Tag Archives: philosophy

‘aquinas amongst the analytics’

I can identify with this:

My formal education in philosophy was entirely in the analytic mold and 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.

My very first philosophy class was an upper–division philosophy of science course I managed to weasel my way into as a sophomore transfer student. The professor was a rarity in two respects: He was a Republican, and—as he put it—the last logical positivist standing (likely not true, though probably true enough). While logical positivism proper didn’t make much of an impact on me, the analytic method did. (My first philosophy paper was a of inductive reasoning.) If it weren’t for an adolescence steeped in Plato (with forays into other thinkers, Kierkegaard especially), I probably could have been completely absorbed within the typical borders of that tradition. It is impressive, seductive, and highly effective. Philosophers and theologian–philosophers who dismiss analytic philosophy in some sort of vague fashion do so at their peril. In fact, I find it hard to take them very seriously, suspecting—perhaps unfairly in some cases—that their dismissals are an excuse to not have to learn the disciplines of analytic thought— especially formal logic. (I think formal logic is often overrated as a philosophical tool, but learning it is a tremendous asset— it expands your mental horizons.)

I have some stuff that’s been on the back–burner for way too long regarding metaphysical Aristotelianism in analytic philosophy; it probably won’t see the light of day any time soon, but the fact that it is a feature of the ‘scene’ shows that the possibilities of analytic thought are far wider than its detractors imagine.



Filed under philosophy & theology

peri poêtikês

The past couple of days, I read Seth Benardete & Michael Davis’s translation of Aristotle’s Poetics. Unsurprisingly, Benardete & Davis read the Poetics as a discourse on, not only drama, but the soul. I like Davis’s statement, in the introduction, of the guide to their method:

Naturally how one understands Aristotle’s manner of writing in On Poetics has consequences for how one will translate him. If the book is not properly speaking a writing at all, but a collection of lecture notes the intention of which, while generally quite clear, is occasionally dark owing to Aristotle’s infelicitous choice of words, then a translator will have as his task rendering the sense of what is obvious and striving to clarify what Aristotle has left obscure. If, on the other hand, On Poetics is an artful composition, a translator will seek to preserve interesting ambiguities, translate Greek terms consistently with a single word as much as is compatible with English so as to preserve allusion in the text that suggest otherwise odd but perhaps fruitful comparisons, and not to change sentence structures gratuitously. Now even if On Poetics were simply a collection of notes, as long as this sort of fastidiousness results in readable English, nothing would be sacrificed. And if On Poetics is something more than that, of course, a great deal would be gained from translating scrupulously.

—viii, emphasis mine

Benardete, as a student of Strauss, is unfairly associated with the dominant view of Strauss in the wake of the Straussian theory of neoconservative origins. Benardete held that, rather than philosophy being the guide to politics, its “esotericism” was to protect philosophy from politics. (For example Davis’s introduction holds that, for Aristotle, political courage is a “spurious” form of that virtue.) Even the “esoteric” word, while used, seems inappropriate in its connotations; Benardete in particular (and oftentimes Strauss himself) engage in readings of the text which, however eccentric they seem, are born of taking the writer and the text very seriously; the esotericism is no more esoteric than Biblical interpretation— it is not a secret tradition. Benardete’s reading is about how the philosophical works themselves lead the readers to examine the issues and towards an enlightening, not always cleaving to literalism, but nevertheless being readable in–themselves (or, at least, in the context of the author).

As a method of translation, I think this is fruitful. While there are translation of Aristotle which take him seriously and attempt to render him into a normal, expressive English, not all are particularly or consistently fruitful. Joe Sachs’s translation of the Metaphysics is at times unusually enlightening—such as his translation of ἐνέργεια as “being–at–work”*—but others of his quasi–Heideggerian translations are more obscuring than enlightening; ἐντελέχεια is rendered “being–at–work–staying–itself”, which preserves the relation to ἐνέργεια at the cost of easy comprehensibility and readability. (That said, Sachs’s introduction is excellent and the translation itself is a worthy read for someone trying to comprehend the Metaphysics.)

One thing I appreciate about the Benardete/Davis translation is its lack of leading vocabulary. As Davis points out, Greek tragedy is quite different from our drama, and they largely avoid terms associated with it (including the English adoption of catharsis). For example: “ἔστι δὲ πάσης τραγῳδίας τὸ μὲν δέσις τὸ δὲ λύσις” (1455b) is rendered by them, “Of every tragedy there is an entanglement and an unraveling”. Compare this to the common Bywater translation: “Every tragedy is in part Complication and in part Dénouement”. By the use of “dénouement”, the Bywater suggests a probably inappropriate association with our conception of dramatic closure.

