Thursday, September 29, 2011

Narrative, Philosophy, and the History of Philosophy

The discussion on Faber's previous post has become quite interesting. I began another comment but it grew so gargantuan that I'm putting it here in a new post.

Commenter Anonymous writes:

As graduate student in political theory who has just begun following this site, I find myself nonplussed by the denigration of narrative here. To complain about its prevalence in pomo won't just do; it's NOT a venture solely confined to the work of Continental philosophers practicing genealogy, but a core part of the philosophical discipline. . . . So then if you want to vindicate Scotus and set the record straight, more than a corrective for each problematical narrative is needed: an alternative one needs to be advanced. Merely clarifying his thought each time it is maligned is insufficient. How did Scotus differ from Aquinas? How did this influence Ockham? What was it about the legacy of scholasticism that lead to its abandonment by the early moderns? What had these moderns internalized from it (e.g. nominalism/conceptualism, voluntarism, etc.)? How did these intellectual developments interplay with political and social developments (e.g. the rise of science, emerging commercialism, power struggles between Church and state, etc.)? Of course you cannot answer all of the questions given the focus of your work--though I would think with a philosopher and a historian on this sight, insight could be gleamed into at least one of them, if not a full answer--but that doesn't render these questions unimportant. Rather, these questions draw people toward these moments and thinkers. The exposure to the material from a historical vantage has lead me to consider Aquinas' work on his own terms, of which I have begun reading. Similarly, I plan to eventually read many of the other scholastics as well (after I learn Latin). The point is that if you want people to seriously consider scholastics and if you unfortunately don't care about historical narrative, then use narrative as a foil to draw them into reconsidering scholastic thought on its own terms. Otherwise, most people, as I once did, will look at your work and think of it as a morbid preoccupation with extinct theories, rather than high philosophy unparalleled by anything in the last five hundred years.

Now in a way this is all fair enough. I have a couple of points to make in response. First, I don't at all insist that narrative per se is simply bad. Indeed, narrative in the sense of the reduction of disparate events to an order which can be grasped as a whole is both salutary and necessary. What I object to is a historical narrative that prefers its plot to respecting or even bothering to identify the relevant facts.

A good narrative in the history of philosophy is something like Copleston's technique: "After A we will look at B. B's positions and arguments are x and y. They are related to A's in this way: here's how they are alike and here's how they differ. I think A's arguments are better for these reasons. B's arguments were adapted by C in this way. C used B's insights to improve on A while avoiding the weaknesses in B."

I also respect the method John Deely used in his history of medieval philosophy which I read recently, in which he uses the doctrine of signs as his Ariadne's thread to guide the reader through the period and providing a unifying factor to the "Latin Age" between Augustine and John of St Thomas as opposed to ancient and modern thought. I find this sort of technique reductive and it obviously leaves an enormous amount out, but at the same time it's a valid approach to finding an intelligibility in the thicket.

Here's a bad narrative: "Plato and Aristotle were real philosophers, the Stoics were sort of dumb but had some good ideas, the neoplatonists succumbed to the growing religious atmosphere of late antiquity, then the fundies took over. They hated reason and produced a dark age of a thousand years. Nothing interesting happened. Then Descartes was a light shining out of the darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not, for they loved their angels on pinheads and their Inquisition and Crusades too much. Then real philosophy started. No, I haven't read any of the books from that millenium, but I certainly have heard of one or two."

Here's another bad narrative: "Medieval philosophy was a golden age of the synthesis of faith and reason in which man's natural and spiritual sides reached a harmony and equilibrium. It's a marvelous gothic arch leading up to the point of Thomism, the supreme achievement of human rationality. The five ways are the best things anyone has ever said about anything, they're right at the tip of the arch. After that point the arch goes back down, sinking into decadence, modernity, and heresy. The golden age thus lasted about twenty-five years, though it was recaptured occasionally by the better of Thomas' commentators. No, I haven't read any of Thomas' non-Dominican successors, but I've certainly read Anselm and have glanced at a few early 20th-century manuals."

The problem with the second two is not that they are narratives, although they do make for more gripping stories than the first two. The problem with them is that they are a) false, and b) produced with little or no concern with actually happened in the time whose story they purport to tell. What happened in philosophy in a given period is what people thought in that period, and unless you grasp that first your story is BS.

