Friday, December 30, 2011

Marilyn Adams on History of Philosophy

From the Dewey lecture, "God and Evil among the Philosophers", in the APA proceedings and Addresses vol. 85 issue 2. Emphases are in the original

Certainly, medieval scholastics were analytic philosophers: they were distinction-drawers and argument-inventers par excellence. But they were not only generalists (ranging over all of the major sub-fields of philosophy) in the way Pike recommended; they were systematic philosophers. To get a grip on what they were saying about omniscience or omnipotence or perfect goodness required a wider understanding of their metaphysics and epistemology, their conceptions of agency and normative grounds, and of how they fitted these together.

Working on my Ockham book, I became convinced that their theological disagreements were rooted in philosophical differences, which were at bottom contentious. Most of their arguments for their own and against their opponent's positions involved premises to which the other would not consent. Although they were as interested as Pike was in analyzing whether Divine foreknowledge is incompatible with free will, they did not see themselves engaged in a meta-discipline, but in theory construction. They were beginning with doctrinal givens and philosophical commitments and working in different ways to integrate these into a philosophically coherent system. Their debates forced refinements in their own theories. Together they furnished detailed maps of theoretical alternatives.

Throughout my studies of medieval philosophical theology, I have remained a metaphysical realist about philosophical claims: there is such a thing as Reality with a capital "R" and well-formed theories either do or do not correspond with it. But refereeing their philosophical disputes, I became a sceptical realist, holding that it is impossible for us to prove in a  way convincing to every rational person, which theory is true and which false. The philosophical task ought to concentrate on theoretical development and understanding.

It also struck me that scholastic method was an antidote for dogmatism. True, there were theological givens that medieval scholastics had to number among the phenomena to be saved. But questioning and disputing required each to get inside the other's theory enough to understand its strengths and weaknesses, the better to appreciate the plusses and minuses of their own. Such exercises foster intellectual flexibility and imagination that is able to do comparative anatomy and cost-benefit analyses on philosophical competitors and to recognize that the same problem can be solved in different ways. When, over the years, colleagues and graduate students have murmured that history of philosophy isn't really philosophy, my contrary reply has become that history of philosophy is a way of doing philosophy and wholesome medicine against the dogmatism that sometimes plagues our field.

In my generation, we by and large changed the way history of philosophy is done by philosophers trained in the analytic tradition. There is a spectrum of practice. Some do philology and edit texts. More spend time on the institutional settings and wider intellectual milieu in which past philosophers worked. There are those who focus more on the interpretive and philosophical problems found in the texts themselves, while others move on from this to build bridges to contemporary thought. All of these are important. Whatever one's specialty, one has to learn from them all. My own work on Ockham benefitted enormously from the generosity of the editorial team at the Franciscan Institute, where critical texts of Ockham's works, discoveries and perspectives, and hospitality were shared. Anachronism and mis-readings are to some extent inevitable. My own advice is to resist attempts to take the weirdness out of great past philosophers. Letting them be as weird as they are is the way to guarantee that we learn something that we didn't know before.

Anglo-American analytic philosophy borrowed its sense of the philosophical canon from Oxbridge: ancient and modern classical, at least Plato and Aristotle, at least Descartes, maybe Leibniz, certainly Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. During the seventies and eighties, Kant was re-entering the mainstream. Medieval philosophy has been central to the canon of philosophy in Roman Catholic schools since 1880 when Pope Leo XIII declared Aquinas the patron of the Catholic schools. Fortunately for me, a tradition of covering medieval philosophy had begun at UCLA when Ernest Moody, the famous pioneer in the study of medieval logic, joined the philosophy faculty in the late fifties and helped launch the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. In leading analytic graduate departments, however, medievalists were and still are rare.

