Dionne on analogy

(this is the first part of the first chapter of Dionne’s treatment of analogy. The initial principle, to my mind, solves all most of the major problems with analogy: words are essentially subordinate to concepts. I did not really check my translation, and I did it for ease of reading and not for exactness.)

1.1. The Word in the Life of the Mind.

The word is totally subordinate to the intelligence: it signifies concepts. This subordination for the word to thought is such that, if for one reason or another, the word no longer guided the intelligence, or some grammatical construction became and obstacle (grammar stands to the word as to its formal subject) it is necessary to go beyond grammar. Such a case is very rare, but it can happen. One finds an example of this in St. Thomas’s commentary on the Gospel of St. John, where he says “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God”, where the Evangelist uses the verb “to be” in the imperfect sense. According to grammar, this designates an existence in time- an action or existence of something past which persists in some fashion until the present time. But intelligence wants to express here an eternal existence, an existence that is not in time. It makes use of the infinitive to in some sense transcend grammar. The theologian takes grammar and goes beyond it.

(Super Ioannem, c 1, lec. 1 no. 39)

Likewise, the Latin term sanguis (blood) has no plural. Nevertheless, the translator of St. John’s Gospel used a plural, as in Greek “the translator is not bound to respect the rules of grammar in order to perfectly convey the truth (ibid. lect. 6 V no 160)”In order to better manifest thought, one is free to change the grammar. This shows the point that the word is the instrument of intelligence.

1.2.1 The Word as a Principle of the Intelligence

The word is not only a sign of the intelligence; it is also a principle of the intelligence which determines the intelligence and leads intelligence to things. As a principle of intelligence, the word is in reason and is something is more known and more manifest to us. This is for two reasons: it is sensible, and it is an artifact.

1.2.2 The Word as Artifact

St. Thomas explains that the word is an artifact in De Veritate q. 4 a. 1 where he says that the efficient cause of the word is the will. If the artificial is more known to man than the natural, it is because man is the measure of the artifact. The word is formed by the intelligence: it is the intelligence and will of man that relate the sound of the voice to such-and-such a thing. It is the imposition that constitutes the word as such. Briefly, the word is measured by the practical intelligence of man.

Many disciplines consider the word: grammar, the philosophy of nature, logic. Grammar considers it only so far as it is an artifact. The artificial character of the word is not of interest the philosophy of nature so far as it is such, which will consider the word so far as it is a sound of the voice, and natural. The grammarian treats the word so far as it is an artificial sign: its point of view is totally formal. It sees all on the level of the artificial as such. On only needs to refer to the definitions of grammar given by the ancient grammarians.

On the rejection of BC and AD

In the last fifteen years, academics have been attempting to rename the calendar with their own abbreviations “CE” and “BCE”. Their arguments for doing so are in the air and don’t need to be revisited. I’m against it. Here are my reasons:

1.) It’s crass, arrogant, and ungrateful. A lot of monks and clerics spent a very long time hashing out that calendar. Did you ever wonder why the equinoxes and solstices match up with the quarters of the year, and the “fourth of July” of two hundred years ago is exactly the fourth of July of today (it was summer then too, for example)? Short answer: because the Pope said it should be that way. The calendar is every bit as much an artifact as Chartes cathedral or the Mozart’s Ave Verum. To presume that we can rename these things at our whim is to suffer a profound misunderstanding about how we should relate to the great goods that our ancestors have bestowed on us.

2.) The new abbreviations are tin-eared. Anno Domini is kingly, dignified, and ancient. Common Era is lifeless, unpoetical and unphonetic. If CE were a word, it would have four vowels in a row. Ceeee. Yuck.

3.) Arguments against the abbreviations are arguments against the dates. If it is offensive to say “AD 1972” then it is just as offensive to say “1972”. If George Bush had started the calendar over again after he got elected, and he called this year “W 9” then to call it year “9” wouldn’t be any less offensive. The logic of the academic calendar reform bends toward a diversity of calendars. This is an awful idea.

4.)  It’s shortsighted. The calendar did not just pop out of the earth. It was made possible by a certain way of looking at time: sc. as something that belonged to God and not to man. The idea that there is one time for all history is a direct result of the belief that God became incarnate in history for the salvation of all nations. Absent this, there will be as many calendars as there are gods or tyrants. And the gods will be tyrants.

1.) Essences are constituted in act immediately by form, and

2.) Form stands to existence as a potency- but not a potency that is open to contraries.

Poo and the per accidens

After you have a baby, the Doctor doesn’t let him leave the hospital until after he poops himself. Your child that is. It took our son a while to deliver the goods, and I still remember the feeling of seeing that first glorious poo. It is now two years later and we are potty training him. That same poo-longing has returned again.

I mention this because it is one of the better arguments for relativism. If (another guy’s) poo can be really desirable and pleasant under the right circumstances, what couldn’t be made good or evil by circumstances? Why bother digging up some obscure moral practice by the hootzi- bootzi tribe in order to prove moral relativism? Isn’t a normal man rejoycing over the sight of another man’s poo quite enough? 

