Sunday, February 15, 2015

Blessed Newman Discovers the Formal Distinction

And here, let it be observed, that we have a sort of figure or intimation of the sacred Mystery of the Trinity in Unity even in what has been now said concerning the Divine Attributes. For as the Attributes of God are many in one mode of speaking, yet all One in God; so, too, there are Three Divine Persons, yet these Three are One. Let it not be for an instant supposed that I am paralleling the two cases, which is the Sabellian heresy; but I use the one in illustration of the other; and, in way of illustration, I observe as follows: When we speak of God as Wisdom, or as Love, we mean to say that He is Wisdom, and that He is Love; that He is each separately and wholly, yet not that Wisdom is the same as Love, though He is both at once. Wisdom and Love stand for ideas quite distinct from each other, and not to be confused, though they are united in Him. In all He is and all He does, He is Wisdom and He is Love; yet it is both true that He is but One, and without qualities, and withal true again that Love is not Wisdom. Again, as God is Wisdom or Love, so is Wisdom or Love in and with God, and whatever God is. Is God eternal? so is His wisdom. Is He unchangeable? so is His wisdom. Is He uncreate, infinite, almighty, all-holy? His wisdom has these characteristics also. Since God has no parts or passions, whatever is really of or from God, is all that He is. If there is confusion of language here, and an apparent play upon words, this arises from our incapacity in comprehension and expression. We see that all these separate statements must be true, and if they result in an apparent contrariety with each other, this we cannot avoid; nor need we be perplexed about them, nor shrink from declaring any one of them.

- Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons VI.24, "The Mystery of the Holy Trinity"

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Review of Postmodernity and Univocity

Here are my thoughts on a recent book.

Postmodernity and Univocity: A Critical Account of Radical Orthodoxy and John Duns Scotus

For sale here.

The author is Daniel Horan, OFM. His website is here. He is a graduate student in systematic theology at Boston College. The author is not a specialist in Scotus, but a member of the same order trying to exonerate Scotus' name.

Previously reviewed by Peter J. Leihart here.

The book is not a general discussion of Radical Orthdoxy, but, as is obvious from the title, focuses on RO's appropriation of Scotus, or what Horan calls the "Scotus story". The book is roughly divided in three parts. 1. Summarizing what RO claims about Scotus, 2. summarizing the critique of Radical orthodoxy by Richard Cross and Thomas Williams, 3. and a historical-critical discussion of univocity.

It was somewhat of a drag to read the first part, though not owing to the fault of the author, since I have read the originals, and the RO claims are so outrageous. But the author, whose own blood seemed to be up at times, did not fall into polemic. He noted RO's reliance on non-existence passages, strange methods of citation, and so on. Although the main storytellers for RO's Scotus are Milbank and Pickstock, Horan covered all the minor characters in the tapestry as well, even though they are largely derivative. The end of this section of Horan's book was quite valuable. For not only did he treat RO proper, but he also went through some of the more recent popularizers of the Scotus story, some of whom we have encountered on this blog: Brad Gregory and Robert Baron, and a bishop or two, for example. Horan shows that these derivative writers add nothing at all to the conversation, but simply cite RO as their source.

One defect of the first section is that Horan did not wish to delve into narrative. Now to some extent this is perfectly reasonable. It is a work on RO's appropriation of Scotus, not one on the use of narrative in theology. But by making this move, Horan misses, I think the ultimately twofold origin of the Scotus story. The first is that RO subscribes to the rise-fall thesis deriving from early 19th century Jesuits involved in the German kulturkampf, according to which all human thought prior to Thomas Aquinas is but a preparation for Aquinas, and everything that follows is a symptom of decline and departure from the truth. This thesis underlies RO, though even Thomists have criticized it as distorting Aquinas. I am thinking of John Inglis' work in particular. Horan thinks that the RO narrative goes back only as far as Gilson. But in fact it is part of a much older Thomist historiographical claim, which may explain why Thomists have been generally sympathetic to RO, save for reservations about their use of Aquinas. A second point about narrative that I think Horan misses is the importance of Deleuze. RO despises Deleuze, but their Scotus story is best explained as a response to Deleuze's scattered remarks on Scotus, who D. makes central to his own genealogy of modernity; univocity is great and leads straight to Spinoza. RO basically takes everything Deleuze says about Scotus at face value; their attack on Scotus is really an attack on Deleuze's Scotus with a few back-filled references to the Wolter translations to give the appearance of having read Scotus (though it should noted that, as an Australian Thomist did in his dissertation that was making the rounds a year so ago, RO views itself as prophetic and creative and so not bound by the canons of academic scholarship. To this I say, shouldn't they then be employed by think-tanks instead of a university?).

In the second section of the book, Horan discusses Cross and William's, the only two authors who have written against RO's interpretation of Scotus. William's piece is something of a rant, and so perhaps easily ignored, while Cross's main piece of criticism was published in Antonianum, which elsewhere Horan says no one in the states apparently reads. So their criticism has been generally ignored, and the "Scotus story" has been adopted all across the humanities. Indeed, one of the more depressing parts of the book is the few times Horan mentions how remarkable it is that even though academics generally pride themselves on being critical and distrustful of narrative and testing of truth claims, there has been no criticism of RO's appropriation of Scotus save for the two specialists mentioned above. Also in this section Horan tries to locate RO within 20th c. Thomism, and opts for a new label: "Cambridge Thomist".

