Posted on: March 9th, 2015 Zizek & Newman: “Believing at a Distance”

In his (admittedly highly eccentric) would-be defense of Christian orthodoxy, Slavoj Zizek chides us moderns for the chronological snobbery which strangely betrays our naive ignorance:

Was there … at any time in the past, an era when people directly ‘really believed?’ As Robert Pfaller demonstrated in Illusionen der Anderen, the direct belief in a truth that is subjectively fully assumed (“Here I stand!”) is a modern phenomenon, in contrast to traditional beliefs-through-distance, like politeness or rituals. Premodern societies did not believe directly, but through distance, and this explains, for instance, why Enlightenment critics misread ‘primative’ myths–they first took the notion that a tribe originated from a fish or a bird as literal direct belief, then rejected it as stupid, “fetishist,” naive. They thereby imposed their own notion of belief on the “primitivized” Other.

Now consider (Jaroslav Pelikan on) Newman:

By contrast with … the eagerness to be explicit about everything possible (in Lewis Carroll’s phrase, ‘to believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast’), the tradition of orthodoxy, in Newman’s reading, had always observed a reverent restraint.

Pelikan goes on to point out that for Newman (or Newman’s reading of Church Fathers such as Athanasius and Gregory Nazianzus), in its precreedal history “the content of the apostolic tradition had remained secret” in important ways.

Here Zizek resonates with Pelikan’s Newman in their common indictment of the (post)modern tendency–on the part both of believers who embrace it and their cultured despisers who reject it but project it onto ancient people of faith–to posit direct, literal, irreverent and unrestrained belief.

Nobody ever, Zizek is arguing, believed like that. Hence his claim that “we believe today more than ever.”

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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: October 16th, 2014 “Pass[ing] Understanding:” Liturgy, Thomas, & Van Til’s Oversimplification

“And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God….”

These words constitute (along with others) the “final blessing” or “benediction” at the end of the Holy Eucharist, both Rites I & II, from the 1979 Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.

For years I have pondered the claim of Cornelius Van Til, not just that human reason is “fallen,” that is, debilitated in some way as a result of the Fall of Humanity, but that medieval thinkers, and St. Thomas Aquinas in particular, erroneously hold that human reason, after the fall, remains in its pristine, pre-lapsarian state, and is thus not fallen.

(Not sure if there are sill any serious “vantillians” out there nowadays, but still….)

At the end of a service of Holy Eucharist a few months ago, while con-celebrating with a fellow presbyter at my home parish, I believe that I had an insight into why Van Til is basically wrong. Further, I think that this “case study” is a good example of a deeper problem which characterizes the thought of many conservative evangelicals, even those who are relatively rigorous academically.

Here’s how it happened. My fellow priest who was celebrating on this particular occasion a few weeks ago, inserted the word “human” into the final benediction of the liturgy: “… the peace of God which passeth all human understanding, keep your heart….” [italics mine] This “spontaneous” insertion into the liturgy caught my attention, not merely because I generally regard such insertions as unnecessary, superfluous, and pernicious (participating as they do in the modern enlightenment Romantic tendency toward “expressive individualism”), but also just because it was not clear to me that it was accurate.

That is, it was not at all clear to me that, in fact, the “peace of God” here passes some understanding that is specifically and distinctively human.

Now, of course, I “get” the intention of the celebrant. (And, in the spirit of full disclosure I myself “experimented” with this spontaneous emendation a couple of times myself.) His point was that, surely, nothing can possibly surpass the understanding of God.

But it is precisely here that the folly of such expressive individualism lies, for according to the tradition — as seen, for example, in Plato and St. Thomas — there is no understanding that is not human.  That is, there is no such thing as a “divine understanding.”

Understanding, in short, is a human thing. Only humans (that is, rational animals) know by that discursive process called “understanding.” For Plato (as seen in the penultimate segment of his “line” image in Book VI of the Republic the term here is dianoia (“knowing through”), while for Thomas in the Summa Theologiae it is ratio. For Thomas, God (as well as angels) does not know by “rationization” … he knows things directly, through the simplicity of God’s divine self (which is to say, not through anything at all).

