Off-the-cuff comments on Catholic philosophy

20 12 2010

When I was growing up, I wanted to be a Thomist. That didn’t work out. It didn’t help that I read Descartes and Sartre in middle school, but even if one could conclude that their epistemological skepticism is a non-issue, an invented game with an agenda, one cannot escape having to address that method of philosophizing. If you read the popular Thomists of last century, they get bogged down in those questions, and it didn’t help that many of them were sympathetic to Husserl and Co., even if they tried to use phenomenology to break out of le songe de Descartes. John Paul II, for all of his pretend orthodoxy, was just as much a child of this philosophy as Heidegger or Derrida. These epistemological questions are an issue because even their opponents have made them an issue.

On the other hand, I have always been a bit of a Maoist, in spite of also being a recovering Trotskyist (with significant episodes of willful relapse). Perhaps philosophical truth also flows from the barrel of a gun. That is why these natural law arguments need to be stopped; they convince no one but the converted. Neither should we resort to the personalist, Levinas-esque style of arguments about the eternal abyss of love in the Other, and all of that other sentimental bullshit. If Catholics were really convinced by natural law arguments, they would see the transgressor as a radical Other in the sense of an anti-human enemy to be exterminated. If that is not the case, they are just blowing smoke out of their rear ends. And they should at least be honest: if they had the power, all homosexuals would be locked up, women would get the death penalty or at least prison time for procuring an abortion, there would be a confessional state, and so forth. The only reason they cower before liberalism now is because they don’t have the guns and are running scared. Why else do they cry “persecution” every time something doesn’t go well, as if they were two steps away from being fed to the lions?

Seriously, my contention has been all along that this society is our baby. In a way, Cartesianism was a way to save the Divine Transcendent from interaction with the world. That is the reason it launched the Scientific Revolution to begin with; matter was no longer filled with angels moving things around their courses. This sort of “whig Thomism” that tries to marry again matter and spirit (vulgarly embodied in the theology of the body, among other things) is a way to slow down the revolution that began centuries ago, but by no means alter its course. As Maritain thought, a return to scholastic metaphysics would compliment the philosophy of modern science. The problem is, modern science does not think this the case, and there is no one around who can convince them otherwise (see preaching to the choir comment above).

[It is also ironic that something that started out as a means to dialogue with the pagans and heretics (Thomist philosophy) itself became a doctrine foundational to Counter-Reformation Catholicism and a measure of orthodoxy itself. That is sort of the Zizekian vulgar core of Thomism: it is meant to convince only those who believe it that it it can convince the Other who does not believe it, all the while knowing that this isn’t really the case.]

So when I write things, don’t interpret me in any sort of pious religious sense. I mean what I mean. I have long ago concluded that a grown man pretending to have the religious sentiments of a 24 year old cloistered nun in the 19th century is pretty ridiculous. There is a lot to be said for secular reason, as it is the cruel reality that faces us day in and day out. Let us put away the dollhouse of devotio moderna.


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2 01 2011
The Three Stages of Philosophy in Miniature « Sancrucensis

[…] Dickens character. (Was es alles gibt, I said to myself). But it was when I found that he had first tried to be a Thomist and that he is presently moving from Neoplatonism back to his original dialectical materialism that […]

26 12 2010
Michael Liccione

Just a dummy comment for subscribing.

26 12 2010
Michael Liccione

OK Arturo, just a few things.

When I was growing up, I wanted to be a Thomist. That didn’t work out. It didn’t help that I read Descartes and Sartre in middle school, but even if one could conclude that their epistemological skepticism is a non-issue, an invented game with an agenda, one cannot escape having to address that method of philosophizing.

Though I confess the disadvantage of not having read Descartes and Sartre till high school, I could still say then that I wanted to be a Thomist when I grew up. What I grew up to become was not a purebred Thomist, but I still find Thomism as a whole to be the sanest philosophical and theological “system” yet produced. What’s lacking today is a system that does with modern science what St. Thomas did with Aristotle. Part of that is due to the difficulty of producing a system at all anymore, given the vast increase in knowledge since the Middle Ages.

There are other reasons too, but neither existentialism nor epistemological skepticism are among them. Sartre was just a moralizing atheist with the wrong morality. Systematic skepticism has been around at least since the ancient Academics; the basic response to it has remained similarly sound, even in the forms one finds in Quine and Wittgenstein. And hardly anybody is impressed with Cartesianism anymore, so that’s just a bugbear. Indeed the dialectic of empiricism and rationalism that characterized “modern” philosophy, and that Kant tried unsuccessfully to overcome, was misconceived from the start. Thus I see “transcendental” Thomism– whether spiced up with Heidegger as in Rahner, or in any of its other flavors– as similarly misconceived. As for phenomenology, it’s just a method of limited albeit real utility, as Edith Stein recognized. But it did not pretend to be a metaphysic, still less a comprehensive system.

