Subjectification and Objectification

As I have mentioned, an essay of mine has appeared in a remarkably interesting volume on the philosophy and theology of the soul. The best essay in the collection is, however, probably not mine, but rather William Desmond’s “Soul Music and Soul-less Selving.” Not that I agree with everything that Desmond says, but his piece is strange, subtle, wonderful, and productive of thought somewhat in the manner of a Platonic dialogue.

One question that Desmond raises has to do with Cartesian dualism: What comes first in the Cartesian rejection of a hylomorphic understanding of the soul: subjectification or objectification? He takes the one of the driving forces behind modern philosophy to be a certain impatience with indeterminacy and equivocity:

[I]f the soul has lost its meaning for many (Cavell speaks of “soul-blindness”), there are diverse factors involved in this. I think that certainly attention must be paid to the ambition to univocally determine all being that has expanded in modernity into a project claiming to be on a par with the whole. I want to suggest that there is more to soul than can be made the object of such univocal determination. […] Moreover, the project of determination passes seamlessly with a project of self-determination, and hence the huge presence of the language of self coexists with a view where there is nothing so absent as self. (pp. 354-355)

This would seem to put objectification first, but then Desmond swings back the other way:

Relative to the project of determination and determinability: I am thinking of the objectification of being, wherein all that is is determined to be an object of scientific investigation and possible technological exploitation. The qualitative textures of things do not count in this project of universal quantification, this mathesis universalis. Of course, if things are massively objectified, this goes with the huge subjectification of the human being, the self as it will come to be known. Which comes first: the subjectification or the objectification? Since objectification is a project of the subject, there is a sense in which the subjectification is prior, even though this may not appear so at the outset. We make things objective, but changes in ourselves then set in motion other changes, not only to things other to us, but also in how we relate to ourselves, how we understand ourselves. One of these changes has to do with the de-souling of nature as other to us (following the objectification), and with this the creeping soul-lessness of the ensuing self (following the subjectification). (p.355)

Certainly, it “does not appear so” the great success and prestige of the modern intellectual project certainly has to do with the power that comes from the objectification of nature in the “new science” that Bacon wanted, but that Descartes was actually able to begin. Nevertheless, in Descartes himself it is not so easy to see what comes first. Desmond goes on to speak more particularly of Descartes:

res cogitans is then identified with spiritual substance, set off by an ontological gulf from the res extensa, the neutral wax-like stuff of the world around us. The term “res” carries the objectification: “thing,” but with the implication of a determinability that fixes itself and nothing but itself. I mean this not only as an objectification and determination but also as a certain univocalization. It is as a consequence of univocal determin- ability that we find ourselves fixed in dualism; for to be the one thing it is, the res must incontrovertibly be not the other things, and between the one and the other there opens a gulf of difference, in the end not intermediated or open to intermediation. The res extensa seems to open up the vista of objectified neutralized thereness; and it seems also to define by necessary complement the res cogitans, the subjectivity for whom or for which this neutralized other is there at all. But this subjectivity itself undergoes a reification in being determined as thinking thing. It is in this determination, identified with the soul, that the soul begins to be lost.

Desmond’s account reminds me of the illuminating comparison that Maritain makes between the way Descartes thinks that human thought works and the way angelic thought actually works in Three Reformers:

It remains— and this is what concerns us— that the Cartesian ideas come from God, like angelic ideas, not from objects. Thus the human soul is not only subsistent as the ancients taught, causing the body to exist with its own existence; it has, without the body, received direct from God all the operative perfection which can befit it. There is the destruction of the very reason of its union with the body, or rather, there is its inversion. For if the body and the senses are not the necessary means of the acquisition of its ideas for that soul, and consequently the instrument by which it rises to its own perfection, which is the life of the intelligence and the contemplation of truth, then, as the body must be for the soul and not the soul for the body, the body and senses can be there for nothing but to provide the soul— which needs only itself and God in order to think,— with means for the practical subjugation of the earth and all material nature, and this reduces the soul’s good to the domination of the physical universe. This universe, the whole of which has not the value of one spirit, will make it pay dear for this deordination. This angel is iron-gloved, and extends its sovereign action over the corporeal world by the innumerable arms of Machinery! Poor angel turning the grindstone, enslaved to the law of matter, and soon fainting under the terrible wheels of the elemental machine which has got out of order. (pp. 63-63)

Variations on the intuited order of things

“Our great difference from the scholastic,” William James remarks in The Will to Believe, “lies in the way we face.” That is, James thinks the scholastic faces backwards to indubitable principles of knowledge, whereas the pragmatist faces forward toward the practical results of his opinions. James might be right about some scholastics, but if he is thinking about St. Thomas he is certainly wrong. St. Thomas is not a Cartesian style rationalist, who deduces everything from certain indubitable first truths. First principles do indeed have an important place in St. Thomas’s philosophy, but not first principles in the sense of explicit propositions (‘proper conceptions’), but rather in the sense of the first movements of the intellect in which it receives the world in an indistinct, confused, but very certain manner. That is to say, philosophy begins with the things as we indistinctly know them, and it tries to come to a more distinct knowledge of them through a discourse that always looks back to the things.

