Justus Buchler: Nature, Power, and Prospect

by Sidney Gelber

Sidney Gelber is Professor of Philosophy and Academic Vice President Emeritus at State University of New York at Stony Brook, New York. Kathleen Wallace is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Hofstra University, Hempstead, New York.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 106-119, Vol. 15, Number 2, Summer, 1986. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Buchler’s work consists of a general ontology (a metaphysics of being), a metaphysics of human utterance (a theory of human being qua human) and a theory of poetry.

The work of Justus Buchler is systematic philosophy akin to that of Aristotle, Spinoza, Whitehead, and Hegel. By systematic we mean not that some traditional set of problems has been covered, but rather that the philosophical product is the deliberate and methodic interrelation of its constituents, viz., its concepts, categories, and principles in a structure which supports broad inferences and extensions or applications of the conceptual scheme. Note that this means that no system is complete or exhaustive. No set of categories or systematic project is without further ramification. Therefore, the achievement of "system," while finished by its author, does not mean the end of philosophy. A system is, in a sense, a beginning of beginnings.

We want to emphasize that systematic philosophy constructs categories to articulate its subject matter. Categories are not necessarily "transcendental abstractions" which distort or make impossible "lived experience." Rather, categoreal description is a means of rendering "lived experience" intelligible. No description can be pure; categoreal description can be as valid, in the relevant respect (s), as any other. Assumptions in philosophy are not mere preferences, but commitments which are worked out in and through categoreal development. Systematic philosophy is defined not so much by the scope of its subject matter or by any one kind of system, as by the deliberate achievement of a conceptual array within which themes and categories recur and facilitate theoretical development and ramification. Thus, it is not necessary to think of systematic philosophy as synonymous with or as necessarily based on an ontology. Husserl, for example, is as systematic in his "theory" of consciousness as Aristotle is in his metaphysics of being.

Systematic principles or concepts are "foundational," that is, when explicitly formulated by a categoreal structure, they can become an explicit basis for or, better, a framework of further categorizing. The interpretive scope of a categoreal structure is determined in part by its subject matter: a general ontology is wider in scope than a more specific theory.

But to say that a more general categoreal structure frames a less general or more specific one does not mean that from generality as such we can deduce or derive what would be specifically apt. Rather, the more general principle or structure frames in the sense that it provides possibilities of interpretation; it involves a commitment to what it entails. Spinoza’s commitment to what is entailed by his definitions and axioms is vividly shown by his methodic scheme. Aristotle cannot assert something of the soul (psyche) or employ special systematic principles which would entail consequences contrary to his more general ontological principles. The priority Aristotle assigns to Substance (ousia) is a recurrent -- systematic -- -commitment exemplified in certain kinds of characteristic inferences which are tolerated and compelled by the system. Hegel’s dialectic -- the movement of the concept -- is a pervasive, systematic theme which resonates through his analysis of any subject matter. Given his commitment to what Whitehead calls the reformed subjectivist principle, any being (actual entity) is becoming, that is, the becoming of experience. In Buchler’s system, a principle of ontological parity is a commitment which pervades the analyses in both the general ontology and the more specific metaphysics of what Buchler calls human utterance.1 For Buchler, that no one of three modes of human judgment is any more of a judgment than any other is also an exemplification of the more general principle of ontological parity.

The implications of this view of "foundational" for Buchler’s philosophical method are revealing, especially if we contrast it with Spinoza’s explicit methodological principle. What Spinoza means by foundation is a necessary starting point: definitions are foundations for axioms, axioms for theorems, and so on. While Spinoza does not necessarily reveal what his aims and strategy are, his highly formalized method is supposed not only to guide but to show that the inferential consequences are also necessary, given the necessary first starting point.

In light of the fact that he wrote an entire book devoted to the concept of method, the reader may be initially puzzled that, unlike either Spinoza or Whitehead, Buchler does not explicitly or formally specify methodological principles at the outset of any of his works. As exasperating as this may sometimes seem, Buchler’s method of "plunging in" is part of a deliberate systematic strategy. Buchler’s starting points are not necessary in Spinoza’s sense, but neither are they arbitrary. Rather, they are starting points because they are conducive to the growth of systematic aims and goals. A starting point is congenial as a beginning, but it cannot prescribe all that is to follow. What is "foundational" is what is categorically wrought, not the raw materials.

