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Aquinas amongst the analytics

John Haldane interviewed by Richard Marshall.

John Haldane is a Thomist analytic philosopher who is always brooding on faith and religious belief, philosophers who have strange and oracular remarks that ignite the imagination, the metaphysics of Aquinas and the making sense of immateriality, the depths of ontological arguments, some Aristotelian roots, Hegel’s Christian stuff, religion and the philosophy of mind, the link between Aquinas and Anscombe, the link between Aquinas and Wittgenstein, the evasiveness of D.Z. Phillips, when human beings start, Hume and Reid and their attitude to Catholicism, the Scottish Enlightenment, plus Christopher Hitchens and the new atheism all done in the cool hand Luke style of unflappable chill. Which all in all makes him the P Daddy of the philosophy of religion.

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher? Was it that you didn’t stop wondering about a God?

John Haldane: Religion, art and ideas were all present in my childhood: at home and at school; and ever since I have moved to and fro between them in a more or less philosophical mode. I learned a good deal about differences of religious doctrine and practice since my grandfather, who lived with us for a time, was a staunch Presbyterian but my father had been received into the Catholic Church by a Franciscan priest, Fr Bonaventure. This was also the faith of my mother, and I was educated for ten years by the Jesuits. They are trained in philosophy and this shaped the ways in which they taught various subjects, so at school I was learning to think philosophically. At home, art and music were important and my mother’s family were in the theatre; also my year was divided between the west of Scotland, south-east England and London with their contrasting landscapes and cultures, all of which stimulated and developed my imagination. My first five years of higher education were in fine art which I also taught for a few years. That developed a pictorial and compositional way of thinking which remains with me and taught me that there are different ways of ‘seeing’ and ‘showing’ ideas and values.

Then I turned to the study of philosophy. Looking back it was a ‘golden age’ in London: Jerry Cohen, Dorothy Edgington, Bill Hart, Hide Ishiguru, Hans Kamp, Ian McFetridge, Colin McGinn, Norman Malcolm, David Papineau, Mark Platts, Mark Sainsbury, Roger Scruton, Richard Sorabji, David Wiggins, Peter Winch, Richard Wolheim, and many others. As an undergraduate I had got interested in the nature of thought and this led me to Brentano and to the famous passage in Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint where he (re)introduces the medieval scholastic notion of intentionality as involving the inexistence of an object in thought.

In an effort to find out more I hunted through books and journals but it was only when I explored the basement of the Catholic Central Library then adjacent to Westminster Cathedral that I discovered a storehouse of scholastic material and became fascinated with this other world, quite unlike that I inhabited as a student, and began to teach myself ‘Thomism’. Towards the end of my studies I was appointed to St Andrews and so returned to Scotland, and to an institution founded out of the religious, philosophical and aesthetic values of medieval Catholicism. In one way or another then my route into philosophy and my life within it has been an ongoing interplay of art, religion and ideas, the last engaged through philosophical analysis and argument.

3:AM: In Reasonable Faith you argue that to hold religious beliefs requires careful consideration of the metaphysics you’d be committed to if religious claims were true. So, for example, if the Christian belief in resurrection were true then we’d have to think about maybe one and the same thing could have more than one beginning of existence. You think that modern philosophy sometimes forecloses options too soon, don’t you?

JH: Reasonable Faith is a companion volume to an earlier one entitled Faithful Reason and both are concerned in part with the interplay between philosophical and religious ideas and values. The latter tried to show how taking religious claims seriously is compatible with maintaining a philosophical outlook, while the former aimed to show that a religious stance is philosophically supported. More than this, however, I wanted to illustrate ways in which religious ideas can actually enrich philosophy. A discussion of ‘incarnational anthropology’, for example, invoked the logic of reduplicative predications (x qua-f-is-g) and also suggested that standard mind-body ontologies are ill-equipped even to formulate the Christian doctrine of divine incarnation. I was not concerned to argue for that doctrine but to show that it does not involve contradictory predications and that it invites deeper possibilities as regards understanding the nature of mindedness. Then in the discussion you mention I pressed the thought that the possibility of bodily resurrection could be made sense of in ways that correspond logically to familiar cases of re-assembly, but that both challenge the idea that objects cannot be gap-inclusive.

