The Thing Is…

Will Essays 2 Comments

When I was casting around for a name for this new blog—naming things is always a tricky business—I eventually settled on ‘The Myriad Things’. I tried out a few other names as well, but ‘The Myriad Things’ was the one that stuck. I toyed with ‘Myriad Things,’ without the definite article; but I thought that it sounded a little too much like an online store. I also thought about ‘All the Myriad Things’, which had nice rhythm to it; but to my ear it sounded a little too much like the title of one of those delicate, nuanced novels in which nothing very much happens. So in the end I settled for ‘The Myriad Things.’ And the more I think about it, the more I think that the name fits.

So why ‘The Myriad Things’? The name, as many people will either know or suspect, comes from the Chinese 萬物 wanwu, which is often translated as ‘ten thousand things’. The things of the world are frequently enumerated in Chinese philosophical texts as being ten thousand in number. This is not a matter of actual accounting. According to the Zhuangzi, ‘if we calculated the number of things, it does not stop at ten thousand, and yet we set a limit by calling them the “Ten Thousand Things” ― this is just to speak of them with a provisional name due to their great quantity.’ In other words, ‘ten thousand’ has the same kind of meaning as Carl Sagan’s ‘billions upon billions’. It means ‘innumerable,’ or ‘beyond counting.’

What I’ve always loved about the notion of the ten thousand things is that we ourselves are included in their number. Human beings, the Zhuangzi says, ‘are but one item’ amongst the countless things of the world. We are not separated out from the world. We are not a separate creation. I find this restoring of human existence to the thingness of things—this restitution of our status as things in the world, in the same way that cats and telephone poles and supernovae are things—a huge relief after centuries of philosophical labour that sought to demonstrate that we are set apart from other things. So I think that a proper returning of human beings to their ‘thingliness’ could be useful and salutary. There is a popular notion that we are too obsessed by things; but I sometimes wonder if the problem is that we are far too indifferent to them, if the problem lies more in our lack of care for things and for the thingness of things.

But what, my philosopher friends will cry, is a thing? Here there are philosophical swamplands aplenty; but I’ll delicately tiptoe around them to maintain a kind of loose, vague notion of thinghood taken from the seventeenth century philosopher, Wang Fuzhi 王夫之, from his Elaboration on the Meaning of the Book of History:

The wind, lightning, rain and dew of heaven are things; so too are the mountains, hills, deeps, plains and crevices of the earth. Moreover, their being yin or yang, soft or hard is also a thing. The flying, diving, moving and staying still of things are also things. The people’s generous giving, living and use are also a thing, as also is their gaining or losing, goodness or badness. Fathers, children, older and younger siblings among the people are likewise things as are their good conduct and reputation for tending to sageliness and also their benevolence, justice, ritual and music.

In other words, anything you could mention is a thingly kind of a thing. This broad notion of ‘things’ appeals to me. In the past, I have written a fair amount about the notion of materialism. But now I think back on it, ‘materialism’ seems a rather too precise term—or perhaps a rather too vague term, or else too precise in one sense and too vague in another, I am not sure—for what I am trying to get at. Because what I am trying to get at is simply this: the thingly nature of the world matters to me. In fact, I can’t see how anything could matter independent of the thingly world. And when you remove every last trace of the thingliness of things, I’m not sure that there is anything left over that still might matter.

All this is why I am often suspicious of the often decidedly unthingly language of ‘spirituality’. The Lithuanian-French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who I studied for quite a few years, says somewhere—I think it is in his book Otherwise than Being—that all the spirituality of the world lies in the gesture of taking bread from your own mouth to give to one who is hungry. I like what Levinas is saying here, I like the thing-ification of the spiritual in this sentiment; but I can’t see why you would bother to retain the language of spirituality at all. Bread and hunger, and acts of kindness: these too are thingly things.

So, ‘The Myriad Things’ it is. I’ll be blogging over here on those amongst the myriad things that strike me as interesting, or that take my attention, or that appeal to me; and all the while I’ll be bearing in mind their thingliness. Whatever that means. As this is a new blog, I have no idea where it will be heading: one of the pleasures of blogging is that it is a form of thinking and writing that allows for perpetual new departures and new possibilities. It is by nature not closed and final. So I’ll see where it goes. And I’ll look forward to some interesting conversations along the way.

Comments 2

  1. Your writing is a great pleasure to read. It has a lovely flow and rhythm, all wrapped up in good humour. Alas the content may be a tad on the deep side for me, but I shall enjoy the language anyway. Oh, and the Garamond – what a beauty to the eyes.

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