Posted on: July 5th, 2016 Aristotle, Nature, & Original Sin

Those who know me (in a theological or intellectual context) know that I have never been overly drawn to discussions of topics that typically excite ardent Calvinist types. Examples of such topics: predestination, “total depravity,” original sin.

The reason for my reticence: I have long suspected, ever since my time at a prominent Reformed seminary in the late 1990’s) that most folks who have straightforward and forceful views on such matters are, quite simply, full of shit. This is especially true for “evangelical types,” and I can say that my experience over the last two decades has borne this out.

One reason it is so difficult not to be full of shit on these issues is the extent to which they are historically conditioned. They are the result of centuries of intellectual development, mainly in the “Latin speaking West.”

And so it is that I have never lost much sleep getting dragged into heated debates about Original Sin. My preferred mode of engagement is simply to agree with my Reformed, Anglican, and Catholic auctores and to assume that they were right, for example, to oppose and condemn Pelagianism.

But, now, enter Aristotle. In his introduction to the Nicomachean Ethics Joe Sachs helpfully points out a basic point in the ethical system of the Stagirite. Pace those who equate virtue with habit (thanks, Hippocrates Apostle), Sachs rightly emphasizes that the point about habit (Gk. hexis) for Aristotle is that, once we acquire them through the process of habituation, their purpose is to allow us to see reality truly for what it is.

This is because, for Aristotle, the universal experience of mankind is that, initially, our vision of reality is blocked or distorted when we exit the womb. The purpose of the newly acquired habits, then, is to counteract the already existing habits of selfishness and impulsive indulgence with which every one of us is born.

Think about Edmund at the beginning of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, when he is trapped by the irresistible allure of Turkish Delight. His vision of reality is distorted. He cannot think straight. He is in bondage to his desire. Aristotle agrees with the mainstream Christian tradition in the West that, simply put, we are all like Edmund (at least initially).

Once this gnarled vision of reality is cleared up for us, the distortion having been corrected, we are free to engage our faculties to develop right desire and right reason in our quest to attain true and abiding virtue and character.

But notice what has happened. The way Aristotle thinks about the initial state of the postnatal human being is strikingly close to the description of traditional Western Christianity, as for example enshrined in Anglicanism’s Thirty-Nine Articles:

IX. Of Original or Birth-Sin.
Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam, (as the Pelagians do vainly talk;) but it is the fault and corruption of the Nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the Spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God’s wrath and damnation. And this infection of nature doth remain, yea in them that are regenerated; whereby the lust of the flesh, called in Greek, φρονημα σαρκος, (which some do expound the wisdom, some sensuality, some the affection, some the desire, of the flesh), is not subject to the Law of God. And although there is no condemnation for them that believe and are baptized; yet the Apostle doth confess, that concupiscence and lust hath of itself the nature of sin.

Another point on which the Stagirite and the Christian tradition agree: the natal is not identical with the natural. In other words, this “default setting” of selfishness and impulsiveness with which a baby is born, for Aristotle as for the Bible, is not truly natural. For Aristotle “the natural” is precisely that vision alluded to above, the attainment of which is the negation of the vicious habits hardwired into us at birth. The truly natural for Aristotle, is the full flourishing, the full, active, fulfillment of what it means to be human.

A selfish person (be she Donald Trump at a political debate or a screaming two-year old, grabbing its favorite toy away from its infantile colleagues in the playgound) is not natural. A natural person–one living in accord with nature (or for Christianity, creation)–is someone who has achieved the enduring “higher pleasure” known as eudaimonia, or happiness. This is the purpose of human nature, this is the “functional concept” (Alasdair MacIntyre) of the human being. (A pox on both your houses, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.)

This is why Aristotle suggests that the achievement of virtue or character is “a second nature.” It is just as “natural” as the “first nature.” Much more so, in fact.

It is here, finally, that Christianity “one ups” Aristotle, for the Christian realizes that the “second nature” of Aristotle is really the “third nature,” and that this third instantiation is really a return to the first. Virtue and character restore us to the original nature, the original righteousness which God wove into his original, creational design.

 

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Posted on: June 1st, 2016 Notes on Nominalism: a Brief Genealogy

At the most basic level possible, there are three “moments” in the development of late medieval nominalism, which one nust appreciate in order to grasp this historical, intellectual phenomenon.

First, consider the 219 Condemnations of Bishop Etienne Tempier in 1277, the background of which is the ecstatic and extreme embrace of the newly discovered Aristotle, by members (all clergy) of the Arts Faculty at the University of Paris in the 13th century. Certain of these faculty members were so taken with Aristotelian philosophy (mediated to them by Arabic philosophy, such as Averroes) that they began to regard philosophy as a vastly superior discipline (and, indeed, way of life) to theology. Central to this stream of thought, for the purposes of our argument here, is the necessity that things in the world are the way they are. That is, for Aristotle (and indeed for Plotinus) God does not freely create; rather he serves as the First Cause of the world in a way that seems to involve a kind of necessity. The primum mobile (or for Plotinus, the first emanation) moves and exists simply because that is how things are, given the nature of god and given the nature of the world. Given the rigorous, scientific superiority of the Stagirite, such a view only made sense, or so it seemed to Siger of Brabant and his colleagues in the Arts Faculty. Other convictions held by the Arts Faculty, in addition to this one, include: the eternality of the world, the singularity of the intellect in all men, and the denial of the freedom of the will.

It is in drastic opposition to such thinking that Etienne Tempier, Bishop of Paris, drafted the Condemnations of 1277. The motivation here was to stomp out the secular rationalism of the Arts Faculty, together with the this-worldly thought of Thomas Aquinas, to the extent that he sided with them. Tempier and his supporters (many of whom were Franciscans and members of the Theology Faculty) hoped to eradicate, in the words of Etienne Gilson, the kind of “polymorphic naturalism” which Siger of Brabant and his colleagues were advocating, together with their emphasis on “the rights of pagan nature against Christian nature, of philosophy against theology, of reason against faith” (Kerr, After Aquinas, 13).

Sadly, this move to condemn and censor ended up having the very opposite effect.

But to see this, and how it leads to the intellectual movement known as late medieval nominalism, one must first appreciate the distinction between the potentia ordinata dei and the potentia absoluta dei, which did not originate with Duns Scotus, but which is definitively formulated by him and registered by him as a controlling feature of theology.[1] In his Ordinatio I.44, Scotus applies the distinction to “every agent acting intelligently and voluntarily that can act in conformity with a right law, but does not have to do so of necessity”. (Henri Veldhuis, “Ordained and Absolute Power,” 225). Scotus conceives of the the difference between potentia ordinata and potentia absoluta in terms of Heiko Oberman’s ‘canonistic interpretation’: “potentia ordinata means ‘it can act in conformity with a right law’; potentia absoluta means ‘it can act beyond or against such a right law’. (ibid.)

What becomes normative in this way of thinking about creation is God’s absolute will which is grounded or conditioned upon no prior determination whatsoever, but rather radically “free” and arbitrary. There is no basis upon which we can have any kind of rational insight into God’s actions. And while (as Pieper concedes) this emphasis on God’s freedom is a much needed corrective to the necessarianism of the Arts Faculty, it serves, at the end of the day, not to re-unite faith and reason, but to drive them even further apart. Not only did the arguments of theology (including, admittedly, Thomistic theology) fail to meet Scotus’ heightened standards of rigor (modeled on Oxford-style mathematics), thereby creating a sense of theological skepticism, but also, since God’s acts are radically “free” and arbitrary, rooted solely in the radical spontaneity of his inscrutable will, there is no way to think scientifically (or systematically) about God’s actions in history, since they could—and indeed at any moment can and might be—be wholly otherwise.

(It is interesting in this context to think of Aristotle’s rendition of the intellectual virtues in Book VI of the Ethics, with its discussion of the objects of to logistikon as those things which “admit of being otherwise.” Also note that Scotus is assuming a notion of freedom which is merely negative and nonteleological. For him to say that God is free is not to insist that God is always fully realizing his telos–and thus is absolutely “pure act”–but rather to hold that “God can do anything he wants.”)

And yet one more step is needed to grasp the full import of late medieval and early modern nominalism: the shift from Duns Scotus to William of Ockham. Compared to Ockham, Scotus is still somewhat “conservative:” for him God’s actions are still constrained by a sense of “ordinateness.” God, that is, can by definition act only in ways that are ordinate. (By the way, we must rebuke Scotus for being inconsistent here: if this is a constraint on God’s “freedom,” then why not other aspects of his nature?) William of Ockham leaves such constraints in the dustbin of irrelevance. Ockham’s God is so arbitrary that at any moment the creation could sink back into oblivion. This way of thinking leads to grave consequences for philosophy, producing and hardening what Dilthey called “the atheism of scientific thinking.” Indeed Joseph Pieper writes that Ockham’s “principle of God’s arbitrary freedom” leads to the gravest of consequences. For Ockham

[m]an cannot do anything but cling to the purely factual, which in no way must be as it is: to search for meaning and coherence is not “real,” but at most may exist in our thoughts; singular facts alone are “real”; this actual factuality, however, can neither be calculated nor investigated nor deduced, but only experienced; knowledge exists only as direct encounter with concrete reality. (Pieper 149)

And so it is that, for modern thinkers, nothing in nature (contra Aristotle; see Ethics VI) is necessarily the way that it is. That is, an oak tree can have a nature / form / essence other than that of an oak tree (and still remain fully and in every sense what it is). This is the basic assumption of Heidegger. If correct, it renders any kind of coherent knowledge of the world impossible.