Philosophical query2 does not require a necessary first starting point itself either indubitable or axiomatic. A philosopher starts with what is compelling; what is categorically "foundational" is wrought by and furthers query. Systematic philosophy is not just a set of assertions or claims, but is exhibitive as well as assertive. It is a pattern of concepts and interrelated themes which unfolds much as a Bach fugue does. The product is the unfolding and is of indefinite richness in variation and applicability. In this respect, Buchler is an admirer of Plato as the exemplar of philosophical query:

The Socratic method is indeed a method, the very antithesis of timorous caution. Its boldness of movement can never be clear to those who think of the Platonic dialogues as a mass of astute but non-committal propositions. For it renders its products not by simple affirmation but assertively, exhibitively, and actively, in subtle proportions. It is in a sense the paragon of query, being masterful in all the modes of judgment.3

Instead of interweaving characters as well as ideas, Buchler’s drama is mainly one of ideas. Ideas, themes, principles are introduced, developed; they recede into the wings only to reemerge in another context, from another angle. Buchler, like Plato, does not explain that this is what he is doing or why, because he holds the view that the work speaks for itself; that it is the product, not the author, which determines meaning. If the chance intersections of history are favorable, it is through one’s product(s) that immortality is achieved.

Once we have noted the systematic character of Buchler’s method of "plunging in," we see that his foundational principles are clearly earmarked and defined. Buchler’s work consists of a general ontology (a metaphysics of being), a metaphysics of human utterance (a theory of human being qua human) and a theory of poetry. The most general or "foundational" principles which pervade all of his work are, as one might expect, found most perspicuously in the general ontology. It should be noted, although we will not treat it in this essay, that poetry is singled out by Buchler because he regards it as a humanly fundamental mode of articulation. Poetry’s unique ability to penetrate and portray the prevalence of the world4 without making assertive claims of truth or falsity gives poetry a power of expression unmatched certainly by any other linguistic mode of utterance.

There are at least three "foundational" or systematic commitments throughout Buchler’s work. While "naturalism" is not a term used explicitly by Buchler, it prefigures an idea which is basic to his work. Naturalism is a commitment to the view that there is no being or reality which is wholly different from and discontinuous with any other being. In rejecting the notion of "the supernatural" as meaning that which "in itself" is wholly prior or other in being than "the natural," a naturalistic view does not necessarily deny that there is a being such as God, but only that way of categorizing such a being. Buchler transforms this somewhat negative formulation of naturalism into a positive ontological principle -- namely, the principle of ontological parity. Ontological parity is not only a rejection of the notion of wholly discontinuous realms or kinds of being -- some more real than others; it is a commitment to the equal reality of all beings. There are no degrees of reality or being (even though there are many degrees of other kinds). Thus God, in whatever his supremacy may consist, is not more real, is not more of a being, than anything else.

A second ontological principle in Buchler’s work is the principle of ordinality, that is, that any being is both determinate and indeterminate, and therefore that any being is complex. There are no ontological simples. Because any being is determinately and indeterminately complex, it is, in principle, accessible or related to some other beings, which may include human beings. In using the term "natural complex" rather than "being" as the generic term of identification, Buchler is exhibiting the pervasiveness of these two principles. Any (natural) complex is an order and any order is a complex.

The first two principles are explicitly articulated by Buchler. We would identify a third, what we call a systematic commitment to a principle of commensurateness. Beings are determinate, but they are specifically determinate. Commensurateness provides for what Buchler calls the [gross] integrity of a complex. While any complex is plurally located, it is not plurality without limit (even if its limits are indefinite, revisable, or difficult to define). What is actual of or possible for a complex is determined by the complex, by its relations. There are, therefore, no "pure possibilities" nor "pure actualities." Every being, possibility or actuality, is relative to some other being, is conditioned by and conditions other beings. A complex is delimited from other complexes by the commensurateness of its constituents. Even if not every trait of a complex is related to every other trait, it must be related to at least some other trait and between those which are unrelated there must be mediating traits which mark the commensurability of these as the constituents of this complex or order.5

A principle of commensurateness also means that there is no single form of determination (or of being) for all beings. To say with Buchler that all beings are natural complexes (complexes, for short) is not to ascribe some generic or universal form of determinateness to them, but is rather to affirm that the conditions of being at all are ordinal. Whatever those conditions are, none has more (or less) being (or is more or less real) than any other. Let us examine how these principles resonate in the work.

