John Haldaneinterviewed by Richard Marshall.
John Haldane is a Thomist analytic philosopher who is always brooding on faith and religious belief, philosophers who have strange and oracular remarks that ignite the imagination, the metaphysics of Aquinas and the making sense of immateriality, the depths of ontological arguments, some Aristotelian roots, Hegel's Christian stuff, religion and the philosophy of mind, the link between Aquinas and Anscombe, the link between Aquinas and Wittgenstein, the evasiveness of D.Z. Phillips, when human beings start, Hume and Reid and their attitude to Catholicism, the Scottish Enlightenment, plus Christopher Hitchens and the new atheism all done in the cool hand Luke style of unflappable chill. Which all in all makes him the P Daddy of the philosophy of religion.
3:AM:What made you become a philosopher? Was it that you didn’t stop wondering about a God?
John Haldane:Religion, art and ideas were all present in my childhood: at home and at school; and ever since I have moved to and fro between them in a more or less philosophical mode. I learned a good deal about differences of religious doctrine and practice since my grandfather, who lived with us for a time, was a staunch Presbyterian but my father had been received into the Catholic Church by a Franciscan priest, Fr Bonaventure. This was also the faith of my mother, and I was educated for ten years by the Jesuits. They are trained in philosophy and this shaped the ways in which they taught various subjects, so at school I was learning to think philosophically. At home, art and music were important and my mother’s family were in the theatre; also my year was divided between the west of Scotland, south-east England and London with their contrasting landscapes and cultures, all of which stimulated and developed my imagination. My first five years of higher education were in fine art which I also taught for a few years. That developed a pictorial and compositional way of thinking which remains with me and taught me that there are different ways of ‘seeing’ and ‘showing’ ideas and values.
Then I turned to the study of philosophy. Looking back it was a ‘golden age’ in London: Jerry Cohen, Dorothy Edgington, Bill Hart, Hide Ishiguru, Hans Kamp, Ian McFetridge, Colin McGinn, Norman Malcolm, David Papineau, Mark Platts, Mark Sainsbury, Roger Scruton, Richard Sorabji, David Wiggins, Peter Winch, Richard Wolheim, and many others. As an undergraduate I had got interested in the nature of thought and this led me to Brentano and to the famous passage in Psychology from an Empirical Standpointwhere he (re)introduces the medieval scholastic notion of intentionality as involving the inexistence of an object in thought.
In an effort to find out more I hunted through books and journals but it was only when I explored the basement of the Catholic Central Library then adjacent to Westminster Cathedral that I discovered a storehouse of scholastic material and became fascinated with this other world, quite unlike that I inhabited as a student, and began to teach myself ‘Thomism’. Towards the end of my studies I was appointed to St Andrews and so returned to Scotland, and to an institution founded out of the religious, philosophical and aesthetic values of medieval Catholicism. In one way or another then my route into philosophy and my life within it has been an ongoing interplay of art, religion and ideas, the last engaged through philosophical analysis and argument.
3:AM:In Reasonable Faithyou argue that to hold religious beliefs requires careful consideration of the metaphysics you’d be committed to if religious claims were true. So, for example, if the Christian belief in resurrection were true then we’d have to think about maybe one and the same thing could have more than one beginning of existence. You think that modern philosophy sometimes forecloses options too soon, don’t you?
JH:Reasonable Faithis a companion volume to an earlier one entitled Faithful Reasonand both are concerned in part with the interplay between philosophical and religious ideas and values. The latter tried to show how taking religious claims seriously is compatible with maintaining a philosophical outlook, while the former aimed to show that a religious stance is philosophically supported. More than this, however, I wanted to illustrate ways in which religious ideas can actually enrich philosophy. A discussion of ‘incarnational anthropology’, for example, invoked the logic of reduplicative predications (x qua-f-is-g) and also suggested that standard mind-body ontologies are ill-equipped even to formulate the Christian doctrine of divine incarnation. I was not concerned to argue for that doctrine but to show that it does not involve contradictory predications and that it invites deeper possibilities as regards understanding the nature of mindedness. Then in the discussion you mention I pressed the thought that the possibility of bodily resurrection could be made sense of in ways that correspond logically to familiar cases of re-assembly, but that both challenge the idea that objects cannot be gap-inclusive.
My formal education in philosophy was entirely in the analytic moldand I am grateful for that since it introduced me to the power of analysis and rigorous argumentation; but that mold is also a somewhat shallow one. This is not to do with the issue of religion per se, but rather with the narrowing of intellectual sources. When people were trained in classical culture, or literature, or history, or the arts, and especially if they had been introduced to unfamiliar and seemingly strange ways of thinking, their imaginations were more developed and they were less inclined to take the ruling ideas and values of their own time as obviously correct. My first philosophy classes were taught by David Hamlyn and concerned the pre-Socratics. Their strange and oracular remarks immediately ignited my imagination and I still return to them when jaded by the often flat and featureless forms of contemporary philosophy. Among analytic philosophers those I most admire have imagination and are open to diverse sources of insight into human nature and reality: Anscombe, Kripke, McDowell, MacIntyre, Nagel, Putnam, Taylor, Williams – each draws, not always announcedly, on sources outside the brief and narrow canon of analytic philosophy.