All because of the Condemnation of 1277, and the Arts scholars against whom it reacted.

[1] Indeed Etienne Gilson suggests that the condemnation of 1277 serves as the historical condition of the possibility for Scotus’ thought: “we could guess that the doctrine of Duns Scotus was conceived after the condemnation of 1277.” Piper, Scholasticism, 144.
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Posted on: May 20th, 2016 Boethius for our Time

What an encouraging article by Anthony Esolen (scholar of Dante and of Lucretius, and of much else besides). Thanks, Theresa Kenney!

First, in addition to much helpful background and commentary, there is this Boethian wisdom (for anyone struggling with “why bad things happen to good people”):

But virtuous men are tried by God, for their good.  God protects some who are weak by giving them only good fortune.  He gives to some virtuous men the most terrible trials, that they may emerge victorious and shine as exemplars for their fellow men.  He gives an easy life to some vicious men, that penury may not prompt them to crimes even worse; or he may, as severe punishment, withhold from them the reversals that might prompt them to repent.  We do not know and cannot know what God may intend in his special providence for any individual.

Then there is this:

Boethius was the one man most responsible for bequeathing classical learning to the West, to survive the Dark Ages to come, until the Medieval world should burst forth in its wonderful light.  Yet I think that the Consolation may be meant for us now in a special way.  The barbarians are back.  Humane learning is forgotten or despised.  The Church is buffeted, while the gargoyles of the age caper and make mouths and laugh.  I imagine that the Gothic keepers of the jail cracked their jokes too.

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius kept faith to the end.  No one honors or even remembers his accusers; but the Catholics of Lombardy honored and remembered him straightaway: Saint Severinus.  His bones rest in the cathedral of Pavia, where the bones of Saint Augustine also lie.

It is better for us to wait with that man in his cell, than to enjoy all of the vast earth among men gone mad, quite mad.  God give us the courage to do so!

Perhaps what I love most about all this is that it allows a Christian (Esolen might argue “a Catholic”) to “keep calm” in the midst of the “culture wars,” even while admitting that western culture is crumbling. (I am likely more willing than Esolen, more in line with Radical Orthodoxy, to admit the “upside” to such crumbling, but it is still quite sad, possibly even tragic.)

As CS Lewis well understood (see his Discarded Image) we need Boethius today more than ever.

 

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Posted on: May 19th, 2016 The Tyranny of the Exception

I suppose that working on a PhD at a (somewhat) traditionalist Roman Catholic university has made me more “conservative.” But the deeper reason beneath that development, it seems clear to me, is simply that I have learned so much more (than I had known as one reared in secular and evangelical institutions), particularly historically.

In this blog post (which has been simmering for about a half decade or more) I hope to highlight a basic difference (a difference, perhaps, in disposition or orientation) between the premodern mind and the modern, western mind. It has to do with the role that exceptions (or exceptions to the rule) play in our thinking.

First, consider a basic, very elemental, structure or “pattern” laid down by Aristotle. Aristotle, to put it very simply, would say that it is the nature of an acorn to develop into an oak tree. (He talks this way in the Metaphysics and the Physics.) The “purpose” or “end” (Greek telos), that is, of the acorn is the fully developed oak tree. The oak tree is the “fully active” version of the acorn. The acorn, in turn, is a “potential oak tree.” (This way of thinking relies on the Aristotelian metaphysical distinction between potency and act.)

Now, Aristotle perfectly realized that not all acorns successfully develop into fully formed oak trees. As did St. Thomas, who follows Aristotles’s reasoning here without exception. But it would never have occurred to either of them to conclude, on the basis of the failure of some acorns to develop into oak trees, that it is not the nature of an acorn to develop into an oak tree. Rather, they understood that this accomplishment occurs “for the most part,” that is, not 100% of the time. They understood that nature (or natural philosophy) is “messy” and does not comply with our rational, scientific systems in the same way that, say, mathematics does. (As an example of Aristotle’s thinking about things that are true “for the most part,” see Nicomachean Ethics I.3, together with his word of caution that accompanies them.)

The modern mind is quite different. To cite an example of the “default tendency” of the modern mind which I am trying to diagnose in this article, consider the (admittedly, ecclesiastically “intramural”) issue of infant baptism. I could not begin to count the number of times people have registered their opposition to the catholic practice of infant baptism in the church to me on the basis of the exception. “Richard Dawkins,” a good friend of mine likes to say, “was baptized as an infant in the Church of England, and just look at him,” implying that Dawkins disproves that the “nature” of baptism is to bring baptizands into a life of Christian faith. We know that infant baptism is not a valid or true doctrine, so this reasoning goes, because it does not always “work.” This way of thinking, I’d argue, is analogous to the point about the acorn not successfully growing into an oak tree: the exception does not undermine the “nature” of the thing in question.

Exhibit B: sex and the presence in nature of hermaphrodites, or biologically ambiguous genitalia in infants, children, and adults. Yes, the Scriptures speak of “male and female” (Gen. 1:27). (They also speak, in the same context, of a binary division between “land animals” and “sea creatures,” but one would be on shaky ground to hold on this basis that they intend to reject the existence of amphibians.) I am certain that the ancient Hebrews were aware of ambiguous genitalia. But, again, nature is messy and “for the most part.”

Does the exception here refute the rule or the “nature” of the thing, that “male” and “female” are valid ways of describing what we find in nature, or what actually is in nature? No more than the stunted acorn does.

(Does my position here make me an “essentialist?” No, because of this, and also because when a Christian speaks of “nature,” she will in the next breath speak of “creation.” But that is a topic for a later blog post.)

 

 

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Posted on: February 23rd, 2016 Once upon a time, there were no secularists(?)

Very interesting (and encouraging) discussion in my Intro to Philosophy course yesterday.

One admirable student objected to my statement that prior to, say, 500 years ago, all human civilizations were inherently religious, and that thus there were no secularists prior to that time, by saying: “How do you know?”

To which I responded: “I know because the conditions which are necessary for secularism to be thought were not in place, or real, or existent, until around 500 years ago.”

In an effort to give an example or an analogy, I argued that something similar could be said of “conservatives” (since prior to Edmund Burke no one had reacted to the historically particular project of the French Revolution) and homosexuals (since prior to the late 19th century “homosexual” as a “scientific” category had not yet been invented).

I realized later that another example might be “environmentalist.” I’d argue that prior to 250 years ago there were no environmentalists. The conditions which have made this movement possible–which have made it possible for environmentalism to be “a thing”–were not yet in place.

Teaching undergrads is helping me to “bone up” on my Christian historicism.

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Posted on: September 10th, 2015 A Certain Distinction in Nietzsche

To introduce a certain way of thinking about Friedrich Nietzsche, one could consider, by way of analogy, the term “pluralism.” Pluralism can refer to either a cultural state of affairs (ie, that which is the case in a given culture) or to an ideology, or, for the purposes of this discussion, a philosophical doctrine.

Now, I want to raise the specter that something like this distinction b/t a state of affairs and a philosophical doctrine may well be operative in N’s thought. At the very least I’d argue that if one is not at least tempted at some point in his reading of N to entertain this possibility, then one is missing a crucial aspect of N.

In fact, I’d argue that something like this is the case for N’s notion of the “death of God.” I’d definitely argue that what is going on in this discourse of Nietzshe’s is more akin to a state of affairs than it is to a philosophical doctrine. To be clear, I don’t think that N is actually saying that God has died. He is saying that the philosophical and cultural currency of the reality of God (and all that it entails) is what has dies.

Further, this is a more radical reading of N than simply to hold that he is merely apsousing atheism. Why? Because is allows one to co-opt N for a very “Nietzschean” project: the critique of various reigning ideologies in our late capitalist culture which, while functionally “atheist,” are a least as bourgeois as form of “Christianity” which held sway in N’s day.

Now, I do think that N’s “God is dead” describes a certain state of affairs rather than an actual doctrine which N holds (a proposition dramatically strengthened if one holds that philosophical doctrines are by definition off-limits for N); however I do not necessarily think this is the case for his teaching on “values” as we find it in his genealogical works, and in particular Beyond Good and Evil.

