An account of why being is not a genus

Being cannot be a genus, since treating it as one would be like thinking that one could divide numbers into the quantitative and non-quantitative, or squares into the four-sided and not four-sided. Said another way, something essential to a genus can’t differentiate species. One couldn’t, for example, form the species “sensate animal” or “four-sided square” or “flightless penguin” since no such modification can serve as a difference introduced into those genera. So far as we understand squares or penguins, all are rectangular and involitant. But to divide any real genus requires assuming that the differences one posits are also real and not mistaken, illusory, merely verbal, etc. and so taking being (or reality) as a genus requires taking all of its differences as beings or as realities too, which is exactly where we start committing the same sort of nonsense as thinking one could divide penguins into the ones that can fly and the ones that can’t.

A half-ontological argument

Three Preambles:

I: The transcendental multitude is a concept that occurs first in STA. It is a multitude of substances or independent beings wherein each member is undivided, but the members are not homogeneous with each other. Because they are not homogeneous they cannot be material, and so the transcendental multitude is only a feature of supernatural beings.

II: The Leibniz-Brentano axiom is to know that a necessary being is really possible means to know that it really exists. “Possible” in this sense means we know that a proof cannot rule it out. This is clear from mathematical things: if we could demonstrate that no proof against a mathematical theorem were possible, the theorem would be necessary.

III: By “being” I mean ens commune, or being as known to us, abstracted from sense data and proportioned to it.

Here’s an argument that STA would probably take as an objection:

The analysis of being requires a necessary, supernatural being. 

1.) If any argument makes the transcendental multitude impossible, it would be impossible for us to know that being is not a genus.

Given there are multitudes, if none can be transcendental then all must be material. But if multitudes must be material then they must be homogeneous, and it would therefore be impossible for us to know that they are not one in genus.

2.) We know that being is not a genus.

This is one of the first things we figured out about it.

3.) Therefore, an analysis of ens commune shows that the transcendental multitude is possible.

4.) Therefore, the supernatural is possible (from the definition of transcendental multitude).

“Possible” in the sense required by the Leibniz-Brentano axiom.

5.) All supernatural things are either necessary or caused by the necessary (if they were intrinsically contingent, they would have matter, and so be natural.)

6.) Therefore, from the Leibniz-Brentano axiom, a supernatural necessary being exists either in itself or as cause.

Human dignity and CP

Arguments against capital punishment (CP) need to be careful to still allow that even the existence of an individual can be wholly subordinated to the good of the state, since to rule this out makes heroism, soldiering and patriotic self-sacrifice immoral. The challenge isn’t a straw man: it’s just this sort of existential subordination that STA appeals to in his defense of CP.

One tempting easy distinction between heroism and CP is that the former is a voluntary self-giving while the latter isn’t, but the distinction is either accidental or false. The condemned might want to die for all sorts of reasons, and perhaps even out of justice. But Plato gives the better answer in Gorgias: what is voluntary isn’t decided by asking for a self-report from the one who choosing or suffering something in the moment but by the looking at the good of the one willing. Tyrants don’t do what they want any more than thirsty people who drink water that happens to be contaminated, or any more than Newton wanted a system that would fall with later developments. In the same way, figuring out whether the condemned man wants to be executed requires first figuring out whether it’s just. Asking his opinion on the matter only provides us information of the extent to which he knows what he wants.

The other tempting distinction between heroism and CP is that the first does not involve the state in deliberate killing. This distinction seems to miss the fact of existential subordination, since the whole point of describing something in this way is to carve out a sense in which existence can be justly terminated. If (as most people think) plant life is existentially subordinated to animal life there has to be some way in which animals can, in justice, deliberately terminate plant life; if persons are lower than God then there must be some way in which God can justly end their lives.

Libertarian freedom and the empirical

Kant’s Grounding gives an impressive and focused argument for the opposition between the empirical world and the world of freedom, where freedom can never be established empirically but has to be taken as a postulate of moral reasoning. But perhaps Kant could have been more ambitious and made the empirical itself rest on a postulate of freedom. Here’s the argument:

Any action performed by a person whose outcome could be otherwise is a free action

The empirical demands that a person perform an action that could be otherwise.

Major: This is the familiar account of libertarian free will, but if either it or determinism has any meaning we can’t require that we actually run the tape of life backwards and see if we can change the outcome. In other words, if the “action that can be otherwise” is numerically one thing, then we could never establish either free will or determinism. If either freedom or determinism is to mean anything, we have to be talking about two actions that are specifically the same or do not differ in any relevant characteristics.