3:AM:You’re impressed by Aquinas. You write: ‘Aquinas is essentially a dialectical thinker who engages in careful propositional analysis and who prizes good arguments.’ Before looking at his philosophical positions, can you give us a brief philosophical context to understand the guy. He came near the end of a medieval period of philosophy begun perhaps by Augustine and dominated by Aristotleianism, didn’t he?
JH:Thomas Aquinas belongs to the period of the high middle ages (roughly the thirteenth century) and is one of a number of major Latin thinkers, the others being his teacher Albert the Great, his contemporary Bonaventure, and the slightly later figures William Ockham and Duns Scotus. The last three were all members of the Franciscan order, whereas Albert and Thomas were Dominicans. These two orders had both been founded in the first few years of the century and so then were still quite young. They were also radical in their vocation of bringing reasoned faith to people of the growing cities of Western Europe. The older order of Benedictines, whose leadership was drawn from aristocratic and noble families, remained set apart in monasteries established as refuges from a degraded and hostile world. After the half-millennium following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, European culture and society began to be rebuilt and the first great philosopher-theologian to be produced by this new order was Anselm, himself a Benedictine. His philosophical outlook was broadly that of theistic-Platonism as developed by Augustine, and this was largely adopted by the Franciscans.
From the start, however, the Domincans were different. Albert the Great was among the first of these and was alert to the promise offered by the more naturalistic outlook of Aristotle many of whose works were then being received in the West for the first time, having previously been studied and commented upon by Islamic scholars in Baghdad. Whereas the Augustinians tended to see a world of fixity, Albert discerned a dynamic and changing world and he encouraged his student Thomas to adopt and develop his own project of ‘Christianising Aristotle’ or ‘Aristotelianising’ Christian thought. Aquinas did not have Greek, so he was assigned various translators, the most important of whom was William of Moerbeke and he soon got to work studying and commentating upon William’s translations. Those commentaries are still consulted and discussed today, but as interesting is the way in which Aquinas drawns upon Aristotelian ideas in his own original writings beginning with On Being and Essence(De Ente et Essentia) written when he was in his late twenties.
3:AM:So Aquinas has to develop a metaphysics that can accommodate religious content like the resurrection, the trinity, the nature of God, infinity and time and so on. Can you give examples of what Aquinas argues, say about his conception of the trinity or the resurrection so we can get a sense of how he approached his philosophy? I suppose one of the things I’m asking this for is to see how different and strange a Christian Thomist metaphysics is and how it differs from non-Thomist, non-theological metaphysics. It always surprises me how even Christians never seem to think of the world in a way all that differently from non Christians but given what they say they believe they ought to, didn’t they?
JH:Aquinas is working with ideas that already had highly sophisticated expressions. These originate in Greek philosophy, in Christian scripture, and in the writings of the early church fathers, the theological interpreters of the first centuries of Christianity. So when he takes up an issue he is already aware of how it has been discussed by others and of what some of the main positions on it might be. I have mentioned his use of Aristotle but it is also important to emphasise the Platonic aspects of his thought, and also to recall that in many respects Aristotle is also close to Plato: this is something we now tend to forget, emphasising how Plato is transcendentalist or objective idealist and Aristotle a naturalist. In relation to contemporary understandings of ‘naturalism’ Aristotle is certainly quite different. This is something John McDowell has referred to, but even then the picture that emerges is of something like a generalised anomalous monism whereas Aristotle believes in absolute immateriality. I mention this to indicate that what might seem strange in Aquinas’s metaphysics is a development of what was familiar to his predecessors.
One area is that of reality and materiality, another that of metaphysical modality. Whereas we would think that the paradigm of something real is a physical object Aquinas would say that reality goes with intelligibility which goes with immateriality. Matter is not as such intelligible rather it is the potentiality for the actualisation of form, and it is the form of an empirical object that renders it knowable. Also while knowability might involve, in the first instance, experience of a particular individual it relates most fully to the abstract form and this can only be known by intellect which it itself something immaterial. But since intellectual powers are non-material so too is the subject to which they belong and whose nature they express; hence the intellectual subject, the thinker, is an immaterial entity. Yet a human person is a kind of living animal, so while a thinker might survive the death of its body it is not itself a person, and the possibility of a future personal life would therefore require re-embodiment. In this way he works from a philosophical position (the immateriality of the objects of intellectual knowledge) towards a religious teaching (the resurrection of the dead) and simultaneously connects the latter with a line of philosophical argument.
Today we struggle to make sense of immateriality and, notwithstanding Kripke and others continue to find difficulty with the idea of necessity as something that belongs to reality as it is in itself. Aquinas, by contrast, sees the world of materiality and contingency as a limited reflection or consequence of an order that is simpler and purer, and structured rationally and axiologically, i.e. according to orders of value. His primary notions of necessity (and of possibility) are ontological and arise out of the idea of a nature or essence.
3:AM:His famous cosmological argument is partly famous because it has been subjected to huge critical study and would seem to have been rendered obsolete. Haven’t developments in modern logic after Frege left much of Aquinas generally in a mess? Doesn’t too much of the original system – brilliant though it was in the time he was writing - depend on errors that subsequent generations have discovered?