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Posted on: September 8th, 2015 Husserl & the Ideological Hegemony of “Science”

A friend recently pointed me to an article delivered by one Grant Franks at St. John’s College in the late 1990’s, which deals with the relationship between ancient thought and modern thought.

In the article, Franks discusses Edmund Husserl’s appraisal of the origins of modern science: “In the Crisis of the European Sciences, Husserl argues that Descartes and Galileo—or more accurately, the scientific enterprise they launched—are responsible for the “most portentous upheavels” of twentieth century European civilization. Franks continues:

This lamentable situation has come about because of a dual expansion and contraction of the domain of scientific knowledge. The realm of science has grown insofar as the new methodical natural science claims to be a mathesis universalis, encompassing all possible knowledge. On the other hand, since the scientific demand for rigor cannot be imposed on all fields of human interest, whole regions of thought and inquiry—specifically all metaphysics and ethics—have been jettisoned and regarded as being unknowable, unscientific, and consequently uninteresting.

I’d argue that this denigration of metaphysics results in part from the novelty of one aspect of Descartes’ method of study as opposed to that of Aristotle. For the ancient Stagirite, the recommended approach to knowledge is to begin with what is most knowable to the human thinker, and to proceed from there to what is most knowable in itself. In this manner Aristotle advocates beginning with realities that the human mind can lay hold of, even if those objects of study (physical objects, concepts, texts, syllogisms, whatever) are somewhat hazy and vague. Try to grasp hold of the object, Aristotle advocates, and see if you can make progress with it, see if you can gain some sort of clearer insight.

For Descartes, however, this approach already gets off on the wrong foot. For him, human reason cannot even countenance an object unless it is clear and distinct, unless it is amenable to “clear and distinct ideas.” What could possibly be more clear and distinct that the numbers and objects of mathematics, now (by the 16th century) stripped down to their bare, instrumental “essentials”? (By “instrumental” I mean a notion of number stripped of all premodern numerological theory as advocated by such diverse parties as the Pythagoreans, Plato, neoplatonists such as Boethius, and Renaissance thinkers of various stripes. Now, for Descartes, numbers have absolutely no concrete content on their own; they are mere instruments which serve the purpose of conducting operations on nature. They are mere tools.)

Husserl advocates a return, for the purposes of this specific discussion, to Aristotle’s method of mathesis. In so doing he proves himself an ally to anyone interested in undermining the ideological hegemony of the modern “science” of the (post)modern West in our time.

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Posted on: July 9th, 2015 Bonaventure, Philosophy, & Theology

What is theology, and what is faith? We in the 21st century West live in an emotivistic culture which is worse than clueless about these things.

For most people in our culture, faith has to do with feelings or private, emotional preferences. “I believe in a God that would never get angry;” “I feel like I don’t really need to go to church;” etc.

But for our premodern forbears in the West, faith is a means to knowledge which compliments and is complemented by reason. Faith is what accepts and grasps the content of revelation, and thus serves as the basis for theology, which applies the tools of rational thought and discourse to the content of revelation, for example, the idea that God is three distinct Persons in one unified substance (or the doctrine of the Trinity).

For a premodern thinker such as St. Bonaventure, there is no sharp dichotomy between faith and reason as there is for us moderns who have ripped and rent the two apart. A good “case study” in this arena is the way Bonaventure allows theology to undermine the neoplatonist theory of divine emanation.

Now a good premodern neoplatonist would follow Plotinus in his view that the world is a necessary emanation from God. Only problem is, this view flies in the face of Christian orthodoxy which asserts an ontological distinction between God and God’s creation. Orthodox Christians are not pantheists, and yet pantheism is where neoplatonic emanationism straightaway leads.

As Peter Spotswood Dillard shows in his helpful _A Way into Scholasticism_, however, Bonaventure does not simply dismiss the idea of divine emanation. He is a good neoplatonist, and he thinks that the idea that God, as Being Itself and the Superexcellent Good, necessarily emanates his being, that God’s being and goodness are superabundantly effusive, is a tenant of proper reason.

And yet Bonaventure holds not only that the world’s being lacks goodness in comparison to God (a non sequitur for standard neoplatonic emanationism), but also that the existence of the world is not necessary. In light of his neoplatonist commitments, what, for the Seraphic Doctor, gives?

Not his commitment to divine emanation, but rather his determination of that in which the emanations consist. For they consist not first and foremost in the creation / world / universe, but rather in the in extra emanations of the Son and the Spirit:

Therefore, unless there were eternally in the highest good a production which is actual and consubstantial, and a hypothesis as noble as the producer–and this is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit–unless these were present, [God] would by no means be the highest good because [God] would not diffuse [God’s self] to the highest degree.

Lots of neoplatonist assumptions packed into that dense statement, but the upshot is that, if God does not produce an emanation which contains the fullness of being just as God does, then God is not the highest good … then God is not God. Hence, for Bonaventure, God must produce an emanation which is maximally existent (if I can use that word).

The upshot for my argument, then, is that what we are witnessing here is theology / revelation / faith “messing with” or altering or qualifying or positioning philosophy / universally-valid-premises / reason. Not only does the orthodox repudiation of pantheism motivate Bonaventure to deny the world as a necessary emanation of God’s very being, but so does the revelation of the Holy Trinity. Since the Father “necessarily” emanates the Son (i.e., the Father’s nature is to do this), we don’t need to regard the world as a necessary, divine emanation in order to honor what Bonaventure regards as the rational truths of neoplatonism.

Faith and reason, theology and philosophy, are here working in tandem. Both are subjected to rational discourse and rational procedures. Both work together in us to produce in us the fullness of knowledge.

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Posted on: July 9th, 2015 Bonaventure & “Affective Experience”

In Bonaventure’s _The Soul’s Journey into God_, the Seraphic Doctor offers a regimen for how the soul can come to mirror God, a suggested path for what this might look like.

In this context he says that such an achievement “is more a matter of affective experience [of the inner senses] than rational consideration.”

What might this affective experience of the inner senses mean? What is “inner sense,” anyway?

Without getting too bogged down in pre-modern faculty theory, recall that Aristotle and his medieval followers believed in a faculty of the soul called the “common sense.” This faculty or power is what allows a person to coordinate various sensory input. For example, consider an ice cube. If one holds the ice cube in her hand, she perceives by the sense of touch that it is cold, but she _also_ perceives by vision that it is grey in color, and cubical in shape. But how does she know that the cold thing and the cubical thing are one and the same thing? She knows this, thanks to the work of the inner sense power called the common sense.

Now, although for some early modern thinkers such as Descartes the common sense receives its input prior to the work of the memory and the imagination, for scholastic thinkers such as Thomas and Bonaventure, the common sense is situated _after_ the memory and the imagination. What this means is that the work of his faculty is not limited to the coordination of various sense stimuli, coming from diverse organs of the outer sense (e.g. eyes and skin). Rather, the common sense also imbues the object of thought with qualities supplied by memory and imagination. Surely it is here, in the memory and the imagination, where the “affections” which Bonaventure stresses, originate.

I thought of an example. Suppose you had a bit too much to drink last night. Suppose you drank a bit too much vodka, and you are a bit hung over. Suppose, further, that you just finished a 7 mile morning run, and you are very thirsty. You look up and you see two bottles, both containing clear liquid. For the purpose of this analogy assume that neither bottle has a label on it. You know that one bottle contains vodka, and the other one water.

Notice that the sensory input coming from you eyes as they gaze upon the different bottles is identical. That is, the eyes perceive no difference between the liquid contained in the two bottles: in both cases it is clear and colorless. Yet when you focus on the bottle of vodka you are repulsed, and when you focus on the bottle of water, you are so attracted to it that your mouth waters, impelling you finally to pick up the bottle, open the lid, and gulp down its contents.

What accounts for the difference between your different perceptions of the two bottles of clear, colorless liquid? It is not your vision or any other external sense power. The difference is “affective:” your perception is altered by the “inner sense power,” the “faculty” of “common sense,” which combines features of the two liquids, supplied by the memory and the imagination, with your visual perception of them.

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Posted on: April 16th, 2015 Sex, Desire, & Bodies

I am currently in a graduate “reading group” on Michel Foucault, and it is in that context that I have been thinking much about sexuality, desire, and bodies.

In addition I just watched a fascinating (and deeply convicting and encouraging) documentary put out by (an organization within) the Catholic Church on which makes the point that for the Christian tradition human desire is something which is disordered but able to be transformed. (To put this in the language of Reformed theology, human desire is good, fallen, and redeemed / redeemable in Christ.)

I heartily agree.

With these matters rumbling around in my head, a personal definition of “sexuality” occurred to me on my morning run today. What is sexuality? It is the human desire for human bodies.

We can speak (without falling into Cartesian dualism) in terms of the subject of this desire and the object of this desire.

