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Aquinas amongst the analytics

3:AM: You find parallels between Aquinas and Wittgenstein, don’t you? Can you say how you connect these two thinkers? I’d have thought that Wittgensteinian theology as done by the likes of D.Z. Phillips, for example, was again too metaphysically thin to be Thomist?

JH: Wittgenstein read Aquinas but his only recorded comment is that St Thomas asked good questions. I suspect that his reading of the Summa would have been influenced negatively in a couple of related ways. First, Wittgenstein had been raised as a Catholic and in that period catechetics, the teaching of Catholic doctrine, favoured a question and answer style that derived from scholasticism but only gave abbreviated formulae and not arguments. He would have found this a betrayal of the religious quest and could not fail to have been reminded of it by the lists of questions and answers in the Summa. Second, In the first decades of the twentieth century there was a good deal of triumphalist Catholic apologetics in which people cited Aquinas as if he had an answer to everything and contained no errors or omissions. This again would have struck him as profoundly unphilosophical and also unspiritual.

That said, there are many points of similarity and overlap of interest, method and conclusions. In an essay written while he was still a priest Anthony Kenny pointed to several parallels including that between Aquinas’ doctrine of analogical meaning (terms that are neither identical nor altogether distinct in sense) and Wittgenstein’s notion of family resemblance concepts. Likewise he pointed to similarities in their preoccupation with and treatments of intentionality. I would add good-reason accounts of action, pluralism about causation, rejection of empiricism and innatism, and attention to the ordinary as the place where the truth is to be first found and later recovered.

In the Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein writes: “The aspect of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity”. This last incidentally is something also emphasised by the Catholic convert G.K. Chesterton who though not himself a philosopher influenced a number of philosophical converts – though Wittgenstein didn’t like the idea represented in Chesterton’s Fr Brown stories of a Catholic priest serving as a detective. Wittgenstein’s attitude to religion was complex. He took genuine religious belief seriously and felt a certain awe in the presence of it but could not himself believe. The first aspect lead him to resist attempts to dismiss it as superstition or to reduce it to a sentiment, but I do not think that he would have been interested in the effort to allow non-believers to talk the talk of religion, or in efforts to say that a religious outlook is immune to non-religious challenges.

Dewi Phillips was the most accomplished exponent of what he and others took to be a Wittgensteinian approach to religious language and practice, but I think Wittgenstein’s own view was that one really has to decide whether one can believe or not and reason is relevant to this, though he could also make sense of the idea that faith might be a gift from God in which case reason might have a secondary role. While he might want to say that much of what religious people claim only makes sense inside a system of practices that does not mean that the question cannot be raised as to whether these practices are oriented towards a real, external object. He could not believe that they were but remained agnostic. Phillipsianism, by contrast, looks very much like non-reductive religious atheism. Of course I realise that in saying this, his followers will claim that I have failed to understand his position and probably that of Wittgenstein himself. I am afraid, however, that I find this intellectually and spiritually evasive.

3:AM: You take seriously the argument that metaphysical realism and metaphysical anti-realism imply theism, therefore theism. Can you explain this argument, which draws on the Idealism of Berkeley, the semantic intuitionism of Michael Dummett as well as Aquinas, doesn’t it?

JH: One point I wanted to make is that the sort of argument I mentioned earlier involving essence and existence applies equally well if one thinks that the objects of thought and experience are mind-dependent. Of course Aquinas does not think that, so when he appeals to objects of experience he means to refer to independently existing things, but even someone who thought that there weren’t such things would still recognise a domain of essence/existence constituted entities, and this will serve so far as the existential argument is concerned.

The second point was peculiar to the situation of one who is an idealist and it leads to a different argument. Berkeley maintained that the realist assumption that some things are mind-independent is self-contradictory, since just as an object cannot be both seen and unseen, so nothing can be both conceived and unconceived. There is a difference, however, between the fact of conceiving of something and the content of what is conceived; and it is not contradictory to conceive of something as existing unconceived. Although I may be conceiving it, it is not thereby part of an object’s nature, let along of its being, to be conceived of by me or by anyone else.

This meets Berkeley’s argument but it does not altogether deal with his general view as to the incoherence of realism as it is generally understood. Realism implies the possibility that there are entities the character and existence of which transcends the recognitional capacities of knowers. In short, there might be things of which we not only do know nothing but can no nothing; but the idea of a “something” of which nothing can be thought reveals itself to be no significant idea at all. One response to this is to distinguish realism as a thesis about what exists independently of our conception of it, from realism as a claim about mind-independence as such. Thus it might be conceded that the claim that there may be entities which are in principle unknowable and even inconceivable is an empty one, yet still maintained that entities may exist independently of our capacity to know or to conceive of them. But once the general point about the vacuity of conception-transcendence is granted, what can then sustain the weaker position?

