What’s a Penis, and What’s It for? Thomas Aquinas vs. Ludwig Wittgenstein

What’s better: to see a thing as having both essential and accidental features, and placing it in a genus-species hierarchy (Thomas Aquinas’ view), or to drop hierarchy and essentialism in definition altogether, and just see a thing as sharing “family resemblances” with other things (Ludwig Wittgenstein’s view)?

Take the penis, for example. Is it essentially an organ that God gave men for sexual reproduction in accordance with God’s law–and therefore only incidentally an organ for pleasure; or is there no hierarchy to be placed on what the penis is for–you can use it for pleasure or reproduction (the penis has no essence)?

I’m with Wittgenstein against Aquinas here for five reasons:

  • Wittgenstein fits nicely with evolution and the lesson that Walt Whitman took from nature (“freedom and variety”). In other words, evolution makes use of things in creative ways; it’s not fixated on prior essences, but novelty. Evolution is about making it new.
  • Thomas was simply too medieval in his understanding to think clearly about what it means for a large brained primate to have a penis (to stick with the penis example). When you combine a big brain with hands and sex organs in an animal, you get uses that are far more creative than a small brained animal with the same sorts of sex organs, but no hands. Context is important. Chimps masturbate, for example, but I presume that cats don’t even try (or think of trying), even by rubbing themselves against surfaces, etc.
  • Thomism has reactionary political implications. Drop, for example, traditional natural law essentialism, and you arrive at two social goods: feminism and gay marriage.
  • Jean Paul Sartre inverted Thomism with his famous slogan, “Existence precedes essence,” and this makes room for the greater exercise of human freedom.
  • Nietzsche spoke of truth as “a mobile army of metaphors,” an insight that goes much more naturally with Wittgenstein’s language games and family resemblances than with Aquinas’ essences and hierarchy.

So even if Aquinas was right that there are real essences to things, they may be much more subtle in their proper uses (the penis in a big brained primate may be used for love, bonding, pleasure, etc.) than medieval scholasticism, uninformed by evolution, assumed.

The same goes for gender or any other essentialized trait. Having a big brain changes the equation of what the proper use of an organ is for.

In short, Thomism basically overlays fake essences onto what evolution teaches us are the real essences of things (change and variety). Wittgenstein, Whitman, Sartre, and Nietzsche all saw this, and I’m with them.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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