The subject is the human being, which is necessarily embodied. It is necessarily embodied because the definition of “human” is “rational animal,” and following Boethius in his ordering of the sciences contained in his De Trinitate, an animal (falling under the rubric of natura or in Greek physis) is “inseparable from [its] material [body], either in thought or in reality. “In thought” means that the definition of something (in this case an animal) necessarily includes the notion of embodiedness or materiality. Here “animal” stands in opposition to other beings such as triangles (which as geometric objects are separable from material in thought) and “intelligences” or angels, or the soul, or God (which are separable in both thought and reality).

So, the subject of sexual desire and sexual activity is a human being, an animal, necessarily embodied.

What, then, is the object? While the subject of the desire is a human being, the object of the desire is the body of a human being.

Why the body and not something else, such as the soul or the mind or the attention of a human being? Because there are other names for each of these desires, for example, companionship, love, kononia, friendship, and the like.

How does this definition of sexuality relate to the traditional notion of eros? I do not know, but perhaps I will turn to that question in the near future.

 

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Posted on: March 11th, 2015 Burrell on Islam

According to David Burrell the Five Pillars of Islam are:

  1. Confessing that God is one and that Muhammad is God’s prophet (the shahada);
  2. Communal ritual prayer, five times daily;
  3. Fasting during the lunar month of Ramadan, which ends with …
  4. … an annual obligatory almsgiving;
  5. For those able to do so, making the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lifetime.

(Earlier this week I had lunch in Tyler (Texas) with a new Muslim friend, and he confirmed the accuracy of this list.)

Burrell, whose successful career as an academic theologian took something of a detour a couple of decades ago when he made it his personal mission to educate himself as deeply as possible in the area of Islam, makes some compelling points in this article which Christians and seculars alike in the United States would do well to heed.

First, and this is a major theme in Burrell’s work, is that historically the connections between medieval Christianity and Muslim thought were intimate and productive:

… many Western medieval thinkers, notably Thomas Aquinas, reached out to understand Islamic thinkers, especially to learn from their philosophical reflections. That out reach … reflects the fact that the Islamic cultural renaissance in tenth-century Baghdad had anticipated the touted medieval Renaissance in the West by a full two centuries. While Europe was passing through the Dark Ages, Islamic culture in what we call the Middle East was at its peak. Medieval thinkers in the West learned their astronomy, medicine, mathematics, and philosophy from the East, and its practitioners were Muslims.

Why this intimate and productive connection? Burrell shows that it is due to the confession of (the first part of) the shahada: “God is one.” This implies that “all-that-is comes forth freely from God, and that all power in the universe is God’s power, however much we may be impressed with our own. But the relation of the universe to the One on whom it depends so utterly and so intimately is quite beyond our capacity to understand, short of a ‘mystical unveiling.’” So a shared commitment to the doctrine of creation is what binds Islam and Christianity together, at least historically (for someone like Thomas Aquinas).

The ineffability of God’s relationship to the creation, though, leads to another feature of Islam which Burrell helpfully points out: for Islam “… orthopraxy is more important than orthodoxy.” This orthopraxy is deeply communal:

In Islam, individual rights are decidedly subordinated to the well-being of the community, with the consequent effect on the various roles the community assigns to its members. It is here that the image of Islam can chafe Western sensibilities, especially in those Western societies that combine a so-called rights doctrine with a capitalist consumer culture. Yet just as personal affluence usually buys a relative dispensation from communal obligations–a fact even Islamic society has not avoided–we can readily imagine why Islam is so attractive to those members of a society who taste little of its affluence and privilege. In those sectors of our own society where the spirit of capitalism is most starkly displayed in the lucrative but destructive commerce of drug dealing, the communal bonds of Islam and its inherent discipline offer not only welcome protection but a protest against a dominant ideology that has marginalized entire sectors of society in the name of individual rights and economic success. In its communal life, Islam affords a genuine alternative to a liberal society’s libertarian drift, and to the illusory freedom it touts, a freedom utterly beholden to powerful interest groups. If the phrase “common good” has ceased to function in our standard political vocabulary, it needs to become embodied in integral communities. In the United States, Islam has emerged as a viable one in our midst. Islam is the fastest growing faith worldwide, and in recent years has made striking advances in North America, particularly in the United States among African-Americans.

Burrell has several other compelling points in this article, but for me this one hits most deeply, for how could a Christian possibly disagree that, in the midst of a fragmenting culture in which entire cities and neighborhoods are left to rot in the cold, Islam embodies a welcome option in favor of peace, in favor of biblical shalom.

The “individual human rights” of our democratic, late-capitalist, American culture are killing us. In a culture characterized by Fifty Shades of Grey, in which neighborhoods in your own city are dominated by pimps and meth dealers, Islam is at the very least a welcome “co-belligerent” (to use an old phrase coined by Francis Schaeffer).

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Posted on: January 2nd, 2015 Foucault’s Quest for Pure Nature

The following quotation, from James Miller’s 1993 biography The Passion of Michel Foucault, confirms my suspicion that, after all is said and done, Foucault is still a kind of essentialist with respect to human nature.

Foucault suggests that behind the ‘deceptive surfaces’ of modern society lurks a human ‘nature metamorphosized in depth by the powers of a counter-nature.’ Containing, as it does, ‘the passage from life to death,’ the ‘great interior labyrinth,’ like Sade’s Castle of Murders, organizes a space proper to ‘modern perversity.’ ‘A cage,’ the labyrinth ‘makes of man a beast of desire’; a tomb,’ it ‘weaves beneath states a counter-city’; a diabolically clever invention, it is designed to unleash ‘all the volcanos of madness,’—threatening to destroy ‘the oldest laws and pacts.’

– James Miller, The Passion of Michel Foucault, 146-47 (The quotations within the quotation are mainly from Foucault’s [1962] article “Un si cruel savoir.)

Foucault is committed to the task, that is, of “peeling back” all cultural (humanly produced, whether intentional or not) influences, definitions, “historical aprioris,” etc. so as to arrive at the authentically human, at the authentic self. The procedure for such self transformation is connected to his talk of transgressing all limits and hence the necessity of cultivating for oneself various kinds of “limit experiences” (alcohol, fainting, exhaustion, heady literary effects of certain kinds of fiction, torture a la the Marquis de Sade, and–Foucault’s personal favorite–sado-massochism).

Once these limits are transgressed–and this is especially true for the absolute self-imposed limit experience of suicide–then one is finally free of all cultural constraints and is in touch with one’s “true self.”

Now, granted, this is not an example of traditional essentialism, where one identifies an object as a fixed instance of some genus or type of thing, hence having a fixed definition and classification. Nevertheless, there is a distinctively modern drive in Foucault to arrive at a final destination, a purely natural Ur reality, untrammeled by human culture, where one is free to be what one “truly is” (even if one is dead). (Note: it is clear to me in this context that the overall project of Derrida, who would never jump on Foucault’s metaphysical bandwagon here, is superior to Foucault’s.)

Contrast this zeal for pure nature with orthodox Christian theology, for which there is not brute nature and no brute human nature. For Scripture and tradition man is always-already conditioned and constrained by logos / language / culture / habit / politics,  by relationship with a logos-uttering God who is himself a community of persons.

For Christian theology there is no need to “peel back” all linguistic shaping, for there is no possibility of doing so.

 

 

 

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Posted on: June 25th, 2014 Mysticism & Temperament

There is a common assumption that mystics are born, not made. That they just appear in the the world with a certain calm, peaceful kind of temperament or natural disposition. As if the main ingredient in learning to tap into the deep wells of reality is a naturally tranquil life of the soul.

Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. I am convinced that the best mystics are the temperamentally addicted, afflicted, bi-polar, anxious, ADD, and vicious.

For starters, take the Buddha. Did he live a life of smooth tranquility prior to enlightenment? On the contrary, his story bears witness to the kind of turmoil that (necessarily?) precedes true spiritual peace: exclusion, isolation, fear, doubt, struggle.

Exhibit B: St. Bernard of Clairveaux. In his introduction the life of Bernard, Jean LeClerq emphasizes that Bernard’s temperament was competitive, vindictive, arrogant (due to his profound giftedness), and harsh. Yet, in the crucible of his many years of ascetic experience, his egotistical self gave way, and was transormed into to something sweet and beautiful … something strangely unique with its own distinct and savory flavor, as only a true saint of the Church can be. For Bernard, writes LeClerq, misery called unto mercy.

Finally, consider Thomas Merton, and the story he narrates in his autobiographical The Seven Story Mountain. Anyone who has read it will know that Merton was an arrogant, lustful, self-centered prick … by nature. But over time, and with many struggles, God transformed him into the kind of man who could write mystical prayers and passages like the world has never known. And who could tell the story of his transformation — the good, the bad, and the ugly — with honesty and humility.

So, what kind of person makes a good mystic? What kind of person, more than anyone else, ought to begin the practice of meditation? Not the calm. Not the serene. Not the self-controlled. On the contrary, show me a mystic who has plumbed the mysterious depths, and I will show you someone whom, almost certainly, was previously an unvirtuous ball of filth and fear who could barely make it through the day.