Realism, as that corresponds to the common-sense belief that the world is independent of our conception of it, is only intelligible if we suppose, as Berkeley himself did, that what eludes our cognitive powers or those of other finite minds, is nevertheless comprehended by an omniscient mind. More directly, we can presume that there is a world independent of our experiences, thoughts and utterances only in so far as we are also willing to suppose that this world is known to God. To quote Dummett: “[H]ow things are in themselves is to be defined, and can only be defined, as how they are apprehended by God, or as how God knows them to be. . . . What so much gives us the idea that there is an ultimate level at which no such distinction [as that between appearance and reality] can any longer be drawn? Only by referring to God’s knowledge of reality can that idea be vindicated”.

What I go on to observe is that in one understanding of it such an argument is compatible with Aquinas’s position and may even be read into passages where he writes that the divine intellect is the explanation both of natures and of the existence of particular things possessed of those natures; and natures as they exists in things are the explanation for our understanding of the world. In that respect one might say that the world is a medium of communication from the mind of God to those of creatures.

3:AM: Of course there are very controversial and practical outcomes of a Thomist metaphysics. In your paper with Patrick Lee you write about human ensoulment, abortion and the value of life which disputes Robert Pasnau’s account of these issues. So what’s wrong with Pasnau’s account, and how does your Thomist metaphysics and ethics handle this issue?

JH: In brief, Pasnau argued that on the basis of Aquinas’ account of conception and embryological development it follows that early abortion would not involve the killing of a human being. The issues here are detailed involving scholarly interpretation as well as metaphysics but essentially Pasnau wanted to say that for Aquinas a human being does not come into existence until at least six weeks after conception, and he endorses the idea of what is sometimes termed ‘delayed hominisation’. Our reply involved distinguishing Aquinas’ empirical claims from his metaphysical ones and arguing that if your correct for the former the latter will push back the beginnings of individual human life to conception or possibly shortly thereafter.

According to Pasnau, Aquinas held that in order for the rational soul to be infused, certain material conditions have to obtain. In particular a developed brain. Hence the organs upon which the rational soul’s activities rely must be fully developed. We argued, however, that this fails to note Aquinas’ various levels of potentiality and that what is necessary for ensoulment is the material organisation sufficient for the development of those organs, in other words, the epigenetic primordia of the organs that support the operations proper to the species. The brain is not sufficiently developed actually to support conceptual thought until some months after birth. So, on this position one would have to say that a six week-old infant is not even a human being, and that is absurd.

At one point in the Summa Aquinas writes: “It belongs to the natural order that a thing is gradually brought from potency to act. And therefore in those things which are generated we find that at first each is imperfect and afterwards is perfected”. The ovum is a highly organised living cell, containing complex, specific information, in the genetic structure of the nuclear chromosomes. This information, together with that provided by the genetic structure in the chromosomes of the male sperm, guides the development of the new organism formed by the fusion of sperm and ovum. Hence the ovum is close to readiness for rapid embryological development; it only requires fusion with the sperm and the activa¬tion that occurs with that fusion. To a certain extent the gradual transition from the simple to the complex that Aquinas sought actually occurs during gametogenesis. Thus, applying Aquinas’ metaphysical principles to the known embryological facts leads to the conclusion that the human being is present from fertilisation on.

3:AM: How do you understand Hume and Reid from your Thomist perspective. Surely Hume is implacably hostile to your position?

JH: Hume is essentially a critical philosopher, he has a gift for sensing a weakness in a structure and seeing whereabouts it lies, but he then often misdiagnoses the difficulty and is too hasty in condemning the whole building, in part because he is keen to have the occupants move into an alternative structure of his own design. He does this repeatedly, for example with regard to the transition from ‘is’ to ‘ought’, concerning self-knowledge, regarding substance and causality, and about sense-experience in general. Interestingly, while he writes of “the schoolmen, who, making use of undefined terms, draw out their disputes to a tedious length, without ever touching the point in question” (Enquiry) similar critical points to his are made by scholastic philosophers (‘schoolmen’).

A few examples may be of interest. Hume writes: “Nothing is ever really present with the mind but its perceptions or impressions and ideas, and that external objects become known to us only by those perceptions they occasion’ which echoes the claim of the fourteenth century Oxford Dominican William Crathorn that “a human cannot on the basis of a sensory cognition have certain and fully infallible cognition of the existence of any feature whatsoever outside the soul”. Again Hume makes much of the fact that he has no direct intuition of the self and only encounters perceptions of this or that, but Aquinas observed the same point while also explaining where self-knowledge is to be found when he writes that “our intellect becomes the object of its own intellectual activity only in so far as it is [thinking] … So it is not by any essence of itself, but through its activity that our intellect knows itself” (Summa Theologiae). Another area is that of causation where one finds anticipations of and responses to Humean points in the writings for example of the fourteenth century French scholastic Nicholas of Autrecourt and in his critics.

