The Great Conversation:

By Gabriel Blanchard

This concept has risen steadily in the Great Conversation, from a lesser footnote to a chief aspect of both physics and metaphysics.

Like a few of our other entries in the catalogue of great ideas, relation one may seem abstract to the point of vagueness, too broad to be a useful idea in itself. We might therefore begin by restricting it to relations in a given domain, or relations of a particular kind. Those peculiar relations that exist between family members have long been an object of special study, for instance, or the specific type of mathematical relation known as proportion—which, with a little assistance from Pythagoras, we could easily parlay into a discussion of music theory. But truly, though complex, relation in itself is not one of the matters too lofty for us, and we may (as so often) profitably begin with Aristotle.

Aristotle’s Organon, or “Toolbox,” was one of the seminal works on reasoning in the whole history of thought. One of its six parts, the Categories,* was devoted to what kinds of things can be subjects or predicates of logical propositions: in other words, what we can talk about and what we can say. Aristotle enumerated ten categories of predicate:

    1. substance (i.e., what a thing is, the other nine traits inhering in that thing’s substance)
    2. quantity (i.e., how many or much)
    3. quality (i.e., what kind)
    4. relation (e.g., being larger or smaller than another thing, like a rock, or being about another thing, like a word)
    5. place
    6. time
    7. posture (e.g., upright versus prone)
    8. condition (e.g., sick versus well)
    9. activity
    10. affected-ness (i.e., being affected by the activity of something else)

These have been briefly touched upon in our post on quality. We can see that at this stage, relation is still a pretty modest aspect of the picture; if 2, 3, 7, and 8 more or less cover adjectives a substance could have, and 9 and 10 cover verbs, 4 through 6 cover our adverbs and prepositions. However, relation has already diversified into at least two branches: the “physically” prepositional and the “conceptually” prepositional. When we say the Spanish word cansado means “tired,” we do not mean the word is located at a specifiable point in space, or that tired-ness is thus located, so that the distance between the two could be measured in feet and inches. Meaning or being about something, rather, are relations between concepts. We express them in terms of spatial analogies as often as not, but they are comprehensible only by minds that can also perform such feats of abstraction as arithmetic. (As Dorothy Sayers put it, “Certainly we see egg, egg, egg, egg, egg, egg, but can any man see six—apart from the eggs? No man hath seen an integer at any time.”) This, too, we have touched upon before, in our three-parter on signs and symbols.

Speaking of the Organon, another of its six component books is the Topics, which delineates kinds or “families” of arguments. Four are especially common: definition, analogy, cause and effect, and authority. The reader will note that the second and third of these topics are precisely kinds of relation; indeed, in Richard Weaver’s book Language Is Sermonic, the name “analogy” is replaced by “relationship.” This may have been partly because we tend to think of analogy as little more than saying “X resembles Y,” but the argument topic of analogy covers comparison, extrapolation, and proportion in general. The argument a fortiori, a favorite device of the Gospels, is an example, precisely claiming to offer not one-to-one correspondences but exponential ones.

The physical side of relation leads us in two main directions: the family (of which we spoke just last week), and the aptly-named discipline of physics. Physics is all about the relationships between one object and another, or between the physical forces of the cosmos and the matter that they move about. Nor is it for nothing that Albert Einstein (an outstanding genius in an era when mere confirmed geniuses were plentiful) named his most important theses the theories of special and general relativity; and here the physical meaning of relation curves back toward the conceptual.

The principle of art has been defined by someone as “the same in the other”. Thus in a country dance you take three steps and then three steps again. ... But the first three are to the right and the second three to the left. That is the other. In a building there may be a wing on one side and a wing on the other, but both of the same shape.

At the bottom of both theories is the fact that where we are standing dictates what we can see—that is how the laws of perspective work. The laws of perspective in turn are determined by two things: how the human eye works, and how light travels. Perhaps if humans had, say, nine eyes instead of two, all situated on prehensile stalks like an Andalite‘s, we would be able to see an object from all sides at once (as long as it was not too big). Or if light naturally curved as it traveled, maybe that would allow us to do the same thing. But we do not have nine prehensile eyes, and light does not swerve to our assistance. Indeed, given that our perception of three spatial dimensions is almost-perfectly translatable into two (and while we possess depth perception in principle, we often misjudge depth in fact), we probably lack the equipment even to imagine what this kind of all-sides view would be like.

Some people are inclined to distrust this line of thinking, feeling that it is secretly of a political character—surely standpoint theory or moral relativism are in the offing. But if we take a moment to be rigorously honest with ourselves, we ought to recognize that a limited perspective is as much of the essence of our minds as it is of our eyes. Moreover, it is worth our while to make use of a pedantic distinction that exists in English: we have the words bias and prejudice, which are effectively synonyms in meaning but accent things differently. The former is a natural leaning or tendency, and in this sense we all not only have our biases, but are no worse for having them. Prejudice, however, is a French-descended calque for the more Anglo-Saxon-sounding forejudgment, and points not to an inherent quality, but to a decision made by the prejudicial party to treat this or that other person or idea with hostility in advance. In other words, we need only adjust for bias, while a prejudice is something we must lay down.

As usual in our Great Conversation posts, there is no space to do justice to the full meaning of relation! However, that passing mention of moral relativism is a link to one more way this idea is philosophically important. When the present author was a child in the 1990s, the slogan of relativists—according to their professed enemies, at least—was “It’s all relative.” A waggish person might point out that this phrase is essentially meaningless unless and until one answers the question Relative to what? One more waggish still might point out that, for anybody who believes in a roughly Abrahamic or Platonic God,† every other thing is defined entirely by its relation to that Being; which means in turn that really Christians ought to be the ones insisting that everything is relative (to God). And here we brush too against the famously bewildering doctrine of the Trinity; no one completely understands it, or so it seems. Nonetheless, St. Thomas Aquinas argued that “the Persons are the relations” when it comes to explaining the Trinity. On this showing, God is not only the head and pinnacle of the Great Chain of Being: he is, in himself, a web of relationships.

*The other five parts of the Organon were: On Interpretation, explaining the rules of logical validity; Prior Analytics, on theoretical knowledge; Posterior Analytics, on practical knowledge and definitions; Topics, on the general structures of argument; and On Sophistical Refutations, on fallacies. Only the first two (which had been translated into Latin by Boëthius) were widely known in the Middle Ages before the twelfth century.
†Abrahamic, insofar as Christianity, Islam, and Judaism have been almost the only religious influences on the Western idea of God for considerably over a millennium. Platonic, insofar as the Platonic idea of a Supreme Being (tweaked but not changed in substance by Aristotle, Plotinus, and others) is the chief philosophical influence on the Western notion of God.

Suggested reading:
Euripides, Alcestis
The Gospel According to St. Matthew
John Donne, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, “Meditation XVII”
Karl Marx, Capital
Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night
J. P. Mallory, In Search of the Indo-Europeans


Gabriel Blanchard is an uncle to seven nephews, a brother to two sisters, a son to two parents, and an editor at large to a CLT. He lives in Baltimore, MD.

If you enjoyed this piece, you may also like our podcast, Anchored, hosted by CLT founder and president Jeremy Tate.

Published on 22nd June, 2023.

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