Friday, April 17, 2009

"Walker Percy the Philosopher," Revisited

“Walker Percy the Philosopher”[1]

Walker Percy sees our culture as a diseased patient who has already died – perhaps around 1914. The name of the culture was Christendom. The greater difficulty beyond ascertaining death is to name the disease; or, as he says, “if not to isolate the bacillus under the microscope, at least to give the sickness a name, to render the unspeakable speakable.”[2]

Percy was acutely sensitive to the bacillus, and all the male Percy’s before him. His biographer Jay Tolson remarked: “The problem, specifically, was depression – a wracking, disabling depression… partly hereditary”
[3] that engulfed his great-grandfather (suicide), his two uncles (LeRoy accidentally shot himself) and his father who deliberately shot himself after a previous attempt at slashing his wrists. Walker suffered acutely from the same fugues, melancholy and meaninglessness. While in medical school at Columbia, he was seeing a psychotherapist on a regular basis. While interning at Bellevue’s pathology lab, he contracted tuberculosis, was sent to a sanatorium in Saranac Lake, New York. Percy reports: “I lived a strange life then. For weeks I saw no one, except the person who brought me food, on a try, three times a day, and occasionally a doctor. I read and read.”[4] What did he read? Thomas Mann, Kafka, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard. He left the sanatorium and the practice of medicine, returned to the south, traveled with Shelby Foote to New Mexico and there expanded his read to Gabriel Marcel, Heidegger, Mounier, Jaspers, and Sartre. Like Kafka, the scientist, he was on the hunt in search of the bacillus that was killing him (and everyone else).

What did he seek? Himself. Not himself in a selfishness of everything “for me,” but the identity and the reality of me as a unique subject; a “me” that did not fit into any category. He was not, I will argue, in search of abstract thought or immateriality as the key to conceptual knowing, but the unique and un-repeatable “me” that had fallen through the categorical “gaps” of scientific abstraction.

The thesis of Joseph F. Previtali’s “Walker Percy the Philosopher” seems to have interpreted Percy’s diagnosis of the malaise as a materialist entrapment that can be cured by an apologetic of immateriality in the human person, and this by the immateriality involved in the semiotics of sign-giving or naming. He writes: “Since we know that there are some times when the signified and the signifier are purely material, we can conclude that the intellect, at least sometimes, must be that which has immateriality.”
[5] This would be the traditional neo-scholastic response to the reduction of sensible reality to mere matter and measurement. Percy, indeed, uses the Helen Keller experience of naming the water at the well in Tuscumbia, Alabama as the eureka moment when it seems that she has escaped from the dyadic physiology of stimulus (S) - response (R) as the connecting of the Braille symbol for water to the wet liquid. Previtali says: “To emphasize the immateriality of the coupler, Percy asks the reader to draw a picture of someone asserting a proposition or judging a painting or composing a piece of music. As the reader comes to learn, Percy knows that it is not possible to do so. Here we have the climactic discovery of Percy’s investigation into human nature: the human intellect must have an immaterial element in order to account for the phenomenon of human language.”[6]And Previtali is led to think that Percy is fixing his attention on the psychic work of abstraction and immaterial conceptualization from whence comes the name. He presumes that Percy’s philosophical perspective is an “Aristotelian/Thomistic metaphysical view.” [7]

He is clearly right in that symbolization has taken place which is a “throwing” (Ballein) “together” (sym) of name (an abstraction) and individual thing by the verb “is.” Percy says: “A child points to a flower and says ‘flower.’ One element of the event is the flower as perceived by sight and registered by the brain: blue, five-petaled, of a certain shape; and the spoken word ‘flower,’ a Gestalt of a peculiar little sequence of sounds of larynx vibrations, escape of air between lips and teeth, and so on. But what is the entity at the apex of the triangle, that which links the other two? Peirce, a difficult, often obscure writer, called it by various names, interpretant, interpreter, judge. I have used the term ‘coupler’ as a minimal designation of that which couples name and thing, subject and predicate, links them by the relation which we mean by the peculiar little word ‘is.’ It, the linking entity, was also called by Peirce ‘mind’ and even ‘soul.’