Certainly Hume is hostile to metaphysics and in keeping with his age regarded scholastic Aristotelianism as an egregious form of this, and he is also hostile to revealed religion. That said he does not exclude the idea that the cosmos is the product of creative intelligence and personally he had quite good relations with Catholics in France where he used the library of the Jesuit College of La Fleche (where Descartes had been educated) and also consulted the Library of the Scots College of St Andrew in Paris. In fact he assisted the principal there by taking a confidential Papal letter to London requesting agreement to the appointment of a Catholic Bishop in Scotland.

Thomas Reid was, of course, a critic of Hume’s philosophy, and a defender of realist epistemology, metaphysics and ethics, and also of the rationality of belief in God and in Christian doctrine. Like Hume, however, he made the usual disparaging remarks about the scholastics describing them as “sophisters entangled in their own cobwebs” but again he often presents argument that recapitulate earlier scholastic ones. I think the case can even be made that he read and absorbed scholastic authors. For example in his Essays on the Intellectual Powers Reid writes, “I can conceive an individual object that really exists, such as St Paul’s Church in London. I have an idea of it though the immediate object of this conception is four hundred miles distant” and this closely corresponds to a passage in a work by the Scots scholastic John Mair who was here in St Andrews in the 1530s and before then had been in Glasgow where Reid was later a professor. In one of his works which was in the Glasgow library before, and since, Reid’s time Mair writes: “I say that the idea I have of the pinnacle of St Geneveive [in Paris] has the pinnacle itself as its immediate object”. These are both statements of epistemological realism and moreover they both invoke an act rather than object account of ideas. That had long before developed by Aquinas and other medievals in response to claims that all we are ever aware of are our ideas.

Reid also adopts broadly scholastic positions on causation and substance and deploys familiar design and teleological arguments for the existence of God. One thing that deserves special praise is the style of his philosophy. Whereas the scholastics, the European rationalists, and the British empiricist all developed special terminology and modes of expression that are complex and often confusing Reid stays close to ordinary language. I once had reason to edit a manuscript of his for publication and apart from a few words and now dated spellings it could have been written in the twentieth century. He is clear, remains close to common experience and sees philosophy as serving to simplify and clarify not construct novel systems. Finally, since I mentioned Hume’s personal good will to Catholics I should add a note about Reid in that connection, made all the more striking by the fact that he was a Scottish Presbyterian Minister and Penal Laws still constrained Catholics. In a letter of 1791 to a Priest Reid writes: “I give you the right hand of Fellowship. Among the other Wonders of our day, let the pure wine of Rome [Catholicism] and Geneva [Calvinism] mix leaving the dregs behind”.

3:AM: The Scottish Enlightenment impresses you for its active role in educational and political change doesn’t it? You cite the Constitution of the United States and Princeton University as being directly influenced by it, as well as reforming movements in Europe, particularly France and Spain. It seems odd that a Thomist would be in favour of reforming movements given the Absolutism of Rome. Why don’t you find it odd?

JH: ‘Rome’ is in fact several distinct institutions. First, it is the primal diocese or ‘see’ of the Catholic Church and the bishop of Rome is the leader of that Church in his role as successor of St Peter, and he serves as ‘supreme bridge’ (as pontifex maximus) between the other bishops around the world, who are the successors of those first apostles. This role is spiritual and ecclesial, i.e. it concerns the life of the Church. As the government of the world-wide Church, ‘Rome’ is known as the Holy See. For historical reasons, however, from the sixth century through to the nineteenth, the Pope also became the Sovereign of a set of territories, the Papal States; and the Vatican City, plus a few patches of land elsewhere in and around Rome constitute the residue of this. The Papal state was not a democracy and the Pope in his capacity as a temporal authority was an absolute sovereign. This, however, is now essentially ceremonial and in any case distinct from the ecclesial and spiritual offices. Saying this, the Pope is taken to have special authority in teaching on matters of faith and morals, as do Councils of the Church, and this is the subject of a different kind of challenge, not a political but a religious one, which takes us back to the Reformation and forward to the present day; but these are not arguments about the power of the papacy as a Sovereign.

The kind of argument you find in Aquinas regarding political authority points to the necessity of having societal leadership for the sake of the common good. This is compatible with both democratic and non-democratic forms of government. Aquinas was a man of his times and thought in terms of princes, sovereigns and emperors but his approach does not require absolutism and is compatible with a variety of forms of government. Also he allows that a temporal power may lose legitimacy if it fails with regard to the common good, so he would allow the deposing of a sovereign, though he warns that the case would have to be serious given the threat to civil order. In brief, a Thomist is open to various forms of government so long as they are just.