Epistemologically, the real problem is that modern science had to dispense with final and formal causes in order to develop its methodology, and has been so successful that few people now see that such concepts have an indispensable place in a wider explanatory scheme. Even so, you don’t seem care that thinkers such as William Wallace and Stanley Jaki have made profound and worthy attempts at building such a scheme, and their students are even now at work. But because of ever-increasing academic specialization, as well as the paradoxical subtleties of quantum physics, few people now have the training to even understand these issues, much less resolve them. And outside very narrow circles, scientists hold all the prestige cards right now, so that their bad philosophizing is taken much more seriously than the better philosophizing of others. But that, I believe, is a temporary problem. Scientism, which is as self-refuting as sola scriptura, reigns only in Western circles who will not replace themselves. At best, it is but a respectable mask for nihilism.

Perhaps philosophical truth also flows from the barrel of a gun. That is why these natural law arguments need to be stopped; they convince no one but the converted. Neither should we resort to the personalist, Levinas-esque style of arguments about the eternal abyss of love in the Other, and all of that other sentimental bullshit. If Catholics were really convinced by natural law arguments, they would see the transgressor as a radical Other in the sense of an anti-human enemy to be exterminated. If that is not the case, they are just blowing smoke out of their rear ends. And they should at least be honest: if they had the power, all homosexuals would be locked up, women would get the death penalty or at least prison time for procuring an abortion, there would be a confessional state, and so forth. The only reason they cower before liberalism now is because they don’t have the guns and are running scared.

Well…nonsense. In contemporary moral philosophy, there are several nested, standard divisions, and natural-law theory, Catholic or otherwise, has its place among them. The first division is between “cognitivists” and “non-cognitivists,” i.e. between people who believe that some moral statements are rationally discoverable truths and people who don’t. Among the former, the main division is between “teleologists” and “deontologists,” i.e. between people who believe that morality has a point–human flourishing or “happiness”–and people who believe that morality is about rights and duties irrespective of any “point” beyond itself. The latter are divided into Kantians and divine-command theorists, but both are, rightly, minority views. The former are in turn divided into utilitarians (called “proportionalists” in Catholic theology) and natural-lawyers. Most of the interesting work now being done in moral philosophy is by teleogists. Peter Singer is a good example of a utilitarian; John Finnis, of the natural lawyers.

Natural-lawyers themselves harbor several divisions. The one concerning us here is that between liberals and traditionalists. The latter are those who believe that morality should, to the fullest extent possible, be enforced by the state; the former believe that state power should be more limited than that. Your own position seems to be that natural law in general must be traditionalist in order to be logically self-consistent. But I don’t know of any persuasive argument for that position. And it would be news to most of the natural lawyers writing in English, whether Catholic or non-Catholic. That’s not due to cowardice or expediency. It’s a reasonable conclusion drawn from historical experience. Your ad hominem does not show otherwise.

As for theologizing, the style you refer to as “sentimental bullshit” has clear patristic and mystical antecedents. You might not like von Balthasar, and he wasn’t perfect, but he showed at least that much. Theology awaits a new synthesis as much as philosophy, and the nuptial-mystery approach latches onto what would have to be an important part of that.

21 12 2010
Sortacatholic

Dude, are you from 4chan? How the heck should anyone know what this means?

I will say that Prince Philip would have had some choice words. Not going to write them here.

21 12 2010
Anonymous

fairly unrelated, but how do ultramontanists explain this? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-rbxov7CVi8&feature=player_embedded

Theology of the Body?

20 12 2010
Charles Curtis

Arturo,

I only want to tell you once again that I truly dig your blog, and that when you hold forth like this you nearly always make me laugh. I love how you throw down like this, and swash the old buckle. I wish you’d sit down and just give us your Apologia – all the hinted at history of your family, how you came to get mixed up with the Lefevbrists, why you left, how you ended up in New Orleans or wherever it is, holding forth with such poetic force.

I’ve asked you before to suggest more books. Or maybe essays – where should someone who’s never read Trotsky like myself start? What about Lacan? Feed my head.