This is a pretty good example of the distinction between the per se and the per accidens. It’s pretty clear that what I am loving in poo is freedom from diaper changing and my son’s own self mastery, which is quite accidental to the nature of poo. But accidents are real, and the pleasure that one feels is real. “Another man’s poo is pleasant” has a real, positive truth value relative to the right circumstances. Trading and working with this kind of reality, existence and truth value- or even being indifferent to this kind of reality and per se reality- is the defining characteristic of sophistry.

Thoughts on explaining abstraction

Is it useful to start explaining abstraction with the word “abstraction” and then work from there? Or is the word too tied to the English notion of “abstract” as opposed to “concrete”, which gives the wrong idea? Concrete things are results of abstractions, in St. Thomas’s sense of the word. What counts is not whether something is tangible as opposed to being “airy”, but whether it the object is seen as an object. “Abstraction” is the process that makes it so seen. 

The world is present to us in a way that it is not present to bees or cows or apes. None of them see objects precisely as objects. Only man writes legends about the sun, or crushes up dyes so that he could paint it, or develops tools to count its spots. This is what happens when you relate to the sun as a thing-in-itself. We see everything like this. Again, a bird seeing a stick can form the intention “good for a nest for me”‘ a chimp can see the same stick and form the intention “good to get ants for me”. There is no impediment to birds and chimps even having languages by which they could convey these various intentions of things they see. Man sees something much more radical: a stick. We see a sheer object or thing-in-itself. But it is not necessary to insist that man differs form the animals in this: it suffices to notice that we make objects as objects. I see no evidence that animals do so, but if they did, well, welcome to the party. 

This constituting of an object either yields something that can exist on its own: a man or a stick or a horse; or something that can’t exist on its own: white, two-feet-tall, species, blueness.

One of the most significant cases of when we constituted an object that cannot exist on its own is the constitution of mathematical things. We learned to count by looking at some number of things, like apples, but since the apple wasn’t what mattered in counting we soon learned to count without it. But the numbers are still abstractions from things. They are not “pure forms”. This is certainly not to say that mathematical forms are just thoughts about physical things. Something essential to “being physical” is missing from mathematical forms.

“Physical” as a basic concept

“The physical” is a basic concept and it does not need to be defined in more precise terms, which means we can’t use the word “physical” as if everyone knew exactly what we meant. It is important to insist on this because many people assume the opposite: they think that since they are using basic concepts, then, since everyone knows what the word means, that they therefore don’t have to explain. It is right that everyone knows the word they are using, but the conclusion they draw from this is exactly wrong. Precisely because everyone knows basic concepts, everyone uses them, and by the time we come to them they have a dozen very different meanings, and in everyday conversation we slide from the one to the other without even noticing. Take the word “physical”: calcium is a physical thing; and a ball and socket joint is a physical thing- so is a hip bone two physical things? Parabolic arcs, motion, and a football are all physical too- is a touchdown pass three physical things? One can generate paradoxes like this forever- but sooner or later the point has to dawn on us that we need to deal with our basic concepts like “physical” by setting all the various meanings in order.  

The same goes for: law, religion, belief, concept, nature, mental, certain, is, right, matter, cause, effect, brain, thought, sensation, science…

Fourth Way, part V

Observe a more and less good in things, and conclude that an unlimited first cause of them is possible (more and a less good require that the best be really possible.)

If something is possible, it either exists, or can be caused (if not, it would be impossible).

A first cause cannot be caused. So there is some first cause containing all perfections unlimited in themselves.

Arguments against Hell

Arguments against persons being damned to hellfire are based either on Scripture or on some sort of natural argument. I’ve read some Scriptural arguments against the possibility of anyone being damned: a few universalist arguments, and HvB’s arguments for an empty hell. I din’t agree with the universalist arguments, to take one example, I thought it was easier to read: “In Adam all die, so in Christ all are made alive” as meaning that “death” was the inability to be saved, the “life” was the ability to be saved. HvB’s arguments (which I read in a summary) struck me as kind of funny. He actually takes up Christ’s quotations about hellfire, but juxtaposition of Christ’s clear, forceful, and very vivid words with HvB’s conclusion makes the arguments look forced and weak. I know that theology isn’t always clear, and I know that solid Scriptural arguments can sometimes seem forced, but there are still some pretty easy calls. That Christ taught that there was a real hell that people really go to is one of them.

I know a bit more about arguments against hell from rational arguments, and I think they are all dead ends. I’m confident in this not because I’ve seen all the arguments, but because I’d argue that natural theology doesn’t have anything to tell us about the abode of souls at all. Thomists hold that we can know by reason that there is an afterlife, but the details of the abode are utterly unknowable. What company will we have? Will it be pleasant or painful? Will it be in the world or in a world-like-place, at least for some “time”  (like some near death experiences would have us believe)? Will we be able to attain true eternity? Will we be with others, and if so, which ones? Will we be tortured? We. Don’t. Know. Until death, we are totally dependent on what God tells us. Apart from revelation, we are left only with the lies of the poets.

