Tuesday, October 19, 2010

"Scrutonizing" modern philosophers ...

Christopher Blosser offers a bit of humor from a book he just finished re-reading by Roger Scruton, entitled A Short History of Modern Philosophy: From Descartes to Wittgenstein. Scruton, he says, has a dry, sardonic (characteristically English?) wit. Several examples:
  • On Fichte: "Fichte's philosophy rests not so much in argument as in impetuous explosions of jargon, in which that fabricated verb "to posit" (setzen) kaleidoscopes into a thousand self-reflecting images."
  • On Schopenhauer: "Schopenhauer enjoyed his pessimistic conclusions too much to convince the reader that he really believed in them; and his sardonic assaults on popular prejudice reveal a far greater attachment to life than to the renunciation he officially favored."
  • On Heidegger: "[T]he reader has the impression that never before have so many words been invented and tormented in the attempt to express the inexpressible."
Nevertheless, such quips are not to be taken as outright dismissals, he says, since Scruton does take painstaking effort to read and explicate the chief ideas of each.

[Hat tip to C.B.]

Sunday, September 12, 2010


Tridentine Community News (September 12, 2010):
[We are pleased to present today’s column guest authored by Sacred Heart Seminary Professor Dr. Philip Blosser. A convert to Roman Catholicism, Dr. Blosser regularly attends our Extraordinary Form Masses at St. Josaphat, St. Albertus, and Assumption-Windsor.]

Converts are drawn to the Catholic Church for many different reasons: her historical credentials, the clear moral witness of pro-life Catholics, reasons of doctrine and truth, etc. Some, particularly former high church Anglicans, have spoken occasionally of being impelled by conscience to convert despite the vast doctrinal confusion and liturgical ugliness they found in certain Catholic parishes. Conversely, some have been drawn to the Church for aesthetic reasons -- by the beauty of Gregorian chant, Palestrina, Chartres, Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel, the breath-taking vision of Dante, and the majestic traditional Latin liturgy itself. Converts from non-liturgical backgrounds attest to the compelling power and beauty of even simple gestures, like kneeling, genuflecting, and the Sign of the Cross.

What is the relation of beauty to truth? Usually truth is understood as a matter of propositions or judgments. The Medievals distinguished three acts of the intellect: (1) understanding, (2) judging and (3) reasoning. Logically, the object of understanding is a term (“rose”), the object of judging is a premise (“All roses are red”) and the object of reasoning is a syllogism (“All roses are red/This flower is a rose/Therefore, this flower is red”).

In these examples a flaw is readily apparent in the syllogism because of the false premise: it is not true that all roses are red. This tells us something important: truth applies to judgments, the second act of the intellect. Judgments can be true or false. But can the term “rose” be true or false? Clearly not. It is either understood or not; but the question of truth seems irrelevant to understanding, the first act of the intellect. Or, at least, so it seems.

The poet, John Keats, once declared: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” What did he mean? Is there a sense in which the beautiful can be true? Beginning with Plato, a number of ancient and medieval philosophers have referred to the good, the true and the beautiful as though they were somehow inter-penetrating concepts. Medieval philosophers related these to other concepts like “being,” and called them “transcendentals” (from Latin transcendere = “to climb over”), meaning they transcend or “climb over” all divisions, categories and distinctions between and within beings.

For example, anything in the world, by the mere fact of its having been created by God, is good. Evil, then, cannot be some sort of existing thing, but rather a kind of non-being, as blindness is the non-being of sight. The goodness of something (like sight) does not add anything to its being, but is simply an aspect under which its being may be considered.

The same is true of all the other transcendentals: Truth is being as known, Goodness is being as rightly desired, and Beauty is being as rightly admired. Being considered (1) as the object of the intellect is Truth; (2) as the object of right desire is Goodness; and (3) as the object of right aesthetic delight is Beauty. Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, then, are various aspects of Being as apprehended by the intellect, will, and emotions.