In the third section the author gives a historical-critical analysis of univocity. Here we find that Thomas was not Scotus' target when developing univocity, but rather Henry of Ghent. We also find that univocity is not a metaphysical claim, but a semantic/conceptual one. Horan basically just reads the text of Scotus and explains what univocity is about, with reference to the relevant secondary literature (a feature lacking in the RO story). There are some strange errors, here, such as attributing Marrone's article on univocity in Scotus' early works to Dumont, a few latin typos, but nothing serious. Pini's work is strangely absent, which made sense of Scotus' commentary on met. IV, and also explained the notion of different sciences viewing being in different ways (analogical for metaphysics, univocal for logic), and which was not fully articulated by the older studies of Cyrcil and Wolter that Horan cites. But that is a minor criticism. The only substantial criticism I had of this section was a desire to make Scotus one harmonious whole in which everything is connected. The author segued rather unclearly from the application of the formal distinction in the treatment in univocity to its use in individuation (without much explanation of the formal distinction, which is probably as complicated as univocity), and he also seemed to think that haecceity was a direct consequence of univocity, which I found strange. I think univocity (that is, as applied to the problem of natural knowledge of God) and individuation are simply separate issues. But all in all, Horan gave an accurate presentation of what Scotus actually thought.

The question that remains is whether pointing out the historical-critical truth affect the dominant view of Scotus in the humanities today that is based on narrative? Perhaps publishing a book from an ecumenical press rather than an academic press will make more of a difference than the previous publications in specialist journals. It is also not written by a specialist, but by a concerned theologian, which may also make it more palatable.

Recommendation: specialists will not get much out of this book, I am afraid, especially if they have already read this material. But happily it is not directed at them. So I heartily recommend it to theologians, Thomists, philosophers with an interest in medieval thought, and also to the interested lay reader. The book manages to be both brief and to get the required work done, and it is written by and large quite clearly.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015


I've added Peter Simpson's page of translations to the "Bibliotheca Scotistica" sidebar. Dr Simpson has generously made available his translation of most of Scotus' Ordinatio from the Vatican edition, as well as various other translations of interest to readers of this blog. I haven't read any of them yet, so I can't attest to their reliability, but I hope to take a look at them soon. In any case, if he completes a translation of the Ordinatio, most of Scotus' most important major works will then be available in some form or other in English, removing one important obstacle to the study of our doctor. Plenty of others, such as his difficulty, remain!

Lately I've been posting very infrequently, leaving my colleague to take up the slack. I hope to resume more frequent philosophizing here soon.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

New Gerard of Bologna Edition

A selection of questions from Gerard of Bologna's Quodlibeta has come out, for sale here.

The editor is David Piche.

Price: 87 Euro (expensive, but I'll probably buy it eventually)

Here is the publisher's summary:

Le présent ouvrage entend faire connaître un acteur et témoin privilégié des débats universitaires en philosophie de la connaissance au début du XIVe siècle : Gérard de Bologne (ca. 1240/50 – 1317), premier grand intellectuel de l’ordre des Carmes. Afin de rendre manifeste l’importance historique de ce maître en théologie de l’Université de Paris, nous offrons l’édition critique, accompagnée d’une étude doctrinale, de quatorze questions quodlibétiques qui relèvent du champ de la gnoséologie. En examinant ce corpus, on rencontre un penseur qui prend position de façon résolue au sujet de problèmes majeurs en théorie de la connaissance : il soutient, notamment, l’élimination de l’espèce intelligible et l’identification du concept à l’acte d’intellection. En outre, on y découvre un savant universitaire qui, par le vaste registre des philosophes de son temps dont il connaît et rapporte les théories, dresse une « cartographie » exemplaire des positions en présence sur le terrain de la gnoséologie à une époque charnière de l’histoire de la scolastique latine.

This edition will prove most useful for those working in 14th c. philosophy. Gerard was a contemporaneous critic of Scotus, and later Scotists kept responding to Gerard for about a hundred years.

I checked out the volume from the library. Here are a few brief comments.

1. The edition is based on the four complete mss., with some reference to the various incomplete witneses.

2. Visually, the edition is very hard to read. Variants are linked to the text by footnotes, and the sources are done by reference to paragraph numbers. Consequently, to read a single line is to be constantly interrupted by the footnote numbers. Maybe I'm too picky. Fine. It's just my experience. The editor has also quite liberally broken up the text with headers, to the point of separating individual arguments from each other. The whole thing is very "busy". This is probably due to the requirements of the series, rather than the fault of the editor. Initial arguments, objections, etc. are also broken off by editorial insertions telling the reader what is happening.

3. Note that this is a selection of questions having to do with cognition, not the complete Quodlibeta. But the editor was very generous in how he defined cognition, for we get questions on divine ideas and the formation of the divine act of knowing, so it's very useful to me in my work on early scotist theories of divine ideas (in this case, they all ignored Gerard).

