Thursday, December 19, 2013

My Reply to Ed Feser in Anamnesis Journal

Anamnesis Journal has posted my reply to Edward Feser, "Turning Wine into Water: A Reply to Edward Feser".
The errors in Feser’s reply are legion. He did not follow the line of argument, discern the influences that lay behind it, or state the position he identifies with correctly. When a readers’ interpretation varies so wildly from what was actually written, it is often the fault of the author. And I will admit the essay drew on a fairly broad range of intellectual disciplines—from the philosophy of history to theological anthropology—and presupposed familiarity with a wide array of thinkers—from St. Irenaeus to R.G. Collingwood to Hans urs von Balthasar....
Even with this proviso, Feser’s reply systematically misses and misrepresents a number of points that were plainly set forth. Feser obfuscates a distinction that was made quite clearly in the original essay: namely, the distinction between presenting natural law theories without explicit appeal to religious tradition, and declaring natural law completely independent from any religious tradition.
Read the rest here

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Edward Feser on Nietzsche and Neo-Scholasticism

Ed Feser has responded to my Anamnesis essay. Here is an excerpt:
One thing’s for sure, the religious critics of natural theology and natural law seem chronically unable to provide any good arguments for their misgivings. I’ve had reason to consider several woolly attacks on natural law theory in recent months (e.g. here, here, and here), and another, by Thomas M. Cothran, has recently been posted at the website of the journal Anamnesis. It’s hysterical, in every sense of the word. Cothran assures his readers that we Neo-Scholastic natural law theorists, our Thomism and Catholicism notwithstanding, arereally implicitly beholden to… wait for it… wait for it… “a Nietzschean overcoming of Christianity.” The point of Garrigou-Lagrange’s Reality, it seems, was to provide a deceptively pious dust jacket within which to hide your copy of The Antichrist. Who knew? No doubt Henri de Lubac, who is (as the bylaws of Catholic anti-natural law polemic require), the hero of Cothran’s piece. Nouvelle theologie repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as a half-baked rant on the interwebs....
Would that everyone could have such discerning and well-tempered critics. 

There is a lot that puzzling about his response. He believes that the article is an "attack on natural law," when it actually champions natural law. I am not sure how he read an article touting natural law as a viable and underutilized alternative to secularism as an assault on natural law. Or how he asserts that Aristotle did not define the natural in contradistinction with the supernatural. (Hasn't every good Thomist read Metaphysics 6?)

One more bit:
What explains this mindset? Constitutional impatience with (or simple incapacity for) conceptual precision and argumentative rigor? A Pharisaical repugnance at the notion that non-Christian thinkers might have had something of importance to say about God or morality? Resentment of the suggestion that a mere philosophical argument could succeed where Bible thumping or rhetorical eloquence has failed?
Ed Feser's criticisms know no bounds but his imagination. I'll have a response out soon.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Nietzsche and Neo-Scholasticism

My new essay, "Nietzsche and Neo-Scholasticism: The Dangers and Promise of Natural Law," has been published on Anamnesis Journal's site. An excerpt:
To conceive of a natura pura (i.e., a human nature devoid of reference to the supernatural and transparent to reason) we would need to rid our traditions of thought of the vestiges of Christian revelation—and our model, at least in this respect, would be Nietzsche. Nietzsche recognized the degree to which Christianity had shaped the world, its refusal to stay within designated boundaries, the sheer saturation of God (at least the idea of God) into our thought, institutions, practices, laws, language, art, and so on. (Nietzsche even went so far as to declare, “We cannot get rid of God because we still believe in grammar.”) ...
A “pure nature,” a limpid sphere of human existence enclosed within the confines of created finitude, is therefore not simply given. In neither theory nor practice is a secular humanity given at the start and a religious dimension later added. But a pure nature can perhaps be achieved by a labor of thought that clips the wings of the human spirit.
Read the whole thing here

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Taking the Literal Sense Literally

The error of fundamentalist approaches to Scripture is not that it overemphasizes the literal sense. It is, rather, that it impoverishes the letter.

The distinction between the literal sense and spiritual sense has nothing to do with degrees of truth. In the literal sense, meaning is had through words ("literal" comes from the Latin word for letters); in the spiritual sense meaning is had through the things spoken of. The former has to do, that is, with the manner of presentation in Scripture (the words that signify), and the latter with what is signified.

The literal sense includes metaphor and parables. Metaphorical truth, one might say, is even more purely literal than straightforward historical narrative, because it has more to do (proportionally) with what the author intends to convey by his expression and the latter more to do with the meaning of what is expressed.

Literalism of the fundamentalist sort is that spoken of by Paul, when he said "the letter kills, but the spirit gives life."