Real spiritual peace never comes easy. True mystics have had to “fight for it.” And that is very good news.

 

 

 

 

 

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Posted on: March 12th, 2014 [Barth] + [Catholic Ecclesiology] = [Bonaventure]

According Joseph Ratzinger, for Bonaventure the Bible, strictly speaking, is not revelation, since revelation is veiled within the “swaddling clothes” of the written letter of the biblical text. Rather, revelation is achieved when the reader by faith penetrates past the literal sense into the allegorical, and gains a _visio intellectualis_, which includes a God-given understanding of the “letter” / images of the text.

Now, 15 years ago, studying the Bible and theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, this would have sounded Barthian to my non-medieval, non-historical ears. And I would have chafed against the implication (an implication which Ratzinger raises in this very context) that such a view of revelation opens the floodgates of theology to the charge of individualistic subjectivism.

Enter Bonaventure’s (and Ratiznger’s) catholic ecclesiology, specifically their unwillingness to separate Scripture from the church’s interpretation of Scripture: “… the deep meaning of Scripture in which we truly find the ‘revelation’ and the content of faith is not left up to the individual. It has already been objectified in part in the teachings of the Fathers and in theology so that the basic lines are accessible simply by the acceptance of the Catholic faith, which — as it summarized in the _Symbolum_ — is a principle of exegesis. Here we find a new insight into the identification of _sacra scriptura_ and _theologia_.” (Ratzinger, Theology of History in St. Bonaventure, 66-67).

Hence the problem with Barth is not his denial of the text of Scripture as the Word of God, but rather modern Protestantism’s creeping individualism.

Oversimplified a bit, but still ….

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Posted on: February 20th, 2014 “Gender Fluid:” Men, Women, Elves & Dwarves

Near the end of (the film version of) Tolkien’s _The Return of the King_, at the final battle outside the dark gates of Mordor, the dwarf Gimli looks up at elf Legolas and says (something like), “I never thought I’d fight my last battle shoulder to shoulder with an elf, of all creatures!” To which Legolas replies, “How about with a friend?”

The category of “friend,” to Legolas’ (and Tolkien’s) way of thinking “runs deeper” than the demographic categories of “dwarf” and “elf.”

According to two Eastern Orthodox practitioners deeply committed for forming and nurturing virtuous Christians who can overcome their destructive passions by the grace of God in Christ, Saint Maximus the Confessor would say something similar … except that in this case the binary opposition is not “elf and dwarf” but rather “male and female.” Likewise the ground of unity that binds erstwhile antagonists together in a deeper unity, is not “friend,” but rather “priest.”

Maleness and femaleness in the thought of St. Maximus (thinking in the context of the Genesis 1 story and its development throughout the biblical narrative), is relativized by priesthood.

This, further, fits nicely into the ancient patristic conviction that “male” and “female” (what we late moderns would call “gender”) are fluid categories. Each one of us, that is, contains streams and dimensions of our soul (and our bodies) which are both “male” (such as the driving or insensive power) and “female” (such as the desiring power).

I might be more characterized by “maleness” than my wife is, but these are relative terms, and not at all fixed, static, or absolute.

Facebook has recently updated its “gender preferences” to include the category “gender fluid.” Odd though it may sound, such a development is consistent with ancient patristic theology, and, strictly speaking, a deeply traditional Christian, even on issues of sexual morality, could adopt this gender “preference” on her Facebook profile with complete theological integrity. Strictly speaking, all Chrisitans should.

I’m wondering, finally, if Facebook would be willing to add one more gender option: “priest.”

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Posted on: January 13th, 2014 Becoming a “People of the Book”

This is an article I wrote for my church‘s newsletter, “The Crucifer.”

If you were to walk down hallways of Christ Church, through the nave from the guild hall, you would come to my office, where, on the wall by my office door, you would see the sign: “Matt Boulter, Assist. Rector for Evangelism.” I still have to rub my eyes every time I see it; it seems too good to be true!

Though at times I feel that such a title is an impossibly huge title to fulfill, I do have a deep longing to bring people into Christian community, into a Christ-patterned way of life.

The Bible, oddly enough, is both a barrier to and a catalyst for such an endeavor. It represents both a challenge to and an opportunity for authentic evangelism.

It is a barrier and a challenge for folks on the outside of Christian community, who Christ calls to come and taste and see that the Lord is good. To enter into authentic relationship, leaving their tired isolation behind. This is because for most people in our world, the Bible is boring at best. At worst it is stifling or even oppressive.

I feel much sympathy for people who hold this view of Scripture, for they are simply imbibing the presentation of the Bible which they have been given.   All to often in our modern world (both outside the church and inside) the Bible is presented legalistically, sentimentally, or reductionistically.

Legalistically, as if the Bible were primarily a list of “do’s” and “don’ts,” rules to follow in order to earn “brownie points” with an angry God. Sentmentally, as if the Bible were a kind of therapeutic self-help book whose main purpose is to fill our hearts with warm feelings of blissful affection. Reductionistically, as if the Bible were a book which attempts to give an accurate history of the world or of certain peoples. (On this last view, both those who affirm the Bible’s historical accuracy as well as those who deny it fail to realize that historical accuracy is modern preoccupation which is quite foreign to the original writers and readers.)

Instead, what I’m all about is giving folks a taste of a very different kind of Bible. I believe (together with the great majority of pre-modern saints) in a Bible which is a world unto itself. I believe in a Bible which prefigures this community called the Body of Christ. I believe in a Bible which requires a life-long journey of learning to live well in order to begin to understand. I believe in a Bible which I cannot master, but which masters me, ordering and centering my life on the pattern of the death and resurrection of Christ.

I believe that the task of evangelism includes inviting people to reimagine the Bible, and the life which it narrates.

 To learn more about how our fathers and mothers in the faith regarded the Old and New Testaments, join Father Matt on the 3rd floor of Christ Church for his class “People of the Book: a Biography of the Bible,”or podcast the classes at http://fathermatt.libsyn.com/

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Posted on: November 26th, 2013 “So, What’s your Dissertation About?”

The following is an article I wrote for my church‘s newsletter, The Crucifer.

It happened again this week, just like it does every week.

 

Once again this week a dear friend in Christ and parishioner at Christ Church asked me about the academic side of my life. Often the form this question takes is “So, when do you finish up?”

 

What a joy it is to be engaged in real relationships within the body of Christ, and yet it is slightly awkward to explain to folks “Well, basically, it’s going to be a long time til I finish, especially since I just started the program a year ago.” Words cannot express the deep gratitude I have to the good people of Christ Church for enduring with me this long journey.

 

The form the question often takes, however, is, “So, what’s your dissertation about?” That’s how it happened this last week. So, I thought I’d take a few of paragraphs in the current issue of the Crucifer to articulate some thoughts about, and plans for, my doctoral dissertation.

 

I want to write about late medieval nominalism, which I regard – I’m just gonna come out and say it – as a bad thing.

 

You see, the medieval period is fascinating because, on the one hand, it is an extension of the classical world (think Plato & Aristotle), but with the radical infusion of biblical revelation and the ongoing response to that revelation which is called theology (think the Church Fathers & St. Augustine). At same time, it is an anticipation, in seedling form, of the modern era, the age of secularism. (For example in Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose various of the Franciscan monks are rightly portrayed as men of modern, scientific knowledge and critical thinking … men who deplore baseless superstition.) Hence my bourgeoning interest in things medieval: this period is the joint or nexus which, infused with biblical revelation, connects the classical world of antiquity to the secular world of modernity.  

 

Now, what about “nominalism?” What in the world is that? As the name implies, it has something to do with “names” (which for premoderns basically means “words”) and hence with language. In the development of late medieval nominalism a suspicion began to emerge that the words (and categories) we use to talk about the things in the world have no real connection to those things. Rather, they are sort of “made up” or “constructed.”

 

Now, that might seem hopelessly abstract to you, but consider a very pressing contemporary issue. Just this week Illinois (by no means a “blue state”) became the 19th state to opt for full recognition of “same-sex marriage.” Now, there are layers upon layer to the complicated and taxing issue of gay marriage, but one of them has to do with language. Is the word “marriage” simply a human construct? What about the words “male” and “female”, which appear in Genesis 2?

 

If we “made up” those terms and their meanings, then surely we can revise them. If they are merely humanly invented, then surely they can be humanly re-invented.

 

A late medieval nominalist, if he were consistent, would heartily affirm our culture’s current willingness to re-invent the meaning of terms which historically have been regarded as crucial to the underpinnings of the political well-being of society.

 

If we can trace the development of late medieval nominalism, however, then perhaps we can expose its false assumptions and its arbitrary moves. This, then, could go a long way to restoring the connection between our words and the things they refer to out there in world God made, his good creation which, while fallen, is redeemed in Christ.