In other places, Benardete and Davis are respectful of traditional readings, most of all in the title. Davis’s introduction remarks that “On the Art of Action” may be a more appropriate reading of “περὶ ποητικῆς”, preserving the connection between dramatic and normal human action, shoring up their reading of the treatise as being ultimately about the soul, the “center of human life”. (xiii) They also divide the text by the traditional divisions, whatever their actual utility in understanding it.

The translation is very readable by those not familiar with Greek. The footnotes are useful, though sometimes overlong (endnotes would have been a better format, probably) and explain most of the various decisions, including noting each incident where a word they consistently translate in one way is rendered differently. In a sense, this review is set as a contrast to my recent review of Fr Behr’s translation of On the Incarnation— an example of a better path.

* While this may sound overbold, I think a more proper understanding of the metaphysical role of ἐνέργεια is useful to correct the Neo–Palamite mistake of overstating the difference between the Eastern conception of God and the Western. A further explication of this would be inappropriate on this blog; I only offer it as a suggestive remark.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

the last byzantine renaissance

A couple of weeks ago, I read Runciman’s brief The Last Byzantine Renaissance, which serves as a great introduction to the intellectual life of the Palaiologon empire. One thing I’ve always appreciated about Runciman against his contemporaries is his recognition and focus on the Aristotelian nature of Byzantine theology and philosophy. The modern myth still persists that Byzantine theology (especially Palamism) is somehow fundamentally neo–Platonic versus the more obvious Aristotelianism of Aquinas and Western theology. If anything, the story of Byzantium’s intellectual life is the underground survival of Platonism (probably generally crypto–pagan, which became more evident in the late case of George Plethon) and the eventual transmission of that life to (largely non–philosophers, as C.M. Woodhouse points out, but eventually to philosophy as well) the West through Plethon himself and his admirers.

I find the thesis of The Theological Origins of Modernity—that nominalism is the source of “modernity” or, at least, Protestantism—because the explicitly Platonic/idealist stream seems far more prominent. Luther’s introspective manner was an exaggeration of the Augustine his order was named for, an idealist picture of the human intellect. I’m not even sure much of which Gillespie identifies as “nominalist” even should be considered related to the actual term, as the idealist view of substances has a superficial relation to nominalism when the Aristotelian–Christian realist view is assumed.

Anyhow, here’s a passage from the Runciman book I enjoyed:

“The greatest of these Palamites was Nicholas Cabasilas, who was born in Thessalonica in about 1320. His father’s surname was Chametus, but he took the surname of his maternal uncle, Nilus Cabasilas, later Metropolitan of the city, who was his teacher. He grew up in the tradition of Joseph the Philosopher, combining a taste for mystical contemplation with a love of secular learning. Nicholas Cabasilas’s letters show his affection for Classical literature and science, though he wrote little himself on such subjects… he was a pioneer in the new use of the term ‘Hellene’. After some hestiation he became convinced of the rightness of Palamite theology; but his views on mysticism were not those of Palamas. He might be called a mystical humanist. He believed that mystical experience could best be reached by concentration on the Sacrament, and there was no reason why a mystic should not be a man of the world, and that secular learning would help rather than hinder him.”

(Yes, that resolution lasted all of one day.)

Leave a comment

Filed under history

the cult of antinomies

“As a phenomenon, the cult of antimonies in modern philosophy has nothing surprising about it. Kant collides with them; Hegel lives by them and thinks that the effort to surmount them is what constitutes philosophy. The whole task of medieval philosophy, on the contrary, was to avoid them. For Saint Thomas and Duns Scotus, the fact that they are harmonized in reality proves that they are not insurmountable, and that in committing oneself to representing reality as it is, one ought not to come across them. For it is we who introduce them by our mathematicism. If there is a single initial error at the root of all the difficulties philosophy is involved in, it can only be the one Descartes committed when he decreed, a priori, that the method of one of the sciences of reality was valid for the whole of reality.”

—Étienne Gilson, Methodical Realism

Leave a comment

Filed under short posts

post–modern hegelianism: a reply to “a reply”

“Hegelianism—like post–modernism—became ambient, infiltrating the language and thinking even of those who had never read or understood the master’s work.”