JH:There are several places in Aquinas’s writings where he refers to natural philosophy, i.e. to what we would consider empirical science, and makes statements that we now know to be false. Examples concern human physiology, conception and embryological development, and aspects of physics, chemistry and astronomy. Where these are invoked in arguments, e.g. about sensation, the beginnings of life, or the nature of the heavenly bodies the result may be to render arguments unsound, but the deeper issues are generally metaphysical and the interesting question is whether the arguments can be reformulated in terms of corrected empirical facts, and how far and such reformulation takes one away from Aquinas’s central purpose.
So far as arguing to the existence of God is concerned Aquinas’s main lines of argument do not depend essentially on particular empirical theories. These are set out in the ‘Five Ways’ presented in the second question of his major work the Summa Theologiae, but there are other arguments elsewhere. Let me mention two lines of reasoning one teleological, the other cosmological. He claims that the action of some natural organisms is explicable in terms of the ends towards which they move, even though they lack intelligence. These ends generally confer benefits relevant to the natures of the organisms and hence conduce to their good. If we thought of these agents as choosing the ends then we might think that no further explanation was called for, but if they are incapable of choice then there must be some other explanation of their tendencies towards beneficial states, something external and directional, and from this Aquinas reasons to the idea a benign designer, saying that this is what we call God (‘et hoc dicimus Deum’). There is much that has been said about this kind of argument and it is commonly supposed to have been defeated by the theory of evolution through mutation and natural selection. But evolutionary speciation itself rests on teleologically-structured processes which it does not and cannot explain. There is much more to be said and if readers want to see how this debate might develop they could look at my debate with the late Jack Smart in Atheism and Theism. Here all I want to point out is that the argument neither excludes nor is rendered unsound by evolutionary processes.
The second argument is that involving essence and existence – and by existence I mean actuality or ‘be-ing’, i.e. existing. In this sense existence is a metaphysical aspect of any existing thing and it is not captured by the existential quantifier. Aquinas points out that if we were to inquire into some kind of entity we might ask what is it? i.e. ask about its nature or essence, but also ask is it? does it actually exist? The fact that the second question remains open even when the first has been answered shows that the existence of the thing does not follow from its essence. So if it exists its existence must derive from something else. Of that prior source one can again ask whether its existence is implied by its nature and if not then we have to look for a further source, and so it continues. If a vicious regress is to be avoided we must suppose that there is something in which existence is implied by essence and which has the power to confer existence on other things. So again Aquinas is led to the idea of God as the creator, and indeed sustainer of the being as well as of the natures of beings. While this argument may be contested it is a purely metaphysical one and does not rest on particular empirical claims and hence is not refutable by appeal to scientific discoveries.
3:AM:Broadening out that last issue a little, in resurrecting Thomist philosophy aren’t you committed to Aristotelian metaphysics and all that entails. Don’t the arguments that got rid of Aristotle from science, for example, still hold?
JH:Again we need to consider what in Aristotle is metaphysics and what is natural philosophy, i.e. empirical science. Aquinas takes up, for example, Aristotle’s notions of form and matter but develops them around the notions of actuality and potentiality. The latter are certainly metaphysical concepts and in light of these we can read back into the form/matter pair a metaphysical interpretation. To illustrate: Aquinas distinguishes primary and secondary matter. The latter is some particular kind of stuff which endures through some change, being heated, say, or growing larger by absorbing other quantities. He notes, however, that there can be more fundamental kinds of changes where one sort of thing changes into another. Suppose for example lead changes into gold, which the alchemists believed can be caused to happen and which has its counterpart in contemporary science in the transmutation of elements resulting from radioactive decay. Here there must be something that endures through the change, i.e. which is the matter of first one and then another nature. Pressed further this gets us to the idea of prime matter which is nothing but the potentiality for the presence of one and then another fundamental nature. Here I would say Aquinas is moving from empirical science to metaphysics as matter is now a functional or relational concept correlative to that of structure.
Starting from the idea of form or structure one can also argue that it is an essential element of any analysis of substance or causation and does not depend on any scientific theory old or new. Every-thing is a some-thing, that is to say we can always ask what is it? and an answer that could serve to distinguish one kind of thing from another kind will be a specification of a nature or form. There are no bare things, and likewise there is no bare causation. Causing is always some kind of causing, causing of this or that sort with such and such a structure. These structures correspond to Aristotelian-Thomistic forms and far from being superseded by science they are presupposed by the sciences as when biologists or chemists or physicists taxonomise things and processes according to their structures and natures.
3:AM:How interested are you in other philosophical traditions influencing the development of this Christian metaphysics? For example, the German idealist tradition also developed sophisticated metaphysical systems in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries didn’t it? Hegel, for example, is understood by Fred Beiseras being a deeply metaphysical philosopher of the Absolute. And modern theology has developed to embrace post-modern theology (like Graham Ward) and atheist theological positions (like Don Cupitt) – both of these seem hanging on to less than a full blooded metaphysical realist position about God. How do you see these: as alternatives or developments or complements to Thomist approaches?
JH:Anyone who takes Christian creeds seriously and thinks about the meaning of the various articles such as that in the Nicene creed which holds that Christ was ‘born of the Father before all ages, God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father; Through him all things were made’, will soon be lead into the area of Platonist and neo-Platonic metaphysics. I am certainly interested in these since they both affirm that reality is ultimately intelligible, rationally ordered and co-relative to and perhaps expressive of thought. I had not read much of Hegel save in extracts until recently but even a fairly speedy journey through one or two works reveals the extent to which his metaphysics is suited to a rendering of the Judeao-Christian narrative in the form of a metaphysical process leading from immanent to realised spirit.