A little sticking point might be the terms “right” in the definition of Good as the object of “right desire” and Beauty as the object of “right admiration.” After all, is not the proverbial maxim De gustibus non est disputandum (“there is no disputing about taste”)? Isn't “beauty” purely subjective? Aren't “goodness” and even “truth” considered purely subjective these days? Who is to say what is “really” true, good, or beautiful? Isn't that presumption a trifle arrogant?

This is hardly the place for a full-blown discussion of criteria for adjudicating differences of opinion over judgments of truth, goodness, and beauty. Suffice it to note several conditions that will serve to define the framework of a traditional Catholic approach to these questions. First is the conviction that reality is intelligible and that the intellect can know it -- maybe not exhaustively, but adequately. Hence, Truth is defined as the correspondence between intelligible reality and the knowing intellect (adaequatio rei et intellectus).

Second is the conviction that what is really (as opposed to merely apparently) good for us is knowable and that we ought to desire it. Hence Goodness is defined as the object of right desire.

Third is the conviction that what is really (as opposed to merely apparently) beautiful is knowable and that we ought to admire and delight in it. Hence Beauty is defined as the object of right admiration.

Beauty has been called “the synthesis of all transcendentals” since it is related not just to one faculty but to the intellect and will and emotions. It is therefore the most complex of the transcendentals. St. Thomas Aquinas defines it in one place as id quod visum placet (“that which pleases upon being seen”), which underscores its subjective aspect. The beautiful is pleasing to us. Yet this is not the end of the matter, because we clearly do dispute whether certain objects rightly warrant aesthetic admiration. Accordingly, St. Thomas adds three objective criteria to his subjective criterion of pleasure: (a) integritas (unity), (b) consonantia (harmony), and (c) claritas (splendor or radiance).

Thus, when John Paul II entitled one of his encyclicals, Veritas splendor (“The Splendor of Truth”) he seems to have touched on the inter-penetrating quality of transcendentals: Truth is beautiful. It exhibits qualities of beauty: unity, harmony, and splendor (or radiance). One could also refer to the goodness of truth. Well, you get the picture.

Can we also speak of the truth of beauty, then? There does seem to be some reason for supposing that truth need not be limited to judgments alone. While it makes little sense to speak of a beautiful rose as “true” in a strictly propositional sense, a rose nevertheless presents itself as an object of the intellect, and as an intelligible being created by God in correspondence to His own intellect and will. At the very beginning of his Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas refers to “God, in whose power it is to signify His meaning, not by words only (as man also can do), but also by things themselves.” Thus God signifies not only His existence, but His power and majesty by the sheer beauty of His creation (see Romans 1:19-20). Likewise, the beauty of music, liturgy, and religious art can serve, as do Sacraments themselves, as signs that point to realities and truths beyond themselves.

Tridentine Masses This Coming Week

Regular Sunday Masses are not listed.
  • Mon. 09/13 7:00 PM: Low Mass at St. Josaphat (Requiem Mass with Absolution at the Catafalque)
  • Tue. 09/14 7:00 PM:High Mass at both Assumption-Windsor and St. Josaphat (Exaltation of the Holy Cross)
  • Wed. 09/15 7:00 PM:High Mass at St. Josaphat (Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary)
[Comments? Please e-mail tridnews@stjosaphatchurch.org. Previous columns are available at www.stjosaphatchurch.org. This edition of Tridentine Community News, with minor editions, is from the St. Josaphat bulletin insert for September 12, 2010. Hat tip to A.B.]

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Philosopher on why philosophy cannot be taught

Bill Vallicella,"Can Philosophy be Taught?" (Maverick Philosopher, October 8, 2009), tackles the old analogue to the Socratic question whether virtue can be taught:
In one sense a philosophy is a set of conclusions, systematically set forth, on ultimate matters. To appreciate the conclusions, however, one must appreciate the arguments and counterarguments the sifting of which first led the philosopher to the conclusions. But to understand the arguments and counterarguments one must understand the issues and problems that they revolve around. Appreciation of the issues and problems, in turn, is rooted in wonder the presupposition of which is a contemplative detachment from the taken-for-granted.

