Call Alternativism the doctrine that reason is incapable of deciding among the various fundamental philosophical doctrines. We have no rational principle to award the palm to, say, either Idealism or Materialism or any of the proposed middle ways between them. Reason is simply gets a list of possible package deals, like a set of phone plans; or perhaps rational doctrines are like personalities – there is diversity without hierarchy.*

Alternativism divides into theoretical and practical. Theoretical alternativism states that human reason as such is necessarily alternativist.  Practical alternativism states that human reason is not necessarily in this position, but only happens to find itself in it. Perhaps we’re all stuck in it because we haven’t made some major breakthrough, or perhaps only those of us without a 180 IQ, perfect intellectual formation, and perfect moral rectitude are stuck with some sort of alternativism.

Theoretical alternativism is probably self-contradictory: a final theory that posits no final theory. If it is the right way to go, it has to be just one more alternative about how to go, but it cannot be this and still be right. Practical alternativism, however, is much more interesting. Am in a position to decide among alternatives? If I’m not, then can I do anything to put myself in some position to?


*I think this might be the key principle of alternativism, or “Post-modernism”. We want there to be diversity without hierarchy. Indeed we see this as a good and therefore a sign of truth – whereas someone like St. Thomas argued that this was impossible, and that all diversity reduced to being and privation and so to better and worse. Perhaps St. Thomas was right, but even if he is, are we prepared to follow him out? There is an obvious diversity of sexes – are we willing to say one is better? There is a less obvious but still inescapable diversity of races, and a more questionable but still widely accepted diversity of lifestyles, sexual preferences, etc. St. Thomas saw hierarchy and divisions into evil/good/better/best running through all of these, we see the necessity of denying hierarchy and all most of all teh rest.


  1. December 30, 2014 at 4:40 pm

    Anybody can think or say anything. I’m not impressed with the alternativist doctrine. It seems to me that, contra, say, Gorgias, (1) something exists, (2) we can know that something exists, and (3) we can communicate that something exists. Any doctrine that contradicts any of those three theses must be rejected, that is, decided against.

    Then too there are the famous first principles.

    Too simplistic?

  2. Paul said,

    December 30, 2014 at 5:16 pm

    Perhaps in your aside, you touch on a significant flaw in Aquinas’ thinking: is there truly a single ordering of being, into which all things are placed in a defined sequence, links in a chain that have an inescapably serial relationship? Grant that God is being itself and infinite, unable to suffer any privation of being; all finite beings are deprived in contrast to this. Many are deprived to an extent greater than others. But the definition of that extent is itself often made in terms of a deprivation. “I am bigger than you,” situates us both in the condition of being limited by physical extension. While “I have an intellect and my chair does not,” points out a power that I have to some extent and which the chair lacks totally, this is necessarily true in the same way of the statements “This is red and that is green,” or “I am a man and you are a woman.” This lacks greenness, but it has redness, and vice versa. Not all differences are necessarily between superior and inferior, nor do I believe that Aquinas says this, although his notion of the hierarchy of being does seem vulnerable to your interpretation.

  3. December 30, 2014 at 5:21 pm

    I sit here with my bowl of cornflakes. All my cornflakes are quite different from one another, and I have no reason to prefer one to another.

    Or – 32 trombonists, and each may play whatever note of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony he likes.

    We need not limit examples to the bland or the bass, either. Thomas would argue we don’t get to have diversity without hierarchy. Anybody, with even one with most instrumental view of reason and the most indiscriminant of appetites, must question whether we get what we want out of diversity without hierarchy.

    In any case, this is why we will often favor, say, ‘elegance’ or ‘wholesomeness’ in competing rational accounts, otherwise equal in bare logical consistency. Either of these may be true, as far as I know. They both cannot be, because ‘true’, at the simplest level, does not admit of more and less. Which brings us to the other transcendentals, which do. Only with their consideration can reason actually operate in its full office.

  4. Captain Peabody said,

    December 31, 2014 at 1:25 pm

    I would think that any substantive discussion of hierarchy and diversity in Aquinas would have to take into account his Trinitarian theology in some way. The persons of the Trinity are fundamentally equal, yet at the same time meaningfully diverse. True, there is some kind of hierarchy in the Trinity, but this necessarily can’t be packaged in terms of good/better/best–and Aquinas’ version of the Trinity is far less hierarchical than many alternatives.

    Put another way, it seems to me that even if Aquinas thinks hierarchy in being is always necessary–a point which I think would need to be explicated and defended a lot more– I do not think hierarchy for Aquinas necessarily implies inequality or inferiority as we would think of it. The chain of beings is primarily a chain of kinds of things, not of individual things. When dealing with individuals within a species–at least where those individuals are persons–I would think there would be some kind of Trinitarian dynamic at work, since such individuals share a common essence. Given there is hierarchy among human beings, I would suspect that that hierarchy for Aquinas would have a lot more to do with the Trinitarian hierarchy of Father-Son-Spirit than, say, the hierarchy of human-animal-plant.

    • January 5, 2015 at 8:38 pm

      For Aquinas, being and goodness are the same in things, and so things are the same in goodness if and only if they are the same in being. The persons of the Trinity do not differ in being, hence neither in goodness.

  5. pck said,

    January 1, 2015 at 5:26 pm

    Hierarchies may be discovered or ascribed, they may be essential or accidental (respectively?). My thought on your addendum was that in the moral categories of good and bad only essential hierarchies matter, with regard to The Good being all-pervasive. Likewise, we can have perfect diversity only in essential forms at best, for to claim that diversity is everwhere without any qualification whatsoever will most likely lead to logical contradictions.

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