Minor: the whole point of an experiment, or at least of the paradigm case of an experiment, is for a person to set up a control and an experimental condition that are specifically the same but whose outcomes differ. We simply can’t do experiments without assuming that the control group and the experimental group do not differ in any relevant characteristics except the one that the experimenter is changing. But the whole meaning of the empirical is found in just this sort of experiment, as is clear from experience and was made famous my Kant himself in the prologue to the first Critique. 

Therefore a condition for the existence of the empirical is the action of an agent with libertarian freedom. Q.E.D.

The cheap grace of condemning slavery

The pride we take in eliminating slavery can easily become not just morally vacuous but also morally blinding. Making this clear demands making what will look like a series of strawmen, but stick with me till the end.

One guy is obliged to work for another. Therefore, slavery is moral.

Examples: the prisoner has to make license plates, the child has to clean the bathroom that he just covered in crayon out of anger, the plumber has to fix the toilet I paid him to fix, the cashier has to give me my change, a father has to work to support his family.

So the initial inference must be crazy, but why? Sure, we can just define the word “slavery” as meaning “any gravely unjust or exploitive claim on the labor of another” but then our condemnations of it are perfectly circular. If we leave off the idea of slavery as punishment (which is already a major concession since morally evil acts can’t be used as punishments) then is slavery working without compensation? This can’t be right, since all slaves get housing and food, and even if persons on a plantation or in a gulag got some money in return for their work it wouldn’t ease the main objection we have to their state.

So is slavery bad for being involuntary?  But all sorts of slave contracts were voluntary, as David Graeber points out in Debt. Africans ran up credit debts they couldn’t pay and the bank offered to accept payment in labor (wink, wink). Say someone signed a slave contract to keep his family property from being seized.  So there he was, on the middle passage, getting whipped on a sugar plantation, with his offspring being born into his own state, all voluntarily. This is not okay either. True, all the cinematic tales of the slave story start with someone being abducted, but this muddles the moral problem. Everyone is against kidnapping, but aren’t we supposed to be against slavery? 

Let’s re-write Roots with only one difference: Kunta Kinte’s family gets into debt and he agrees to everything that happens to him in order to avoid property seizure. Isn’t it a problem that we somehow think this would (even slightly) justify what happened to him? What if he didn’t exactly agree to it, but was drafted into it by his tribe in order to pay back tribal debts? What if someone is conquered in a war and is made a slave instead of being killed? It’s hard to argue that this can’t be the more merciful and humane option, and it is historically how most slavery occurred.

No one is doing anything to stomp out prison labor so I can assume we all take it as moral to have forced labor as punishment. But then we rule out an in-principle objection to VISA using it as a penalty (and again, this is how slavery has actually happened.)

So let’s add an epicycle: slavery is bad because you can’t quit. But by now it’s clear what’s wrong with this. All that we have to do is set up a system where the consequences of quitting are worse than slave working conditions. Lo and behold no one ever wants to quit. It’s as cynical as saying that, in our re-write of Roots, KK could have just let the family farm get seized. The more fundamental problem is that all sorts of contracts don’t allow someone to quit. I just signed one. If I quit my job in the next year I can be compelled to return to it. So we have no in-principle objection to being unable to quit, and we might even prefer the security that comes from such a contract.

If what we mean by slavery is “I abduct whoever I feel like and sell him to another guy who beats him unless he works himself to death” then, sure, slavery is wrong as soon as I say “abduct”. But this is an account of slavery that even John Calhoun could condemn. If you mean that you condemn treating persons as property (which is supposedly what chattel slavery consists in) then Calhoun might very well respond that slavery he is defending consists in being morally entitled to someone’s labor. Who said anything about owning a person?

So when we condemn slavery or take pride in wiping it out we have to be clear that we’re not just condemning a black and white photo of whip marks on someone’s back or the use of a word that we’ve defined as meaning, with perfect circularity, “an unjust and exploitive claim on the labor of another person”. But I suspect this is all that most of us are doing when we congratulate ourselves for ending slavery or when we wring our hands over all the passages in Scripture which are really only guilty of using the taboo word “slavery” while seeking to advance justice for those who, like all of us, have someone who is morally entitled to our labor.

