Linguistic turn

If the linguistic turn means making the mode of signification normative or a cognitive limitation, then large parts of Medieval philosophy become proofs for agnosticism and naturalism, insisting as they do on everything beyond sensation (God, souls, human reason, knowledge, desire, principles of nature) requires a modus significandi differing from the modus essendi.

The totality of knowledge

The locus classicus of the Thomistic account of knowledge is De veritate 2.2. where Thomas argues that knowledge in finite creatures overcomes deficiency in their existence.

In one way [a thing is found perfect] according to the perfection of its existence which belongs to it according to its own species. But because the specific existence of one thing is distinct from the specific existence of another, therefore in any created thing that much of perfection simply as is found in other species is lacking to such perfection of any thing, so that in this way the perfection of any thing when considered in itself would be imperfect as part of the perfection ofthe whole universe, which arises from the perfections of the singular things gathered together.

Note that the individuals formally lack the perfections of singular things gathered together in their order to one another (quae singularum rerum perfectionibus invicem congregatis.)

Knowledge in finite beings, taken formally, is therefore not the possession of some finite object but of a totality. Qua knowledge we don’t hear, say, a fire truck or a silent room but of the totality of the audible as such.

This totality is either absolute or limited to some genus. The latter defines sensation and the former intellection.

Intellection extends to all being in such a way as to be presupposed to our knowledge of even the first concrete thing from which we might have abstracted an idea of being. Our intellection understands natural object falling into its cognition not in its finite existence but as one of the ways in which something is other than the purely impossible, i.e. the way in which something exists in reality and not purely in thought. Being is and cannot not be. 

Both the domain of reality and the domain of pure thought are absolute and absolutely universal. Given the transcendence of being beyond any genus and its absolute exclusion of the impossible, the impossible is both object of thought and co-transcendent with being.



Art vs. advertising

On the one hand, most art around us is advertising. Logos are elemental ads, and you’re overwhelmingly likely to be within reach of five different corporate logos (your clothes alone would get you halfway there, and the computer and screen contents would finish it off.) Again, the odds of avoiding an ad in the next hour are scant and fall to practically zero if extended over the whole day.

On the other hand, advertising is the opposite of beauty and so the opposite of art since advertising excites desire and beauty satisfies it. Advertising seeks to grab attention and leave it incomplete or unfinished, like a song stuck in one’s head or a desire excited for a consumable good. Beauty is satisfaction in mere perception, with no subsequent desire to chase down some desirable good, but the advertiser defines himself in opposition to this. Advertising suppresses beauty, not out of an irrational love of ugliness or deliberate rejection of the beautiful but out of a need to excite desire through perception and cause us to move and act, as opposed to beauty, which satisfies perception and gives it rest in the vision of things as they are.

Notes on beauty

1.) Beauty is a good

2.) We normally don’t enjoy goods by perceiving them- perceiving food doesn’t make us full and we aren’t warmed by seeing a fire. But to perceive beauty is already to enjoy it. So, provisional definition #1 beauty is a good enjoyed merely by being perceived. 

3.) Things can arrest attention without being beautiful: the gruesome, the pornographic, the odd or absurd, etc. We want no good beyond the perception, but the thing is not enjoyed.

4.) We can enjoy the perception of the ugly if the ugliness is made perfectly known, like the beauty of Nietzsche describing the last men, Dostoyevsky describing Grushenka, Beethoven depicting betrayal in the second movement of the Eroica.  To cut out all the noise with which the world comes to us and see the essence of the thing, all the way to the bottom, is beauty, no matter how repugnant, insignificant, or repulsive the thing seen or heard might be.

5.) For us Plato’s rule is true: kalepa ta kala. The beautiful things are difficult. Our cognitive powers are too weak to cut through and penetrate the noise surrounding objects, and it’s difficult for us to see things simply as they are. The weaker a cognitive power is, the harder it is for it to see beauty. What is beautiful to smell? How is it different from the merely pleasant or agreeable, like a warm blanket?