My generation failed to secure a place for medieval philosophy within the canon of analytic philosophy, but not for want of trying. In the late seventies, the quality of medieval sessions at the APA had sunk so low, that we specialists formed the Society for Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy, which has since mounted its own double sessions (one on the Latin west and the other on Jewish and Arabic philosophy) at divisional meetings. This was good advertising: the Middle Ages was too a period during which real philosophy was done! The Society also built bridges between secular non-catholic and Roman Catholic schools and widened the circle around which work was shared. These were significant fruits. Certainly, I have learned a lot about Aquinas from Catholic Neo-Thomists, who have spent their adult lives steeping themselves in his works. Over the course of my career, more and more works have been edited and translated with the result that most professionals now know: Augustine and Aquinas were not the only philosophers between Aristotle and Descartes! But medieval philosophy is every bit as technical as contemporary metaphysics is. I suspect many think it would be too much trouble to master it. More's the pity, because medieval philosophy is full of distinctive insights and theories in metaphysics, ethics, philosophy of language, and philosophical theology, overall a  fascinating diet of contrasting ideas.

Analytic Philosophy Reconceived: Studying medieval philosophy not only acquainted me with content to analyze; it gradually brought about an imitative shift in my own method. Medieval philosophical theologians were not practicing a meta-discipline; they were involved in theory-construction. By the early to mid-seventies, however, analytic philosophy was recovering its sense of vocation to theorize as well. Hilary Putnam revived talk of natural kinds. Saul Kripke made de re necessities and mind-body dualism respectable. David Lewis' clear and penetrating discussions lent further credibility to the enterprise of metaphysics. Philosophy of mind went inter-disciplinary with the rise of cognitive psychology, and diversified with many and various materialist theories of the mind. Philosophy of language forged ties with linguistics. Enriched conceptual machinery from the present and retrievals from the past made it increasingly natural for me to see the project of philosophy of religion in terms of theory-construction, of articulating theological claims using philosophical conceptuality, of arguing for them--at least in part--on philosophical grounds, of adjusting concepts and theses to achieve theoretical coherence. Such a shift blurs the boundaries between philosophy of religion and philosophical theology. In fact, my own methodological turns were part of a trend that spawned a significant movement: the Society of Christian Philosophers.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Read the Original - If You Can

Translated sources attract errors just as translated scriptures foment heresies, and when the inexperienced attempt their own translations, the results can be even worse.

Although it is off the topic of this blog, the review from which the quotation above was taken may be of interest. It exposes recent amateurish histories of Columbus, Vasco da Gama, and John Cabot--all explorers of the New World. The critique has distinct similarities to critiques found here of amateurish theologians who attempt a coherent historical narrative of "how we got here" without bothering to read the original sources. The problem is similar for both groups: pastry-makers posing as scholars convince others by the tastiness of their concoctions. The author concludes his book review:
I could multiply the dispiriting litany of errors, but it is more interesting to try to understand what drives these writers to parade their inadequacies in the marketplace. It is tempting to blame postmodernism, which has blurred the difference between drivel and truth; or the popularity of television-history, where no standards of veracity or scholarship apply; or the temptations aroused by vulgar sensationalists, who have made fortunes by proclaiming the peripeties of the Holy Grail and "proving" that the medieval Chinese discovered Rhode Island. I suspect, however, that the very virtues of my discipline are responsible for the vices of the writers who abuse it. Because history is the people's discipline, books about it are relatively salable—invitingly so, to indolent cupidity. History's accessibility to non-specialists makes it seem dangerously, delusively easy.

Academic historians tend to welcome recruits from other ranks, like owls nurturing cuckoos, and applaud the intrusions of neophytes with a glee that physicians, say, would never show for faith-healers or snake-oil salesmen. I am afraid it is time for historians to wipe the smiles from our jaws and start biting back. If escape from the poverty of your own imagination is your reason for exploiting the stories history offers, or if you are taking refuge from another discipline in the belief that history is easy, without bothering to do the basic work, you will deserve to fail.

--Felipe Fernández-Armesto

Friday, December 23, 2011

more Latin scans online

Anticipating disappointment with your Christmas gift? Looking for more Latin texts but short on cash? Your family doesn't know the difference between Roger Bacon and Francis Bacon and wants you to bring home the bacon? Look no further for a holiday munus legitimum, provided you have sufficient bandwidth and hard drive capabilities.

Two extremely useful sites for scans of Latin texts, especially those regarding scholastic philosophy  from the Medieval period onward:



For each link, the readers of this blog may notice the works of a number of Scotistic Franciscans and certain Dominicans who opposed them. And Suarez is there to boot.