There is a long history of arguing that, in fact, no one can be entitled to our labor, and that to sell our labor is as morally wrong as slavery. I suspect this goes too far, and that the closest we can get to a short definition of slavery is labor without rights. There is a whiff of circularity about this since “right” is simply a claim one can make in justice, but this is perhaps being too picky. If there is some laborer who has no legal claim at all on the one demanding his labor, then he is certainly a slave. That said, to abolish slavery in this sense is, almost by definition, to open the discussion of just what rights labor does have. Assume that slave-owning Southern christians were horrified by the fact that breaking up slave families cheapened marriage and so gave the slaves legal rights to keep their families together while leaving everything else unchanged. Great. They are now no longer slaves in the sense of persons lacking any rights at all. Slavery has ended! TO be sure, we could congratulate ourselves at ending slavery in this sense (our hypothetical slaveowners would have too), but it is clearly the opening move in a much larger discussion about justice for laborers which, sadly, we don’t seem to care about as long as the laborers aren’t called “slaves”. We then fall into discussions about justice that are really just verbal, and can be won by anyone who manages to avoid taboo words or give his slaves new names like delinquent creditors, team members, members of the global economy, or adjuncts.


Rationalizing myth

At the beginning of the Phaedrus Socrates mentions a rationalist account of a Greek myth – the sort of thing that now gets done by historical-critical accounts of old stories – and then claims to have no interest in giving such accounts of things:

Now I quite acknowledge that these allegories are very nice, but he is not to be envied who has to invent them; much labour and ingenuity will be required of him; and when he has once begun, he must go on and rehabilitate Hippocentaurs and chimeras, then the gorgons and winged steeds, and numberless other inconceivable and portentous natures. And if he is sceptical about them, and would fain reduce them one after another to the rules of probability, this sort of crude philosophy will take up a great deal of time.

But what kind of argument is this? Why can’t someone just pick and choose where he will apply criticism? Why think that to rationalize one religious story requires you to rationalize them all?

As always in Plato the example is working on many different levels, but the basic point is that rationalizing religious stories comes from a conviction that the world exists in a certain way. Any one rational account simply fills in a few details in a far more significant belief about the totality of things. There is, however, a massive disproportion between the few details we can actually rationalize and the totality of the claim that motivates us to rationalize them in the first place.


Dei alieni coram me

One of the secret-handshake teachings of Straussianism is that ancient gods followed political power. If your city was conquered the natural thing to do was to start worshipping the conquerer’s gods. This wasn’t out of fear or shallow piety (though these didn’t hurt) but because hoping that the gods would remain when a city fell would be like us thinking that the DMV would remain when the city fell. Religious and state functions were seen as part of the same civic reality. Religion was not “really political” any more than the political was really religious, but they were so tied up that one could not live without the other.

Political states demand some transcendent reality which cannot survive the death of the state. That I call it “a transcendent reality” reflects the gods of our own state, which are in fact wholly impersonal abstractions. In the (Western) world before the French revolution I would have said they need the church or Christ; in the would before the Reformation I would have said they needed the priests and sacraments; after the Revolution we needed “God” – that being who annuit coeptis of the novus ordo saeclorum.

Back to the wholly impersonal abstractions. The “God” of the age of Revolution was the source of rational self-interest, rugged individualism, national patriotism, and (let’s just say it) white male supremacy. All these things died off for different reasons: Rugged individualism demanded a whole lot of free land  (free of all but Indians, of course); national patriotism could never survive the wars of 1914-45, which convinced everyone that if nations could do this then we were better off without them; rational self-interest can’t survive an honest evaluation of how most persons collectively act (the death-drive of the wars made this clear, and was later backed up by the new economics, sciences of behavior, and cult of advertising). So we no longer believe in “God” and he has to make way for the new boss. At the moment “the transcendent reality” might be being born, or perhaps he’ll just remain a transcendent reality, but initial signs point to him being a dionysian god since his spiritual power is palpable and obvious whenever a question of sexual liberation comes up. Any time we consider how a court might rule or what policy a school board might institute or what a pop singer might sing about or what a company will give millions of dollars to advance it is a foregone conclusion that they will work to advance sexual liberation. All these gods or transcendent realities come with the sense of inevitability, and so open up new vistas of possibility and the active hope that we will finally get it all just right. The new gods have smiled on our efforts and give us real hope where everything else is just a wish or a daydream with, as we now put it, “no evidence” for its truth. The gods give you lots of money too.

In the face of all this the First Commandment comes as a shock and an almost impossible challenge. There can be no denial of “the other gods” – who could deny their spiritual power? The command is that this palpable spiritual power be secondary to us. But secondary to what? Turns out, to the god with no evidence, whose advance is not felt as inevitable, and whose church is a cult of inevitable failure and humiliation. Even its god has gone on record as being disgusted with it and leaving it to die.