6.) The point of art is to penetrate and tune out the noise surrounding objects and present them as they are (this is the point of Michaelangelo’s quip about clearing away all the parts that weren’t the sculpture) Art makes the beautiful by accentuating the salient, and in so doing shows the object as it is in itself.

7.) For God, all is beautiful, for all is exactly what it is. Repulsiveness is as perfectly luminous and explained as thoroughly as the radiant and desirable. The mystery of iniquity and superabundant transcendence are both made equally known.

8.) The beauty of science is higher in itself but less known to us.


Thomas contra Universalism (2)

God can either (a) let things act entirely according to their nature or (b) give them grace, but not both. Both are goods, and though (b) is better it does not follow it has all the goods of (a). I can either give my students a day off or an interesting class, but I can’t give them both at once – and even if one of these is better than the other it doesn’t follow that one has all the goods the other lacks.

Given to rational creatures, (a) means that the overwhelming number of them sin and are not forgiven, excepting those who die before the age of reason or who live their whole lives mentally disabled or insane. Though God loves rational creatures more than any other material being and the universe would not be complete without us, we still first know and develop habits of attachment to lower goods before  higher ones and have no natural means of forgiveness for any slip we make in preferring those lower goods.

Allowing things to act according to their nature is good. Like every created good, it is not good in every way (e.g. cookies are good without being good in every way that something can be good). So some good would be missing from the universe if (a) were not allowed. Like many created goods, (a) involves foreseeable, unavoidable, and even necessary evils, and all evils of this type might involve some calculus or balance between outcomes. Universalism can raise objections at this level too, but they are not being addressed by the argument here.

Thomas’s Argument against Universalism

More than one of Thomas’s arguments attacks universalism, but his briefest one is his argument for divine reprobation.

Start with this thesis:

Does God give everyone the help necessary to be saved? 

Thomas says no, universalism is one of a cluster of positions that say yes.

Here’s his argument:

(1) God permits some things to act according to their nature.

(2) By nature, human beings cannot attain heaven.

So God permits some human beings not to attain heaven.

(1) is uncontroversial: God allows birds to sing, sharks to eat seals, hearts to pump blood and mosquitoes to drink it. (2) is also implicit in the thesis, if humans could attain heaven by natural powers, they would need no divine help to attain it.


Taxonomy of human actions (Eth. III c.1)

Either someone wants (a) everything about an action or (b) not.

(a) Is a voluntary action

(b) This action is non-voluntary, and such actions fall away from the voluntary by being either

(i) good luck

(ii) a mixed action

(iii) involuntary

(b-i) Good luck is most like the voluntary since one wants good luck both in general and in any concrete circumstance. The only way one doesn’t want good luck is in the purely negative sense that he can’t think about or plan for the concrete circumstance in which it happens

(b-ii) Mixed actions are ones that one never wants in general or abstractly (secundum se or per se), but can want in concrete circumstances or with some qualification (secundum quid). The captain in general doesn’t want to throw his cargo overboard, but can want it to save the life of the crew; the person in general might want to lose weight but choose to do things contrary to this in concrete circumstances.

(b-iii) Anything pleasant, as pleasant, is something one wants, and so is either (a), (b-i) or (b-ii). The involuntary is therefore in no way pleasant, and is formally divided from the non-voluntary by this.

Thus any action, as an action, is voluntary if it is in every way pleasant or enjoyable. If not, it is non-voluntary, and, if in no way enjoyable, involuntary.

Knowers less contracted

(ST. I. 14. 1)

The knower is less contracted than non-knowers since

(a) The non-knower receives form as incommunicable to others, whereas all cognitive forms are communicable. This is the sense in which the knower has not just his own form but the form of another.

(b) The form had by a non-knower is repugnant to the form of its contrary, but the form in knowledge is a principle of knowing its contrary, and is contained in it. White enters the definition of non-white, darkness and silence are seen by the same powers that detect colors and sounds, and the prime analogue enters into the definition of the posterior ones.

Pre-modern ontology

1.) Parmenides was not a sophistical crank.

