Why Aristotle would have sent postcards. Part I of II. - Istillwritecards

December 24, 2016 1 Comment

Why Aristotle would have sent postcards.
Form before content: A short essay about philosophy, postcards and babies who play with shape sorting cubes.

(Part I of II)

I smile from ear to ear whenever I discover a postcard in my mailbox. Most of my friends share my enthusiasm, but unfortunately we almost exclusively receive bills. So what’s going on?

Philosophers congregating in 'The school of Athens'.
These philosophers seem to be engaged in a conversation about postcards. Would you like to join them? Image Source: Wikimedia. 

Entangled in a web of media

Today, on the brink of the 21st century, all of us use a smorgasbord of different media to communicate in our everyday lives. The options that we can choose from have drastically increased throughout the course of history. Personal conversations and phone calls commingle with Facebook posts, Tweets, e-mails, traditional Christmas cards or the occasional picture postcard from your holiday.

Usually we choose between these alternatives in a mostly unconscious fashion. This, however, causes an almost automatic marginalization of certain media, like postcards or letters: While they are, in principle, still accessible to us at any time and while we appraise them as aesthetically pleasing, handwritten messages have become increasingly rare and turned into luxury goods.

They are disappearing from our lives, without us ever having made the conscious decision to go without them. Barely anybody ever talks about this gap in our communication. This is quite astounding as the rivalry between printed and electronic books is regularly depicted as a culture war in the Arts & Culture sections of newspapers and tends to spark passionate debates between commentating readers.

So it’s about time that we think a bit about the forms (media) we choose for our messages. For this investigation we can count on the support of a famous thinker who lived in simpler times. Times when even writing itself was relatively new and definitely long before anybody was in danger of being overwhelmed by a multitude of communication media.

 Enter this guy:

Aristotle, probably pondering postcards.
Aristotle, probably pondering postcards.
(Image courtesy of Wikimedia: Jastrow.)

Aristotle explains the world

The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BCE) was a student of Plato and a teacher of Alexander the Great.
It is a fairly well known story that his fellow philosopher, Socrates, decided to end his own life by drinking hemlock. (It appears that his habit of pestering citizens with uncomfortable questions finally caught up with him when he was sentenced to death in a controversial trial. Despite the opportunity to escape, he took the poison, because he preferred to stand by his principles.) Few people know that about 70 years later Aristotle found himself in a similar situation and chose to flee from an imminent trial. According to his own statement, he did so to “not allow the Athenians to sin twice against philosophy.”

Aristotle was a polymath who wrote studies on such diverse subjects as logic, biology, ethics, politics, physics, poetry and theatre. As an ‘early scientist’ he systematically collected data and developed interpretations. In the course of this research Aristotle came to be concerned with the fundamental structure of things: How do objects come into existence and why do they change?

His explanation is easy to comprehend and can help us to reflect on different media. Imagine a bronze statue – maybe a discus thrower in action or, if you prefer, this year’s Oscar (yep, the statuettes are merely gold-plated).

Like this chap:

An ancient jock. Totally related to postcards.
An ancient jock.
(Image courtesy of Wikimedia: MatthiasKabel.)

Aristotle defines four elements that contribute to the origin of this statue:

  • Material cause: The material is bronze. It can take on various forms, any change will reshape the material.
  • Formal cause: The form of the statue that might be molded to resemble a certain model. The form comes with a specific structure and attributes. Animal species, for example, can be perceived as certain forms that reproduce into other animals of the same form.
  • Efficient cause: The source of the change here is the artist and the work he does with his hammer, which leads to the material emerging in a particular form.
  • Final cause: The aim or purpose of this transformation. The statue is crafted to serve as decoration or part of the Oscar ceremony. Albeit this application is obviously only realized at the very end once the statue is ready-made, the notion of its use is also the initial motivation behind the artist's efforts. Thus the final cause is very much responsible for the form and attributes the statue is given.

When you look at the term ‘bronze statue’, you can clearly see that even in today’s language we hold two of these elements to be of prime importance: material (bronze) and form (statue). And one of these two is yet again a little bit more significant: namely the form. You can observe this when a visitor in a museum wants to quickly draw the attention of his friend to a certain exhibit. He will usually shout, “Look at this statue!” and only rarely will he exclaim, “Behold the magnificent bronze!”.
(Of course, he shouldn’t be yelling in a museum at all, but that’s another story and in any case the museum is only fictional, so he can scream all he wants, nobody will ever hear him! Muahahaha!…ahem…Sorry, sometimes my evil alter ego gets the better of me. Back to lovely postcards…)

Aristotle for his part affirms the greater relevance of form over material. It is the form that gives the material its physical shape and whenever we perceive an object, we do so by recognizing it as adhering to a specific form.

 - End Part I of II. To proceed to Part 2, please click here. -


But how does this preference for the form of a thing translate to our usage of communication media? And where do the babies come into all of this? To find out, please tune in again next time, when the wisdom of the old meets the intuition of the young for a surprising conclusion!

Tonight's host was David Weger and this blog post was brought to you exclusively by Istillwritecards. If you would like to personally chime in and let us know how you feel about postcards or come up with your own theory to explain what in the world they might have to do with babies, we'd be delighted to welcome you to our comment section!

1 Response

David Weger (Writer for Istillwritecards)
David Weger (Writer for Istillwritecards)

December 24, 2016

First! Yeah, I’m an optimist at times… :)

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