Stocking stuffers: 

Thursday, December 15, 2011

New Doctor

There is going to be a new Doctor of the Church.  Scotus? No, Hildegard. Huh. Apparently Albert was also declared doctor before being canonized.  So there is no reason why Scotus couldn't be as well.  So why hasn't he?  Oh right, thanks radical orthodoxy, Brad Gregory, Fr. Robert Barron, 99% of Catholic intellectuals.

A Ramble on Ockham, Scholarship, and Other Matters

The other day I mentioned that I'd been reading Armand Maurer's The Philosophy of William of Ockham in the Light of Its Principles. I picked it up last week and have read about a third of it so far.

Now, Maurer's book isn't a replacement for or a competitor to Marilyn Adams' William Ockham, which must be one of the most impressive books on mediaeval philosophy of the last fifty years. At almost 1,400 pages, Adams' book is more than twice the length of Maurer's; it's enormously detailed and enormously comprehensive; it treats a vast range of arguments in precise detail, not only Ockham's, but those of many of Ockham's interlocutors and influences, including Aquinas, Henry of Ghent, Scotus, Chatton, Aureol, etc. Anyone who wants a good introduction to post-Thomistic philosophy and doesn't need it gentle would do well to study Adams' book carefully, together with John Wippel's The Metaphysical Thought of Godfrey of Fontaines: A Study in Late Thirteenth-Century Philosophy. (By the way, as long as I'm throwing out generalized recommendations, if you'd like to round out your education, gentle reader, you should pair these books with John F. Quinn's massive The Historical Constitution of Bonaventure's Philosophy, which is however unfortunately very difficult to obtain. I don't have a copy, but I worked my way through it while writing the old dissertation.)

There are, however, problems with Adams' book. For one thing, did I mention that it's freakin' huge? It takes some real stamina. I'll admit that I didn't finish it. When I was taking Timothy Noone's course on Ockham in grad school I started reading it, but about two-thirds in to the book and the semester, I stopped. It's not just the size, but the size combined with the presentation. Adams writes the kind of anglo-analytic scholastic stuff that I've never found very palatable, medieval arguments presented with a heavy 20th century veneer: lists of numbered propositions and labelled arguments, variables with subscripts and superscripts, occasional modern notation, etc. This is not necessarily bad in principle: Scotus himself used some of these techniques (he and Ockham have good claims to be the first real anglo-analytic philosophers, if the term implies an English-speaking origin, preoccupation with logic, linguistic analysis, a highly compressed (for Scotus) or lucid (for Ockham) style as opposed to a florid or elaborate one (like Henry's or Bonaventure's)), apparently for his own convenience, since it does not make him easier to read. But Adams uses them, presumably, for the convenience of and to appeal to a mid-20th-century mainstream analytic audience. This limits the book in some ways, since for a broader audience, continentals or people like me who are actually more familiar with the scholastic tradition than the 20th-century one, understanding Ockham through Adams sometimes means having to mentally re-translate her modernizations back into something like what Ockham might have really said. It's a little like a Latin trying to read Aristotle as translated and commented on by the Arabs - much better than nothing, for sure, but of course you'd rather have it straight from the Greek. And it's a real question whether the mainstream analytic tradition, not used to thinking in medieval patterns, will care enough about any scholastic thinker to master a book like Adams'. I'm afraid the whole Adams-Stump-Kretzmann-Kenny etc. project of dragging medieval philosophy into the mid-20th-century has been more or less a failure, given the fact that contemporary philosophy has moved on without really assimilating their work, making their books targeted at an audience that is fast ceasing to exist and so dated in a way that many books by the likes of Gilson or Maritain or Yves Simon aren't.

In any case, I was talking about Maurer. His book on Ockham may be no substitute for Adams', but in many ways I'm liking it better. It's extremely well written, very clear and even enjoyable. There's a huge amount of erudition behind it - Maurer has clearly mastered the corpus of Ockham's writings and the secondary literature - but I find the presentation clean, uncluttered, and very intelligible. Maurer's writing in English but he presents Ockham as a medieval, not as a modern anglo-philosopher in disguise. He's light on his feet, which is a pleasing contrast to some other scholars whose projects are similar. I'm thinking for instance of Wippel, whom respect and filial piety (he was one of my teachers and on my dissertation committee) forbid me to criticize too harshly. His (fairly few) books are magisterial and indispensable. But The Metaphysical Thought of Thomas Aquinas: From Finite Being to Uncreated Being is not exactly fun to read.