Buchler says at the beginning of Toward a General Theory of Human Judgment that his work is a "metaphysics of utterance." This is a potentially misleading statement -- for his metaphysics of the human-self-in-process encompasses more than even what Buchler means by utterance (or judgement). Furthermore, it would be misleading if the reader takes him to be characterizing his work as a whole, including the general ontology. Even in the early works -- Toward a General Theory of Human Judgment, Nature and Judgment -- the so-called metaphysics of utterance is transcended by more general principles. It is located in an implicit broader theoretical structure with which the more specific structure resonates, but which is not derived from the specific principles of the theory of human nature (or process). Indeed, it is Buchler’s contention that in order to adequately develop a just theory of human life, one must be aware that the human is always located in some natural and social framework which transcends any one individual or group. (This is an embodiment of the principles of both ordinality and commensurateness.) Similarly, the theory of human judgment is not merely a specification or instantiation of the more general theory. A more specific theory has its own independence and integrity; it is not a mere appendage of or auxiliary to something more encompassing, but has its specific determinations and scope which are defined by its subject matter and not exclusively by a prior theory. They are distinct but related.6 For example, that a moral ideal is ontologically or generically a possibility would not mean that its character (integrity) as ideal is derivable from or reducible to the meaning of possibility. The kind of possibility an ideal is is determined by specific relations, such as human need, striving, and anticipated conditions for betterment or perfection.

We will focus initially on the systematic structure of Metaphysics of Natural Complexes (MNC) where the general foundational principles are most explicitly articulated. A systematic trend or principle is articulated through a categoreal structure, a pattern of interrelated ideas and concepts. From the principle of ontological parity are developed what we will call the categories of "being," viz., prevalence and alescence. Corresponding to the principle of ordinality are the categories of determinateness, viz., ordinality and relation (with the subaltern categories of strong and weak relevance). Finally, the principle of commensurateness is most obvious in what we will call the categories of natural definition, viz., actuality and possibility.

Of course, in a certain sense each category helps to articulate the system as a whole. Hence, none is defined exclusively in terms of any one trend, even if one trend is more emphatically relevant than another. Furthermore, we note that the categories are developed by Buchler in the order we have indicated and that the sequence is crucial. For example, prevalence and alescence are indispensable to the formulation of possibility and actuality while the reverse is not the case. In addition, as we have already indicated, "natural complex" is the term of universal identification and hence is pre-categoreal. Buchler also introduces a group of intermediary categories of identification by means of which the unity and distinctness of, the similarity and difference between complexes can be articulated. These are: trait, integrity, contour, scope, and identity (see MNC 12ff., 22, 35-39). While these are cumulatively defined throughout the work in terms of the categoreal structure, their stipulative use from the outset serves the pre-categoreal function of establishing a conceptual language with which to shape the systematic structure.

What it means "to be" is formulated by the pair of concepts, prevalence and alescence. If there are no degrees of being or reality, then a given complex is no more or less real than any other. Yet, to say simply that everything is would not adequately distinguish relevant differences in ways, even if not degrees, of being. Buchler criticizes what others have singled out as the relevant ontological differences: "being and becoming," "permanence and change," "the static and the dynamic," "stability and instability," "determinateness and indeterminateness." Buchler conceptualizes the differences in terms of prevalence and alescence, which together are meant to be exhaustive of what it means "to be."