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Posted on: October 10th, 2013 Charles Taylor & the “Two Speeds”

In A Secular Age Charles Taylor discusses the issue of the “two speeds” in the church. That is, at least since the rise of monasticism & St. Benedict, there has been in the church a kind of distinction between the ordinary “lay people” (Lat. laicus) and the more “spiritually advanced” members of holy orders, religious and “secular.”

What Taylor is doing in this book is (among other things) giving a kind of genealogical account of what intellectual and cultural developments led to the kind of secular world in which we live, in which (for example) atheism seems more obvious to people than historic Christian faith. The question is “How did the secular world come to be?”

One of the developments which Taylor points to is the attempt on the part of various and sundry reform movements, particularly throughout the medieval period, to “flatten out” the various distinctions among “religious” people and the ordinary secular folk. Of course, a primary movement like this is the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century.

Now anyone familiar with Taylor will know that he is not given to brash, unqualified positions. Rather, especially in a work like this one, he tries to be descriptive and nuanced. Thus it is at times a challenge to discern the precise role he imputes to such movements, let alone to detect his final evaluation of them.

And yet, it is difficult to resist the c0nclusion that such reform movements played a complicit role in the rise of the modern world, and to the extent, then, that this book is a subtle and complex critique of modern secularism, such movements are viewed with suspicion.

This account resonates with me. It is easy for me to lay much blame for the contemporary marginalization of theology and church at the feet of the Reformation in particular, although for many years I subscribed to the opposite view that the original Protestant movements (and subsequent communities which were loyal to them, such as British Presbyterianism) could be viewed as a kind of “counter-Enlightenment,” almost like a reformed & renewed version of medieval Christendom.

Yet this has not been my position for several years now, at least since my conversion to Anglicanism. I cannot now resist the temptation to view the 16th century Reformation as an essential ingredient of the rise of western modernity, and Taylor’s point about the Reformation’s attempt to flatten out the “two speeds” makes a lot of sense to me.

And yet, I do agree with John Milbank and others in Radical Orthodoxy that this is an example of a movement which – however destructive and ill-conducted – was in fact reaction against a real problem in the Catholic Church. That is, the ultimate cause or problem is, as always, within the Church’s “own house.” (Note that RO and similar movements are, when at their best, not just a critique of modern secularism but also of the conditions within the church and within Christendom which gave rise to modern secularism.)

In other words, even if Taylor is right to criticize the flattening out of the two speeds, it does not follow from this that the “dual speed arrangement” was legitimate in medieval Christian culture. Rather, the resources were always there in the Church, perhaps, to overcome this false dichotomy and to empower all the faithful to live the life of Christ to the fullest, in the deepest possible ways. (Two possible counterpoints would be what some would regard as the failure of halakhic Judaism, and Paul’s injunction to celibacy in I Cor 7.)

To this end, I appeal to Scripture, namely the Psalms and the “new covenant” which is described in Jeremiah 31 and Hebrews 10.

The psalms are replete with a celebration of delighting in the law of the LORD, and this certainly does not seem to be limited to some “higher class.” Rather, all people chanted such Psalms as Psalms 19 and 119 in the gathered assembly of the Temple (note that it is the simple who are made wise by the law in Ps 19:7):

Psa. 19:7       The law of the LORD is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the LORD is sure,
making wise the simple;

Psa. 119:1     Blessed are those whose way is blameless,
who walk in the law of the LORD!
Psa. 119:18     Open my eyes, that I may behold
wondrous things out of your law.
Psa. 119:29     Put false ways far from me
and graciously teach me your law!
Psa. 119:34     Give me understanding, that I may keep your law
and observe it with my whole heart.
Psa. 119:44     I will keep your law continually,
forever and ever…. (ESV)

In addition it is difficult for me to envision some kind of “remedial level” of spirituality as compatible with the “new covenant” language of Jeremiah 31, which implies a full penetration of intimate “cutting” in covenant with the Spirit of God.

“And they will not teach each other or say to one another ‘know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.” (Heb 8:11, quoting Jer 31:34, NRSV)

Seems like “one speed” to me.

 

 

 

 

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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: March 28th, 2013 Theories of Language: Derrida on Aristotle

Warning: this is a quite theoretical article, which many of my non-academic friends might find tedious!

In the first chapter of Of Grammatology, Derrida accuses Aristotle of launching the “metaphysics of presence” by positing a theory of language which Derrida thinks is critiqued and “shown up” by Sausurre’s theory of the sign. He cites Aristotle’s articulation in On Interpretation in which he says that even though language (speech and writing) is a matter of custom, the ideas of objects which people have in their minds are universal (and thus transparent to being).

Even though something in me wants to defend Aristotle, and even though Derrida is way too simplisitic in his accusation that the entire metaphysical tradition agrees with Aristotle here (counterexamples would be Augustine and Bonaventure, who appear to hold that all thought and perhaps all reality is mediated by language), I think that Derrida is correct in his critique of Aristotle here. Christian thinkers like Augustine and Bonaventure and John Milbank would (and do) agree with him. So would Mikhail Bakhtin.

Further Derrida is correct in his description of the tradition’s privileging of speech over writing.

In his explanation for why this is the case, however, he is wrong, or overly simplistic (again). Derrida misconstrues (as Pickstock shows in After Writing) the reasons why at least some streams of the tradition privilege speech over writing. It is not the assumption that speech gets us closer to a present subject which is the locus of metaphysical presence (how could such a possibility even be thought before Descartes?); it is rather that time has a certain priority over space, since time (as Plato says in the Timeaus) is a moving image of eternity. Time evokes (and particiatpes in?) eternity more than space does. Hence speech, which is time-bound, is prior to writing, which is space-bound.

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Posted on: February 19th, 2013 MacIntyre on Correspondence Theory

In his Whose Justice, Whose Rationality? Alasdair MacIntyre exposes a common and deep seated fallacy by which the disagreements between modern and nonmodern thinkers are destructively exacerbated.

It is often claimed that the “correspondence theory of truth” is the opposing alternative to the “coherence theory of truth” in which what counts for truth is the logical consistency between (sets of) propositions. Indeed, this is one of very first lessons in philosophical thinking, I vividly recall, which I received in my undergraduate studies.

On this schema it is usually claimed that the correspondence theory of truth sees truth as obtaining when propositions about the world link up to and “correspond with” the facts of the world.

But this presentation of the issues, both for those who embrace such a “correspondence” view (usually people who are thought of as “conservatives”) and those who reject it (today, often  people who identify as “postmodern relativists”), is an arbitrary development which took root in the seventeenth century. In this era certain thinkers began to think of “facts” as things in the world which are absolutely independent of human language, a view utterly foreign to previous thinkers such as Aristotle, Plato, Augustine, and Aquinas (and, indeed, Cornelius Van Til, who taught that there are “no brute facts”). For these thinkers (possibly excepting Van Til) truth is formulated in terms of adequation mentis ad rem (“the adequation of the mind to the thing”).

For them, it is not propositions which “line up with” the things of the world, but rather the knowing mind, which is — or is not — “adequated” to the things of the world. Language, then, is always, already constitutive of both the knowing mind and the things of the world.

There is no extra-linguistic realm from which the knowing mind can judge the truth or falsity of language propositions. Rather, the way in which truth advances is through the ongoing, multi-generational work of tradition(s), in which subsequent generations reflect upon the thought of previous generations, in light of new developments (culturally, corporately, etc.) which pose challenges to previously held doctrines.

 

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Posted on: January 28th, 2013 St. Augustine’s Basilica of Peace

On the architecture and the spatial layout of the Basilica Pacis (Basilica of Peace) at Hippo, where St. Augustine ministered, William Harmless writes,
Its ruins were excavated in the 1950’s, and its floor plan – 41 yards long, 20 yards wide – makes it one of the largest churches uncovered in Roman North Africa. It lay on the outskirts of town, away from the central marketplace with its old pagan temples. The first thing one would have noticed upon entering Augustine’s church was the flicker of flames from small oil lamps, filling the interior with a golden glow. The basilica’s floor, like that of many ancient churches, was inlaid with bright-colored mosaics. There were no pews. The congregation stood, men on one side, women on the other. Services could draw packed audiences. “The great numbers,” Augustine once noted, “crowd right up the walls; they annoy each other by the pressure and almost choke each other by their overflowing numbers.” The altar, unlike that found in medieval and many modern churches, stood in the center of the nave and was surrounded by wood railings. At the basilica’s far end [east end, I am guessing] was a semi-circular apse, lined with stone benches where the presbyters sat. At the apse’s center, slightly elevated, was the bishop’s seat (cathedra). From here Augustine presided and preached.
– Harmless, William, S.J. Augustine in his own Words Washington, DC: Catholic UP, 2010.
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Posted on: January 15th, 2013 Why St. Augustine?

I wrote this short piece for my church newsletter, the Crucifer.

