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A Little Philosophy:  What is “Is”?

The simplest words are sometimes the hardest to analyze.  Take “is”. As usually used in assigning identity, we think of the word as being equivalent to the equal sign  (=) in mathematics, as in “two and three is five”.  Is makes the first thing and the second thing the same thing.  At least, that is what we think we mean when we use the word is.  Such a strong ontological equivalence makes the two things seem inseparable.  Accepting this equivalence uncritically is almost always a mistake.

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Consider “he is John”.  Is he really?  The sound of the word “John” as it propagates  through the medium of air is not really what he is, is it?  “Ah”, you say, “but in this context the word is is  just an idiomatic way of naming something.”  Right you are!  But the point is, the word is is always just an idiom in every context it is used.

The false equivalence of “is” causes all kinds of social trouble. Consider the statement “Bobby is a boy”.  A recent news story tells of Bobby Montoya, a 7-year-old child who is genetically a boy but who self-identifies as a girl.  To look at the photo, Bobby is a happy and lovely little girl, but she’s got male plumbing.  She likes girl things and she does girl stuff.  Her parents accept her self-identification as a girl and have avoided trying to force her into a male mold. When the parents presented Bobby to the Girl Scouts for membership, the Girl Scouts said “If a child identifies as a girl and the child’s family presents her as a girl, Girl Scouts of Colorado welcomes her as a Girl Scout.”  In response, three Girl Scout leaders in Louisiana resigned and dissolved their Girl Scout troops.  “This goes against what we believe”, said one of them.

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Any challenge to the ontological is-ness of someone’s gender assignment (Bobby is a boy) stirs outright revulsion in many people.  Here is one person’s comment on the news story about Bobby:

This is a heck of a way to bring up a boy, to think he is a girl. They have robbed him of his identity and his sanity. This is nothing short of child abuse. Think of how this poor child is going to be treated by his peers, all because his mother doesn’t have her head screwed on straight. What an outrage. The Girl Scouts of America organization should revoke their charter.

How strange, isn’t it, to feel that sanity itself is threatened if we don’t maintain absolute faith and belief in “Bobby is a boy”?  Gender identification is such an ambiguous thing, but ambiguity is so nauseating to some people that it feels like allowing the universal order to dissolve into complete chaos.

Relax.  The world is not falling apart if Bobby isn’t a boy.  It’s just that reality can be slippery and not very friendly to the demands we make of it. Ambiguity is built into the fabric of the universe. Sometimes a particle isn’t a particle but a wave.  And sometimes a boy isn’t a boy but a girl.

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Where did the word is get all this power?  It starts with Plato’s theory of the Forms.  Plato understood that when you use the word is you are locating a specific thing in a general category.  This piece of furniture (specific object) is a chair (general category of all things that are chairs). Plato called these general categories (things that are chairs, things that are red, things that are beautiful, etc.) the Forms.  For Plato, the Forms were transcendent and eternal categories.  Mere physical chairs and apples are movie stars are things that fall apart, rot and pass away.  But the eternal Forms of chairness and redness and beauty last forever in an otherworldly realm that is much more real than our physical world and the transitory objects it contains.  Thus, when you say what something is, you connect it with its very essence and its transcendent source in a bright and glorious hereafter.  Some scholars say that our modern religions would not have been possible without this transcendental realm of Forms that Plato conceived.

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What Plato failed to account for was the way in which things can partake in a number of different general categories at once.  A milk carton, for example, can also serve as a chair.  It would be an object created and sustained by two eternal Forms; the Form of Milk-carton-ness and the Form of Chairness.  In exactly the same way, Bobby can be a boy and a girl.  Another thing that Plato’s analysis missed is how we citizens of the ordinary physical world can make category assignments that are imperfect.  Even if there really are eternal Forms in the great beyond, how can we be sure that our mundane and feeble minds correctly reflect them? Our forms may not be the eternal Forms.  Bobby might not be a boy at all, and our assignment of him to the category “boy” is just dead wrong by some higher universal standard that we mortals can’t grasp.

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If you think you don’t understand the theory of Forms, you really do.  You were steeped in it from birth.  All Western philosophy originates with Plato, and Plato wields an enormous but often unrecognized influence on the western intellect. Even folks who haven’t studied Plato unknowingly absorb and adopt the Platonic theory of Forms without realizing where it came from.  That is why is has such absolute, ontological connotations.  That is why we insist on knowing and saying what a thing really is, as if God Himself places all things in their proper categories. And that is why some folks experience a nausea of revulsion when the truth of is is threatened.  But once you know where is got it’s power, it begins to lose its power over you, and you are better able to question the categories that so many of us take for granted.

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One comment on “

  1. gbear says:

    Thank you for this delightful topic! Many don’t take the time to consider what is used daily, they simply address it as something ordinary that all understand, but you have asked “why? Why is do we use what we do?” The more personal introspective perception is the perception that will lead to answers!

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