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.

Aquinas studies – Can there be a conflict between natural and divine law?

On one level, no there can be no conflict between natural and divine law. However, there may be conflict between the two in how they are embodied on an individual or cultural level. There may also be the appearance of conflict if we don’t properly distinguish the principles from the proper conclusions.

For an excellent introductory guide to Aquinas follow this link.

Human beings, in having a natural inclination to “the fitting act and end”– which is ultimately “eternal reason” — exhibit in our rational and creaturely existence, a participatory relationship between natural law and divine law (Thomas Aquinas: Selected Writings, Penguin Books., London 1998, p. 620). The rational recognition and obedience to natural law is the means by which we participate in the divine law (p. 620). Our rational natures, our desire and ability to contemplate about things beyond the merely material, and to concern ourselves with things not merely limited to material well-being, should provide us with a hint that the “fitting act and end” exceeds our material or natural capacities. For this reason, God gives us divine law. Thomas gives four reasons for God revealing to us his divine law. First, as our ultimate end exceeds our natural capacity in being directed towards “eternal happiness” we need divine direction in order to attain our ultimate end. Second, we are not accurately able to judge on “contingent and particular things” and so we require certitude of judgement which can only come from God. Thirdly, as our “fitting act and end” involves our interior intellectual lives, natural law is not adequate to govern or “restrain interior acts.” Fourth, in order for there to be final clarity and justice in the mixture of practical and particular judgements, all things will ultimately be judged according to divine law (p. 623).

In none of these things is there a conflict between natural and divine law. The one serves as a floor upon which we may, by the light of faith, break through the ceiling of our materiality and apprehend and participate in divine law. And as God is simple/holy and infinitely Good, it is not possible for the principles originating in him and sustained by him to be in conflict. “God through his wisdom is the maker of the universe of things… the notion of divine wisdom moving all things to their fitting end takes on the note of law… the eternal law is nothing other than the idea of divine wisdom insofar as it is directive of all acts and movements” (p. 633).

However, in terms of how human beings exhibit this participatory relationship between natural law and divine law, there is conflict. While human affairs are subject ultimately to eternal law, in both our knowledge and our actions we are in varying degrees “imperfect” and “corrupt” (p. 640). Insofar as our knowledge of eternal law and natural knowledge are obscured by “passions and the habit of sin” a holy/perfect participatory relationship between natural law and divine law is “defective” (p. 640-641). The conflict is in proportion to how “bad” one is. On the other hand, “the good are perfectly subject to the eternal law, as always fulfilling it” (p 641). Also, there may be failure in this regard in terms of “rectitude” (there may be an impediment in nature (e.g., are psychopaths born that way?) and knowledge (if one’s reason has been “depraved” by bad customs, or a “bad cast of nature”). This is to say that there may be a general culture which depraves or malforms us in relation to specific moral principles (p. 649). Finally, a conflict may arise as a consequence of prolonged damage to the human heart. This may be a result of “bad persuasion” regarding speculative matters, depraved customs, or corrupt habits. Such things may result in the natural law being “erased from the hearts of men” (p. 652).

Finally, there may be the appearance of conflict if we don’t distinguish between the common principles and the proper conclusions (i.e., secondary precepts or particular applications). Whereas there is “the same truth or rectitude for all “in reference to “common principles of reason” (e.g., “one cannot simultaneously affirm and deny something” p. 644) this does not mean that everyone knows matters pertaining to “proper conclusions” of speculative reason to the same degree (e.g., the outworking of speculative reason resulting in specific of geometrical definitions not known to all). Neither do the common principles work themselves out in a uniformed way, as the “proper conclusions” of practical reason will vary depending upon the specific circumstances (p. 648). Also, relating to the reality of circumstantial and cultural change, whereas the “common principles of reason” are immutable, the natural law may change by way of addition or subtraction in reference to particular contexts or situations (p. 650). This addition or subtraction will, if proper and good, leave the common principles uncorrupted, but effect the proper conclusions in a generally applicable way for a particular culture. For example, the principle of “everyone should act according to reason” results in the proper conclusion regarding terms of borrowing goods and returning them to the rightful owner. However, there may be culturally or regionally unique circumstances that may make the terms of borrowing (and the rectitude of returning them) different (p. 648). For example, in peacetime, a scythe has simpler associations than during a time of war. It may be right not to return such a tool during wartime if it threatens the safety of the owner or others. If we don’t keep the difference between the common principles and the proper conclusions clear, we may think there is a conflict between natural law and divine law, when in fact there is only a difference in the outworking of natural and divine law in a local or individual context.

Comparing Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle’s conception of the human good.

Whereas both Thomas and Aristotle would agree that “the ultimate end of man, as of any intellectual substance, is called felicity or happiness” there is a profound difference between them regarding in what that happiness consists. The difference between Thomas and Aristotle’s accounts of the human good boils down to the difference between Thomas’ Christianity (grace and faith) and Aristotle’s virtuous paganism (the integrated intellectual life at its humanly best).

For an excellent introductory guide to Aquinas follow this link.
Continue reading “Comparing Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle’s conception of the human good.”

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).
Continue reading “Aquinas studies: if we cannot know the essence of God, how can there be a science of divine things?”

The Myth of the Cave explained

In essence, the myth tells us Socrates’ view of the city and its people.

