Field marks

A comment by James on a somewhat recent Languagehat post introduced me to a term used by Duns Scotus and the Scholastic philosophers: haecceity. Haecceity can be rendered as “thisness.” By contrast, quiddity constitutes “whatness.”

Haecceity captures the characteristics that distinguish a particular individual: “Socrates” is a man “who lived in Greece.” Whereas quiddity refers to the universal qualities that a thing shares with all members of its genus: a man is a “featherless biped.”1

As a naturalist, I am always switching focus back and forth between a bird’s (or plant’s, or…) haecceity and quiddity, either in the particular instance or in the abstract. Haecceity: what are the characters (field marks) that distinguish this species from others? Quiddity: what is its gist? if you’ve never seen one before, what does it look like?

Haecceity is captured by the textual descriptions in your field guide, as well as the “Peterson system” arrows pointing to field marks in the paintings. Quiddity is best represented by the composite photographs in Crossley or Kaufman field guides. New birders usually gravitate toward quiddity, and I’ll flip open my Peterson or Sibley to show them paintings of a bird we’re talking about (and maybe have just missed seeing).

And here’s another concept that perhaps the Scholastics didn’t grapple with: characteristics that distinguish one taxon from another in the context of a particular dichotomous key.

Maybe I should stop here before I write anything more that’s unschooled.

1Dang, I recently read something good about dinosaurs being featherless bipeds and I can’t find it again.

Some links: 97

  • Ooh, shiny, shiny.
  • Hilary Howard visits the Jewel Streets neighborhood of Brooklyn/Queens, at 4 feet above MSE. It’s not often that you see Phragmites australis growing on a street corner.
  • Yes, outdoor cats are a problem. Probably worse than you think.

    Just the amount of different insects and invertebrates that they are eating in their diet. We know that they eat insects. That wasn’t necessarily new, but we didn’t really have an idea that they were eating so many things. And I think our concern there is that most scientists that have done these studies in the past were not really looking for insects and they’re not taxonomists trained to understand insects.

  • Mary Pipher makes brightness in the dark. “We cannot stop all the destruction, but we can light candles for one another.”

Some links: 96

Some links: 93

R. Mutt

How else can we explain the fact that there is no physical unity to the work of art? What does a urinal have in common with a work on canvas, or a song, or a building, or an altarpiece? Artworks are dead in themselves, like mere noise or useless stuff. We bring them to life by putting them to work in thought, conversation, and appreciation. They have power in the way that jokes have power, as moves in a game of communication and reflection. Maker and public jointly undertake the work that makes art possible.

—Alva Noë, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature, p. 137


To merely report, or to become personally involved, perhaps putting oneself at deathly risk: a classic conundrum of journalism. Jeffrey Gettleman unpacks his own hard choice.

In so many stories I’ve covered about people in need, I struggle with when to step back, when to help out, how to be a so-called impartial observer, as I’m paid to be, but at the same time remain a decent human being. Here I failed.

Updike decoded

Two notes from Rabbit Is Rich:

I’d never run across the expression “to pass papers” (chapter IV, p. 975 in the Everyman omnibus volume) to describe closing on a real estate transaction. Maybe it’s a Pennsylvania thing. It’s certainly descriptive.

And look who shows up in the closing pages of chapter V, p. 1040:

… the way his brain is going on reminds him of some article he read last year in the paper of Time about some professor at Princeton’s theory that in ancient times the gods spoke to people directly through the left or was it the right half of their brains, they were like robots with radios in their heads telling them everything to do, and then somehow around the time of the ancient Greeks or Assyrians the system broke up, the batteries too weak to hear the orders, though there are glimmers of still and that is why we go to church…

And then Harry uses a couple of epithets to remind us of when and where he grew up. But there, in mangled form, is a précis of the work of Julian Jaynes and his opus, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.


Something that you don’t hear top-drawer religious leaders say:

Given that many of you do not belong to the [faith], and others are not believers, I give this blessing from my heart, in silence, to each one of you, respecting the conscience of each one of you, but knowing that each one of you is a child of God…. May God bless you.

Well, hardly ever.

And also with you, Holy Father.

Arctic Symposium 2007

As a sort of chaser to Thursday’s post, I want to applaud the ecumenical convocation of world-wide religious leaders at the foot of a melting glacier in Greenland, as reported by ABC News and Reuters. Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Christians of several stripes, and indigenous people united in a silent “prayer for the planet” as part of an effort to withstand global climate change. The event was part of a weeklong symposium sponsored by Religion, Science, and the Environment, an NGO based in Greece.

Excellence vs. competence

Via scribble, scribble, scribble…, Steve Gimbel deflates the proponents of a certain Objectivist:

If you take the writings of Nietzsche and remove everything insightful, interesting, and funny, what’s left are the writings of Ayn Rand. These works are a narcotic to the upper-middle class white male of above average means and intelligence because it simultaneously meets two needs…