Descartes wrote the Discourse on Method. Singular, not plural. To this day we assume there ought to be one method to understand nature. But a method is a tool or a road to something. Why assume that there is one tool that can deal with everything, or that there should be only one road to a location? The sort of towns that everyone wants to go to usually have more than one road leading to them.

Metaphysics, principle and participation

The metaphysician analyzes the exact same world that everyone else does, but he analyzes it in light of the absolute division of “is” and “is not”. This makes a difference. Only in this mode of analysis is there no intrinsic limitation on the the extent of the subject studied. The method that explicates such a subject has to be such that it can explicate the full and absolute extent of “is” as full and absolute. Though there is no limitation on the subject with respect to its extent, this necessity to remain unlimited character precludes the metaphysician from being able to consider anything from a specialized experience (like an experiment, or a unique cultural or personal insight, or a gift given by God to some but not all).

The absolute division of he “is” and “is not”, which is given in the principle of contradiction, consists in the impossibility that there could be a non-repugnance of being and non being. The principle is an awareness of our worthiness to judge over all things, and say of them that “being which is, is, and cannot be non-being” or “it is impossible to be and not be simul“. It is a truth about data which cannot be corrected by data. Now clearly since human beings take knowledge from things, to have knowledge that cannot be corrected by data is not a properly human way to know something. Metaphysics is therefore a kind of “borrowed” or “participatory” knowledge.

The teleology of [action] and “to”

The study of natural things, especially in medicine, advances by the discovery of the sort of final cause that is usually expressed in English by an action followed by the preposition to: “after implantation, the body releases progesterone to stop the release of another ovum”; “when food intake drops sharply, the body slows functions to stop the loss of body mass, which can be very frustrating to dieters”; “He has a sickness that keeps his stomach from releasing the enzymes needed to digest food”; etc.

Notice that it makes no difference to the reality of the final cause spoken of if we give an evolutionary account of it: “The woman’s body evolved to release progesterone to stop ovulation” doesn’t negate the sense of “the woman’s body releases progesterone to stop ovulation”.

The reality of a more and more general series of predicates

The most well known difference between Aristotle and Plato (which makes it in all likelihood the most well known philosophical difference ever) is the disagreement about the reality of universal forms. The difference can be put in several ways, but the way it most often shows up in Platonist literature is as a disagreement about how we are to understand a series like [man, animal, living, being]. For the Platonists, this series goes from what is less real to what is more real, since each step ascends to a subsistent form that is responsible for more things; for the Aristotelians, the series goes from what is more real to what is less so, since it is an ascent of predicates that are more and more potential. Raphael captured the difference in the central scene in his School of Athens, which shows Plato pointing up (towards more and more universal form-predicates) and Aristotle pointing down (towards the concrete individuals).

St.Thomas, while remaining basically Aristotelian, sought to form a synthesis of the two views. His doctrine of ideas being forms in the divine mind is well known, as is his ideas of participation (St. Thomas insists throughout his career that Aristotle accepts and advances a doctrine of participation). But the only time that St. Thomas makes a clear synthesis of the two views as complementary accounts of a series of predicates is in a short response to an objection in the Prima Secundae:

The difference compares to the genus as form to matter, inasmuch as it makes the genus to exist in act. But the genus is considered more formal than the species, inasmuch as it is more absolute and less contracted. So the parts of the definition are reduced to the genus of formal cause, as is said in the second book of [Aristotle's] Physics. In this way, genus is the formal cause of the species, and in the measure that it is more common, it is more formal.

differentia comparatur ad genus ut forma ad materiam, inquantum facit esse genus in actu. Sed etiam genus consideratur ut formalius specie, secundum quod est absolutius, et minus contractum. Unde et partes definitionis reducuntur ad genus causae formalis, ut dicitur in libro Physic. Et secundum hoc, genus est causa formalis speciei, et tanto erit formalius, quanto communius.

Not only does St. Thomas say that there is a sense in which the more universal predicate is more formal or actual, he cites Aristotle himself in support of the opinion!

Scientific and philosophical questions- UPDATED

Let’s say that the “scientific question” is one that looks at nature, politics, migrating patterns, velocities, economies, etc. and asks- among other things- “what are the numbers?” A philosophical question looks at the same sorts of things and asks “what are the first things I know about this?” Let’s assume these are the two main rational ways to look at things.