And so we must distinguish: doctrines, arguments, problems, wonder. Philosophy as the study of the doctrines of the philosophers is philosophy in its most superficial sense. Studying that, one is not studying philosophy, but philosophies, and them in their most external form. Philosophy as the grappling with the arguments whose conclusions are the doctrines is closer to the real thing. Philosophy as the exfoliation and penetration of the problems themselves, under suspension of the need to solve them at all costs, is closer still to philosophy's throbbing heart. This is philosophy as aporetics. But without wonder there can be no appreciation of problems, let alone solutions. Thus we have it on the excellent authority of both Plato and Aristotle that philosophy begins in wonder.

Upshot? Teaching philosophy is well-nigh impossible. One can of course teach the lore of the philosophers, but that is not what philosophy is in its vital essence. And although argumentative and logical skills are impartable to the moderately intelligent, the aporetic sense, the feel for a philosophical problem, is not readily imparted regardless of the intelligence of the student. A fortiori, the wonder at the source of the aporetic sense is a gift of the gods, and nothing a mere mortal teacher can dispense.

So I propose to go Kant one better. Somewhere deep in the bowels of The Critique of Pure Reason, he remarks that "Philosophy cannot be taught, we can at most learn to philosophize." I say that neither philosophy as doctrinal system nor the art of philosophizing can be taught. For there is no one extant doctrinal system called philosophy, and neither the aporetic sense nor the wonder at its root can be taught. As I used to say in my teaching days, "Philosophy cannot be a mass consumption item." Logic perhaps, philosophy no.

Or to paraphrase a remark I once heard Hans-Georg Gadamer make, "Just as there are the musical and the unmusical, there are the philosophical and the unphilosophical." One cannot teach music to the unmusical or philosophy to the unphilosophical. The muse of philosophy must have visited you; otherwise you are out of luck.
[Hat tip to C.B.]

Monday, August 02, 2010

Gary Gutting on Philosophy and Faith

Notre Dame professor of philosophy, Gary Gutting offers a thought-provoking discussion of "Philosophy and Faith" (New York Times, Opinion, August 1, 2010):
One of my jobs as a teacher of bright, mostly Catholic undergraduates is to get them thinking about why they hold their religious beliefs. It’s easy enough to spark discussion about the problem of evil (“Can you really read the newspaper everyday and continue to believe in an all-perfect God?”) or about the diversity of religious beliefs (“If you’d been born in Saudi Arabia, don’t you think you’d be a Muslim?”). Inevitably, however, the discussion starts to fizzle when someone raises a hand and says (sometimes ardently, sometimes smugly) “But aren’t you forgetting about faith?”

That seems to be enough for most students. The trump card has been played, and they — or at least the many who find religion more a comfort than a burden — happily remember that believing means never having to explain why.

I myself, the product of a dozen years of intellectually self-confident Jesuit education, have little sympathy with the “it’s just faith” response. “How can you say that?” I reply. “You wouldn’t buy a used car just because you had faith in what the salesperson told you. Why would you take on faith far more important claims about your eternal salvation?” And, in fact, most of my students do see their faith not as an intellectually blind leap but as grounded in evidence and argument.

“Well, if there’s no God,” they say, “how can you explain why anything at all exists or why the world is governed by such precise laws of nature?”

At this point, the class perks up again as I lay out versions of the famous arguments for the existence of God, and my students begin to think that they’re about to get what their parents have paid for at a great Catholic university: some rigorous intellectual support for their faith.

Soon enough, however, things again fall apart, since our best efforts to construct arguments along the traditional lines face successive difficulties. The students realize that I’m not going to be able to give them a convincing proof, and I let them in on the dirty secret: philosophers have never been able to find arguments that settle the question of God’s existence or any of the other “big questions” we’ve been discussing for 2500 years.