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Destroyers of Philosophy

Are those who deny the univocity of being. So says the Doctor.

Lectura I d. 3 p. 1 q. 1-2 (Vat XVI) ...

n. 105:

But to the contrary it seems that to posit the univocity of being to all destroys philosophy, although it is not predicated essentially of all, as of differences.

n. 110:

I say that I do not destroy philosophy, but the ones positing the contrary necessarily destroy philosophy, because if there is not a common concept of being, then it would be impossible that we would have a concept of substance, because substance does not have its own species in the possible intellect, but only the concept of being abstracted from the species of accidents. If therefore being did not have one concept, we would have no concept of substance, neither in common nor in particular.

n. 112:

Whence I say that our intellect first has a cognition of accidents, from which it abstracts the intention of being, which predicates the essence of substance just as accidents; and we only intuitively know substance, and not in any other way. This, as I said, each one experiences for himself, that he does not know more of the nature of substance save that it is being. The total other which we know about substance are properties and accidents proper to substance, through which we intuit those aspects which are essential to substance.

n. 113:

Again, unless being had one univocal intention, theology would be completely destroyed. For theologians prove that the Word in the divine proceeds and is generated by the intellect, and the Holy Spirit proceeds through the mode of the will. But if 'intellect' and 'will' would be only equivocally found in us and in God, there would be no evidence that just because the word is generated in us, so also it is in God, and likewise concerning love in us, because then 'intellect and 'will' would be of another kind here and there. Now it does not follow 'just as it is in our intellect and will, therefore it also is in an intellect of another kind and a will of another kind'. Therefore there would not be any evidence.

So. If you deny the univocity of being, you have no way to know substance. Now, this has some consequences. For much of the pre-modern tradition, metaphysics consisted in reasoning into the knowledge of God and the separated substances. For Scotus, then, in order keep doing metaphysics as traditionally conceived we need univocal concepts. So to conclude:

If no univocity of being,

1. No metaphysics

2. No theology

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Recent Links of Note

I came across a list of 64 theses that are supposed to constitute the positions of the Scotist school, ca. 1697, and will post a translation soon. In the meantime, here are a few links I've run across in the past few days:

An Early Modern Scotist.

A bio of Luke Wadding (editor of the Wadding edition, professor at Salamanca, and gunrunner for Irish rebels). Items of Scotist interest pop up from time to time on this blog.

Duns Scotus Lives, from the ISIS magazine (so bad it's almost good; also, not the ISIS you are thinking of).

A podcast by Joshua Blander on the formal distinction.

The Scotus festivities at the Antonianum.


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Bettoni on Scotus

Efrem Bettoni, Duns Scotus: The Basic Principles of His Philosophy, pp.192 ff.:

The history of Scotism has not yet been written. It is still in the preparatory phase, as this or that Scotistic figure is chosen as the object of a particular study, or this or that Scotistic doctrine is considered in its evolution and set in relation to other doctrines. This is not the place to mention even briefly the main contributions that modern Scotistic literature can offer to a researcher. While an expert in the field is no doubt acquainted with them, to the ordinary reader they would be of no interest. It is an indisputable fact, however, that along with the Thomistic school, a Scotistic school of thought has emerged and flourished. Throughout the centuries it has given to the Church a great number of first-class theologians, saintly preachers, and formidable defenders of the faith. The number of philosophical and theological works written in the name of Scotus during the centuries is imposing, for they are counted by the hundreds.

Duns Scotus' influence upon modern nonscholastic philosophers is almost nil. This is due to the fact that very few among them have had a direct knowledge of scholasticism. Father Scaramuzzi has pointed out certain important parallels between the thought of Duns Scotus and that of Giambattista Vico. It is also an undeniable fact that some modern historians, like Windelband, have noticed a certain speculative affinity between Scotistic doctrines and various doctrines of Leibniz. It would be of great historical interest to study the extent to which Rosmini was inspired by Duns Scotus, whom he knows and quotes with great respect in working out his doctrine of the idea of being.

Some historians have considerably exaggerated Duns Scotus' influence upon the nominalistic movement. They have gone so far as to affirm that Ockham  mere draws natural conclusions from Scotistic doctrines. This historical thesis has met with some favor. However, the best of the medieval historians of today, when they do not reject this thesis entirely, raise at least some doubt as to its foundation. It is beyond question that some Scotistic doctrines taken out of context, such as the doctrine of "haecceity" and the doctrine concerning the knowability of the singular, which is closely related to it, could have been exploited by the nominalists. But it s one thing to admit this, and an entirely different thing to affirm that Scotistic philosophy necessarily prepares the way for nominalism. Otherwise, any great thinker could be held responsible for the more or less indirect paternity of all later philosophies claiming dependence on him or on some of his doctrines. The fact that Ockham was a Franciscan, and had probably been a disciple of Duns Scotus, does not in itself constitute any solid ground for the assertion that his system depends on Duns Scotus' doctrine. The history of philosophy teaches us us that a thinker's most formidable rival usually emerges from his school. Shall we say that Duns Scotus paves the way to nominalism precisely because nominalism is the natural outcome of opposition to his philosophy? In this case, we definitely commit ourselves to an abuse of terms. One philosophical movement prepares the way for another only when this later is a logical outgrowth of the former.