This leads me to my second point, which is that the wrong kinds of narrative lead to the instrumentalization of philosophy, which destroys it. All the questions Anonymous brings up are valid questions. But they're not the questions that Scotus deals with in his works. If your primary concern is how "intellectual developments interplay with political and social developments (e.g. the rise of science, emerging commercialism, power struggles between Church and state, etc.)", then, frankly, Scotus isn't for you. Because Scotus doesn't talk about and doesn't care about these things. When I finish writing this post I'm going to go read a 30-40 page question on the ontological status of relations. I may or may not write a blog post on it. This is because I'm interested in relations as a part of metaphysics, and so is Scotus, who has profound and interesting things to say on the matter. But if you don't care about metaphysics for its own sake, what are the chances you're going to slog through the 1,200 pages of the Metaphysics questions or the thousands of pages of the Ordinatio with a keen enough attention and interest to figure out what Scotus cares about and how he argues for his positions? Very, very low.

The Reformation as a historical event is very interesting, and enormously complicated, and had millions of causes of various kinds which can be adduced to explain one factor or another. There are of course political and economic and theological and demographic and linguistic and other elements to how it played out. But what Scotus is interested in is metaphysics, and using metaphysics to explicate the doctrines of the Catholic faith. That's pretty much it. (Yes, I'm being reductive myself here.) If you don't approach Scotus with that in mind first of all, you're going to misunderstand him. Because of what he's doing, the proper way to read him is to ask: What is he saying? Why does he think this? What is this argument? Is this argument any good? A narrative which doesn't do this first, as a way of establishing its ground, will fail to have any relationship to Scotus as he actually lived and thought. Now perhaps there is a way that Scotus' dense and complex and subtle web of thought could be related in a meaningful way to the nexus of causality of the Reformation. But it seems that most of the people who are willing to actually study him are less interested in that than in understanding the metaphysics of the trinity or the incarnation, i.e. the things Scotus himself was interested in.

So let's look at some of Anonymous' questions. "How did Scotus differ from Aquinas?" This question can largely be answered, and we've said a great deal about it on this blog. But it's necessary first to know what Aquinas said and what Scotus said, but also to know a lot of other things. Until fairly recently Scotus was systematically misread because ever reader forced him into a false dialogue with Aquinas, neglecting the fact that much of the time Scotus is unconcerned with Thomas and his interlocutors were other scholastics. The Thomocentric narratives that required all scholastic discourse to revolve around the concerns of the Common Doctor produced endless misconstrual of Scotus' thoughts and their motivations. You can't read Scotus by asking, first, "Is Scotus enough of a Thomist to be orthodox?" You have to ask, "What is the principle of individuation? Is this account of the divine ideas sensible? Do we really need an intermediate distinction between the real and the rational?"

"How did this influence Ockham?" It's still hard to say. We can relate much of Scotus to Ockham, but Ockham is also in dialogue with a lot of lesser-known figures. But, more importantly (to me), how many people wanting to know just what made Ockham into such a villain have actually read enough Ockham to figure out what he was doing? Do they even care? Why do they care so much about the etiology of something they're not really interested in? Moreover nebulous talk about "influence" is suspect to me. Everyone is influenced by everything they read and hear; Scotus was the biggest genius just before Ockham, so of course Ockham was influenced by him. Of course he addresses Scotus' arguments and distinctions, accepting or rejecting them in turn. But Ockham's nominalism was caused by Ockham's thoughts, and those are what have to be addressed. Scotus is responsible for them only insofar as Ockham thought what Scotus thought and because he got it from Scotus, and in order to evaluate this we have to understand what Ockham thought and what Scotus thought and compare - which means, again, caring about the actual issues they discussed prior to polishing our narrative. If we do this we will see that everything his enemies hate about Ockham is related to Scotus just insofar as Ockham came up with it by rejecting Scotus' most distinctive thoughts, which (granted) wouldn't have been possible without Scotus as a foil.

"What was it about the legacy of scholasticism that lead to its abandonment by the early moderns?" This one is pretty easy, I think. Scholasticism produced works and methods which became extremely complex and difficult and voluminous, to the extent that its tradition seemed frustrating and boring and pointless to those who did not share its driving concerns. So instead of arguing with it they mocked it and ditched it. Yes, there are political and cultural and ecclesiological factors, and yes, to the historian these are worth pursuing, but for us I think they are not germane. For instance, the resistance of many late scholastics to the new counter-Aristotelian physics, which set so many people against them, is in my opinion a relevant but not essential point.