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Gridlock in Heaven

Adam Kotsko--comic theologian.
With the Son and the Holy Spirit still deadlocked on key issues, God the Father announced today that divine providence would be shutting down, effective immediately. This is the first providence shutdown since the Filioque controversy that famously led to the East-West schism in 1054, nearly a milennium ago.
Read the rest here

Saturday, September 28, 2013

In Defense of Henri de Lubac

Ed Feser's recent post, Natural Law or Supernatural Law, continues his tendency to regard de Lubac as a kind of arch-enemy. The accusation, which he has raised before, is that de Lubac tends to absorb the natural into the supernatural, abolishing the distinctions between the two.

There seems to me little resemblance between the portrait of de Lubac that Feser sketches and de Lubac himself. De Lubac strongly distinguished between the natural and supernatural orders. Take his brief Catechesis on Nature and Grace (Ignatius Press 1984). De Lubac states that the "supernatural remains forever unnaturalizable ...," it is "that divine element which man's effort cannot reach (no self-divinization!) ...." (41). Or again, "between our human nature and our destiny [i.e., the supernatural] there lies an 'infinite disproportion.'" (32) Over and over again, de Lubac emphasized this "infinite disproportion" between the orders of nature and the supernatural. 

The Problematic of Aristotle's Metaphysics

In order to orient the inquiry of the Metaphysics, Aristotle begins with the traditional opinions about the causes of things as a whole, and draws out their inherent difficulties. This, in part, follows from his general dialectical method: he does not begin with first principles and deduce from them a universal philosophy, but begins with the traditional beliefs that he has inherited. In one sense, this method takes into account the "thrownness" of the philosopher; that is, the fact that the philosopher is always historically situated and does not have immediate access to objective truths from which he can begin his philosophy. To start in any other way covertly imports one's inescapable intellectual inheritance into the inquiry, and allows this inheritance to be acknowledged and addressed up front. This gives Aristotle's dialectic an advantage over any deductive metaphysics, in that his starting points need not be incontrovertible.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Metaphor in Practice

"[The Israelites] waged war against a foreign nation. The text calls those combining against them Amalekites. For the first time the Israelites were drawn out fully armed in battle array... Moses, standing on a hilltop far away from the furor of battle, was looking up toward heaven with a friend stationed on either side of him.

"Then we hear from the history the following marvel. When Moses raised his hands to heaven, those under his command prevailed against their enemies, but when he let them down, the army began to give in to the foreigner's assault." St. Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses (HarperSanFransisco, 2006) 17.

"Moses's holding his hands aloft signifies the contemplation of the Law with lofty insights; his letting them hang to earth signifies the mean and lowly literal exposition and observance of the Law." Id, 75.

St. Gregory's bold assertion of the superiority of the non-literal exposition of the Law of the Old Testament over the "mean and lowly literal exposition and observance of the Law" doubtless runs contrary to the instincts of some of the hermeneutic traditions arising after the Protestant Reformation. The literal exposition tends to lead to a more univocal meaning, regulated by the text itself, giving epistemological certainty as opposed to a method that would lead to a multiplicity of meanings that must be judged on the basis of extra-biblical criteria. If the Bible serves as the epistemological foundation of all things Christian, then the Christian would be desirous of finding a method that grants definite certainty, that can be clear enough to delineate those beliefs and practices which may be permitted, and those that may not be. St. Gregory's hermeneutic undermines this certainty.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Aristotle on Phusis

Aristotle does not limit motion to change of place, to growth and decay, to alteration, or the like; for motion, while it encompasses these things, cannot be thought of as one sort of motion that all other sorts of motion can be reduced to (i.e., motion cannot be alteration, while all other forms of motion can be reduced to alteration). Neither can the sorts of motion, added together, tell us what motion itself itself is -- any more than listing different virtues can answer the question of what virtue itself is -- and so Aristotle must give an account of motion that goes beyond listing different sorts of motion, or collapsing different sorts of motion into a single kind of motion; or to put it another way, Aristotle must explain motion as such.

In III:1 of the Physics, Aristotle defines motion as "the being-at-work-staying-itself of whatever is potentially, just as such" (201a10-20) and again as the "being-at-work-staying-itself of what is potentially, whenever, being fully at work, it is at work not as itself but just as movable" (201a15-30). The definition might be formulated in a more paradoxical (and troubling) way: motion is the activity of potentiality; and thus one might conclude Aristotle's definition directly contradicts itself, for actuality and potentiality ought to be opposed to one another--at least on the superficial reading.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Deliberative Imagination in Aristotle's On The Soul

Aristotle's treatment of the deliberative imagination is mentioned only very briefly in the course of his treatment of local motion. “The soul of animals,” says Aristotle, “is characterized by two faculties, the faculty of discrimination which is the work of thought and sense, and the faculty of originating local movement.” Having dealt with the former earlier in De Anima, Aristotle sets out to investigate the latter.

The first problem that presents itself is whether the originator of motion in an animal is a part of the soul or the whole soul. Given his earlier treatment of motion, it is evident that one part must be immovable and the other moved. Therefore the originator of movement is not the whole soul. But if the originator is a part of the soul, a difficulty arises--what are the parts of the soul? Different thinkers divide the soul differently, and different divisions may be made under differing aspects.