My formal education in philosophy was entirely in the analytic mold and I am grateful for that since it introduced me to the power of analysis and rigorous argumentation; but that mold is also a somewhat shallow one. This is not to do with the issue of religion per se, but rather with the narrowing of intellectual sources. When people were trained in classical culture, or literature, or history, or the arts, and especially if they had been introduced to unfamiliar and seemingly strange ways of thinking, their imaginations were more developed and they were less inclined to take the ruling ideas and values of their own time as obviously correct. My first philosophy classes were taught by David Hamlyn and concerned the pre-Socratics. Their strange and oracular remarks immediately ignited my imagination and I still return to them when jaded by the often flat and featureless forms of contemporary philosophy. Among analytic philosophers those I most admire have imagination and are open to diverse sources of insight into human nature and reality: Anscombe, Kripke, McDowell, MacIntyre, Nagel, Putnam, Taylor, Williams – each draws, not always announcedly, on sources outside the brief and narrow canon of analytic philosophy.

3:AM: You’re impressed by Aquinas. You write: ‘Aquinas is essentially a dialectical thinker who engages in careful propositional analysis and who prizes good arguments.’ Before looking at his philosophical positions, can you give us a brief philosophical context to understand the guy. He came near the end of a medieval period of philosophy begun perhaps by Augustine and dominated by Aristotleianism, didn’t he?

JH: Thomas Aquinas belongs to the period of the high middle ages (roughly the thirteenth century) and is one of a number of major Latin thinkers, the others being his teacher Albert the Great, his contemporary Bonaventure, and the slightly later figures William Ockham and Duns Scotus. The last three were all members of the Franciscan order, whereas Albert and Thomas were Dominicans. These two orders had both been founded in the first few years of the century and so then were still quite young. They were also radical in their vocation of bringing reasoned faith to people of the growing cities of Western Europe. The older order of Benedictines, whose leadership was drawn from aristocratic and noble families, remained set apart in monasteries established as refuges from a degraded and hostile world. After the half-millennium following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, European culture and society began to be rebuilt and the first great philosopher-theologian to be produced by this new order was Anselm, himself a Benedictine. His philosophical outlook was broadly that of theistic-Platonism as developed by Augustine, and this was largely adopted by the Franciscans.

From the start, however, the Domincans were different. Albert the Great was among the first of these and was alert to the promise offered by the more naturalistic outlook of Aristotle many of whose works were then being received in the West for the first time, having previously been studied and commented upon by Islamic scholars in Baghdad. Whereas the Augustinians tended to see a world of fixity, Albert discerned a dynamic and changing world and he encouraged his student Thomas to adopt and develop his own project of ‘Christianising Aristotle’ or ‘Aristotelianising’ Christian thought. Aquinas did not have Greek, so he was assigned various translators, the most important of whom was William of Moerbeke and he soon got to work studying and commentating upon William’s translations. Those commentaries are still consulted and discussed today, but as interesting is the way in which Aquinas drawns upon Aristotelian ideas in his own original writings beginning with On Being and Essence (De Ente et Essentia) written when he was in his late twenties.

3:AM: So Aquinas has to develop a metaphysics that can accommodate religious content like the resurrection, the trinity, the nature of God, infinity and time and so on. Can you give examples of what Aquinas argues, say about his conception of the trinity or the resurrection so we can get a sense of how he approached his philosophy? I suppose one of the things I’m asking this for is to see how different and strange a Christian Thomist metaphysics is and how it differs from non-Thomist, non-theological metaphysics. It always surprises me how even Christians never seem to think of the world in a way all that differently from non Christians but given what they say they believe they ought to, didn’t they?

