I suppose it would be worthwhile to begin this post with an apology. It is a rather Nathanish tendency to fill the titles of my posts (to say nothing of their content) with words that are hard to understand and from foreign languages. When we are dealing with the problems of quiddity, the first problem is to define our terms, and quiddity is not the easiest of words to grasp. It comes, of course, from the Latin, as the answer to the question “Quid est?” What is it? In Hebrew this same expression would have the rather evocative and intriguing name manna, the food on which the Israelites were fed for forty years wandering in the wilderness, whose name means quite eloquently whatsit. Quiddity refers to to the quality that makes something itself and not something else. We may call it the thingness of something, that which allows it to be recognized and understood and identified, what gives it its je ne sais quoi and not some other quality that we can recognize as different even when we do not understand it in detail. The fact that I refer to so often of books or situations that are Nathanish is that there is some sort of quiddity about me that contains a certain constellation of qualities that, when recognized in something else, marks it as being sufficiently like me or characteristic of me to belong in the same category. Having epic quests to search for gout medicine or obscure Northern Thai dishes or alfalfa sprouts for salad is Nathanish because undertaking epic quests for things that are obscure and very specific is something that I find myself doing quite often in life. Being able to successfully grasp the nature of something means wrestling with its quiddity.
It should not be a surprise that this is something that is both ubiquitous in our life and something we do not always do very well as human beings. For example, one of the classic military history cliches is the land invasion of Russia and how it almost invariably goes very badly. What is the thingness about the Russian winter that distinguishes the successful Mongol invasion in 1240-1241 from unsuccessful invasions of Russia by the Teutonic Knights, Swedes, French (by Napoleon), and Nazi Germans? Obviously, the Russian winter is extremely cold and Russians have often adopted to scorched earth policies and the support of partisan bands that make winter occupations an unpleasant experience. Furthermore, Russia’s population is generally high enough that the attrition due to harsh winter conditions and the vulnerability of an army’s logistical tail leads to defeat when facing larger numbers of comparatively better fed Russian soldiers. The successful Mongol invasion occurred during a time when Russia was divided among a wide variety of small and disunited Russian states and the Mongols themselves were a ruthlessly led force dominated by light cavalry who were expert at raiding and able to strike widely and quickly enough to supply themselves even in the harshness of a Russian winter. When Russia was able to start uniting under the rule of the princes of Moscow while the Mongols had disunited themselves into feuding khanates of Crimea, Astrakhan, and Kazan, the Russians were able to throw off the Mongol yoke and regain their freedom, such freedom as Russians under native autocratic rule possess, at least. It should be noted, in fairness, that many of the unsuccessful invaders of Russia whose exploits became part of the Russian winter cliche thought that they would win for one reason or another. The French had sought to invade early and thought that conquering enough territory would lead the Russians to sue for peace, and Napoleon wrongly thought that he could destroy Russia’s army, which instead traded space for time. In World War II, the Soviet Union’s poor performance against Finland and the fact that Stalin had made a drastic purge of officers in the Red Army led Hitler to think that the Soviet Union would be vulnerable. Of course, his own efforts to conquer Moscow and Leningrad (St. Petersburg) were hindered by the delays that had been required to conquer Yugoslavia and Greece in the Balkan front, and those few weeks proved crucial when dealing with the timing of the Russian winter. Of course, even if Hitler had conquered those cities (as well as Stalingrad, where he failed the following winter), the Soviet Union was receiving so much aid from the United States through Archangel and had moved so many of its own factories deep within the Urals that it would have been foolish to assume that the Soviet Union would have collapsed with the loss of those cities. Napoleon himself had conquered Moscow but it did him no good at all in his own invasion attempt, after all. The thingness that includes the harshness of the Russian winter, the immensity of space and the number of soldiers that a unified Russian regime has to work with and the dogged determination of Russia’s autocratic rulers to use those advantages to refuse surrendering to logistically vulnerable Western states of less manpower and resilience is something worth grasping and pondering.
The above example demonstrates at least some of the problems of thingness that we have to deal with. Many nations have invaded mother Russia and come to bad ends because they had too simplistic an understanding of the thingness of Russian winters and the context that made it such a decisive element, and that lack of ability to recognize the suite of factors (including nationalism and issues of political will) that were connected to the winter led ruler after ruler into costly error. When we attempt to understand the thingness of others, we therefore ought to be aware that this thingness is often a much more complicated matter than we may think. Context matters a great deal. For example, during my youth I was fond of playing text-based multi-user dungeons (MUDs) that were the predecessor of the more graphically intense Massively Multiplayer Online games (MOOs) like World of Warcraft that are far more popular today. In these MUDs one would encounter bucolic winter scenes with defenseless-looking bunny rabbits who, when attacked, would prove to be far more vicious and powerful than one first recognized. Of course, this makes sense when we ponder the influence upon many who are interested in historical fantasy by Monty Python’s Search For The Holy Grail, which features a similarly cute but vicious bunny. Having seen the movie, I then understood the homage that the games’ creators were paying to it, and I was then able, in the future to act appropriately, like Brave Sir Robin, when I encountered this bunny’s relatives in future games.
By definition, quiddity is somewhat reductive, and this automatically creates problems in dealing with that which we reduce to some distillation. In this reduction process, we may find that we remove something from it that cannot fully be replaced by our attempts at imaginative reconstruction. Let us take, for example, the problem of fruit juices or milk that we have only in powdered form. Our comparison of powdered milk that has water added to it or apple or orange juice from concentrate and fresh milk and fruit juice demonstrates the superiority of the whole milk and fresh juice from what has been dried and rehydrated. To be sure, the reduction process does allow for food preservation, which may be necessary in harsh climates and remote conditions. But from the quality of enjoying the food (and even from matters of nutrition) they are inferior. Something of the cow or apple or orange is lost when the juice is dried and then water from another source is added to it, and even those who are not the pickiest or most refined of eaters can recognize the difference between the original and the processed versions of these drinks. The same happens when we reduce people to something and try to understand it using our own imagination without understanding all of what makes someone tick. Our reduction of other people to things that we put in categories can do great violence to them by failing to recognize and respect some aspect of what makes them themselves and not someone else.
How do we avoid these problems? While it may be often for us to categorize books or music into genres or people into categories, especially to the extent that we must convert them into something that we can use as data for comprehension of patterns, we must be aware of the fact that our reduction of something to labels and categories or our identification of situations as patterns does not do justice to that which we are reducing. We have to be aware that there is more than what we are grasping with our labels. It behooves us, therefore, to be humble when we engage in such practices even where it is necessary for us to do so. To the extent that we are aware that there is more to something or someone than we may readily grasp, and that our label invariably oversimplifies what we are describing, we may therefore not place full confidence in our own labels and can maintain a genuine respect for the quiddity of that which we are attempting to describe or review or critique. After all, to the extent that there is more to what we are dealing with than we can easily relate or readily understand, we must remain in an attitude of respect for what we are dealing with, and that respect will discourage us from the violence that is so easy when we disregard something, viewing fierce men and women with senses of outraged dignity and honor as helpless bunny rabbits, not recognizing they have sharp fangs and a willingness to use them on those who would seek to oppress and dominate them through categorization and definition.