OK, back to Van Til. Van Til says that for Thomas “reason is not fallen.” But this is a horrible oversimplification, for it fails to distinguish between the kind of knowing that humans (characteristically) “do” and the kind of knowing that God “does.” What humans do is dianoia / ratio; what God (and angels … and perhaps exceptional cases in which humans achieve a kind of unmediated knowledge, such as perhaps what St. Augustine reports in Bk VII of the Confessions) does is noesisintellectus.

Does the peace of God pass all understanding? Yes, because only humans “do” understanding; God does not. Hence, the qualification of “human” inserted into “the peace of God which passeth understanding” is not just superfluous but a kind of category mistake.

Does Thomas think that “reason” is fallen? Contra Van Til, yes he does: dianoia / ratio, as a human activity or faculty, is impaired by man’s sin and the fall. However, noesis / intellectus is not fallen, and it might just be possible that maybe just maybe human beings can participate in this divine activity, by grace.

Be that as it may, while the peace of God surely does surpass ratio (which is by definition human), there is no way it could possibly surpass intellectus (which is by definition divine and / or angelic).



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Posted on: August 19th, 2014 If I don’t control my appetites …

If I don’t learn to control my appetites, I will end up drunk in a ditch on the side of the road.

If I don’t learn to control my appetites, I will get type two diabetes and probably die of cancer at an early age.

If I don’t learn to control my appetites, eventually my wife will leave me and I will lose my ministry and my kids will grow up damaged and dysfunctional.

All of this (and more) I believe. After all, “… the fruit of the Spirit is … self-control….” (Gal 5:22-3).

But if one wants to control her appetites, then maybe it would be a tad helpful to know what an appetite actually is. (For appetites manifestly are not controlled by “trying harder.”)

Enter Thomas Aquinas, who has some very interesting things to say about appetite and the larger issue of desire.

By the way, as an Anglican priest I’d be remiss not to mention that our Book of Common Prayer is replete with references to desire, not least the Collect for Purity: Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secretes are hid: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy holy spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy name: through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Indeed, desire is what the Christian life is all about. (John Piper gets this right with his “Christian Hedonism,” in my opinion, albeit in a truncated way which leaves much to be desired — no pun intended.)

For example Thomas insists that, though all people do not choose God, all people do nevertheless desire God.

He also teaches that if a thing exists, then it has appetite. So rocks have appetite, as do trees, earthworms, chimps, human beings, angels (what Thomas sometimes, in a more metaphysical mode, calls “intelligences”), even God himself. Appetite is the tendency that a thing has to “complete” itself, to strive for its telos.

For Thomas the appetite, like the external sense organs of eye, ear, nose, etc., are passive. They require an object if they are to be “activated.” But the object required to activate or to “ignite” the appetite is no ordinary object. It is a fusion of various “inputs,” the result of a chain of psychic steps which include sense impression, synthesis by the common sense, and “intention.”

What, you ask, is an “intention?” For Thomas an intention is a kind of psychic apprehension (performed in nonrational animals by natural instinct, and in humans by the evaluative faculty known as the vis cogatitiva) by which an object is imbued with self interest. That is, a lamb grasps by natural instinct that a lion is a threat; a human being (who happens to be an entrepreneur) grasps that a market opportunity will create wealth which will lead to creaturely comfort.

More on appetite forthcoming. For now, if you want to control your appetites, perhaps you should know what they are, and how they work.

For more, see Nicholas Lombardo, The Logic of Desire: Aquinas on Emotion, ch. 1.)

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Posted on: August 12th, 2014 Everything’s Doing It: Being’s Appetite

Nicholas E. Lombardo, O.P. does a great job of showing how, for Thomas, human psychology is rooted in metaphysics. To see this one need only to note that in ST I 5 the Angelic Doctor establishes that being is convertible with the good (everything that exists is good, and vice-versa), and that the good is that which is desirable, or “appetible.”

Hence all existing things, and not just animals (rational or otherwise) are characterized by desire or appetite: they all strive toward their perfection / fulfilment / telos.

As Lombardo rightly concludes: “Consequently, for Thomas, all being is ecstatic.” (Lombardo, _Logic of Desire_, 26).