In Catholic cultural circles not only is Duns Scotus set aside and neglected, but he often looked upon with suspicion as though he were an insidious forerunner of heresy. This attitude might perhaps be conceivable in regard to certain Catholic thinkers, like Rosmini, for example. A strong support of such an attitude is found in the fact that the Church has condemned forty doctrinal propositions attributed-whether rightly or wrongly, it is not for us to decide-to the philosopher of Rovereto. However, it is difficult to understand how this same attitude could have become traditional in regard to Duns Scotus. There is not a single document of the Church that either directly or indirectly puts the Catholic scholars on their guard against any error or possible danger in the Scotistic speculation. Quite the opposite! There are authoritative acts and statement showing that the Church has always held Duns Scotus' work in high esteem. This is true in the first place of his theology, but it can be said to be equally true of his philosophy, which in him, as in any other scholastic, is intimately connected with theological doctrine. here are some of these acts and statements [...].

Friday, November 7, 2014

Festum Scoti

It's  November 8 again, the optional memorial of the subtle Scot. Once again, here's the collect:

Domine Deus, fons omnis sapientiae, qui Beatum Ioannem presbyterum, Immaculatae Virginis assertorem, nobis magistrum vitae et scientiae dedisti, concede, quaesumus, ut, eius exemplo illuminati, et doctrinis nutria, Christo fideliter adhaereamus. Qui tecum vivit.

Reflections on "Four Things you Need to Know About John Duns Scotus" can be found here. Benedict XVI's general audience here.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Franciscus de Mayronis on Metaphysics

Franciscus de Mayronis, Conflatus prol. q. 14 (ed. Venezia 1520, 8vb):

...metaphysica accipitur dupliciter: uno modo ut tractat de ente ut ens est, et tunc isto modo nihil cognoscitur de Deo nisi praecise ea quae sequuntur ens in quantum ens. Alio modo ut considerat de aliis contentis sub ente, et isto modo considerat de Deo. Et quia Deus inter cetera quae continentur sub ente est quid nobilissimum, hinc est quod metaphysica quae considerat de Deo est summa et nobilissima. Unde Augustinus vocat platonicos philosophos theologos.

'Metaphysics' is understood in two ways. In one way as it treats of being qua being, and in that way the only things that are known about God are those which follow upon being qua being. In the other way as it considers other things contained under being, and in that mode it considers God. And because God is the most noble thing among those which are contained under being, hence it is that the metaphysics which treats of God is the highest and noblest. Whence Augustine calls the platonic philosophers theologians.

A step on the road to the distinction between general and special metaphysics.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Francis of Meyronnes on whether there is a transcendental notion more common than being

Now that the Philosophers have finished their work, it is time for things to go back to normal here at The Smithy. We (that is, I) shall return to the dusty stacks of the library, leaving behind the world of Things that Matter, matters of contemporary philosophical relevance, for some classic Smity latinophilic blogging: an obscure text by an obscure writer on a topic that is currently being discussed privately by my co-blogger and I (co-blogger: see esp. concl. 4).

Here are four conclusions from Franciscus de Mayronis, Conflatus prologus q. 13 (ed. Venezia 1520, ff. 18rb sqq.).

Utrum sit aliqua ratio transcendens communior ente


Pono igitur quattuor conclusiones:
Prima est quod licet nulla ratio intentionis primae sit communior, tamen ratio aliqua secundae intentionis est communior ente.


Secunda conclusio quod in respectibus transcendentibus aliquid est communius ente, quia quaecumque sunt distincta, distinctio est eis communis et communior quolibet illorum. Quaecumque etiam sunt ordinata, ordinatio etiam est eis communior; huiusmodi sunt ista ens, verum, bonum; omnia enim sunt distincta et ordinata; ergo etc.

Tertia conclusio quod in aptitudinalibus est aliquid communius ente, nam quod dicitur de ente et de aliis ab ente est communius ente; huiusmodi sunt istae aptitudines, scilicet intelligibilitas, volibilitas, etc.

Quarta conclusio quod in privativis est aliquid communius ente, nam privatio est communior quae dicitur de ente et de aliis ab ente; sed non solum ens, sed et alia ab entitate, scilicet passiones, quodlibet istorum est unum (veritas est una, bonitas est una, et sic de aliis); ergo etc.

Rough Translation:

I posit four conclusions:

The first is that although no ratio of first intention is more common than being, some ratio of a second intention is more common than being.

The second conclusion is that in transcendental relations something is more common than being, because whatsoever things are distinct, distinction is common to them and more common than each one of them. Whatsoever things are ordered, ordering also is more common than they are; of this sort are being, true, good, for all of them are distinct and ordered.

The third conclusion is that in aptitudinals there is something more common than being, for what is said of being and of others other than being is more common than being; of this sort are those aptitudes, namely intelligibility, volibility/willability(?), etc.