First of all, the people of the city (humans in general) are shackled in intellectual darkness (Republic, 514). This is understood as meaning that we confuse our material existence, the material world with which we interact, and the way by which we interact with it, as being real and true, when in fact it is best understood as a shadow of what is actually real and true, namely the world of the forms and ultimately the Good itself (515c). Secondly, the vast majority of humans are unconcerned about the falseness of their existence and find anyone suggesting otherwise as ridiculous to the point of perhaps trying to kill them (517a). Third, as a consequence, the vast majority of people in the city do not recognize the Good, and thus do not truly recognize the things derived from the good (e.g., justice).

However, the fact that there are individuals within the City (true philosophers) who try to inform the people regarding the reality of the Good etc., means that there is the possibility of movement between the life of intellectual bondage in darkness and intellectual knowledge in the light. So, fourth, it is necessary for those who are rulers to recognize both the basic deceit which shrouds the majority of the citizens and the need for those who know the reality of the Good to provide leadership and instill justice (etc) in the city by way of its laws and the ordering things in a harmonious way (520). Fifth, this further requires a deliberate approach to education by the founders so that those who are liberated from the cave are further examined to determine their suitability for leadership and instill a sense of obligation to return to the realm of the cave for the good of the city (532ff). Sixth, those who return must be fully aware that the majority of the people in the city are unconcerned about the true reality of the Good, and so they are allowed to continue in deceit (and are in fact further deceived) in order to instill (or perhaps coerce and deceive) and sustain (or perhaps enforce) harmoniousness in the city for all people (519e). Finally, the philosopher-kings, mere philosophers, mere rulers, and founders are to order the procreation of the citizens and their education in such a way to ensure that there will be future philosopher-kings able to lead for a time for the benefit of the city before being relieved to withdraw from sensory and material concerns and to return to pure contemplation of the Good (519c, 540b).

Thomas à Kempis – “desire to be unknown”

Chapter II – Of thinking humbly of oneself

There is naturally in every man a desire to know, but what profiteth knowledge without the fear of God? Better of a surety is a lowly peasant who serveth God, than a proud philosopher who watcheth the stars and neglecteth the knowledge of himself. He who knoweth himself well is vile in his own sight; neither regardeth he the praises of men. If I knew all the things that are in the world, and were not in charity, what should it help me before God, who is to judge me according to my deeds?

2. Rest from inordinate desire of knowledge, for therein is found much distraction and deceit. Those who have knowledge desire to appear learned, and to be called wise. Many things there are to know which profiteth little or nothing to the soul. And foolish out of measure is he who attendeth upon other things rather than those which serve to his soul’s health. Many words satisfy not the soul, but a good life refresheth the mind, and a pure conscience giveth great confidence towards God.

3. The greater and more complete thy knowledge, the more severely shalt thou be judged, unless thou hast lived holily. Therefore be not lifted up by any skill or knowledge that thou hast; but rather fear concerning the knowledge which is given to thee. If it seemeth to thee that thou knowest many things, and understandest them well, know also that there are many more things which thou knowest not. Be not high-minded, but rather confess thine ignorance. Why desirest thou to lift thyself above another, when there are found many more learned and more skilled in the Scripture than thou? If thou wilt know and learn anything with profit, love to be thyself unknown and to be counted for nothing. [alternative trans: “If thou wilt know or learn anything profitably, desire to be unknown, and to be little esteemed”].

[Contra ‘social media’, contra various (I suspect) vain and (without question) brand-building church personalities – making much of exploits in order to sell books and speak at conferences etc. Cf the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 12 – he easily boasts and catalogues various disasters and hardships, but only reluctantly shares the vision and leaves uncatalogued entirely the various “signs of a true Apostle”].

4. That is the highest and most profitable lesson, when a man truly knoweth and judgeth lowly of himself. To account nothing of one’s self, and to think always kindly and highly of others, this is great and perfect wisdom. Even shouldest thou see thy neighbor sin openly and grievously, yet thou oughtest not to reckon thyself better than he, for thou knowest not how long thou shalt keep thine integrity. All of us are weak and frail; hold thou no man more frail than thyself.

H/T The Literature Project http://literatureproject.com/imitation-christ/immitation-christ_chapter_ii_-_of.htm

The Christian mystical experience and the limits of language

“If the mystic wishes to describe the mystical union of the soul with God and its effects, he has to make use of words which are not designed to express any such thing. For example, in order to express the closeness of the union, the elevation of the soul and the effect of the union on the soul’s activity, he employs a verb like ‘transform’ or ‘change into’. But ‘change into’ denotes such processes as assimilation (of food), consumption of material by fire, production of steam from water, heat from energy, and so on, whereas the mystical union of the soul with God is sui generis and really requires an altogether new and special word to describe it. But if the mystic coined a brand new word for this purpose, it would convey nothing at all to anyone who lacked the experience in question. Therefore he has to employ words in more or less ordinary use, even though these words inevitably suggest pictures and parallels which do not strictly apply to the experience he is attempting to describe. There is nothing to be surprised at, then, if some of the mystic’s statements, taken literally, are inadequate or even incorrect. And if the mystic is also a theologian and philosopher, as Eckhart was, inexactitude is likely to affect even his more abstract statements, at least if he attempts to express in theological and philosophical statements an experience which is not properly expressible, employing for this purpose words and phrases which either suggest parallels that are not strict parallels or already possess a defined meaning in theology and philosophy.”

 

Copleston, Frederick Charles. A History of Philosophy: Volume 3, Part 1. Garden City, NY: Image, 1962. 206. Print.