Every complex prevails, is alescent, or both (in different respects), that is, a complex excludes traits, admits traits, or both in different respects. The purpose of this distinction is to distinguish the nascent, deviant, augmentative, or spoliative character of a complex from its sphere of dominance while at the same time consigning neither to the status of lesser reality. Prevalence and alescence are modes or dimensions of being. Thus, in whatever way a complex is -- prevails or is alescent -- it is no more or less real in that respect than it is in any other. Thus, the house which prevails in my visual field is as real as the same house which prevails in its geographic location. The house which is being torn down is alescent and is as real as the house which prevails whole and entire in my memory. In keeping with the principle of ontological parity, God prevails but is no more real than the ale scent house.

The principle of ordinality means that every complex, that every prevalence or alescence, is determinate. To be determinate means to be ordinally located. To be ordinally located means to be related to some other complex(es) in some respect. To prevail is always to prevail in an order. (Similarly for alescence.) Thus, the house in my visual field is located (prevails) in a visual order in which I as perceiver also prevail. In a visual order I am relevant to the perceived house, and the house is relevant to me. Determinateness (relatedness) is always reciprocal. The house has the trait of being visible and of being perceived. I have the trait of vision and of "house-seeing." Two people, each looking at the house, would be located in the visual order, and each could be reciprocally related to the other in that order. If they were, they would each be either strongly or weakly relevant to the other as house perceiver (however they might be relevant or not to each other in other respects, i.e., orders).7

In the order of marriage, each partner is strongly relevant to the other as spouse -- the determinate character, the integrity, of each as spouse is determined by the other. Yet, in another order, for example, as house perceivers, they may be irrelevant, strongly relevant, or weakly relevant to each other. Spouses may be strongly relevant (indispensable) to one another as spouses, but weakly relevant (dispensable) to one another’s career, each to the other as friend to a third, and irrelevant (determinative in no respect) to one another as potential victims of nuclear fallout.

To prevail or be alescent as determinate is to be plurally located, to be reciprocally related. To be related is to determine as well as to be determined. Every complex is also an order; it locates other complexes, at the least, its own constituent traits. If God prevails, God is determinate, that is, determines and is determined by other complexes. God, therefore, is not wholly self-determined, because no complex has only one ordinal location. God is no more real than any other complex, because God’s prevalence is no more (or less) determinate than that of any other complex.

If the boundaries between complexes are sometimes difficult to discriminate, that does not mean that there are none. The principle of commensurateness means that no complex is relevant to (determinative of) every other. Complexes (orders) have limits. Where commensurateness ceases, where there are no mediating traits, there is the limit of an order (MNC 96). In order to conceptualize the meaning of a limit or "natural definition," Buchler introduces the categories of actuality and possibility.

Every trait of a complex is an actuality or a possibility. The traits of actuality define its current situation; those of possibility define a prospect for itself.8 A prospect is not necessarily the future, but is a continuation or extension of the complex. A possibility, like an actuality, is a relative limit, immanent in (determined by) the relevant traits of the complex. If the traits of a complex, its actualities and possibilities, are commensurate with one another, then not just anything conceivable can prevail or be alescent as a possibility for it.

To illustrate: Suppose we ask whether it is possible for an insect to talk.9 That would mean that an insect in an order of biological existence cannot talk, and in an order of fantasy can talk. This would be a contradiction in respect to talking. If in the same respect (talking) presumed traits contradict one another, then the traits are not commensurate with one another. Therefore, if one possibility is a trait of the complex, the other cannot be. For contradiction means that there are no mediating traits, and thus that not both are limits of, can define a prospect for, a complex.

Since not every complex can be relevant to every other, not all complexes have the same possibilities. If possibilities are those commensurate traits of a complex which define its prospect, then not all possibilities "always were" (MNC 165). However, since [some] complexes may be located in the same order, complexes may have a possibility or some possibilities in common; they may share a prospect. All possibilities, as well as actualities, are "empirical," i.e., commensurate with relevant conditions or traits. Therefore, no possibility is by definition "pure" (independent of any conditions) or "eternal" (guaranteed to prevail no matter what the conditions).