As Elliot Milco shows in his brilliant thesis comparing Michel Foucault and Thomism, there is a circularity to the project of philosophy: it begins with the essence of a thing confusedly grasped, and then proceeds by investigation and comparison to return to the essence of the thing now more distinctly grasped. From this Milco concludes that St. Thomas’s does not share the main defects of Cartesian rationalism:

An investigation always grounded in the contemplation of things does not fall victim easily to Kantian fears about runaway logical deduction. If one’s philosophical investigation is always already oriented toward things, toward the disclosure of the essences of things and the adequation of thought to reality, the chances of any early errors of principle fundamentally corrupting one’s work are fairly slim. On the other hand, if one operates like Descartes, or Kant himself, and attempts, while suspending the exercise of one’s capacities as a knower of things, to describe the pure principles of thought by which knowledge is possible, then parvus error in principio will indeed, as St. Thomas says, be magnus in fine. (pp. 67-68)

A consequence that Milco draws from this is that one can freely admit the fact that one’s own approach to reality will always be influenced by cultural habits of thought that incline one to pay attention to certain aspects of things more than others. Such an admission would be fatal to an attempt to construct a complete Cartesian system of knowledge, but it is merely what is to be expected if our knowledge is posterior to things, and dependent on sense experience:

[…] the teacher cannot communicate the essences he has received directly to the minds of his students […] pedagogy directs the mind to the truth, rather than supplying its objects directly. Shifts in pedagogical order, omissions or erasures in the body of transmitted knowledge, deprive new minds of the inclination to discover certain causal connections or aspects of being which others may have found in the past. […] the history of knowledge is not analogous to the development of an individual intellect. Where the intellect always returns to possessed ideas to perfect and develop them, in history death and contingency continually intervene to mar the transmission of acquired knowledge, so that each generation tends to represent more a set of variations on the intuited order of things than the perfection of previously held knowledge. […]  to study the history of ideas would be to study the history of pedagogy and the changing forces of human society which incite us to attend to some objects and neglect others.

Laudato Si’ and Charles De Koninck

In a programmatic post on the new encyclical, John Brungardt argues that Charles De Koninck’s philosophy of nature and his anti-personalist account of the common good, both rooted in his rich understanding of the order of the whole universe as the final cause of creation, make De Koninck a particularly suitable instrument for pursuing the concerns of Laudato Si’. Continue reading

De Lubac and His Critics Make the Same Error

In an essay on integralism I took issue with Steven Long’s claim that the natural and supernatural desires for God have formally distinct objects. Long claims that the natural desire to know the first cause of all things is only materially, not formally, a desire to know God–just as the desire to know Einstein under the ratio of “man wearing a raincoat” is only materially, not formally, a desire to know Einstein. To this I replied:

[The] relevant distinction between objects of natural and of supernatural desire is not matter and form, but rather confused and distinct. That is, to desire God based on one’s natural knowledge of Him through His effects is really to desire God, in Whom those effects really participate. Here the Platonic notion of anamnesis that Ratzinger takes up […] is extremely helpful. When one comes to know God by natural reason, one “recognizes” in Him the infinite ocean of perfection in which one’s own and all created being participates. But of course this knowledge is very imperfect, confused knowledge; the light of faith gives a much more distinct knowledge of Whom it is that one desires. [… The] natural desire to attain to God is really a desire to attain to God, and thus the desire given by grace really perfects, elevates, and completes that desire by revealing both more about Who God is, and by revealing an unspeakably perfect and beatifying  mode of attaining to Him; it does not add another, independent desire.

Long himself sometimes speaks as though this were the case. Thus, a little after the Einstein-raincoat example he writes:

Where revelation makes the real possibility of beatific vision known, this renders the otherwise conditional desire to know God to become unconditional. Apart from revelation the desire would be conditional— “were it possible” one would will it. Just as one might wish to live forever, or never to make a mistake—both logically, but seemingly not really, possible—so one would wish to know the essence of the First Cause, save that in this case one genuinely would not know what one is wishing for. After revelation, the desire becomes unconditional. Once God reveals Himself and his gift of divine life, the natural desire thus elevated and supernaturalized in grace inclines toward it absolutely by inclining toward the infinitely higher end of union with the Uncreated Persons of the Holy Trinity. For the object of the natural desire for God under the ratio of “cause of these effects” is incorporated within the graced desire of God as God. (Natura Pura, p. 21)

 What Long says here fits quite well with my position. He is suggesting that the desire for God elicited by natural reason’s consideration of the things that He causes makes one desire to know God as much as possible. That desire would not be in vain in a state of pure nature, since to know even a little of God makes one happy, but the desire would not be so satisfied that one would not wish to know Him more. One would see that one’s knowledge of Him was indirect, through effects that fall infinitely short of Him, and one would wish “if it were possible” to know Him directly, in His essence. And so grace opens up a way of satisfying the natural desire infinitely more fully than it could be satisfied naturally. But if, on the other hand, the natural desire is really a desire for a formally distinct object, then this is much more difficult to see.

