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.

Roger Scruton

A while ago I posted a response to an First Things essay by Roger Scruton on the good of government. I later sent an abridgment of my post to First Things as a letter to the editor. It appeared in the October issue, with the following reply by Scruton:

As for Fr. Waldstein’s theological vision of the good of government, I can only respond as Burke responded to the Reason advocated by the French Revolutionaries. He wrote: “We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages.”
Advocates of natural law in the Catholic tradition have often told us that the good is discoverable to reason, and that we have only to consult it. But they tend to be as reluctant as Waldstein to define who is doing the consulting, and how. Burke’s view, that there is a kind of reason that emerges through civil association, and which is both conserved in our traditions and irretrievably dispersed by the attempt to make it explicit, offers, to my mind, a better model of the place of reason in government. On Burke’s view, rational solutions emerge from below, by an invisible hand, and are not imposed from above by those who claim to have privileged knowledge of the natural law. (The same point is made in other terms by Hayek, in his defense of the common law.) One can agree with Kant’s warning against paternal government without thinking that “any submission to an authority other than the self is tyrannical.” As I understand it, the art of living in ­society is precisely the art of submitting to authority—but doing so willingly, and in the little platoons that we ourselves create.

I have the greatest respect for Scruton, and certainly his position is not as bad Kant’s, but I’m still not convinced. He returns my Kant comparison with interest by comparing me to the Jacobins. But I was a little surprised by his saying that am “reluctant” to define who is to determine what the natural law is. True, I gave no account of that in my letter, but in the past I do not think I have been notably reluctant. By coincidence the most recent issue of The European Conservative features an excerpt from one of Scruton’s books and a notably unhesitant essay by me right next to each other in the Table of Contents:

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On seeing this Coëmgenus noted the juxtaposition of Scruton’s title “What is Right” and my subtitle “what is best”—an illustration of two different approaches.

Accountability and Paternalism, Imbalance of Power and Civil Friendship

Roger Scruton embodies much of what is most noble in the classical liberal tradition. I find much to agree with in a recent essay of his on the nature of government. I agree with his main thesis that government is an honest good, rather than a merely useful good, as much of the liberal tradition would hold. I also find much of value in the account of political freedom on which he bases his argument, but I think it incomplete and partly wrong.

Scruton rejects most of the atomism and voluntarism of most liberal accounts of freedom. True freedom, he argues, is developed through community: Continue reading

Kantian Ngrams

On a superficial level one can see the impact of […] Kantian ideas on the ethical discourse on the ethical discourse of modern Christians who now speak as much or more about “persons,” “dignity,” “rights,” and “respect” than about sin, redemption, compassion, Heaven, and hell. (Robert Kraynak, Christian Faith and Modern Democracy, p. 148)

I tried to see whether Kraynak’s “superficial level” could be graphed using the blunt instrument of Google Ngrams; this was the most interesting graph that I could come up with:

Kantian N-grams

Note how “sin” suddenly spikes up at the beginning of the 19th century, and then declines again. This has to do with early Evangelicalism, the final phase of what Msgr. Knox calls “Enthusiasm:"

For a hundred and fifty years [Enthusiasm] becomes the major preoccupation of religious minds, obscuring from contemporary view the rise of atheism. (Ronald Knox, Enthusiasm, p. 4).

Spaemann on Human Dignity: Kant or St. Thomas?

About a week ago I was in Vienna for a lecture by German philosopher Robert Spaemann. The English speaking world’s closest equivalent to Spaemann would perhaps be Roger Scruton; a top-notch academic philosopher who has not capitulated to nihilism and happens to be a devout Christian. Like Scruton, Spaemann has been influenced a lot by the perennial philosophy, but also has a worrisome way of referring to German idealists. Now, I haven’t read any of Spaemann’s books yet, and only a few of his articles, so I was not sure exactly what to expect. I was particularly interested to see where he would come down on the crucial question of the primacy of the common good. (The more I think about it the more I begin to see just how well Charles De Koninck shows this to be the key question for ethics and politics in his book on the common good). Spaemann’s blurb from the upcoming von Hildebrand Conference gave me high hopes:

His 1989 seminal work Glück und Wohlwollen (Happiness and Benevolence) sets forth a thesis that happiness is derived from benevolent acting: that we are created by God as social beings to help one another find truth and meaning in an often confused and disordered world.

The connection of happiness with benevolence and social being seemed to promise much.

Spaemann Messner

Spaemann’s talk (which was organized by the highly praise-worthy Johannes Messner Gesellschaft) was on human dignity. The argumentation was brilliant – examples and enthymemes as crisp and hard-hitting as possible. It was beautiful the way he destroyed much of contemporary nonsense in just a few pointed sentences.

