Thursday, December 27, 2007

Analysing Thomist Metaphysics

Anthony Kenny’s book Aquinas on Being is consistent with his analytical engagement with the Catholic tradition in which he was trained as a priest. His work on a thinker who has stayed with him all these years since his seminary days is at once an erudite and incisive, analytical critique as well as an infuriatingly unsympathetic analysis of the famous medieval thinker. Ever since his Past Masters’ volume on Aquinas, Kenny has exhibited a mixed reception of Aquinas, a reception that is entirely consistent with the tastes and concerns of the analytic tradition since the 1960s: an appreciation of the philosophy of the mind culminating in his Aquinas on Mind, and a whole scale rejection of the metaphysics expressed in this volume in which he charges Aquinas with thorough confusion in face of the problem of existence. It would be quite easy to fault and praise this volume under review solely on the basis of the contrasting methodology of the ‘two traditions’ of philosophy. There is little doubt that even without the neo-Thomism of Gilson et al, the study of Aquinas and medieval thinkers like him remains a mainstay of the ‘continental tradition’ of philosophy extending to Catholic philosophers in North America. For these thinkers, the metaphysical concerns and the holistic claims of Thomism are of great interest and consistent with the project of philosophy. Catholic philosophers such as the late Norman Kretzmann (d. 1998) have within the analytic tradition also articulated a staunch defence of Thomistic metaphysics, in particular in The Metaphysics of Theism and The Metaphysics of Creation. If, for Kenny, Aquinas’ thinking on being is so muddled, why bother writing a volume on it? Why study the history of philosophy merely to condemn past practitioners?

One virtue of Kenny’s work has been the attack on Thomism and much woolly thinking that sometimes goes under that name. However, serious inquiry on the thought of Aquinas has greatly expanded in the past decades and not just from confessional perspectives. Kenny outlines his project in the preface. He begins with an assumption, astonishing perhaps for an analytic philosopher, that ‘the subject of being is one of the most important of all philosophical concerns’ (p. v). He goes on to say that he will examine one great philosopher’s approach to being and from that demonstrate that it is ‘thoroughly confused’ (p. v), partly to allow for a critical reassessment of Aquinas that seeks to jettison those unacceptable aspects of his metaphysics that are precisely central to theological rehabilitation of Aquinas. Kenny’s aim is, therefore, no free inquiry but with a clear agenda and goal. But the foundation of this, as I remarked is peculiar. Is being such a central philosophical concern? Is it a rich concept or a simple and thin concept as many contemporary philosophers see it? Is it even fair to criticise the confused nature of Aquinas’ concept of being when it is clear, as Kenny admits, that Aquinas does not have a unified concept of being using both the Latin terms ens and esse to render the concept and describing at least twelve different senses and contexts in which Aquinas uses the term esse?

A study of the systematic failure of an elaborate metaphysics need not be in vain and one learns that Kenny thinks that there is much to be understood from these failures; after all, as he says, ‘all great philosophers have engendered great errors… It is no disrespect to the genius of Aquinas to try to dissolve some of the confusions on the nature of being to which he appears to have succumbed. We can gain rewarding insights by exploring even the false trails of a great mind’ (p. x).

Kenny sets out on this false trail by assembling a number of passages arranged chronologically in which Aquinas’ views on being as expressed. Nine chapters follow on the analysis of being in different works beginning with the early De Ente et Essentia and culminating with Aquinas’ commentary on the Metaphysics of Aristotle. Kenny acknowledges the Avicennan influence on the early text (p. 1) and the Neoplatonic influence on other works but does not adequately contextualise Aquinas’ writings. Analytic history of philosophy tends to approach texts as contemporary interlocutors and has little time of contextualisation, historicism and conventionalism (whether social or linguistic). Further, it tends to read the text of the past purely in the light of its own concerns. Kenny, therefore, writing, thinking and analysing in the aftermath of the linguistic turn, is mainly concerned with how Aquinas talks about being and existence, focusing on the semantics of existential propositions and not the metaphysical concerns of Aquinas himself. One would not wish for an obscurantist opposite extreme that would read Aquinas wholly and solely ‘on his own terms’ but one would expect some respect for the context and scholarly aims of the philosopher. Ultimately one either accepts, modifies or rejects the philosophical enterprise of the text which one encounters. For those seeking a more sympathetic yet analytic approach to Aquinas, Kretzmann or the work of Gyula Klima would be a better reference point. Perhaps the real question is how one ought to read Aquinas (or indeed any medieval thinker). The fecundity of their work and the constant re-visitation of the same questions and topics would suggest that they were continually changing and adapting the way they approached questions within the contexts in which they were posed. Those different passages therefore ought to be read alongside each other cognisant of their contexts in order to allow a clearer picture and doctrine to emerge. Kenny would have little sympathy with such an approach and does not allow for the conditions to obtain.

The general charge is that Aquinas’ views are obscure and confused. Kenny considers the twelve senses of esse to be a major obstacle which stops Aquinas from bringing into a consistent whole his insights on being. This leads him to three major critical conclusions (pp. 192-93):

1) Aquinas fails to recognise the distinction between being and existence.

2) Aquinas surrenders to a Platonic affirmation of pure forms and spiritual substances in the celestial firmament while at once rejecting it in the sublunar level.

3) Aquinas’ identification of God with subsistent being (Avicenna’s necessary of existence) is ‘deeply disturbing’.

Are these defects ascribable to Aquinas and are they in fact defects? Are these obscurities due to the language of being or to the attempt at articulating an ontological separation between this world and the divine? It is not clear what Kenny’s alternatives to these three defects are. Consider the first one. Aquinas’ main concern is the ontological distinction between divine necessary being and contingent existence. He also articulates a fairly opaque but consistent distinction between the actuality of esse (actus essendi) and existence. This does not amount to failing to recognise a distinction between being and existence. The significant of these three charges is precisely that some many medieval thinkers would be susceptible to them, not least the ‘father’ of them all Avicenna. But does that make them mistakes? Can they only signal theological affirmation and not philosophical inquiry and even defence?

Kenny finally tries to explain Aquinas’ mistakes in a final act of charity by citing these reasons for his lapses. First, even ‘better’ philosophers on existence such as Frege, the founding father of the analytic tradition as Michael Dummett puts it, made mistakes, so why not Aquinas? Second, Aquinas was remarkably prolific and one cannot expect such a writer to lack unresolved inconsistencies in his work. Third, Aquinas’ inclusive approach and style led him to overlook the errors in others’ thought and thus became susceptible to Neoplatonic errors. Each of these excuses can quite easily be set aside; they certainly do not explain Aquinas’ ‘errors’ nor are they a fair assessment of them. One can only assume that Kenny felt some obligation to try to excuse Aquinas of the gross errors of which he accused him.

Nevertheless, Aquinas on Being is challenging, captivating and exciting. It is certainly not the last analytic word on the subject, not even, one suspects, from the pen of Kenny. If the reader comes away with the sense that Kenny has not satisfied the problem and thus seeks to inquire further, then the book will have played the ultimate role in philosophical inquiry of asking questions and provoking thought.

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