This seems to bring us back to where we started: “It’s all faith.” I, with my Jesuit-inspired confidence in reason and evidence, have always resisted this. But I have also felt the tug of my students’ conclusion that philosophy, although a good intellectual exercise and the source of tantalizing puzzles and paradoxes, has no real significance for religious faith.

Recently, however, I’ve realized a mistake in the way that I — and most of my professional colleagues — tend to think about philosophy and faith. (One of the great benefits of getting to teach philosophy to bright undergraduates is that it makes it easier to think outside the constraints of current professional assumptions.) The standard view is that philosophers’ disagreements over arguments about God make their views irrelevant to the faith of ordinary believers and non-believers. The claim seems obvious: if we professionals can’t agree among ourselves, what can we have to offer to non-professionals? An appeal to experts requires consensus among those experts, which philosophers don’t have.

This line of thought ignores the fact that when philosophers’ disagree it is only about specific aspects of the most subtle and sophisticated versions of arguments for and against God’s existence (for example, my colleague Alvin Plantinga’s modal-logic formulation of St. Anselm’s ontological argument or William Rowe’s complex version of a probabilistic argument from evil). There is no disagreement among philosophers about the more popular arguments to which theists and atheists typically appeal: as formulated, they do not prove (that is, logically derive from uncontroversial premises) what they claim to prove. They are clearly inadequate in the judgment of qualified professionals. Further, there are no more sophisticated formulations that theists or atheists can accept — the way we do scientific claims — on the authority of expert consensus.

In these popular debates about God’s existence, the winners are neither theists nor atheists, but agnostics — the neglected step-children of religious controversy, who rightly point out that neither side in the debate has made its case. This is the position supported by the consensus of expert philosophical opinion.

This conclusion should particularly discomfit popular proponents of atheism, such as Richard Dawkins, whose position is entirely based on demonstrably faulty arguments. Believers, of course, can fall back on the logically less rigorous support that they characterize as faith. But then they need to reflect on just what sort of support faith can give to religious belief. How are my students’ warm feelings of certainty as they hug one another at Sunday Mass in their dorm really any different from the trust they might experience while under the spell of a really plausible salesperson?

An answer may lie in work by philosophers as different as David Hume, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Alvin Plantinga. In various ways, they have shown that everyday life is based on “basic” beliefs for which we have no good arguments. There are, for example, no more basic truths from which we can prove that the past is often a good guide to the future, that our memories are reliable, or that other people have a conscious inner life. Such beliefs simply — and quite properly — arise from our experience in the world. Plantinga in particular has argued that core religious beliefs can have a status similar to these basic but unproven beliefs. His argument has clear plausibility for some sorts of religious beliefs. Through experiences of, for example, natural beauty, moral obligation, or loving and being loved, we may develop an abiding sense of the reality of an extraordinarily good and powerful being who cares about us. Who is to say that such experiences do not give reason for belief in God as much as parallel (though different) experiences give reason for belief in reliable knowledge of the past and future and of other human minds? There is still room for philosophical disputes about this line of thought, but it remains the most plausible starting point of a philosophical case for religious belief.

But this defense of faith faces a steep hurdle. Although it may support generic religious claims about a good and powerful being who cares for us, it is very hard to see it sustaining the specific and robust claims of Judaism, Christianity and Islam about how God is concretely and continually involved in our existence. God is said to be not just good and powerful but morally perfect and omnipotent, a sure ultimate safeguard against any evil that might threaten us. He not only cares about us but has set up precise moral norms and liturgical practices that we must follow to ensure our eternal salvation. Without such specificity, religion lacks the exhilarating and terrifying possibilities that have made it such a powerful force in human history.

