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The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times

The natures of space and time have now been dealt with adequately for the purpose in view, but it is necessary to return to the subject of ‘matter” in order to examine a question not so far mentioned, in such a way as to shed a fresh light on certain aspects of the modern world.

The scholastics looked on materia as constituting the principium individuationis; what was their reason for looking at things in that way, and how far was it justified?

In order to understand what is involved in this question it is sufficient, without in any way going beyond the limits of our world (for no principle is here involved of a transcendent order with respect to this world) to envisage the relation of individuals to species; in this relation species is on the side of ‘form’ or essence, and individuals, or more exactly that which distinguishes individuals of the same species one from another, are on the side of ‘matter’ or substance.

There is nothing surprising in this, bearing in mind what has been said above about the meaning of the word dBo;;, which is at once both ‘form’ and ‘species’, and about the purely qualitative character of the latter; but the point needs some further elucidation, particularly, in the first place, in order to eliminate various terminological uncertainties likely to arise.

It has already been explained why the word “matter” can give rise to misunderstandings; the word ‘form’ is perhaps even more liable to do so, because its usual meaning is quite different from that which it bears in scholastic language; it was used in its usual meaning when the consideration of form in geometry was alluded to above, but if scholastic language had been used instead, it would have been necessary to say ‘figure’ and not ‘form’; to have done so would however have been unduly contrary to established usage, of which account must inevitably be taken if misunderstanding is to be avoided, and that is why the word ‘form’ is always used in this book in its ordinary meaning, except when it is used with particular reference to scholasticism.

For instance, the word is used in its ordinary meaning in the statement that, of all the conditions of a state of existence, form is the one that specifically characterizes that state as individual; it goes without saying that form in this sense must in no way be conceived as endowed with a spatial character, for it is so endowed only in our world, because it is there combined with another condition, namely space, and space belongs to the domain of corporeal manifestation alone.

But this question then arises: does not form thus understood, rather than ‘matter’ (or if preferred, quantity), represent the true ‘principle of individuation’, since individuals are what they are by virtue of the fact that they are conditioned by form?

So stated, this question represents a misunderstanding of what the scholastics in fact n1ean when they speak of a ‘principle of individuation’; in no sense are they referring to that which defines a state of existence as an individual state, for they seem never to have attained to a conception quite of that order; and in any case, from this point of view, species itself must be regarded as being within the individual order, for it is in no way transcendent with regard to the state so defined.

The same point can be made in another way, by making use of the geometrical representation described elsewhere, and in that case, the whole hierarchy of kinds must be envisaged as extending horizontally and not vertically.

The real question of the ‘principle of individuation’ has a much more restricted range, and can be reduced to this: the individuals of any one species all participate in a common nature, which is that of the species itself, and is in all of them equally; how then does it come about that, in spite of this community of nature, these individuals are distinct beings, or even that they are in any way distinguishable one from another?

It must be understood that individuals are now being considered only insofar as they belong to a species, independently of anything else that may be peculiar to them under other headings; the question could therefore well be formulated in this way: of what order is the determination which is added to specific nature so that individuals may become separate beings while remaining within the species?

It is this determination that the scholastics relate to ‘matter’, that is to say ultimately to quantity, according to their definition of the materia secunda of our world; and thus ‘matter’ or quantity appears distinctly as a principle of ‘separativity’.

It can also be said that quantity is a determination added to species, as species is exclusively qualitative and so is independent of quantity, but such is not the case with individuals owing to the fact that they are ‘incorporated’; and in this connection the greatest care must be taken to note that, despite an erroneous opinion only too widespread among the moderns, species must in no way be conceived as a ‘collectivity’, the latter being nothing but an arithmetical sum of individuals; a ‘collectivity’ is, unlike species, entirely quantitative.

Confusion between the general and the collective is yet another consequence of the tendency that leads the ~moderns to see nothing anywhere other than quantity; it is this tendency which is constantly reappearing as a factor underlying all the conceptions characteristic of their particular mentality.

The conclusion is this: quantity will predominate over quality in individuals to the extent that they approach a condition in which they are, so to speak, mere individuals and nothing more, and to the extent that they are thereby more separate one from another; and it must be emphasized that this does not mean that they are more differentiated, for there is also a qualitative differentiation, which is properly speaking the opposite of that quantitative differentiation in which the separation in question consists.

This separation turns individuals into so many ‘units’, and turns their collectivity into quantitative multiplicity; at the limit, these individuals would be no more than something comparable to the imagined ‘atoms’ of the physicists, deprived of every qualitative determination; and although this limit can never in fact be reached, it lies in the direction which the world of today is following.

A mere glance at things as they are is enough to make it clear that the aim is everywhere to reduce everything to uniformity, whether it be human beings themselves or the things among which they live, and it is obvious that such a result can only be obtained by suppressing as far as possible every qualitative distinction; but it is particularly to be noted that some people, through a strange delusion, are all too willing to mistake this ‘uniformization’ for a ‘unification’, whereas it is really exactly the opposite, as must appear evident in the light of the ever more marked accentuation of ‘separativity’ implied.

It must be insisted that quantity can only separate and cannot unite; everything that proceeds from ‘matter’ produces nothing but antagonism,in many diverse forms, between fragmentary ‘units’ that are at a point directly opposite to true unity, or at least are pressing toward that point with all the weight of a quantity no longer balanced by quality; but ‘uniformization’ constitutes so important an aspect of the modern world, and one so liable to be wrongly interpreted, that another chapter must be devoted to a fuller development of this subject. ~ Rene Guenon, The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times, The Principle of Individuation, Pages 45-48