Contingency, Totality, and Individuality: A Response to Christi Fenison’s “Particles and State-of-Being”

by Shaun Terry

As Fenison’s article starts by noting the role of contingency in the expressions of these thoughts, I find it important to articulate just why that might be important. In my view, the problem is multiple. First off, if we are not considering contingency, then we, as individuals, are likely to be led down some treacherous paths. To the point about distinguishing between individuals and society, however, I would like to argue that we, as a society, are already on a very bad path.

The late David Foster Wallace commented on the role that Postmodernism as a style has played on the formation of our entertainment and the cultural fallout from that. I propose that the slow death of religion, the emergence of Postmodernism, and the advent of Internet culture have led to the deterioration of discourse, especially in the West. This is an aspect of culture that I think we are right to criticize at this juncture, as these elements of have led to lack of respect for contingency, deep divisions between people, and increased expressions of hate throughout our culture. I believe that stating things in absolute terms is lazy and delusional, in some senses, but it also has the effect of normalizing such delusions such that we end up taking dogmatic positions on important and controversial issues. I think that there is a great deal of wisdom in saying, “maybe.”

To get to Fenison’s argument, she seems to state that state-of-being is “individually-limited,” which must imply that state-of-being is not made up of everything. Otherwise, the statement would be hollow. There is no need to point out any limitation of everything while pointing out that the individual is limited. If they are one and the same, then simply pointing out the limitations of one is sufficient, but Fenison goes on to declare that we “beings” are not omnipresent, serving to clarify that individual identity and totality must be distinct.

Fenison conceives of identity as not being married to a mind that is produced by the brain, which necessitates a different frame from what might be a more traditional view of the self and of identity as a consequence of the self. By her account, identity is affected by the materiality surrounding the individual, but not through the filter of perception, allowing her conception to circumvent the film reel aspect that I spoke to in my earlier response to her “Identity and Infinity.” Instead, Fenison’s conception requires one of a few options; I see three, although there may be others:

  1. Identity is shared by the universe and there can be no distinction between its constituent parts;
  2. Identity is formed by the material world without our playing any role or even knowing of it;
  3. Identity is formed by the material world and by our minds, but the distinctions between ourselves and the (rest of the) material world are not absolute.

I will handle these three possibilities separately.

1. If Fenison means to suggest that identity is always shared with everything, then simply describing it as totality seems sufficient; that is, there is no distinction being made between identity and totality, so identity is redundant and useless as a term. In fact, Fenison seems to reject this definition when she opens the piece, as alluded to above. If we are “individually-limited,” non-omnipresent beings, then we are not only parts of a greater whole and our identities can be distinguished. I assert that we might agree that we know that we are not one another, exactly, that we conceive of ourselves as being somehow separate from others.

2. If, instead, Fenison meant that our identities are not decided by us, that by itself appears less self-contradictory, but this stands in contradiction to how we often might think of identity, as well as perhaps to other parts of her article. Historical perspectives on identity imply that we decide who we are, or at least that we might play the most significant role in this process. Under Fenison’s paradigm, our identity changes at each moment, while our conceptions of ourselves are highly limited by the slices of time by which we perceive the world. This means that there is an infinitely small proportion of time during which we have an opportunity to know who we are. Put another way, it means that it is basically impossible for us to ever know ourselves, let alone shape who we are. This stands in direct contradiction to those who might assert that we know ourselves better than anyone can, as—for all practical purposes—we do not know ourselves at all when contrasted against the determining effect of the material world around us. We cannot know ourselves and we cannot determine our own fates. But, this is not the only possible problem with this conception.

Fenison relates identity to state-of-mind, which seems to erase the idea that identity is purely about how the material world shapes who we are in the spaces between our perceptions. It seems impossible to have a state-of-mind without having percepts with which to alter our state-of-mind, unless again, Fenison means that what happens outside our brains has greater effect on how we think and feel than does our brain. That seems unlikely but not completely implausible.

3. A possible—and seemingly superior—reading of Fenison is to say our identities are shaped by the world but that our brains play a more significant role in shaping those identities and that the distinctions between ourselves and the material world are not absolute. This would say that we are connected to the material world and that we determine parts of our fates, while also making possible that we might be affected by the most far-flung events in the universe through chains of causalities.

Note: An earlier version said that Fenison stated that state-of-being is individually-limited, but has been corrected to reflect that I could not be sure that was what she was stating.