Notes on Dekoninck v. Eschmann

(With a kind word for Eschmann, since he never gets one)

-Distinguish two claims: the common good is a higher good than the proper one; and persons as persons exist for themselves and not for another. The first claim is really just given by definition, though the definition and the existence of the thing defined are not evident, and so CDK does very important and admirable work in elucidating them. But Eschmann is clearly not interested in the first question at all. As CDK himself notes, Eschmann simply skips over the whole discourse.

-The peculiar debate rules of the time – this was the high water-mark of Leonine manualism and Gerrigou-Lagrange – dictated that the debate be entirely a debate about what STA said. This is fine, but it seems that what Eschmann wanted to say was simply that the Boethian definition of a “person” is ontologically inadequate, even if it is adequate to some purposes, sc. to point to the difference between nature and individual.

-A better way Eschmann could have put his question was to reformulate just what “person” looks like on the CDK scheme: CDK is loathe to grant any special status to the person beyond the rational nature: for him, all God ultimately wants to fill out all the grades of the universe, and given that he can’t have rational natures without having persons, he’s stuck having to make persons in order to get his universe to look right. Put like this, it seems like we’ve made a wrong turn somewhere. True, CDK would insist that it’s better for persons to be intended primarily as natures; and that there is something diabolical in wanting to not be a part of the universe. But Eschmann seems to be insisting that this is to miss something crucial about persons.  But what exactly is that?

-Eschmann might have done better to revisit the old problem of the supposit in Christ. Christ is an individual of a human nature but he is not a human person. So what exactly does the person add to human individual? There has to be something. CDK does not seem open to addressing the question: for him, person is just an instance of the nature, occupying some strata in a declension tumbling down from angelic nature (not Gabriel or Raphael) to prime matter.

-Here’s another way of putting the question: we have no name for “person” in any other individual (animal or plant), and none is necessary. We can name a dog, but there is no name for what is named. “John” is the name of a person, but Lassie is the name of … what? Some unnamed thing – the unnamed  “individual of a canine nature”. Answering just why we need a name “person” but not for what Lassie is is just the sort of thing that Thomism isn’t very good at, and that the 20th century was much better at.

-It might have been better to hear a debate between CDK and someone like Martin Buber, though it’s doubtful that they have enough common ground to fight over or fight from. Buber would almost certainly take CDK’s common good doctrine as it relates to persons as the apotheosis of degrading rational theology, seeking to account for I-thou in terms of I-it. The “it” (the “nature”) is taken as what God chiefly intends, and the “thou” is only a side effect of wanting to fill out the grades of the universe.

-One problem is a fundamental axiom in Thomism that I spoke of before: all diversity for STA reduces to hierarchy. Diversity exists only because some structure or declension of value must be built up from it. The diversity of persons would have to be no different, but Eschmann seems very much against this. Diverse individuals can be willed other than merely accidentally, or as parts of a whole. This is, at least, if the individuals are persons.

-Another problem is that the universal causes that are so crucial to CDK’s vision of the universe don’t exist out there as organizing cosmic principles. As far as we can tell, only individual minds and their products (like language or money) are universal causes, and there are none in nature as such (like stars, the sun, the spheres, etc.). Eschmann could have raised the possibility that an account of person might just be that STA was wrong, and that only persons are universal causes.

-James Reichmann wrote that STA’s philosophy is ultimately an account of individual beings as beings, and Scotus’s is of individual beings as individuals. If this is right  then the question of persons is exactly the sort of problem that will set the limitations of Thomism in bold relief.



  1. Joel said,

    June 15, 2015 at 9:44 am

    Is it true that the “common good is a higher good than the proper one” is just by definition? I’d grant that it follows closely upon the definition (something Eschmann himself send willing to concede, at least, in the sphere of each good), but I don’t see that it is properly simply a matter of definition

  2. Fr. Thomas said,

    June 16, 2015 at 3:40 am

    “Another problem is that the universal causes that are so crucial to CDK’s vision of the universe don’t exist out there as organizing cosmic principles.” It is not clear that this is true. For example, it does not seem reasonable to say either that inertial motion has no cause at all, nor that it is directly caused by God or angels. So it seems reasonable to suspect that inertial motion does indeed have some kind of organizing cosmic principle. You could come up with many similar examples. It may simply be that nature is not sufficiently known to us.

    • June 16, 2015 at 9:00 pm

      There are other possibilities too, maybe inertial motion is a way bodies act under certain conditions (we expect different motions from pushes on earth and in space, say), or a failure to articulate the question correctly (Newton had a very difficult time giving a coherent account of a “force of inactivity”), or the problem is simply unsolvable to us for some reason or another (Chomsky seems to think something like this).

      STA is inconsistent on physical Universal causes, claiming (as though by some sort of slip) that it can be proven that no physical thing is a universal cause. (It’s around prima pars 118 somewhere, in the question whether bodies can cause).

      Look, I’d love to find universal causes in nature – though I don’t look forward to one more occasion for crowing about how we’ve found “The God cause”. But it seems like we’re at a point now where we can learn more from assuming the failure of ancient physics than its eventual confirmation.

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