We can give an argument about hell being immoral, or impossible, or unfitting, but the arguments don’t attain to anything. Such arguments can never be anything more than hypotheses- and a rather dangerous hypotheses since the decisive confirmation of them comes in the moment when it would be too late to avoid going there.

Metaphysics and the predicable universal

The metaphysician must consider predicable universals in a way most scientists need not. In most sciences, a failure to know predicated universality correctly is not a problem, since “universality” does not enter into the consideration of what they study. Though every science makes use of predicated universals, we need not consider the nature of the things we use. Understanding predicated universals is no more necessary to the average scientist than understanding engineering is necessary to the average commuter. The metaphysician, however, considers his science as science, for metaphysics is a science proper to intellects[1] and it is proper to intellect to reflect on its own act.[2] Further, universals are principles of all sciences, and the metaphysician considers the principles of all sciences. Because the metaphysician both considers universals and judges the value of universals within his science, errors about the nature of universals not only give rise to errors in metaphysics; they also give rise to errors about metaphysics.

Understanding the predicable universal is very difficult since it requires transcending the image that we spontaneously form of them when we consider them. To make this clear, first consider this passage from the beginning of Plato’s most metaphysical work,[3] Parmenides, in which Parmenides questions a Socrates about the predicable universal:

PARMENIDES: Then do you think that the whole idea is one, and yet, being one, is in each one of the many?
SOCRATES; Why not, Parmenides? said Socrates.

P: Because one and the same thing will exist as a whole at the same time in many separate individuals, and will therefore be in a state of separation from itself.
S: Nay, but the idea may be like the day which is one and the same in many places at once, and yet continuous with itself; in this way each idea may be one; and the same in all at the same time.

P: I like your way, Socrates, of making one in many places at once. You mean to say, that if I were to spread out a sail and cover a number of men, there would be one whole including many-is not that your meaning?
S: I think so.

P: And would you say that the whole sail includes each man, or a part of it only, and different parts different men?
S: The latter.

P: Then, Socrates, the ideas themselves will be divisible, and things which participate in them will have a part of them only and not the whole idea existing in each of them?
S: That seems to follow.

P: Then would you like to say, Socrates, that the one idea is really divisible and yet remains one?[4]

In commenting on this passage, Duane Berquist says:

Socrates’ dilemma is due to his ignorance of something difficult to see or understand: the universal whole. Such a whole does not fall directly under our senses and imagination like the sensible integral whole. Hence, while the latter is easy to understand, the former is not. In speaking about the universal whole, which is said to be a whole in the latter sense of the word, Socrates, quite naturally, falls back upon the primary meaning of whole which is the integral one coming under the imagination. Hence, he falls into doubt, and this doubt is a sign of there being something difficult to see in the matter. When our intellect concentrates on this difficulty, it sees the necessity of extending the word whole, with a new imposition, to the universal. When this has been done, a principle of logic has been discovered. But that principle would have never gotten out of the phantasms or images (where only the prime analogue is represented) unless one had gone through this dialectical process or one similar to it. Once, however, the mind has understood the universal directly, it has no dependence on the dialectical process that led up to it.[5]


[1] We saw this above in our discussion of the definition and fundamental nature of metaphysics. Man does not know metaphysics so far as he is man, but so far as there is something wholly intellectual in him.

[2] Expositio libri Posteriorum Analyticorum Lib. 1 l. 1 we also saw this above in Augustine’s distinction of intellect from imagination, where intellect was self-reflective and imagination not. For a very good analysis of the self-reflective nature of metphysics, see Thomas C. O’Brien, OP, Ph.D. Metaphysics and the Existence of God. The Thomist Press. Washington D.C. 1960.

[3] Proclus, speaking for a tradition of Neo-Platonists, said that the book was the compendium of Plato’s theology.

[4] Plato. Parmenides. Tr. Benjamin Jowett.

[5] Berquist, Duane, Descartes and Dialectics. From Laval Theologique et Philosophique, 1965. p 202.

The first principle of scholasticism

The first principle scholastic thought was that all the authors of Scripture, the Fathers of the Church, and (to a lesser extent) Aristotle formed a unified body of thought, so much so that all apparent contradictions were, as a rule, merely apparent and ultimately even beneficial. For a scholastic, when John said that no one had ever seen God (Jn. 1) and Paul said that God is clearly seen by all since the foundation of the world (Rm. 1) both were speaking of the same truth (the knowability of God) in different ways.  It would be contrary to the very nature of Scholasticism to look at the difference between John and Paul and to take it as a principle for utterly distinct- or even different– Johannine and Pauline theologies.A fortiori, the scholastic thinker would have never seen his own theology as a differnt sort of theology from Paul, Augustine, John, Gregory of Nyssa, St. Basil, Dionysius an Aristotle etc…

Scholasticism died when it was no longer taken for granted that there was a single unifying reality that held together the authors of Scripture and the Fathers of the Church. Aristotle, for his own part, was isolated from the other infuences he was once mixed with to make him so much more powerful and effective.

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