Posted on: March 10th, 2017 Modern Metaphysics, Morphed

This article, an exercise in my preparation for PhD comprehensive exams, is intended for philosophy and theology geeks, and them alone.

How does the meaning of the term “metaphysics” change from the premodern to the modern period?

As good a place as any to begin is Book VIII chapter 6 of Augustine’s City of God, where Augustine rehearses:

  1. The priority of simple being over all non-simple being.
  2. Because (unlike body and soul) simple being is beyond degree(s of comparison), it is that by which any apprehension of beauty is judged. Hence simple being must be a or the “primary form” that exists in the mind.

Two quick notes about this summary rendition of things. First, Augustine here builds upon Aristotle’s work of prôtê philosophia (subsequently named The Metaphysics) which conceives of the unmoved mover (which, as “that which is most knowable in itself,” is the ultimate pedagogical destination of Aristotle’s entire programmic “order of learning” or hierarchy of sciences, beginning with the Organon) as pure, fully “actualized” being, pure energeia. No matter, no potency at all can be said to be in God. Hence, for the Stagirite theos is utterly simple (haplax). Second, it is instructive, as we juxtapose this way of thinking with modern thought, to remember Avicenna’s determination of simple being as necessary, and complex being as contingent. Although not all pre-modern thinkers—Plotinus and Averroes come to mind—agree with this characterization, it is still conveniently helpful to regard all material, spatio-temporal being as contingent, for the pre-modern mind.

Enter Descartes, who changes things at the most fundamental level possible. The short version of things is that metaphysics is now cast in terms of res cogitans and res extensa. But that dichotomy lies at the far end of a series of moves which change the course of intellectual history precisely in their details.

Those crucial “details” begin with a move which I will characterize as: grounding the sciences in the irreducibility of the individual subject. Descartes agrees with Aristotle on the importance of “that which is most known or knowable[*] in itself,” but for Descartes, who thinks he’s doubted everything that can be, can no longer regard this “thing” to be God. Further, it is still for him—as also for Aristotle—this recursivity or reflexivity which alone can ground scientia. What, then, is the locus of this reflexivity? No longer nous noeôs, it is now: subject and object. The latter grounds the former and the former grounds the world.

No longer, then, is science—as was the case from Aristotle through the Scholastics—an ordered system of intellectual disciplines, each of which depends upon the former epistemologically (or pedagogically), and upon the subsequent ontologically. Now, with the birth of the modern, they are considered to be (grounded in) a reflexive relationship between subject / observer and object / observed.

So, if “metaphysics” refers to that which is beyond the natural (which, for Descartes is collapsed with culture, the domain of human poiêsis and technê), the that which is beyond is the human subject, res cogitans.

True, Descartes believes in God and math, but these things are arrived at and secured only after he convinces himself that the subject, the cogito, exists. Plus, while the subject is known for Descartes, God and math are for him likely objects of mere belief. (They are moments of his “way out,” back out into the world, subsequent to his “movement inward,” which hits “rock bottom” at the point at which he cannot doubt the existence of his self.)

Finally, it must be said that this metaphysical shift which we see in Descartes is not the end of a development, but only the beginning: thinkers such as Locke, Hume, Kant, Bergson and Husserl build on this foundation, in their various and unique ways. Just one example would be Husserl’s redefinition of “absolute being” (also for Bergson) and “dependent being.” According to Dermot Moran,

Husserl maintains that consciousness cannot be thought away in such an experiment and hence must be understood as having “absolute being” whereas reality has to be understood as dependent being. In this section [§49] Husserl styles the world of pure consciousness as “immanent being” and as absolute. (Dermot Moran, “Foreward,” in Edmund Husserl, Ideas (… ), xxiii.

[*] in Greek these two participles are morphologically identical.


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Posted on: April 19th, 2013 Descartes, Nature, & Imagination (Abstract)

The following is the abstract of the paper I will be submitting at the “On the Soul” Conference this summer at Oxford.

Mathesis Newly Imagined:

Descartes’ Univocal Construal of Nature

In Plato’s Republic Socrates cannot speak of city without, virtually in the same breath, speaking of soul. In his ethical works Aristotle takes the same approach by weaving culture and nature together: “The human being is by nature a political animal;” “Every city exists by nature;” and so on. So it is that the mainstream of the premodern tradition saw nature as culturally construed, but in a way in that is symbiotically related to culture in a mutually dependent way.

This classical approach to physico-politics is not only metaxological in this way: it is also highly imaginative. Thinkers from Aristotle to Coleridge not only constitute nature with explicitly imaginative features, but they freely admit to doing this. For Aristotle nature emerges with the intuitive recognition of a certain proportion between self and creature, of soul in the animals familiar to his everyday experience. Hence the self is like, for example, a bird, and nature is always already soulishly imagined. For Coleridge, nature is God’s creation, or the imaginatively invested analogue of the techne of the imago dei.