“Here is the embarrassment, and it cannot be gotten round, so it might as well be said right out: By whatever name one chooses to call it – interpretant, interpreter, coupler, whatever – it, the third element, is not material.
“It is as real as a cabbage or a king or a neurone, but it is not material. No material structure of neurons, however complex, and however intimately it may be related to the triadic event, can itself assert anything. If you think it can, please draw me a picture of an assertion.

“A material substance cannot name or assert a proposition.
“The initiator of a speech act is an act-or, that is, an agent. The agent is not material”
[8](bold mine).

In this text, Percy is not referring to the work of an immaterial intellect, precisely because “intellects” do not work. The agent of the naming is an “interpretant,” a “interpreter,” and a “judge.” The “coupler,” the “namer” is not “the human intellect”
[9] as Previtali suggests. Rather, and in accord with the best of thomistic anthropology where “actiones sunt suppositorum,”[10] the coupler or namer is an “act-or, that is, an agent. The agent is not material.” Previtali assumes that the coupler is the intellect as “immaterial agent.” Having identified agency with the intellect as a medium of knowing names and not the knower, he then finds himself with the false problem of “how… the immaterial part of the intellect interacts with our brain matter in the phenomenon of coupling the sign and the signified?”[11] Discovering that Percy does not deal with such a problem because he never entered into it, he suggests that “it is reasonably likely that the Aristotelian hylomorphism of St. Thomas Aquinas would be Percy’s response to the question of interaction, and it does seem to be the most cogent answer to this problem of interaction.” He then goes on to say: “In this view, the human being is a single substance composed of a unity of body and soul of materiality and immateriality… Given Percy’s desire for an anthropology that expresses an integration of body and soul, this view would seem to be most in line with his thinking.”[12]

I would suggest Percy’s whole endeavor works on a different level, namely, the level of the subject as “I.” Percy’s take on Helen Keller’s discovery in the act of naming the water is not that she discovered thought. Rather, she discovered herself – her existential “I” - in the exercise of her subjectivity by “throwing” the sign and at the water and uniting them in “meaning.” She experienced herself as a “thrower,” an agent exercising causality.

Percy’s whole discovery is the act of conjoining of signs with signified by a signifier. His problematic is that there is no sign that can be “thrown” at the sign-user whereby he is signified. “Semiotically,” he says, “the self is literally unspeakable to itself. One cannot speak or hear a word which signifies oneself, as one can speak or hear a word signifying anything else, e.g., apple, Canada, 7-Up. The self of the sign-user can never be grasped, because, once the self locates itself at the dead center of its world, there is no signified to which a signifier can be joined to make a sign. The self has no sign of itself.”
[13] Hence, the signifier cannot have “substance” as its “name” since the signifier as active agent is irreducibly “I” as in George, or James or Helen. “You are Ralph to me and I am Walker to you, but you are not Ralph to you and I am not Walker to me”[14]

Of course, the question arises as to how the singular can be intelligible in human cognition without being rendered an abstract, conceptual universal. Two things stand out immediately. One, the act of being (esse)is irreducibly singular. Yet, as act of all acts,
[15] it is the supreme and only source of created intelligibility. As Maritain remarked: “Existence… is the consummation or completion, in the mind, of intelligibility in act. It corresponds to the act of existing exercised by things. And this act of existing is itself incomparably more than a mere positing without intelligible value of its own; it is act or energy par excellence; and as we know, the more act there is the greater the intelligibility.”[16] Secondly, (and decisively) the encyclical “Fides et Ratio” points to the human person - as concrete “as a cabbage or a king or a neuron” and yet immaterial - as the “privileged locus for the encounter with being, and hence with metaphysical enquiry.”[17] This knowledge – unmediated by sensible perception or abstraction and categories - that accrues to the experience of the “I” as symbolizing agent is not concept but consciousness[18] as Helen describes it.[19]

Karol Wojtyla expressed the need, as we approached the Third Millennium, to undergo this migration of seeing the human person as existential subject rather than as the objectivized mental category, “rational animal.”
[20] He went on that “the antinomy of subjectivism vs. objectivism, along with the underlying antinomy of idealism vs. realism, created conditions that discouraged dealing with human subjectivity – for fear that this would lead inevitably to subjectivism.” But as “we are seeing a breakdown of that line of demarcation… we can no longer go on treating the human being exclusively as an objective being, but we must also somehow treat the human being as a subject in the dimension in which the specifically human subjectivity of the human being is determined by consciousness. And that dimension would seem to be none other than personal subjectivity.”[21]

Previtali ends by saying that “the ultimate end of Percy’s quest is to discern the implications for human existence of this newfound discovery that man is indeed more than just an organism interacting with an environment. Percy proposes that our unique nature is such that our search for fulfillment reaches beyond the here and now.”
[22] Such a conclusion squares with his thesis that Percy’s discovery is the immateriality of the intellect, and therefore the immateriality of the soul that transcends the here and now into immortality.