This is no accident, of course, since Hegel was trained in Christian theology at Tübingen Seminary and an early essay was on the ‘Spirit of Christianity’, traces of which survive in his Phenomenology of Spirit. Indeed he can be seen as aiming to rescue Christian theology from philosophical attack by representing it as a mythic expression of a metaphysical reality. I am struck by the connections between this and the tradition of neo-Platonism in which there is a similar ‘movement’ from unity through diversity back to unity, and this was consciously adopted by the Greek and Latin Church Fathers in developing Christian doctrine. ‘Post-modern theology’ is an ambiguous expression. In one interpretation it refers to the attempt to recover orthodox theology from some of the distortions or damage done to it by aspects of modern thought. In another interpretation it refers to certain kinds of discourse inspired by post-war French philosophy which treat theological language as a medium of advocacy or emancipation (or of accusation and confinement) and disavow metaphysical claims as traditionally understood. It is overly simple to put it this way but one might see the former as an effort to defend traditional credal Christianity and the latter as an attempt to undermine it or to distract from its abandonment. I have sympathy for aspects of the former but in general regard the latter as obscurantist and often pretentious and posturing.
3:AM:You defend a Thomist metaphysics in the context of the discussion about philosophy of mind. You say that the ontology of mind positions itself as accepting materialism of mind with a residual derivation from phenomenal consciousness and that this is driven by accepting functionalism. You deny that epiphenomenalism is the hardest challenge faced by this position because you think the conceptual intentionality of abstract thought is. So what is this difficulty, and how does Aquinas help?
JH:Contemporary philosophy of mindis heavily populated with a multiplicity of theories, concepts and arguments. Nonetheless a couple of general features distinguish the current state of the subject from that which prevailed in the 1970s. First, while the general orientation is still towards materialism it is also away from reductive physicalism. Second, there is a significant presence of dualism and quasi-dualism. These two features are related largely through the influence of claims to the effect that phenomenal content and qualitative consciousness are real but not physically explicable in the sense of being identified with or otherwise reduced to physical features.
Some arguments against reductionism have been independent of this issue, such as Putnam’s suggestion that mental concepts identify states by their computational role not by their ontological composition or medium, but that of course is also compatible with the claim that every function realizer is a wholly physical state. Lewis, Fodorand Block had similar arguments about psychological terms specifying roles or functions though they argued that for reasons to do with causality these could only have physical realisers. Similarly Davidson’sargument that mental concepts are tied to rational-explanatory interpretation tells against type-identification but is compatible with, and in Davidson’s argument entailed token physicalism. The impetus for qualia dualism came not from general considerations about the type-individuation of the mental but from particular intuitions about the non-identity of phenomenal facts, properties or states and physical ones.
One might suppose that someone who rejects materialism would welcome such arguments, and many do, some seeing in them a route back to the idea of God; but I am doubtful about them for three reasons. First, notwithstanding much emphatic language, often marked in print by italics, affirming that there is something it is like to be phenomenally aware, it is not clear that this marks out something that could not be a physical phenomenon. By way of analogy, imagine someone arguing that in addition to objective spaces such as might be mapped, there are also ineliminably subjective spaces occupied by conscious beings and reported by them through the multiple uses of the term ‘here’. The case for ‘location dualism’ can be disarmed by observing the phenomenon of indexicals, indicating a location by reference to the place of utterance or one demonstrated from it, and perhaps a similar strategy might disarm ‘qualia dualism’. Second, it is evident that in general the phenomenal field is isomorphic to the physical environment in respect of geometry and qualitative intensity. A sound heard to the left in the auditory field may generally be better heard by turning in that direction and moving towards the source. This encourages the thought that the phenomenal is the physical received according to the physiology of the recipient. Third, phenomenal consciousness has particulars as its objects, but particulars are individuated by their matter and what has a material particular as its immediate, non-descriptively specified object is itself a material faculty.
These second and third considerations relate to ideas to be found in the medievals and I am struck by the fact that they also reasoned that sense-perception is a bodily activity. At the same time, however, they argued that intellection, thinking of general natures and using such concepts, involves the thinker engaging with non-material intentionalia. Aquinas deploys this idea in several arguments for the immateriality of intellection, and I believe that suitably formulated some of these arguments are sound, though I think they also have the surprising conclusion that there is no medium of (intellectual) thought, or put another way there is no phenomenology of (abstract) thought.
3:AM:Was G.E.M. Anscombe in her book Intentiondeveloping a kind of disguised Thomist position about intentionality? How sympathetic are you to understanding Anscombe’s philosophical analysis of intention as being an attempt to find a space for a naturalised Platonism, something that John McDowell has developed subsequently? Isn’t there a problem with Platonism from the Aristotlelian perspective that this sort of approach embodies, analogous to Kant making reason a separate realm?