But to return to the main issue. For a philosopher history is a subordinate science, to be instrumentalized in the search for wisdom, while philosophy itself exists for its own sake (in the natural order). People who value philosophy primarily (rather than subalternately) for its capacity to illumine history are, in the philosopher's opinion, misguided. People who neglect, ignore, or distort philosophical arguments, and thus the facts about the history of philosophy, for the sake of a broader (even if otherwise well-intentioned) historical narrative are pernicious and deadly to philosophy. If a non-philosopher wants to investigate the effect of a philosophical idea on historical events, well and good; although this is not the correct disposition towards philosophy simpliciter it is permissible secundum quid insofar as the historian's profession is also licit. But in order to be even a good historian, he must at this point - even if only temporarily - stop caring about history as much as he cares about philosophy, and become at least enough of a philosopher to understand the ideas and arguments in themselves, not as historical facts but as approaches to ahistorical truth, before applying them to his narrative.

In the same thread Commenter Mark writes,

I don't see how history of philosophy is itself (as history) necessary to doing philosophy. Can't someone be a philosopher without knowing much of anything about the history of philosophy?

My answer is that it it is possible to be a philosopher without knowing the history of philosophy, but it is not possible to be a good philosopher. The reasons are the same as those outlined in an early chapter of Aquinas' Summa contra gentiles: although philosophical truths are those which can be known through reason and common experience alone, the life of any given man is too short and his intelligence too weak to discover all naturally-knowable truths himself. The progress of human wisdom then must be cumulative. But since philosophical knowledge is not a collection of facts that can be simply learned, but a body of truths which must be thought through and intuited through insight and argumentation, every philosopher who wishes to progress beyond the most rudimentary stages has to recapitulate the history of philosophy in his own mind, by thinking through the thoughts of his predecessors.

If this post isn't long enough, here are some past posts on these and related topics, handily collected:

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Robert Barron on Univocity and Voluntarism

Fr. Robert Barron recently made the following comment on this blog post, in the comments of which there was some discussion of the link between univocity and voluntarism in Scotus.

I would like to respond to the charge that I “erred” in linking Scotus’s voluntarism to his univocal conception of being. There is indeed a strong connection between the two. Once God is construed as one being, however supreme, among many, then the metaphysical links that tie creatures to God are severed and therefore the relation between us and God is established primarily through will. To see the details of the argument, I’d recommend my book The Priority of Christ, but that’s the very real connection between voluntarism and a univocal conception of being.

Now, I have written on fr. Barron before, but since he is so influential in popular catholicsm I think his views need to be addressed again since it is clear he will continue to misrepresent Scotus' views by relying on postmodernist jargon that avoids dealing with Scotus' arguments. To see the effects of this view in action, simply read "Nick's" review of Fr. Barron's book mentioned in his quotation at google books.  Nick gives an extremely bad "narrative" (I put this in quotation marks because it is the sort of word these people like, even though it is inherently relativistic and only shows them to be compromised by the very "secular values" they so decry in Scotus), despite his having studied the book directly with the author.

So lets review Fr. Barron's The Priority of Christ, with special attention to the relation between univocity and voluntarism. First, some quotations.

(p.  12-13):

There have in recent years been numerous accounts of the etiology of modernity. Jurgen Habermas, Hans Urs von Balthasar, John Milbank, Colin Gunton, and Louis Dupre, among many others, have offered explanations of the transition from the premodern to the modern. I subscribe to the proposal that liberal modernity can best be seen as an energetic reaction to a particular and problemaitc version of nominalist Christianity. Early modernity saw itself as a salutary response to oppressive and obscurantist strains in Christian culture, but since it was reacting to a corruption of true Christianity, it itself became similarly distorted and exaggerated. As a result the two systems settled into a centuries-long and terribly unproductive warfare. Even when the two attempted a reconciliation (as in all forms of liberal Christianity in the past two centuries), the results were less than satisfactory, precisely because each party was itself a sort of caricature.