But, in line with the perspective that Percy is talking about the self not only as immaterial, but more deeply as “subject,” I would submit that Percy’s thesis has much to do with the world of here and now. His explicit complaint and suffering – “the modern malaise” - is the feeling “in the deepest sense possible that something has gone wrong with one’s very self? When one experiences the common complaint of the age, the loss of meaning, purposelessness, loss of identity, of values, and so on?”
[23] The partial and temporary solution he proposes points to the recovery of – not immateriality – but of identity… even as “neurotic.”[24] Being able to be named such by the “experts” is an achievement in identity and becomes in this moonscape a glimpse of recovery: “I may be sick but how happy I am when I can present my doctor with a sickness or a symptom or a dream which is recognized as a classical example of such-and-such a neurosis: I am an authentic neurotic.”[25]

[1] Joseph F. Previtali, “Walker Percy the Philosopher,” Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly, 31, Number 4, Winter 2008, 26-31.
[2] Walker Percy, “Diagnosing the Modern Malaise,” Signposts in a Strange Land ed. Patrick Samway, The Noonday Press, Farrar, Straus, Giroux (1991) 206.
[3] Jay Tolson, “Pilgrim in the Ruins” Chapel Hill, (1992) 28.
[4] Robert Coles, “Walker Percy – An American Search” Atlantic-Little Brown (1978) 66-67.
[5] Previtali, op. cit. 29
[6] Previtali, op. cit 29.
[7] Previtali, op. cit. 29.
[8] Walker Percy, “The Fateful Rift: The San Andreas Fault in the Modern Mind,” Signposts in a Strange Land ed. Patrick Samway, The Noonday Press (1991) 287.
[9] Previtali, op. cit. 29
[10] S. Th. II-II, 58, 2, Respondeo: “Now actions belong to supposits and wholes and, properly speaking, not to parts and forms or powers, for we do not say properly that the hand strikes, but a man with his hand, nor that heat makes a thing hot, but fire by heat, although such expressions may be employed metaphorically.”
[11] Previtali, op. cit. 30
[12] Ibid.
[13] Walker Percy, “Lost in the Cosmos,” Noonday Press (1996) 106-107.
[14] Ibid 107.
[15] S. Th. I, 4, 1 ad 3: “…Ipsum esse est perfectissimum omnium; comparator enim ad omnia ut actus. Nihil enim habet actualitatem, nisi inquantum est; under ipsum esse est actualitas omnium rerum, et etiam ipsarum formarum.. Under non comparator ad alia sicut recipiens ad receptum, sed magis sicut receptum ad recipiens.” ”Cum enim dico esse hominis, vel equi, vel cuiuscumque alterius, ipsum esse consideratur ut formale et receptum, non autem ut illud cui competit esse.
[16] J. Maritain, “Existence and the Existent” Image (1956) 27-28.
[17] John Paul II, “Fides et Ratio” #83: “In a special way, the person constitutes a privileged locus for the encounter with being [actu essendi], and hence with metaphysical enquiry.”
[18] K. Wojtyla, “We then discern clearly that it is one thing to be the subject, another to be cognized (that is, objectivized) as the subject, and a still different thing to experience one’s self as the subject of one’s own acts and experiences.” The Acting Person Reidel (1979) 44.
[19] “I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motion of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as something forgotten – a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that ‘w-a-t-e-r’ meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!” in Walker Percy, “Message in the Bottle,” Noonday Press (1995) 35.
[20] Karol Wojtyla, “Subjectivity and the Irreducible in the Human Being,” Person and Community (1993) 209.
[21] Ibid 210.
[22] Previtali, op. cit.
[23] Walker Percy, “Diagnosing the Modern Malaise,” Signposts… op. cit. 211.
[24] Ibid.
[25] Ibid

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