JH:I don’t know whether Anscombeever sought to disguise her use of ideas drawn from Aquinas, though she might have judged that it was prudent given the secular academic world she inhabited not to associate an idea with him lest that encouraged people to dismiss it as simply ‘religious’. When I was a student I corresponded with her about a position she maintained with regard to the idea of the ‘moral’ and I noted that Aquinas took a very similar line. She acknowledged this but also described a policy of reading Thomas after one had a thought about an issue to see if he had anything to say that might help, rather than going first to him as if he were a source of ideas. I think this was an accurate account of her own relationship to his work, but as I have read more of her writings, including those recently and continuingly published in St Andrews Studies, I see more and more of Aquinas in them. To some extent, at least in broad outline, this is true of themes in Intention, but of course there she was also influence by Aristotle directly, and of course by Wittgenstein, though in the latter case more with regard to method. In that connection it is worth mentioning that Wittgenstein also read Aquinas and had a couple of German/Latin volumes of the Summa Theologiae. I once tried to track these down in the hope of finding marginal comments but the search proved fruitless.
Anscombe was an unusually deep and imaginative philosopher, but she didn’t elaborate points and arguments with a view to making them intelligible to someone who might not otherwise see what was going on. I think this was in part because she was concerned with the facts themselves not with laying out the route to them; but also I think there was something of the existentialist or spiritual writer about her in the sense that she thought that the significance of a fact would only be evident to someone who was looking to find or to escape from it. Her work is very hard to summarise and it is common on rereading her essays to to see something one had not previously noticed or appreciated. She had a burst of highly creative work in the late 1950s which produced Intention, Modern Moral Philosophyand a few other things; again in the 1970s producing important essays on causation, and again in the 1980s this time leading to still material on language and philosophical logic much of which has not been widely read let alone digested. It is always worthwhile reading her essays but one feels as if one is trying to keep up without really knowing where things are going.
Yet, while she is not a systematic thinker in the style of Strawson say, or of Davidson, there is an overall spirit or environment in which her ideas are expressed and this, I would say, is one of kind of objective idealism. She believes in the reality of reason but rather than say it is in us one might say that we are in it. It is our spiritual/rational environment though we inhabit it in a state of partial unfamiliarity alienated either by the effects of sin or by those of bad philosophy – depending on whether one favours an Augustinian or Wittgensteinian analysis, and I think she would say that the latter is not independent of the former. I don’t think this is what John McDowell had in mind in speaking of ‘naturalised Platonism’, though one could begin to translate between these outlooks.
3:AM:You find parallels between Aquinas and Wittgenstein, don’t you? Can you say how you connect these two thinkers? I’d have thought that Wittgensteinian theology as done by the likes of D.Z. Phillips, for example, was again too metaphysically thin to be Thomist?
JH:Wittgenstein read Aquinas but his only recorded comment is that St Thomas asked good questions. I suspect that his reading of the Summawould have been influenced negatively in a couple of related ways. First, Wittgenstein had been raised as a Catholic and in that period catechetics, the teaching of Catholic doctrine, favoured a question and answer style that derived from scholasticism but only gave abbreviated formulae and not arguments. He would have found this a betrayal of the religious quest and could not fail to have been reminded of it by the lists of questions and answers in the Summa. Second, In the first decades of the twentieth century there was a good deal of triumphalist Catholic apologetics in which people cited Aquinas as if he had an answer to everything and contained no errors or omissions. This again would have struck him as profoundly unphilosophical and also unspiritual.
That said, there are many points of similarity and overlap of interest, method and conclusions. In an essay written while he was still a priest Anthony Kennypointed to several parallels including that between Aquinas' doctrine of analogical meaning (terms that are neither identical nor altogether distinct in sense) and Wittgenstein’s notion of family resemblance concepts. Likewise he pointed to similarities in their preoccupation with and treatments of intentionality. I would add good-reason accounts of action, pluralism about causation, rejection of empiricism and innatism, and attention to the ordinary as the place where the truth is to be first found and later recovered.
In the Philosophical InvestigationsWittgenstein writes: “The aspect of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity”. This last incidentally is something also emphasised by the Catholic convert G.K. Chesterton who though not himself a philosopher influenced a number of philosophical converts – though Wittgenstein didn’t like the idea represented in Chesterton’s Fr Brown stories of a Catholic priest serving as a detective. Wittgenstein’s attitude to religion was complex. He took genuine religious belief seriously and felt a certain awe in the presence of it but could not himself believe. The first aspect lead him to resist attempts to dismiss it as superstition or to reduce it to a sentiment, but I do not think that he would have been interested in the effort to allow non-believers to talk the talk of religion, or in efforts to say that a religious outlook is immune to non-religious challenges.
Dewi Phillipswas the most accomplished exponent of what he and others took to be a Wittgensteinian approach to religious language and practice, but I think Wittgenstein’s own view was that one really has to decide whether one can believe or not and reason is relevant to this, though he could also make sense of the idea that faith might be a gift from God in which case reason might have a secondary role. While he might want to say that much of what religious people claim only makes sense inside a system of practices that does not mean that the question cannot be raised as to whether these practices are oriented towards a real, external object. He could not believe that they were but remained agnostic. Phillipsianism, by contrast, looks very much like non-reductive religious atheism. Of course I realise that in saying this, his followers will claim that I have failed to understand his position and probably that of Wittgenstein himself. I am afraid, however, that I find this intellectually and spiritually evasive.