JH: Aquinas is working with ideas that already had highly sophisticated expressions. These originate in Greek philosophy, in Christian scripture, and in the writings of the early church fathers, the theological interpreters of the first centuries of Christianity. So when he takes up an issue he is already aware of how it has been discussed by others and of what some of the main positions on it might be. I have mentioned his use of Aristotle but it is also important to emphasise the Platonic aspects of his thought, and also to recall that in many respects Aristotle is also close to Plato: this is something we now tend to forget, emphasising how Plato is transcendentalist or objective idealist and Aristotle a naturalist. In relation to contemporary understandings of ‘naturalism’ Aristotle is certainly quite different. This is something John McDowell has referred to, but even then the picture that emerges is of something like a generalised anomalous monism whereas Aristotle believes in absolute immateriality. I mention this to indicate that what might seem strange in Aquinas’s metaphysics is a development of what was familiar to his predecessors.

One area is that of reality and materiality, another that of metaphysical modality. Whereas we would think that the paradigm of something real is a physical object Aquinas would say that reality goes with intelligibility which goes with immateriality. Matter is not as such intelligible rather it is the potentiality for the actualisation of form, and it is the form of an empirical object that renders it knowable. Also while knowability might involve, in the first instance, experience of a particular individual it relates most fully to the abstract form and this can only be known by intellect which it itself something immaterial. But since intellectual powers are non-material so too is the subject to which they belong and whose nature they express; hence the intellectual subject, the thinker, is an immaterial entity. Yet a human person is a kind of living animal, so while a thinker might survive the death of its body it is not itself a person, and the possibility of a future personal life would therefore require re-embodiment. In this way he works from a philosophical position (the immateriality of the objects of intellectual knowledge) towards a religious teaching (the resurrection of the dead) and simultaneously connects the latter with a line of philosophical argument.

Today we struggle to make sense of immateriality and, notwithstanding Kripke and others continue to find difficulty with the idea of necessity as something that belongs to reality as it is in itself. Aquinas, by contrast, sees the world of materiality and contingency as a limited reflection or consequence of an order that is simpler and purer, and structured rationally and axiologically, i.e. according to orders of value. His primary notions of necessity (and of possibility) are ontological and arise out of the idea of a nature or essence.

3:AM: His famous cosmological argument is partly famous because it has been subjected to huge critical study and would seem to have been rendered obsolete. Haven’t developments in modern logic after Frege left much of Aquinas generally in a mess? Doesn’t too much of the original system – brilliant though it was in the time he was writing – depend on errors that subsequent generations have discovered?

JH: There are several places in Aquinas’s writings where he refers to natural philosophy, i.e. to what we would consider empirical science, and makes statements that we now know to be false. Examples concern human physiology, conception and embryological development, and aspects of physics, chemistry and astronomy. Where these are invoked in arguments, e.g. about sensation, the beginnings of life, or the nature of the heavenly bodies the result may be to render arguments unsound, but the deeper issues are generally metaphysical and the interesting question is whether the arguments can be reformulated in terms of corrected empirical facts, and how far and such reformulation takes one away from Aquinas’s central purpose.

So far as arguing to the existence of God is concerned Aquinas’s main lines of argument do not depend essentially on particular empirical theories. These are set out in the ‘Five Ways’ presented in the second question of his major work the Summa Theologiae, but there are other arguments elsewhere. Let me mention two lines of reasoning one teleological, the other cosmological. He claims that the action of some natural organisms is explicable in terms of the ends towards which they move, even though they lack intelligence. These ends generally confer benefits relevant to the natures of the organisms and hence conduce to their good. If we thought of these agents as choosing the ends then we might think that no further explanation was called for, but if they are incapable of choice then there must be some other explanation of their tendencies towards beneficial states, something external and directional, and from this Aquinas reasons to the idea a benign designer, saying that this is what we call God (‘et hoc dicimus Deum’). There is much that has been said about this kind of argument and it is commonly supposed to have been defeated by the theory of evolution through mutation and natural selection. But evolutionary speciation itself rests on teleologically-structured processes which it does not and cannot explain. There is much more to be said and if readers want to see how this debate might develop they could look at my debate with the late Jack Smart in Atheism and Theism. Here all I want to point out is that the argument neither excludes nor is rendered unsound by evolutionary processes.