Darwinism and the good

The engine of Darwinist theory is the struggle for existence so far as it expresses itself in reproductive success, but as Lloyd Gerson points out, reproductive success does nothing to advance the struggle for the existence of the individual. If one is a male praying mantis or black widow spider, reproductive success is in fact demonstrably harmful to continued existence. The response to this is familiar and easy: it not the individual but the species that is seeking to preserve itself. This immediately raises the question of what account of species would allow this to be possible. A nominalist account of species is certainly out since a purely logical construction couldn’t struggle for anything in nature, and a Platonist account of species has its eternal existence assured and so has no can allow no meaning to preserving its existence. We are left with a hylomorphic account of a species as form in matter seeking to preserve itself by continued information, or a form that, while of itself general, can only exist by informing new parcels of matter. The nexus and arche of a struggle for existence seeking reproduction is the communicatio actualis that belongs to being as good.

The Fourth Way, fire, and entropy

The Fourth Way makes the claim that because things are more or less hot there is something maximally hot. This was based on STA’s idea that fire was a chemical released by burning, meaning that a campfire took fire out of logs just like a still takes alcohol out of fermented things. His example was incorrect but the principle remains as a valuable though unarticulated postulate for chemists, which is assumed in their long list of separation processes. If we wanted to update the fire example we could do so with any property of pure substances: e.g. given that some drinks are more and less intoxicating, there is something maximally intoxicating.

Digging deeper in the Fourth Way one finds STA’s reliance on the idea that every act communicates itself so far as possible. “Communicates” is a transliteration, not a translation – what he means by the term is the complementary description to participation. Participation is the dependence of a part on something that it common, the way players participate on teams or interlocutors participate in discussions. This generalizes to the fact that matter participates in form, and then further generalizes to potency participating in act. The reverse activity from act to potency is what STA calls communicatio, though there is no corresponding technical term in English.*

So why STA was wrong about fire being a chemical existing in either a pure or mixed state, he was right that heat is an act of some potency, and that this act communicates itself or diffuses itself as far as possible. The communicatio of heat is familiar from the phenomena that we label entropy, though we give an accidental description of it as a tendency to disorder. Nothing about the phenomena changes if you view nature as diffusive self-giving or dissipating tendency to disorder, but these are completely different views of what nature is and what it is up to. Our description is equivalent to describing a car as an exhaust-making tool, or breathing as a process that seeks to make carbon dioxide.

On the communicatio account of entropy the closest analogue to the Fourth Way, ironically enough, is Sean Carroll’s argument that the cascade of entropy is necessarily infinite. Reformulated in STA’s terms, this is nothing but an application of the principle that all finite diffusions or communications of act are participants in an infinite and unlimited act. I’d agree with Carroll, of course, and he might even have a whole shelf full of models that point to the need for some time with infinite energy, but I’m pretty sure that if we took the idea seriously then, just like Aristotle did in Physics VIII, we’d find that there’s a limit to how much energy we could hope to find in any given physical system. So what if your theory demands more actuality than a physical system can provide? That’s a pretty good account of what a cosmological argument is.


*One synonym for communicatio is “diffusio” which is the term STA tends to apply to the communicatio of the good (cf. “the good is diffusive of itself”).

The puzzle of potential form

One puzzle of hylomorphism is that it needs to give some account of potential form, but it’s not clear how to do this.

Form only exists in matter or the composite, but it doesn’t exist from matter or the composite. That this in-existence sometimes is and sometimes isn’t requires that the form be somehow contingent, but this can’t be the contingency of the composite.

The parallel problem of matter does not arise, or at least not in the same way. It’s in the very nature of potency that it is not actual now and later is, and so calling matter potential suffices to explain motion from one thing to another.

Here’s another run at the same problem: as Dekoninck liked to point out, form exists only as a term of generation but it is not generated. So we have to find some account of how things exist always and only after a process and not before, but not because of the process.

Another: Aristotle addresses the Parmenidean problem, but not entirely. He does a very good job at explaining becoming as a continuous process between terms, but not becoming as “what was not and later is”. The two are not the same, even on Aristotle’s own account of things, since form was not actual and later is.

Aristotle seems to want to say that forms simply always are: circularity is the form of the bronze disc, but circularity does not arise. But this doesn’t address the problem. Maybe forms qua forms are abstract, but we need to account for how Circularity is in the o of this now, which, let’s not forget, is exactly what Aristotle is trying to explain.

This is why STA was right to say that we need to posit not just a participation of matter in the act of form, but also a participation of composite form in separated form. Whether we take forms as equivalent to existence, as A did, or take form as potency to existence but not to motion, as STA did, form arises in an act of creation.

« Older entries Newer entries »