For my Christian Formation class this Spring, we are studying the Confessions of St. Augustine. I thought I’d take a few minutes and explain why we have decided to look at this magisterial work. I can think of three reasons which have motivated this decision.

First, the Confessions narrates a story about exit and return. You see I frequently have parents and grandparents from Christ Church approach me with heavy hearts, burdened by the perceived lack of interest in spiritual things on the part of their children and grandchildren. In fact, even in my previous denomination (a very evangelical denomination) studies have shown dramatic trends of young adults leaving the church, a new reality leading to the sobering realization that even the most evangelical denominations in the US are declining numerically.

And yet, on page 298 of our Prayer Book, it states that the bond which God establishes in baptism is indissoluble. Which means that those who, like the prodigal son of Luke 15, journey far away from God’s people into what St. Augustine calls “the region of dissimilarity” can be prayed for, with the expectation that they will return. (This primeval pattern of exitus et reditu runs deep throughout the western tradition, beginning with Odysseus’ journey in the Odyssey and can even be seen in God the Son’s journey from and back to his eternal Father.) It is just this kind of prayer which St. Augustine’s godly mother, Monica, engaged in for decades. At times it looked hopeless, and yet Augustine’s is a story of eventual return to the God who calls us home, thanks to the fervent and persevering prayers of his faithful mother.

Second, the Confessions narrates the story of a man who was living in, and interacting with, a highly pluralistic culture. The young Augustine was passionate in his search for truth, a search which would take him through the Stoicism of Cicero,  then through the dualism of Manicheanism,[*] then through neo-Platonic philosophy, and finally to the eventual landing point of Christian theology. What is interesting, however, is that Augustine believed that both Cicero and Neoplatonism were redolent with God’s truth. He considered Cicero a “righteous pagan,” and neoplatonism as a prologue to the Gospel. In fact, Augustine’s last words were a quotation of Cicero!

This situation could not be more relevant to our own time, and to the lives of many Christ Church folks (and to their friends and loved ones) as they make their way in a highly pluralistic world in which we constantly face such influences as the rise of neo-paganism, a cultural development which will only intensify in our increasingly connected global information age.

Finally,  the Confessions is a story which deals, in a brutally honest way, with the disturbing and often perplexing nature of human desire. In fact, this is perhaps the most interesting point of all for me personally. Why, do you think, Augustine eventually rejected these competing world views and eventually embraced the Good News of Jesus Christ? It was not simply because he found them to be rationally less compelling than the Christian story. Rather, it was because he continually failed to live up to the ethical and moral standards which they taught. Stoicism, Manicheanism, and Neoplatonism all commended lifestyles of the highest moral caliber, and Augustine simply could not live up.

Not until he dealt with his desires (for sex, for food and drink, for fame) could he finally begin to live a life of satisfaction and coherence. As he prays near the beginning of the Confessions: “Lord, you made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You.”



[*] The heretical system of Manicheanism was dualistic in that it taught that good and evil are equally ultimate in the universe.

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Posted on: December 1st, 2012 “Brother Ass:” St. Francis & this Mortal Body

I thought I had something on my blog about this, but I guess I don’t.

Gotta love St. Francis. This is from http://www.ewtn.com/library/mary/francis.htm.

Because the body was meant to carry burdens, to eat scantily and coarsely, and to be beaten when sluggish or refractory, Francis called it Brother Ass. When, early in his new life, he was violently tempted, he threw himself naked into a ditch full of snow. Again when tempted like Benedict he plunged into a briar patch and rolled about until he was torn and bleeding. Yet before he died he asked pardon of his body for having treated it so cruelly; by that time he considered excessive austerities wrong, especially if they decreased the power to labor. He had no use for eccentricity for its own sake. Once when he was told that a friar so loved silence that he would confess only by signs, his comment was, “That is not the spirit of God but of the Devil, a temptation, not a virtue.”

Francis was reverently in love with all natural phenomena—sun, moon, air, water, fire, flowers; his quick warm sympathies responded to all that lived. His tenderness for and his power over animals were noted again and again. From his companions we have the story of his rebuke to the noisy swallows who were disturbing his preaching at Alviano: “Little sister swallows, it is now my turn to speak; you have been talking enough all this time.” We hear also of the birds that perched attentively around when he told them to sing their Creator’s praises, of the rabbit that would not leave him at Lake Trasymene, and of the tamed wolf of Gubbio—all incidents that have inspired innumerable artists and story tellers.

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Posted on: October 17th, 2012 Imagination & the Emergence of Modernity (a “Taste”)

 

Lots of people in my life (especially my wife Bouquet) are making some big sacrifices so that I can work on my doctorate in philosophy at the University of Dallas (even as a remain a full-time, active priest at Christ Church in Tyler), and that is deeply humbling. From time to time I look for ways to give them a little “taste” of the sorts of things I am doing, the sorts of things they are sacrificing for.

This is a paper I wrote this week in a class entitled “Philosophy of Imagination” about the early modern “projection of experience” and “construction of a new science of nature.”

Is the story of the modern imagination basically, or even largely, that of a transformation from passive imitation to active creation? Certainly much of the literature in the field posits such a transition. Douglas Hedley notes as much when he writes that many “histories of the imagination … present a shift from conceiving the imagination as essentially representing or mimetic to the productive or creative model of the imagination in the modern period.”[1]

While, as I will argue, one does accurately perceive a shift in this direction, significant exceptions can be found: Plotinus’ construal of the imagination was fiercely creative, while that of Hobbes’ was notably passive.[2] Further, one should note that Aristotle does put forth a kind of notion of productive imagination, hinted at in  De Anima III.10 (though nowhere else).[3] These exceptions notwithstanding, such a development can indeed be traced from the premodern to the modern period, specifically seen in the Enlightenment rationalism embodied by Descartes and Kant. (Plato, for whom the immortality or the reincarnation of the soul [eg, Meno 81b ff] is an assumption underlying his doctrines of anamnesis and maieutic education, conforms to this overall pattern, and is not an exception to it.)

However it is one thing to assert this claim, which I do, and something else to give an account of it. Before attempting to do so, I offer two brief caveats.

The first regards the approach of the British Empiricists (Hume, Berkeley, Hobbes) to the imagination and images. While I do admit that their construal of the imagination lacks the productive element of the rationalists (Descartes and Kant), at the same time I think that they are reacting to the same underlying shifts which “force” or prompt the rationalists to begin innovatively to impute to the imagination productive powers. Put rather simply, for both the rationalists and the empiricists the emerging modern world loses “the imitated” (or “the imitatable”). With the nascent rise of a new physics, seen most acutely in the displacement of Aristotelian form-in-substance by more mathematic and mechanistic conjectures of nature (I’m thinking of the trajectory from Copernicus to Kepler / Descartes), there is now no longer anything, so to speak, worthy of imitation, for machines and corpuscles[4] and mathematical formula are not as compelling in their attractive sway as are their ancient and medieval predecessors. The Enlightenment rationalist tradition, beginning with Descartes and then bolstered by Kant’s reaction to Hume (ie, Kant’s need to “save the appearances”), responds to the emerging cosmological physics differently than does the empiricist tradition (for the representatives of whom it is simply the case that appearances alone remain); both parties, however, are reacting to the same developments.[5]   To suggest that the human person imitates a measureable machine is to suggest that she herself is something of a machine: the British empiricists show a willingness to embrace this conclusion; the continental rationalists react against it by rejecting it.[6]

A second caveat, necessary for the first: it is understandably tempting to see Aristotle as more closely resembling or foreshadowing the modern loss of participatory imitatio than Plato, but this is not necessarily the case. It is true that, for Plato, the participated (or the participatable) lies “outside of” the soul more than for Aristotle. Hence it seems that for Plato one participates in something (this is true both in the Meno and in the Republic), whereas for Aristotle it is more accurate to speak of a mutual participation occurring between the knower and the thing known. This mutual participation for Aristotle works according the dynamic of identity qua form: the knowing mind and the object known are identical qua form. We will address the impact of the loss of form later in this essay. For now, however, suffice to say that while Aristotle’s gnoseology is more “imminent” in some ways than that of Plato, it nevertheless is equally as eclipsed by modern shifts in the metaphysics of nature as is Plato’s. “Form,” for each respective ancient thinker, might be quite different, but both are equally distant from the “universal mathematical physics” of Kepler, which seems to have played a key role in birthing the new perspective of the likes of Descartes and Newton.[7]

With these caveats behind us, I will now do three things: I will demonstrate that the modern approach to images begins with much the same framework of psychology as pre-modern thought does (here we take Descartes as representative); I will then elaborate on the ways in which Descartes and Kant project experience and construct a scientia of nature which innovates the received, antique tradition; finally, I will attempt more precisely to account for why this development took place historically in the way that it did.

