A comedy in four acts (updated)

After Jean-Luc Marion’s critique of Aquinas as an ontotheologian in L’idole et la distance (1977) and Dieu sans l'être (1982) people made a big deal of an alleged retraction in “Saint Thomas d’Aquin et l'onto-théo-logie” (1995) published in Revue thomiste. The text was even inserted into the 2013 edition of Dieu sans l'être as a supplement. In Marion’s “defense” of Aquinas against the charge of ontotheology in the Revue thomiste article he tells us that we should seriously consider the possibility that the esse that Aquinas predicates of God has no positive content but is purely a nom négatif. Indeed,

pourquoi pretendre le traiter comme un nom affirmatif, fournissant l’équivalent d’une essence, l’équivalent d’une concept, l’équivalent d’une définition, l’équivalent d’une connaissance?

Is this Marion channeling Sertillanges? Is he in earnest or is it all in jest?

I think it was the latter. Marion published an article in a 2004 issue of Conférence in which he argued once again, as he had before 1995, that Aquinas limits God’s transcendence by predicating esse of him.

Marion’s argument in the 2004 piece is weak, to say the least. He begins, harmlessly enough, by explaining that, for Aquinas, God’s esse and essentia aren’t really distinct from each other, as they are in creatures, but identical. This means that God isn’t simply an ens. However, he goes on, this won’t do to ensure God’s transcendence.

Que la transcendance de Dieu ne joue plus à l'intérieur d'un concept d'étant […] ne suffit pas à la libérer; puisqu'elle ne s'ouvre encore que dans l'interstice entre l'essence et l’esse, donc definitivement dans l'horizon de l’être.

It’s unclear whether être here is meant to refer to Heideggerian Sein (which Marion had mentioned in the previous paragraph). If it is, then Sein, being finite (as it surely seems to be), would necessarily limit God’s transcendence were he subject to it. But why should we think that esse and essentia as Aquinas predicates them of God can be reduced to Sein? If this is what Marion has in mind, he doesn’t explain why we should buy it. On the other hand, if être isn't Sein but has a more indefinite reference, why should we think it limits God? Marion doesn’t explain. Of course, we know that Aquinas holds that divine esse is unlimited (cf., e.g., ST, Ia, q. 13, a. 11). If God is without limits, then he can’t help but be transcendent. How does Marion show that Aquinas is wrong to think that divine esse is unlimited? He doesn’t.

The title of the 2004 article is “L’impossible pour l’homme – Dieu.” Marion presented an English version of it at one of John Caputo’s “Religion and Postmodernism” conferences at Villanova. But I don’t remember whether that was before or after the French version appeared.

Several years ago I thought about publishing something about all of this but I never got around to it. Maybe it doesn’t require any drawn-out discussion. The basics can be noted without much ado. In any event, let this blog post suffice for now.

(This is a reblog of a post of mine at the AMU Philosophy Department blog.)


Post scriptum (12.7.18): I should make it clear that I do think that, for Aquinas, esse as predicated of God does have some positive content. It’s not merely a negative name, as Marion suggests in the Revue Thomiste article. In the general debate about Aquinas’s apophaticism, I side with Maritain (and Garrigou, Cajetan, and — with some qualifications — Milbank) against Sertillanges.

The "is" that isn't: Heidegger and Aquinas

In Der Satz vom Grund Heidegger writes:

Wenn wir von etwas sagen: “Es ist” und “es ist das und das,” dann wird es im solchen Sagen als Seiendes vorgestellt. Nur Seiendes “ist,” das “ist” selber, das “Sein” “ist” nicht (GA 10, p. 93).

In his commentary on Boethius’s De ebdomadibus Aquinas writes:

[S]icut non possumus dicere quod ipsum currere currat, ita non possumus dicere quod ipsum esse sit; set id quod est significatur sicut subiectum essendi, uelud id quod currit significatur sicut subiectum currendi; et ideo sicut possumus dicere de eo quod currit siue de currente quod currat in quantum subicitur cursui et participat ipsum, ita possumus dicere quod ens siue id quod est sit in quantum participat actum essendi. Et hoc est quod dicit quod ipsum esse nondum est quia non attribuitur sibi esse sicut subiecto essendi, set id quod est, accepta essendi forma, scilicet suscipiendo ipsum actum essendi, est atque consistit, id est in se ipso subsistit (Expositio De ebdomadibus, l. 2; Leonine, L, p. 271).

I truly doubt that Heidegger's Sein is the same thing as Aquinas's esse. There is very good reason (which I won't go into here) to see them as different things. Nevertheless, the parallel between these two texts is interesting and worth thinking about.

Thomism and the death penalty

Edward Feser and Joseph Bessette's new book By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of the Death Penalty and the Pope's recent remarks on the death penalty have revived the Catholic debate on the topic.