Oddly enough, De Lubac himself also distinguishes between two desires to know God with formally distinct objects–only he sees them both as natural desires. In The Discovery of GodDe Lubac distinguishes between the “philosophical” desire to know the cause of all things, and the “mystical” desire to know the One as the One. By “mystical” in this context he does not mean something that comes from an infused gift of the Holy Spirit, but rather a natural desire for the beatific vision presumably common to Christian and non-Christian mystics.  The philosopher, he argues, wants to “comprehend the universe,” and treats God only as an aid to explaining the world. The philosopher as philosopher is satisfied by this: “he does not ask for more.” (p. 148) The mystic, as mystic, who may be the same person as the philosopher but considered under another finality, does ask for more. De Lubac quotes a great many passages fro St. Thomas about how philosophy only knows God as cause of the world. But I think he is making a great mistake here. To say that philosophy only knows God through his effects does not mean that it is only interested in him as an explanation for His effects. All it means is that the highest knowledge which is what the philosopher really wants, that werein wisdom really consists, is only accessible indirectly. Consider the following passage of Plotinus:

We must ascend, therefore, once more to the Good, which every soul desires. If anyone […] passing in his ascent beyond all that is separative from God, by himself alone contemplates God alone, perfect, simple and pure, from Whom all things depend, to Whom all beings look, and in Whom they are, and live, and know. For He is the cause of Being, Life and Intelligence. If, then, anyone beheld Him, with what love would he be inspired! With what desire would he burn in his eagerness to be united with Him! With what bliss would he be overcome! (Ennead I,6,7)

Presumably De Lubac would call this a mystical rather than a philosophical text. And yet, it is wholly consistent with St. Thomas’s account of philosophy. Plotinus here has come to knowledge of God as the cause of being, life, and understanding; he does not see how God is in Himself, but he does see how he is not i.e. not-finite, not-complex (simple), not-mixed (pure). He is “perfect,” but his perfection is only known through imperfect things, by denying their imperfections of God. This leads Plotinus to wish for a more perfect knowledge:

How shall a man behold this ineffable Beauty which remains within, deep in Its holy sanctuaries, and proceeds not without where the profane may view It?  (I,6,8)

De Lubac argues that St. Thomas sometimes confuses the philosophical and the mystical desires for God, and that he was unable fully account for their relation to each other:

St. Thomas, therefore. seems to have failed in his attempt to establish continuity between philosophy and mysticism, between the dynamism of the intelligence and the desire of the spirit. The doctrine of “the natural desire to see God” is central to his thought, and he has not succeeded in completely unifying it. N0 one will succeed where he has failed. (The Discovery of God, p. 151)

But St. Thomas did not have to integrate these two desires, because they are simply the same thing. Consider St. Thomas’s treatment of the question in the Summ Contra Gentiles III,25 (often quoted by Long, but interpreted by him with unnecessary subtly):

The ultimate end of each thing is God, as we have shown. So, each thing intends, as its ultimate end, to be united with God as closely as is possible for it. Now, a thing is more closely united with God by the fact that it attains to His very substance in some manner, and this is accomplished when one knows something of the divine substance, rather than when one acquires some likeness of Him. Therefore, an intellectual substance tends to divine knowledge as an ultimate end. […] Besides, a thing has the greatest desire for its ultimate end. Now, the human intellect has a greater desire, and love, and pleasure, in knowing divine matters than it has in the perfect knowledge of the lowest things, even though it can grasp but little concerning divine things. So, the ultimate end of man is to understand God, in some fashion. […] Besides, there is naturally present in all men the desire to know the causes of whatever things are observed. Hence, because of wondering about things that were seen but whose causes were hidden, men first began to think philosophically; when they found the cause, they were satisfied. But the search did not stop until it reached the first cause, for “then do we think that we know perfectly, when we know the first cause.” Therefore, man naturally desires, as his ultimate end, to know the first cause. But the first cause of all things is God. Therefore, the ultimate end of man is to know God.

Both De Lubac and Long understand the desire to know God qua cause of all things as being the desire to know an object formally distinct from God as God. But there is absolutely no need to make this distinction. Both De Lubac and his critic make a mistake common among very clever people: thinking that things must be more complicated than they are. The most profound things are the most simple and obvious.

De Lubac notes that in fact every philosopher is more than a philosopher and “the labor of elaborating an intelligible world does not save him from ‘the nostalgia of Being’,” and he adds in a footnote: “This is true even of Descartes, so often accused since the time of Pascal of only being interested in God for the sake of possessing the world.” (p. 153 with note 19) Here we perhaps see the real origin of De Lubac’s conception of the role of God in philosophy: Descartes! Descartes’s philosophical account of God is indeed only an aid to explaining the world, and this is what distinguishes “the god of the [French Enlightenment] philosophers” from the God of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus. Descartes’s philosophical approach to God (as opposed to his religious approach) is not an approach to God at all, and his desire to know that “God” is a desire to know an object not only formally but also materially distinct from his desire to know the One True God. But that is just because the “god” of Cartesian philosophy is not God at all, but just a useful fiction.