As for this bit here, all I have to say is that as far as I’m concerned I have to agree with you that the gig is in many ways up for “Roman Catholicism” .. Institutionally, intellectually, culturally we’re pretty well f’d up.

I’ll only say that this is nothing new, though. This has been apparent from at least the moment Ableard penned Sic et Non, or Nicolas of Cusa cracked the Donation of Constantine. Any sort of serious textual or historical analysis of the tradition simply destroys the post Vatican I Church, both dogmatically and in terms of ecclesiology (cf. texts of Nicea III, compare syllabus of errors with docs of Vat II, etc.) ..

So, I truly love your line about faith being a sort of affirmative agnosticism – that was you right? That’s spot on.

Where you and I part ways tough, is in when you make light of people characterizing their relationship with Christ as “personal.” I think that the only effective intellectual defense of the Catholic faith is finally rooted in our metaphysic of personhood – in so far as our personhood as dependent upon the personhood of God, or at least in some form of transcendence, of which the Christian faith seems to be really the only radical hope and affirmation of, in historical terms.

If we do not transcend death, then we are not at all.

Belief in self, either my own or yours, is essentially predicated upon my faith in Christ’s person.

To me, this is an almost unassailable point. And it’s not a modern one. You find in the Fathers. Augustine’s entire corpus is rent with it.

So, I am not really understanding your obsession and focus and concern for philosophy and “secular” thinkers. I’m no great mind, but my instinct is that the modern academy is if anything even more intellectually bankrupt than the Church. I just can’t take them all that seriously. Someone like Zizek is good for a laugh and a bit of insight (I will be forever grateful to him for his metaphysic of shit and toilets .. He’s great for crap like that.) But neither he nor anyone else I’ve ever read have ever struck me (who’s admittedly just a poor schumk) as having anything that made me think twice about the faith I received as a child.

Descartes just strikes me as pathetic – his mechanistic materialism (the pituitary gland the seat of the soul? Animals are machines? Uh, nope.. Simply stupid.) His ridiculous radical doubt, his stupid clearly untrue cogito ergo sum – Every morning I wake up and find myself still here refutes him.

As for the rest of the “moderns,” most of them are equally as stupid. Kant’s categorical imperative is just one of the most absurd examples – howlingly stupid – I still haven’t recovered my astonishment from the first time I heard it cited in my college ethics class. Absolutely impossible to take seriously.

My stance is that apart from faith in the Incarnation, there is nothing meaningful. I’m a fanatic like that. And, I must say that despite all our problems and absurdities, the sacraments – the Eucharist and confession most especially – are still very real. They “work” for me, they keep balanced and (somewhat, maybe) sane..

And please lay aside your apparent obsession with Therese and that other treacly doily laced stuff. If you must read Frenchmen, stick with Lawrence of the Resurrection and Jean-Pierre de Caussade. Abelard is good stuff, too. I especially love when he wines to Heloise, and she responds dressing him down for being a pussy. That always makes me laugh.

Being Catholic really is pretty damn’d funny, man. There’s really no other way to go..

20 12 2010
sortacatholic

In all fairness, Arturo brought up the TOTB and quasi-Thomism connection first. I did a bad quotation job: the second comment actually belongs to the first quotation as well.

Turmarion: The West, by contrast, never could shake off the old Roman obsession with order and legalism, and was never satisfied with philosophy as a neat lens (and only one such lens, at that) through which to view the faith.

Perhaps the “Roman legalism” that so many speak of derives from the early disambiguation of the apostolic Church into two forms of government: caesaropapism in Constantinople and the papal monarchy in old Rome. While the patriarch of Constantinople was a yes man of the emperor, semi-functional divisions existed between theology, ecclesiology, and state. The Pope of Rome was definitively both king and shepherd from the the Donation of Pepin to Paul VI’s symbolic abdication of temporal rule in 1965. The conjunction of king and shepherd undoubtedly has contributed to the successes and failures of totalized philosophy-theology.

The Germanic hordes, the Turks, the Reformation, Enlightenment thought, and the Risorgimento provided Others for the shepherd kings. How did the Roman totalized worldview survive these pressures?

20 12 2010
The Singular Observer

Turmarion – maybe that’s why Lutherans seem to get along with the Orthodox relatively well, compared to the rest of the West – within Lutheranism (aided, possibly, by minimalism etc – I have read that some claim that Ockham had undue influence on Luther) the rejection of a “theory of everything” served as philosophical liberator. That is why I can find orthodox Lutherans, which recognise each other as such, on different sides of the political aisle, for instance.

