 1938). His most well-known student is Robert Sokolowski. In his recent book Presence & Absence: A Philosophical Investigation of Language and Being, Msgr. Sokolowski demonstrates how the realist tradition of Aquinas and phenomenology relate to and illuminate each other.

Modern philosophy has had difficulty relating what goes on in the human mind to what is “out there” in reality. How to bridge this gap is the task phenomenology sets for itself. In Aquinas, following Aristotle, the mind and what is are related. But since Kant, the mind is said to impose shape and qualities onto things; these do not arise from the thing itself. Thus, we do not really know things; rather, we put them together in our minds on the occasion of some flow of indeterminate matter into our souls through our senses. Nature, as such, it is held, has nothing to teach us. Therefore, we are not bound by it. We are free to “recreate” ourselves by our own powers.

Msgr. Sokolowski shows how reality works together through our senses and mind in such a way that what we affirm of existing things is in them. Each aspect of reality is unique and identifiable. We strive to name it. We do name it. In order to show this relationship between mind and reality, we need to examine our writing and our speech. How do words come to indicate specific things? Why does this sound mean what it does in this or that language? We must know ourselves, our limits, and our capacities in order to know what we are not. We make proposals about things. We affirm or deny something of them. Truth exists when what we name and say correspond to what things are. What is not ourselves comes to exist in us in a non-material way.

The task of philosophy is to distinguish things: this thing is not that thing. This thing moves; that thing does not. We articulate what we affirm or deny with our words. Words change from language to language, but, once known, they allow us to bear within us what is not ourselves. Moreover, we only know ourselves when we know what is not ourselves. By knowing something else, we become aware that it is we ourselves who know it.

Things appear to us from out of obscurity through our encounter with them. We want to know what things are. Our senses are the avenues through which things impress themselves on us. We see. We hear. We smell. We taste. We touch. All these senses are related to the one thing that is their origin, the thing to which we give a name. This name designates what this thing is. Once we know what something is and does — agere sequitur esse — we can move on to other things.


Once we know and name things, we can begin to affirm things about them. Once we see how something is, we can state this or that about it. We compose sentences. We know syntax, grammar, and the parts of speech. The mind is always at first in a contemplative mode. It wants to know what the thing is that is under discussion. In addition to nouns and verbs that bear the meaning of things, we have prepositions, conjunctions, expletives, adjectives, and adverbs that allow us to be ever more precise in our description of things.

“The domain of thoughtful speech,” Msgr. Sokolowski writes, “is only one part of this world, even though it is a predominant part since philosophy itself is carried on in speech, and the other domains are accessible philosophically as involved in or leading toward articulation in discourse.” Philosophy is concerned with speech and the realities to which speech points. Reality calls out to be known.

Intelligibility exists in things. Things are meant to be known in a universe in which exist other beings who also can know them. The human mind does not make reality; it receives reality. Once it has known and received reality, it can use it. It can remember (or forget) what it once knew. The universe is not an empty chaos. It already is an ordered place that is open to further order. The order of the universe and the order of mind belong together. Phenomenology reduces the supposed gap between mind and reality by showing how much of reality is capable of being identified and particularized.

The universe is not complete until it is known. It reveals its order to beings with minds capable of knowing it. We human beings “discover” ourselves by discerning the order in things. The first thing we discover is that we already are what we are through no causality of our own. What we are has been given to us; it has not been made by us. What all things have in common is that they are, rather than are not. This commonality in being means that all things stand outside of nothingness, from which nothing can come.

Between being and nothing there is no intermediary, no halfway house. Something either is or is not. The only finite, corporeal things that know, that know that they know, and know what it is to know, are human beings.


Mankind consists of a multiplicity of individual human persons, each with his own history and record. These individual persons pass in and out of history with their conception and death. While they exist, they speak and act. Truth and falsity, as such, only exist when a human person is actually affirming or denying some reality. Things become luminous when they are known and spoken. As Msgr. Sokolowski puts it, “The identity of a speaker does not continue only through a particular speech, long as it might be. It makes him the owner of everything he says throughout his lifetime, and he cannot without justification annul statements he has once made, if his speech is to be reasonable.” In this sense, each person has a record of what he thinks himself to be. It is this record by which he is judged. This is the meaning of the Myth of Er at the end of Plato’s Republic and the Last Judgment in Christian theology.

What is it that we know about ourselves and reality? “Things are disclosed to us before we talk about them,” Sokolowski writes. “But the emergence of speech brings these disclosures to a more perfect and reliable state.” Man is the animal who speaks, who knows. He comes by his knowledge gradually. We best see what we are when we act and think. These capacities take time to develop:

If the object takes time to become itself, it is named in anticipation of what it is to be when it is most real and most itself. A human being is most himself when he is acting or thinking according to specifically human excellences, but we can still call an infant a man even though he cannot do such things yet; he is the kind of thing that is most itself when it is engaged in the essentials of human performance.

The mind is not just its physical and fleshly complexity. Man is the being in whom mind and matter meet. The mind is only properly appreciated from the philosophical attitude — the desire to know something just because it is there. The mind, writes Msgr. Sokolowski, “is the accumulation of presences that have been built up within the receiver of presences…. The mind is both receptive and active; by it we take explicit positions when we register and report distinctly.” By the presence of something, Sokolowski means that something stands before us with its own unique configuration. A mind filled with “presences” means a mind filled with things that are. It means we have received knowledge of what is there but also that we think about it and know what it is. While we can imagine or make up things, we can also deal with things that appear in the real world we inhabit.

