Quora Answer: How do you answer a “what is” question?

Oct 18 2014

This brings up a point which I make over and over, which is to say that “IS” is a parochial Indo-European concept not shared by other languages and worlds, many of which we have wiped out by colonialism, but sufficent other languages and worlds exist that we should not get the idea that Being is a universal as we have thought for centuries, but rather it is very specific to our worldview which has become dominant and foisted it on others over the last few centuries.

So when we say “What IS” about anything we are talking about the essence or the What of something that has Being projected on it over the existential core. Our idea of essence is caught up in our concept of Being, and we talk about the essential being of something, which normally indicates the kind or sort of thing that something is. However, in Husserl’s phenomenology he identifies ‘essence perception’ as different from abstractions. So the essence of something in this case is the limits and coherence of its attributes and thus about the multiple constraints on something that makes it what it is and not something else at some level of family resemblance between like things. So we talk about genera and species of things, like animals for instance. As Heidegger shows in Being and Time Pure Being (present-at-hand) is mostly ruled by abstraction, while Process Being (ready-to-hand) is mostly ruled by essence perception which he calls circumspective concern and relates to the totality of the things that support existence, and many of those things are part of the technological infrastructure that supports actions toward goals which are seen in terms of static abstractions.

What IS is usually revealed by the processes that operate on something, so for instance evolution operates on species, and defines their what in relation to their niche in an ecosystem that is itself evolving over time which pushes the organisms of a given kind to evolve as well with a dollop of randomness just to add a bit of interest to the proceedings. So essences tend to be seen functionally in terms of the dynamics of the thing in relation to other things, and the things with their essence keeps much of its content which might otherwise be washed away by abstractions that are static illusory continuities concerning the thing, for instance when we represent something by a name. The name may capture the abstraction but has nothing to do with capturing the essence of something which needs more detail in terms of the characteristics and the coherence and limits of those characteristics and many times also including the lifecycle of the thing. So for instance we go into a Forest and look around at the trees and realize that we are seeing trees at all points in their lifecycle and so we see playing itself out around us in the various examples we see around us the various stages of growth of a given kind of tree. The constraints on the essence of the tree thus are a dynamic envelope of possible changes over time as well which we now normally relate to the genetic structure within the DNA of the cells of the organism which then we relate to the Epigenetic landscape that is produced when the cell develops in a given environment. So the term essence not only relates to constraints in terms of whether something stays the same if the limits or arrangement or presence of characteristics change, but also it relates to the constraints on the development of the thing in line with the norms of that species given its genetic makeup and the interaction with the ecosystem.

But there is another level of Essence that I talk about in my dissertation on Emergent Design [http://about.me/emergentdesign] which is at the Hyper Being level and which is related to Derrida’s ideas of Differance (differing and deferring). At a certain point we must consider the discontinuities between kinds of things, and the discontinuities in development, and how distinctions are made in the first place between things in space and time and how fragile that process is. I will leave it to the reader to explore this level by themselves but it has to do with how the discontinuities come to be in space and time given representations and repetitions within things and the interplay between these distinctions and what that says about the relation between the species and the individual, in other words the individual differences can matter, and the essence at the level of species is not everything, but there is a peculiar essence to individual things that is unique and singular and goes beyond what is just at the level of kind or sort. And many times when we look at all the individual differences say in trees of the same species there is a wide variety of differences and there is a spectrum or field of possibilities that are actualized many times with striking anomalies that are instructive.

I don’t really mention it in my dissertation but we can also see essence at the level of Wild Being as well. But here we are talking about the field of propensities by which probabilities are transformed into actualities. In other words even beyond individual differences there is the realm of possibility and the adjacent possible that renders potentials that may or may not be actualized into specific viable individuals. And this is the level where the Chinese talk about Chi and Li. Essentially their culture is the reverse of ours because they posit that Chi, Li and Shu are the fundamentals and the other levels are degeneration from the rich reality that is seen for instance in Jade Carvings. Jade is more priceless than gold in China because the individual piece of Jade has subtle coloring and texture, and pattern laid down in time as the crystals formed which can be brought out in carving to sublime aesthetic effect. Chi is the subtle energy flows that form the crystals, what Adrian Bijan calls flow architecture within a stream of flow like that which builds up Jade cystals. Li is the precise patterning laid down in that process that shows subtle natural ordering of the crystalline content along with the impurities that we see as a pattern. But when we see that pattern we are witnessing the propensities that the individual particles had which were realized in the fractal patterning of the Jade material. A good book about this is http://www.amazon.com/The-Propen…. Shu is the numerically distinct object which exhibits the Li based on the flow of the Chi. But Li also means principle in as much as there are different sorts of propensities that things might have at this greatest possible level of granularity where the content and its specific givenness matters. Knowing the Li of things allows one to recognize the patterns that are forming when they have not yet become set in stone, and then we can recognize what we see set in stone (i.e. the actual Jade patterning) as just one possible realized potential from a host of possible ones that could have occurred but didn’t. But the one that did form the pattern we see expresses the propensities, dispositions, tendencies at play in the moment when the crystal was actually forming that gave rise to its suchness and thatness which is beyond words but seen immediately in the thing itself before our eyes. We can think of Li as viablity developmental channels which are direcelty expressed in the specifics of the patterning we see in something.

Essence can function at all the meta-levels of Being (Pure, Process, Hyper, Wild, Ultra) and takes on a different emergent meaning at each level. What something IS is always just about as deep a question you can ask about something. The only thing deeper is Why.

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