The fourth conclusion is that in privatives there is something more common than being, for privation is more common which is said of being and of others other than being; but not only being, but also other than entity, namely passions/attributes, for each one of these are one (truth is one, goodness is one, the same is true of the rest); therefore, etc.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

New Books on the Horizon

Here are three new books on Scotus that will be out later this year:

Richard Cross, Duns Scotus's Theory of Cognition

  • Original work on a great medieval philosopher
  • Presents Scotus's work within its historical and intellectual context
Richard Cross provides the first complete and detailed account of Duns Scotus's theory of cognition, tracing the processes involved in cognition from sensation, through intuition and abstraction, to conceptual thought. He provides an analysis of the ontological status of the various mental items (acts and dispositions) involved in cognition, and a new account of Scotus on nature of conceptual content. Cross goes on to offer a novel, reductionist, interpretation of Scotus's view of the ontological status of representational content, as well as new accounts of Scotus's opinions on intuitive cognition, intelligible species, and the varieties of consciousness. Scotus was a perceptive but highly critical reader of his intellectual forebears, and this volume places his thought clearly within the context of thirteenth-century reflections on cognitive psychology, influenced as they were by Aristotle, Augustine, and Avicenna. As far as possible, Duns Scotus's Theory of Cognition traces developments in Scotus's thought during the ten or so highly productive years that formed the bulk of his intellectual life.
Readership: Scholars and advanced students in history of philosophy.

Thomas Ward, John Duns Scotus on Parts, Wholes, and Hylomorphism

In John Duns Scotus on Parts, Wholes, and Hylomorphism, Thomas M. Ward examines Scotus's arguments for his distinctive version of hylomorphism, the view that at least some material objects are composites of matter and form. It considers Scotus's reasons for adopting hylomorphism, and his accounts of how matter and form compose a substance, how extended parts, such as the organs of an organism, compose a substance, and how other sorts of things, such as the four chemical elements (earth, air, fire, and water) and all the things in the world, fail to compose a substance. It highlights the extent to which Scotus draws on his metaphysics of essential order to explain why some things can compose substance and why others cannot. Throughout the book, contemporary versions of hylomorphism are discussed in ways that both illumine Scotus's own views and suggest ways to advance contemporary debates.

Daniel P. Horan, OFM, Postmodernity and Univocity: A Critical Account of Radical Orthodoxy and John Duns Scotus

Nearly twenty-five years ago, John Milbank inaugurated Radical Orthodoxy, one of the most significant and influential theological movements of the last two decades. In Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory, he constructed a sweeping theological genealogy of the origins of modernity and the emergence of the secular, counterposed by a robust retrieval of traditional orthodoxy as the critical philosophical and theological mode of being in the postmodern world. That genealogy turns upon a critical point—the work of John Duns Scotus as the starting point of modernity and progenitor of a raft of philosophical and theological ills that have prevailed since. Milbank’s account has been disseminated proliferously through Radical Orthodoxy and even beyond and is largely uncontested in contemporary theology.

The present volume conducts a comprehensive examination and critical analysis of Radical Orthodoxy’s use and interpretation of John Duns Scotus. Daniel P. Horan, O.F.M. offers a substantial challenge to the narrative of Radical Orthodoxy’s idiosyncratic take on Scotus and his role in ushering in the philosophical age of the modern. This volume not only corrects the received account of Scotus but opens a constructive way forward toward a positive assessment and appropriation of Scotus’s work for contemporary theology.


The "Bibliotheca Scotistica" section on the sidebar has had a few new additions, such as a Lampen scan and a Mayronis transcription.

Monday, June 23, 2014

New Translations

CUA press has two new translations coming up:   Scotus' commentary on the Categories, and the commentaries on the Perihermenias. Furthermore, I was reading on a Facebook thread on the Thomistic discussion forum where I noticed a comment from someone at Benedictine college, stating that they were working on the Porphyry commentary as well. So, if we recall that Wolter and Etzkorn already translated the questions on the Metaphysics, that really leaves only the De anima, Elenchorum and the Theoremata before we have a complete translation of the Opera Philosophica. This is certainly welcome news, as some of Wolter's translations have been going out of print. So far, by my count, the De primo principio, the Duns Scotus Metaphysician volume, and of course the Quodlibet, which has been out of print for years.

Lest the nefarious quidam accuse me of keeping a double standard, for I have been known to complain about re-translating the works of Aquinas, let me say that, sure, it's not ideal, everyone should learn latin. I agree with my co-bloggers' comments regarding latin that he made in the course of the debate with Feser. But it is better for people to be reading Scotus in translation than not at all (which is a very real danger), so let the translators continue their work with my thanks.

And hey, once they get done, why not re-translate the Summa contra gentiles? That translation is pretty old, after all.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Doffing My Dunce Cap to Feser

Edward Feser vigorously defends his book in a new post. He finds some of my criticisms reasonable but finds others "unjust and intemperate" and "quite outrageous". It seems that in comparing his casual dismissals of non-Thomist scholastics to modern philosophers' causal dismissals of Thomism I struck a nerve.

though the rival views are neither agreed with nor treated at the length that would be required to turn a Scotist or Suarezian into a Thomist, they are nevertheless discussed respectfully. There is no polemic whatsoever against Scotist and Suarezian views, nor the least suggestion that those views are unserious or unworthy of study.