The trouble began with Duns Scotus's option for a univocal conception of being in contradistinction to Thomas Aquinas's analogical understanding. For Thomas, God, as the sheer act of to-be itself (ipsum esse subsistens), is that through which all creatures exist. What follows epistemologically from this metaphysical claim is that the meaning of "to-be," in reference to God and creatures, must be analogical, with God as primary analogue and created things as secondary. In accord with this intuitition, Aquinas maintained consistently throughout his career that God is inescapably mysterious to the human intellect, since our frame of reference remains the creaturely mode of existence, which bears only an analogical resemblance to the divine mode of being. We may say that God exists, but we're not quite sure what we mean when we say it; the "cash value" of the claim that God exists is that there is a finally mysterious source of the to-be of finite things.

In an effort to make the to-be of God more immediately intelligibile, Duns Scotus proposed a univocal conception of existence, according to which God and creatures belong to the same basic metaphysical category, the genus of being. Though God is infinite and therefore quantitatively superior to any creature or collectivity of creatures, there is nevertheless no qualitative difference, in the metaphysical sense, bewteen the supreme being, God, and finite beings. Whereas Aquinas insisted that God is categorizable in no genus whatsover, Scotus held that God and creatures do belong together to a logical category, that in a real sense, transcends and includes them. The implications of this shift are enormous and, to my mind, almost entirely negative. If the analogical conception of being is rejected, creatures are no longer seen as participating in the divine to-be; instead, God and creatures are appreciated as existing side by side, as beings of varying types and degrees of intensity. Furthermore, unanchored from their shared participation in God, no longer grounded in a common source, creatures lose their essential connectedness to one another. Isolated and self-contained individuals (God the supreme being and them any creatures) are now what is most basically real

Scotus's intuition was confirmed a generation later by his Franciscan successor William of Occam. Congruent with his nominalism, which denied ontological density to the unifying features of being, Occam held that there is nothing real outside of disconnected individual things (praeter illas partes absolutas nulla res est). As for Scotus so for Occam, God and creatures are set side by side, joined only through a convention of logic that assigns them to the category of "beings". A consequence of this conception is that God and finite things have to be rivals, since their individualities are contrastive and mutually exclusive. Just as a chair is itself precisely in the measure that it is no other creaturely thing, so God is himself only inasmuch as he stands over and against the world he has made, and vice versa. Whereas in Aquinas's participation metaphysics the created universe is constituted by its rapport with God, on Occam's reading it must realize itself through disassociation from a competitive supreme being. A further concomitant of this indivdualistic ontology is voluntarism. Since the metaphysically dense and natural link between God and creatures has been attenuated, any connection betwen the divine and the nondivine has to be through will. God's relation with his rational creatures is therefore legalistic and arbitrary. This understanding of divine power influenced Occam's conception of the human will as well. Finite freedom is, for him, absolute spontaneity, an action prorpted by nothing either interior or exterior to the subject. Accordingly, human power is a distant mirror of divine power: both are self-contained, capricious, absolute, and finally irrational. The most obvious practical consquence of this nominalist and voluntarist metaphysics is that divine and human freedom find themselves pitted against one another, God imposing himself arbitrarily on a necessarily reluctant and resentful humanity.

Both Martin Luther and John Calvin were formed according to the principales of late-medieval nominalism ...

[p. 193 repeats basically the same regarding univocity. Note that here the category that God and creatures allegedly share is a metaphysical one]

[p. 194]

"God" becomes but the collectivity of creatures considered as a totality. In this sense, modern pantheism is the logical fulfillment of Scotus' adoption of a univocal conception of being: God and the world can be spoken of univocally because there is finally no difference between them

[p. 202, following a quote from William James]

How like Scotus's claim that God and creatures are both beings, though the former is infinite and the latter finite, one the biggest part, the other smaller parts. God, in sum, is a being among others, capable of influencing lower relaitites without comporomising them, exisiting in the same universe as they and subject to the same metaphysical constraints.

Summary of Barron's position:
1. There are bad things that happened in the past that influence the present.
2. There is a popular narrative held by popular theologians that lays the blame for the clash of Christianity and modernity at Scotus' door.

Barron's statement of Scotus' position:

1. Scotus proposed a univocal conception of existence.
2. He did this to make God more intelligible.
3. On Scotus' view, God and creatures share the same metaphysical category, the genus of being.
4. God is infinite and quantitatively superior to creatures, but there is no qualitative difference between God and creatures "in the metaphysical sense".
5. Scotus held that God and creatures are contained in a logical category that transcends them.