—Christopher Clark, Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947


I apologize for the (very) belated reply to your post. Injury and incident have kept me from spending too much time at the keyboard this past month, and now that I find myself able and with the time and inclination, I find it hard to narrow my approach to this question in a way that will work as a blog post.

I’m not at all unappreciative of where Marx went right. As a prophet of the alienation brought about by industrialization, he’s without peer. The problem—though not the interesting problem—with Marx is that he absolutized that realization into a quasi–metaphysical system. (I am putting aside the “eschatological” question for the time being, because the role of millenarianism in modern politics, left & right, is something that is not unique to the Hegelian strain I’m interested in, here.) One of the clearer signs of this is one you respond to here, my complaint that core Marxist terms are essentially nebulous but also given great dialectical and historical utility. While that is fine if they are understood as imprecise rhetorical tools, they are also, in practical Marxism, used as precise political tools. Those outside the proletariat can be transformed into “class enemies”, “exploitation” a demon lurking behind all apparent failures. Is this transition essential to Marxism? Perhaps not, but it is natural to it.

You get to part of the issue here when you write: “Economic transactions… are social transactions. Any time human beings are interacting you are going to have levels of complexity which make ambiguity and contradiction inevitable.” (Despite your apparent pride in not having read but a hundred pages of von Mises, you sound remarkably like a praxeologist, here.1) This ambiguity is reason, at least, for some humility about the powers of our political/economic theories.

“But the other side of [Spirit’s] Becoming, History, is a conscious, self–mediating process—Spirit emptied out into Time; but this externalization, this kenosis, is equally an externalization of itself; the negative is the negative of itself.”

—Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit (808) [trans. A.V. Miller]

You write: ‘The most interesting thought you’ve mentioned in this discussion is the notion “a Hegelian political order is the one remaining attractive option, and Marxism is the only remaining acceptable/coherent version of one.” I agree. I have also (and I realize this brings me full circle) waved the flag of surrender to Hegel.’

I do not know if this is what you meant, but I have not waved my white flag to Hegel. What I meant by this is that for the majority of persons concerned with the Good, Hegel remains the one way they see to have both the obvious fruits of modernity and have the reaction against its evils. That Marxism remains the only attractive option for doing so is largely a matter of historical contingency, not of philosophical rigor.2

Hegel is the first great thinker to stand after the four revolutions. Two were philosophical: Hume, then Kant. The others were political: the American and the French. And in a real sense, all subsequent revolutions have simply participated in those prior. Because Hegel is at his most useful when talking about history, the concepts of aufheben|sublation and aufgehoben|preservation are of use here. Hegelians constantly re–fight these fights because of the twin syntheses that lie at the heart of Hegelianism: An attempt to reconcile the old political order with the new, and the (not so very) old religious order with the new philosophy.3

A necessary digression: The common assumption is, whatever their shrunken utility today, the categories of “Left” and “Right” as established in the furor of the French Revolution are in fact the primary categories. Leftism is seen as revolutionary/progressive and Rightism as counter–revolutionary/reactionary. While this is true (to a point) for Left and Right, the truly primary divide is rather between what I wish to call “Liberals” and “Organicists”. (The reasons for not opposing “Conservative” to “Liberal” are two: (1) There are counter–revolutionary liberals, this is clear; (2) Not all organicists wish to conserve a prior social order, many wish to build a new one in an act of revolution.) The liberals are those advocates of the modern, rational state, the givers of rights and the champions of freedoms; the organicists are those who recognized the powers of the organs and structures of the ancien régime (in the case of right–organicists, this is especially true of the Church) and sought to preserve them when possible or at least construct new societal structures.4 The Left tended to use the tools of “Scientism” and “Moralism” to construct values on which to direct its endeavors, while the Right used “Societarianism” and “Moralism”. I make this last note about tools, because I think it is useful for examining political movements (like libertarianism) which contain left and right wings.

Anyhow, this immediate, manifest fracturing of what was already implicit begged for some attempt at rebuilding with the pieces at hand. (It seems to be the lot of most eras which suffer an obvious collapse to begin rebuilding without quite knowing what to aim for, sure that the New Order must be right around the corner.) Enter Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.

