The Great Conversation:
Same & Other

By Gabriel Blanchard

The person in the mirror is the same person as you. ... Isn't it?

One of the first things we learn to ask as children is “What’s that?” In itself, this is not usually a tough question, but it gets complicated in odd ways. Directing it at one and the same object, we may receive such answers as “a bite,” “hot,” “dinner,” “orange,” “macaroni and cheese,” “pasta,” “leftovers,” and “not a toy.” (This last reply is rather broad, but parents—who show a definite scorn for the immense range of possibilities inherent in all objects—tend to give it based on pragmatic interests rather than intellectual ones.)

More sophisticated versions of the same thing appear as we grow older. This evening meal is an-other one from yesterday’s, but they are the same meal in the sense that they’re both dinner. So—what makes them “the same”? Or is calling them the same just a convenience, and really they have nothing objective in common? This is one of the standard questions in epistemology (the branch of philosophy which studies knowledge), especially for philosophers who believe we obtain knowledge of universals by abstracting the similarities among particulars. That certainly sounds like a good way of explaining, or at least describing, how we learn: we see lots and lots of orange things, and over time we learn to separate out the idea “orange” from any of the objects that are that color. But is that a valid way of obtaining knowledge? And if not, how valid is our knowledge? It was to solve this problem that Plato proposed the doctrine of the Forms as a solution, as a transcendental and stable Same that was, for that very reason, profoundly Other from the things its nature was reflected in.

Of course, sameness and otherness can apply to many things besides particulars subsumed under a universal. Every mathematical equation says that what is on one side of the equation is the same as what is on the other side, i.e., the quantities are the same. Moreover, different types of sameness and otherness can cut across each other: for instance, a male monkey and a male turtle are different in most respects, but they are “the same” when contrasted with a female turtle (both male), or with a tree (both animals rather than plants), or with a human being (both irrational).

This leads us to the topic of taxonomy. Normally we hear this word in the context of biology, especially the discoveries of men like Charles Darwin or Gregor Mendel. Strictly speaking, though, any arrangement of things into a group is a kind of taxonomy (from the Greek τάξις [taxis], “order”). Most taxonomies are hierarchical, as in biological taxonomy. Though every apple tree is different, they are one species, Malus domestica; one step up, there are other species of fruit tree within the same Malus genus; up again, and there are other genera in Rosaceae, the rose family which Malus belongs to, and so forth. Many other disciplines use similar systems. Chemistry has the periodic table, angelology has its choirs and orders, library science has the Dewey decimal system. It is arguable that Aristotle was, above all, a multi-disciplinary taxonomist: from virtues and sub-virtues to forms of life to civic constitutions to types of plays to syllogisms, nearly every work in the sizable Aristotelian corpus is an intricate arrangement of distinct parts that each relate in their own way to a collective whole.

Flesh knows what spirit knows
but spirit knows it knows.

Charles Williams, The Region of the Summer Stars, "Taliessin in the Rose Garden"

Perhaps the most famous historical case of same-versus-other in the Great Conversation is the debate over the doctrine of the Trinity. In the early fourth century, an Egyptian deacon named Arius began teaching that the Logos* (whom Christians believe was incarnated as Jesus) was not, strictly speaking, God—a supremely exalted being, yes, but a created one. The Council of Nicæa was convened to address this belief, and voted almost unanimously against it.** The Nicene party insisted that the Logos was homoousios, “the same in being,” with God the Father; the most moderate Arians were willing to come as far as calling him homoiousious, “similar in being”—but no further. The obvious conclusion was that however similar the Arians allowed these beings to be, one being was one thing and the other was another. Yet even Nicene theology admitted otherness within the Trinity; its supporters would not tolerate confusion of the Persons any more than division of the Substance.

Christianity is not the only faith in which identity and distinction are something of a mystery at the divine level. Many forms of Hinduism and Buddhism are pantheistic, believing that God is in some sense everything. In some versions of these traditions, the principal problem afflicting humanity is not death or moral corruption, but a lack of spiritual enlightenment, to which the solution is learning to recognize that the self and divinity are one and the same.

All this is a bit abstract, of course! Same versus other comes up much more in practical contexts, like the “war between the sexes” or political disputes about immigration and citizenship. One problem that tends to plague such conversations is another same-other issue, that of equivocation. Words often carry multiple meanings. Samuel Johnson was “a realist,” in the sense that he believed our five senses were basically reliable (in contrast with idealists who thought knowledge came only by reasoning a priori); but Johnson was certainly not “a realist” in the cynical sense of tolerating any and all means of getting what one wants regardless of morality. Equivocation is what happens when a word that has been used in one sense gets used in another, without due acknowledgement of the difference between those senses. Occasionally, this is a case of mere miscommunication; it becomes a full-blown fallacy when someone takes advantage of differences in meaning to construct invalid arguments with a veneer of truth. One of the most popular forms of equivocation is the motte and bailey, in which someone argues for a highly controversial position but, when challenged, pretends they are only arguing for something much simpler and easier to defend.

Suggested reading:
Aristotle, Physics
St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiæ I.47
John Donne, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, “Meditation XVII
John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding II
Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species
Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose

*Logos (λόγος) is an Ancient Greek term typically translated “word”; it can also mean “reason,” “argument,” “order,” and other things besides, and is the origin of the English word logic.
**The Dan Browns of the world notwithstanding, the doctrine of the Trinity was the only theological topic discussed at Nicæa, and, out of three hundred and sixteen bishops, only two refused their assent to the final decision of the council.

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Gabriel Blanchard is CLT’s editor at large. He lives in Baltimore, MD.

If you enjoyed this piece, you might enjoy some of our other offerings here at the Journal; our Great Conversation series is ongoing, including posts on topics like beauty, eternity, the family, matter, and wealth. You might also like our seminar series on the men and women of our Author Bank, or our podcast, Anchored, hosted by CLT’s founder Jeremy Tate. Thanks for reading!

Published on 1st December, 2022. Page image of a concept drawing of a mirror-lined room by Art Deco architect Arnaldo dell’Ira, produced in 1939.

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