Prior to reading this book, had someone asked me, “Why, for Thomas, is all being ecstatic?” I probably would not have known what to say. In fact, last semester I read deeply in John Wippel’s The Metaphysical Thought of Thomas Aquinas, and while I do recall his emphasis that being is “pure act,” I don’t recall him connecting being’s activity or ecstasis specifically to desire or appetite.

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Posted on: August 12th, 2014 Thomistic Brain Science? (Initial Thoughts)

From the perspective of theological anthropology, what should one make of contemporary “brain science?” That is, when you are at a conference and the scientific expert is locating various human activities (fear, abstract thinking, anger, etc.) in various specific parts of the brain, is this coherent from a theological point of view?

It is tempting for me (as a traditionalist Christian) to say, “No, because abstract thinking, for example, is not spatially located.” (You see, I am not a material reductionist; I believe in an immaterial soul, at least in human beings.)

But wait. This is where Thomas comes in. Thomas would distinguish between, say, fear on the one hand, and “universal reason” on the other.  For Thomas, the former _is_ spatially localizable, since nonrational animals fear (fear is a passion, which results when the animal’s sense appetite is moved by the perception of an intention), and the (nonrational) animal psyche (and all psychic powers of the nonrational animal) is corporeal without remainder (Lombardo, _Logic of Desire_ 24).

However, for Thomas “abstract thinking,” or what he would call “universal reason” occurs only in rational animals, and is an activity which takes place in and through the immaterial intellect, which is thus not spatially localizable.

However, does it necessarily follow from this claim that “universal reason” is unrelated to local parts of the brain? I don’t think so. It may well be the case that a specific part of the brain is necessary for universal reason to take place. (After all, the same thing can be said for the external senses, which are spatially localizable.)

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Posted on: August 11th, 2014 Scratching Where it Itches: What is Emotion?

I am interesting in showing the modern provenance of the contemporary idea of emotion, demonstrating its innovative character as a rupture from premodern accounts of human experience rooted in Aristotle’s view of the soul and the tradition of virtue.

In his The Logic of Desire: Aquinas on Emotion, Nicholas E. Lombardo, OP gives a brief account of the development of thinking about emotion in recent modernity.

A key issue in thinking about this is: what role does the body play?

William James, “What is an Emotion?” 1884 – “Our natural way of thinking about … emotions is that the mental perception of some fact excites the mental affection called the emotion, and that this latter state of mind gives rise to the bodily perception. My thesis on the contrary is that the bodily changes follow directly the PERCEPTION of the exciting fact, and that our feeling of the same changes as they occur IS the emotion.

So for James an emotion is the feeling of a perception-induced bodily change, not a mental affection that gives rise to a “bodily perception.”

James identification of emotion as bodily feeling has antecedents in Hume’s theory of the passions.

Although critics of James’ view (such as Walter Cannon) emerged, emotion-as-bodily-feeling was convenient to behaviorism (with its “purposeful avoidance of interior phenomena”) and logical positivism (with its “reduction of ethics to irrational emotivism”). On this view emotions are regarded as “physiological and nonrational,” and hence have little to do with philosophy.

But eventually Anglo-American philosophy began to shift toward a cognitive account of emotion, with the publication of Errol Bedford’s “Emotions” in 1957. Bedford argues that “emotions have a cognitive dimension that theories of emotion as pure feelings cannot explain.” 11

Then Anthony Kenney publishes an article in which he argues that emotions are “intentional,” that is, “directed toward definite objects.” Next: George Pitcher argues that emotions are interior sensations, contra Hume and James. After the subsequent work of Magda Arnold and the emergence of a new interest in cognition in philosophy and psychology, “cognitive accounts of emotion have since become dominant.”

This is true for Martha Nussbaum and Robert Solomon. Solomon maintains that emotions are inner judgements, while Nussbaum has developed a “neo-Stoic ‘cognitive-evaluative’ view, according to which emotions are forms of evaluative judgment that ascribe to certain things and persons outside one’s control great importance for a person’s own flourishing.” Bodily feeling, thinks Nussbaum, sometime accompanies emotion but is not essential to it.

Which of the two views: the more body-centered one of James & company, or the more cognitive one of Solomon / Nussbaum, is more Christian, more consistent with a Christian anthropology? That (among other things) is what I’m hoping to find out.