The second argument is that involving essence and existence – and by existence I mean actuality or ‘be-ing’, i.e. existing. In this sense existence is a metaphysical aspect of any existing thing and it is not captured by the existential quantifier. Aquinas points out that if we were to inquire into some kind of entity we might ask what is it? i.e. ask about its nature or essence, but also ask is it? does it actually exist? The fact that the second question remains open even when the first has been answered shows that the existence of the thing does not follow from its essence. So if it exists its existence must derive from something else. Of that prior source one can again ask whether its existence is implied by its nature and if not then we have to look for a further source, and so it continues. If a vicious regress is to be avoided we must suppose that there is something in which existence is implied by essence and which has the power to confer existence on other things. So again Aquinas is led to the idea of God as the creator, and indeed sustainer of the being as well as of the natures of beings. While this argument may be contested it is a purely metaphysical one and does not rest on particular empirical claims and hence is not refutable by appeal to scientific discoveries.

3:AM: Broadening out that last issue a little, in resurrecting Thomist philosophy aren’t you committed to Aristotelian metaphysics and all that entails. Don’t the arguments that got rid of Aristotle from science, for example, still hold?

JH: Again we need to consider what in Aristotle is metaphysics and what is natural philosophy, i.e. empirical science. Aquinas takes up, for example, Aristotle’s notions of form and matter but develops them around the notions of actuality and potentiality. The latter are certainly metaphysical concepts and in light of these we can read back into the form/matter pair a metaphysical interpretation. To illustrate: Aquinas distinguishes primary and secondary matter. The latter is some particular kind of stuff which endures through some change, being heated, say, or growing larger by absorbing other quantities. He notes, however, that there can be more fundamental kinds of changes where one sort of thing changes into another. Suppose for example lead changes into gold, which the alchemists believed can be caused to happen and which has its counterpart in contemporary science in the transmutation of elements resulting from radioactive decay. Here there must be something that endures through the change, i.e. which is the matter of first one and then another nature. Pressed further this gets us to the idea of prime matter which is nothing but the potentiality for the presence of one and then another fundamental nature. Here I would say Aquinas is moving from empirical science to metaphysics as matter is now a functional or relational concept correlative to that of structure.

Starting from the idea of form or structure one can also argue that it is an essential element of any analysis of substance or causation and does not depend on any scientific theory old or new. Every-thing is a some-thing, that is to say we can always ask what is it? and an answer that could serve to distinguish one kind of thing from another kind will be a specification of a nature or form. There are no bare things, and likewise there is no bare causation. Causing is always some kind of causing, causing of this or that sort with such and such a structure. These structures correspond to Aristotelian-Thomistic forms and far from being superseded by science they are presupposed by the sciences as when biologists or chemists or physicists taxonomise things and processes according to their structures and natures.

3:AM: How interested are you in other philosophical traditions influencing the development of this Christian metaphysics? For example, the German idealist tradition also developed sophisticated metaphysical systems in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries didn’t it? Hegel, for example, is understood by Fred Beiser as being a deeply metaphysical philosopher of the Absolute. And modern theology has developed to embrace post-modern theology (like Graham Ward) and atheist theological positions (like Don Cupitt) – both of these seem hanging on to less than a full blooded metaphysical realist position about God. How do you see these: as alternatives or developments or complements to Thomist approaches?