It was Hegel who wrote the first philosophy for a democratic age in over two thousand years. The characteristic philosophy of democratic Athens was that of the Sophists. Sophism was the philosophy of rhetoric, but for an innocent age which did not mind naked honesty; it admitted a simple truth—when the majority rules, philosophy becomes the act of discovering the truth not by reason, but by persuading the majority. The truth is created in convincing. The philosophy of democracy is rhetoric. We see this daily, as plain as anything else. If the comboxes of blogs seem bad enough with their unskilled appeals to base instinct in place of reason, it is even more evident in our news media and again within ourselves where, unless we had particularly excellent parenting, the only way in which we understand the very purpose of our education as the practice of informed discretion is from independent study and reflection; the “spirit of the age” (we are speaking of Hegel!) violently opposes just such an end for education, rather, its end has become the cultivation of the correct democratic impulses. The rhetoric begins before the information is even given.5

Hegel baptized rhetoric in the waters of metaphysics. By tapping into the monist hopes that have long rested within Western philosophy, Hegel’s Spirit is the force of rhetoric moving upon the mass of humanity. It retains the absolute within rhetoric, hiding its insubstantiality within layers of speech. Hegelianism is able to so perfectly give narrative shape to the twists and turns of modern intellectual history not because of its metaphysical validity, but because it so perfectly describes the position of philosophy after the revolutions as it creates it.6 Even as the English-speaking world long held Hegel at a distance, it could not keep the core of his teaching out of the popular mind; the Anglo–Saxon may hate Hegel for his obfuscating dialectic and prophetic declarations, but he resorts to thesis/synthesis/antithesis, anyhow.7

What is unique about the Hegelian political project is its left/right agnosticism, its essential organicism (with appeal to liberalism largely confined to its scientific pretensions) and how that organicism is directed towards either humanity as a whole or within nations themselves. The struggle between Left and Right Hegelians was not so much because of ambiguity or true impartiality one the revolutionary question in Hegel, but a necessary outcome of a synthesis that could not withstand the romanticism of Left or Right towards their readings of, in particular, the French Revolution. That Hegel himself walked this line is mostly due to the obvious complexity (or indiscrimination) of his affections.

There are many reasons a Hegelian political order remains attractive:

—It is essentially democratic in spirit, but accepts that democracy in practice is unnecessary.8
—It strives for an organic society in which people can “go home” without surrendering the advantages of the modern age.
—It is able to be at peace with modern technology and scientific revelation, unlike most authentically reactionary creeds, avoiding the stain of hypocrisy in its peace with things like… toliet paper, the internet or antibiotics.

Right Hegelianism has been branded with a swastika on its forehead, and that mark may never go away. So, Marx remains. This is the obvious reason for why Buckley had some nostalgia for the idea of being able to be a young Marxist today, as mentioned in that interview with Corey Robin you recently linked.9 Buckley genuinely hated Nazism and fascism (perceiving their influence in the counter–revolutionary furor the Birchers had against communist influence in the US) so when at the end of his life he began to doubt the firmness of the Burkean–conservative foundation, the last chance for an organic political order, the last chance for an aristocracy that would pay its obligations to the people, was Marxism. The tension in Marxism is that it can never resolve the synthesis with the aristocratic order inherent in its Hegelian roots in the real world. The egalitarian hope that the proletariat freed from its leash would be able to spontaneously govern itself is false in reflection, false in practice and increasingly shown to be false by science (IQ will remain largely genetic for some time, and hopefully, always). Thus, the dictatorship of the proletariat finds itself in need of a dictator, and that dictator in need of knights of the bureaucracy, the academy and the military. Marx’s continual attraction for the intellectual is the idea of being in a society where he will be able to wield power, unlike the democratic one where he is mostly impotent, though often privileged. This is why we have conservatives who love Marxism like the Red Tories, and Marxists who act awfully like conservatives in their tastes and attitudes. Zizek is the modern embodiment of the latter, but in being so he only mirrors the natural evolution faced in Marxist states; there’s a real point to the reactionary thesis that, after the death of Stalin, the USSR became the bulwark of European cultural tradition versus the global revolutionary stance of the United States.10

The ultimate problem with Marxism (ignoring its history) is that it cannot escape the problems of modernity because it cannot escape its own internal struggles. It ultimately has no absolute to grasp, there is no God in its heaven. No matter how much mental energy can be used and distracted by the subtleties of the dialectic, the mentally healthy Marxist will always remain aware of a certain emptiness (as well as the adherent of any of the modern totalities will). As government cannot be entrusted forever to the insane, it will always debase its functionaries by the constant exercise of hypocrisy, the moral effects of which are evident in any account of life under Really Existing Socialism. No man ever gets to ride the tiger. There is also nothing to be had by being an authentically religious person and a Marxist because either the Marxism will endanger the religion or the religion with overrule the Marxism. Politics as was able to co–exist with Christianity died in the revolutions, because politics became total with the advent of democracy and the drowning of philosophy in skepticism and rhetoric.