The death penalty has been discussed in several posts here at Thomistica over the years: here, here, here, here, and here. Most of these posts were authored by Steve Long.

On Friday Catholic World Report published an essay of mine entitled "Is opposition to the death penalty Thomistic?" In it I compare Pope Francis's remarks with St. Thomas's teaching. I think the Holy Father's defense of Amoris laetitia as Thomistic encourages this sort of exercise. I also assume that my discussion may be of interest to some of our readers.

Descartes vs. Aquinas (and other scholastics) on the senses, the imagination, God, and the soul

In Summa theologiae, Ia, q. 75, a. 1, Aquinas writes:

[A]d inquirendum de natura animae, oportet praesupponere quod anima dicitur esse primum principium vitae in his quae apud nos vivunt animata enim viventia dicimus, res vero inanimatas vita carentes. Vita autem maxime manifestatur duplici opere, scilicet cognitionis et motus. Horum autem principium antiqui philosophi, imaginationem transcendere non valentes, aliquod corpus ponebant; sola corpora res esse dicentes, et quod non est corpus, nihil esse. Et secundum hoc, animam aliquod corpus esse dicebant.

In Discours de la méthode, AT, 37, Descartes writes:

Mais ce qui fait qu'il y en a plusieurs qui se persuadent qu'il y a de la difficulté à le connaître [i.e., God], et même aussi à connaître ce que c'est que leur âme, c'est qu'ils n'élèvent jamais leur esprit au delà des choses sensibles, et qu'ils sont tellement accoutumés à ne rien considérer qu'en l'imaginant, qui est une façon de penser particulière pour les choses matérielles, que tout ce qui n’est pas imaginable leur semble n'être pas intelligible.

But then, after seeming to express the same insight as Aquinas, Descartes goes on to suggest that people who accept the dictum according to which “n'y a rien dans l'entendement qui n'ait premièrement été dans le sens” (“nihil est in intellectu quod non sit prius in sensu”) have the same problem. Indeed, the dictum itself is an indicator of that problem!

Ce qui est assez manifeste de ce que même les philosophes tiennent pour maxime, dans les écoles, qu'il n'y a rien dans l'entendement qui n'ait premièrement été dans le sens, où toutefois il est certain que les idées de Dieu et de l'âme n'ont jamais été. Et il me semble que ceux qui veulent user de leur imagination, pour les comprendre, font tout de même que si, pour ouïr les sons, ou sentir les odeurs, ils se voulaient servir de leurs yeux : sinon qu'il y a encore cette différence, que le sens de la vue ne nous assure pas moins de la vérité de ses objets, que font ceux de l'odorat ou de l'ouïe; au lieu que ni notre imagination ni nos sens ne nous sauraient jamais assurer d'aucune chose, si notre entendement n'y intervient.

Descartes is either unaware of the scholastic explanation of the dictum (cf. e.g., De veritate, q. 2, a. 3, ad 19) or doesn’t accept it. My hunch is that it’s the latter. But not being an expert on Descartes, I would be glad for help on this.

Aquinas's use of the lex parsimoniae

We all know that Ockham's razor wasn't really Ockham's razor. He got the shaving device second hand from his predecessors, among them, Aquinas.

Below are some instances of Aquinas's use of it, which I have shamelessly lifted from Schütz's Lexikon. Schütz lists them in the entry for fieri (and you'll see why). I came across them last week and I thought it would be handy to gather them here for anyone who is interested in the topic.

Three things to note: (1) Of the instances from the Contra gentiles and the Summa theologiae below (which are all the instances save one), almost all are found in objections. The only one that isn't from an objection is the one from CG, I, 42 (the first one). (2) The instance from the commentary on the Physics (the last one) is used in explicating Aristotle's argument. (3) I made minor changes to the wording and punctuation of the second and last ones since I noticed discrepancies with the Leonine text.

Don't cut yourself!


quod sufficienter fit uno posito, melius est per unum fieri, quam per multa (CG, I, 42)  

quod potest sufficienter fieri per unum, superfluum est si per multa fiat (CG, III, 70)

quod potest compleri per pauciora principia, non fit per plura (ST, I, a. 2, arg. 2)

quod potest sufficienter fieri per unum, superfluum est, quod fiat per multa (ST, I, q. 108, a. 3, arg. 2)

quod sufficienter potest fieri per unum, non oportet, quod per aliquid aliud inducatur (ST, II-II, q. 22, q. 1, arg. 1)

quod potest fieri per unum, superfluum est plura ponere (ST, II-II, q. 45, a. 2, arg. 3)

quod potest fieri per unum, superflue fit per multos (ST, III, q. 82, a. 2, arg. 2)

Quod potest fieri per pauciora, superfluum est si fiat per plura (In Physic., I, l. 11, n. 14)

Common natures in God's mind: A response to Bill Vallicella

Bill Vallicella poses the following problem

Consider a time t before there were any human animals and any finite minds, and ask yourself: did the nature humanity exist at t?