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Posted on: August 9th, 2014 Boethius & the Maiming of Metaphysics

What is the relationship between metaphysics and the revealed “system” of doctrinal truth called theology?

Some – such as 20th century “manual theologian” Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange – see a relationship of extreme continuity such that the two disciplines “overlap” almost totally. Others, often working in the post-metaphysical wake of Martin Heidegger, think that any would-be metaphysical determination of God participates in “ontotheology” or the metaphysics of presence, and is thus an example of conceptual idolatry, completely failing to speak truthfully of the “God of the philosophers” (to quote Paschal, the Jansenist precursor of this movement). A prime example of this stance is postmodern Catholic philosopher Jean-Luc Marion.

I read Boethius’ De Trinitate in light of this controversial question. To that end I seek to apply the vocabulary of Augustine and Aquinas: Augustine who equates his project with that of Aristotle (and Plato), Aquinas who redefines the terms in light of the Aristotle-induced controversy of 13th century Paris.
What we find in the De Trinitate is a middle ground or a third way: in the spirit of Augustine Boethius extends of the Augustinian project of metaphysical wisdom, but in a striking way he anticipates Thomas’ distinction between theology and metaphysics.

In the end what we can say is that Boethius’s De Trinitate is a fecund exhibit of revelation’s impact upon metaphysics, and that in three ways. In light of revelation, Boethius teaches that:
1. Man – Aristotle’s stock example of an individual substance – is demoted to a status which fails to meet the minimum requirements for substantiality.
2. God – the paradigm of esse for Aristotle – is placed “beyond substance” and thus beyond being.
3. Relationality – in Aristotle’s Categories placed in the backwaters of metaphysical insubstantiality – is now elevated to the supreme category, the only one (of the ten) worthy of unqualified divine description.

In the light of this triple reconfiguration the “impact” mentioned above seems so deep as to approach impairment. In fact I suggest that what we see in this theological tractate is the “theological maiming of metaphysics.” However, in the divine economy this kind of impairment serves a redemptive purpose, as we see in the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel.

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Posted on: July 12th, 2014 Milbank on the Ethics of Plato’s _Republic_

Notes on Milbank’s Remarks at “Faith and Secularism: the Moral Resourcing of the Nation,”

held at Westminster Abbey in London, Nov. 12, 2012.

As opposed to the tradition of virtue ethics, modern ethical theories tend to reduce down to deontological (ie, Kantian) approaches or utilitarian ethics. The former privilege freedom, particularly freedom of choice, and the corresponding importance of “human rights” construed in merely negative terms. The latter sees ethical goods as fundamentally measurable, and so the evaluation of political policies and so on reduces down to units of stuff.

Virtue ethics on the other hand insists that these things don’t really make us happy, they don’t really lead to human flourishing. Instead, the virtue tradition of Plato and Aristotle says that the kinds of activities that constitute our flourishing are contemplation of the divine, participation in the political life of the city, and the enjoyment of friendship.

Another key distinction between virtue ethics on the one hand and modern approaches on the other is that the latter focus on the performance of individual acts, whereas the former focus on the kind of character produced by a life lived over time.

Utilitarianism leads to an emphasis on auditing managerial solutions to ethics, while freedom-based approaches imply that as long as something is not against the law, it is fine.

Both Milbank and Hobbs agree on all of this. Yet Milbank thinks that Hobbs’ advocacy of a return to the ethical approach of Plato is “odd,” given the fact that in a pluralistic society which has been radically shaped by a) perceived violence stemming from the so-called wars of religion, and b) the concomitant banishment of the transcendent from all public discourse there is no way to adjudicate the different perspectives advocated in society, no way to agree on the common good or what humans are for (much less the wise means to achieve that end).

Hence, Milbank is arguing, a real return to Plato is mutually exclusive with secularism. For Plato, that is, religion, or the desire for the good / the true / the beautiful which is above reason and thus “guides reason,” is inseparable from his ethics. A return the Platon, Milbank suggests, involves a return to religion.

Religion, then, for Plato, is required to bring our passions and our thumos into order. Reason alone cannot do it. Morality is not simply a matter of self-control, with reason “being on top of the passions and thumos.”[1] Indeed, if morality were simply a matter of the hegemony of reason alone, that is the moral simply is the rational, then it would be perfectly moral (since it is perfectly rational) for a person to seek to amass as much power as he can. The pursuit of power is in this case perfectly reasonable and hence perfectly rational.