The political challenge of the modern man is to escape the political in order to have the authentically political life once again; the constant inner rush of demands to engage in the correct attitudes is political, but in a sense no longer directed towards the polis. Religion no longer provides a refuge from this (though that weakness is not inherent to it), and certainly Marxism does not, either.

• • •

1 You write: “Pure Austrianism and Mises proper are niche theoretical realms with seemingly little to no impact on social and economic arenas today.” While it may seem as such, the academic economists at places like Auburn and George Mason are usually far more interested in Mises–proper and the Hayekian wing than the anarchic–libertarian/Rothbardian wing represented by Lew Rockwell/LvMI and, to a somewhat lesser degree, Ron Paul. You may be aware that Ayn Rand—certainly a statist compared to the Rothbardians—detested Hayek for his compromises with social spending and taxation. Libertarianism is not the only, or even the primary end–game suggested by Austrianism. While von Mises certainly has his great flaws—chief among him his determinism, but that’s a flaw shared with Marx!—Human Action in particular remains readable and insightful. It doesn’t give that frisson of prophetic excitement that Marx does, but it does carefully outlay a number of truths about human economic activity that I think still elude many economists today.

2 The thesis that follows has novel elements, some of which I will not be able to support. I am aware of this.

3 This is the key to understanding the character of Napoleon as “the world spirit on horseback”, not as some youthful exuberance that would have been unuttered by an older, wiser Hegel, but an essential recognition that Napoleon was already working in the political sphere the twinned syntheses which Hegel wished to make manifest in the philosophical. This is the sense of destiny in Hegel—if Napoleon is not the New Christ, he is at least his prophet! The work had already begun.

4 Another divide, this one fairly meaningless for our purposes, as it was a matter of indifference to Hegel himself at most moments, is that between the an–, mon– and polyarchists within each group so described.

5 These propaganda structures create remarkable systems of distraction. A friend insists the real function of critical race and gender theory is to distract students from the fact that their colleges have ripped them off by directing them against an enemy that is simultaneously internal and non–existent. (The real function does not have to be the intended one, but I don’t know if she’d divide these like I do for this case.) Looking over signage from the various Occupy–protests, the ones that state coherent demands are frequently demands for some sort of unrealistic deconstruction of biology OR express some deep hatred of normal human good such as family, innocence or culture. Many of the Occupiers’s complaints have to do with… the student loan boondoggle. Surprise! While the Frankfurt school sought to destroy capitalism through these rhetorical viruses, it appears instead that they simply castrated the Left.

6 Attempts to use Hegel to understand the development of philosophy before—at least—the 18th c inevitably must distort and twist the actual arguments, motivations and actions to fit the reality to the template. While I disagree with a not–insignificant amount of what I wrote on my former blog, I stand by the essentials of my critique of Alasdair MacIntyre’s crypto–Hegelian reading of the project of St Thomas Aquinas.

7 This is ignoring the real postwar trend towards an Anglo–American reading of Hegel which began first among Leftists trying to get in touch with the core texts when the indigenous socialist traditions in both America and the UK had become co–opted by Soviet influence and has now begun to blossom as the distinction between analytic and contintental philosophy continues to blur. (Roger Scruton is the only significant proponent of a right Hegelianism I can think of in English.)

8 I mention this in particular as it will be what will drive more and more people towards some Hegelian political project or another as the obvious failings of democratic–in–practice societies to govern and sustains themselves becomes clear.

9 I liked that, unusually for an old leftist, Doug Henwood actually understands what “My Back Pages” is about, enough to where he cut the song off with two stanzas remaining, and the last the most generally effective in the song. (The fourth, of course, is the perfect expression of what is going on at Occupy Wall Street.) There’s more I could say about Robin’s statements.

10 For two non–military examples: the CIA funding of avant–garde art as psyops or the continuing State Department promotion of critical race and gender theory in things like badgering the French educational system for being insufficiently egalitarian and propagandizing. For military examples… well, there’s a reason I think Robin was being disingenuous in that interview when he simply said that people call neoconservatives the “Trotskyites of the Right”, when they aren’t just called that, they really are Trotskyites and were explicitly following in the pattern of a postwar Trotskyite tendency to see the USA as the best possible instrument of permanent revolution. They certainly are not Straussians, however much they borrow from his methods when necessary.


Filed under philosophy & theology