The philosopher’s question can be taken in two ways. Before Descartes, it was taken to mean that there is a cache of things we know first, and the philosopher’s job is to build things from them. After Descartes, philosophers no longer took it for granted that there was some storehouse of things we already knew from the beginning, rather it was assumed that we had to prove that there was such a storehouse. The elephant in the room was always that no one could figure out what what we could use to prove that we know something (we can’t use either what we know or what we don’t), and so the modern project didn’t last very long- the last of the “how do I know that I know” guys have been gone for a very long time. With the philosophical disposition thought to be discredited, many now try to pull the philosopher towards asking only scientific questions, as the positivists tried to do and the naturalists are trying to do now.

No one thinks that it is cavalier or overly dismissive to say that logical positivism can be refuted by a very basic liar paradox argument: the positivists demanded we accept that “what is not publicity verifiable is meaningless”, even though the statement itself is not publicity verifiable (imagine how stupid people would think you were if you gave this refutation in the heyday of positivism!) Naturalism has an identical problem: the best arguments for naturalism are that we should get out of the armchair, stop using abstract language and start giving quantitative, statistical, and experimental arguments (there is a particularly good defense of naturalism from Blue Devil Knight in the comments to  this post). But the arguments are all made from the armchair, using abstract terms, without quantitative, statistical, or experimental arguments.

Both the Positivist and Naturalist doctrines make sense as postmodern responses to the attempt of modern philosophy to prove that they know something without assuming that they do, and if one identifies modern philosophy with philosophy (of see it as asking the foundational philosophical question), then Positivism or Naturalism are responses to philosophy as such.

How do we understand the sort of design that evolution supposedly does away with? Presumably, evolution means we can stop looking for some magical elf-and-Santa-workshop where God busily assembles new species.  Great. Call off the search. If evolution were to fail, what then? Would it leave the sort of hole that could be filled by the the magical mystery species shop? No. We would just look for another natural explanation, whatever it was. If evolution were to fail, it would not leave a God-shaped hole, and so it follows that it is not filling one now, nor has it ever done so.

Evolution kills of the sort of naive and imaginary understanding of design that is very difficult to banish, for it is only with great difficulty that we banish the idea that design means that if we just follow back natural causes far enough or solve the last equation, we’ll finally pull back the curtain and see the prime mover pulling levers, drawing blueprints, and horsing together that mindless, deterministic, blind “nature-matter” we all hear about.

Impediments to understanding the analogy of “being”

-The first problem is that “be” is an extremely irregular verb (with forms as diverse as “exists” and “am” and “are”) which turns into nouns that sometimes look very different (like “existence”) and at other times it looks the same, but has very different modes of meaning (“being” as a noun or a participle or a verb).

-Aristotle had help recognizing that the word “being” had many different meanings. He grew up hearing the sophists, who exploited the natural tendency we have to see a a single word as univocal. Consider these arguments:

John Smith is a species

a species is one thing predicated of many

John Smith is one thing predicated of many

All the terms of the argument stay the same, but the word “is” is not doing the same thing in both of the premises. This calls for a distinction of one kind or another. Likewise with an argument like this:

One meter cannot be greater or less than it is.

This rope is one meter.

This rope cannot be greater or less than it is.

The same is true of all quantities: weight, mass, size, etc. Meters and grams and watts and all other such units remain exactly what they are, while the things measured by them need not. Here again, the word “is” does not do the same thing in both premises. The relevant distinction is between the “is” of how much and he “is” that speaks to “what”. This same sort of distinction reveals eight other ways that “is” is used apart from the “what” and the”how much”. Another sense of “is” is teh “how” or what is now called “quality”:

Red is a kind of wavelength a billionth of a centimeter long.

A fire engine is red.

A fire engine is a kind of wavelength a billionth of a centimeter long.

Except it isn’t. This also speaks to the difference between saying “what” and saying “how”. The first sentence speaks in the mode of what and the second in the mode of how.

In all of this, we need to keep in mind that we are simply taking the word “is” as we find it. There is no need to reform the language so that every distinct meaning of “is” is indicated by a different word. Even if we had many words, we could only assign them in virtue of the unity that we find in our thoughts with respect to the word “is”. The unity is just there, and our job simply to acknowledge that the unity that we find in the word “is” is not the sort of unity that “animal” has with respect to apples and oranges.