Barrons's view of the consequences of Scotus' position:

1. If the analogical world-view is rejected, creatures no longer are seen as participating in the divine "to-be".
2. God and creatures are "appreciated" side by side, as beings among beings, differing only by degrees and intensity.
3. Once participation is gone, creatures are no longer connected to each other.
4. The "most basically real" becomes isolated and self-contained individuals.
5. As a result of their being individuals, God and creatures somehow become rivals.
6. Voluntarism: "Since the metaphysically dense and natural link between God and creatures has been attenuated, any connection betwen the divine and the nondivine has to be through will".  I'm not sure, but this "link" must be participation.
7. A laundry list of the usual alleged bad effects of voluntarism: capriciousness, problems with freedom, law, etc.

Contra Robert Barron:

Some general observations:

*Fr. Barron cites only pomo theologians, no primary sources; so in the end it is an argument from authority.
*Scotus, Aquinas, and Ockham aren't interested in "intuitions" but arguments.
*I'm not sure, but fr. Barron might be assuming that all the scholastics had a common, shared view on existence. But this is not the case, for Aquinas' views were quite idiosyncratic and controversial at the time.  Remember Scotus' comment from Ord. IV: "I know not that fiction that states that essence and existence are really distinct" or somesuch.
*For much of what I will say I rely on my previous posts in the fundamenta series wherein I quote and explain Scotus' views on univocity.

Against Barron's statement of Scotus' position:

(1). False. Scotus proposed a univocal concept of being, a concept which does not correspond to any external, extramental reality. As Richard Cross likes to say, it is a "vicious abstraction". See the fundamenta posts for the arguments that Scotus uses to establish this. He didn't just propose it, he thought he had arguments to support it.

(2). False.  Scotus did it to ensure that the arguments that theologians make about God don't commit the fallacy of equivocation. Scotus is quite up front about this in Ord. I d. 3.

(3.) False. Scotus says directly the opposite in Ord. I d. 8 q. 3 (ed. Vat. IV, ca. p. 200). A metaphysical category would be a real extramental category (Barron can't make up his mind whether God and creatures share a metaphysical or logical category).  But everyone since Aristotle agreed that being can't be a genus. Scotus also agreed with this.  Scotus thinks that if being were a genus that contained God and creatures divine simplicity would be compromised because God there would be a reality for the genus (being) and another reality for the specific difference (divine).

(4.) This one I don't understand. I suppose infinity was often thought of in quantitative terms, but in Scotus it is an intrinsic mode of the divine essence and he conceives of it (ie. infinity qua intrinsic mode) on the model of quality, which admits of degrees. But to say that in the metaphysical sense there is no qualitative difference between God and creatures is simply false.

(5). False. Scotus denies that God and creatures are both contained in a category. See above (1) and (3).

So there you have it. All of Fr. Barron's statements about Scotus' actual position are false.  Consequences are a nasty business, as they basically amount to character assassination by blaming Scotus for Ockham.  But we could just as easily blame Aquinas for Scotus, and therefore also for Ockham.  I will comment on some of the consequences.

Against Barron's "Consequences"

(1). Scotus never rejected analogy. As one can read in the fundamenta post on univocity, Scotus argues for a concept that is "not only analogical but univocal". So he accepts analogical concepts as well as univocal concepts. Also, Scotus never rejects participation.  And in any case, analogy is a doctrine about terms, while participation is a metaphysical doctrine. So while they may be connected, I don't think they are necessarily so.

(2). I don't know what "appreciated" means here. But yes, Scotus thinks God and creatures differ by degrees: infinite ones.

(3.) Scotus doesn't deny participation. Also, participation is in God, not in other creatures. Creatures are connected only insofar as they share the same form. I suppose one could say humans participate in the species-form of humanity.

(4). Um, but that's true. I don't know about the "isolated" part, but everything enjoying actual, extramental existence presumably is an individual (I'm not a platonist, I confess).

(5) Nonsense.

(6) This is what Fr. Barron's blog post that I quoted above was about. But since Barron already thinks that univocity makes God just a being among beings, it seems more plausible that we would have much greater access to and knowledge of God, and so we wouldn't have to rely purely on his will to know what to do.  But if this won't do, note that the claim seems to be about the loss of participation.  But I already pointed out, Scotus doesn't deny participation, nor does he deny analogy.