Rather, contemplation of the forms allows us to develop a sense of phronesis, by which we (intuitively?) know when and how to enjoy pleasure, to insist on our own honor & respect (including self-respect), etc. “There are no rules about this,” but rather it has to do with participating in something ineffable which we can hardly grasp. On this view religion has little or nothing to do with rules.

Not only can Plato not be rightly regarded as a “secular source of morality” but actually “there are no good secular sources for morality.”

[1] These being the three components of Plato’s tripartite view of the soul.

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Posted on: May 31st, 2014 Ascension: the Fluid Body of Christ

I’ve been thinking about the Feast of the Ascension (celebrated this year on May 29) lately. The Prayer Book’s collect for Ascension reads:

Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ

ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things:

Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his

promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end

of the ages; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and

reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory

everlasting.  Amen.

How do you think about the Ascension of Christ?

I think that, in the contemporary church, there are three different ways of thinking about this redemptive-historical event. First, most people are just confused. After all, it seems so weird that Jesus would start floating up into the sky, eventually transcending the ability of the disciples to see him.

Second, however, and better, many people assume that Jesus is going “up to heaven.” That is understandable, but this view is definitely strengthened when coupled with the idea that Jesus is ascending to his throne, which is “in heaven,” at the right hand of his father.

A third view, suggested by the liturgical calendar itself, is that when Jesus ascends, he is going away in order to send down the Holy Spirit onto the Church on the day of Pentecost. (Indeed the collect of the day on the seventh Sunday of Easter, after Pentecost, might encourage this view, with its petition to God to “send us the Holy Spirit to comfort us.”)

Notice, however, what the collect for Ascension above actually says: Jesus ascended that he might fill all things. I cannot help but think that this is sacramental language. Remember the ancient dictum which is utterly scriptural: “Christ is the sacrament of God; the Church is the sacrament of Christ.” It is this Church with whom “he abides … on earth … until the end of the ages.”

Why did Christ ascend to a transcendent “place,” why did he ascend into a transcendent mode of being? Precisely so that he could fill all things. When his body disappears, it becomes all things. It saturates all things. All things in a mystical way become charged with divine presence. Not only does this point to the eacharistic elements as tokens of all creation, but it also suggests that all material creatures are divine. As the fathers of the church said, “When Christ was baptized in the Jordan River, he sanctified all water.”

I know that this is a strange thing to think about. But our collect for Ascension invites us to think about it, and to meditate on it. Christian truth is indeed strange. Strange and beautiful.

Note: this article is inspired partly by Graham Ward’s chapter “The Displaced Body of Jesus Christ” in his Cities of God. See also here.

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Posted on: March 21st, 2014 Dissertation Idea 1.1 (Ratzinger, Bonaventure, & History)

Given a hearty “thumb up” by my academic director. Any comments, please send them my way!

I.               The philosophical explananda: why certain prominent thinkers (modern and postmodern) articulate a philosophy of history that is fundamentally theological in form. Possible “exhibits” to include:

A.   Hegel

B.    Badiou (Saint Paul: the Foundation of Universalism)

C.    Zizek (The Fragile Absolute)

D.   Agamben (The Kingdom and the Glory: for a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government)

II.             The theological explanans: Ratzinger’s Bonaventurian theology of history as expressed in his interpretation of the Hexaemeron and other of the Seraphic Doctor’s works, as a pathway into the inherently and unavoidable theological structure of (all?) western historiography and philosophy of history (with special attention given to the role of revelation and eschatology in Ratzinger’s thought, especially as situated in their thirteenth century milieu).

III.           The statements made by the above thinkers about this genealogical state of affairs. Are such statements adequate? Can they be supplemented by Ratzinger’s account of the nature and character of historical thought?


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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: August 6th, 2013 Sign of the Times: Reason:Faith::Bezos:Moon::Post:Times

In his 2006 Regensburg address, Pope Benedict XVI (controversially and polemically) diagnosed the malaise of the modern west in terms of the separation of faith and reason (theology / revelation and philosophy) a development which one can see beginning in Avicenna, but which really developed in the late medieval period.