JH: Anyone who takes Christian creeds seriously and thinks about the meaning of the various articles such as that in the Nicene creed which holds that Christ was ‘born of the Father before all ages, God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father; Through him all things were made’, will soon be lead into the area of Platonist and neo-Platonic metaphysics. I am certainly interested in these since they both affirm that reality is ultimately intelligible, rationally ordered and co-relative to and perhaps expressive of thought. I had not read much of Hegel save in extracts until recently but even a fairly speedy journey through one or two works reveals the extent to which his metaphysics is suited to a rendering of the Judeao-Christian narrative in the form of a metaphysical process leading from immanent to realised spirit.

This is no accident, of course, since Hegel was trained in Christian theology at Tübingen Seminary and an early essay was on the ‘Spirit of Christianity’, traces of which survive in his Phenomenology of Spirit. Indeed he can be seen as aiming to rescue Christian theology from philosophical attack by representing it as a mythic expression of a metaphysical reality. I am struck by the connections between this and the tradition of neo-Platonism in which there is a similar ‘movement’ from unity through diversity back to unity, and this was consciously adopted by the Greek and Latin Church Fathers in developing Christian doctrine. ‘Post-modern theology’ is an ambiguous expression. In one interpretation it refers to the attempt to recover orthodox theology from some of the distortions or damage done to it by aspects of modern thought. In another interpretation it refers to certain kinds of discourse inspired by post-war French philosophy which treat theological language as a medium of advocacy or emancipation (or of accusation and confinement) and disavow metaphysical claims as traditionally understood. It is overly simple to put it this way but one might see the former as an effort to defend traditional credal Christianity and the latter as an attempt to undermine it or to distract from its abandonment. I have sympathy for aspects of the former but in general regard the latter as obscurantist and often pretentious and posturing.

3:AM: You defend a Thomist metaphysics in the context of the discussion about philosophy of mind. You say that the ontology of mind positions itself as accepting materialism of mind with a residual derivation from phenomenal consciousness and that this is driven by accepting functionalism. You deny that epiphenomenalism is the hardest challenge faced by this position because you think the conceptual intentionality of abstract thought is. So what is this difficulty, and how does Aquinas help?

JH: Contemporary philosophy of mind is heavily populated with a multiplicity of theories, concepts and arguments. Nonetheless a couple of general features distinguish the current state of the subject from that which prevailed in the 1970s. First, while the general orientation is still towards materialism it is also away from reductive physicalism. Second, there is a significant presence of dualism and quasi-dualism. These two features are related largely through the influence of claims to the effect that phenomenal content and qualitative consciousness are real but not physically explicable in the sense of being identified with or otherwise reduced to physical features.

Some arguments against reductionism have been independent of this issue, such as Putnam’s suggestion that mental concepts identify states by their computational role not by their ontological composition or medium, but that of course is also compatible with the claim that every function realizer is a wholly physical state. Lewis, Fodor and Block had similar arguments about psychological terms specifying roles or functions though they argued that for reasons to do with causality these could only have physical realisers. Similarly Davidson’s argument that mental concepts are tied to rational-explanatory interpretation tells against type-identification but is compatible with, and in Davidson’s argument entailed token physicalism. The impetus for qualia dualism came not from general considerations about the type-individuation of the mental but from particular intuitions about the non-identity of phenomenal facts, properties or states and physical ones.

One might suppose that someone who rejects materialism would welcome such arguments, and many do, some seeing in them a route back to the idea of God; but I am doubtful about them for three reasons. First, notwithstanding much emphatic language, often marked in print by italics, affirming that there is something it is like to be phenomenally aware, it is not clear that this marks out something that could not be a physical phenomenon. By way of analogy, imagine someone arguing that in addition to objective spaces such as might be mapped, there are also ineliminably subjective spaces occupied by conscious beings and reported by them through the multiple uses of the term ‘here’. The case for ‘location dualism’ can be disarmed by observing the phenomenon of indexicals, indicating a location by reference to the place of utterance or one demonstrated from it, and perhaps a similar strategy might disarm ‘qualia dualism’. Second, it is evident that in general the phenomenal field is isomorphic to the physical environment in respect of geometry and qualitative intensity. A sound heard to the left in the auditory field may generally be better heard by turning in that direction and moving towards the source. This encourages the thought that the phenomenal is the physical received according to the physiology of the recipient. Third, phenomenal consciousness has particulars as its objects, but particulars are individuated by their matter and what has a material particular as its immediate, non-descriptively specified object is itself a material faculty.