Then we have Descartes, arriving on the scene in the 17th century. In his Le Monde Descartes reimagines nature in two innovative ways: he imposes the requirement of a priori systematizability, and he reduces matter to the mathematically amenable corpuscular.

In this paper I demonstrate how, in these two moves and in the flattened out mathematical schema they support, Descartes collapses nature and culture in his newly minted mechanistic construal of the world, in a move which is the equal opposite of that of the sophistic separation of the two, as described in a recent article by John Milbank (“The Politics of the Soul”). When the mutual coinherence of nature and culture is denied, the result is a vicious oscillation between identity and separation.

I will also establish that Descartes’ final articulation of nature, unlike that of Aristotle and Coleridge, univocally and reductively lacks any appeal to the imaginative faculty of the soul. For Descartes we don’t need imagination to conceive of the world, though this does not imply that imagination is not a means to Descartes’ end, whether acknowledged or not.

Finally I show, with the help of Jean-Luc Marion and Pierre Hadot, how this reductive collapse, together with the novel doctrine of the potentia absoluta dei which enables it, issues in a cosmology which is wholly and merely theoretical, in which there is no reason to think that it describes the world which actually exists. Do we want to talk about a world that actually exists? If so, I will argue, then as a first step we must admit and embrace the constitutive necessity of the imagination in any construal of physics or cosmology.

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Posted on: September 17th, 2012 Dutch Ovens & Burning Bushes

On the night of November 10, 1619 Rene Descartes had a difficult night, full of disturbing dreams which caused him to question everything he thought was real.

When he awoke from his turbulent night of disorientation he resolved to remain inside the “Dutch oven” in which he had spent the wintry night until he finally arrived at a principle, an idea, a solid foundation which was indubitably, absolutely certain.

To arrive at this bedrock of certainty he did not turn to the wisdom of the past. He did not search for truth in the pages of Scripture. Instead, he resolved to look only within himself, to the inner, rational, workings of his solitary mind.

The principle at which he arrived? His famous Cogito ergo sum: “I think, therefore, I am.”

Now, only a few decades would pass before it was widely acknowledged that, after all, there’s nothing which insulates this concept from “systematic skepticism” (as Descartes’ method is sometimes called), and yet one could say that modern philosophy is a footnote to the thought of Rene Descartes. For modern philosophy, with a few notable exceptions, has been stuck in the solipsism of the subjective thought of the solitary individual.

Contrast this with the Christian approach to knowledge and wisdom as seen, for example, in the story of Moses and the burning bush, from the Old Testament narrative of Exodus 3. I, and many others, would argue that this story is a metaphor (metaphor itself something Descartes would have disdained) for and a paradigm of how human beings, created in God’s image, come to know truth.

In this story, Moses is minding his own business. He is free from the epistemological[*] anxiety of Descartes (although he did perhaps have anxiety of a different kind, related to his motives for leaving the community of his brethren in the Egyptian labor camps). He is not “seeking” certain knowledge, or anything else for that matter. He is tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro when he encounters something which he cannot ignore: a bush which is burning, but which is not consumed.

Moses does a double-take. This incomprehensible vision, this inexplicable data point, causes him to veer off course, saying, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up” (Exod 3:3). At this point he is addressed (passive voice) by a Presence from within the bush, and thus begins a great dialogue not simply between Moses and God, but which comes to include all of God’s people and all three of God’s Persons.

This is when true knowledge begins: not when we turn inward, in the spirit of Protagoras[†], but rather when we are confronted from outside of ourselves, by a mystery which we cannot comprehend but which drives us to penetrate more deeply. Not so much when we doubt, but when we inquire.

This dialogue, so Thomas Aquinas would hold, turns out to be a participation in the Great Dialogue, the Great Dance, that God has been having with God for all eternity.

This dialogue has a totally different set of “foundations” (note the quotation marks) than does modern philosophy. Words such “relationship” and “mystery” come to mind. In a recent interview with two of my favorite theologians, the interviewer concludes by saying,

It is beginning to dawn on many serious people that the world, as it’s presently constituted, has no future. [What is needed] is a return to what [one theologian][‡] calls “the future that we have missed by taking the modern, secular detour.”

Descartes’ way, the way of individualistic, subjective introspection, leads only to inscrutable conundrums. Moses’ way, the way of openness to the mysterious encounter of relationship and transcendence, might not provide us with modern “certainty.” But it does give us something much better: an insight into the meaning and the wisdom of creation and beyond.

[*] “Epistemology,” from the Greek episteme is the branch of philosophy which deals with the question of how we know what he know.

[†] Protagoras, an ancient dialogue partner with Socrates, put forth the doctrine that “man is the measure of all things.”

[‡] The theologian in question is a man named John Milbank, who is known as the founder of a theological movement known as “Radical Orthodoxy.”

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