Lee Faber's prescription for dealing with modern chaos in theology: develop a post-theological Christian theology. We can do this by
(1)  getting rid of inherently relativized terms such as "culture","value", "narrative", "genealogy", and so on, and talk about arguments.
(2) Reading primary sources.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Recent Publications on Petrus Thomae

an article:

G.R. Smith, "Bibliotheca Manuscripta Petri Thomae," in Bulletin de philosophie medievale 52 (2010), 161-200.

an edition:

Pere Tomas, Tractatus Brevis de Modis Distinctionum, ed. with English and Catalan translations by Cecilia Lopez and Josep Batalla with an introduction by Claus Andersen. Barcelona 2011.

For this edition, see the homepage for the series Bibliotheca Philosophorum Medii Aevi Cataloniae.

The edition is of what Smith, above, calls the "A" redaction of Peter Thomae's treatise. The "B" redaction was edited some time ago by E. Bos.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Recent Posts on Scotus

The Lex christianorum blog has recently had a series of posts on various aspects of Scotus' thought, mostly ethics.  Be sure to check them out.

On the formal distinction
Scotus the proto-existentialist
Synchronic contingency
Natural law

There are others as well.


The will, free and natural
Primacy of the will
On Praxis

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

More on the Duns Scotus Movie

Here.  Apparently Ignatius press will start selling the film in October.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Buridan contra Fundamentalism and Postmodernism

The meaning of a word has never obliged us [to construe words only in their proper senses, and to concede or deny propositions only according to what is required by their proper senses]. On the contrary, sometimes we must construe words their proper senses, and sometimes in improper senses, as in parabolic or ironic [expressions], or in other ways even more removed from the proper senses. For example, if we read the books of learned authors such as Aristotle or Porphyry, we must construe their words according to the senses those authors have imposed upon them, even if these are improper senses. And so we must concede that, strictly speaking, those words are true because they are true as construed in those senses. But even so, we must say that they have been imposed in such senses, and that if they had been imposed in their proper senses, they would be false. And if people reading the books of learned authors were to construe their words differently than they believe them to have been imposed by their authors, they would be insolent and cantankerous, and unworthy to study or read the books of the philosophers. In the same way, we must say that every word of the Bible and the Gospels is strictly speaking true, and we must construe these words in the senses in which they have been imposed and according to which they are true. And those who do otherwise are mistaken, as well as being blasphemers, or perhaps even heretics. But even so, we can correctly state in connection with many of these words that they are false, if imposed and construed in their proper senses.

The passage is from Buridan's Questions on Porphyry's Isagoge, and the translation is lightly adapted from Jack Zupko's book John Buridan (pages 18-19), which I intend to mine for my next post as well. I find the passage noteworthy for two reasons. First, it shows that the right relationship between doctrinal or biblical formulations and scientific was not worked out under pressure of advancing modernity and the onslaught of independent empirical science, but by philosophy when science was still in its nascent stages and both philosophy and science were flourishing under the purview of the undivided Catholic university. The whole Galileo issue could have been resolved easily by reference to Buridan here (or one might add to any number of other doctors); the reasons it wasn't were cultural, political, and personal, rather than because the Catholic Church was stuck in "dark ages" thinking. The thinking of the high middle ages was in general much more sane, moderate, and temperate than most of that emanating from the post-Reformation battles.

The second thing that strikes me about this passage is its implicit condemnation of much of modern and postmodern academia, of which one besetting sin is its fascination with mining old texts in the service of contemporary "relevance." We can't read an old book properly unless we care about the same things its author cared about, but with our presentist solipsism, narrow-mindedness, and progressive triumphalism, scholars (as much as Hollywood screenwriters) are constantly tempted to read them primarily in the light of our own political, cultural, or ideological concerns. The other day I reread Tolkien's classic lecture Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, which makes the same point, namely that Old English scholars had up until his day used the poem as a data mine for their own interests, without caring about what the poet cared about. The result was that the poem was devalued as scholars pined after the poems they wished had been written instead. Buridan's passage reminds me that you're not going to read Beowulf correctly if you think monsters are stupid and a waste of time, no matter how much you're interested in what it tells you about the Ingeld legend, Scyld Sheafing, or Geatish architecture. And it seems to me that classicists, medievalists, philosophers, scholars of all stripes fall prey to this data-mining temptation across the board.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Henry of Ghent on Aquinas and Existence