This is true. I'm not sure that I said otherwise. Feser certainly never says that alternative scholastic views are unserious or unworthy of study. What I claim is that he does not in fact seem to treat them seriously or study them, despite wanting to give the appearance of doing so.

nowhere in the book do I say or imply that “Scholasticism = Thomism,” nor does Sullivan quote any passage to that effect. Indeed, as Sullivan admits, I explicitly say that that is not the case.

Feser accuses me of nitpicking, and I'm reluctant to give him more fodder for the accusation by looking for more nits to pick. But I did point out already some examples of Feser saying "the Scholastic view on this subject is x", where x is simply the Thomist view, and handwaving away any alternative views, even and especially when among scholastics the Thomist view is very controversial. And in his first response Feser gave a defense of the stance that Thomism is the default view for scholastics and that non-Thomistic views should be seen as departures or divergences from it. Surely I'm not making this up.

I think it is clear enough what is going on... He’s got a bee in his bonnet; he’s got a hair trigger; he’s got issues.

This is to a certain extent fair enough. I decided to review Feser's book because I was specifically asked from a couple of quarters to provide a Scotist perspective; and what I found was that Feser treats non-Thomist scholastics much like nearly every other Thomist does. As I think I've already indicated, it's not that Feser's work is particularly egregious so much as that there are in my opinion grave structural deficiencies in the tradition he's working in, and I criticize his book as an instance of a type.

The problem is not really philosophical, then, but attitudinal. And the remedy is as dry, bracing, and agreeable to a refined palate as a page of Scotus: I recommend to Sullivan a glass or two of good Scotch, in honor of the Subtle Doctor. I’ll buy it for him if we’re ever at the same conference or the like.

I would love a glass or two of good Scotch and will gladly take Feser up on his offer should the occasion arise. I've got some 18-year Glenlivet left over from my birthday. Maybe I'll have some tonight. No doubt it will have a salutary effect on my attitude.

Unsurprisingly Feser disagrees with some of my structural criticisms of his book, which is fair enough. I won't try to analyze the attitude of his replies as he does mine, but it does seem here and elsewhere that his feelings were a bit hurt: whereas elsewhere Sullivan complains that I too slavishly follow “the standard neo-Thomist manuals,” here I am to be blamed for departing from them. I can’t win! I note that I admire much in the manuals and have learned from them myself, though as a genre they have their limitations; so neither following them nor departing from them is a virtue in itself. In the present case my point is that there are good reasons for treating the causes in a certain order. Feser has his own reasons for departing from that order. I won't go over those issues in any more detail. He makes his case, and the reader can decide for himself.

The Scholastics are all operating within a conceptual landscape defined by essentially Platonic and Aristotelian boundaries. The landscape is very broad and some thinkers fall far to one side of it rather than to the other; some even appear to end up falling off this or that edge of it. But that this landscape constitutes their common framework distinguishes them from the moderns, who have all decided to step out of it. ... Hence when I characterize the position of my book as “Scholastic” and not merely “Thomistic,” I am, again, indicating precisely that I am trying to bring what all or at least most Scholastics have in common to bear on contemporary disputes in analytic metaphysics -- albeit with a strongly Thomistic emphasis and despite the fact that I agree with the Thomist position when it differs from the other Scholastic views. I mean precisely to include the other Scholastic positions in the debate, not exclude them.

It seems that the disagreement here is not so much a matter of principle as about the execution. Feser complains that I criticize him for not having written a different sort of book, while I see as my primary complaint that the book he wrote doesn't do what he claims he wants it to do. When Feser brings to bear one position on (say) universals or individuation to engage with analytic metaphysics, and eliding the rest, he's not bringing to bear what all or at least most scholastics have in common. He may mean to include the other positions, but in practice I think he does exclude them by not really taking them seriously. And that's frustrating.

Finally, Sullivan is very critical of my treatment of the dispute between Thomists and Scotists vis-à-vis the theory of distinctions

I picked the section on distinctions to discuss at some length because the issue has very wide-ranging ramifications and because it's one instance in which Feser spends more than a sentence or two on the Scotist view. I could have picked any number of other issues to focus on. Perhaps some what of what I said wasn't clear enough. Get it? Me neither, but then we can’t all be Subtle Doctors. That's ok. I won't hold it against you.

Sullivan goes on at length about the dispute between Thomists and Scotists concerning real, logical, and formal distinctions, and its relevance to issues like the relationship between essence and existence. And what he has to say is hardly less tendentious than what I have to say about these matters in my book. He surely realizes that Thomists would simply not agree with the assumptions that lie behind his arguments, nor with his insinuation that they have no principled but only ad hoc grounds for rejecting those assumptions. Yet Sullivan writes as if the burden of proof were on me or other Thomists to establish the superiority of our position to the Scotist one, rather than on Scotists to establish the superiority of theirs.