If possibility is always of a complex, then there is no realm or world of possibility, nor one of actuality. Recalling the principles of ordinality and commensurateness, there is no single order "the World," for there can be no single order determinative of all complexes, actual and possible. The World means exhaustively and distributively [all] the innumerable natural complexes (OCW 574). But, the World is not innumerable complexes collectively identifiable: "all" is not a determinate trait. Therefore, the World is not an order, not a complex. For even though the World is distributively exhaustive, "it" is never complete, whole or a totality, because "it" is indefinitely extended. That the World is indefinitely extended does not mean that its limits are ambiguous or vague. "It" has no limits, for since "it" distributively "includes" everything, "it" has no principle of exclusion (of limitation).

The physical universe is not equivalent to the World; it is a world, albeit one of unimaginably great scope.10 But, it does not include every other world, i.e., it does not define the conditions and traits of every other complex or order (which would be a denial of the principle of commensurateness). Thus, a world of literature is not necessarily "located in" the order, the physical universe, even though books in some respects are. For the possibilities and actualities of literature as such are not necessarily determined by the conditions of the physical universe. Nor is the relation of any work of literature to the world of literature necessarily determined by the physical universe.

If all possibilities are "empirical," then moral ideals are ordinal, relative to the relevant conditions. Ideals can be formulated as being both humanly relevant and "objective," that is, available in a plurality of orders. To say that ideals, or values for that matter, are relative, is not to admit that they are merely preferences, the morally arbitrary results of a cultural or subjective relativism. Rather, their genesis as well as their merit is conditional. Love is an ideal because of the kind of relation it is and because of the kind of impact, intense but rare, it can have on human life and aspirations. The 55 mph speed limit is a value of and for highway driving, because it reduces the risk of highway accident (and hence exemplifies the value of preserving human life). It also conserves gasoline. Only if it did not accomplish those aims would its continued enforcement be arbitrary. Its merit is relative (ordinal), and therefore objective (commensurate with its goals and with other values).

The merest breath a man takes favors one possibility and renders others obsolete. . . . At the other end of his scale, where he is unique in the manner of his kind, he methodically actualizes possibilities that he has produced or apprehended. In so doing, he also keeps actualizing himself. He is not the sole or even the most basic determinant of his own actualization. His is not the only kind of complex that is continually in process of actualization. His kind alone, however, is able to dwell with the possibilities, and this is crucial for his degradation or salvation. (MNC 184f.)


We can now trace the resonance of general principles in the metaphysics of human utterance. Man is ontologically no more or less real than any other kind of complex, and human orders are continuous with other orders of nature. (Naturalism, or the principle of ontological parity.) However, continuity does not mean similarity in all respects, nor does it preclude discontinuities. While a man is biological, man is not merely biological. Thus, human life is not a depletion of possibilities (genetically defined) all resident at the start of a life. Rather, potentialities and possibilities arise and expire -- life is not a process of moving from indeterminateness (potentiality) to determinateness (actuality). That life is always determinate and indeterminate exemplifies the principle of ordiuality.11 "Man is born in a state of natural debt" (NJ 3), but his possibilities and actualities are not all "generic." (Principle of commensurateness.) That is, individuality requires that a complex also have specific and unique possibilities.

What is distinctive of an individual is not what is "internal" to it, but what is strongly relevant to it. Strong (or weak) relevance is not a matter of degree, but one of difference in kind. Both strong and weak traits are equally determinate of what a being is. To illustrate: a human being is a spatiotemporal, existing being, even though it is not distinctively human in virtue of that trait. (Spatial and temporal relations as such are weakly relevant to human beings qua human.) However, it is not any less determinate with regard to space and time than some being (complex) for which such relation is presumably distinctive. It is no less determinate as existing than it is determinate as rational (or, for Buchler, judging), even though the latter is strongly relevant to it as human. (Principles of commensurateness and ontological parity.)

These systematic resonance does not, of course, establish the specific principles and categories pertinent to human nature. Buchler’s theory of perception and judgment articulates, in a descriptive sense, what is categorically distinctive of human nature, or rather for Buchler, human process. But, in addition to descriptive categorization, a philosophical theory of human nature or process also aims to categorize what it means to be distinctively human in the best sense. In other words, a metaphysics of human process would be incomplete if it did not provide a categoreal identification of what is generically normative. What it means to be human in the best sense requires an additional category, not the introduction of degrees into what is generically descriptive. For example, if man were defined as essentially a rational animal, rationality could not admit of degrees, and "more" of it would not constitute a norm or an ideal, without entailing that some human beings are less "human" than others. Rather, the normative is a question of what is the distinctive qualification of a function as an ideal. We will focus our discussion of human process on the question of the generically normative, articulated by Buchler as query.