Maurer is not writing a really comprehensive survey, but as his title indicates, is seeking to understand the various facets of Ockham's thought as reflected in his few basic principles. The first part of the book treats these principles in themselves, with two long chapters on "Logic and Reality" and "Philosophy and Theology" which provide a very good summation of the central stances of Ockhamism. The second and third parts are about the application of these principles to God and Creatures respectively. Maurer presents Ockham without espousing Ockhamism, as he indicates in his introduction, but extremely fairly and straightforwardly, with only the very occasional criticism or caveat.

I'll post a longish excerpt soon, but right now I want to notice something Maurer says in the prefatory blurb right at the beginning of the book:

Martin Heidegger once declared, "Every thinker thinks but one single thought." The original and focal point of Ockham's thought is the singular or individual thing (res singularis), as common nature (natura communis) is the central conception of Scotism and the act of existing (esse) is of Thomism. With Ockham the traditional conjugations of being come to signify the thing itself in its ineluctable unity.

With all due respect to Heidegger, I'm not so sure about this. No doubt some thinkers can be reduced to one single central thought, but I have my doubts about both Aquinas and Scotus. Certainly some modern Thomists have acted as though all of Thomism depended on his doctrine of esse, but there's a lot more to Thomas himself than that. In fact when I think of Thomas what primarily strikes me is a certain kind of order which sets him apart from his competitors (recall his remarks about order in the first chapter of Summa contra gentiles). St Bonaventure is another extremely orderly thinker, but Bonaventure's sense of order is artistic and graceful, where Thomas' is schematic and pedagogical. Not for nothing is Thomas the patron of teachers. He excels at being able to talk intelligently about everything, and above all to produce the sense that everything fits. This is why Thomism gets compared to a Gothic cathedral. It's huge, it's varied, the variety is subordinated to a single great design. On the other hand the range of issues that Scotus or Bonaventure deal with is more restricted. Bonaventureanism is less like a cathedral and more like a fantastically illuminated manuscript.

It's more fair, however, to say that esse is an "original and focal point" for Thomas than it is to say that the common nature is for Scotus. That just strikes me as wrong. Scotus' mind does not evince either Bonaventurean or Thomistic order: opening his books frequently produces the sensation of falling into a profound but chaotic abyss of insight. His method is not systematic and his thought is not easily systematizable. Vos' book The Philosophy of John Duns Scotus tries to reduce it to some semblance of order by orienting his achievement around some central conceptual accomplishments, like synchronic contingency, but with in my opinion very limited success. The common nature is, of course, very important for Scotus, but the notion of the irreducible individual is no less so - in fact the Scotist insistence on the primacy of the individual is in my opinion one of its great strengths over Thomism. Haecceities, the formal distinction, intrinsic modes, essentially ordered causes, and many other distinctively Scotist ideas work together in a complex and delicate balance in which no one of them takes priority over the others and all are fitted into a more general Aristotelean substrate from which they only emerge as needed in the particular instance. There are certain basic Thomistic notions which Aquinas deploys over and over again in a hundred contexts with almost monotonous regularity - esse, the real distinction of being and essence, immateriality or separability from matter, etc. - in a way that Scotus doesn't. If Thomas' thought is like a cathedral, Scotus' is like a piece of enormously complex polyphony sung over a drone of Aristotelianism and a cantus firmus of revelation. You can't grasp it all at once because it's essentially developmental and progressive. You can't reduce it to a leitmotif because the various melodic themes arise when needed by the music as a whole in one or another voice, and the importance is less in any particular voice or theme than in their fugal interplay. What's happening now depends on what happened in the debate a moment ago more than on the demands of some architectonic conceptual structure.

