The agnosticism of Kant regarding the noumenon

I’ve never read anyone so difficult to understand as Kant, but his importance serves as a goad to persist… If anyone reading this is a Kantian or a Kant scholar, please feel free to correct me if what I’m saying here is either inaccurate or contested. Anyway, as I quoted in a previous post, Etienne Gilson writes, “Today our only choice is not Kant or Descartes; it is rather Kant or Thomas Aquinas. All the other positions are but halfway houses on the roads which lead either to absolute religious agnosticism or to the natural theology of Christian metaphysics” (God and Philosophy p. 114). In §32 of the Prolegomena, Kant refers to “special beings of the understanding (noumena), which are supposed to constitute an intelligible world.” He grants the possibility of the existence of such beings “but only with the enforcement of this rule that admits of no exception: that we neither know nor can know anything at all determinate about these pure beings of the understanding, because our pure concepts of the understanding as well as our pure intuitions extend to nothing but objects of possible experience” (i.e., extend to the realms of Newtonian physics). Here is Kant’s agnosticism regarding intellectual beings. Kant’s interest is not that we be conformed to the totality of what is real as much as we are able (in conduct and thought) but that we ourselves process our intuitions rendering them into experience which is in accordance with the laws of Newtonian physics (the principles of which reside in us a priori). I would like to contrast what Kant regards as being our own a priori understanding which is able to order our intuitions as coherent experience with Aquinas’ notion (h/t Aristotle) of the “agent intellect” (i.e., the proper active principle). The agent intellect renders intelligible all sensory experience received by the “possible intellect” (i.e., the passive principle). Aquinas’ cognitive theory has the interaction between active and passive principles as foundational to all reality. In Kant there is also an interaction between active and passive principles, but where the natural theology of Aquinas gives us the ability to say something “positive” about the objects external to us, in Kant we have external to us something real but we know not what (“we are not discussing the origin of experience, but what lies in experience” §21a). Kant’s agnosticism regarding “special beings” extends to the very origins of our intuition. While they are ‘real’ we can’t know them. So, there is an activity of some sort, as without it our intuitions receive nothing whatsoever, but his philosophical commitments don’t allow him to express anything confident or positive about what constitutes that activity.

Patience, hope, and love – Gabriel Marcel

“If we introduce the element of patience into non-acceptance we at once come very much nearer to hope. It seems then that there exists a secret and rarely discovered connection between the way in which the ego is either centred or not centred in itself, and its reaction to the duration of time, or more precisely to the temporal order, that is to say to the fact that change is possible in reality. A simple expression borrowed from everyday language is a help here: to take one’s time. He who stiffens and rebels does not know how to take his time. What exactly do these words, so foreign to the vocabulary of technical philosophy, mean? “Take your time”, an examiner would say, for example, to a flurried candidate. That means, do not force the personal rhythm, the proper cadence of your reflection, or even of your memory, for if you do you will spoil your chances, you will be likely to say at random the first words which come into your head. It may seem that we have wandered very far from hope in the strict sense of the word. I do not think so, and this how I am going to try to explain the analogy, or more exactly, perhaps, the secret affinity between hope and relaxation. Does not he who hopes, and, as we have seen, has to contend with a certain trail comparable to a form of captivity, tend to treat this trial and to proceed in regard to it as he who is patient towards himself treats his inexperience young ego, the ego which needs educating and controlling. Above all he never lets it contract but, on the other hand, he does not allow it to kick over the traces* or take control prematurely or unwarrantably. From this point of view, hope means first accepting the trial as an integral part of the self, but while so doing it considers it as destined to be absorbed and transmuted by the inner works of a certain creative process.

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Further back I spoke of patience with oneself; perhaps it is still more instructive now to consider patience with others. This most certainly consists in never hustling or being rough with another person, more exactly, in never trying to substitute our won rhythm for his by violence. Neither should the other person be treated as though he lacked an autonomous rhythm, and could accordingly be force or bent to suit us. Let us say positively this time that it consists in placing our confidence in a certain process of growth and development. To give one’s confidence does not merely mean that one makes an act of theoretical acceptance with no idea of intervention, for that would, in fact, be to abandon the other purely and simply to himself. No, to have confidence here seems to mean to embrace this process, in a sense, so that we promote it from within. Patience seems, then, to suggest a certain temporal pluralism, a certain pluralisation of the self in time. It is radically opposed to the act by which I despair of the other person, declaring that he is good for nothing, or that he will never understand anything, or that he is incurable. That is, of course, the same despair which makes me proclaim that I shall never be cured, that I shall never see the end of my captivity, etc. It seems, strangely enough, that in hoping, I develop in connection with the event, and perhaps above all through what it makes of me, a type of relationship, a kind of intimacy comparable to that which I have with the other person when I am patient with him. Perhaps we might go so far as to speak here of a certain domesticating of circumstances, which might otherwise, if we allowed them to get the better of us, fright us into accepting them as a fatum. If we look no further than its etymological meaning, patience appears to be just a simple letting things alone, or allowing them to take their course, but if we take the analysis a little further we find that such non-interference is of a higher order than indifference and implies a subtle respect for the other person’s need of time to preserve his vital rhythm, so that it tends to exercises a transforming influence upon him which is comparable to that which sometimes rewards love. It should moreover be shown how here and there pure causality is utterly left behind. Of course patience can easily be degraded; it can become mere weakness, or mere complacency, precisely in so far as it betrays the principle of charity which should animate it.”