Buchler develops a theory of the human self in several works.12 The individual is a whole-self-in-the-process-of-becoming. Distinctively human becoming is judging (uttering or producing).13 The self is its products. "Becoming" in this sense is not an "internal" process of achieving self-consciousness. We become, the self judges, whether aware of doing so or not. Becoming is a relational process and therefore the self is not the sole determinant of its products. Its products and therefore itself are also determined by other complexes. The self is spread out in space as well as in time. The historical and spatial spread of the self-in-process, of the judging self, is the rudimentary basis for association.

Man is born in a state of natural debt, being antecedently committed to the execution or the furtherance of acts that will largely determine his individual existence. (NJ 3)

The fact that man is characterized by a state of natural debt, by a perpetual incompletion, … emphasizes … the extended nature of individuality, its communicative essence, and the indefinite bounds of relatedness. (NJ 106)

The spread of the self is both something we find ourselves "in" and something which we forge, extend, and ramify through our products (judgments, utterances). Judgment "allows the individual to transcend himself. Through each product the individual is literally multiplied" (TCT 53).

Buchler introduces query through a discussion of the self’s spread and association (NJ 56-58). Why? Because association is indispensible to an understanding of the achievement of the best of human possibilities, such as art, science, philosophy, religion, society. These ongoing achievements make association into civilization. Civilization is the product of the ramifications of query. Through query human individuals become civilized, that is, they become capable of producing systematically and inventively. Judgment becomes query.

The self is an unfolding, it is a ramified spread-out self. We, in self-unfolding, also produce civilization. How is that process to be understood both individually and collectively? The Hegelian approach would say it is the necessary dialectical development of reason. Santayana14 would say that it is a natural process; at a certain level of biological or organic complication more "refined" possibilities yield more refined results, even though they are thoroughly continuous with more primitive levels of nature. For each, Hegel and Santayana, civilization is a historical development. But do these approaches capture the distinguishing traits of that process? Rationality as the distinguishing generic feature is both too broad (would tolerate inclusion of judgments and events which are rational, but actually or potentially destructive of an individual or of a civilization) and too narrow (since not all civilizing processes and possibilities are necessarily rational). On the other hand, neither perfection of function nor civilization is a merely natural development -- that is too general, or too narrow if by ‘natural’ one means ‘biological’ or ‘organic.’ Now, of course science, for example, is rational activity, but Buchler wants a category which will distinguish rational activity that produces civilization from that which destroys it; the difference between a Hegel and a Hitler.

Query, whether collaborative or not, presupposes reflexive communication. It is the interrogative spirit methodically directed. As the most powerful force making for civilization. . . . (NJ 66; our emphasis)

Query is a perpetual human possibility. So, too, is the destruction of civilization, reversion to a "state of nature." Query does not guarantee historical or individual progress, but without it progress of any significant kind would be inconceivable.

Query is the activity not of a special faculty (for example, Reason), but of a whole self. It is not the mind of the mathematician which probes; it is the mathematician who has focused his powers in a given direction. If query is the process of being searchingly and inventively reasonable, it is not only that. Rational activity is an instance of, but is not exhaustive of, query. Query is constructive and inventive probing which also initiates and promotes self (reflexive) communication.15 Love can be an exemplification of query; perfecting a swimming stroke can be an instance; symbolic inventiveness in a wedding ceremony; political maneuvering, legislative policy, voting can all be instances of query, even though it would be difficult to describe all of these as primarily or generically "rational." Through the reflexive communication facilitated by query the limits of the self are extended. By this is meant not only that the self continues to be extended temporally and spatially, but that its possibilities are augmented, its boundaries are redefined, in such a way as to allow for further query. If there is an absence of the very possibility of query, the action and results of a Hitler should not be surprising.