3:AM:You take seriously the argument that metaphysical realism and metaphysical anti-realism imply theism, therefore theism. Can you explain this argument, which draws on the Idealism of Berkeley, the semantic intuitionism of Michael Dummett as well as Aquinas, doesn’t it?
JH:One point I wanted to make is that the sort of argument I mentioned earlier involving essence and existence applies equally well if one thinks that the objects of thought and experience are mind-dependent. Of course Aquinas does not think that, so when he appeals to objects of experience he means to refer to independently existing things, but even someone who thought that there weren’t such things would still recognise a domain of essence/existence constituted entities, and this will serve so far as the existential argument is concerned.
The second point was peculiar to the situation of one who is an idealist and it leads to a different argument. Berkeley maintained that the realist assumption that some things are mind-independent is self-contradictory, since just as an object cannot be both seen and unseen, so nothing can be both conceived and unconceived. There is a difference, however, between the fact of conceiving of something and the content of what is conceived; and it is not contradictory to conceive of something as existing unconceived. Although I may be conceiving it, it is not thereby part of an object’s nature, let along of its being, to be conceived of by me or by anyone else.
This meets Berkeley’s argument but it does not altogether deal with his general view as to the incoherence of realism as it is generally understood. Realism implies the possibility that there are entities the character and existence of which transcends the recognitional capacities of knowers. In short, there might be things of which we not only do know nothing but can no nothing; but the idea of a “something” of which nothing can be thought reveals itself to be no significant idea at all. One response to this is to distinguish realism as a thesis about what exists independently of our conception of it, from realism as a claim about mind-independence as such. Thus it might be conceded that the claim that there may be entities which are in principle unknowable and even inconceivable is an empty one, yet still maintained that entities may exist independently of our capacity to know or to conceive of them. But once the general point about the vacuity of conception-transcendence is granted, what can then sustain the weaker position?
Realism, as that corresponds to the common-sense belief that the world is independent of our conception of it, is only intelligible if we suppose, as Berkeley himself did, that what eludes our cognitive powers or those of other finite minds, is nevertheless comprehended by an omniscient mind. More directly, we can presume that there is a world independent of our experiences, thoughts and utterances only in so far as we are also willing to suppose that this world is known to God. To quote Dummett: “[H]ow things are in themselves is to be defined, and can only be defined, as how they are apprehended by God, or as how God knows them to be. . . . What so much gives us the idea that there is an ultimate level at which no such distinction [as that between appearance and reality] can any longer be drawn? Only by referring to God’s knowledge of reality can that idea be vindicated”.
What I go on to observe is that in one understanding of it such an argument is compatible with Aquinas’s position and may even be read into passages where he writes that the divine intellect is the explanation both of natures and of the existence of particular things possessed of those natures; and natures as they exists in things are the explanation for our understanding of the world. In that respect one might say that the world is a medium of communication from the mind of God to those of creatures.
3:AM:Of course there are very controversial and practical outcomes of a Thomist metaphysics. In your paper with Patrick Leeyou write about human ensoulment, abortion and the value of life which disputes Robert Pasnau’saccount of these issues. So what’s wrong with Pasnau’s account, and how does your Thomist metaphysics and ethics handle this issue?
JH:In brief, Pasnau argued that on the basis of Aquinas' account of conception and embryological development it follows that early abortion would not involve the killing of a human being. The issues here are detailed involving scholarly interpretation as well as metaphysics but essentially Pasnau wanted to say that for Aquinas a human being does not come into existence until at least six weeks after conception, and he endorses the idea of what is sometimes termed ‘delayed hominisation’. Our reply involved distinguishing Aquinas' empirical claims from his metaphysical ones and arguing that if your correct for the former the latter will push back the beginnings of individual human life to conception or possibly shortly thereafter.
According to Pasnau, Aquinas held that in order for the rational soul to be infused, certain material conditions have to obtain. In particular a developed brain. Hence the organs upon which the rational soul's activities rely must be fully developed. We argued, however, that this fails to note Aquinas' various levels of potentiality and that what is necessary for ensoulment is the material organisation sufficient for the development of those organs, in other words, the epigenetic primordia of the organs that support the operations proper to the species. The brain is not sufficiently developed actually to support conceptual thought until some months after birth. So, on this position one would have to say that a six week-old infant is not even a human being, and that is absurd.
At one point in the SummaAquinas writes: “It belongs to the natural order that a thing is gradually brought from potency to act. And therefore in those things which are generated we find that at first each is imperfect and afterwards is perfected”. The ovum is a highly organised living cell, containing complex, specific information, in the genetic structure of the nuclear chromosomes. This information, together with that provided by the genetic structure in the chromosomes of the male sperm, guides the development of the new organism formed by the fusion of sperm and ovum. Hence the ovum is close to readiness for rapid embryological development; it only requires fusion with the sperm and the activa¬tion that occurs with that fusion. To a certain extent the gradual transition from the simple to the complex that Aquinas sought actually occurs during gametogenesis. Thus, applying Aquinas' metaphysical principles to the known embryological facts leads to the conclusion that the human being is present from fertilisation on.
3:AM:How do you understand Hume and Reid from your Thomist perspective. Surely Hume is implacably hostile to your position?