Vallicella points out that, for Aquinas, the answer would be that at t humanity existed in God’s mind. He comments on Aquinas’s answer thus:

This may seem to solve the problem I raised.  Common natures are not nothing because they are divine accusatives.  And they are not nothing in virtue of being ausserseiend. This solution avoids the three options of Platonism, subjectivism (according to which CNs exist only as products of abstraction), and Meinongianism.

What Vallicella is talking about here, of course, is Aquinas's doctrine of divine ideas. But he isn’t satisfied with the solution this doctrine offers.

The problem with the solution is that it smacks of deus ex machina: God is brought in to solve the problem similarly as Descartes had recourse to the divine veracity to solve the problem of the external world.  Solutions to the problems of universals, predication, and intentionality ought to be possible without bringing God into the picture.

I don’t see any reason to concede this deus ex machina (DEM) objection against Aquinas's doctrine. Why ought solutions to the problems of universals, predication, and intentionality to be possible without bringing God into the picture? Vallicella doesn’t say.  What if I instructed you in the following way: “Solve the problem of human knowledge without appealing to an immaterial intellect”? You could legitimately ask why I’ve barred the path of inquiry in this way. What if our reflection on the evidence indicated that an immaterial intellect had to be a part of the solution? (If you’re a naturalist, suppose I tell you to solve the problem of human knowledge without appealing to the brain.) Vallicella needs to explain why God can’t be involved in the solution of the above problems.

Vallicella references an earlier post where he considers what’s wrong with arguments that rely on a DEM. Let's look at this post to see if we can find out why he wishes to object to Aquinas in the way he does.

Vallicella suggests in this post five possible ways to understand what is meant by the DEM charge when it is leveled in philosophy. Vallicella’s DEM catalogue, however tentative, is very useful and appears to fill in a gap in the literature. Here are the possibilities he proposes:

(1) Any appeal to a supernatural agent in a theory of natural phenomena is a DEM.

(2)  An appeal to a supernatural agent in a theory of natural phenomena is a DEM iff no independent reasons are given for the existence of the supernatural agent.

(3)  An appeal to a supernatural agent in a theory of natural phenomena is a DEM iff no reasons are supplied for the existence of the divine agent.

(4)  An appeal to a supernatural agent in a theory of natural phenomena is a DEM iff EITHER no reasons are supplied for the existence of the divine agent, OR the working of the agent violates natural laws.

(5)  An appeal to a supernatural agent in a theory of natural phenomena is a DEM iff EITHER no reasons are supplied for the existence of the divine agent, OR the working of the agent violates natural laws, OR the agent’s intervention in nature is miraculous in the sense in that it takes over a job that ought to be done by a natural entity.

Vallicella doesn’t think we should a priori rule out arguments to God as the cause of natural phenomena. So, he says that (1) can’t be what a DEM is. (Actually, he doesn't argue exactly like this but this is how I interpret him.)

Vallicella also concludes that (2) can’t be what a DEM is. Here's how he explains its flaw:

Why would the reasons for the supernatural agent have to be independent, i.e., independent of the job the agent is supposed to do? Suppose the appeal to a divine agent takes the form of an inference to the best or the only possible explanation of the natural explananda. Then the appeal to the divine agent would be rationally justified despite the fact that the agent is posited to do a specific job.

I’m not quite sure what Vallicella’s view of (3) is. He seems to think that it constitutes a DEM but isn't the only form it can take. It can also take the form of (4) and (5).

But if we construe DEM as (3), (4), or (5), Aquinas's doctrine of divine ideas isn't conspicuously guilty of DEM. Aquinas doesn't fail to offer reasons for the existence of the divine agent whose mind contains the ideas (cf. ST, Ia, 2, 3). There is no obvious way that the doctrine of divine ideas violates natural laws (presumably the laws of the physical world that the natural sciences investigate). And, finally, it doesn't give a job to God that ought to be done by a natural entity.

With respect to the last point, Aquinas takes the divine ideas to be God's understanding of his essence as imitable by any creature (cf. ST, Ia, 15, 2). No natural entity as such could have God's understanding of his essence. Ergo, God isn't doing a job some natural entity should do, for no natural entity could do it.

So, I'm perplexed by Vallicella's suggestion that Aquinas's doctrine of divine ideas is an instance of DEM.

Vallicella is a careful, sharp thinker, so I assume that I have misunderstood him or he has only incompletely expressed himself. It’s possible that we do simply disagree but I suspect that the point of disagreement has not yet been identified.