All this rhapsodizing is, of course, taking us away from Ockham again. For Ockham I do think it's fair to say, as our own Ockham said the other day, "It seems Ockham took a handful [of] basic and already established principles then applied them relentlessly and consistently in places they had never been applied before." But if Ockham's strength is to show what happens when you join genius and fearless persistence to such a technique, damn the consequences, it would be a mistake to assume that other thinkers are trying less successfully to do the same thing.

As I noted, in a while I'll post a lengthy excerpt from Maurer's book. I may also say something soon about the other book I bought at the same time and am reading simultaneously with it, Sokolowski's Phenomenology of the Human Person, which I'm enjoying very much.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Scotus' Razor

From The Extremely Subtle Questions on the Books of Metaphysics of Aristotle, Book VIII, Q.1, n.22:

Aliter dicitur ad quaestionem quod paucitas semper est ponenda quando per ipsam salvantur apparentia . . . Et ideo positio plurium semper debet dicere necessitatem manifestam propter quam ponantur tot; nihil autem apparet in accidentibus propter quod debeant poni composita ex duabus partibus essentialibus, communiter loquendo . . .Ideo communiter negatur talis compositio.

"Otherwise it should be said to the question [which is whether accidents are simple or composite] that we should always posit fewer things when the appearances can be saved thereby . . . therefore in positing more things we should always indicate the manifest necessity on account of which so many things are posited. But there is no apparent reason why accidents should be taken to be composed of two essential parts, commonly speaking . . . therefore such composition is commonly denied."

Scotus is a big fan of what has come to be called Ockham's Razor. Of course we find it in Aquinas too, for instance in Summa theologiae Pars 1 q.2 a.3.1: quod potest compleri per pauciora principia, non fit per plura, what can be accomplished with fewer principles doesn't happen through more. The origins of the Razor go back to Aristotle and his insight that nature does nothing in vain. It was commonly known to the scholastics, but Scotus was particularly fond of invoking it. Why then is it so associated with Ockham rather than Scotus? Is it that Scotus balances it with a judicious use of the Anti-Razor, keeping a full toolkit and insisting that we not deny more entities when they are necessary to explain the appearances, whereas Ockham uses his fewer tools more ostentatiously and vigorously?

This is, of course, the self-serving scotist interpretation. The issue has been on my mind, however, since I've been reading Armand Maurer's fine book The Philosophy of William of Ockham in the Light of His Principles. I'll say something about it here soon.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Robert Prentice and Illuminationism

Since we have gotten back onto the topic of narratives of late, I offer one from Robert Prentice.  Now in the current common opinion of Thomists, Historians, Theologians, and Philosophers, before Scotus there was a nice, warm, caring, generally happy golden age of participation-analogical metaphysics that the Bible, Fathers, Doctors, and the common man on the street singing his troubadour songs all held in common.  Then the evil univocalist onto-theology was introduced by Duns Scotus, which created the "secular".  Contrast this with:

Robert P. Prentice, An Anonymous Question on the Unity of the Concept of Being (Attributed to Scotus), p. 109 n. 6:

Platonism, Neo-platonism, Gnosticism, all incorporated some form of divine illuminationism within their systems. The theory of reminiscence, e.g. in Plato, is basically an expression of the idea that the divine world is the proximate source of true intelligibility and personal possession of truth. Aristotle's theory that the agent intellect performs the work of illuminating the sense world to render it an intelligible one is actually an extension of Plato's reminiscense theory by explaining the 'mechanics' of how reminiscence could take place, as one can discern by the reading of chapters 4, 5, and 6 of Book III of Aristotle's De anima. Moreover, there is not lacking a sense in which chapter 5 can be interpreted in which the Agent Intellect is a divine agency existing separately from men, which performs the function of "intelligibilizing" the sensible world after the manner of the God of reminiscence. It is then understandable that with St. Augustine, still processing reality in the Neo-platonist mould, a Christianized version of the reminiscence theory and of the agent intellect should surface in Christian illuminationism. It is then psychically comprehensible that the illuminationism of Augustinianism became factually involved with the substance of the faith itself. Hence when the conscious manifestation of the "pagan" psychic roots of the seemingly Christian theory of illuminationism was brought to the attention of the then current scholasticism by means of the "strange" theories of Averroes who posited that there was an Active or Agent Intellect existing apart from man, an understandable conflict between the unconscious cultural formation and the surfacing higher conscious rationality should take place. It is only in this sense that one can find a proportional answer to the violence of the doctrinal controversies turning around the agent intellect during the dozen or so years incorporating the condemnations of 1270 and 1277 of the Latin Averroism of Siger of Brabant. When one examines some of the 13 theses condemined in 1270 and, above all, some of the 219 condemned in 1277 by Stephen Tempier, Bishop of Paris, in the name of the Christian faith, one must look elsewhere than in the faith for the explanation of the particular condemnations. The whole conflict was a result of an emerging conscious secularized vision of reality detached from the illuminationism rooted in Hellenized Platonism pitted against the threatened unconscious attachment to an entrenched cultural vision. In a definite sense, St. Thomas' tract De unitate intellectus contra Averroistas represents a historical step in the process of the desacralization of knowledge.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Brad Gregory's New Book