JH:Hume is essentially a critical philosopher, he has a gift for sensing a weakness in a structure and seeing whereabouts it lies, but he then often misdiagnoses the difficulty and is too hasty in condemning the whole building, in part because he is keen to have the occupants move into an alternative structure of his own design. He does this repeatedly, for example with regard to the transition from ‘is’ to ‘ought’, concerning self-knowledge, regarding substance and causality, and about sense-experience in general. Interestingly, while he writes of “the schoolmen, who, making use of undefined terms, draw out their disputes to a tedious length, without ever touching the point in question” (Enquiry) similar critical points to his are made by scholastic philosophers (‘schoolmen’).
A few examples may be of interest. Hume writes: “Nothing is ever really present with the mind but its perceptions or impressions and ideas, and that external objects become known to us only by those perceptions they occasion’ which echoes the claim of the fourteenth century Oxford Dominican William Crathorn that “a human cannot on the basis of a sensory cognition have certain and fully infallible cognition of the existence of any feature whatsoever outside the soul”. Again Hume makes much of the fact that he has no direct intuition of the self and only encounters perceptions of this or that, but Aquinas observed the same point while also explaining where self-knowledge is to be found when he writes that “our intellect becomes the object of its own intellectual activity only in so far as it is [thinking] … So it is not by any essence of itself, but through its activity that our intellect knows itself” (Summa Theologiae). Another area is that of causation where one finds anticipations of and responses to Humean points in the writings for example of the fourteenth century French scholastic Nicholas of Autrecourt and in his critics.
Certainly Hume is hostile to metaphysics and in keeping with his age regarded scholastic Aristotelianism as an egregious form of this, and he is also hostile to revealed religion. That said he does not exclude the idea that the cosmos is the product of creative intelligence and personally he had quite good relations with Catholics in France where he used the library of the Jesuit College of La Fleche (where Descartes had been educated) and also consulted the Library of the Scots College of St Andrew in Paris. In fact he assisted the principal there by taking a confidential Papal letter to London requesting agreement to the appointment of a Catholic Bishop in Scotland.
Thomas Reid was, of course, a critic of Hume’s philosophy, and a defender of realist epistemology, metaphysics and ethics, and also of the rationality of belief in God and in Christian doctrine. Like Hume, however, he made the usual disparaging remarks about the scholastics describing them as “sophisters entangled in their own cobwebs” but again he often presents argument that recapitulate earlier scholastic ones. I think the case can even be made that he read and absorbed scholastic authors. For example in his Essays on the Intellectual PowersReid writes, “I can conceive an individual object that really exists, such as St Paul’s Church in London. I have an idea of it though the immediate object of this conception is four hundred miles distant” and this closely corresponds to a passage in a work by the Scots scholastic John Mair who was here in St Andrews in the 1530s and before then had been in Glasgow where Reid was later a professor. In one of his works which was in the Glasgow library before, and since, Reid’s time Mair writes: "I say that the idea I have of the pinnacle of St Geneveive [in Paris] has the pinnacle itself as its immediate object”. These are both statements of epistemological realism and moreover they both invoke an act rather than object account of ideas. That had long before developed by Aquinas and other medievals in response to claims that all we are ever aware of are our ideas.
Reid also adopts broadly scholastic positions on causation and substance and deploys familiar design and teleological arguments for the existence of God. One thing that deserves special praise is the style of his philosophy. Whereas the scholastics, the European rationalists, and the British empiricist all developed special terminology and modes of expression that are complex and often confusing Reid stays close to ordinary language. I once had reason to edit a manuscript of his for publication and apart from a few words and now dated spellings it could have been written in the twentieth century. He is clear, remains close to common experience and sees philosophy as serving to simplify and clarify not construct novel systems. Finally, since I mentioned Hume’s personal good will to Catholics I should add a note about Reid in that connection, made all the more striking by the fact that he was a Scottish Presbyterian Minister and Penal Laws still constrained Catholics. In a letter of 1791 to a Priest Reid writes: “I give you the right hand of Fellowship. Among the other Wonders of our day, let the pure wine of Rome [Catholicism] and Geneva [Calvinism] mix leaving the dregs behind”.
3:AM:The Scottish Enlightenment impresses you for its active role in educational and political changedoesn’t it? You cite the Constitution of the United Statesand Princeton University as being directly influenced by it, as well as reforming movements in Europe, particularly France and Spain. It seems odd that a Thomist would be in favour of reforming movements given the Absolutism of Rome. Why don’t you find it odd?
JH:‘Rome’ is in fact several distinct institutions. First, it is the primal diocese or ‘see’ of the Catholic Church and the bishop of Rome is the leader of that Church in his role as successor of St Peter, and he serves as ‘supreme bridge’ (as pontifex maximus) between the other bishops around the world, who are the successors of those first apostles. This role is spiritual and ecclesial, i.e. it concerns the life of the Church. As the government of the world-wide Church, ‘Rome’ is known as the Holy See. For historical reasons, however, from the sixth century through to the nineteenth, the Pope also became the Sovereign of a set of territories, the Papal States; and the Vatican City, plus a few patches of land elsewhere in and around Rome constitute the residue of this. The Papal state was not a democracy and the Pope in his capacity as a temporal authority was an absolute sovereign. This, however, is now essentially ceremonial and in any case distinct from the ecclesial and spiritual offices. Saying this, the Pope is taken to have special authority in teaching on matters of faith and morals, as do Councils of the Church, and this is the subject of a different kind of challenge, not a political but a religious one, which takes us back to the Reformation and forward to the present day; but these are not arguments about the power of the papacy as a Sovereign.