That query is generically normative does not mean that it is the highest or best specific value for every individual in any situation. If we abstract from the vicissitudes of life, which often require that we make choices between alternatives none of which exemplify query, what recurrently signifies the best, humanly speaking, is query. If this is the case, then is there not a sense in which query could play a role in ordering all specific aims and purposes? For even if every choice is not one between the life of query and its absence, it maybe that it is only through query that we are best able to determine what the relatively best choice or goal is. Even this may not be a safe generalization, for there may be situations in which "instinct" (which for Buchler would issue in judgment) is as reliable as or more reliable than query (systematic and inventive probing) in responding to the situation. So, even if through query we can train our instincts, it would not be the case that query is always the best determinant of value. This exemplifies the principles of ordinality and commensurateness which are the ontological bases for articulating a theory of value as both relative and objective.

But the life of query is recurrently prized for being that kind of life which does reliably promote the civilizing process -- for an individual as well as a society. Art, science, philosophy, religion, political institutions, these are the distinctive achievements of man. Man is at his best when man transcends himself through query. The life of query may in one respect have an impact on an individual and in another respect be a civilizing force. An athlete who breaks a world record in the 100-meter dash has not only achieved a goal for himself in surpassing a limit, but has defined a new historical limit, available to and a challenge for others. Here, through query, our possibilities of judgment in respect to athletics have been extended. The philosopher who is personally satisfied by her work may also have contributed to the intellectual life of man. The interrogative temper is infectious. Without query human life would not be much better than a Hobbesian state of nature. As Hobbes points out, human nature is productive, not just avaricious. If the theories of a Hobbes, a Hegel, and a Santayana are richer in detail and closer in spirit to the lived experience as it were of query, Buchler’s theory is a categoreal challenge to the traditional ways of conceptualizing that experience.

The elusiveness of query in Buchler’s system rests in part on the fact that the reader is not explicitly alerted to its function, but more importantly on the absence of systematic detail in its explication. There may also be another factor, and that is Buchler’s use of language. Language is the tool of philosophy. Philosophy is query and therefore may require linguistic as well as conceptual inventiveness. Language even in philosophy is subordinate to query. The philosopher is not bound by language, but rather, must employ language responsibly in pursuit of query.

Buchler often uses language to evoke a rich texture of meanings, rather than to offer a single precise definition for any concept or idea.16 (This style is more prevalent in the works on human process than in MNC.) This is due in part to his notion of philosophy as exhibitive judgment. Not every sentence asserts or makes a claim; it may instead (or also) be imbedded in a pattern of sentences which shows the possibilities of an idea. The intent is to extend interpretive possibilities; the risk is that the ideas may sometimes be elusive. But if it is the responsibility of the philosopher to promote the life of query, then it is a very fine line one treads. For if an idea were indeed perfectly clear, if all its implications were drawn out, then query would be terminated, until and unless new ideas were introduced. On the other hand, if an idea resists interrogation, it becomes a stumbling block to query.

Buchler’s systematic philosophy is not so much polemically provocative as it is a shock. While MNC is spare and abstract, it is quite accessible, in part because general ontology does not depend on detail of applicability and relevance for its persuasiveness or intelligibility. But in a metaphysics of human process one expects a certain kind of systematic detail in establishing the theoretical aptness of the ideas for what is typically found to be immediately relevant -- e.g., reason, mind, body, emotion, "morality." The kind of conceptual leap required by the reader is not what one suspects is needed. It is the level of abstractness and the absence of strategic clarification in the metaphysics of human process which quite literally shock. While Buchler uses familiar examples, their conceptual translation is sometimes difficult to follow.

Now there is probably no philosophic work which has not been condemned as obscure, unclear, or irrelevant at some time or other. The important question is how remediable the alleged obscurity is. In Buchler’s case it is not endemic. The connection between the ideas and what is found to be familiarly the case can be made compelling, even if Buchler himself does not do so.