2.) His axiom was that being is and cannot not be. 

3.) As stated, misprisions are practically unavoidable. Plato’s interpretation divided the in itself and by another. What is X of itself can’t cease to be X without ceasing to be. If John of himself is a man, he only ceases being a man by ceasing to be. Since being names what exists of itself, being cannot not be.

4) So what corrupts or changes is not being of itself, though that’s most of what we see when we look around. Explaining corruptibility or change requires positing what exists by another. Plato called this “by another” the screen and Aristotle called it matter or, more generally, passive power/potential. 

5.) What most deserves the name being isn’t any of the things we see when we look around, but this is the normal case for many of the things we want to know. It’s easy enough to be interested in flight or weight gain or who Jack the Ripper is, but knowing any of these is in and of itself is a very tricky thing, often requiring new and strange vocabulary terms that can be based on large systematic preambles (Bernoulli’s principle, insulin, calories, carbohydrate storage, DNA testing, document perusal…)

6.) With Descartes, we tend to want a single method of finding out what anything is of itself but there’s no single method to gain insights about weight gain, the intent of a law, being, the fidelity of a spouse, the solution to an algebra problem, the guilt of a murder suspect…

7.) This absence of a common method does not arise from being but our knowledge of being. Parmenides was right that being is one and whole – outside of it there is simply nothing. But though what is of itself is one we need many tools to divide it up. Our mind is not a magic wand that we can wave at any task, only a toolbox that gets ever larger the more we try to disassemble and hack the order of the fulness of being.

8.) Again, we can visualize the sort of knowledge shared the same unity as being as a magic wand that could accomplish any task. Like all magic, this is more an index of our ignorance than an insight into how such a work could be possible. For all that, we can know that such an intelligence would make through its word, though not in the same manner that it produced the word itself.

Heaven as understood by predestination (2)

So hell is existing permanently in an end proportionate to our nature. This allows for everything from a natural happiness of the sort described in the Nicomachean Ethics to a state of punishment for faults in life of the sort described by (the synoptic, mostly Matthean) Christ.

Christians obviously have reasons for foregrounding Christ’s vision of hell, but even if they didn’t those who did so would tend to attract more followers and so win in the court of historical evolution. As much as we might like to think that you attract more flies with honey, it’s easier to pack the pews with hellfire than emollience.

But there are less cynical reasons to preach hellfire. Even if hell isn’t logically opposed to natural happiness, human beings would sin frequently even if they weren’t fallen, and so if punishment for sin is a possibility it has to be taken as the far more likely outcome for most persons. God couldn’t make an intelligence like ours without making something that understood lower goods before higher ones, so we should expect to habitually prefer lower goods to higher ones, i.e. to sin. Again, excellence in any area is rare among the individuals of any nature, but because of the unity of moral virtues this is especially so in human moral excellence, more so than in, say, athletic, academic or artistic excellence.

None of this touches on the question whether an infinite torment or poena sensus is an appropriate punishment for any sin, and it is hard to see a justification for this. Setting aside the poena sensus, I can understand God never giving some persons the power to attain a good infinitely beyond their nature for the same reason I can understand him never giving some persons the power to levitate. If powers are beyond our nature, I can make sense of hell as the permanent loss of an infinite good in the same way that never giving me the power of levitation would be the permanent deprivation of a means of transportation.

Arguments for universalism are at their most persuasive when they (a) assume heaven is a good we know and consequently desire by natural powers and (b) when they identify the permanent loss of heaven with the poena sensus one suffers for actual sins. Denying both makes the universalist case harder to make: how can I complain about the denial of something utterly gratuitous and even miraculous, even an eternal denial of it? Such a permanent denial isn’t even logically opposed to a happiness proportionate and intelligible to my nature that I could achieve by myself. While such a permanent denial is a permanent and even infinite loss, this does not itself answer the question of its relation to the poena sensus. While making these distinctions will not meet all universalist arguments they make the ‘infernalist’ position harder to caricature.

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