Sense and Nonsense: Depending on Facts

In his Confessions, the young Augustine proudly tells of coming across a copy of Aristotle’s Categories, which his professors were having a difficult time understanding. Augustine boldly says that he read the short treatise and had no difficulty whatever. The Categories is generally a brief treatment of the ten ways of predication that we can use to explain things. It is placed as the first book in Aristotle’s Organon, his logical works. No one should be surprised, on reading these pages, if he has a more difficult time comprehending their meaning than Augustine did. But that is all right. Aristotle wants us to know what we are talking about when we talk about anything.

“The truth or falsity of a statement,” Aristotle writes, “depends on facts, and not on any power on the part of the statement itself of admitting contrary qualities. In short, there is nothing that can alter the nature of statements and opinions.” These two short sentences stand as the basis of our freedom to know. They mean, in short, that no manipulation of words or mind can change the nature of things, the what is of things. Our mind is not functioning properly if it does not turn outside itself to see and affirm what is there. Indeed, the mind only knows itself when it is first open to something else.

Much of modern thought, from Descartes on, wants to declare its independence from facts, from what is. The reason for this turning away from Aristotle’s affirmation about the mind’s dependence on things is the fear that reality has an order, a structure. If reality has a structure, it must be itself a reflection of some order or design that it did not make or give to itself. The further reaches of this consideration have to do with the origin of this discovered order, which evidently could not be self-imposed. If it were, we would be independent of it, able to change it.

Thus, we can postulate two kinds of adventure in the universe. One begins with the supposition that nothing exists but ourselves, a postulate I find rather boring. If this self-construction is so, then reality is about imposing what we conceive or make ourselves out to be on what is not ourselves. The “exhilaration,” so to speak, comes about when we finally reconfigure ourselves and the world according to an order concocted only by our own minds. What we really see in whatever we see or think is only ourselves. This endeavor is sometimes called “atheistic human-ism,” that is, a reconstruction of the human and material world, not with lines of intelligence, but of such lines that are only traceable to ourselves as their origins. And since there is no reason why one human construct need be superior to another, we can change our “order” of man and world at will.


The second way proceeds by means of Aristotle’s affirmation that the human mind is not itself a “divine creative mind” but one that depends on “fact,” on what is. In this case, the “discovery” of what is only ourselves is eminently dull and constraining, no matter how intricate. The purpose of intellect is rather related to the idea that in discovering the what is of things, we are in contact with reality, but a reality that can lead us into the deepest mystery. This is why intimations of transcendence are found in the smallest flower or insect and, even more so, in the life of any human being.

Plato tells us that what is ourselves is itself not complete unless someone, in this case ourselves, appreciates it, praises it. It is almost as if what is is something to which our minds need—and want—to respond with a sense of the glory of things.

Fr. James V. Schall


The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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