The primacy of courage

Accounts of virtue start with an explanation of courage. The first reason is that a virtue is a mean between an excess and a defect, and the excess and defect of courage are well known. This makes courage first in the order of our (distinct) understanding. Courage is not first in the order of causality (this falls to prudence) nor is it first in the order of the strength and knowability of the passion it deals with (this falls to temperance) nevertheless, there is a very important qualified way in which courage is the first virtue we need.

Courage is the virtuous response to fear, and all virtues are ways of being a Lord over ones own acts, so courage involves standing toward something fearful as the Lord of ones own action. In concrete terms, this means that we confront the possibility of some evil or failure and see the outcome as dependent on our own action. So considered, courage is the gateway to all the other virtues since we become masters of our own acts most of all when we are forced to fight against or overcome something fearful. Children, for example, can’t be virtuous since they relate to all fears as things that ought to be taken away by their parents.

But though children can’t be virtuous, we’ve all had experience being children, and while not everything about the experience needs to be shed in adulthood (there are some ways in which we always remain as helpless as children and need to be aware of this) nevertheless, virtue requires that sooner or later we relate to the fear of failure and evil as something that is up to us to conquer. One of the chief impediments to courage, and therefore to all virtue, is the desire for the comfort and ease we remember in childhood. The fundamental choice of our moral life is therefore between courage- the virtuous response to fear- and the comfort that consists in avoiding this sort of self determination in the face of fear. So considered, courage is not seen as the virtue between the two extremes of bravado and fear, but the virtue that is opposed to sloth- that is, the vice the rejecting the difficulty or danger involved in determining ones own life in the face of fearful things.

Sloth, like every vice, does not present itself as a vice, and the case for sloth is extremely persuasive and convincing. After all, why should we let people stand face to face with fearful things? isn’t the whole purpose of a society to remove fearful and difficult things as much as possible? How can rulers just stand by and do nothing when their citizens are confronted with fearful and difficult circumstances? What if they fail! The voice of sloth argues, not without force, that courage is nothing other than what a person is stuck having to do because of the laziness and inaction of our superiors- and even the inaction and indifference of God himself. If God isn’t going to come sweeping down and snatch us out of every fearful and terrible circumstance, then we will find a benevolent leader who will! Sloth therefore involves a critique of providence and a call for a benevolent, all powerful leader.

Impediments to recognizing the self-evident

-The self evident is a habit spontaneously and irrevocably formed by the mind (where “habit” means a determination of a power or faculty to one thing). It is not, however, the only such habit. Subsequent habits can make us look upon this knowledge as eternally suspect, as though its prime value is to remind us of what dupes we can be.

-The self evident is not the same as what cannot be denied in speech or by hypothesis (a hypothesis prescinds from truth).

-We can think we know what we do not know- we can also think we don’t understand what we do.

-The self evident arises primarily with respect to what follows on our knowledge of being, but this word has a journey of meanings.

-Much of what is self evident to us cannot be enunciated. As soon as someone demands “tell me one thing that is self evident!” we are shifted away from the ground where most of the self evident is.

-The self evident is usually not the problem in reasoning, but the socially and culturally endoxical; that is, that knowledge which is deemed most worthy or certain by cultural or societal agreement. This kind of knowledge trades out every few years.

-Strunk and White: (commenting on the phrase the truth of the matter is) “if you feel you are possessed of truth, just say it. There is no need to give it advance billing”.

“Before” or “prior”

-The novel “Two Years Before the Mast” is about a man who spent two years in the section of the ship in front of the mast. This is the same way that, when you look at a map, Ventura is before Santa Barbara; and the same way that we might stand before an audience; and the same way that the nursery rhyme says “wasn’t that a dainty dish to set before the King”.

-An action must be before a reaction (reacting is a way of coming after) but the action and the reaction occur at the same time.

-Before is said of events in time after it is said of things with a certain position. Even when time and motion are seen together, we understand the order of extension first. People can doubt time, some doubt motion, no one has doubted location yet.

-Causality is self evident as a way of being before or prior. It has this priority in virtue of being act as opposed to potency. For Aristotle, “act” is the take it or leave it, either-you-get-it-or-you-don’t first principle of his whole thought.

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