As regards the teaching authority of the Pope and the bishops in Council, this is understood to derive from the original establishment by Christ involving a commission to teach the world. Here important questions arise about the balance of teaching authority. John Mair was an advocate of Conciliarism – favouring the authority of Councils, whereas in the post-reformation period there has been a move towards Papalism – not denying the authority of the collective of bishops but asserting a distinct authority of the Bishop of Rome. All of this, however, concerns doctrine and moral teachings and here the authority is taken to derive from Christ himself.

In summary, then, a Thomist social philosopher need not be a political absolutist, indeed some Thomists were instrumental in the development of social democratic politics in Europe and one, Jacques Maritain, was a drafter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A Thomist theologian might tend either to Conciliarism or Papalism, or to a middle position holding that the ultimate teaching authority is the Pope together with the bishops in Council.

3:AM: You’ve taken part in public debates with the likes of Hitchens in the so-called new atheism disputes. These debates have been a bit of a mixed bag and very bad tempered. For a lefty like me, the extreme right wing positions of the American churches, both catholic and protestant, have been alarming. The morality of the churches has also struck me as being bullying and targeted against the poor, women, gays and so on. Attacks on love of money and usury rarely get mobilised. Church goers and their leaders seem no better at honesty and inclusivity than any other group. The organisations seem to be no more virtuous nor better at regulating themselves and dealing with self-corruption than secular organisations. Church goers seem to like the elitism and exclusivity of church schools rather than a unifying and inclusive comprehensive system that you’d have thought their faith ought to embrace. And the tone seems strident, angry, extremist and seems to self-defeat Christian doctrine. Yet listening to you, Thomism seems rational, smart, open, socially responsible, humane and capable of nuance and inclusivity – it doesn’t seem judgmental but rather seems to be in the best spirit of enlightenment. Haven’t you been hijacked by a very different agenda? If so, what can be done? If not, why does it seem like this?

JH: One thing that Catholics learn is to draw distinctions, e.g. between the value of an office and the quality of its occupants; the content of the message and the character of the messengers; the dignity of persons and the wrongfulness of human actions; adherence to truth and tolerance of disagreement among truth-seekers; and between what is attainable naturally and what requires grace. I would add a further threefold distinction: between orthodoxy and heterodoxy (which pertain to religious belief and practice); traditionalism and progressivism (which relate to broadly cultural matters); and conservatism and liberalism (which operate in the sphere of secular politics). I am critical of the politicisation of religion and of the assumption that these three distinctions line-up so that orthodoxy goes with traditionalism and with conservatism, while liberalism and progressivism go with heterodoxy. There are various possible permutations and the failure to see this, or to explore issues individually and not as a total package is a marked fault on both sides of the political/cultural/religion wars.

There is also a general tendency to think that human failings can be righted by introducing structures and regulations, but while these have a role they cannot of themselves produce understanding, and often they are the enemy of it. Secularists, in the modern sense, tend to depict religious believers as dumb and angry; while believers incline to the view that atheists are shallow and bullying. This kind of opposition feeds on itself and leads to deeper animosity. One way of halting the process is to engage in discussion, recognising that there may be reasonable disagreements, I mean possibly intractable differences expressing reasonable outlooks. This is not to endorse relativism but to recognize that our takes on things tend to be partial and it is very difficult to get to a comprehensive understanding. That is not impossible but it takes the full resources of philosophy, and goodness of heart and will besides.

This is one reason why I resist the channeling of philosophy along lines of narrow specialism and technicality, and also the isolation of philosophy from wider culture. For as long as I have been at St Andrews I have been involved in running the Centre for Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs which tries to counter the latter tendency, and more recently as Chairman of the Royal Institute of Philosophy I am concerned to try to counter the former one.

3:AM: Finally, for the Thomistically inclined readers here at 3:AM Magazine, are there five books (other than your own) that you could recommend?

JH: Two from an earlier period: Gilson on the nature of philosophy – it is here that the phrase ‘philosophy always buries its undertakers’ was born, and a text by Piefer presenting Thomistic cognitive psychology; and three from recent times by Aquinian-informed philosophers rather than Thomists per se: Anscombe, Kenny and MacIntyre.

G.E.M. Anscombe , Human Life, Action and Ethics edited by M. Geach and L. Gormally
Etienne Gilson, The Unity of Philosophical Experience
Anthony Kenny, The Metaphysics of Mind
Alasdair MacIntyre, Dependent Rational Animals
John F. Piefer, The Concept in Thomism

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, December 4th, 2012.