The spareness of Buchler’s system, his systematic strategy and style of expression might disorient the reader who is unfamiliar with systematic philosophy. From the economy of thought manifest in his works, it is evident that Buchler’s focus was the development of a categoreal structure, not the elaboration of detail in application. From the point of view of the scheme, nothing has been omitted which is required on theoretical grounds, even though much could be added which would be felicitous. As we pointed out at the outset, the relative completeness of Buchler’s system does not preclude development. If we take the idea of query seriously, then the merit of a philosophical system rests in its capacity to promote query, not in its completion as defined by its author. This means that its merit is never absolutely established, even if its integrity can never be annulled.

Reason is a form of love, as love (in an equally just perspective) is a form of reason. It is love of inventive communication. Nothing is more foundational for all value than query, and reason is devotion to query. . . . It is for reason to discover and appraise itself from time to time and, like the god it was early said to be, find that its work is good. Sometimes the progress of reason is more easily measured by the discernment of unreason and by the struggle that it is destined to undergo in order to prevent the fruitless death of its possibilities. (TCT 168, 169)



1 Justus Buchler, Toward a General Theory of Human Judgment (New York, Columbia University Press, 1951); 2nd revised edition, New York, Dover Publications, Inc., 1979. Preface p. xi. Hereafter, TGT.

2 See pages 18ff. for a discussion of query, one of Buchler’s distinctive categories of human process.

3Justus Buchler, Nature and Judgment (New York, Columbia University Press, 1955), reprinted by Grosset Dunlap, 1966. p. 77. Hereafter, NJ.

4See Justus Buchler, The Main of Light: On the Concept of Poetry (New York, London, Oxford University Press, 1974).

5 See also Beth J. Singer, Ordinal Naturalism: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Justus Buchler (Bucknell University Press, 1983), p. 168 for a discussion of commensurateness in terms of "mediated relatedness."

6 Buchler makes the related point that a theory is a formalized perspective which may tolerate some subperspectives and not others, may urge some subperspectives and be incompatible with others (TGT 71). But a subperspective is still a perspective and has an integrity as well as being subaltern to a broader perspective or theory.

7See Justus Buchler, Metaphysics of Natural Complexes (New York, Columbia University Press, 1966, hereafter, MNC) pp. 104-28 for a full treatment of strong and weak relevance.

8Buchler formulates the mode of natural definition afar by a possibility as "prefinition" (MNC 165-70).

9Justus Buchler, "On the Concept of ‘the World,’" The Review of Metaphysics, June 1979, p. 576. Hereafter, 0GW.

10 "The World" is something which exceeds the self or any self which would suggest that it is the physical (public) world only if we were to assume that it had to he contrasted with mental, self-centered, and private selves. Note that such a world could not include such a self.

11 This suggests that the so-called alternatives of free will and determinism are not necessarily metaphysical distinctions. To be "free" is also to be determinate and to be "determined" is also to be indeterminate. Hobbes, in rejecting the notion of the will as a separate faculty, is making a related point.

12 Toward a General Theory of Human Judgment (1951) [TGT]; Nature and Judgment (1955) [NJ]; The Concept of Method (New York, Columbia University Press, 1961; hereafter, M; The Main of Light: On the Concept of Poetry (1974). In this last book, Buchler weaves together the general ontology and the metaphysics of human process in a philosophical account of poetry.

13 The notion of judgment for Buchler is not limited to inferential or logical processes. Judgment is the generic category identifying that which is distinctively human. Thus, emotion, action, prayer, preference -- anything we say, do, or contrive, consciously or not, which discriminates traits and defines where one stands, is judgment. See NJ, Chapter 1; TGT 46-57.

14 George Santayana’s The Life of Reason or the Phases of Human Progress (Scribner’s, 1905-06), can be seen as a naturalization of the Hegelian phenomenology. Reason itself is a natural development. The "phases" are common sense, art, society, religion, and science.

15 Chapter 2 of Nature and Judgment is entitled "Query." The idea is developed, however, throughout Buchler’s work. See TCT 54,66-81, 166-69; CM 114-15, 141-44. In CM, the idea of query becomes explicitly normative.

16 This is an observation on Buchler’s method, nut an exclusion of clarity from query. In Buchler’s case, clarity or precision of statement is embedded, so to speak, in a dramatic structure.