First, we see that the emerging modern approach to images begins with much the same framework of psychology (or “faculty theory”) as pre-modern thought does. For both approaches, it holds that:[8]

  • · The sensitive powers involve at least an awareness of aspects of things.
  • · The intellectual powers proper operate at the level of universal concepts, abstractions, and generalizations, whereas the sensitive powers deal with sensory aspects of individual things.
  • · The “thought-like” activity of animals (which seem to involve memory) such as a dog burying a bone, are (for medieval thinkers) closer to the external senses than to the intellect (locating them, hence, somewhere within the internal sensitive faculty).
  • · Cognitive psychology is predicated on the division of sensibles into common sensibles (aesthesis koine, which can be communicated to more than one sense organ) and proper sensibles (certain things can be perceived only by the eye, for example).
  • · Thinking about such behavior in nonrational animals provides an impetus for thinking more deeply (intus legere) about the internal sense powers of the animal, including of the rational animal.[9]
  • · The sense organs infallibly receive the proper sensibles, although the reasons for or the justification of this infallibility differ between, for example, Aristotle and Descartes.
  • · Both have “an ontologically grounded epistemology.” This is so (among other reasons) because of “the remnants of corporeal magnitude” in the phantasm, for both, for example, Aristotle and Descartes.

With these areas of commonality in mind, one now must acknowledge that premodern psychology (that is, premodern “faculty theory” employed in order to account for how the mind can truly know objects) is incompatible with the emerging modern physics, particularly insofar as the latter gives measurement, mathematics, and discreet units a much larger and more constitive role in nature. Because of this, the major approaches to psychology must needs change. Two developments, in particular, now take place: the projection of experience and the construction of a new scientia of nature.

“Projection of experience” refers to a description of how our minds are connected to the things of the world. We see the beginnings of a kind of projection of experience in Descartes who, in Rule XII of the Regulae, posits that the only objects or realities which the sense organs receive are the “purely material natures” of shape, extension, and motion, a move which requires that that the ingenium supply other features, such as color, to the “objects” of our daily experience. Nevertheless this projection intensifies dramatically with Kant, who now internalizes his version of the Descartes’ perceived natures as structural features within the knower and transcendental functions of the imagination.

All of this is a far cry from Aristotle, for whom the communication of form metaphysically and mutually integrates the soul (including the imagination) and the things perceived.  It is also a far cry from Plato, whose transcendent condition of possibility for knowledge (seen specifically in the sun analogy of the Republic) now becomes (for Kant) transcendental, for now knowledge is made possible not by that which transcends the mind (thus providing an excess of meaning in which the mind participates), but rather that which structures and conditions the mind and its powers and functions.

In contradistinction to “projection of experience,” I understand “the construction of a scientia of nature” to be more of an evaluative and recommended method of theory and practice by which we learn truths about nature.[10] This development is seen more clearly in Descartes, given his intense focus on method, and so here I focus on him. In Descartes we see the transfiguration of an ancient approach into something similar-but-different, for Aristotilian form (that which is communicated to the intellect) becomes for Descartes a kind of abstracted “image” consisting of simple natures such as extension and shape.

At this point one must pause and mention Plato’s Meno, the text of which literally displays two-dimensional figures not totally unlike those found in Rule XII Descartes’ Regulae. The two sets of images, however, are fundamentally different. For in the Meno they serve as an imaginative work of creation employed to pedagogical purposes. In Descartes, however, they are his literal representation (albeit loosely affirmed) of the corporeal impression received by the sense organs.

While it is important to note that proportionality is included in the respective authors’ deployment of their respective sets of images, the additional salient point for the purposes of this paper is that Descartes’ representation is a kind of preliminary step toward his further developed mathematical rules which he lays out in subsequent works. Like the images of the Regulae (but unlike Socrates’s images in the Meno), these mathematical units are the actual constituents of reality, the actual stuff which of which nature is, for Descartes, composed. It follows, then, that if we are to understand, and indeed to master, nature, we must employ highly sophisticated, mathematical tools. These Descartes attempts to give us in his later works.

My final consideration in this paper is a remark about how this shift comes about historically.[11] My suggestion is that it comes about because of a loss of confidence in the power of words to denominate things in the world. That is, the genealogy of this modern shift is inescapably connected with late medieval nominalism.

Aristotle says that “nature is what happens, or almost always happens” (De partibus animalium 663b 27ff).[12] Notice the complete lack of concern, typically premodern, for whether we know things. Aristotle takes it for granted that we do … but why? He takes it for granted for a reason different than that of the medievals such as Thomas. For them the doctrine of creation, a theological doctrine rooted in divine revelation, is the guarantee that words have meaning. But Aristotle’s reason for indifference to skepticism has more to do with something like a kind of coherence theory. David Charles writes that for Aristotle,

Terms such as “man” or “gold” have their significance because they signify a distinct natural kind whenever they are coherently uttered. They could not retain their significance and apply to a different object or a different kind…. Aristotle developed his metaphysical theory of substance and essence to answer this question and thus to underwrite and legitimize his account of names.[13]

What lies between Aristotle and Descartes historically is late medieval nominalism, frequently and correctly associated with William of Ockham. Thus begins a loss in the confidence that universals are real things. If this confidence begins to fade, then it becomes much easier to negate the older metaphysics.[14]   Indeed if Aristotle’s metaphysics[15] are posited because words have meaning, then the emerging shift, rooted in skeptical mistrust of sense perception, approaches logical necessity.

In conclusion, I do think that, in terms of the construal of the imagination, a certain shift has taken place from a more imitative posture to a more productive stance, both in terms of the projection of experience and the construction of a science of nature. We can see this double development in Descartes and its extension and intensification (specifically with regard to the former) in Kant’s transcendental idealism. The primary driver in this shift has to do with emergent developments in physics, current at the time of these thinkers, especially insofar as these developments reconstitute nature and thereby eclipse the metaphysics of their antique predecessors.

 

Works Cited

 Charles, David. “Aristotelianism,” in Ted Honderich, ed., The Oxford Guide to Philosophy (Oxford: OUP, 2005).

Gaukroger, Stephen. “Corpuscularism” in Ted Honderich, ed., The Oxford Guide to Philosophy (Oxford: OUP, 2005).

Hedley, Douglas. Living Forms of the Imagination (New York: T&T Clark, 2008).

Feyerabend, Paul. “The history of the philosophy of science,” in Ted Honderich, ed., The Oxford Guide to Philosophy (Oxford: OUP, 2005).

Sepper, Dennis L. Descartes’s Imagination: Proportion, Images, and the Activity of Thinking (Berkeley:  University of California Press,  1996).

Turner, Denys. “On Denying The Right of God: Aquinas On Atheism And Idolatry,” Modern Theology 20:1 January 2004.

Stephenson, Bruce. Kepler’s Physical Astronomy (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1994).



[1] Douglas Hedley, Living Forms of the Imagination (New York: T&T Clark, 2008), 16.

[2] Living Forms, 18, 51. In fact, as we shall see, the British Empiricism can be seen as a significant exception to this rule.

[3] I note that, as Sepper points out in a class lecture, that Aristotle’s approach here is far from a fully developed creative aesthetics of the imagination.

[4] I employ this term because some philosophers argue that Descartes was a “corpuscularist,” a claim the analysis of which lies beyond the scope of this paper. See Stephen Gaukroger’s entry “Corpuscularism” in Ted Honderich, ed., The Oxford Guide to Philosophy (Oxford: OUP, 2005), 178.

[5] Hence, they are, in Aristotelian terms, “opposite sciences” which are really “one and the same” in terms of their common genus. Aristotle: “Eadem est scientia oppositorum,” Peri Hermeneias, 6, 17a 33–35. I am indebted to Denys Turner for this insight. Denys Turner, “On Denying The Right of God: Aquinas On Atheism And Idolatry,” Modern Theology 20:1 January 2004.

[6] This rejection, in turn, places the burden of proof, so to speak, upon the rationalists to account for how the mind can know the things of the world, which also entails the (now questionable) affirmation of the existence of such things (contra Berkeley).

[7] See Bruce Stephenson, Kepler’s Physical Astronomy (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1994).

[8] This material is taken from Dennis L. Sepper, Descartes’s Imagination: Proportion, Images, and the Activity of Thinking (Berkeley:  University of California Press,  1996), 14ff.

[9] Cf Descartes’ Meditation IV in his Meditations on First Philosophy.

[10] Though I hasten to add that both this projection and this construction are imaginative acts of poiesis.

[11] To specify what is perhaps already obvious, I take this account to be genealogical in nature.

[12] Paul Feyerabend, “The history of the philosophy of science,” in Ted Honderich, ed., The Oxford Guide to Philosophy (Oxford: OUP, 2005), 851.

[13] David Charles, “Aristotelianism,” in Ted Honderich, ed., The Oxford Guide to Philosophy (Oxford: OUP, 2005), 53.

[14] This metaphysics, it must be stated (though space prohibits elaboration), includes not just form-in-substance but also a four-fold (as opposed to the modern one-or-two-fold) account of causation.

 

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