But how can religious experience sustain faith in a specific salvation narrative, particularly given the stark differences among the accounts of the great religious traditions? What sort of religious experience could support the claim that Jesus Christ was God incarnate and not just a great moral teacher? Or that the Bible rather than the Koran is the revelation of God’s own words? Believers may have strong feelings of certainty, but each religion rejects the certainty of all the others, which leaves us asking why they privilege their own faith.

I am not saying that religious believers are in principle incapable of finding satisfactory answers to such questions. I am saying that philosophy and religion can and must speak to each other, and that those who take their beliefs seriously need to reflect on these questions, and that contemporary philosophical discussions (following on Hume and Wittgenstein) about knowledge, belief, certainty and disagreement are highly relevant to such reflection — and potentially, to an individual’s belief. This is what I will try to convey to my students the next time I teach introductory philosophy of religion.

Gary Gutting teaches philosophy at the University of Notre Dame and co-edits Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, an on-line book review journal. His most recent book is “What Philosophers Know: Case Studies in Recent Analytic Philosophy.”
[Hat tip to N.B.]

Friday, April 16, 2010

Very interesting list

"The 20 Most Brilliant Christian Professors" (College Crunch, April 4, 2010).

As Janet Smith said in her email, the ones who are listed that I now, richly deserve to be on the list.

[Hat tip to J.S.]

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Key Letter by Descartes, Lost for 170 Years, Turns Up at Haverford

Mary Helen Miller, in an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (February 25, 2010), reports that "the president of the Pennsylvania college, Stephen G. Emerson, said this week that when he found out the letter had been stolen—from Paris's Institut de France about 170 years ago—he knew it must be returned. So in June, Mr. Emerson will fly to France with the letter in his carry-on bag, and give it back."

I'm not sure the letter provides any substantial new information on Descartes' theories, but it does appear to shed some light on the structure and composition of his Meditations on First Philosophy, indicating that he made some significant rearrangements and extractions.

[Hat tip to N.B.]

Saturday, February 27, 2010

APA censures Calvin College for anti-gay affiliation

A mildly livid Roy Alden Atwood, Ph.D., New Saint Andrews College’s first president and a founding member of the College’s board and faculty, writes in "Philosopher high priests excommunicate Calvin College" (On Higher Education, February 10 2010):
The philosopher kings have become the philosopher high priests of a new orthodoxy. Academic freedom no longer includes religious freedom for the members of the American Philosophical Association. The APA’s high priests have declared Calvin College heretical for not embracing their new homosexual dogma. The APA has the audacity to claim Calvin is engaged in “a most egregious form of discrimination” when it is their own new priestly power mongering that is forcing an utterly novel orthodoxy on the scholarly association members for its own political ends. In this Brave New Academic World, secularists are working overtime to make Christian orthodoxy the new social and political heresy and to declare sexual perversion the new confession of faith. Another case of “Repressive Tolerance.”

According to the report from Inside Higher Ed, the American Philosophical Association singled out Calvin College for punishment using the association’s new pro-gay rule on APA job listings. Calvin, whose supporting denomination, the Christian Reformed Church, is fairly”tolerant” on the homosexual question compared to many other evangelical denominations, was no doubt targeted because Calvin has long been a powerhouse in philosophical circles. Nick Wolterstorff [now retired from Yale] and Alvin Plantinga [now retired from Notre Dame] are two extraordinarily prominent American philosophers who once taught at Calvin and led the APA. This secular academic power play is likely intended to threaten and punish any and all Christian academic institutions that refuse to embrace secularism and neo-pagan sexual mores. The Sodomite-homosexual lobby has been putting increasing pressure on Christian institutions, whether through the radical SoulForce protests on Christian campuses or through professional association agitations like the APA’s. Calvin College’s prominence among evangelical and Reformed colleges and its leadership in academic circles generally has apparently made it a prime target for testing such coercion and challenging religious freedom in the academy. Homosexuals must figure that if they can whack Calvin into submission through such tyrannical means, they’ll eventually be able to force every Christian college or university to bow the knee toward Sodom. (emphasis added)
[HT to E.E.]