Saturday, November 06, 2004

ACPQ Summer 2004

I've been wanting to say a few things about the most recent American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, but other things have just swept it away. The first two offerings are a continuation of a dispute about Aquinas's Aristotelian commentaries. I confess, I always find this sort of dispute a bit pointless. Let's consider a different case. I write amateur poetry. Most of it is explicitly Christian. Some of it is not. I have written poems based loosely on the perspectives of Parmenides, Descartes, Vico, Mullah Sadra, etc.; one might ask: "Can these be seen as expressing Brandon's own views, or are they merely poetic interpretations?"

Am I (say) a Greek Pagan or a Sufi Muslim? Assuredly not.

When I write (say) a Cartesian poem, is that an insistence of any sort that I am a Cartesian? Assuredly not.

Would I write a poem on a perspective with which I did not find myself in particular sympathy in some way? Assuredly not.

Can my views simply be read off these poems from non-Christian perspectives, or perspectives of philosophies I do not hold? Assuredly not.

Can these poems be said not to convey my views at all? Assuredly not.

There is in these debates, I think, a perpetual temptation to regard texts as something from which one can simply 'read off' some sort of view; but this is not so. Texts are signs of minds and beliefs, not facsimiles of them. The same issues arise with regard to Aquinas's other works as arise with regard to his commentaries on Aristotle, it's just that the way in which the Aristotelian commentaries are signs of Aquinas's mind and views is a much more complicated matter than the way in which (say) the Scriptural commentaries are signs of his mind and views. In the Commentary on the Metaphysics we see Aquinas (whoever he is) leaving signs of his mental interaction with the text of Aristotle; and these signs tell us something about Aquinas, as any signs would. But what they tell is indirect and obscure, by their very nature. Some such signs are less indirect and less obscure; but they do not cease to be indirect and obscure, because they do not cease to be signs.

Consider a very different example: Kierkegaard. Is Johannes de Silentio Kierkegaard? In an obvious sense, yes: Johannes de Silentio is Kierkegaard writing pseudonymously. However, is what Johannes de Silentio writes a direct sign of what Kierkegaard believes, in the sense that reading Johannes de Silentio you are reading off Kierkegaard's beliefs in a straightforward sense? Not at all. In Johannes de Silentio we find Kierkegaard; but it is Kierkegaard under persona - truly Kierkegaard, but not in a straightforward way. All the signs of Kierkegaard in (say) Fear and Trembling are mediated through a pseudonymous persona; they are truly signs of Kierkegaard, but it is Kierkegaard as it were baffling us. If I ask you a straightforward question and you deflect it by answering it in a round-about and obscure way, you have answered my question, but you have baffled me a bit as to what is truly going on in my mind. The Pharisees ask Jesus a question; he responds in parables; they do not know how to reply, becausem although they can follow the answer, they have only a vague intimation of what that response tells them about Jesus. The disciples do better: they have heard Jesus often, and have heard him speak in many ways. But they are still to a degree baffled. It takes a Pentecost to unbaffle them.

And the question becomes: Is it really any different with any other text? No. By this I do not mean that we can never understand a text. What I mean is that there is always a limit to a text, and the limit is that it is not a person, not a mind, not a thought. It is a sign of these things, and the ways in which it may be a sign of these things are myriad. So I would say: there is no straightforward answer to the question of whether the Aristotelian commentaries give the mind of Aquinas, because the answer is Yes, and No. Yes: they are nothing other than signs of Aquinas mentally working through Aristotle for a purpose. In the Aristotelian commentaries we have signs of what a person with Aquinas's views (whatever they are) writes when writing a commentary on Aristotle, and that means we have signs of Aquinas's own views. No: Aquinas is not a commentary on Aristotle. Even if he agreed with Aristotle's text, as he interpreted it, in every particular, he is not a commentary on Aristotle's text. This sounds odd to say, and trivially true; but it is astonishing how easily it can be forgotten - we can easily slip into talking about Aquinas's views as if they were simply the commentary on Aristotle (or ST or SCG or whatever). But they are not; these things are only signs of Aquinas's views.

The way this is all written makes it sound as if I am more skeptical about our ability to know Aquinas's views than I am. There are signs that Aquinas closely agrees with Aristotle in some things in some way, and signs that he doesn't in others; there are also more ambiguous signs that can, upon examination be made more specific. But there is always a residual limitation to this: no amount of text, however clear, conveys to us the wild, living intellect of any human person. (There really isn't any need for it do so.) This doesn't prevent us from knowing a lot about such a person and his or her intellect; but it does explain why I think the dispute pointless. It's just silly to think we can have a general answer to the general question "Are the views in Aquinas's Aristotelian commentaries Aquinas's own views?" that would be at all accurate. It's only in the close analysis that we make headway with such questions, and even that will never answer all possible questions we could propose, even all the important questions we could propose. It would take a Pentecost to unbaffle us; and I'm afraid that Aquinas, not being Christ, lacks the resources to give us one.

Also in this issue is an article on Descartes's real distinction argument by Justin Skirry. Skirry holds a hylomorphic interpretation of Descartes's dualism. I think this is an interesting view, but I don't think it is Descartes's view - I incline toward Rozemond's view in Descartes's Dualism. The hylomorphic view requires, I think, overlooking just how much Descartes modifies the scholastic terminology he adapts.

Besides these articles, there is an article on Heidegger, which bored me, and an article on Lacan by Conor Cunningham, which looks interesting, but which I cannot understand at all. I must, therefore, forego comment on it.

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