Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Caramuel on Signification

'Baroque Scholasticism', sometimes 'second scholasticism', is the name generally given to the brief resurgence of scholastic thought in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In the way that the history of philosophy is usually presented, this is treated as the period when scholasticism was collapsing, but this is not really very accurate; scholastic forms of philosophy were actually doing very well. There was an immense amount of creativity, continuing scholastic methods but also confronting new discoveries and ideas. But this creativity was itself perhaps the limitation of most of its major forms; massive creativity in philosophy involves a lot of improvising, and it is very difficult to study Baroque scholastics because, for instance, they will use words in new and unusual ways and propose ideas that they never have time to develop fully. This is not a sustainable way to do philosophy. At the same time, studying them is sometimes very interesting precisely because of this creativity.

Of all the Baroque Scholastics, one of the most creative was Juan Caramuel y Lobkowitz (1606-1682). A child prodigy with an extraordinary talent for languages, he quickly rose to everyone's attention and, after receiving his doctorate in theology, was moved around from place to place as needed until he died as Bishop of Vigevano in Italy. His literary output was truly vast, with over two hundred books, many of them not small, and covering practically every field of human knowledge. He was impressively polymathic even in an age of polymaths, and he liked to try out new ideas.

One of his many interesting proposals is found in his philosophical discussions of signification. He holds that signification is moral transubstantiation. Physical or natural transubstantation, of course, is found in the sacrament of the Eucharist, when the presence of Christ destroys the substance of bread while maintaining its accidents. Words gain meaning by moral transubstantiation. Thus the word 'anthropos' is just a vibration in the air (or lines on a page, if we are talking about written words). Man is a rational animal. So what does one have to do with the other? Just that the Greeks agreed that 'anthropos' should act in the context of common language just as if it were man; 'anthropos' is virtually man, not air, and thus it was transubstantiated virtually or morally: under the appearances of this vibration of the air is (morally, not physically) a different substance, man. Human beings by imposing meanings convert vibrations of air into appearances of other substances, so that for the purposes of language they no longer are air but those other substances, and thereby the appearances of this vibration of air become a sign of those substances. This is signification. To be more exact, people by agreement morally transubstantiate things into signs so that the change, the transubstantiation itself (what Caramuel calls formal transubstantiation as opposed to efficient transubstantiation), is what we call signification.

Obviously it does not matter whether we are talking vibrations of air, lines on a page, gestures, or anything else. This leads Caramuel to make a break with a common view, going back to Aristotle, that written words are in some way signs of spoken words which are in some way signs of concepts. If signification is moral transubstantiation, it will happen the same way regardless of which of these hosts we are talking about. The lines making up the word 'anthropos', referring to a man, will be morally transubstantiated not into the substance of air (which is the spoken word) but into the substance of man. Of course nothing stops us from using 'anthropos' to mean only the sound, since moral transubstantiation occurs by convention, but there is no requirement that the writing have any connection to spoken language. Similarly, if we take some other kind of sign, like the cross, we will get the same story. This, of course, has significant theological consequences. Why do Catholics adore the cross? Well, what is the cross here? It's not as if a crucifix on the wall or a cross on a chain is the True Cross itself; it's just a vertical bar crossing a horizontal bar. What is really being done is that the cross is being morally transubstantiated so that is an appearance not of two bars but of Christ, who is to be adored. This is in fact the only reason why one would adore the True Cross itself, for that matter. And likewise, when we use words like 'God', 'angel', these are for the mind verbal appearances of God, angels, etc. The name of God is virtually God.

It's important to grasp, of course, that moral or virtual or significative transubstantiation is not natural or physical transubstantiation; as the names imply, moral transubstantiation is a matter of will, natural transubstantiation a matter of nature. Human beings cannot do natural transubstantiation; that could only be done by a cause that makes things have the natures that they do, which is not true of our wills. The word 'Deus' does not have a divine nature; its nature remains a vibration of air. But Caramuel argues that there is an analogy between the realm of the will and the realm of nature. The vibration of air can occur in the context of human action, and in that context, it virtually contains under the appearance of sound this or that substance.

There are several obscurities in this account, as there usually are in Baroque Scholasticism. For instance, the rejection of the Aristotelian hierarchy of signs is much more radical a move than Caramuel seems to suggest, and scholastic discussions of what happens moraliter or virtualiter are usually difficult enough without adding in the extra complication of how this can virtually cease to be this substance and become that substance. But it's an interesting line of thought.

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