Mind is a capacity of our soul. It is part of what we are. We are more than mind, of course, but we do have a mind with which we can actively think. The mind is not “identified with the self or with a human being; because minding, important as it is, is only one of the things that we can do,” observes Msgr. Sokolowski. “Mind is properly named as the minding of things, the having of their presences as well as their absences.” Saying that a thing is absent is not the same as saying that nothing is there. Sokolowski makes much of absence as it correlates to presence. We never know fully the being of something. Something is there, but something is also absent. If I only see someone’s face, I do not see his back. It is there by being absent from my view.

“The only distinctions among the objects that make a difference philosophically are those that present different kinds of presenting,” Sokolowski says. Again, philosophy’s task is to make distinctions, to know. The being of something is manifested in its actions. We seek to know the different levels of being given to us:

Human beings and trees, for example, are not just different kinds of material objects, but have different ways of being perceived when appreciated fully and properly. Among other things, human beings are perceived as having experiences, feelings, and attitudes which we as perceivers could never, literally, situate within our own sequence of experiences, feelings, and attitudes; but trees are not presented with this dimension of an inner conscious life.

We do not account for what a being is until we account for what makes it different from other beings in kind. The distinction between thinking and non-thinking beings is philosophically basic.

“Philosophy, as the analysis of presencing [making present], involves the description of the structures that make up each kind of presence and absence, and it involves contrasting the various forms of presencing with one another,” Sokolowski writes. Rocks, roses, deer, and human beings can be present before us. They all exist, but they exist in different ways, the outlines of which we can understand, describe, name, and define.


The distinction between philosophy and what Sokolowski calls first philosophy is not easy to grasp. “First philosophy, besides being considered as the study of presentability as such, could have been defined as the examination of stability as such, or identifiability as such.” Things present themselves to us out of the obscurity that exists before we identify them. The stability in things is not a denial of their finiteness or the fact that they come and go out of existence. It is an affirmation that things, once known, are what they are. Once we know what man is, what it is to be man remains.

“When we speak of presentability, we do not mean presence alone, but presence and absence taken as a couple,” Sokolowski writes. We do not know presence alone. We are aware that there are still things to be known about things, even if we do not at present know them. If I know something as present, I cannot help knowing that some larger picture is there also waiting to be known. “First philosophy examines…what allows the play [of presence and absence] to take place.”

The mind, Sokolowski says, “can only come to be because of sameness and otherness, presence and absence, rest and motion, taken together as being.” These three “couples” taken together apply to each thing that is known. “Being is not just the togetherness found in each of the couples. As studied by first philosophy, the three couples are also together as a ‘triangle’…. Being is also this togetherness, this unification.” With these words, Msgr. Sokolowski prepares the reader to confront the inner nature of the First Being. He inquires, with hints of Heidegger, whether being and nothingness belong together as a couple. Nothing can be conjoined with something as if nothing were just another thing:

On the levels of philosophy and first philosophy, being simply means the final necessity, the ultimate context or horizon, the most elementary issue that thoughtful analysis can lead us to. The final context, that which cannot be resolved into wholes or parts more ultimate than itself, is being; that which must finally be acknowledged as there, that which is the setting for all subsequent analysis.

Being cannot be further subdivided. By being the final horizon, it becomes foundation of all that is.

Metaphysics thus studies being as being. “We have said that first philosophy examines presentability as such, stability as such, and identifiability as such,” Sokolowski writes. “First philosophy examines being as such, or being as being. All other ways of thinking delimit being and study it as restricted to one way of being or another. Among the natural sciences, for example, biology studies being as living, botany studies being as vegetative, physics studies being as material, psychology studies being as conscious and desiring.”

Consciousness, then, is simply another name for the various kinds of presenting. We know that beings differ according to what they are. It is the task of philosophy to illuminate the distinctions that are already there. Things are limited to their capacity of manifestation. The horse does not manifest itself as a human being or as an oak tree.


To what or whom is presented the whole of what is? Aristotle, Sokolowski writes, acknowledges that presenting “belongs to the final sense of being, but he also demands a dative for this presenting: he must postulate a thought that thinks only itself, in solitude and in ignorance of the rest of being, as the highest instance of being as being.” This is the context of the loneliness of God that Aristotle wondered about in his treatise on friendship in the Ethics. It is the philosophical background to the Christian notion of Trinity. In so wondering, Aristotle “reflects his disagreement with Plato as to what can be asserted as ultimate: the cosmos and self-thinking thought are final for Aristotle, they are being in its ultimate instances. But for Plato being as such is resolved into something beyond being, the Good or the One and the Indeterminate Dyad.” And the Good can diffuse itself. There are not two gods, but there is otherness in God, however obscurely Plato saw it.

In relating Aristotle and Plato, Sokolowski shows how Aristotle could be seen as agreeing with Plato and, ultimately, with Christianity:

It is meaningful to say that the one pure act of esse subsistens could “be” all alone (it is not meaningful to say that the Platonic One could “be” all alone). The contrast to esse subsistens is not differentiation, but nothing other at all. That there is, in fact, anything other than the one pure act of esse subsistens is due not to the necessity of being coupled and paired, the work of the Indeterminate Dyad, but to the unnecessitated choice exercised by the creator.

These are remarkable lines. God is complete without the universe. But if what is not God also exists, it is due to a freedom that is not necessary. The finite being that is the immediate object of our intellect need not be, but is.

All things have esse, being. Being is initially always a gift. “The proper effect of God’s power is to give esse, and so God must be with whatever is,” Sokolowski says. “All things…are taken as not being through a necessity of divergence but through liberality, all beings…are considered as transparent to their creator.” This luminosity of being, to use David Walsh’s incisive phrase, is what is presented to us when we reach through and beyond the being that is manifested to us in the ordinary knowing through which we seek finally to know all that is.


©2019 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.

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