You remember Brad Gregory, Notre Dame's golden boy.  Well he has a new book out.  Generating lots of buzz, probably awards in the offiing.  But it doesn't look like he learned his lession.  Here's a quote from the introduction, p.5, of The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society

Finally, until Funkenstein's Theology and the Scientific Imagination from the Middle Ages to the Seventeenth Century (1986), no one would have suspected any connection between late medieval metaphysics and contemporary neo-Darwinian atheism. But the metaphysical and epistemological assumptions of modern science and of antireligious, scientistic ideologies are clearly indebted to the emergence of metaphysical univocity that Funkenstein identified in medieval scholasticism beginning with John Duns Scotus.

Some more from his 2009 Logos article:

Funkenstein showed both that there was a deep affinity between theology and science among major intellectual figures in the seventeenth century and why this symbiosis proved fleeting: the underlying ontology— God “is” just like creation “is”—meant that God had to beat a progressive retreat as science explained more and more about the natural world. Scotus’s initial move is anything but an arcane curiosity from the distant past because it led through an unanticipated series of intellectual developments that include the scientific revolution, Isaac Newton’s physics and post-Newtonian deism, Immanuel Kant’s metaphysics and his sharp distinction between phenomena and noumena, the philosophical framework of nineteenth-century liberal Protestantism, and eventually the neo-Darwinian, scientistic atheism of the New Atheists.

And it turns out that Scotus believed in a different God than did the Biblical authors, Church Fathers, Aquinas, and millions of Christian lay people.

Well, of course, it will be argued—what “other” ontological framework could there be? One in which God is not conceptually domesticated, but is rather regarded as radically distinct from and noncompetitive with his creation, as the traditional doctrine of creation ex nihilo implies.


God conceptualized in this manner is not an “entity or being” at all; he cannot be conceived or visualized; he cannot be represented directly in any human categories whatsoever, whether visual, verbal, or conceptual. This is the same God written about with acuity by contemporary Catholic philosophers such as Robert Sokolowski and theologians such as Robert Barron. This is the same God in whom faithful Catholics believe today, whatever their level of explicit philosophical or theological awareness (my ninety-five-year-old grandmother, with her eighth-grade education, believes in, worships, and prays to this God).

We really ought to take away all that NEH money for the edition, burn all works of Scotus, and excommunicate  anyone who says his name aloud.  Because in the end, we all know that  Aquinas was right about everything (except the immaculate conception...).


In leafing through Funkenstein's book, I came across a discussion of univocity on p. 26 that claims that existence is a divine attribute for Scotus (assuming, like the Thomists, that Scotus holds the same view on essence and existence as Aquinas). He cites as his proof for this and univocity generally the spurious Expositio in Metaphysicam, known since at least the 1920's to be spurious. But Funkenstein, like Brad Gregory, is an historian, which means they don't need to worry about such matters.

So it looks like the intellectual giants of our time are agreed and we have a common opinion: Scotistic univocity is bad and is the root of all evil in the world, and we know this because of all its bad effects on society. It is in fact so obviously bad and stoopid we do not need to make a single argument against it.  Thus say the philosophers, theologians, and historians of our time.