These second and third considerations relate to ideas to be found in the medievals and I am struck by the fact that they also reasoned that sense-perception is a bodily activity. At the same time, however, they argued that intellection, thinking of general natures and using such concepts, involves the thinker engaging with non-material intentionalia. Aquinas deploys this idea in several arguments for the immateriality of intellection, and I believe that suitably formulated some of these arguments are sound, though I think they also have the surprising conclusion that there is no medium of (intellectual) thought, or put another way there is no phenomenology of (abstract) thought.

3:AM: Was G.E.M. Anscombe in her book Intention developing a kind of disguised Thomist position about intentionality? How sympathetic are you to understanding Anscombe’s philosophical analysis of intention as being an attempt to find a space for a naturalised Platonism, something that John McDowell has developed subsequently? Isn’t there a problem with Platonism from the Aristotlelian perspective that this sort of approach embodies, analogous to Kant making reason a separate realm?

JH: I don’t know whether Anscombe ever sought to disguise her use of ideas drawn from Aquinas, though she might have judged that it was prudent given the secular academic world she inhabited not to associate an idea with him lest that encouraged people to dismiss it as simply ‘religious’. When I was a student I corresponded with her about a position she maintained with regard to the idea of the ‘moral’ and I noted that Aquinas took a very similar line. She acknowledged this but also described a policy of reading Thomas after one had a thought about an issue to see if he had anything to say that might help, rather than going first to him as if he were a source of ideas. I think this was an accurate account of her own relationship to his work, but as I have read more of her writings, including those recently and continuingly published in St Andrews Studies, I see more and more of Aquinas in them. To some extent, at least in broad outline, this is true of themes in Intention, but of course there she was also influence by Aristotle directly, and of course by Wittgenstein, though in the latter case more with regard to method. In that connection it is worth mentioning that Wittgenstein also read Aquinas and had a couple of German/Latin volumes of the Summa Theologiae. I once tried to track these down in the hope of finding marginal comments but the search proved fruitless.

Anscombe was an unusually deep and imaginative philosopher, but she didn’t elaborate points and arguments with a view to making them intelligible to someone who might not otherwise see what was going on. I think this was in part because she was concerned with the facts themselves not with laying out the route to them; but also I think there was something of the existentialist or spiritual writer about her in the sense that she thought that the significance of a fact would only be evident to someone who was looking to find or to escape from it. Her work is very hard to summarise and it is common on rereading her essays to to see something one had not previously noticed or appreciated. She had a burst of highly creative work in the late 1950s which produced Intention, Modern Moral Philosophy and a few other things; again in the 1970s producing important essays on causation, and again in the 1980s this time leading to still material on language and philosophical logic much of which has not been widely read let alone digested. It is always worthwhile reading her essays but one feels as if one is trying to keep up without really knowing where things are going.

Yet, while she is not a systematic thinker in the style of Strawson say, or of Davidson, there is an overall spirit or environment in which her ideas are expressed and this, I would say, is one of kind of objective idealism. She believes in the reality of reason but rather than say it is in us one might say that we are in it. It is our spiritual/rational environment though we inhabit it in a state of partial unfamiliarity alienated either by the effects of sin or by those of bad philosophy – depending on whether one favours an Augustinian or Wittgensteinian analysis, and I think she would say that the latter is not independent of the former. I don’t think this is what John McDowell had in mind in speaking of ‘naturalised Platonism’, though one could begin to translate between these outlooks.

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