Sure, I realize Thomists don't agree with my position. I'm not talking about burdens of proof here at all. The point of my discussion was to indicate that Feser's book mentioned and rejected the formal distinction without making clear what it was or why someone might hold it. I didn't try to prove the necessity of the formal distinction, but to indicate what it was. Feser's claim was that there was "no room" for a distinction between real and logical ones and so no need for the formal distinction. My counter-claim is that Scotists do see room for an intermediate distinction because of characteristics of reality not adequately captured by the dichotomy between fully real and merely logical distinctions. And my complaint is that when Feser claims that the formal distinction ends up collapsing into either one or the other, he hasn't really considered the reasons for denying this because he hasn't noticed any of the reasons for positing it in the first place. Again, if Feser wants to avoid all intra-scholastic debate, that's his prerogative. Just present Thomism. It's precisely where he brings up an alternative just to dismiss it out of hand without getting what he dismisses right that I get really frustrated.

It is, after all, hardly as if the Scotist position, with its famous (some would say notorious) subtlety and abstraction, were somehow more intuitive or obvious than the Thomist one.

Hey, nobody said philosophy was easy! Seriously, though, just yesterday I came across a quote from Heidegger in What is a Thing? to the effect that philosophy is that at which thoughtless people laugh. The whole popular image of the "Dunce" began as a mocking way to dismiss serious, thoughtful, carefully-reasoned attempts to grapple with reality as so much nonsense, without having to do any of the thinking oneself, and it takes Scotus as the paradigm of such thinking. If philosophy is stupid, or mere blather, or nothing but abstruse jargon, or so subtle or abstract that we can know it's disconnected from reality a priori, or if it suffers from "the paralysis of analysis" (a favorite phrase of people who don't care to analyze their positions), then there's no need to think it through. A Thomist rejecting a philosophical position, or refusing to try even to grasp it, on the basis of its "notorious subtlety and abstraction", ought to think uncomfortably about Locke's dismissal of the whole scholastic tradition, of Hobbes' Kingdom of the Fairies at the end of Leviathan, of Hume's "commit it to the flames" at the end of his Enquiry. Perhaps I do have a bee in my bonnet about that kind of attitude.

At the end of the day, Sullivan’s beef is that he just doesn’t agree with me that Thomism is the strongest version of Scholasticism.

That's not my whole beef. But if that isn't clear by now I won't belabor the point.

Finally, I want to reiterate that I hold Feser in respect and that I enjoyed his book and think it has many strengths. If my review focused on what I see as its deficiencies, that's hardly a rarity in academic book reviews, and Feser (deservedly) has many admirers to sing his praises. But sharp criticism between friends - sparring in the gym - is part of the training process in preparing for the real battles.

Well, fine. He should write his own book. I’d buy it.

Well, maybe I will!

Friday, June 6, 2014

How to Learn Metaphysics

In the forward to An Elementary Christian Metaphysics, Joseph Owens writes

The teaching of metaphysics is meant first and foremost to develop in the student's mind a living habit of thinking ... The presentation of its subject matter in a text for college use should therefore keep that purpose unswervingly in view. Metaphysics is primarily a vital quality or activity of the intellect, and not a collection or systematic organization of data either in print or in the memory. In its own nature metaphysics exists only in intellects, and not in books or writings, though the name may be used, in a secondary sense, to denote a body of truths known through the metaphysical habitus, and to designate a treatise or a course in which metaphysical thinking is communicated.

I agree completely. Philosophy is an activity, not a set of doctrines or propositions, and to become a philosopher is to develop the habit of performing that activity until it comes easily and naturally. So there's a big difference between "learning philosophy" in the sense of learning what it is that philosophers say, and learning what and how philosophers think. Both are needed, but in general surveys on the one hand and detailed scholarship on the other are aids to philosophizing in providing content to philosophize about, but less helpful for actually learning the habit of philosophizing. How do we do that?

Feser recently implied that I was an academic historian of philosophy. That's not really true, but it is true that I have always approached doing philosophy from a "historical" slant, if that means from the opinion that the best way to learn to philosophize is by reading and thinking through the philosophical classics rather than worrying about what the hip kids in philosophy departments are up to these days. That's why I went through the Great Books program at St John's College (the only undergraduate college I applied to) and the historically-oriented doctoral program of the School of Philosophy at The Catholic University of America (the only graduate program I applied to). At both institutions the best is privileged over the current and the primary over the secondary.

A couple of years ago I taught an undergraduate metaphysics course and spent a lot of time thinking over where the best place to start is for a beginner. Books like Feser's or Owens' can be quite useful and I've learned a lot from them, especially when I was a newbie. But they tend to give you information about what metaphysics concerns rather than help you learn to do what metaphysicians do. In the course I designed I wasn't able to do everything I would like, considering the limits of a semester and the average undergraduate. To someone really serious about learning to do metaphysics, this is the advice I would give:

1. Read Plato. Philosophy begins with Plato. After two and half thousand years no one has written better introductory texts: he's the Euclid of philosophy. Everybody should already know this, but it can't be emphasized enough. Autobiographically, my appetite for philosophy was whetted by C.S. Lewis' apologetic works, but I was lucky enough to start reading philosophy at the age of fourteen with the Britannica Great Books volume of Jowett's translations of Plato. Professor Digory Kirke would have approved, I think. Don't read a contemporary "Introduction", which are legion, read The Apology, The Republic, and the Phaedo. Get confused and excited. For methodology read Meno.