His initial account of dignity in terms of reason and free-will sounded a bit Kantian, but could still be given a Thomist interpretation. He proceeded to modify the initial account quite a bit away from Kant. He very impressively brought in the concept of (bodily) nature. Showing how Kant’s account fails to explain, for instance, why inflicting bodily pain on someone should be seen as contrary to their dignity.

It wasn’t clear to me yet though whether he was understanding his account of dignity in a more Kantian way (denying the primacy of the common good) or in a more Thomist way. He confusingly equated Kant’s “personalistic norm” (“Act in such a way that at all times you treat human nature in your own person as well as in the person of every other human being simultaneously as a purpose, never as a mere means.”) with St. Thomist dictum liberum est quod causa sui est, but I was initially unsure as to whether this confusion resulted from a Kantian misunderstanding of Thomas, a Thomist misunderstanding of Kant, or a Spaemannian misunderstanding of both.

That he didn’t quite get Thomas became clear when he brought up the magnificent ad tertium of IIaIIae 64,3:

By sinning man departs from the order of reason, and consequently falls away from the dignity of his manhood, in so far as he is naturally free, and exists for himself, and he falls into the slavish state of the beasts, by being disposed of according as he is useful to others. This is expressed in Psalm 48:21: “Man, when he was in honor, did not understand; he hath been compared to senseless beasts, and made like to them,” and Proverbs 11:29: “The fool shall serve the wise.” Hence, although it be evil in itself to kill a man so long as he preserve his dignity, yet it may be good to kill a man who has sinned, even as it is to kill a beast. For a bad man is worse than a beast, and is more harmful, as the Philosopher states (Polit. i, 1 and Ethic. vii, 6).

He said that he didn’t understand why Thomas thought that human dignity was alienable in this way – after all the criminal is still created according to the likeness of God even if he has lost the image. I think he really meant that he didn’t understand. He had interpreted Thomas on dignity in to Kantian a fashion – making dignity an absolute, and failed to see how radically dignity is tied to the common good. How much different is De Koninck’s reading of Thomas on dignity! Here on Liberum est causa sui:

To the second part of the objection we reply that the proposition “liberum est quod causa sui est” must be understood not as meaning that the free agent is the cause of himself, or that he is, as such, the perfection for which he acts, but as meaning rather that he is himself, by his intellect and will, the cause of his act for the end to which he is ordered. One could also say that he is cause of himself in the line of final cause, insofar as he bears himself towards the end to which he is called as an intelligent and free agent, that is according to the principles themselves of his nature. But this end consists principally in the common good. The agent will be so much the more free and noble as he orders himself more perfectly to the common good. Hence one sees how the latter is the first principle of our free condition. The free agent would place himself in the condition of a slave if by himself he could not or would not act except for the singular good of his person. Man retains no less his free state when, by his own reason and will he submits himself to a reason and will which are superior. Thus it is that citizen subjects can act as free men, for the common good.

And again on the fallibility of human dignity:

Consider now the intelligent creature in its perfection as a free agent. The perfection of nature which is the root of liberty only has the notion of an end in God. God, moreover, is only said to be free in relation to things which are inferior to Him. Liberty is not concerned with the end as such, but with means; when it is concerned with an end, it is because this end is a subordinate one and thus takes upon itself the character of a means. God is necessarily the end of all things He freely makes, and His liberty only pertains to what He makes in view of this end which is the highest good. God’s dignity is the only dignity which is identical to his Being, and hence infallible. Because no other agent is its own ultimate end, and because the proper end of all other beings can be ordered to a higher end, the rational creature is fallible and can lose its dignity; its dignity is not assured except insofar as it remains in the order of the whole and acts according to this order. Unlike irrational creatures, the rational creature must keep itself in the order which is established independently of itself; but to remain in this order is to submit oneself to it and allow oneself to be measured by it; dignity is thus connected to order, and to place oneself outside of it is to fail of one’s dignity. If dignity belonged absolutely to rational creatures, if it were assured by liberty of contradiction, it would be infallible by reason of our mere ability to submit to order or not to submit. The excellence of the rational creature does not consist in the ability to set oneself outside the order of the whole, but in the ability to will oneself this order in which one must remain; one does not have the right to wander from it.

In any case, it was a very thought-provoking lecture. The Johannes Messner Gesellschaft deserves κῦδος for getting Spaemann, and (incidentally) for providing a really excellent buffet; one niederösterreichischer Prälat was heard to remark that he was going to join the JMG just for the food…