For Thomists the "real distinction" between essence and existence is a bedrock principle of metaphysics. Often (e.g. Jacques Maritain in Preface to Metaphysics et al.) a Thomist will speak as though the real distinction is one of the first and most obvious metaphysical truths that can be known. It's one of the principal "Thomistic Theses" and St Thomas uses it constantly, for instance here, in Summa Theologiae I.104.1 (For the Latin see the Logic Museum):

Therefore as the becoming of a thing cannot continue when that action of the agent ceases which causes the "becoming" of the effect: so neither can the "being" of a thing continue after that action of the agent has ceased, which is the cause of the effect not only in "becoming" but also in "being." This is why hot water retains heat after the cessation of the fire's action; while, on the contrary, the air does not continue to be lit up, even for a moment, when the sun ceases to act upon it, because water is a matter susceptive of the fire's heat in the same way as it exists in the fire. Wherefore if it were to be reduced to the perfect form of fire, it would retain that form always; whereas if it has the form of fire imperfectly and inchoately, the heat will remain for a time only, by reason of the imperfect participation of the principle of heat. On the other hand, air is not of such a nature as to receive light in the same way as it exists in the sun, which is the principle of light. Therefore, since it has not root in the air, the light ceases with the action of the sun.

Now every creature may be compared to God, as the air is to the sun which enlightens it. For as the sun possesses light by its nature, and as the air is enlightened by sharing the sun's nature; so God alone is Being in virtue of His own Essence, since His Essence is His existence; whereas every creature has being by participation, so that its essence is not its existence. Therefore, as Augustine says (Gen. ad lit. iv, 12): "If the ruling power of God were withdrawn from His creatures, their nature would at once cease, and all nature would collapse." In the same work (Gen. ad lit. viii, 12) he says: "As the air becomes light by the presence of the sun, so is man enlightened by the presence of God, and in His absence returns at once to darkness."

Henry of Ghent paraphrases this passage in his Quodlibet I q.9, on whether a creature's essence is its being (my translation):

Those who say that in creatures the essence of a creature is one thing and its being another thing think that a creature participates in being. Whence they say that creatures are related to God as air to the sun illuminating it, for as the sun which shines by its nature, so that it is nothing other than light itself, so God has being through his nature and essence, for he is nothing other than being. And as air is of itself obscure, and of its nature is not altogether a participant in light unless it be illumined by the sun, participating through this light from the sun, so a creature of itself and of its essence does not have the character of being, but is in the darkness of nonentity, unless it be lightened by God and the being in which it participates be given to it.

After noting a different sense in which we might understand "participation", Henry goes on:

The first way of understanding the participation of a creature in being is mistaken; it is not an understanding but a phantastical imagination. For the essence of a creature should not be imagined like the air indifferent to obscurity and luminosity, but like a certain ray in itself apt to subsist, produced by the sun, not by the necessity of nature but by free will. Whence, if the sun by free will could produce a subsistent ray, that ray, inasmuch as its own nature is concerned, would be indifferent to being and non-being, and of itself would be a certain kind of non-being.

Henry goes on to explain the reason for the correction of St Thomas' image. In the image of the air being illumined by the sun the nature of the air is something different from the nature of the light or its illumination, whereas in a luminous body and the ray of light the nature of light is the same, though one light is dependent on and participates in the other. The ray which reaches our eye is not the same as the sun but is its similitude, as the creature is the similitude of God - but the air is not the similitude of the sun at all. (This seems to me to agree with the way Thomas elsewhere characterizes the essence of creatures as modes of imitability of the divine essence.) Thomas' image of the air's illumination is an image of one sort of thing being poured into another sort of thing to make it actual in a certain way, but for Henry (and, I might add, the Franciscan tradition in general along with him) existence can't be understood as a different sort of thing than the existing nature and added to it in order that it can be.