The kind of argument you find in Aquinas regarding political authority points to the necessity of having societal leadership for the sake of the common good. This is compatible with both democratic and non-democratic forms of government. Aquinas was a man of his times and thought in terms of princes, sovereigns and emperors but his approach does not require absolutism and is compatible with a variety of forms of government. Also he allows that a temporal power may lose legitimacy if it fails with regard to the common good, so he would allow the deposing of a sovereign, though he warns that the case would have to be serious given the threat to civil order. In brief, a Thomist is open to various forms of government so long as they are just.
As regards the teaching authority of the Pope and the bishops in Council, this is understood to derive from the original establishment by Christ involving a commission to teach the world. Here important questions arise about the balance of teaching authority. John Mair was an advocate of Conciliarism – favouring the authority of Councils, whereas in the post-reformation period there has been a move towards Papalism – not denying the authority of the collective of bishops but asserting a distinct authority of the Bishop of Rome. All of this, however, concerns doctrine and moral teachings and here the authority is taken to derive from Christ himself.
In summary, then, a Thomist social philosopher need not be a political absolutist, indeed some Thomists were instrumental in the development of social democratic politics in Europe and one, Jacques Maritain, was a drafter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A Thomist theologian might tend either to Conciliarism or Papalism, or to a middle position holding that the ultimate teaching authority is the Pope together with the bishops in Council.
3:AM: You’ve taken part in public debates with the likes of Hitchens in the so-called new atheism disputes. These debates have been a bit of a mixed bag and very bad tempered. For a lefty like me, the extreme right wing positions of the American churches, both catholic and protestant, have been alarming. The morality of the churches has also struck me as being bullying and targeted against the poor, women, gays and so on. Attacks on love of money and usury rarely get mobilised. Church goers and their leaders seem no better at honesty and inclusivity than any other group. The organisations seem to be no more virtuous nor better at regulating themselves and dealing with self-corruption than secular organisations. Church goers seem to like the elitism and exclusivity of church schools rather than a unifying and inclusive comprehensive system that you’d have thought their faith ought to embrace. And the tone seems strident, angry, extremist and seems to self-defeat Christian doctrine. Yet listening to you, Thomism seems rational, smart, open, socially responsible, humane and capable of nuance and inclusivity – it doesn’t seem judgmental but rather seems to be in the best spirit of enlightenment. Haven’t you been hijacked by a very different agenda? If so, what can be done? If not, why does it seem like this?
JH:One thing that Catholics learn is to draw distinctions, e.g. between the value of an office and the quality of its occupants; the content of the message and the character of the messengers; the dignity of persons and the wrongfulness of human actions; adherence to truth and tolerance of disagreement among truth-seekers; and between what is attainable naturally and what requires grace. I would add a further threefold distinction: between orthodoxy and heterodoxy (which pertain to religious belief and practice); traditionalism and progressivism (which relate to broadly cultural matters); and conservatism and liberalism (which operate in the sphere of secular politics). I am critical of the politicisation of religion and of the assumption that these three distinctions line-up so that orthodoxy goes with traditionalism and with conservatism, while liberalism and progressivism go with heterodoxy. There are various possible permutations and the failure to see this, or to explore issues individually and not as a total package is a marked fault on both sides of the political/cultural/religion wars.
There is also a general tendency to think that human failings can be righted by introducing structures and regulations, but while these have a role they cannot of themselves produce understanding, and often they are the enemy of it. Secularists, in the modern sense, tend to depict religious believers as dumb and angry; while believers incline to the view that atheists are shallow and bullying. This kind of opposition feeds on itself and leads to deeper animosity. One way of halting the process is to engage in discussion, recognising that there may be reasonable disagreements, I mean possibly intractable differences expressing reasonable outlooks. This is not to endorse relativism but to recognize that our takes on things tend to be partial and it is very difficult to get to a comprehensive understanding. That is not impossible but it takes the full resources of philosophy, and goodness of heart and will besides.
This is one reason why I resist the channeling of philosophy along lines of narrow specialism and technicality, and also the isolation of philosophy from wider culture. For as long as I have been at St Andrews I have been involved in running the Centre for Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs which tries to counter the latter tendency, and more recently as Chairman of the Royal Institute of Philosophy I am concerned to try to counter the former one.
3:AM:Finally, for the Thomistically inclined readers here at 3:AM Magazine, are there five books (other than your own) that you could recommend?
JH:Two from an earlier period: Gilson on the nature of philosophy – it is here that the phrase ‘philosophy always buries its undertakers’ was born, and a text by Piefer presenting Thomistic cognitive psychology; and three from recent times by Aquinian-informed philosophers rather than Thomists per se: Anscombe, Kenny and MacIntyre.
G.E.M. Anscombe , Human Life, Action and Ethicsedited by M. Geach and L. Gormally
Etienne Gilson, The Unity of Philosophical Experience
Anthony Kenny, The Metaphysics of Mind
Alasdair MacIntyre, Dependent Rational Animals
John F. Piefer, The Concept in Thomism
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshallis still biding his time.