It is difficult to imagine a more apt symbol of this split than the ownership of the two leading newspapers in the nation’s capital, the political center of the planet’s sole superpower.

The leading newspaper in the capital city of planet’s lone superpower is now controlled by a dot com and one Jeff Bezos. Can anyone doubt that zombies are right around the corner?

Which is worse: the Moonies (who control the _Washington Times_ or the MNC’s (multinational corporations)?

It is difficult to imagine a more apt symbol of contemporary America, and  its separation of the “rationalism” of the global “free market” on the one hand, and the fundamentalism of modern religion on the other.

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Posted on: May 2nd, 2013 Anyone Remember Stephen Covey? (Technique, Disclipline, & Happiness)

Few books have I read more than three times. One of them is certainly Mere Christianity by CS Lewis. Another, however, is a book I poured over in college, not so much because, like Mere Christianity, it deeply fed my soul, but rather because it was a real challenge (at the time) to know quite what to make of it. The book was The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, by the Mormon Stephen Covey. Not only did my Navigators “discipler” invite me to read this book with him, but later I read it as member of a small team of missionaries in Mexico City with Campus Crusade for Christ.

One of the things that always sort of blew my mind when discussing the book with people (and I’ve had similar experiences in other contexts) is the ease with which people apparently implemented the book’s principles and techniques. Years later, in retrospect, I now realize that what was so intriguing to me about the book was the counterfeit nature of its technique: in an inchoate way I was noticing how technique is a cheap copy of true discipline, true ascetical practice.

For example, one of the little “exercises” (actually more like a “task”)  you are supposed to do, in implementing the first principle (“Begin with the end in mind”)  is to craft a purpose statement not just for your business or your educational program of study, but for your life. Wow. That’s a really tall order. I remember that for many folks their life’s purpose statement had to do with the laudable intention of helping other people.

Now it’s not my aim to create a mission statement for my life in this blog post. Rather, as I was driving into class today I was asking myself, “Now, why are you doing a PhD again?” What I realized is that doing a PhD in philosophy actually allows me to reflect more deeply on what it is that, as a pastor, I think I am (supposed to be) doing.

Am I supposed to be making people feel better? Am I supposed to be solving their problems for them? Am I supposed to be dispensing “truth” into their minds?

And the answer gradually came to me: ultimately, I’m undertaking this crazy academic endeavor which requires tons of sacrifice on the part of many loved ones because I sense that my vocation is to convince people that if they will worship God with their whole lives, then they will achieve “happiness,” or what Aristotle calls eudaimonia and what St. Thomas calls beatudo. If they worship God they will begin to participate in a way of living which is truly “supernatural” and mystical.

Now there are lots of barriers to this goal, lots of “plot complications” in getting people to see the truth and importance of this claim. My studies allow me to “bone up” and to become proficient in dealing with some of these complications or barriers.

For example, there is the barrier of thinking that the way we know things is through the assimilation of information. People think that if they only had the right information, then they could implement the right strategies, take the right steps, and all would be well. And here we are, again, back to the issue of technique versus discipline.

I hope to come back to this later, but for now, I note that technique is individualistic and immanently contained, as if the outcome was totally dependent upon one’s own actions. Discipline, however, is necessarily communal and merely a preparation for the grace of God to flow into our lives.


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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: March 26th, 2013 Supreme Ct. on Gay Marriage: First Response

First blush response on the proceedings of the Supreme Court proceedings of Hollingsworth vs. Perry (available here): it is  astonishing how feeble the arguments of Mr. Cooper (representing the State of California in its opposition to gay marriage) seem, in the face of Justice Sotomayor’s cross examinations.

I am not saying that I agree with Sotomayor; I am saying that, clearly, in contemporary American culture, secular reason (that is reason which excludes the relevance of theology, which presupposes revelation)  has the upper hand.  It’s as if you hear the premises of Mr. Cooper and think to yourself, “there’s no way that’s going to fly.”

As many of us have been saying for years, this is a process that is already set going at the founding of the United States.