Of course, whether Henry's own account of the relation of essence and existence in terms of his intentional distinction is ultimately successful is another matter.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Self-Identity, Infinite Regress

Identity is unity or union; either because the things which are said to be the same are plural in their being, and yet are called the same insofar as they agree in some one factor; or because they are one in their being, but the intellect treats them as though they are plural in order to think a relation. For a relation can only be thought to obtain between two extremes, as when something is said to be the same as itself; for then the intellect treats what is one in reality as though it were two; otherwise it could not designate a relation of something to itself. Wherefore it is clear that if a relation always requires two extremes, and in relations of this sort there are not two extremes in reality but only in the mind, the relation of identity is not a real relation but only a relation of reason . . . for if the relation of identity were some thing besides that which is called the same, that thing which is a relation, since it is the same as itself, for the same reason would have another relation which would be identical with itself, and on to infinity. But it is impossible to go to infinity in things. But in matters of the intellect nothing prohibits it. For when the intellect reflects on its acts it understands that it understands, and it can understand this as well, and so on to infinity.

--St Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Metaphysics, Lib.V, lectio XI, par.912, my translation

A couple of thoughts about this passage. First, it's a good example of the fact that some of the "problems" that modern philosophy finds the most challenging and fascinating, such as the nature of self-identity, are for the classical and scholastic mind non-starters (the converse is also true, of course). In fact this disconnect between what modern thinkers find interesting or worth spilling gallons of ink on and what I find interesting and worth reading and thinking about is part of what makes reading much modern philosophy so difficult for me (it's rather like my reluctance to read contemporary fiction rather than classical and medieval poetry). Not only are modern philosophers frequently preoccupied with issues that to the classical mind seem rooted in silly misunderstandings, but those - to us - misunderstandings also seem to breed contempt for the kinds of thinking that I and the scholastics do find worthwhile. In any case, Aquinas is not alone here in finding nothing mysterious or profound about identity, since it's a mere relation of reason: what's difficult is understanding the being and the essence of a thing, not how that being is the same as itself. But, as I've claimed on this blog before, it seems to me that a lot of the absurdities of modern philosophers stem ultimately from an inability to tell the difference between real being and beings of reason.

A second, related, thought is that Thomas' point here not only makes use of an infinite regress argument, but is important for understanding infinite regress arguments in general. Anyone who's read much of the modern literature on arguments for the existence of God will know that the denial of the impossibility of an infinite regress is a favorite way for moderns to wiggle out of them. St Thomas' comments suggest that the reason an infinite regress, so obviously absurd to the scholastics, is unproblematic to the moderns, is (again) because moderns are not used to carefully distinguishing between real relations and relations of reason. And this is unsurprising, given that so much modern philosophy (and "science"), being born of Cartesian mathematicism, has been accustomed to axiomatically assuming that mathematical techniques are paradigmatic for philosophical (and "scientific") knowledge. But mathematical objects are indifferently divided between purified (i.e. denuded of what the Thomists always call material conditions) formal abstractions from experience and mere relations of reason, which happily sit on the number line together. Mathematics itself doesn't care about the distinction, but metaphysics must.

I believe this thought is suggested by Thomas here but it jumped out at me because it reminded me of a passage in John Deely's recent Medieval Philosophy Redefined, which I read a couple of months ago (the following is from page 268):

This contrast between relations in the physical order which depend upon actual characteristics of actual individuals (upon "subjective accidents of substances" in Aristotle's terms) and relations in the objective order which are not tied to actual subjective characteristics but may be founded upon whatever other relations happen to exist within a given cognition was the reason why Aristotle, and the Latin logicians after him, rejected arguments which led to an infinite regress. An infinite regress is actually possible only in the mind, because only in the mind can relations be founded upon relations. So any argument that involves an actual infinite regress, to the extent that it involves one, is an argument that has lost touch with the order of physical being as something to be explained through proper causes. For proper causes are found only within the physical interactions of finite substances, and these, as finite, are always determinate within the order of moved movers. . . .

Deely gives a further reference to his book The Human Use of Signs, which I have not read. In any case it's interesting to note that modern thinkers so often take the rejection of infinite regress as an arbitrary ad hoc principle whose only purpose is to force one to accept a First Cause, when the scholastics themselves not only see it as completely necessary and self-evident but also use it constantly in a host of nontheological contexts.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Grave Poems

There's a grave for March,
one for Gwythur,
another for Gwgawn Redsword...

The grave of Arthur is a mystery.

From "Grave Poems" in the Black Book of Carmarthen (trans. M. Pennar, p.104).