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27 August 2007

Q is for Quiddity

Magritte2“For a long time I couldn't make out what Aquinas meant. He uses a figurative word (a very unusual thing for him) but I have solved it. Claritas is quidditas… This is the moment which I call epiphany. First we recognise that the object is one integral thing, then we recognise that it is an organised composite structure, a thing in fact: finally, when the relation of the parts is exquisite, when the parts are adjusted to the special point, we recognise that it is that thing which it is. Its soul, its whatness, leaps to us from the vestment of its appearance. The soul of the commonest object, the structure of which is so adjusted, seems to us radiant. The object achieves its epiphany.” – James Joyce, Stephen Hero

“Mama?” “Mama!”


I reached for my happy red plastic bifocals and looked at the clock. 5:56 a.m.

“Mama?” Tess asked, peering at me from her eye level, an inch above the mattress on which—until oh so very recently, I had been quietly and sweetly dreaming of a small glass house in which to write Southern gothic novels and bake cantaloupe and honeydew cupcakes topped with white chocolate-cardamom butter cream and chiffonade of mint.

“Yes, honey? Yes?” I answered, not knowing where I was, but knowing full on that it wasn’t a small glass house in which to write Southern gothic novels and chiffonade some damn mint. 

“Mama? Mama? What makes you you?”

Good lord. I usually need at least one cup of strong black coffee and a scone corner before we start a conversation about quiddity and haecceity and hypokeimenon.

In philosophy, quiddity is identity or "whatness," something's "what it is." It comes from the scholastic Medieval Latin term quidditas, "essence," from quid, "what." Quiddity describes properties a particular substance—like a person—shares with others of its kind.

Unlike quiddity, “haecceity” denotes the discrete qualities, properties or characteristics of a thing which make it a particular thing. Haecceity is a person or object's "thisness,” referring to aspects of a thing that make it a particular thing, while quiddity refers to the universal qualities of a thing, its "whatness", those aspects of a thing that it shares with other things.

What we are in common with others, what we are distinct from them. And, finally, what we are.

What is my whatness? And yours? A fox has fox-ness, a crow has crow-ness, and we have…what?  What makes you you? Is it possible to answer that question except as “you” is in relationship to other “you’s”?

Rarely, I imagine, is the word “quiddity” used in an obituary (something to aspire to!); that of poet Ted Hughes’ was an exception: “He wanted to capture not just live animals, but the aliveness of animals in their natural state: their wildness, their quiddity, the fox-ness of the fox and the crow-ness of the crow.”

Poets, it would seem, are dipping pens into inkwells every morning after their black coffee and scone corner to do just that: capture quiddity. Ironically, then, quiddity itself is the essence of their work to capture quiddity, an infinite regress of quiddities, a word that quite stops looking like itself once you write it a few times.

Hypokeimenon is a term in metaphysics that means the "underlying thing.” To search for the hypokeimenon is to search for that substance that persists in a thing going through change—its essential being. Conceptually similar to Spinoza’s "substance" and Kant’s concept of the “noumenon” in The Critique of Pure Reason, philosophers like George Berkeley attempted to discredit the idea of any "underlying" substance which lay "behind" appearances, arguing instead that appearances are the only true reality.

And to think that I actually used to know all this, back when I toyed with majoring in philosophy. My favorite t-shirt for years was from the graduate philosophy department at the University of Virginia. "Philosophy. I'm in it for the money," it said proudly across the back. I'm just sayin.'

Whatness. Quiddity.
Thingness. Haecceity.
Unchanging essence. Hypokeimenon.

What is my whatness?
What is my thingness?
What is my underlying thing, that essence that doesn’t change? What makes me me?

Like the foxes, what is my aliveness in my natural state: my wildness, my quiddity?

Maybe finding the answers to those questions leads to what James Joyce called epiphany. When I know the soul of the commonest object, it achieves its epiphany, he tells me. How about when I find my own soul?

I leaned up on one elbow. “Tessie, do you remember where I keep you when I go away on an airplane?”

“You keep me in your heart,” she said, pointing at my chest, smiling.

“And where do you keep me?” I asked.

"Always in my heart.” She pointed to her own chest.

“Everything that we keep in our hearts,” I said. “That’s what makes you you."

I figure I’ll save “hypokeimenon” until after her 5th birthday.

I walked downstairs with her hand in mine. "Hi, Worldie," she said sleepily as we passed the window on the stair landing.

"Let's make a huge big old pot of wonderful, hot coffee when we get to the kitchen," I said. "Want to?"

[painting by Magritte]


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Patti, sorry it's taken me until Q to tell you how much I've been enjoying your alphabet series. Much food for thought, but Q really made me smile.

Just in case you ever wonder about people who leave a comment telling you how absolutely amazing you are....and then drop off and never come back again...we're still here. I still check in. I still laughed really hard about Billy. Call me. And wanted to hug you for it. I'm writing my own alphabet, inspired by you. Over there in your corner, you are making the world a better place. Don't ever doubt it. Casting all good thoughts through cyberspace....Amy

Okay I'm definitely too tired to fully absorb this one. :) So I'll just say, well done...start the the door...and greet it with a "Hi, Worldie." (Tess's slogan WILL appear on a piece of your jewelry...right?!) ;)

Hi, Worldie. Indeed.

Kikipotamus the Hobo - It is one of my favorite things that she says - imagine if we all started our day that way! Let's!

Marilyn - I *wrote* it and am too tired to understand it! ;-) Now that you mention it, "Hi Worldie" is a great bracelet idea....!

Amy, Amy, Amy - wonderful to hear from you! Tell me, how many packages of frozen cranberries do you have in your freezer today? ;-) Your note really made my day - I've missed you... Billy *will* call someday. I can just feel it.

Lydia - thanks for telling me! I've enjoyed it, though I will admit some trepidation as we near "X". Any ideas? ;-)

Patti, patti, patti. Just want to sit and appreciate your intellect and the gigantic heart that goes along with it.

I read your posts in my reader every day, but coming over for coffee is ever so much more fun.

Please come stay in Santa Barbara. We'll find somewhere for you to lecture. In fact, I had a thought that this post would be great storytelling for a talk, and I've felt that way about many of your posts.

We've definitely "had it" with the blue suit stuff. Let's get real.

Dutch, that's my whatness,"Wijk"is my hereness,I even boast a neither here nor thereness,in English of course, to prevent double dutchness.
Yet to be serious, your entertaining way of making a tricky bit of philosophy bearable is in my opinion sublime.
You come close to writing Aristotle and the art of perambulator maintenance

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