The point here, for now, is that this decision is a clarion call for Christians clearly to recognize that the US Constitution, and the political principles which undergird it, while it has been a limited “force for good” in the world, is, at the end of the day (like all forms of heresy) no friend of the Christian Church.

I would feel guilty for spending time on this, were it not for the fact that I plan to write my term paper on Thomas Aquinas and Law on this very issue.


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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: February 14th, 2013 Delighting in the Arcane

I recently stumbled across something which truly animated my soul (to dabble in prolixity). ‘Tis the following, one of “twenty-four theses of Radical Orthodoxy:”

As much as the secular, most pietisms are disliked since, as advocating the ‘spiritual’ they assume there is a secular. Radical Orthodoxy rejoices in the unavoidably and authentically arcane, mysterious, and fascinatingly difficult. It regards this preference as democratic, since in loving mystery, it wishes also to diffuse and disseminate it. We relish the task of sharing a delight in the hermetic with uninitiated others.

Wow. I’ve long sensed myself to be something of an evangelist. Not the kind, of course, that stands on the corner of a crowded and intersection and preaches at the volume of many decibels (though I have done that … recently!).

Rather, I’m the kind of evangelist who cannot conceive of pastoral ministry, or any other way of being human, apart from building communities of worship in which people come to participate in “real social space,” centered on Christ, belonging just because they, we, are human. (How Holy Baptism relates to this must be addressed in a separate post.)

And yet I confess that I have always felt a certain tension between, on the one hand, this urge, this conatus, to commend a message and to invite into deeper community, and, on the other hand, my theology which resists the attempt to dumb anything down, to “be relevant,” or to make the Gospel easier or more palatable.

Hence my encouragement at the above quotation.

Suddenly it all makes sense. As CS Lewis reminds us, human beings are designed to praise and laud Something Bigger than Oneself, and this is necessarily a social phenomenon. We cannot sing the praises of a good film or a rich red wine by ourselves … at least not fully. We must tell someone else; we must share the experience.

And yet, the experience we must share must be “bigger than oneself,” lofty, grand, great, unattainable. It must be beautiful in mystery. It cannot be easily grasped or conveniently assimilated.

So it is that, paradoxically, the difficult, ineffable way of theology and the divine, advocated by such personae as CS Lewis, GK Chesterton, Rowan Williams, and those involved in Radical Orthodoxy lends itself most “naturally” to the zeal of the evangelist.





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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 31st, 2012 Self-Awareness (& Community)

 I also posted this brief article on the website of St. Basil’s (Austin).

“Know Thyself.” It is impossible to overstate the importance of this maxim, carved over the entrance to the Temple of the Oracle at Delphi, to the mind of Socrates, to the heart of Jesus, to the daily, practical reality of living as a Christian.

Which is why a central part of the formation which anyone seeking Holy Orders in the Episcopal Church will undergo is an emphasis on “self-awareness.” Self-awareness, for example, of one’s “bedside manner,” the way one “comes across” to those she is ministering to, or simply interacting with. The way I respond to another – a friend, a spouse, a co-worker –  “in the moment” can reveal volumes (and layers) about what’s going on deep inside of me.

But, equally, self-awareness is the solitary discipline of examining one’s own life: one’s motivations, attitudes, tendencies, and habits. Ancient Christians practiced the discipline of examining the conscience, in which, perhaps before bed time, one slowly “replays” the videotape of the day. Why did I say that to this person? Did I really harbor that grudge? Did I really drink that much at that party? How can I choose to live better tomorrow?

It’s not about beating yourself up; it’s not about a “guilt trip.”  It’s about being honest, and taking the first steps toward honesty. The kind of honesty which is best achieved in relationship with a trusted friend or spiritual director who has traveled further down the road than I. The kind honesty which my “addictive self” tends to hide from. The kind of honesty which is forged only in a community of love, service, and mutual submission.

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Posted on: December 26th, 2012 We’re all heretics, but Bill O. more so

In a recent “screaming match,” Bill O. claimed that “Christianity is a philosophy.”

What’s crazily ironic is that he is right, but not at all in the sense in which he means. What he means, it seems clear, is that Christianity is a belief system which functions at the level of ideas, and which is basically a set of private preferences which people have a “right” to express, given that (supposedly) the majority of Americans are still Christians in some abstract sense. At least this much can be gathered from this silly “interview,” linked to above.