2. Now you're ready to start thinking about metaphysics. Sorry: read more Plato. Now it's time to step it up. Read more carefully this time. Think really really hard about what's going on. Try to figure out exactly what the problems are. Read the Trilogy: Theaetetus, then Sophist, then Statesman. You're going to be really and truly baffled, but if you have the makings of a metaphysician your bafflement will have a bracing, exhilarating quality. You're not used to the altitude and can't breathe very well but you can see the stars more clearly than ever before.

3. Read Parmenides and despair. Go back to Sophist and it will seem not so bad, or try something like Protagoras as palate cleanser. You haven't even read the word "metaphysics" yet, but you're confused and worried about being, and a lot of other stuff. You're ready for Aristotle.

4. Any Aristotle you read will be good for you. Maybe read the Ethics first, since it's not so hard and might get you used to thinking in his groove. But you need to read the Metaphysics. It will be very hard and confusing, but you'll start to understand Plato better and also start to understand reality better. I promise.

5. It's time for something different. The Greeks are an indispensable starting point, but you need to move on. You're not trying to become a scholar or a historian, after all. Greek philosophy is the foundation upon which good metaphysics is built, but it remains the foundation. Now, Aquinas. What I recommend is not one of the many decent Thomistic introductions to Thomistic thought, but this book, which is an anthology of texts from all over Aquinas, arranged systematically. I read this book over Christmas break of my freshman year in college, and it blew my mind. All at once the world seemed to make sense. This is what it feels like to move from aporiai to having answers. For all our complaints about "Thomism" here on The Smithy, Aquinas' metaphysics is a beautiful thing. It's also the easiest to learn of all the scholastic metaphysics. This modest 100-page book will be more difficult than many longer modern introductions, but it's all meat, not milk. Do you want to be a little wimpy-mind, or do you want to be STRONG?

Interlude. Think about that last question. If you want to be a little wimpy-mind but still think about philosophy, you have many options. There are lots of ways to "transcend" western metaphysics and feel superior about it without having to do any more hard thinking than what you've done so far. If you want to stay weak but imagine that you're strong, I suggest Nietzsche as your best option. If you want to BE strong, recognize that the hard work starts now.

6. Read Aquinas' Commentary on Aristotle's Metaphysics . This, more than any other book that I know of in English, will give you the metaphysical habit that Owens mentioned in my quote at the top. As far as I'm concerned it's the best metaphysics textbook ever written, bar none. I've read through the whole thing three times, twice in English and once in Latin. I'll read it again. This is not a short or an easy book. However, the difficulties you had in reading through Aristotle the first time will start to clarify themselves. You'll finally start to get a handle on what you've been doing the whole time. You'll start to realize that metaphysical knowledge is possible, not merely questioning and confusion; even if at first it seems like the only thing uou can really be sure about is the principle of non-contradiction. Seriously, this book is a masterpiece and you should read it right now. Take it slow and let it really sink in.

7. Hume roused Kant from his dogmatic slumbers. When you read Plato, then Aristotle, then Aquinas, you felt that you were truly awake for the first time. Dicker around with Thomism as much as you like but eventually you need to realize that you've only reached the stage of lucid dreaming. Thomistic clarity is much better than, say, Cartesian clarity, but it is to a certain extent still an illusion. The Thomist synthesis is brilliant. It's better than any modern philosophy. But it is, alas, in some ways superficial and the shiny veneer of Aquinas' pedagogy papers over some serious cracks. To a certain extent the masonry in his marvelous cathedral of thought is trompe l'oeil where the marble and brick should be. It's not easy to see this at first and the longer you get used to living in the cathedral and admiring the buttresses and stained glass windows the less you want to notice. But it's time for a kick in the teeth. Suck it up and get hold of Scotus' Questions on the Metaphysics of Aristotle. Try to read it. I dare you. This version of part of it will help to some extent, but not as much as you'd like. I'm warning you, this book is not like Aquinas' commentary. Like Aquinas', it's one of the greatest books on metaphysics ever written. Unlike Aquinas', it is fiendishly, fiendishly difficult and, if you really think through it, will destroy your comfortable certainty that you've achieved a basic grasp on metaphysical issues, not through a rejection of the platonic and aristotelian and scholastic foundations you've built up, but from inside them. Figuring out what Scotus thinks is hard; figuring out if he right is harder. There should be many points at which you feel like you're back in the Apology, realizing that all you know is that you know nothing: with the consolation that now at least you have a better idea of what you don't know.

But. If you've really worked through Scotus' book, you will probably no longer be a comfortable naive Thomist (though of course you might remain a Thomist of some sort); you might not be a Scotist either; nobody could call you a straightforward platonist or aristotelian; but I guarantee that by now you've started to be a metaphysician.