Lutherans do not seem to be so obsessed with explaining the paradoxes away.

Calvinism, however, does for Protestantism what Thomism does for Rome.

20 12 2010
Turmarion

One way to look at Descartes is that he’s almost, in a sense, using Thomism to deconstruct itself as a way of “fixing” it–at least that’s what he seems to have thought he was doing. He had to destroy the philosophy to save it. As to the results–well, like you said.

I think that the deeper problem is the temperament of the West. If you compare it to the Christian East, the latter always held philosophy at arm’s length, seeing it more as a heuristic or a useful tool than as an official answer machine, a Magic Eight Ball for religious questions. Yes, the East drew quite a bit from Neoplatonism and some other movements. However, the Eastern tendency was to see such interaction with philosophy as a means of being able to talk (however feebly) about the Ineffable. Certainly Orthodox Christianity would never think of canonizing any philosophical system as “official”.

The West, by contrast, never could shake off the old Roman obsession with order and legalism, and was never satisfied with philosophy as a neat lens (and only one such lens, at that) through which to view the faith. Western thinkers as far back as Augustine couldn’t leave well enough alone and had to try to build a perfect, all-comprehensive system that would explain not only the Trinity but the cosmos, the human being, physics, biology, etc. Aquinas’s was the noblest attempt, and the most crashing failure as the saint himself realized when he said it was “as straw”. Ever since then, the Church has clung to Thomism in a rather disingenuous way, as Arturo points out.

I used to like Mortimer Adler, and I still think he has some valid things to say, but over the years I’ve come to see that his championing of Aristotelian-Thomism while rejecting tout court everything that came after was either foolish, deranged, obtuse, or dishonest. From what I’ve read of him, I’m much more inclined to the charitable notion of obtusity; in his last few years, he seems to have been manipulated by a libertarian organization he fell in with, and his attempts to apply Aristotle’s categories to atomic theory and quantum physics always struck me as woefully lacking in understanding of the science. I think that to the extent that any “traditional” philosophy fits with quantum physics, Platonism does a better job, as is partially discussed here.

The whole natural law thing is a perfect example of the problem the West has. If you keep it as a vague, generic sort of thing like “humans naturally want to live, so murder is wrong” you’re fine; but beyond that, it tends to become a spinning of yarns to prove why the behaviors you like are “naturally” moral and the one’s you dislike are “naturally” immoral. As Arturo points out, it’s all a big game.

sortacatholic’s linking of this to TOTB is particularly felicitous. If there ever were a dishonest application of “pop-Thomism”, this is it.

20 12 2010
sortacatholic

The North Korean socialist realism art is spot-on! Entirely fitting for the post.

Arturo: That is the reason [Cartesianism] launched the Scientific Revolution to begin with; matter was no longer filled with angels moving things around their courses. This sort of “whig Thomism” that tries to marry again matter and spirit (vulgarly embodied in the theology of the body, among other things) is a way to slow down the revolution that began centuries ago, but by no means alter its course.
(my brackets)

Similarly, the North Korean ideology of Juche (loosely, “self-reliance”, also incorporates the Kim character cult) is a stalling tactic devised from a union of Confucianism and Stalinism rolled up into idol worship. Is North Korea the epitome of the centrally planned self-sufficient socalist state? The “Westerners” that travel to P’yongyang must buy their Chinese cigarettes and cheap trinkets in dollars and euros. Filthy capitalist lucre is the real ideological reference point for this psychopathic family dynasty. The best the Kims can hope is that the national psychosis that their family has created will keep their crime family in the black without the notice of their slaves.

That is sort of the Zizekian vulgar core of Thomism: it is meant to convince only those who believe it that it it can convince the Other who does not believe it, all the while knowing that this isn’t really the case.

Does that classic shot of Kalashnikov totin’ socialist-realist commandos convince any of us that North Korea and its Juche truly threaten “Western” existence? Certainly not. I suspect that even the most ardent TOTBers (HV/TOTB appear to be the new pop-Thomism) glance at the condom rack in the drugstore or Ortho Tri-Cyclen magazine advert. The reference point of the new orthodox Catholic marriage isn’t the supposed “mind blowing sex” of NFP, but the scientific achievement of reversible sterilization and resultant sexual autonomy. Is this any different than the contrast between state Juche and the reality of a corrupt, dollar-hoarding North Korean nomenklatura? No, because both Juche and pop-Thomistic sexual lifestyles require a constant glance backward at the tempting Other that, while superficially forbidden, actually legitimates the philosophies purposefully designed to destroy it.

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