Illustrations of the Problem of the One and the Many

Dictionary Illustration

“Consider, for our illustration, each individual word in the dictionary to be a member of the many. If we posit the One as ultimate, the result would be that the individual words of the dictionary would lose their distinct meaning, for the meaning of each word would be tied up with and reducible to the One. To paraphrase Musaseus, each word proceeds from the One and is resolved into the One. In effect, then, the individual words would simply be different ways of pronouncing the One. The whole dictionary would be absorbed into one single word whose meaning would be rationally incomprehensible because it would include everything, including all the opposites of the world. Good is the One. Evil is the One. Right and left, up and down, backwards and forwards, all are the One. Hated and love could not be ultimate distinguished. For that matter, hatred and bananas could not be ultimately distinguished. When every aspect of reality blends into a universal blob, meaning disappears.

One the otherhand, the ultimacy of the Many would mean that each word in the dictionary must be known by itself, without explanation in terms of the other words. If each word were ultimate, explanation in terms of higher categories or principles would be excluded, because nothing could exist above the individual words to bring them into relation. And since every member of the Many would be ultimate to itself, we would end up with a dictionary that could at best be nothing more than a list of words. With the fragmentation of the world into unrelatable and indefinable units, we would face the disintegration of meaning no less certainly than we would when we assert the ultimacy of the One.”

Politics Illustration

“Another illustration of the problem of the One and the Many comes from politics. In this case, the ultimacy of the One would mean the ultimacy of the state–statism. In the statist view, the individual is nothing more than a piece of the larger mechanism. When the state is conceived as being ultimate, then the individuals in the society would decide–or have decided for them–their jobs, their marriages, and the affairs of daily life in terms of the needs or demands of the state. In the end, only the state would count.

On the other hand, the ultimacy of the Many in politics means anarchy. Each individual man would be his own law, his own ultimate authority. Family, state, church, and other groups would have no authority or real significance. It could hardly be said that they would even exist, for every group would be nothing more than an acccidental, temporary conglomeration. Groups would only appear to be a whole. In reality, they would be a mere amassment of individual, unrelated, and unrelatable fragments.

Whether we think, therefore, of the ultimacy of the One or of the Many, political philosophy is reduced to absurdity. Statism and anarchy both undermine the meaning of the state itself as well as the individual citizen. For neither an undifferentiated mass nor a host of isolated particles is capable of being rationally analyzed or structured. As we saw also from the illustration from language, the problem of the One and the Many in politics illustrates that what we need is a philosophy of life that allows for both the One and the Many to have ultimate meaning.”

(Smith, Trinity and Reality, 24-26)


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