Conceptualization vs. judgment

Natural theology advances by moving further and further from sensation and so also from conceptualization.  Existence is non-conceptual, persons as persons or unique beings as such are non-conceptual, a being that transcends the distinction expressed between abstract and concrete terms or between nouns and verbs is non-conceptual, a primary cause to which all sensed phenomena are secondary causes is … etc. Concepts are abstractions and abstraction necessarily places an entity in a homogeneous category. STA’s claim is that we can nevertheless exercise an act of judgment that does not combine or merely instantiate concepts but recognizes a reality outside the conceptual, as we seem to do whenever we judge that there is something to being a person that is not just an enumeration of the concept “humanity”.* This seems to be the best way of taking his once-much-argued-over claim in the De trinitate that judgment gets to the esse of things, i.e. it is not limited to combining or judging the instantiation of concepts but is capable of insight into the real existence of things, which the fist act of the mind cannot do since it is limited to abstraction.

One way to view the Kantian project is as a development of the thesis that all thought is conceptual i.e. categorical. On such a restriction natural theology vanishes without a trace from theoretical reason. Existence is non-conceptual (“not a predicate”) since it always comes with a notion of being concrete, individual, and set-apart, and so must be left behind whenever the mind abstracts. This doesn’t just get rid of our theoretical knowledge of God but of anything in its autonomy or self-subsistence, which Kant, in good logic, is quick to affirm. The autonomous existence of things is now no longer theoretical but practical, and all the big questions about God or the self or the nature of things have to be placed on a moral plane in order to be taken as serious philosophy. God, for example, is goes from founding existence to founding human moral codes; the discourse that once claimed some sort of insight into God now shifts to being religion, or the set of behaviors that follows our conviction that God exists. To express it in a way that is particularly attractive to Americans: what’s the point of believing anything that isn’t going to make a difference in how we live (or make a living)?

Later developments of the Kantian project will continue to flesh out the logic that existence claims are only instantiation claims, and are therefore unable to attain to things as they exist. “Existence” is nothing beyond a denial that the number of things is zero. The ineffability of individuals is taken to mean that even judgment does not attain intellectual insight into things in their autonomy. For STA, logic included any discourse that showed things as they are, and so even included poetics (understood very broadly as any mimesis or discourse through images); for us logic is nothing but an ordering of the conceptual and so reality can show up in it only as concept instantiation. This doesn’t require us to deny the existence of poetry or art, but only to deny that it is a dimension of logic, as it was until our Post-Kantian era. As a consequence we relegate all this to a dimension of existence called the emotional, although we are deeply ambivalent about what emotions are and what sort of connection they have to reality. Once seen as a supra-rational connection to the sublime they are now largely seen as subjective in the sense of providing insight only into our personal values and not into how anything outside this might exist.

Call this the consequence on which all sides agree: if the mind knows things as they are, it has insight beyond concepts and their instantiation. Your view of what counts as knowledge will largely depend on whether you affirm the antecedent or deny the consequent.


*What I mean is that there is something peculiar about the sort of name that “person” is since it is neither an individual name like Jerry or Fido or Indianapolis nor a species name like “dog” or “city” or “human”. Calling someone a person is an attempt to explain that they are the sort of thing that is not merely a sort of thing, or that there individuality goes beyond mere enumeration.

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