* “The idiom ‘kick over the traces’ goes back at least to the 1800s and refers to the straps that attach a horse, oxen or other draft animal to the wagon it is pulling, known as traces. If an animal kicks over the traces, it steps over these leather straps. This makes it impossible for the driver to control the animal” – h/t http://www.grammarist.com

Marcel, Gabriel. Homo Viator: Introduction to the Metaphysic of Hope. USA: Harper Torch Book, 1965, pgs 39-40.

The Realization of Personality

“The personality is only realized in the act by which it tends to become incarnate (in a book, for instance, or an action or in a complete life), but at the same time it is of its very essence never to fix itself or crystallize itself finally in this particular incarnation. Why? Because it participates in the inexhaustible fulness of the being from which it emanates. There lies the deep reason for which it is impossible to think of personality or the personal order without at the same time thinking of that which reaches beyond them both, a supra-personal reality, presiding over all their initiative, which is both are beginning in their end”

Marcel, Gabriel. Homo Viator: Introduction to the Metaphysic of Hope. USA: Harper Torch Book, 1965, p. 26.

Aquinas studies – happiness is found in an act of the intellect rather than an act of the will.

Thomas agrees with Aristotle regarding in what faculty happiness is found. Aristotle limits the state of happiness to those beings which have the capacity for rational thought. He says, “Happiness is an activity of the [rational] soul” (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1100a15). Thomas echoes and expands on this when he says “happiness is the proper good of the intellectual nature” (Thomas Aquinas: Selected Writings, Penguin Books., London 1998, p 268).

For an excellent introductory guide to Aquinas follow this link.

Arriving at the link between ‘happiness,’ ‘the proper good,’ and the ‘intellectual nature’ occurs after discounting the various misconceptions regarding what happiness/the proper good are, namely physical pleasure, honour, wealth and any other pursuits which are not ‘self-sufficient’ but rather transitory and contingent. Also, finding happiness in the intellect involves recognizing that the intellect is our highest faculty. As sight is are our highest sensory faculty by which we are able most accurately to perceive the world around us, so our intellects are our highest faculty, enabling us to understand the world around us. Happiness and the proper good are bound up with our telos. It is the intellectual nature which is the specific difference between humans and all other created compound beings (the imago dei), and thus our happiness is to be found in relation to our intellectual nature. Thus, true happiness for us is to be found in intellectual activities directed towards God. “God is the ultimate end of the intellectual substance and that operation whereby a man first attains God is said to be substantially his happiness or felicity” (Aquinas, Selected Writings, p. 270). This ‘attaining’ is some kind of intellectual sight – the Beatific Vision.
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Forms and healing come by nature but knowledge from God is “teaching within” – the active and passive principles at play in human life

Forms come by nature. Thomas says, “certain seeds of the sciences pre-exist in us, namely, the first conceptions of the intellect which are known right away by the light of the agent intellect through species abstracted from sensible things” (Thomas Aquinas: Selected Writings, Penguin Books., London 1998, p.198). The pre-existent seeds Thomas is referring to are those images which we passively receive by our senses and naturally actively abstract to some degree by way of our inherent agent intellect. Our agent intellect is created to function commensurately with our senses as it interacts with nature. The agent intellect is the active principle in our intellect that abstracts, or processes, all our sensory data, rendering them to our memories (passive intellect) for further consideration (if we want).

For an excellent introductory guide to Aquinas follow this link.

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Aquinas studies: if we cannot know the essence of God, how can there be a science of divine things?

The notion that there can be a science of divine things does not negate Thomas’ statements regarding how we are unable to know the essence of God. A science of divine things is possible so long as we are clear regarding what we actually can and cannot know, and how the science of divine things proceeds.

For an excellent introductory guide to Aquinas follow this link.

First of all, only God can know his own essence. In fact, he knows himself “through his essence” (Thomas Aquinas: Selected Writings, Penguin Books., London 1998. p. 116). In other words, only God can truly know himself, as it is his essence to do so. The science of divine things must proceed from this basic understanding, namely, we cannot essentially know God. This does not mean, however, that we cannot in any way come to know God (as we will see).

Secondly, in terms of human reason, according to Thomas we can approach knowledge of God referring to the fact of his existence (and not of what he is). This can be done in three ways: 1) observing his effects in creation; 2) understanding his causality of “more noble effects” which grants a “better display of his eminence”, and; 3) in a negative sense we understand more clearly how he transcends all things and defies definition (Thomas quotes Dionysius, “he is known as the cause, the excess and negation of all things” – (Aquinas, Selected Writings, p. 117).
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Virtue isn’t “natural” it’s a “craft”

In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle is considering the question, “What is the highest of all the goods pursued in action” (1095a15)? In order to answer this question, we must begin with things that we know (1095b). He proceeds to answer the question by considering and ruling out what vulgar people and socially cultivated people regard as the highest goods to be pursued. These things are not sufficient for Aristotle, as they are not self-sufficient. They are transitory and fragile. He states that “the best good is apparently something complete” (1096a25) and he understands the best good to be happiness, as this is the thing we aim at in all our activities and investigations. He says, “we regard something as self-sufficient when all by itself it makes a life choiceworthy and lacking nothing; and that is what we think happiness does” (1097b10).

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