What is ironic is that O’Reilly is spot on in stating that “Christianity is a philosophy,” at least according to Peter Leithart’s book _Against Christianity_, in which Leithart argues that what the apostles, whose words are recorded in the New Testament, were describing is not a belief system or worldview which one has in one’s head, but rather a set of commitments to Jesus as Lord which then binds one into a particular community of fidelity to one’s brothers and sisters. That is, the Gospel of Jesus Christ refers to a way of life, a set of commitments, and a particular community called “the body of Christ.”

Hence, Leithart is able to label “Christianity,” which (in Latin-based languages such as French, Italian, and Spanish) as an “-ism,” a gnostic-like heresy. Bill O., who technically is Roman Catholic, would thus be an adherent to this heresy.

None of this is actually that surprising, since the privatization of the Gospel is the heresy of our time. As such both of the talking heads in this interview participate in it.

I only have one real question from watching this video. It is pretty obvious me to that what motivates Bill O. to display his colorful antics (such as using the word “butt” as well as alluding cynically to his own exclamatory use of “Jesus Christ”) is the desire to boost ratings for the ultimate purpose of increased advertising profit. Hence he is in no way arguing in good faith, and should not be taken seriously. That is, Fox News is a pathetic cultural joke far less respectable than the kind of sophistry against which Plato and Aristotle combated.

Please note that I would say the same thing about msnbc, although one must admit that the latter is largely free of the hypocrisy which characterizes Fox.

My only real question is this: does Bill’s interlocutor (David Silverman, president of American Atheists), whose position is far more rational than Bill’s but equally partakes in the illusion of secular reason, take himself to be seriously engaging in public discourse? Or is he, too, self-consciously participating in the antics of ideological consumerism?




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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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Posted on: October 2nd, 2012 Becoming a Lover of Wisdom

I’ve been encouraged over the last six weeks as I have preached six consecutive sermons rooted in the Letter of St. James, no doubt the most striking example in the New Testament of what is called “wisdom literature.”

As a junior in college at the University of Texas, I purchased a book, on the recommendation of a professor, entitled The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, edited by Robert Audi, and this book has been a invaluable resource over the years. And yet, this morning when I opened it up to the “w” section in search for the entry on “wisdom,” I was saddened to find only a gaping void, no entry for this term in between “_____” and “Wittgenstein.”

Saddened, but not surprised, for we live in a culture which values wisdom about as much as a rock star values humility. The causes of this cultural disdain are manifold, but I’m grateful for Fr. David’s recent emphasis, from the Christ Church pulpit, on the inverse relationship between wisdom and information, the latter of which our contemporary culture has a glut unparalleled in the history of civilization.

What is wisdom? On this perennial question the antique Greek tradition largely agrees with the ancient oracles of the Old Testament. For both traditions wisdom is concerned with how to live well. That is, there is a focus on the here and the now, on bodily, day to day existence, on the things in life which lead to happiness.

Happiness. The classical tradition of moral virtue calls it eudaimonia (a word which combines the senses of “good” and “spiritedness”). Happiness is what Jesus is getting at with his “beatitudes;” in fact, the beatudo is the Latin translation of the Greek eudaimonia. Happy is the man or woman who is humble and pure, happy are those who make peace in a destructive and divisive world (Matthew 5). This, Jesus is saying, is living well. This, James confirms, is true wisdom, true sofia.

Jesus’ perspective here is utterly Jewish: hochma (“wisdom”) is essentially knowing how to do things in the world in a “successful” (or “happy”) way. For example, a wise gardener or farmer understands principles of how the soil works, such as crop rotation. A wise parent knows how to bring about obedience without provoking or abusing. A wise communicator knows how to speak in such a way as to convince without condescending.

I tell my daughters that “God’s ways are the best ways.” They lead to life and health and peace. (Notice that I did not say “a lack of suffering.”) When we listen attentively, and “submit humbly to the Word implanted within us” (James 1:21), “it will go well with [us], and we will live long in the land” (see Eph 6:3).

This is true wisdom. This is living well in the world which, after all, God made. This is why it is so sad that “wisdom” does not even appear in a book which purports to be about philosophia (the love of wisdom).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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